The numbers. They were the worst part.
Counting, and the continual repetition. 1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3. But it had to (3, 1, 2) be done. There was no escaping the fact that she had to (3, 1, 2) do it. Michelle Blake was a prisoner of the numbers, of the counting. She performed her bizarre acts like a dancer obeying the rhythm of a silent tune. 1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3… or a fitness fanatic following a precise work-out routine. Never any release, never any differentiation.
She mouthed the numbers even now as she placed one foot in front of the other. Forwards and back again, keeping a watchful eye on the pattern of the carpet. Michelle had long since broken the concentric square motif down into (3, 1, 2) a series of arithmetical interpretations. It no longer represented any aesthetic value to (3, 1, 2) her, like everything else it was part of a template she lived by – though many wouldn’t even call what she lived a life. When she looked around all she could see were the numbers, those three…1, 2, 3…numbers. Everything was broken down into (3, 1, 2) that familiar triad.
1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3. She would make it to (3, 1, 2) the living room door in what, half an hour? That was quite fast for her. During her darkest days it had taken something like two (3, 1, 2) or three (1, 2, 3) hours to (3, 1, 2) cover a few metres. Stopping, starting, beginning again. Never right. Never enough times; she was never able to (3, 1, 2) reconcile it in her mind. If it wasn’t done correctly then she knew what would happen. The consequences didn’t bear thinking about and the responsibility was hers to (3, 1, 2) shoulder alone.
No, no it wasn’t. Not anymore. For one…(2, 3, 1) thing she had to (3, 1, 2) stop thinking about it as a responsibility. It wasn’t; it was a combination of chemicals and conditioning. Imbalances and habituations. She had to (3, 1, 2) start thinking about it as more of a disorder than a birthright – or a princess being handed a crown and a kingdom.
‘Trust me,’ she whispered under her breath, in the slight gap between counting, ‘this is not a kingdom I’d choose to… 3, 1, 2…rule.’
But whether it was a responsibility or not, she no longer had to (3, 1, 2) cope with it on her own. After twenty-five years of being passed from pillar to post, she had finally found the support she needed in Josh. Not Dr Nesbit, not even Dr Josh. Just Josh – plain old Josh, although with the best will in the world no one could ever describe him as plain. Not with that curtain of blonde hair and starry eyes…
Concentrate, Michelle, or you’ll never get to…3, 1, 2…the door. Or worse still, she might lose count again and have to 3, 1… Damn! Michelle sighed and backtracked carefully, starting again, quite literally, from square 1.
But now that the thought of Josh was in her mind, she found it all but impossible to (3, 1, 2) get rid of it. She’d known him almost two…3, 1, 2…years now. A young therapist who’d heard about her plight and taken a special interest. He was the reason it only took her half an hour to (3, 1, 2) cross a room and not longer. The work they had done to(3, 1, 2)gether had given her new hope. He’d broken down her affliction into (3, 1, 2) its component parts: delved deeper than anyone had every bothered before, or she’d let anyone delve – because it was Josh, because she trusted him and, if she was honest with herself, was more than a little in love with him.
Josh didn’t look at her like she was a freak. Okay, she knew it was part of his job not to (3, 1, 2) look at her that way, but that hadn’t stopped most of the medicos she’d known from doing just that. No, Michelle knew it was more than that. He did genuinely did care about her and that meant a lot. Even so, it had taken some time to (3, 1, 2) get her to (3, 1, 2) open up, to (3, 1, 2) get her to (3, 1, 2) remember.
It was a strange thing, she’d thought her memory was lousy. She couldn’t recall actions she’d just done, couldn’t bring to (3, 1, 2) mind carrying them out: hence the repetition in case she’d done it wrong or hadn’t counted correctly. But Josh taught her that there was nothing wrong with her memory at all. It was her mind purposely rubbing this out so that she would have to (3, 1, 2) keep doing the “Groundhog Day” thing, as he called it. The way Josh explained this was by comparing it to (3, 1, 2) someone (2, 3, 1) who didn’t think they deserved to (3, 1, 2) be happy.
‘Think about it,’ he’d said. ‘They unconsciously create difficulties to ensure that they won’t ever reach that state. They won’t be happy because they’re not giving themselves permission to be. Does that make sense?’
