Phoenix Supersensitive: Chapter 1

-1-

The Mystery of the New Keyworker

         I suppose you want to know about the crimes, everyone does. But you have to understand that that was the least of what she achieved. Before all this happened, people used to cross the street to avoid Phoenix and her friends- ‘the nutters’ as they called them. Even their closest relatives used to rush to the bathroom to scrub their hands if they accidentally brushed up against one another during a visit. Phoenix changed all that. She turned people who were considered the dregs of society into superheroes. And it wasn’t just the patients who changed. I changed too. She showed us that we were worth something, that we could be great, that we already were great. That’s the real story. That’s what you should be interested in, more than the blood and the gore and the deaths. I’m the Watson. The one who didn’t get it at first. I’m also the one who wrote it down, and in the end, that’s the important thing, isn’t it?

***

        I’d at last found my way out of the maze of lanes, with their twelve-foot high hedges. And now I had a crick in my neck from looking up at a gold bloody lion’s head. It didn’t seem right. But the instructions said ‘Grange Manor’, and so did that fancy ironwork on the gate, so nothing to do but drive on up the road. The Devon hills dazzled green under the gloomy sky, and my stomach churned.

        The parkland unfolded on either side of me. There were tennis courts too. I saw the chimneys behind the trees, and the house rose up before me. It was like something out of Pride and Prejudice, with its broad stucco facade, and the processions of windows. No, this really wasn’t right. Then I felt like petrol set alight. Was this what I paid my taxes pay for, for murderers to live in luxury?

        But I was closer now, and I could see the high wire fences, a cage around the house. ‘For the safety of themselves and others’, she had said. That was more like it. Stops them getting out. Then all the sideburns and hooped dresses and chandeliers fell away quick enough. My stomach had settled a bit too. But I still had images of that man in the newspaper who’d macheted all those people in the high street, and the woman who’d suffocated her four children. And I was thinking, this really isn’t me. I can’t even stand up to my three year-old son.

        I parked my Mondeo next to the red BMW. We obviously weren’t all on five pounds an hour. It was as quiet as the grave as I dragged my leaden feet through the shale of the forecourt. The obscure glass of that huge front door chopped up the white hallway behind. The bass of the doorbell vibrated through the space, searching. Steam, warm on my feet, was coughing itself up from a vent, and I smelt bacon. Then shards of colour shifted, like the kaleidoscope I gave Jordan last Christmas. Someone was on the other side, wrestling with keys, and five locks turned, one after another.   

        When the door swung open, the first thing I noticed was that bunch of keys at the waist of her white uniform, like an old fashioned jailor.

         Shit. I was going down.

         I was joking, kind-of, but actually I felt sick. And I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’d sobbed with relief when that phone call came, I can tell you.

            ‘Thanks for coming at such short notice’. I recognised her voice from the phone, smooth as glass it was. ‘I’m Jane, the Manager’. Her bulk looked immoveable. She had a face like one of those bloated little cupids. Cherubims are they? Her mouth smiled, but her eyes didn’t. They were moist, brimming with something much darker.

      We were in a beige space between two glass doors, like those decompression chambers divers go into so they don’t come up too quick. It smelt of stale people, and vomit, and the disinfectant used to cover it up. And there were disembodied voices. Their clamouring was taking all the air. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and I couldn’t get my breath.

        The front door crashed closed.

        An emaciated creature flew at me from nowhere, tufts of white hair withering on a bald head, blood-shot eyes blinking. ‘Let me out’. Its fear smelt rotten and sweet. I stumbled aside, swamped by those black and white images of concentration camps you see in history programmes. It hurled itself at the door, pressed its face against the glass, and spluttered. I wanted to bolt. Instead I forced my feet further into the floor and made myself stay. This job was my last chance.

        Jane shoved past the skeleton, and it kind of bounced off her, and was stunned mute. She held her key fob up to the pad. The door released with a beep, and it faded away down the corridor. Fluffy slippers, just like my daughter’s, flapped on skeletal feet. A threadbare dressing gown slipped from its wasted frame.

        ‘That’s a client?’ I queried, to fill the void it had left. My voice was deadened by the small space.

        ‘Patient’ Jane responded, turning a final key in a lock. Then I was kicking myself, because I should have known what to call them. And I looked down the corridor, at those regularly spaced, re-enforced glass doors, and realised you couldn’t get in without one of those fobs, and you couldn’t get out either. And I was flooded by panic.

