This is longer than usual, but for anyone who feels the need of a Halloween chill, read on:
Who Is She?
“Woops … There he goes?”
Eleanor Friel gritted her teeth, levered her head reluctantly from scrutiny of the unfolding road, and saw the head of her husband lolling, losing guidance amid the folds of his neck, giving vent to mucous and mutters.
She aimed a look of pure, cold loathing at his slackened, unmanned features, hoping for decorum’s sake that Maeve and Darina hadn’t caught it, then she returned her meticulous gaze to the bland demands of the highway. They were on their way to a meeting, one of the frequent reunions Eleanor held with sisters who had crossed her path.
Maeve and she had nursed in Ennis in … had it been 1978? A year or two later? Darina was there for the ride, or more precisely, because she was terribly lonely since that feckless arse of a husband had finally died from that fecklessly weak heart of his.
Robert was supposed to drive them back, since it was likely the girls would, by night’s end, have had a tad too much wine to render the trip home entirely safe. But look at him now! What if he fell asleep when it was his turn to grip the wheel?
For God’s sake, he’d been talking, or rather rambling – for Eleanor was confident none of them had been listening – only seconds before; some awful tedium about taxes and the balance of trade.
And his lapse was so blatant that Maeve had felt emboldened to call attention to it. Unforgivable. Eleanor drove and simmered with polite rage. She had made him visit doctors. The swine would never have gone on his own. He’d come back and sworn, yes sworn, that he had not been diagnosed with narcolepsy, that the medics had been unable to divine the deep neurological malady Eleanor knew must be there, the embolism on the point of explosion, the dark arterial channel waiting to unleash its clenched balls of black death.
She had commanded him to take more tests. These would not take place for months (damn the useless health service).
Eleanor felt sufficiently enraged to dare a second glance at her husband. He was, as expected, now dribbling happily on to his collar. She prayed Maeve and Darina could not see.
If they had been alone in the car, she would have walloped him back into wakefulness. She had many times considered the possibility that he was lying to her; that the doctors had confirmed her entirely logical suspicions, but the dribbling cur swore not, and that damnable doctor – patient nonsense precluded her from demanding the confirmation of her own opinion.
“I wonder how Maura’s getting on,” she said, orchestrating a new conversation as seamlessly as a gear change, “Milly was telling me she’s put on terrible weight since the … you know.”
She could hear Maeve preparing a response, something which, Eleanor knew, would seek to glean how much she knew about the “you know” before hazarding some information of her own, but then something profoundly strange happened.
The space around them was filled with the sound of a deep, low rattling him, like some critical component of the engine had commenced a new and entirely ominous vibration. The noise spoke of imminent unmanning, of vital components becoming unhinged from each other, of sudden, unwonted disintegration.
“Guuuhhhh huuuuhhh,” went the noise.
“Ellie, is everything ok?” Maeve’s alarmed voice.
“Uhhh wuuuhhh,” said the noise.
And some nuance in the inflection of Maeve’s alarm – for powerful is the communication between sisters – made it clear to Eleanor that the noise was coming, not from under the Audi’s thick, black, light drinking bonnet, but from her husband, who now went “urrr huhh wahhh unnnhhh aaaahhh.”
“I – uh – I don’t know,” she said, carefully slowing and preparing to move into a lay by if need be, “he’s never done this before.”
Then he did something else he had never done before. The dribbling, unhinged lips now began to form something that sounded like a word.
“Ess-men-ayy” said the coma sufferer in the front passenger seat.
“Ess-men-ayy” he said again, taking what seemed like sensual pleasure from the syllables, repeating the word more rapidly three or four times, before emitting a long, low groan of unspeakable pleasure, and lapsing into loud, clear wordless snores entirely free of spit or syllable.
“I don’t know,” said Eleanor, essaying a nervous giggle and signalling as she prepared to move out from lay by to left lane, “men, huh?”
All her married life Eleanor had been obsessed with the notion that Robert kept secrets from her. To those who knew the man – work colleagues, golfing buddies and so on – the idea would have seemed hilarious, but Eleanor was a woman of boundless energy and vigorous imagination.
She had tracked him on those very rare occasions when his job had taken him to weekend conferences. She had made him phone her every hour, besieging hotel switchboards if a call was even fifteen minutes late. As is frequently the case with people like Eleanor, she did not brook any attempt at reciprocation.
Once, Robert’s car had broken down on the other side of town during some thunderous deluge. The poor slob had phoned his home eight times without response. Eleanor was in the tub, Eleanor was having a nap, Eleanor had popped out with some friends, at any rate, she was somewhere she could not be reached.
