The Tragedy of Perception

Annoying breathing, and melons with bees in

In which Sally Softly is annoyed by Peter’s breathing, and then fleetingly notices an amusing ghost pursing him.

Inside the house, Sally Softly was lying on the living‑room floor, having stopped gasping alarmingly. As her legs dropped to the floor, she noticed something did not seem right with her tracksuit (she was mistakenly wearing the top and bottom parts from two different suits, and the bottom part was on inside out). She tugged at the suit for a moment, trying to correct it, but only managed to twist one of the sleeves back to front. She shrugged, left it as it was and thought about Peter’s return. She imagined him entering the room, sitting on the sofa and ignoring her to try to trick her into thinking—only thinking, mind—she was ugly.

A few minutes later, she heard the front door, then the living‑room door. She turned her head away, determined not to speak first, and listened to him crossing over to the sofa and slumping into it. She could hear only his breathing, which sounded troubled, as though he had been chasing after something he could not catch. And he then sat there, simply breathing, as though trying to enrage her, which he achieved (Listen to him—he’s trying to get me to talk first—that’s what he’s doing. And now listen to him—he’s now breathing in a way that emphasizes the fact that he’s just breathing. And he’s doing this to try to annoy me. Well, he’s not getting away with sitting there just breathing like this; no, I can just breathe for as long as he can). She started breathing as loudly as she could, echoing each of his breaths but ensuring each echo was louder than the original.

Peter watched her lying on the floor, looking down at that body he used to love so much, that he still did love, only now she was possessed by one of those monsters—which seemed to have slowly grown inside her for years, so that the person he once knew was now smothered by it.

She moved and sighed and he saw Roland Wise, the chief constable, lying on top of her and groaning. He looked away, feeling sick. Since she started her affair with Roland, Peter felt this same sensation whenever near her—as though his insides were being mercilessly chewed by the monster that possessed her. When he first met her, she was his only refuge from the hostility he had always experienced in life. But then a monster seemed to possess her, so that one of them was now right here inside his own house. This he could cope with; he was used to it from other people. But since she started the affair with Roland, to enter his own house seemed akin to wading into a swamp of malice. It was as though those few initial moments of happiness were a dream and this hostility was the real world.

He heard her asking him whether he was going to do his gardening now—asking this in her usual begrudging manner, as though she could hardly bear to talk to him.

“Gardening” was what she called his recent campaign to remove the monsters from people’s heads. It seemed they entered there as seeds—in the form of wrong ideas, which were those meanings in people’s words that seemed unusual and puzzling. And the seeds grew there, till they became a monster that possessed the person. He tried to talk to her about all this but she was already possessed herself, making it impossible to communicate with her. And it seemed the only thing she could understand from his words was that he was talking about gardening.

He stood up, thinking about his campaign. If he could get to those wrong ideas hidden behind people’s words, he might be able to remove the seeds before they grew into more of these monsters. But he would need to find his mail first. He headed for the kitchen, knowing she would have hidden his letters earlier and there was no point asking her where.

He tried all the usual hiding places, the backs of drawers, under the grill, in the vacuum cleaner—but nothing. He opened a cupboard and lifted some tins and jars. He sensed her standing in the kitchen doorway behind him with her arms complacently folded and smirking at him. He pushed whole armfuls of tins and jars from side to side—but still nothing. He sensed her silently laughing at him, then she seemed to be doubled over, choking on her laughter—as if her own laughter were a murderer she were fighting off. He spun round and shouted, “Where are they?” But he saw only the empty doorway.

He slammed the cupboard shut, pulled open the back door and looked round the garden. He noticed a patch of freshly‑dug earth on one of the flowerbeds. He imagined her standing there wearing Wellington boots, clutching a spade and digging the hole while shaking with laughter. She dropped the letters into the hole, piled the earth back on top, patted it down, rubbed her hands and hobbled away, holding her sides again as her laughter continued fighting her for her life.

He looked round to other suspicious patches, then panicked at the thought of having to dig up the whole garden. He slammed the door shut, went back into the living room, searched some drawers, lifted a few cushions, shook the curtains and looked behind the pictures on the walls.

Sally was still lying on the floor. Their eyes met and he looked quickly away, went out to the hall and climbed the stairs. She heard him frantically searching on the floor above and smiled playfully (—He thinks I’m taken in by that trick, does he? Well, I’m not; it’s obvious he doesn’t read his letters really; he only pretends to read them so he can pretend to ignore me. Well, I’ve stopped him playing that trick on me—ha! And listen to him up there—it’s obvious he doesn’t like it now, because I’ve got the better of him).

