Jason doesn’t tell me to do it, but he goads me in the moments before I quit this world and enter another. The axe once belonged to my father. He used it to clear bracken. As Jason’s voice recedes its image comes before me: hanging in a leather harness in the shed, a symbol of justice.
They exist outside my mind, though they enter it most days. Others can’t hear them, but they can often see when they’re speaking to me. Jason must always be named first, as he has the last say. He and Michael can argue between themselves, but they can also gang up on me. Really they belong together: JasonandMichael.
The Little One is a voice too, even if she never speaks. She has the power of the mute and can quell the others, when she has a mind to.
So I swear, or hop, or strike a pose, as if to appease malign gods. But they aren’t gods, they are my companions, although they chose me, not I them. And while they can be fractious, and can piss me off immensely, it would seem they keep me anchored to this world. When I hear them, or feel them somewhere in the background, at least I know I’m in the same temporal plane as those around me.
But on this day Jason’s voice fades, and a mission enters my mind. I must address world poverty. No need to travel far. It’s all around.
I strap the axe to my hip and pick up a bucket from the floor of the shed. My bike was designed for deliveries – an old black-framed bone-shaker with a basket on the front. When the off-licence closed the owner was going to throw it away. It’s ideal, I will stand and they will deliver.
So I cycle down the high street. It’s a sunny Tuesday morning. The shops are open and the town is peaceful.
I park and walk through the open door of the greengrocer’s. I sniff for a moment, enjoying the field and orchard smell all around me. The greengrocer is a small, wiry man with a nineteen-forties hairstyle.
‘Good morning,’ I say. ‘Half the world is starving. Please put your money in my bucket.’
‘Bloody chuggers,’ he says. And then he sees the axe. I realise I have placed my hand on the shaft.
‘What is it you want?’ he says. I think I hear terror behind the aggression in his voice, and seek to calm him.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ I say. ‘Contribute what’s in your till and all will be well.’ I extend the hand that holds the bucket. ‘This is your opportunity.’
I see a moment of calculation in his eyes, and then what looks like resignation. He opens the till and paws coins from each compartment into the cup of his other hand, then drops each scoop into my bucket. The first handful echoes as it hits the polythene base, but each after rings with the chink of metal on metal. Like a fruit machine paying up, I think.
Then he hesitates.
‘The notes as well please,’ I say, and after looking at me for a further moment, he drops those in as well. I notice that there are only four or five, and can’t help feeling disappointed.
‘Credit cards,’ I mutter, shaking my head. Then, ‘Thank you, I’ll make sure this is distributed fairly.’ I don’t want to appear ungracious.
He just stands there with his hands flat on the counter and his jaw set forward, so I leave the shop, put the bucket back in the basket in front of my handlebar, and cycle further down the hill.
The police apprehend me just before I get to the fourth shop. They tell me they’ve been following me for several minutes.
‘A bucketful of evidence and a streetful of witnesses,’ one of them says as he applies the handcuffs. I try to explain but they become very formal.
The cell, when I reach it, seems unexpectedly familiar. As I sit on the bench I become aware of The Little One first, her silence smoothing the creases that have appeared in my thoughts. I find myself rocking gently, as though I’m her child.
Then Jason pipes up. ‘You’ve really done it this time, dickhead,’ he says. He seems to relish these situations.
‘Really done it,’ Michael chimes in. ‘Fucked up royally.’
‘Welcome back,’ I say, as much to myself as them. And that’s all I say, because frankly by now I know they’re likely to be right.
It’s always the same. When it’s coming to an end, I begin to feel a devastating sense of time lost, as though the world has continued without me. I find myself trapped alone in the present moment with no access to the past or future. Then details drip into my mind, and I realise that I was here after all, but in a sort of parallel time, with a different meaning for me than everyone else. And then, slowly, I remember everything.
My social worker, Andrew, arrives, and then a psychiatrist. They talk me through what has happened.
I have known Andrew for nearly a decade. Increasingly he wears his patience, like his tiredness, on the frayed cuff of his sleeve. There was a time when he was able to show exasperation, but he seems beyond that now, as nicotine stains his fingers ever darker.
After a while a locum doctor enters the cell too, and the psychiatrist tells me they’re going to section me.
‘St. Dunstable’s?’ I ask.
‘For the time being,’ Andrew says kindly. ‘Home from home really.’
As they leave I hear Andrew say, ‘He thinks he’s being morally proactive. It happens when he forgets his Largactil. I put it down to a Catholic conscience and all those beatings as a child.’
Almost immediately a female police officer brings me a cup of tea and some biscuits, then sits for a few minutes to chat. It’s as though I’m suddenly her guest.
‘You’re a good man,’ she says, as she gets up to leave. ‘We don’t get many of those in here.’
‘Smarmy prick,’ say JasonandMichael in unison immediately she’s gone. ‘She doesn’t know you like we do.’
‘Fuck off the pair of you,’ I say. But when they continue jeering at me I hop a few times and they go quiet.