Michelle had nodded, flicking the light switch on and off and counting out loud, ‘1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3.’
‘In your case, though, you’re not giving yourself permission to be free of this. You’re caught in a loop, or a sequence of loops, that you don’t want to break out of. At least not yet.’ He paused. ‘The question is - why?’
Michelle broke off from the switch for a second. ‘I don’t enjoy doing this,’ she told him, then continued flicking the light switch.
‘I know you don’t, of course you don’t.’ Josh put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Christ, who would? But that’s not the point I’m making, Michelle.’
She almost stopped counting then, but caught herself in time, and started to count faster: ‘1-2-3,1-2-3, 1-2-3.’
‘You’re doing this for a reason. We just have to figure out what it is.’ He smiled then and it was the sweetest thing she’d ever seen.
The hard labour had started in earnest after that, trudging through the minutiae of her life. God, that had been fun. About how she’d been living in the house after her mother left for the last seven years virtually on her own, a recluse from society, surviving only with the aid of social services and various medical staff who would come in and check that she was okay - or as okay as Michelle could be - periodically.
‘Thank heavens for takeaway pizza,’ she’d said. The joke had been forced and neither of them laughed. ‘I don’t even have to…3, 1, 2, 3…count the knives and forks for that. Don’t even have to …3, 1, 2, 3…make it to …3, 1, 2, 3…the kitchen, just the front door…’
Doctors and the usual “nutcrackers” - her words - had visited Michelle since she was little. Her mother had made sure she received attention from the best (‘She felt she had to…3, 1, 2…Anything to…3, 1, 2…have a “normal” daughter.’). But nobody had been able to (3, 1, 2) do anything for her. In fact half of them didn’t have the first clue where to (3, 1, 2) begin. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder specialists came and looked at her, prescribed pills and tried to (3, 1, 2) talk her through the treatments. None of them worked.
‘I could hear what they were telling me…1, 2, 3…I knew they were right, honestly I did,’ Michelle said to Josh.
‘But hearing and believing are two different things.’
‘I suppose they are…1, 2, 3…And then you came along.’
Josh tipped his head, slightly embarrassed, then looked up at her again. ‘Then I came along,’ he said.
She told him about everything she’d been through, about how her mother had been forced to (3, 1, 2) hire private tutors to (3, 1, 2) teach her because she couldn’t get Michelle to (3, 1, 2) school – any kind of school. Could barely get her to (3, 1, 2) go out of the front door. For her the outside world was like a minefield, an overwhelming barrage of things to (3, 1, 2) do three times, times a million. Panic would set in before she even got to (3, 1, 2) the gates of the old house, the numbers coming out as incomprehensible drivel. It wouldn’t be long after this that she’d enter a catatonic state, collapse or pass out – probably all three (1, 2, 3). The oblivion that this offered was actually quite nice; it was like when she took her sleeping tablets – she had no choice but to relinquish her duties.
‘Mother used to…3, 1, 2…try and get the neighbourhood children to…3, 1, 2…come round and play,’ said Michelle. ‘But you can imagine what that was like, can’t you? Who wants to…3, 1, 2…play with a kid who keeps getting up and down off the settee or counting the cushions over and over again? And children can be very cruel…’
As a result she’d never really had any friends, no one willing to (3, 1, 2) stick around. No one willing to (3, 1, 2) try and understand. But then how could she expect them to (3, 1, 2), when she didn’t really understand herself?
‘What if we were to go back further than that?’ Josh had said to her eventually. ‘Can you remember anything about your early childhood?’
‘Numbers,’ Michelle had replied. Always the numbers. ‘1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3.’ She knew what he was driving at. When did all this start? But at the time she couldn’t honestly tell him. All she’d ever known was the numbers and the counting. Her unique way of viewing what she saw around her.
‘Yes, numbers. But what else?’ Those expectant eyes…she didn’t want to (3, 1, 2) disappoint him. Not Josh.
‘Stories. Mother trying to…3, 1, 2…read to…3, 1, 2…me; folktales mostly.’
And Josh had come back with something totally unexpected then. ‘I see. Michelle, did you know that a lot of the old folktales had threes in them?’
‘1, 2, 3…No.’
