Quite an important topic, this one.
Shiny Happy People
Laura had always heard the voices, even when no one else thought they were real.
It must have started as early as two or three, because she had a vague memory of getting into trouble when Harry whispered to her to take the chocolate bar from the cupboard. She didn’t want to do anything naughty, but Harry had been so angry when she’d refused that in the end she gave in.
Mum had shouted and Laura had tried to explain that she’d taken the chocolate for Henry, not for herself, but it hadn’t made any difference – not even when Henry had stood up for her by shouting back at Mum and calling her a selfish cow. That was when she realised that no one else could see or hear Henry; and, over the years, she discovered that most of her friends simply weren’t visible or audible to anyone else but her.
She tried explaining to Mum countless times, but Mum either thought she was making up excuses for doing something wrong, or else she just laughed and told her what a wonderful imagination she had. It was very frustrating.
Once Laura started school, her friends became even more important to her. Belfield Primary was an old-fashioned school in a run-down building that boasted genuine Victorian gargoyles on the roof and huge, draughty classrooms inside. Waiting in the playground every day for school to start was a nightmare for Laura: the gargoyles used to pull faces at her, winking suggestively or licking their lips in a lascivious manner. Henry offered to knock them down for her, but Laura felt safer when they were high up, out of the way. If she closed her eyes and put her fingers in her ears, she could pretend they weren’t there.
“But if you do that, you won’t see us,” said Sabrina, sounding offended.
Sabrina was a unicorn with a glittery horn that sprinkled rainbow dust everywhere. Laura was getting fed up with finding her schoolbag permanently full of Sabrina’s glitter, and Mrs Jackson, the Reception teacher, wasn’t impressed either.
Glitter wasn’t the only thing that got Laura into trouble during that first year in school. Henry had a brother – a huge, eight feet tall gorilla-like creature with shaggy red fur and mean yellow eyes. He had a tendency to swipe other children’s lunchboxes when they weren’t looking, and Laura always got the blame.
As time went by, Laura’s strange assortment of friends grew. By the time she started secondary school, there was a mouse called Marvin who used to pull people’s shoelaces undone on the bus, a duck with orange feathers and a penchant for singing loudly in Maths lessons, and a rather nervous gnome named Nigel who had a problem with personal hygiene – it was really quite embarrassing when he broke wind loudly in public places and people assumed it was Laura.
Luckily, when she left school, her friends were very supportive when it came to job interviews: Henry used to stand behind her, whispering encouraging words in her ear every time she was asked a question; and Sabrina and Marvin used to take a sneaky look at the other candidates in the waiting room and try to make sure that their flies were undone or their skirts tucked into their knickers when it was their turn to be interviewed. It was a pity that Nigel often tagged along too and added his own noisome contribution just as she was making a good impression, but that couldn’t be helped.
Once she had managed to land the job working as a receptionist in a doctor’s surgery, Laura was able to rent a tiny flat within walking distance of her place of work. It was lovely to begin with: newly decorated, it had a recently refitted kitchen with gleaming white tiles and a smart wet-room. She was confident that she would be able to keep everything in order.
She’d reckoned without the monsters though. It began quite surreptitiously with strange noises when she was there alone at night. She would lie in bed, the duvet pulled over her head, heart beating wildly, waiting for the terror to pass. There was never any sign of them in the morning – but monsters are sneaky. For a moment, she would be reminded of the school gargoyles and wonder whether they had a hand in all of this.
Henry helpfully told her an important secret: “They come in by the portal in the kitchen floor,” he said, his eyes wide and truthful.
Laura had no reason not to believe him.
Avoiding the kitchen was problematic at first, but once she’d realised she could exist on takeaway pizzas and curries, or sandwiches from the local supermarket – which also had a Costa coffee machine – Laura found it was quite easy to keep the door closed. She wasn’t sure what to do with all the rubbish – the half-empty foil containers were beginning to smell in the heat of summer – because the wheelie bin was just outside the back door that opened off the kitchen; but then Sabrina scornfully shook her horn over a pile of black bin liners and Laura understood that she could just collect the rubbish and pile the bags neatly by the forbidden door to hell. She had to stand on a chair once the pile passed five feet high, but she was resourceful and methodical, stacking them neatly into a black polythene wall.
“Extra reinforcements to keep the monsters out!” Marvin whispered comfortingly.
Laura’s mother hadn’t realised that there was anything wrong with her daughter until she popped round unexpectedly and found the living room full of flies. Once she’d dismantled the makeshift wall, she nearly gagged when she entered the kitchen. The fridge was full of decidedly green yoghurt that had once been milk, and the shelves were decorated with mould. Rotting fruit had oozed into fetid puddles on the worktops and there was a whole new species of something growing on months old meat.
Laura had been almost hysterical when her mother had insisted on opening the kitchen door. That, coupled with the nest she’d made herself on the living room floor and the broken mirror in the bathroom – “Henry did it,” Laura said simply. “He didn’t want my refection to come out and steal my body while I slept.” – convinced her mother that Laura needed help. She was sectioned immediately.
The hospital was the loneliest place Laura had ever stayed in. Her friends weren’t allowed to visit: the ‘happy pills’ saw to that. Cocooned in a warm, medicated fog, she was no longer aware of the monsters – but that didn’t mean they weren’t hiding somewhere else, lying in wait until she was released. She wished the others were there. Even Nigel’s flatulence would have made her feel at home.
A month later, Laura left the hospital, her handbag rattling with the medication she would be taking for the rest of her life. After the first few days, before the tablets kicked in and when she’d told her startled mother that yellow and orange were devious colours who were out to get her, she’d settled down and seemed to have forgotten all her previous psychotic episodes. Her mother had spent days cleaning the flat for her; and the doctor’s surgery was willing to give her another chance now that she was displaying drug-induced ‘normal’ behaviour.
For the first week or so, Laura dutifully took her tablets – she had to: her mother doled them out every morning when she came round to check up on her. Satisfied that her daughter had turned a corner, her mother then handed over the tablets, confident that Laura was now in the routine of taking them.
The following morning, Laura popped the pills in the waste bin. It took a couple of days before her friends were convinced that she really wasn’t going to take any more of the little capsules, but they soon came creeping out of their hiding places and gave her a hug.
“What about the monsters?” Laura asked, troubled by the fact that there was now nothing to keep them at bay.
Henry shrugged. “Your mum had the exterminators in. You should be safe now.”
Laura relaxed instantly. Henry never lied.
She lay in bed that evening, basking in the comforting voices she had heard since childhood.