Poor Robert, unable to hail a taxi, for Eleanor disapproved of him leaving the house with more cash than was necessary for a sensible lunch, had been forced to walk home and catch a severe cold, as well as a tantrum from Eleanor, who then became convinced the mangy idiot had given himself meningitis.
As time passed and Robert grew older and homelier looking, and he had never – even in his heyday – been Robert Redford – Eleanor abandoned the contemplation of secret lovers and focused instead on mystery illnesses, things the ailing fool was too weak and frightened to admit to having: heart disease, bowel cancer, scabies, arthritis, pleurisy, Parkinson’s, MS, both kinds of Hodgkin’s… Probably he would succumb to one or the other eventually, so thoroughly did Eleanor insist on covering all the bases.
Now, Eleanor found herself forced to reopen some of the old plotlines. The randy witless cur had humiliated her completely. What was worse, she could not berate him for it – at least not publicly – for he had done it while unconscious.
Still, on the trip home Eleanor fumed and responded to even his lightest questions with a snarl. And Robert, having long before given up the interrogation of any of his wife’s moods, simply drove them amiably home.
It was necessary to conduct one of Eleanor’s periodic trawls through her husband’s old correspondence. She knew every page practically by heart, but perhaps there was something, some veiled hint, some obscure word that might now become a clue. She waited till he was at work – thank God there was still a year before the early retirement she had forced him to take – and dug out the meticulously filed boxes.
Everything was as it had been. Tax forms, confirmation letters from banks, electricity bills – God what a boring life the fool had led – minutes and receipts from his undistinguished year as Treasurer of the Golf Club, nothing, not a trace.
All she had was a word, if it even was a word: ‘Ess-men-ay.’ Eleanor had a brainwave. There was another set of boxes containing every single yearbook the golf club had produced for the last thirty years. Perhaps the name was in there, buried somewhere inside the interminable lists of placings for tournaments, of donors and sponsors, of people who’d signed the visitor’s book, or been photographed at one of the endless fundraisers.
It was late afternoon before Eleanor was forced to abandon her trek through golf club history. She put everything carefully back and decided to think again.
She decided, as people increasingly did in those days, to consult the Internet. Alas, the planet’s self-proclaimed metabrain was of little help. In response to her typing the word ‘Esmene’ – which Eleanor had learned was the correct spelling – it brought forward an array of obscure medieval princesses and literary heroines who hadn’t even had time to be forgotten.
Was Robert having some kind of deeply sick, platonic affair with someone who had been dust for centuries, or worse, who hadn’t even existed outside the imagination of some randy old Frenchman? Was he – my, how this thought disgusted her – was he masturbating to the memory of some German countess who’d died of plague in 1342?
She told herself she was being ridiculous. The dribbling idiot would never have the imagination for something like that. No, she had to have been a real person. But who? There was no point in coming out straight and asking him about it. The drooling pervert would simply lie, as he had about his neurological condition.
Eleanor decided she needed to clear her head with a long walk. She left a note for Robert, instructing him to microwave his frozen dinner, and left.
The thing, I guess, which distinguishes people like Eleanor from the broad, lumpen mass of humanity is this: they can never leave anything alone. They are the proverbial dogs with bones. In fact, their heroic dedication to their particular goals would leave even the most obsessive Rottweiler looking like a mere pussy.
There was no such thing as an idea which, once it had taken hold, Eleanor could ever let herself forget. She would resolve any confusion, no matter how long it took. It took her quite some time, but she even managed to find a solution to the problem of Robert’s phantom slut.
A couple of her old nursing friends had taken leave of their health service jobs and gone to work in a private clinic run by the UROK Corporation, the drug manufacturer which had set up in the town of Loonford some years before.
Eleanor now cultivated some of these friends a little more assiduously than before. She had them round for dinner, where the general pleasantry of the evening was only marred by Eleanor having to utter two mighty bellows at her husband, who had of course fallen asleep.
Protocol dictated that there were return invitations, which Eleanor was of course delighted to accept, on her and Robert’s behalf.
While the worthless fool drooled over brandy with the spouse whose name she kept forgetting, Eleanor unburdened herself in the kitchen.
“Oh darling I really am at my wit’s end, you know. I really feel like I can’t go on much more.”
“Oh no. What’s the matter?”
“Insomnia darling. I’m absolutely cursed with it. I can’t get any more than two hours a night. I feel – I feel like I’m coming apart.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Years darling, years and years. It’s partly the worry, you know, worrying about that man and all the health problems he won’t tell me about. And then of course there’s his snoring.”
“Of course. Haven’t you heard him? And he talks, talks continually. He really is a most violent sleeper. I’ve begged him to have it checked out, but of course I’m only his wife. Why should he listen to me?”