Peter was now in another room, noisily searching through cupboards and drawers. As she listened, she imagined the defeated look on his face and she realized how sorry he must now be for trying to annoy her by breathing like that. She sighed contentedly, then lazily got up from the floor and sat on an easy chair with her feet up on the cushion. She listened to him moving to another room, knowing he would not find his letters there, and she smirked. But then her smirk froze as she recalled one of Peter’s dreams. A few mornings ago he woke and told her about it.

He said there was a long row of melons lying on the ground before him and bees were coming out of one of them but he did not know which one. The noise of the bees was deafening and they were trying to get her. To save her he had to find out which one they were coming from and he was moving along the row, smashing each melon in with a hatchet. But he could not find the right one; and in his mind he could hear her continuously screaming—though she was not making any sound; she was just standing over him, smiling.

At that point, Peter looked at her and pleaded, “Don’t do it, don’t…‍” Then he looked away and continued telling her about his dream.

He said the noise of the bees was increasing even more and her screaming was still going on in his head, so he kept smashing the melons in to try to find where the bees were coming from. But by now, as he came to each new melon, it transformed into a head lying there on the ground, staring back up at him. But he still had to find where those bees were coming from, so he forced himself to keep smashing in the melons—even though they were now heads—because it was the only way to save her.

Then he pleaded with her again, “Don’t do it, don’t, please! don’t go on—” But he had just woken up and was confused; perhaps he was even still dreaming; and she just shrugged it off.

Peter entered the living room, stood before her and shouted, “Where are they?”

She looked away and said, with mock innocence, “I can’t think what you’re talking about.”

He shouted, “Where’ve you put them?” But she kept looking away from him. He shouted, “Where are they, where?—the garden; is that it—buried them, have you?”

She pictured him digging up the whole garden, square by square, lawn included, then resorting to a pneumatic drill to upturn the patio.

He shouted, “Have you—?”

She smiled at the image of his vibrating body clutching the pneumatic drill as it chattered away at the patio.

He could not bear much more of this. It was as though she were pushing him into some other world, a world he did not know at all; as though there were some dark pit of malice nearby—he could sense its terrifying contents hovering there, about to engulf him—but he could not see where the pit was and she was pushing him towards it, trying to make him tumble into it (or that monster that possessed her was making her do this). She pushed him further and further into this other world and as he walked towards her, he was now shouting anything that came into his mind. And as he looked at her, all he could see was the monster inside her head making her behave in this inhuman way. And all he could think of was trying to get this monster out of her head to turn her back into the person he once knew. And then his hands were round her neck and he was squeezing so hard he could almost feel the monster within his grip. He then heard her calling to him, “...dish— in the dishwasher!”

He stood back from her—he was getting up from the chair; he must have been kneeling over it—and he had returned to this world, for he could see her clearly now; she was lying there on the chair before him, holding her neck and looking up at him. He turned and walked to the kitchen.

In her mind, Sally was still watching his face above her. She recalled him stepping forward while shouting at her with a look of sudden terror, “Where; where?” Or what seemed like terror (she reflected), for it was clear he was just having a tantrum because he wanted his tricks to work but he had not fooled her so far, so now, out of sheer desperation, he was trying to frighten her by making his tantrum look like terror (—Yes, that’s what he’s doing; but it hasn’t worked, because I’m not a bit frightened—huh), and she looked away. And as she again recalled his look of terror, a fleeting image flew through her mind; she saw him being pursued by a ghost flying on a broomstick, a ghost wearing a long white coat and straw for hair—or what looked like straw—and Sally was about to start laughing at this image when Peter pushed her sideways in the chair and climbed on top of her while shouting at her. She indignantly shouted back, “Get off; what do you think you’re doing,” but then his hands were round her neck and he was shouting, “Whore, whore!”

As he was doing this, she watched his contorted face above her, which seemed possessed with hatred. She tried telling him where his letters were but was unable to make a sound—for his rage had stolen her voice. She could then hear nothing either—as if there were nothing that could be heard or said, by either of them; as if they were both just helpless passengers without the power to comment on or intervene in whatever was happening—whatever this thing was that this pursuing ghost was apparently driving him to do.

As she lay there on the easy chair now, rubbing her aching neck, she recalled that contorted look in his face. She considered this for a moment, carefully mulling over the evidence, then managed to see through his game (—He was still trying to trick me into thinking I’m ugly; that’s it. He’s become so desperate he even resorted to pretending to strangle me to try to make me think he hates me. Well, it hasn’t worked, because he was so obviously pretending; just look at him—), recalling his contorted look (—yes, I can see his real motive written all over his face). Her smirk returned.

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