“Something different? You mean in this room? Well, I did some cleaning, it might be that. And I threw out that dead plant that had been hanging about in its pot for weeks.”
“Nah, it’s something else, something less obvious,” I said, preoccupied. “It’s disconcerting.”
“What sort of different? Is it like a feeling?”
“Forget it, I must be dreaming.”
Yet I could feel something, like a malaise. You know that feeling when there is a silence for rather too long in a conversation or when you are buying condoms at the drugstore. The strange thing was that here nothing seemed to be wrong. Everything was in its place, as clean as she usually kept it.
“Would you like some tea, darling? I went to the store Christine recommended. You know, opposite the restaurant with the name you like, what’s it called?”
“Audacity.” I replied to my wife but my mind was elsewhere. There was something intangible yet wrong in the air all around me. I felt on edge.
“I’ve made some black tea, seeing as you didn’t answer. Here you are, one sugar and not too hot, just as you like it.”
She smiled and looked at me closely. I looked at my watch, it had stopped. It was impossible to put my finger on what was wrong. And yet something seemed to have disappeared. I stood up.
“Where are you going? Don’t you want to stay with me for a while? You’ve been spending all your time writing lately, we never get to talk. And you should try this tea, it’s not at all like the other ones.”
I met her eyes, but only for a moment. Writing a lot? If only that were true. I spent hours in front of a blank sheet of paper, doing nothing. In vain I let my thoughts roam around everything and nothing, I went out, saw friends, visited unusual places, but I could not find what other writers call the spark. Inspiration, the flame, the flash, or some such garbage. What was happening? Even the lights around me looked artificial. I almost felt as if I was being watched.
I took myself in hand, I was obviously hallucinating. Where was the thermometer? No fever? Not even a slight one? Yet I was sweating. I sat down and took a deep breath. That felt a bit better. Back in the living room was my cup of tea, placed on the low table.
Where had she gone? It was, what, ten minutes since I had left the room?
“Sam!” I shouted out loud. “Sam, where are you?”
Crack! My cup shattered on the floor. I froze. I was alone in the room. How had my cup managed to fall?
“Sam, answer me! Where are you?”
“Here, darling. Why are you shouting? I went to get another cup of tea seeing as you broke yours.”
“Broke it? Broke mine? My cup, I broke my cup?”
“Yes, look at your feet, you’re almost walking in it. I’ll go and get a cloth, you get the dustpan and sweep the pieces up, will you?”
I walked mechanically towards the kitchen cupboard. That’s where we kept the dustpan and brush. Broken my cup? I didn’t go anywhere near it, how could it be possible? I grabbed the cupboard handle and let go of it with a shout. It was burning hot.
“Sam, I’ve burned myself. Come here and look at this!”
“You’ve burned yourself? How have you managed to do that?”
I showed her my hand. Nothing. The blisters had disappeared. In their place, I could read the words, written in felt pen, ‘Take care!’
“You write on your hand now? Come on, stir yourself, pick up the pieces of china, they’re all over the place.”
Take care? Take care about what? I touched the handle cautiously, everything was as normal. Back in the living-room, I took a few minutes to pick up the smallest pieces, some of which were encrusted into the sofa. The cold tiles against my skin made me feel better. Getting my breath back, I tried to understand what had just happened. My discomfort was undergoing a transformation. It was ridiculous, but I had the impression I was in danger.
I slid onto the armchair and put my legs on the footstool in front of it. I felt sick.
“So what do you think of the tea?”
“I haven’t tried it yet.”
What is the matter with her today? All these questions about tea and all that nonsense. I don’t like her when she’s like that. Something in the way she is looking at me goes right through me.
“What are you talking about, your cup’s empty, you drank it all without saying a word.”
I look at the table, incredulous. In front of me the cup which just now was in pieces is now intact, placed there, right in front of me. Empty.
I am losing my words, a ball of panic is forming in my stomach.
“Don’t mess me about. You can’t tell me there’s nothing different, Sam! This cup was in pieces just now! You even told me to get the dustpan and brush. You must remember! I’m not going mad, Sam, you do remember? Answer me!”
I look up, I am alone.
I fall back into my chair. Everything is going round and round, I can feel my heart pounding, blue spots are clouding my vision. Panic takes hold of me, I cannot calm myself down.
What is going on? Nothing makes sense any more.
The doorbell rings. Conquering my malaise, I get up to go and open the door. Sam steps over the doormat and comes in with two big bags.
“Hello, darling. Have you had a good day? Sorry to be so late but I went to the tea store Christine told us about. You know, opposite that restaurant you like. ‘Audacity’, is that what it’s called?”
She kisses me.
I collapse, knocking over as I fall the plate where Sam and I put our keys. Hardly taking the time to get up again, I run upstairs and lock myself in the big bedroom. Sitting in a corner, I rock backwards and forwards. It’s not possible, it’s just not possible. I lose it completely. I have gone mad. Something has come adrift in my head. I close my eyes and make a supreme effort to take control of myself. I count on my fingers, think about my political opinions, go over all my memories. I test my logic, check I know my capital cities, try to move my eyebrows. I touch my mouth, my stomach, everything is normal. No, not everything. I am overcome by nausia. My windpipe, I have something stuck in my throat, my God, what is it?
I can’t breathe any more. It’s coming up, whatever it is. I retch. I spit, almost in convulsions, spasms run through my body. This thing is squashing my tongue, sliding against my teeth. My mouth is distorted. Finally, tearing my lips, it leaves my body. A cup covered in spittle rolls across my carpet. Panic. Utter horror, all logic disintegrates in my head. A nameless terror erupts in my skull, banishing the last remnants of rational thought.
I unbolt the door, hurtle down the stairs, burst through the front door and leap outside without looking back. I run as if all Hell is after me, as if the torrents of lava from the Styx are pursuing me. The houses pass by, the noise of my feet hitting the tarmac is almost inaudible. Many minutes elapse, I do not slow down. Everything that has just happened is impossible. I feel as if my whole being is splitting open, broken. That the person I am is being crushed from the inside. My points of reference are all swept away, I am nothing but an animal running. I stop. I force myself to close my eyes, get a grip. There has to be an explanation. I must have taken some hallucinogenic substances. Or else I’m dreaming.
I open my eyes.
I am sitting down. Pieces of white paper are fluttering all round me, covered in minuscule writing. They are on fire and burn up just a few inches from my head. My whole world is going up in flames. And I am stuck inside it, with matches in my hand.
I shout, I scream for help so loudly that my lungs hurt! I scratch the charred walls, I break my nails trying to get out any way I can. My fingers are bleeding from scraping at the walls enclosing me. I am stifling, crushed by something I don’t understand.
“Help! Sam! SAAAAAM!”
My voice breaks as my skin begins to melt.
“He looks so peaceful. Do you think he will wake up one day, Doctor?”
“The only thing I can be certain about, miss, is that a coma is a fight against one’s own self.”
Translated by Wendy Cross