        She beeped us into an open-plan office, where a solitary worker typed. I gulped at the clean air. He didn’t look up from the computer.  ‘Bit low on the floor at the minute, what with Mary, well… and the NDT being on as well’. What on earth did that mean?

        I signed a health and safety form, and a confidentiality agreement, and a contract. Jane ran me though the fire procedure, told me I’d have to write care notes every hour. Then I got given a set of keys, number forty-nine from a row of fifty, and a fob that gave me access to some areas, but not others.  I signed myself in, signed too for the keys.

        ‘Remove your earrings and necklace. Ears have been pulled off’, she said. Then, I’m ashamed to say, I had an image of running, running away, not just from Grange Manor, but from everything.

        Jane glanced at her watch, brandished the fob. ‘Agnes needs to get away to pick her daughter up’. She set off along the hallway, swaying side to side on her flat feet, her keys jangling. I took as much air as I could with me, and followed her. Door after door opened and released a new wave of vomit, and disinfectant. I felt seasick. ‘Phoenix Turner, age twenty-five…’

        ‘Phoenix?’ What kind of poncy middle-class name was that?

        ‘A nickname. You know that story about the magic bird coming out of the fire? She burnt the house down aged nine, and walked unscathed from the flames. Her mother wasn’t so lucky’. My heart jumped up a gear. ‘We’re expecting an attempt any time. She tried last week, but dental floss isn’t strong enough it would seem. She believes that Sherlock Holmes saved her life. Apparently he told her that her death would be a shame because she could be a great detective’. Her mouth-only smile.

        ‘But Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist’.

        She sighed, wearily. ‘She’s on a 24. Her bedroom door key’.  I didn’t want to take it, but I did. ‘Obs. no further than arms length. Limited ground leave. Low risk of absconding. She’s EUPD, depressive, schizoaffective, supersensitive and suicidal’.

        ‘Why?’ I hoped she hadn’t caught the edge of disdain.

        ‘Why?’ she repeated, very deliberately, her eyes darkening. ‘Brain damage caused by teenage drug use’.

        Her own bloody fault then, I thought.

        There was a staircase so sweeping that I expected Fred and Ginger to tap dance down it at any minute. I glimpsed the first floor corridor, a mirror image of the one below. One of the many identical white doors was ajar. The room was empty, the bed stripped. ‘We had a patient death last week. Happens sometimes with these people’. A shiver moved up her spine. ‘A blessed relief when you’re in the state he was. Not one relative or friend that we know of, poor sod’. She moved swiftly onwards. ‘Ligatures, and cutting. Creative girl this one. Watch for knives, pencil sharpeners, razor blades. The 3.2 is based on trying to kill her father with a knife, and her boyfriend with a paperweight. Oh, and there was the fire of course. Typical case really’. I wanted to murmur assent, knowingly, but I couldn’t find my voice.

        ‘Just now her risk’s significantly down. It’s a bad sign. Just stay with her. And watch out, she’ll try to get rid of you’.

        ‘…rid of me?’

        She saw the colour drain from my face. ‘You’ll be fine. In fact you’ll probably have a great time. She’s a brilliant storyteller, based on nothing of course. She never speaks to anyone. But the delusions keep us all amused’.

        We passed a room with a wall of toughened glass. It was thick with fog. A hand clasping a cigarette, then a head, surfaced, and was drowned. A man with tattooed folds of fat around his middle, and studs stapled into his skin, closed and opened the door, closed and opened the door. Puffs of smoke escaped like Morse code.

        …Dot Dash Dash Dot. Help me.

        The air was running out. I forced my legs onward down the corridor. Keys jangled. There was one more door on the left before the fire exit. ‘The living room…if you can call it living’. The mask of her face smiled. She pushed at the door.

        I tasted fumes of Dettol rising from the linoleum floor. On the wall a clock with magnified numbers ticked, but the hands didn’t move. ‘No batteries. They swallow them’. I hovered on the threshold, praying that something would intervene so that I didn’t have to go in. Four patients were installed, semi-comatosed, in high-backed chairs. Their clothes and hair were awry, as if they’d been hurriedly dressed. They didn’t sit straight, or was it the walls that weren’t straight? The table was set for breakfast. A vase of too-cheery yellow daffodils, fake, had been placed on the table. I wanted to throw them at the wall.

