“Cacoethes Scribendi” by Catriona Campbell

Tenet insanabile multos scribendi cacoethes – Juvenal

[“An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breast”]

Crimson footprints weave in a confused trail across the bare floorboards between larger puddles already congealing in the warm morning air.  Laura leans heavily against the wall, not trusting her knees to hold her upright.  She watches the vivid red fluid slowly seep into the fresh white towels that lie crumpled on the floor, fallen from nerveless fingers.  Peter lies on the hard floor, not moving.  Crude scrawlings and scribblings cascade and riot over every flat surface in the room, thick black lines intermingling with ruby scratchings.  A six-pack of black Sharpies costs four euro and some change, she thinks.  She watches, mesmerised, as a creeping finger of scarlet inches towards her bare toes.

It started with an accident, three years, a lifetime ago.  Arguing in the car on a Sunday afternoon, on the drive to his mother’s house.

“A little consideration is all I ask.”

“Next you’ll want me to ask before taking a piss.”

“Don’t be an arse.  I’m asking you not to decide things on my behalf, that’s hardly unreasonable.”

“Oh you’re being eminently reasonable.  Just making sure I get your say-so on every detail, no matter how bloody minute.”

“What if I had plans made already when you dropped this on me?”

“But you didn’t!”

“But what if I had? You can’t just-”

And suddenly the world was upside down and there was someone screaming very loudly, just screaming, with no words and hardly a pause for breath.  Laura wanted her to stop because she was making it very hard to think straight with all the noise.  Peter had his eyes closed, and he looked like he was sleeping on the steering wheel, except there was blood, so much blood…Later, the doctors told her the paramedics had cut them both out of the wreckage.  She had been lucky, they said.  Lucky that she’d lost consciousness and didn’t remember the ordeal.  Lucky that her injuries were so minor.  Lucky that she hadn’t left her legs behind in the mangled metal, like Peter.

The towels smell fresh and clean; their lemon scent sharp in the yellow morning air, almost, but not quite masking the other, heavier odour.  There is sunlight pouring in through the big bay windows.  It is June, and their quiet suburb is drowning in summer.  Laura thinks distantly of gathering up the ruined towels and putting them in the bath to soak; she should wash them and hang them out while there’s good drying weather.  She knows Peter likes the way the towels seem to soak up the sunshine in their fabric.  These ones are probably ruined she thinks, seeing how their crisp whiteness has become sodden with carmine.

It was the repetition that made things so hard for Peter.  Day after day of facing the obscenely positive physiotherapist, of listening to her prattle about ‘progress’ and ‘positivity’, of being strapped onto the artificial limbs and made haul himself along the practice bars.  It took him five months to re-learn how to take three steps using his new legs.  Three steps, and each one taken through gritted teeth and furious tears.  He banished Laura from the room on his third session, refusing to let her watch him in his agony.  She spent every subsequent session in the corridor outside, digging her nails deep into the plastic cover of the waiting room sofa, tormented by the howls of pain that ricocheted around the corridors.  Finally he had flung the replacement legs from him and refused further rehabilitation.  He chose the wheelchair, and flatly denied any attempts to discuss alternatives.

Peter’s right hand lies facing upward and lax, his palm cupping air.  Laura can see ink-stains on the pad of his thumb; a blue-black tinge that she knows from experience takes hefty scrubbing to remove.  She can remember the feeling of that hand in hers, fingers interwoven.  The rough warmth of his palm cupping her cheek has always inexplicably spoken to her of home.  The same hand that had delighted in crushing beer cans and opening stubbornly sealed jars had tenderly, gingerly lifted spiders from the bathtub, and butterflies from lace curtains and released them back into the garden.  Peter’s palm is now awash with daubs of darkening vermillion, and his index finger is…Laura crushes her eyes closed, feeling bile rise up her throat.

She had brought him home from the care centre a year and a half after the crash.  She had bathed him, changed his clothes, hauled him in and out of his modified bed, and shut herself into the hot press to weep hysterically into the darkness of clean sheets and towels during his afternoon naps.

The psychologist had warned her that dramatic life-changes could take years to make their full effects known.  She had been prepared for depression, for anger, for deep-rooted sorrow.  She had not been prepared for withdrawal.  Peter closed in on himself.  He stopped responding to her attempts to make conversation, even superficially.  He stopped making eye contact, as though ashamed or too angry to meet her eyes.  Laura wondered ceaselessly whether he blamed her for the accident, if that was the cause of his drawing back from her and everyone else.  Friends stopped calling by to visit.  Neighbours made no more than cursory calls to the front door.  Everyone left their once-comfortable home with a distinct feeling of being unwelcome.

