By Jake Kale
Feeling utterly dejected and trembling with sorrow as well as fear, Ben went back out into the hallway, which seemed less empty than the living room. Hardly surprising considering that the walls were lined with big three gallon jugs of water from the floor to just short of the ceiling. He’d secured them to the wall with string and strips of torn clothing nailed to the wall, and this coming on the heels of the installation of the handrails had caused his neighbour to have a fit, hollering and banging on the wall for hours. Ben had debated whether it was worth putting any bottles up here at all, since there was a chance the floors above ground would not survive. He had decided it was worth the effort just in case. Moving past them, Ben entered the cellar stairwell, transferring the safety harness and locking the door behind him as usual, and started his short but humiliating trudge back down the steps. It dawned on him that the last year had been a steady downward progression for him, and his movement through the house reflected that. From his bedroom, to the living room (getting that bed frame down the stairs had been a pain in the arse) and finally to the cellar. It seemed he’d gone as low as he could go.
At the bottom of the stairs Ben surveyed his current home, the small room seeming to concentrate his desolation into a tangible if invisible form. As with the hallway the walls were lined with water bottles, the securing of which had also caught the attention of the fat prick next door. It didn’t matter—he’d soon shut the fuck up when it happened. Ben only hoped the fat bastard was outside when it did. He deserved to be. Him and that bitch on the phone, Ben hoped they were both outside when it happened. Ben’s single chair and mattress were, like the handrail, secured to the concrete floor with six inch nails and fitted with straps made from old belts, just in case, and between them and the bottles there was very little space left. A small alcove on the right held additional supplies—tinned and other assorted non-perishable food, fuel for his portable gas cooker, two lighters and numerous boxes of matches, the tin opener he’d forgotten until quite recently (he’d been living mainly on packets of crisps), rope, a make-shift ladder that had formally been his bed frame, clothes, books and other reading material, and other more obscure miscellanies. He’d been living down here for about three months now. It was dark, cramped, frequently cold and thoroughly miserable. And it had begun to smell quite unpleasant, too. But it would hopefully be safe. Of course, there was no way to know for sure if the cellar ceiling would hold up any better than the upper floors, but it wasn’t as if Ben had any option other than to wait here and hope for the best. Most of the money he’d had, which included his entire inheritance, was long gone. And now it looked like he wouldn’t be getting anymore.
Standing here, the image of that vacant living room fresh in his mind, Ben experienced a wave of grief for his old life. It had been so long since he had spent any period of time upstairs, and longer still since he’d seen it in daylight. He’d still been able to detect the lighter patch of carpet by the wall to the right of the window, where his mother’s old settee once sat. He felt a twinge of nostalgia for that settee, despite the horrible vague floral pattern and the abrasive fabric that irritated his skin whenever he tried to sleep on it. He thought of all the good times he’d had in that room and throughout the house, back before his mother had died, before his sister had moved out, all the memories going right back to his upper school days. Now it gave him the disagreeable impression of a building left to rot in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. This house has seen it all, a good ten-plus years of Ben’s life. And it had seen his entire journey over the last year from madness to realization.
For a long time, Ben had honestly believed that he was losing his mind. What had started out as a random, bizarre idea had become a fully-fledged phobia, and one so intense it had inexorably taken over his life, dictating his every thought and action. He’d quit his job, and spent as little time outside as possible. He’d moved his bed down to the living room because he didn’t feel safe upstairs. There were times during those dark, horrible days when he’d wanted nothing more than to beat his head against the wall until he passed out. Well, that or be locked away in a padded cell. That thought had been incredible appealing—after all, he would at least be comfortable. His GP, Dr. Campbell, had behaved in a staggeringly indifferent manner, telling him “Pull yourself together,” as if he were some emotional incompetent. He’d contacted every counselling service he could find, and ended up on numerous waiting lists, but nothing ever came of it. No-one seemed able or even willing to help. So as the months slipped by, Ben had conceded defeat and given up on his life. Not in a suicidal sense, but in a simple not-giving-a-fuck-what-happened-to-himself sense.