        Jane smiled acknowledgment at a young woman, sitting to the right of the doorway. Her dyed-black hair was scraped back into a ponytail. She wore a gold necklace, and shoes with heels.  How the hell did she get away with that? Her eyes were glued on the furthest corner of the room.

        ‘There she is’. Jane motioned in the same direction. I peered into the shadows. A gangly figure in a faded black tracksuit was seated in an armchair. Her legs were tucked awkwardly under her. She needed two hands to support the book she was reading. The blue cover obscured her face. ‘She’s still reading that Agnes?’

        Agnes pushed chewing gum to the side of her mouth ‘Shagging it more like’. Her accent was something East European. A cool smile. The corners of Jane’s mouth quivered.

        Phoenix lowered the book, and stared at us. Sunglasses were set in an angular face framed by matted hair. Orange earplugs protruded. The shades gave her a jaded film star look that added an odd glamour. She hauled herself to her feet, pulled her sleeves down over her hands, and tucked the book under her arm. She cut across the room. Her gaze never faltered. Her lips moved ceaselessly.

        Agnes unfolded her legs, and stood up.  ‘Good luck’, she hissed, and tottered fast away. My eyes flicked to mark the position of the door and window. Then Phoenix reached me. She was muttering, drumming her fingers on her face. My breath stopped in my body.

        ‘Glycol, carbon dioxide, or nitrogen perchance? Theatrical fog and grease paint certainly’. But she was looking past me. ‘Sweat, searchlights, pink crepe, applause. Prima Ballerina no less’. 

        Jane’s bulk plugged the doorway. ‘Where do you think you’re going miss?’ A school ma’am voice.

        Phoenix pushed her earplugs further in. ‘Things to do’, she snapped. It was a public school voice. I hadn’t expected that.

        ‘This is Clare. She’s got the key. Maybe later she’ll take you up there.’ Phoenix shot me a glance, turned around, and strode back to her chair. Jane lowered her voice. ‘Just whatever you do, don’t leave her alone, even ten minutes is enough for her’. Shit. I was going to have to go into that room. Worse, I was going to have to stay there.

        …Dot Dash Dash Dot. Help me.

        I set off across the expanse of linoleum, felt the vacant eyes of the mad on me. The stench of warm urine wafted past, and my stomach heaved. Phoenix was urgently smoothing the cover of her book. ‘Act two, scene three. No, act two, scene four…’

        As I reached her side, I thought the fear would suffocate me. She didn’t react to my arrival. ‘Grand plié sur les pointes’. In fact, she seemed oblivious to my presence, and my fear eased. ‘Turn, lift and pas de bourrée couru…’ They were ballet terms. I recognised them from my daughter’s endless performances in our front room. ‘Stress marks in the iris can date her like a tree ring’. She was staring at Jane, who was talking to Agnes, her weight resting on a radiator. Idly Jane exercised one foot; bending her knee, turning her ankle, pointing her toes. ‘That stiff ankle, and of course that scar on her forehead. Falling east northeast, at seven miles per hour, thrown by a wide wooden object. Injuries are consistent…’

        There was something a bit, well, sexual, about the way she was stroking that book. She closed her eyes, the balls rolling high up behind the lids. A single sustained note escaped her lips. I craned my neck and saw the cover. A silhouette of a man, with a pipe, in one of those hats.

        SHERLOCK HOLMES. THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES.

        Of course, that loony detective business.

        I corrected my position too quickly and her eyes snapped open. But still she didn’t look at me.  She moved her mouth as if savouring expensive wine. ‘Oh yes. Her understudy and archrival T.  T...? Tess, or Tessa perhaps? The palette on the dark stairs. Tumbling, tumbling, ah… yes… tumbling down the stairs of the Ballet Royal. Never. To. Dance. Again’. I suppressed a snigger. I imagined a much thinner version of Jane, all red velvet curtains and adulation. A Prima Ballerina? That ten-ton lorry?

        I shifted again. As I did so, she turned and faced me. ‘You’ll sit down, won’t you?’ The shades hid her expression.

        ‘I’m fine thank you’. Nutcase. No way I was getting that close to her. Anyway, maybe I wouldn’t stay.