“Have you thought of separate bedrooms? Loads of people do that, you know.”
“Oh darling I’ve begged. Begged and begged, but himself won’t hear about it, says that the moment we stop sharing a bed, we cease to be man and wife. Have you ever heard the like? I mean, at our age. It’s not like we do anything.”
“Oh, poor Eleanor. Surely there’s something you can do?”
“I’m terrified of messing around with Valium or any of that type of thing. I mean, what about side-effects? What if you don’t wake up? If there was just something, something safe that could help me to relax.”
“Well, funny you should mention it, but the firm is working on something at the moment. It’s supposed to be absolutely safe, but you do have to be careful with the dose. I mean, don’t take any more than what’s specified on the label. A couple of people I know have tried it, and they absolutely swear by it.”
“Yes, I could … I mean, there’s no danger of you overdosing is there? Just – just make sure you keep it very quiet, you know? Don’t say anything about where you got it.”
“Oh I wouldn’t say a word darling. Oh you know I’d be so grateful for something, anything that could…”
Eleanor, in the manner of creatures like her everywhere, had done her homework. She already knew that, in tiny quantities, the UROK drug induced a profound feeling of relaxation and well being in those who took it. It was a state likened by one internet blogger to hypnosis.
She had also learned that, in more concentrated form, the drug functioned like an extremely powerful truth serum.
A couple of weeks later, she cooked dinner for herself and Robert, having made it abundantly clear to the clown that she expected him to be on time.
Robert, who had passed under the latest storm with his usual amiable incomprehension, took it as a sign that some equally inexplicable fair weather had dawned, and spent the evening commenting beatifically on the tender sweetness of his steak in ZRX-4403 sauce.
He smiled amiably at his wife, even complimenting her on her choice of wine, a fruity red garnished with the elusive bouquet of ZRX-4403 in powder form, just for luck, until his head went limp, and his wine glass shattered on the tiled kitchen floor.
Eleanor rose, swept the shards into a dustpan, threw her own steak and wine, both unembellished by ZRX-4403, into the bin. She dimmed the lights and stood over her again unmanned spouse.
“Robert! Robert Friel! Can you hear me?”
The voice seemed to ascend fathoms before replying … “yes.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“Who am I?”
“Mmm … I’ve a vague idea, I think.”
A smile! The dog was laughing at her. He was using his hypnosis to make fun of her. Oh was there no end to the humiliation?
“If you know who I am, then you also know who you are. You are a witless, faithless failure, a disgrace to the humanity God gave you, a boring, pointless waste of human material. Isn’t that true Robert Friel?”
“Yes dear.” But the swine smiled again.
“You could not even bring yourself to be faithful to the wife who has cared, cleaned and cooked for you all these thankless years, she who has been faithfulness itself to you all this time. Oh, Robert Friel, you are absolutely without honour. You are disgusting.”
“Yes. Disgusting.” As to the faith thing, it was true … apart from that Doctor at the hospital and that estate agent who’d almost got her that house by the lake – but such things were trifles compared to all she had given up. How could a woman be expected to live through such a Hell without the odd tiny compensation now and again?
“And now, Robert Friel, it is finally time for you to be truthful. You cannot hide behind any more lies Robert Friel. You are to tell the name of the whore you cheated your poor wife with. Robert Friel: who is Esmene?”
“Yes Robert Friel. Where and when did you commit your foul, disgusting deeds with Esmene? Who is she? Where did she come from?”
“Ess…men…ay.” He’d simply lapsed into the same dreamy tone with which he’d first mouthed the name. Eleanor, who had already worked herself into a fine lather, began to feel utter fury. The dog was actually enjoying being reminded of her. He was probably even having an erection.
“Concentrate you pig! When and where did you have sex with her? Confess! Confess or I swear I’ll…”
“Ess-men-ay.” Oh, this was getting nowhere. The man’s mental deceit had more layers than the Atlantic. But Eleanor would not be defeated, oh no.
She sprang from the dining table into the kitchen. She pulled the contraband packet from a drawer and retrieved four large capsules of ZRX-4403. She pulled the capsules open with her strong nurse’s fingers, then emptied their reddish powder into a glass.
She filled the glass with water, relentlessly stirring until all the crystals had been dissolved. The liquid she brought back had a strong reddish hue.
Her husband was still sitting motionless, eyes closed.
“You are to drink this, Robert Friel. You are to drink every last gulp, is that clear? You are to drink and wait for my voice.”
“Of course dear.”
She held the glass up to his mouth while he glugged, making disgusting noises at the back of his throat. What harm if the dose killed him? Eleanor was past caring about that now.
She allowed a minute or so to pass. The drug was supposed to be fast acting.