It had been his sister, Laura, who had eventually convinced him to seek help again. Actually, “nagged” might be a more appropriate term. And if he didn’t get it himself she went out and got it for him. It was her that had found and contacted the Benefits Entitlement Counsel, and arranged for someone to come out to talk to him about applying for some kind of financial assistance while he was getting back on his feet. And it was Laura who’d arranged for him to switch to another GP, the cheerful and proficient Dr. Upton, who had contacted the Community Mental Health Team to try and get his appointment speeded up. Ben still remembered the day he’d received a letter from Cawdor House, informing him that a key worker had been assigned to him and would be coming out to visit. It had genuinely felt like a physical weight had been lifted from his shoulders, or from his head, anyway. He’d called Laura straight away, and had ended up crying down the phone as he thanked her repeatedly—she’d called him a big girl’s blouse, but was pleased for him. Finally he would be getting help. Finally he would be free.
Laura had made a point of being there on the day of the visit. Ben suspected she thought he would lose his nerve and not answer the door when the key worker came. If that had been the case, she had been right to worry. His pursuit of help had been indecisive and, if he were honest, pretty half-arsed all along, and that morning embarrassment had once again teamed up with anxiety to beat his common sense into submission. Ben realized he’d relied quite heavily on his older sister through the years, and he really wished she were here now. She’d always been the perfect foil to his introspective nature. She’d had a way of expressing herself, a soft and (mostly) well-intentioned sardonic humour that wove insults and criticisms in such a deft and delicate manner that she quickly won people over to her side. It was a trait he’d found by turns admirable and irritating, the level of each varying depending on the situation. It had always worked on Ben, though, so when the doorbell had rung that day he’d immediately gone to answer it without being prompted by one of her light-hearted putdowns.
Ben’s key worker, Vicky, had been a casually dressed and compassionate-looking woman in her late thirties, and she’d had that relaxed, friendly air about her that all good counsellors seem to project. She’d brought a trainee with her, an attractive redhead in her twenties whose name Ben couldn’t remember, but he’d guessed from her ratty attire that she was a student before Vicky had even introduced her. She’d looked kind of like Gillian Anderson in the earlier seasons of The X-Files. Vicky had asked him if he minded “Gillian” being there, and while he thought it odd that she’d waited until they were practically inside the house to ask that he’d said he didn’t mind.
They’d all gone into the living room, which back then had lived up to the name “living room”—brightly lit by the early Autumn sun, revealing the cabinet full of his mother’s trinkets on the wall opposite the settee, the cluttered coffee table in the middle of the room, the few paintings he’d had the tenacity to complete hanging alongside pictures of extended family and the dog they’d had to have put to sleep four years earlier. Laura and Ben sat on the old settee with the obscure greyish foliage, while Vicky and Gillian had taken their respective seats on the two chairs by the far wall, facing the window. Vicky had had a black leather briefcase from which she’d produced a clipboard with a form attached. The student, who’d barely said a word, had a small notepad that she’d scribbled in every so often. After asking Ben for a few details and jotting down his responses, Vicky had looked up from her lap and, with a relaxed tilt of the head and the barest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of her lips, had begun the interrogation. “So, Ben, have you always been afraid of going outside?”
This had thrown Ben off-guard from the get-go, as he’d hoped they might ease him into confronting his phobia gradually. No such luck. Vicky had obviously been a no-nonsense type, but she masked it well with a soothing, patient tone. “I’ve always preferred to stay indoors,” Ben had told her, though that had been the result of his lack of motivation more than anything else. “It was never this intense, though. I’d say it’s slowly gotten worse over the last year or so.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I don’t know. Our mother’s death didn’t help.”