After about an hour an ambulance arrives and I’m taken to the secure unit. Full body search, including orifices, then I’m accompanied to my usual room. I’m sure the staff think it keeps me calm. The walls are a sort of violet colour, with several unframed ‘modern art’ pictures on the wall. My psychiatrist says it’s been designed by an aesthetic psychopath, but I’ve learned to like it.
JasonandMichael hit overdrive, so I strike a powerful pose with my fist to my head, and at that moment Floyd comes in. He has a man’s physique and a boy’s vulnerability, but seems unfazed by anything I do. He hugs me and calls me ‘Dad’, although he’s black and I’m as pale as the north. I’m never sure if he’s being ironic, but his psychiatrist says he has a father complex.
‘What a bandit,’ he says, when he finally lets go. ‘You’re all over social media.’
Now, Floyd can get Twitter confused with what’s happening inside him, so I treat this comment with caution.
‘How do you mean, Floyd?’ I ask.
‘Maxing with an axe,’ he replies. ‘I’m proud of you, Dad.’
‘To be honest, Floyd, it was a bit of a mistake,’ I say.
‘Too right, tit-face,’ JasonandMichael come in. I hop violently from leg to leg until they retreat.
Floyd is used to my strategies. He’s tried them himself, but they don’t work for him. He waits calmly until I sit down again.
‘There’s a five minute clip on YouTube,’ he says, when he’s sure I can hear him. ‘Someone got you on their phone. You’re whistling while you’re cycling and you look really serene. They’re calling you “Happy Hatchet”.’
‘Oh Christ,’ I say.
Floyd bows flamboyantly. ‘Catch you later,’ he says, and moon-dances out of the room.
‘Look what happens when you get ideas above yourself,’ JasonandMichael say together. When they talk to me like that they sound like a parent. I don’t reply. Once again I can only agree. Suddenly I feel very tired. I lie down on my bed and fall asleep.
I wake the next morning with strong sunlight on my face. I close the curtains, hiding both the window and the bars set into the brick reveal outside it. The darkness comforts me and I lie quietly. I feel peaceful, but this doesn’t last long as there’s a knock on the door and my keyworker enters.
‘How are you, Donald?’ he asks. He’s young and eager – still new to his role, but something about his presence robs me of the power to describe how I feel.
‘I’m okay, Terry,’ I say. He always looks disappointed when I say something bland.
‘Your curtains are drawn,’ he says, ‘you’re keeping the light out.’
I know he doesn’t mean to patronise me but I say, ‘The curtains aren’t closed to keep the light out, they’re closed to keep the dark in.’ The thing is, I know he’ll take this very seriously.
There’s a pause, and I can see he’s considering how to respond. Then he says, ‘I thought you’d like to know that no charges are being brought. You owe your social worker big-time. All the money has been given back and now the shop owners understand you’re here they’re calling it quits.’
For a moment I have a picture of someone redistributing cash from a bucket, as I suppose I would have done.
‘That’s great news, Terry,’ I say.
‘There’s something else,’ he says. ‘We’ve been contacted by the Guardian. A journalist would like to interview you. She wants to write an article called “Crimes of the Innocent”. What do you think?’
‘Would you describe me as innocent?’ I ask.
I see him thinking hard.
‘Technically, no,’ he says. ‘But in spirit I think anyone would say you were.’
For a moment I feel tearful. I realise that the earnestness that I find so distancing in him also makes him scrupulous. He’s genuine, in fact.
‘That’s a good thing for a Catholic boy to hear,’ I say. ‘Do you think I should do it?’
‘It’s up to you,’ he says, ‘but no-one here has any objection, and the manager said that if you go ahead you should feel free to speak honestly.’
There’s a frantic babble in my head. I realise JasonandMichael, for some reason, are desperate for me to say yes.
I do say yes, and immediately hear a sigh of such volume and duration that I wonder if it’s audible to Terry.
But he shows no sign that it is.
‘I’ll fix up a time, then,’ he says. ‘Why don’t you come down and have some breakfast?’
‘I will, Terry,’ I say. ‘Thanks for reminding me.’
The secure unit is a comfortable place. Most of the residents were previously in prison, so feel it’s a step up. Some are even allowed to walk out into the hospital grounds, as I expect I will again, in time. Meanwhile there are ‘activities’: group therapy, anger management, poetry circle, crafts (but no sharp tools), Pilates, and circuit training (run by an ex-commando, so sparsely attended). But nothing is compulsory, so over the next week I let my days take their own shape. And gradually I become aware of something changing.
JasonandMichael, I begin to notice, have adjusted their tone. It’s as though they’re sucking up to me. In fact they’re becoming ever more craven. I’ve never known them like this.
‘You’re behaving like a pair of tarts,’ I say, eventually, when they compliment me for the third time about how I’m coping in here. ‘Bloody attention seekers.’
To my surprise, they take this lying down. I begin to suspect something.
Towards the end of the week Terry tells me the journalist, Catrina Viljoen, will be coming to interview me at eleven on the following Monday. I begin to ponder what she might ask and then, for the first time and to my amazement, The Little One speaks. She has a voice like silver, with a tiny echo.
