Alby Stone: Red, Red, Red

Copyright © 2021 Alby Stone

‘And how did that make you feel?’

Six years and eleven months and one week of therapies and therapists, counsellors and shrinks, and it still got to him. The quiet, calm voices and soothing, reasonable tones of ruthless inquisition, always culminating in that. Arthur must have explained his feelings a thousand times to a hundred so-called professionals in many different settings, and every single one of them thought delving into his damned feelings would lead them to a truth as yet unearthed. What was the point? He was where he was, out of circulation, condemned to a seemingly eternal regime of combined treatment and punishment. They already had a truth, their pound of flesh. But like grizzling, fractious children they always wanted more, an elusive and ephemeral thing they had never been able to articulate except in that one multipurpose and thus meaningless word: feelings. Why keep on picking at the same old scab? Was it his fault that truth wasn’t good enough for them?

But he always played the game. ‘It made me feel…’ He paused. Which feeling would it be today? Arthur stared at the latest expert. It was her first time with him. She looked much too young to be doing this. Not more than a year out of her doctorate, if he was any judge, and in need of a few good meals. The neat ponytail and ugly but trendy thick-rimmed spectacles, the neutral blue cardigan and crisp white blouse, the knife-edge crease on those black trousers, the shiny wedges, discreet studs in her earlobes and slim silver watch circling a frankly skinny wrist – they spoke of someone trying just a little too hard. She was new here – new anywhere. Her first solo gig.

He’d had them all, from ancient, tobacco-stained Freudians and faux-cheerful Jungians to pink-cheeked CBT engineers and mindfulness airheads, from jaded old hands to keen fresh faces. This one – Arthur had already forgotten her name – was the youngest yet, and he was willing to bet good money that the calm exterior masked a racing pulse and at least a hint of untoward perspiration. He glanced casually at her right hand. Sure enough, that pencil was ever so slightly a-tremble. When he gazed at her directly she coloured but stubbornly refused to break eye contact. He wondered what she’d made of his file, what she knew about him and what he’d done. Enough to make her nervous, obviously; enough that she had to mask horror with a poker face. Enough that she needed to be brave.

Arthur was not an unkind man. In that place he was known for being quiet and calm, polite and considerate, even helpful. He’d raised neither his voice nor his hand to anyone. He’d cooperated. Most important of all, he’d stuck to his story, never once deviating – except in the apparently key matter of his feelings – from the script constructed so long ago. It was, after all, the unvarnished truth. Despite his patient nature, he was sick to death of repeating himself ad nauseam to every over-certificated time-server and bright-eyed eager beaver who came his way. But that was the plan. In any case, all they ever wanted was for him to keep singing the same old song. If nothing else, it reinforced their preconceptions and that made them happy, which made for a quiet life. All he really had to do was devise slightly different ways of telling his story, adding whatever nuance fitted the inquisitor or the setting. When he didn’t answer that question, or responded with a fudge, they quickly moved on. It was a formality, only another box to be ticked. They cared, but not enough to push it.

This one was different, though. Something about her told him that although courageous in her own way she was as messed up as he was supposed to be. That buttoned-down thinness did not signify emotional or psychological good health. Maybe it was time Arthur took a new approach.

‘You know why I’m in here,’ he said. It was a statement, not a question.

She looked up from her notes, turned away to stare at the window. ‘Yes, of course.’

‘Are you afraid of me?’

A barely-perceptible shake of the ponytail. ‘No,’ she lied. ‘You’ve been very well-behaved since – since the, ah, incident. Since the moment you were, er, apprehended, in fact. Other than a refusal to participate in group sessions and an occasional tendency toward solitude, you’ve been a model, um, resident.’

Resident. That was one way of putting it. ‘I’m just curious,’ he said. ‘What actual use is all this? One scheduled session a week for six years and almost exactly eleven months, plus umpteen ad hoc interviews with visiting specialists. Not to mention a few less than satisfactory attempts at group therapy. And the same question is asked every single time. How did it make me feel? Yet so far not one of your colleagues here or fellow professionals from elsewhere has explained why I’m supposed to answer it. Would you be prepared to do me that courtesy?’ Arthur looked across the room at the nameplate on her desk. ‘Doctor Linden?’

Furnishings and design in that place had changed over the years. The current vogue was for a contrast between formal setting – the grey desk, carpet and filing cabinets, beige computer and cream swivel chairs – and the informal, the cosy corner with two light blue easy chairs and a pine coffee table, a couple of bland reproduction landscapes, almost certainly IKEA special offers. All cool blues, neutral greys, pallid browns. No red, never red, the colour of aggression. No personal touches that might ignite untoward behaviour. No changes from one redecoration to the next. Nothing contentious, like references to politics or religion. Nothing volatile.