With no apparent interest in regaining his speech, Peter initially communicated his needs solely through writing.  As the weeks and months marched on, his writing became less interactive.  He began guarding his notebooks almost jealously, and was reluctant to show her the contents.  Laura spoke again to the psychologist, wondering at this new, territorial side to his nature.  The psychologist, in soothing tones, tried to assure her that personality changes were only to be expected as Peter tried to come to terms with his vastly altered life.  He encouraged Laura to see Peter’s new fervour for writing as a creative outlet, a healthy medium for expression of all that he was going through.  Not entirely convinced, Laura played ball, and so began the monthly, then weekly trips to the stationary store to furnish Peter with reams of paper, and a constant supply of Sharpie felt-tips.  Soon, the notebooks were discarded, and Peter’s feverish scribbling extended outwards.  The walls of the downstairs living room, which had been converted into an accessible bedroom, became his new canvas.  Black ink covered the plain wallpaper up to a height of six feet – the reach of his right arm from his seated position in the wheelchair.  Once all four walls were covered in tight, scrawled writing, barely legible in many places, gibberish in others, he made her paint over the ink with thick white paint, and the process began again.

Laura didn’t think, had never thought, that the writing had made him happy.  She shuddered a little, remembering the fever-bright glaze in his eyes, the scowl etched between his dark brows, the jerky frenzied motion of his pen on the walls.  The silence in the room now was louder than a klaxon, the absence of the felt-tip’s squeaking progression across the paint deafening to her where she slumped against the wall.  For all that the constant sussurus of his scribbling had started to intrude upon her dreams, much like Poe’s Telltale Heart, the vacuum left behind was worse by far.

“For your sake,” Janet had said in a low voice, nursing a mug of coffee across the kitchen counter from Laura one morning less than a week ago.  The sun had streamed brightly in through the windows, and formed a tiny nimbus around Janet’s coppery hair, illuminating the frown of worry on her brow as she watched Laura stack the dishwasher.

“You look like you haven’t slept in weeks, and I know you’re not eating properly.”

“I’m fine, honestly.”

“You’ve always been a terrible liar Laur’.  How do you expect to look after him when you can’t even look after yourself?  You both need a break, you need to recharge your batteries, or you’ll wind up in that bed beside him.”

Reluctantly, Laura had let herself be talked into a few days at her sister’s house.  Peter had hardly responded when she’d told him.  A respite carer was to call in for an hour or two every day to fix his dinner and make sure all was well in the house.  Peter wore a personal alarm like a pendant around his neck in case of emergency.  Laura shouted down the small voice in the back of her mind.  Janet was right.  They couldn’t keep living like this – it was a simply a case of take a break, or wind up breaking.

Yesterday afternoon, the carer had called Laura at her sister’s house – something about her car breaking down.  Laura, feeling better than she had in months, reassured the carer that Peter would be fine till she returned home first thing the next morning.

On opening the front door, she had known instinctively that something was amiss.  Stepping over the threshold, bags in hand, the tiny hairs on the nape of her neck had stood straight up.  She dumped her keys in the bowl on the phone-table, and kicked her flip-flops off beside the mat, running entirely on autopilot, more concerned by the indefinable ambience in the house.  It took several seconds for her to identify the source of her unease.  Silence.  The house was entirely silent.  Throughout the long months previous to this morning, there had always been faint sounds in the air, like the scritch-scritch-scritch of mice chattering.  This morning there was only silence.

She had moved to the closed door of Peter’s room, fighting the rising sense of nausea in the pit of her stomach, telling herself he was probably still asleep.  Her inner rationalisations shielded her as she opened the door and entered the room, buoying her along for several steps, until reality slammed home, and she slumped, faint, against the nearest wall.

What had possessed him?  Laura presses the back of her hand to dry lips, choking down bitter saliva as she finds her gaze once again drawn to what remains of his right index finger.  When the last Sharpie had finally run out, how long had he managed to sit without writing?  How long before he automatically began tracing the letters and words on the walls with his finger?  Did he register pain when his skin, dried out and flaking from rasping against the wall, first began to break?  Had he noticed when his invisible script suddenly became visible once more?  At what point had his conscious mind shut down, and this insane, insatiable need to write taken over?  Did he realise, towards the end, that this new crimson ink was finite?  Did he try to staunch the flow, to silence the words?

Laura raises her eyes slowly, distantly surprised that the light in the room has faded from bright morning yellow to twilight grey so soon.  There are goosebumps pebbling the skin on her bare arms and legs.  She reaches down to rub some warmth back into her calves, and realizes the sodden mass of the once-clean towels has daubed her feet and lower legs with carmine.  She stares at her own legs, conspicuous by their presence, and suddenly, for the first time in three years, begins to scream.


Biographical Note:

Catriona Campbell is originally from Naas, Co. Kildare, and has been writing for her own entertainment ever since her 5th class teacher told her she’d do better on her weekly essays if they could be read in a single sitting.  She is a Speech and Language Therapist by trade, and works hard to conceal her geeky alter-ego behind a professional demeanour.  It even works, sometimes.  Her main areas of interest are fantasy, horror and science-fiction, and she believes every story can be improved with the addition of a dragon or two.  She currently lives and works in Port Laoise.

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