'No! I won't! Why should I? Why can't you just leave me alone? Damn you! ...... No, I'm not listening to you any more. Go away!'
Peter Lacey sat in one of the beige, vinyl covered arm chairs, staring belligerently at the wall. Nobody took any notice of him. He reached for the tea cup on the low table beside the chair. It was almost cold. He took a sip and screwed up his face in disgust. Stewed and cold. He glared at the wall.
'This is your fault. I'm stuck in a dump where they can't even make a decent cup of tea. When I get out of here - when I get home, I'm going to paint all the walls white. I'm going to chuck everything out and just have a few bits of plain, white furniture. There won't be a pattern in sight. And I'll have dozens of light fittings installed to shine lights into every corner of every room. There are going to be absolutely no patterns - and no shadows either. You understand? There'll be nowhere for you to go!'
Peter sneered at the wall. 'What do you think of that?'
The sneer dissolved, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped open as he listened to the reply - a reply that he, alone, could hear.
'No! No, you won't be able to do that. I can drown you out. Loud noise. Yes, I'll turn the music up until I can't hear you any more.'
'Mr Lacey? You're shouting again. Would you like some of your medicine?'
'Sorry nurse. No. I shouldn't let them provoke me like that. It's all right. I'll ignore him now.'
'Why don't you go and sit over the other side of the room Mr Lacey? The flowery wallpaper over this side always upsets you.'
'Thank you, nurse. I'll stay here if you don't mind. It's no good going over there. It's too close to the curtains. He'll shout across the room at me from here and others'll hector me from there. It's even worse to have them in stereo.'
'You know they're a figment of your imagination, Mr Lacey. They'll go away if you have your medication.'
'No they won't. The medicine just makes my mind weaker. When I come out of the medicinal fug, they'll be stronger and harder to resist.'
'They're not there though. It's all in your mind. Have the medicine and they won't bother you. When it starts again, you can have some more medicine.'
'Oh, they're there all right! You've probably seen them, but you didn't know it. Have you never looked at some pattern of cracks or shadows, some flowery fabric or something with random geometric shapes, carpet stains - and seen a face?'
'Of course I have. Everybody does. The human brain is programmed to see faces. It makes faces out of everything that could conceivably look like a face. But most people can tell the difference between a real face and a pattern of stains or shadows that look a bit like a face. You're sick Mr Lacey. Have some medicine.'
'No. You're wrong. Well, you're right and wrong. I can tell the difference between the different kinds of faces. That doesn't make them less real. It's true that everyone sees them and most people just dismiss them. But I studied them and noticed that they move. Have you never noticed that they move?'
'Optical illusion. You must just have stared at them so long that your eyes started to play tricks on you.'
'There's nothing wrong with my eyes. My eyes don't play tricks. It's them. They play tricks. I see them moving because they do move. Their expressions change. Then I noticed that their lips moved and tried to work out what they were saying. They seemed to be trying to tell me something. The harder I tried to work out what they were saying, the harder they tried to communicate with me - until I thought I could hear them. After a while, I could hear them quite clearly.'
'You seem to have hypnotised yourself into believing you can hear them.'
'No. I can really hear them. I know it's real because they tell me things I couldn't possibly know any other way.'
'They tell me what other people are doing - people in other places.'
'Well, that's just silly. How can you substantiate it? You could imagine them telling you anything about anything. Unless you can check whether it's true, it's insane to believe the voices are real.'
Peter smiled at this. He was talking to Nurse Jennings, a psychiatric nurse, on a ward in a psychiatric hospital - a 'loony bin' - and she was suggesting that his beliefs were 'insane'. He didn't bother to point out that nobody had more right to hold insane beliefs than a mad man.
'Sometimes they tell me about friends and neighbours. They can see into anywhere a face can be made out, however vaguely - so long as someone's noticed it. It needs someone to actually see and notice the face, in order to "activate it", if you know what I mean -- to bring one of them to that place. Then they can use the face.'
'So you're able to actually verify things that these faces tell you, then?'
'Give me an example.'
Peter looked at the wall and spoke to it. 'You heard the nurse. Make yourself useful.'
He watched the area of floral pattern that looked like a face to him for a minute.
'Your bedroom is decorated in pinks and greys. There's a dark-wood wardrobe and dressing table and a small television on a stand. There's no pattern on the wall-paper, curtains or bed-spread, so there must be a picture, wall-hanging or something of the sort, in which you can make out a face.... No, wait a minute. No, it's the carpet. They can see boxes and dust under your bed when the light slants in from the west. Your carpet has a pattern and you've noticed the shapes of faces in it.'
He grinned triumphantly for a few moments - until he noticed the indignant expression on Nurse Jennings' face.
'Have you been in my bedroom? This is outrageous! I'm going to report this, right now!'
'Hold on nurse. Don't go off half-cocked. I haven't been in your bedroom. I haven't the least idea where you live. You asked me for something verifiable and I gave you what you asked for.'
Her scowl faltered as she considered.
'True. We'll have to try something else, but this time I'll choose - Something you won't have been able to find out any other way. Let me see. Is there any distance limit?'
'Don't think so.'
'My parents have just retired and bought themselves a little place in France. I visited them a couple of months ago. Their kitchen is full of patterns. Can your faces tell you what it's like?'
'They're not "My" faces, but I'll ask. They're familiar with you, so if they've seen you in other places, perhaps they've seen you in that place.'
He turned to the wall again, saying; 'Well? You heard. Can you see into that kitchen?' And then watched and listened for the answer.