‘Goldilocks and the three bears…the three pigs…Red Riding Hood when she confronts the wolf at the end of the story: Gramma, one…’ Josh held up a finger. ‘What big eyes you’ve got. Two…’ Another finger. ‘What big ears you’ve got – and we all know what happened when she got to the teeth.’ A third finger rose and he closed his fist. ‘The fact is they mostly followed patterns connected with threes.’
‘Oh,’ said Michelle. ‘My favourite was always the one..2, 3, 1…where the handsome prince would come to…3, 1, 2…the secluded castle to…3, 1, 2…save the damsel in distress. I liked that one…2, 3.’ She gazed at him and he grinned.
‘You mean like sleeping beauty?’
Michelle nodded, still mouthing the numbers.
‘One day you’ll wake up, Michelle. I promise.’ And then they’d moved on to (3, 1, 2) another topic.
It was amazing really, but until Josh had mentioned the “threes” Michelle had never really thought about how so many sayings in life were related that way. Third time lucky, bad things always happening in threes, letting the phone ring three times before answering.
Father, son and the Holy Ghost…
‘You never talk much about your father.’ That was how the conversation began.
Michelle had been stirring her coffee at the time. Round three times, stop, then round again. She’d been doing that for the last fifteen minutes. Josh knew her well enough to (3, 1, 2) realise that any moment now she’d take it out and start tapping it on the side of the cup: three times, over and over. The coffee would be stone cold by now. She said nothing by way of a reply.
‘Your records say he died when you were very young, Michelle.’
‘My records,’ she snapped. ‘Is that all I am? Is that what I’m made up of, a set of files in some office?’ A set of files in triplicate.
It was a reflex action, and a diversionary tactic. ‘You know that’s not true. Why are you trying to change the subject?’
‘1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3…I’m not.’
‘Tell me about him.’
The spoon came out of the cup and Michelle initiated the tapping. ‘There’s nothing to…3, 1, 2…tell. He died, end of story.’
Except it wasn’t, was it? It was only the beginning of the story.
Josh leaned over the dining room table they were sitting at. ‘Did you love him?’
‘What kind of a question is that?’ Michelle tapped the spoon harder against the rim of the cup.
‘The kind you’re not answering.’
She looked down at the spoon and the cup. The tapping had slowed considerably. ‘Yes,’ she said finally. ‘It was a long time ago, but yes. I loved him very much.’
‘What are your fondest memories of him, Michelle?’
Looking up, she searched his face. ‘I don’t…’
Josh took her free hand, the one not tapping the spoon. ‘Think back. You can do this, I know you can.’
And she did. She cast her mind back to a time when she’d been happy. Big, strong hands lifting her up into (3, 1, 2) the air and Michelle giggling with glee. Riding on his shoulders through a park or wood, somewhere green at least. A family day out, a picnic maybe…Michelle wasn’t sure. But there was water, she remembered a river: and the sun. A sun she hadn’t seen, a heat she hadn’t felt against her skin in almost twenty two…3, 1, 2…years. She could hear the birds in the trees, see the dappled light filtering through the leaves…
The spoon was hardly connecting with the cup at all. ‘He was so proud of me,’ Michelle said. ‘I was his little Button. He kept talking about all the things I would do, places I’d go…And how clever I was, he was even teaching me-’ She froze, began tapping the spoon faster against the rim.
Josh squeezed Michelle’s hand tighter. ‘Tell me, Michelle. What happened to him?’
There were tears in her eyes, still caught there, trapped. But it wouldn’t be long before they broke free and ran down her cheeks. ‘People. Pictures of people. Pictures of animals…and shapes…’
Josh frowned. ‘I…I don’t understand, Michelle.’
‘1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3. All the way through. One person, two people, three…One cat, two dogs, three birds. One square, two circles, three triangles.’ Michelle reeled off the list like it was a mantra.
‘Is this how you first started to look at the world around you?’
‘One person, two people, three…One cat, two dogs…’ she repeated.
‘What’s the connection to your father, Michelle? You have to tell me. It’s important.’
Michelle shook her head and carried on chanting.
Josh squeezed her hand even tighter and something seemed to click inside her head. ‘Tell me,’ he whispered.
When she spoke again, it was staggered, as if it was painful to (3, 1, 2) get the words out. ‘In…the…book.’