Vicky had made another note, and Gillian had parroted her mentor’s actions almost self-consciously. “I’ve spoken to Laura, and she told me you took that quite hard.”
Now there was the very definition of understatement. Look up “understatement” in the dictionary and you’ll find “ex: Benjamin Barry took his mother’s death quite hard.” The three of them had formed a unit for so much of his life, even after Laura moved out. Nothing quite as militant as an “us against the world” mentality, just a natural sense of cohesion. Their mother had been the centre of that unit, and when she died it had fallen apart. What hurt the most was that he couldn’t do the one thing she’d always asked of them both—to not grieve for her but get on with their lives. Ben couldn’t do that. Her death had been so sudden, a fucking heart attack of all things. It was such a painfully generic end for such an inspiring woman. Laura had handled it better, reacting with her trademark glibness that effectively marginalised her grief while acting as an emollient to his own. He’d always assumed that was exactly as she’d intended—to be strong for him.
Back in the present, or rather the past, Ben had said, “You could say that. I should point out I’ve been having these thoughts since long before Mum died, but they’ve definitely gotten worse since then.”
“It’s like a compulsion, it affects everything I do. I’ve had nightmares about it.”
A sympathetic nod. More scribbles from Gillian. “Sounds pretty bad.”
“It’s not a regular thing, just once in a blue moon I’ll have a nightmare. It’s not that bad.”
“Bad enough for you to resign from your job,” Vicky had observed.
“Yes,” he’d admitted. God, that had made him feel uncomfortable.
Vicky must have noticed, but of course it was her job to push him so she’d pressed on. “Ben, as I say, I’ve spoken to your sister about this, and she tells me you’ve never given a reason for your fear of going outside. Why is that?”
Then, as now, Ben had felt the pain radiating out from the apex of his neck so acutely he’d imagined you could probably see it, and had shifted awkwardly on the itch-inducing settee. They’d been there less than ten minutes, and it was already more than he could take. “Because I don’t like thinking about it. I don’t like thinking about the level of control it has over me. And because I’m worried someone like you is gonna lock me up and throw away the key.” That had been meant as a joke, but the look he’d gotten from Vicky had made him worry she’d taken it seriously. Ben had been left with no choice but to give the real answer. “And because I’m embarrassed by it.”
“Oh, you silly sod, don’t be ridiculous . . .” Laura had begun to say before Vicky delicately cut her off with the merest flick of her wrist, in case Ben decided to clam up again.
“Why are you embarrassed?”
“Because Laura’s right, in a way. It is ridiculous.”
“It’s obviously not ridiculous to you.”
“No, I know. But it would be to anyone else.”
“Why don’t you let us decide that for ourselves?”
At that point, fixed in the combined glare of the three women who were ostensibly there to help him, Ben had realised he was not going to escape this time—he would have to face his fear. And, like a predator scenting its prey, Vicky had prepared the final ambush. “Ben, I understand that this must be a pretty stressful experience for you. I appreciate that, I do. But you have to confront this head-on if you want to conquer it. You can’t keep hiding it away, I’m sure you realize that.”
He had nodded, which had done wonders for his throbbing neck. “I do. Laura tells me often enough.”
“I notice you play this fear of yours down a lot. My suggestion to you is to take it more seriously, accept it for the very real problem it obviously is.”
“You’re right, I know. It’s a defensive thing.”
“There’s no need to be defensive now, Ben. We’re here to help you. So . . . why don’t you want to go outside?”
He’d drawn a breath, and he remembered his lips had trembled. Here goes nothing, that inner voice had said. “I suppose it’s what you’d call a phobia.”
“OK.” She’d drawn those two syllables out in classic shrink fashion. “A phobia of what?”
Ben had gotten pretty good at blocking the visions out of his mind, at least while he was awake. But for some reason that question, that single, simple question had brought his most vivid fancies to the fore. And once it had, he’d found he couldn’t shut them out.
Just as he couldn’t shut them out now.
Falling by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.