‘We trust you to speak for us, Donald.’ she says.
I close the door and lie on my bed to consider this. But before I get the chance I hear a fist outside pounding for admission. I know it’s Floyd. In certain moods he doesn’t so much knock, as savage my door.
‘Come in Floyd,’ I say. He enters looking agitated. ‘What’s wrong?’ I ask.
‘My ears are bleeding.’ he says.
‘Do you want a tissue?’ I ask.
‘No, I don’t mean physically. I’ve over-listened. Fucking voices.’
Perhaps this isn’t the best time to ask him, but I’ve begun to suspect something quite rare might be happening, and clearly his opinion is a good as anyone’s.
‘I’m sorry about that, Floyd,’ I say. ‘But tell me, do you ever feel – how can I put this – that your voices are trying to pander to you?’
‘Not that I’ve noticed,’ he says. ‘Bastards.’
‘It’s just that my lot seem to have taken a different tack since they heard about the interview. It really is as though they’re trying to get on the right side of me.’
‘They’re wasting their time, Dad,’ Floyd says, suddenly attentive. ‘You haven’t got a wrong side.’
‘That’s kind of you, Floyd,’ I say, ‘but up until now the ones that actually speak have only ever found fault.’
‘I know what you mean,’ he says. ‘My guys are always on my case too. And it’s not as if I’ve done anything to them. But I can’t remember them ever being different.’
‘Now that we’re talking,’ I say, ‘I can’t think of anyone ever saying that their voices changed personality. They have their moods, of course, but that’s not the same thing.’
‘True enough,’ Floyd says, and I notice he’s already more relaxed. I know the staff like it when he visits me because they think I have a calming influence.
‘Perhaps your voices have changed,’ he says. ‘If they’ve gone down a few notches I’d call it a result.’
I think about this once he’s gone, as JasonandMichael continue to fawn about. Although they’ve ceased to hector me, they still irritate: in a strange way more than before. Obsequious bastards.
It ramps up even further on the morning Catrina Viljoen is due to arrive.
‘What are you going to say?’ they ask, urgent and wheedling. I think I hear a silvery intake of breath, which must mean The Little One is waiting for a reply too.
Now it might seem strange, but I’ve never had what you might call a ‘dialogue’ with them. It’s been more like a marriage in a seventies’ sitcom: we have a repertoire of abuse, which we both know backwards. We’re always at cross-purposes but we co-exist. But now, for the first time, I ask them a question.
‘What would you like me to say?’ I ask.
‘Well, we’ve been loyal, haven’t we?’ Jason says tentatively.
‘And there have been times when we kept you on track,’ Michael adds.
I immediately recognise the truth in what they’re saying. They’ve told the truth before, of course, but not like this. Up to now I’ve always seen them as beneficent by default; irritants who somehow kept me grounded while leaving The Little One to mop up any collateral damage. But perhaps, in their way, they have always meant well.
‘You’d like me to say you’ve been helpful, and faithful?’ I ask. I suddenly feel like an elected representative.
‘Yes,’ they reply together, three voices in unison for the first time.
There’s a silence. I begin to realise that they haven’t become rampant self-publicists after all: the Kardashians of my inner world. They’re just beings within me who crave understanding. As, in truth, I do. And suddenly it’s obvious that they’ve been my protectors all along. After all, look what happens when they’re not there.
‘Of course I will,’ I say, and the room fills with peace.
Catrina Viljoen is small and beautiful. Her whole manner suggests she has a cause, and would like me to be part of it. As she sets her phone to record, I suddenly feel a cold inner silence that suggests The Little One already dislikes her, but I make no immediate judgement. My life has taught me that if nothing else.
‘Why did you rob those shops, Donald?’ she asks. There’s no preamble, but I sense candour in her directness. Her accent is slightly clipped, possibly South African.
‘It might sound strange, Catrina, but it seemed the right thing to do.’ I reply.
‘And do you think that now?’ she asks. Her gaze is very direct.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I stopped thinking that when I found myself in a police cell. It’s always a good indication.’
She smiles, but presses on. ‘So you lose touch with your morality when you become psychotic?’ She’s far from circumspect, but I sense she’s really trying to understand.
‘No, I still have morality,’ I explain, ‘it’s just not the same morality that I might have before or after.’
She lifts an eyebrow. ‘Something else guides you?’
I think very carefully before answering. ‘It doesn’t feel like guidance,’ I say, ‘more as though I can see clearly and suddenly the brakes are off.’
‘And what are the brakes?’ she asks.
Immediately I sense my voices, not in my head but my heart. I’ve never felt this before.
‘I have people inside who look after me,’ I say. ‘I’d have no idea what I’d do without them.’
‘Your voices?’ she asks, suddenly gentle.
‘Yes, my voices,’ I say, and name them.
We talk on for about half an hour. And then, when she turns her phone off, she does something that’s entirely new to me.
‘Thank you, Donald,’ she says. ‘When I write the article I’d like to credit you all – is that okay?’
‘That would be great, Catrina,’ I find myself replying. ‘We’re all in this together.’
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. www.polyscribe.co.uk