The chairs did not quite oppose. It was non-confrontational and conspiratorial, almost intimate. They were a team, Arthur and her. Allies, comrades in arms. Them against the world. It was a lie, underlined by the lukewarm, scald-proof coffee, the wobbly plastic cups and stubby spoons, the absence of sharp corners. And the beefy orderly stationed just outside the door, only the press of an alarm button away.

Doctor Linden rose from her chair and stood by the window. Arthur leaned back to adjust his view. Now she was a silhouette, not quite black against the season’s greyish light but dark enough to pass for a shadow. Two-dimensional and empty. Not human. Arthur tilted his head to the right. Yes, that was better. He preferred her mousy blonde, those smooth cheeks pink with discomfort. It was satisfying to see the borders of her comfort zone shift a little. ‘The idea,’ she said, ‘is that by openly and honestly discussing what happened and acknowledging the truth you will be able to accept them and move on.’

‘But I’ve already done that. I’ve done it right from the start, since my very first session. I mean, even before that I did so to the police and in court, when I was remanded for evaluation, sectioned. I’ve said it, repeated it and paraphrased it more times than I can count. I’ve been honest and candid about everything. The truth has been told, Doctor Linden. What more do you want?’

Of course, Arthur knew what she wanted – to hear for herself, straight from the horse’s mouth, what her predecessors had secretly yearned for but signally failed to learn: how he’d felt. Arthur sighed and leaned back in the comfortable chair. This was not going to be easy.

His first instinct was to deflect. ‘I felt ill when I realised what I’d done, Doctor Linden. Physically sick, nauseated by my actions, by the damage and pain I’d caused. I wished I could turn the clock back an hour and walk away from the scene. That I had never been there and it hadn’t happened.’

She frowned but quickly recovered to smile. ‘I don’t mean how you felt physically, Arthur. I mean emotionally. How did you feel at the time? How did you feel when you’d… when you were…?’ She swallowed, unable to finish the sentence. Oh yes, she was frightened of him alright. That was unfortunate. He didn’t want to make anyone unhappy.

‘I have no memory of how I felt during the actual incident, or in whatever events led up to it. It’s a complete blank. I remember how I felt in the immediate aftermath. When clarity returned. The shock. Being appalled by my own behaviour, the harm I’d caused.’ Arthur leaned back and extended his legs, demonstrating relaxation while watching her face closely. Her eyes narrowed a fraction. She knew he was lying.

The only thing that convincingly explains an inexplicable act is an absence of explanation. It allows a listener to draw their own conclusions, reinforce their own preconceptions. It is an admission of guilt, of shame even where no shame is evident and the subject has no guilt whatsoever. The labels follow automatically. Monster. Pervert. Sociopath. Nutter. Scum. Delete as applicable. In this case the a priori assumption was that it must be one or another of those, because Arthur had done something no normal person would do. The evidence was there – wounds, blood, horror, witnesses – and that was all they needed, that and his refusal to deny or explain. After all, insanity had no true logic. Yet, paradoxically, an explanation was exactly what they thought they wanted, and that lay, so they all believed, in Arthur’s feelings.

He thought back to that dreadful evening, the awful splash of red, the screams as terrified children rushed to the safety of their mothers’ arms, the destruction, the revulsion on each of the countless faces that surrounded him in the immediate aftermath. Later, in the police station, one of the cops had given him tea, with no attempt to stir in the gob of thick saliva floating on the surface. And that, he knew, was how his life was going to be from that moment on. Arthur would be forever despised.

Something in him broke and he was flooded with sadness. ‘They didn’t charge me, just processed me and called in a doctor. Then they put me in the ambulance, glad to be shot of someone like me. I knew I’d gone too far. I accepted what came next. I felt…’

Linden turned quickly, staring at him excitedly, and sat down. This was her defining moment. The tough nut had cracked. Victory was within her grasp. ‘Describe how you felt when it happened.’

Arthur swallowed. ‘I’d been at work. Normally I took time off but that year I couldn’t swing it. And it was even worse than I remembered. Everybody was so happy – everyone but me. And I’ve got this thing, this condition – seasonally affected disorder? It makes me so unhappy at that time of year. It builds up and up and up, until…’

‘Every year?’

‘Yes, since I was a kid, for as long as I can remember. But usually I could just hide myself away, pretend it wasn’t happening until it passed. It’s easier here. I can just stay in my room for a couple of weeks. I have my own little bathroom and a kettle for tea and coffee, and I keep a bit of food there. Nothing immediately perishable, of course. Biscuits and cheese and chocolate and dried fruit and whatever. And I don’t get bored – I’ve got books and music and a telly, not that there’s ever anything worth watching at the best of times. I like old films and sitcoms, as long as it doesn’t mention…. Well, I can escape. But that day I couldn’t.’