'It's predominantly yellow. Pine fittings. Long table. Six chairs. A clock with a face like the sun. At this moment, it's warm and sunny, the windows are open and yellow and white curtains are billowing inwards on a strong breeze. It's very nice.'
The nurse tottered over to a chair and flopped into it, speechless.
Peter rolled his eyes and carried on grumbling at the wall for a while.
'I shouldn't have done that. There'll be trouble now. You got me so wound up, I threw caution away. Damn!'
After a while he turned round to look at the nurse. 'What's the matter? Need some medication?' Then he laughed.
It took a few minutes for the nurse to gather her wits again.
'Mr Lacey, why are you here? If you're not mad, why are you here?'
'Who says I'm not mad?'
'You're here because of your delusions. If they're not delusions, how are you mad?'
'Well let me see. Who, in their right mind, would admit to seeing and hearing things that nobody else can see or hear? The damn things have driven me mad. I try to ignore them but they provoke me so badly that I just can't help myself.'
'Unless you just pulled a very clever stunt that fooled me completely, you really can get information from some inexplicable source. Why don't you make use of it instead of letting it unhinge you?'
'They're not very co-operative. Sometimes they give me a straight answer to a straight question - but only if it suits their own purpose in some way. Otherwise, they just tell lies and try to make me angry.'
'What did they hope to gain by co-operating this time then?'
'Hard to say. Could be some plot to make my life more difficult. Just as likely, they have some design to mess with your mind.'
'How should I know? I don't even know what they are. They could be ghosts or demons, or some sort of spiteful elemental spirits. All I really know about them is that they're malignant and tricky. Their intentions are not friendly and I suspect they mean to drain away every last drop of my sanity. So whatever the reason for that morsel of apparent co-operation, it wasn't just to be pleasant and obliging to either of us.'
'Hmm.... They have messed with my mind. I can find nothing rational to explain how you're able to describe my parents' kitchen. I've got no choice but to believe you. It's.... rather shocking.'
'So you don't think medication can help me, after all then?' Peter laughed again. The laugh sounded hysterical.
'Not the medication I initially had in mind. Perhaps some other treatment.'
'What? I don't want to take anything unless it can stop them harassing me permanently - preferably without causing me brain damage.'
'Not sure yet. We'll see.' With that, the nurse left.
Peter reflected that people don't like having their privacy invaded. The nurse would worry now, about Peter spying on her. He wished he could have kept his mouth shut.
Next morning the nurse walked over to him with a couple of orderlies.
'I've spoken to the consultant Mr Lacey. He feels a course of ECT might help your condition. If you wouldn't mind accompanying us to the theatre...'
Peter grabbed the arms of the chair and tried to resist.
'No! No! You can't! Stop it! Let me go! Don't do this to me!'
'Come along Mr Lacey. This is for your benefit. It won't do you any harm and it may cure you completely. Don't struggle. You're only making it harder for yourself.'
Finally, he submitted, seeing the futility of his struggle and went along meekly enough. He stopped a moment to look at the pattern on the back of a sofa, nodded at it and walked on.
A short while after his electroconvulsive therapy, he was again sitting in the vinyl covered arm chair by the papered wall. His face was blank. There was no sign of recognition in his eyes. They were open but unseeing. The nurse - Nurse Jennings - who had arranged for the shock treatment came over to him and looked searchingly into his face. She waved a hand in front of his eyes. There was no reaction. She smiled.
'Sorry Mr Lacey. It was a very high dose. Your brain may have been somewhat fried unfortunately. But it's all for the best. I could never have cleared my mind of the idea of those faces watching my every move - not while you were there to tell me and remind me. It's a vile notion and I have to be able to disbelieve it. I mean to hang on to my sanity. And as you said, those faces were driving you mad. They can't now, can they?'
As she was about to turn and leave, she detected a slight movement from the corner of her eye. Looking up with a frown, she focused on a colourful tangle of floribunda in the wallpaper pattern. She could have sworn that it moved. For several minutes Nurse Jennings stared hard at the pattern. It was just to the left of the section Peter had been ranting at the previous day. As she scrutinised the pattern, she perceived the face in it. Two small, red, rose buds formed the eyes that seemed to fix her with a baleful glare. Then, when her attention was riveted on the features, it shifted - into a gloat. She recognised the face.
It was Peter Lacey's. The lips, formed of an elongated knot of rambling stems, were moving. Her frown deepened as she tried to make out what they were saying. She cocked an ear towards them, as if expecting to hear a voice issue from the wall - and she did hear a voice. At first, it was too soft and husky to make out the words, but the volume increased in her head until she could make out exactly what it was saying - what HE was saying. She jerked back, startled. Lines and shading appeared to shift subtly - darkening here, lightening there - and the features transformed again. The mouth opened wide and it shook with guffaws of laughter.
The nurse turned, her eyes stretched in horror, to look at the catatonic patient sitting in the chair. His expressionless face confirmed that Peter Lacey was no longer occupying that body. And the voice, Peter Lacey's voice, that seemed to be getting louder and more mocking, confirmed his new location.
A few months later, the shell that had once been Peter Lacey died. Nobody else sat in the vinyl covered chair by the papered wall, where he used to sit, for many weeks after that. Then a new patient took up residence there. She glowered at the wall, her lips pressed tightly together, as if she didn't trust herself to speak. Then, at last, she could restrain herself no longer. The dam broke and the rage poured forth:
'You did this to me! Why can't you just leave me alone? Damn you! No, I'm not listening to you any more. Go away.'
'Miss Jennings? You're shouting. Would you like some of your medication?'