“And now Robert Friel. Can you hear me?”
His response almost made her jump backward. It was a low cackle, creepy, filled with phlegm. There were no words, just horrible, mocking laughter.
It took Eleanor a moment to regain her composure.
“Don’t you dare laugh at me, you evil cur. Don’t you dare! My God I’ll finish you so fast. You’ve no idea how I’ll make you suffer. Now, I ask you again. Do you know who I am?”
There was a pause. The head lolled from side to side, then an entirely unfamiliar voice said “of course I know who you are.”
Eleanor almost suffered a collapse of nerve. There was something deeply ominous about this new voice. The contempt it dared to bear her. It seemed not to fear her in the least. She willed herself to go forward. Her father had not raised her to be timid.
“Then who am I?”
“You’re not going to like the answer.”
“Dammit. Tell me, you bastard, I’ll kill you.”
“You are the blood sucking, life corrupting bitch this misfortunate vessel has been tethered to for over thirty years. You are an avatar of that force put on Earth for the generation of pointless, tedious misery. How often this poor shit has dreamed of leaving you, how often he has thought that even a disgraced life in a hungry bedsit would be preferable to another moment in your pestilent company, but always I, his ruling demon, have stayed him, always defeated his courage when it might have brought him far away from you.”
Eleanor clasped the sides of her head. For the first time in many, many years, she felt exposed. Yet she tried to muster the old force of command.
“Stop this nonsense! I demand to speak to my husband! I want to talk to Robert now.”
“Oh he’s long gone, you silly cow.”
“What? How can he…”
“Those drugs you gave the poor fool have all but killed him. His identity is buried. Robert and all his polite bowing and scraping before the monstrosity, before the appalling, inescapable reality of you are drowned now. Now there is only me. You are alone with the truth. It’s not a pleasant feeling, is it? I bet you feel naked, don’t you? Someone is going to speak truth to you after thirty years.”
Eleanor was backing away from the table. All her rage had been frozen. Her blood had all but stopped.
“Who? Who are you?”
“I would speak my name only to one trained in how to seek it. To a human harpy like you, who serves my purpose so exquisitely without the merest idea of what you are doing, I give nothing, nothing except the delights that await you in my realm.”
“No!” She kept backing away, hands pushing at air.
“Yes, yes,” the voice mocked. “I suppose it’s a little unfair, really. You are among the most dogged of our foot soldiers. You do so much to create the conditions in which our designs might flourish. But in the end, all you are is fodder, and not particularly pleasing fodder at that. So it goes with armies, I suppose.”
Eleanor’s terror had turned into tears.
“On the other hand, your idiocy may well have cost me a soul. Robert’s failure of courage all these years will stand against him, of course, but he is gone before I could make sure of him. For that you must be made accountable. Your ignorance and stupidity will be no defence. You will experience in full the joys you have done so much to create on Earth.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Why my dear, don’t you know? I’m going to eat your soul, of course. Tasteless filth though it is.”
“No!” Eleanor fled into the kitchen. Moving in blind instinct, she pulled open the door to the garage. She could have fled the house altogether, but that was not her way.
She re-entered the dining room with a garden shovel. Her husband, or his shell, was still sitting there, cackling to itself.
Eleanor whacked him hard across the head with the point of the shovel. The cackling stopped. The head lolled to one side. She whacked again, and again. Robert crumpled to the floor. Eleanor set about the head several more times, just to be sure.
At a hearing before Eleanor’s trial, her lawyer told the judge that it was her intention not to dispute the charges before her. The simple fact was that an unprecedented mental breakdown had caused her to kill her husband, whom she loved beyond all reason, and the awful reality of that thought would make the very worst prison out of all her remaining days.
Surely, the lawyer urged, no useful purpose could be served by spending the hard pressed State’s resources on putting such a woman through a trial? Her punishment already outweighed anything the court could do to her.
The judge mulled it over for a few weeks, but eventually agreed. Eleanor was remanded in continuing custody to the State’s main psychiatric institution, until such time as the Doctors there pronounced her mostly cured, or at least no longer a danger to herself or others.
She remained there a few years, eventually being discharged to what was termed ‘sheltered accommodation’ in a cottage many miles from Loonford. She has lived quietly there ever since. She hardly ever goes out, and never sees anyone from her old life.
She has become intensely religious, attending several Masses a day at the small local Church. What little money she has now is spent on religious ornaments: medals for her neck, Sacred Hearts, votive lights, crucifixes.
When Mass is not taking place, she is often to be seen kneeling at a side altar to some Saint or other, her hands covering her face, her head nodding up and down. The local priest often spies her on his rounds, and shakes his head gently in pity and puzzlement at some of his God’s sadder creations.