‘And what made it so much worse that day?’

Arthur closed his eyes. ‘As I said, I’d been at work. That was unbearable, so I left early to get some groceries in. That was the last working day and I needed a few things to tide me over. But it was awful outside. The whole world seemed to have gone bloody mad with it. So anyway, I could feel it all building up. When I got to the Morrisons round the corner from where I lived, it was absolutely mental, and by then so was I. This old fat bloke was shouting his mouth off and the kids were running around all over the place, and the music – Christ, the music. So loud, relentless…’ He shook his head.

‘And how did all that make you feel, Arthur?’

‘Upset and angry. Really angry. That was when I clocked what that mouthy old bloke was wearing and… Well, I just saw red.’

‘You saw red?’

‘Yeah, then I – I couldn’t help myself. It was too much. Like the whole world wanted to punish me just for being myself, you? I couldn’t take it any more. I snapped.’

Arthur realised his hands were shaking badly. This was a turning point, the day he would finally admit the unthinkable, the thing that would make him a pariah, condemn him to live the remainder of his life as an outcast, a man guilty of the worst crime imaginable. He’d been despised and was now accustomed to it – but from now on he would be hated. His guts churned violently and he wondered if he could make his confession without throwing up on that neutral grey carpet.

Linden stared thoughtfully at Arthur’s case notes. ‘I remember the next day’s headlines, of course. And the trial, where you pleaded guilty and spared others from the dreadful ordeal of reliving the incident. But I still don’t get it. You beat the poor man to within an inch of his life. You smashed everything around him. Then you sat down and screamed until the police came.’

Arthur shrugged wearily. ‘I told you, I saw red.’

‘That was no reason to do what you did. People see red all the time for one reason or another, but they don’t do that.’

The scene was imprinted on Arthur’s mind. Red, red, red. ‘The old man on the supermarket floor, the frightened, weeping children, the horrified mothers, the shocked checkout staff. A picture that would never leave him.

 ‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘I really did see red. It was that stupid outfit he was wearing, that and the ridiculous beard and hair. You see, it isn’t the colour alone that sets me off. In any other situation it’s a nice colour. But put it together with the music and the time of year and everything else, and it drives me completely crazy. The kind of crazy that makes me liable to…’ Arthur put his head in his hands, hiding the tears that flowed for the first time in six years and eleven months and one week. ‘To do what I did.’ He sobbed. ‘You see? This is why I don’t like talking about those feelings.’

Linden’s eyes glittered like baubles in candlelight. ‘Arthur, this is a major breakthrough. But I need – you need – to understand why that particular combination of colour, sound and ambience causes you so much distress, and why that distress was expressed so violently.’

He groaned. ‘I’ve always been so ashamed of hating it. I was the only one, you see, the only person I knew who felt that way. Right from when I was a little kid it was obvious that to fit in I had to play the game, that there must be something wrong with anyone who didn’t. And when you’re a kid you don’t want to be the odd one out, you know? So I joined in, went along with it, even when I was screaming inside. And it got worse as time went on. My seasonally affected disorder. As soon as I was old enough to get a job and earn money, I got a place of my own, somewhere I could hunker down and ride it out for a couple of weeks when necessary. But it starts earlier every year, doesn’t it? I mean, the build-up began in October that year. It won’t be long before it starts in the bloody summer. And the earlier it starts, the more everyone goes on about it. On and on and fucking on, with no let-up. Okay, I can bear it in small doses for a little while and I can tune it out, up to a point. Besides, I’m usually well away from it all by the time it really kicks off in earnest. But that year I couldn’t get the time off and the office where I worked was a fucking madhouse. Of course, I got all the jibes about being a party-pooper, a killjoy, misery-guts, all that stuff. On that last day one woman even said there was something wrong with me, and you can imagine how that made me feel.’

‘You started seeing red?’

Arthur nodded. ‘Red, red, red. Then, at the supermarket…’

Outraged, Linden stared at him, struggling to hide the loathing she felt for this nasty, disgusting man who, she had decided, was beyond all possibility of redemption. Why? Even the Muslims, Hindus and Jews she knew joined in the fun. It was a wonderful time. She couldn’t understand how anyone could dislike it, certainly no one normal. ‘You beat the shit out of a man who was doing something good and kind, and destroyed everything around him. A man in hospital for weeks and all those little kids traumatised because you saw red. You sad, miserable bastard. I hope you rot in here for the rest of your shitty little life.’ She stood, face contorted, eyes bright with venom. ‘Merry fucking Christmas, Arthur.’