It took a second or so for realisation to dawn on Josh. ‘My God, the people, the animals, the shapes…They were in a book. Michelle, was your father teaching you to count?’
‘1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3…’ Michelle was tapping the spoon so hard it chipped the side of the cup.
‘So you were learning to count from a book, that you father gave you?’ The pictures, the numbers. It certainly explained why she’d started to (3, 1, 2) make those links. Why Michelle had begun to (3, 1, 2) break everything in life down to those three (1, 2, 3), little digits. But not why she’d carried on counting, and the same numbers over and over. Josh pressed her, even though he could see she was upset. ‘Michelle, what happened to your father?’
‘Something happened to him, didn’t it?’
‘Phone…three…rings,’ Michelle spluttered. Then one word: ‘Hospital.’
‘What were you doing when the phone rang, Michelle? Were you reading from the book? Were you counting?’
‘1 - Daddy told me 2 practice and never…3.’
‘Never stop?’ Josh asked. ‘Is that why you carried on counting, because he wasn’t around to tell you to stop? You felt you had to carry on after he died, to finish what he started?’
She shook her head. ‘No 1, 2, 3…No!’
‘I’m here, Michelle, you can tell me.’
So she did.
Now, as she crossed the carpet and remembered what she’d shared with Josh, what she’d allowed herself to (3, 1, 2) dredge up not so long ago, the tears came again. The splintering of the cup as she knocked it off the table. Josh holding her as she wept. And one final thing: a kiss on the forehead, just like her father used to (3, 1, 2) give her.
She remembered what he’d said as well: ‘Sleeping beauty, it’s time to wake up.’
Michelle hadn’t done that immediately. It had been a slow waking, but with Josh’s help in the two (3, 1, 2) weeks since she’d opened up, she’d begun to (3, 1, 2) see things a little more clearly. Begun to (3, 1, 2) realise that maybe it was time and that even though she was still following the patterns right now, perhaps she could turn the tide. Give herself permission to (3, 1, 2) be free (1, 2, 3) of this prison forever. She wanted to (3, 1, 2) be able to (3, 1, 2) cook Josh a meal to (3, 1, 2) say thank you, to (3, 1, 2) go outside and see the sun again…Walk through dappled forests again, perhaps hand in hand with the man who’d done so much for her.
Could she simply just stop, though, after all this time? After all these years of counting…1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3…? Michelle was so set in her ways, stuck in this rut…
‘Sleeping beauty, it’s time to wake up.’
Time to (3, 1, 2) leave the kingdom behind for someone else to rule.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ Josh had said. He was the one who’d made her understand. It was just a coincidence; that’s all it was. Just a coincidence.
Michelle wasn’t far away from the living room door now. It would take her another five minutes at least – 1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3…Or she could cover the distance in a matter of moments. Her choice, her decision.
‘1, 2, 3…’
‘1, 2, 3…’
All was quiet. Michelle stood perfectly still, hardly daring to move. It was as if she’d forced time to do the same, frozen it until it saw what her next move would be. Gritting her teeth and closing her eyes, she placed a foot on the carpet. Then another, and another. No counting. No 1, 2, 3. Just walking normally, something other people took for granted. She had a bit of a wobbly moment after the third step - instinctively she wanted to take her foot back, to repeat the motion, do the steps again. But she held fast, carrying on to the door and placing a hand on the jamb for support. She opened her eyes and breathed deeply. It might seem like nothing much to anyone else, but for her it was a small victory. The beginning of a new life perhaps.
Michelle jumped, turning sideways to look at the hall table; her heart suddenly in her mouth. Jesus, it was only…
Bad things always happening in threes…
In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost…
Michelle bit her lip. She should answer it, should just pick it up and dispel her demons once and for all. Except…except she knew who it would be. What it would be about. What had happened; again. She’d abandoned her duties, her responsibilities, and now the kingdom was falling apart without her.
Let it ring one more time, a third time. Just let it ring.
She wondered what she would do now without him.
No, maybe it’s not too late…
1, 2, 3, 1, 2… Not too (3, 1, 2) late, to (3, 1, 2) save him. She’d only stopped for a little while.
Crying, Michelle picked up the receiver. Counting all the time under her breath.
1, 2, 3…1, 2, 3…
1, 2, 3…1
(C) Paul Kane 2007
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.