        But if I didn’t, that was the end for me, wasn’t it?

        The edges of her mouth twitched.  ‘So you’re going to keep me alive are you, new key worker?’ I was about to respond when her head flicked up. The tattooed man was standing in the doorway conversing with Jane. She sniffed the air. ‘Non-reactive pinhole pupils, again. Stale alcohol on breath. Semen and garbage and smashing glass in dark streets. What does Paul have to hide? The piercing in his penis for example? A specific sexual event. Short, under five foot, 1980.  July I would hazard a guess. A Hannah I believe’.

        Jane and Agnes left the room, and he followed like a puppy. Her attention snapped back. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like to sit down?’ My legs ached like hell, so I nodded and pulled a chair towards me. It was much heavier than it looked. ‘Not easy to throw’, she commented.

        I sank down into the relief of the, albeit plastic, cushions. Then I smelt ammonia very close by, and felt coolness under my bottom. Wetness seeped through the seat of my trousers, and the stank grew. I jumped up with a cry. Eyes throughout the room swivelled to look. Then one of the comatose faces animated, and it giggled. ‘Plastic cushions, get it?’

        Another figure roused. ‘She’s sat in Jackie’s piss’. Other patients began to laugh, and the laughter gained momentum until it was hysteria. The madness closed in. The smell was hideous. I wanted to disappear. A small smile hung on Phoenix’ lips. She’d known the chair was wet, the mad bitch. She wouldn’t get rid of me that easily. I sat down again, hard and square on the wet seat. Urine sprayed upwards. The hilarity stopped as suddenly as it had started.

        The stuck clock jarred in the silence.

        Then I heard feet scuttling across the floor. A small man of about forty with a twisted torso, was crossing the room like a crab, a carrier bag clutched in one hand. Her gaze locked on. ‘All the sevens, if it sparkles. Benny the Burglar. Autistic spectrum perhaps? Uncle Fagin, when no-one else wanted him’. He manoeuvred himself into a chair, and ferreted in the bag. He had the eyes of a crow. ‘Used to walk straight, until aged seven. Climbing into a rich man’s window, fell from the seventh floor. But there’s more…’ Her speech accelerated. ‘In his left breast pocket, blue topaz earrings. The night shift, of course. Agnes paid to stay awake, but didn’t. She must get them back before Jane notices’. She was rubbing the book cover raw with her religious zeal. ‘But does she know where they are?’

        For Christ’s sake. ‘Swallowed Sherlock bloody Holmes have you?’ I spat.

        Her hand stalled on the book. Colour rose in her face, vibration in her body. I was ready to bolt from that seat if she as much as leaned forward - she’d murdered her mother, after all. But instead, she composed herself and enunciated, as if to a child.

        ‘Sherlock Holmes, like me, self-harmed, drank and injected. He was depressed and supersensitive too. But society called them gifts not problems’. The mad bitch was masturbating over an imaginary person. How fucked up.

        ‘You see this…’ She yanked up her sleeves, and I contracted. The soft skin of her wrists and arms was covered in thick raised scars. ‘And this…’ She dragged the neck of her jumper down and I saw a dark line, thin like a wire, around her neck. ‘And this…’ She hitched up her top and I blurred my vision, not wanting to see. Her stomach was a hive of needle puncture marks. ‘You see those and you see a loser. I’m not a loser. Every move is carefully orchestrated to keep Eddy In My Head at bay, to keep me alive. I’m a survivor, we all are. The bravest people you’ll ever meet are in this place. So keep your fucking judgements to yourself’.

        I wanted to hit her, but I steeled myself. Then I would be sacked. Then she would have won. I leaned close to her, and the cushion under me squelched. ‘Never swear at me again’.

        Phoenix leaned in too, sniffed the air, all challenge. ‘You should go home. Jane will understand’.

        But I had to keep that job, no matter what. So I smiled and shook my head. ‘No chance’.

        The muscles of her face twitched. ‘Have they told you what he did for me?’ I really didn’t want to know. ‘I felt like my head was being sliced off. Eddy was laughing at me, encouraging me, telling me that my being alive only caused trouble…’ As she spoke she seemed to recede from me, to float up and away, out of the room.‘…He said they’d be partying in the streets when I was gone’. She clutched at her throat, choking. ‘My neck is burning, burning’. Her breathing came in gasps. Blood drained from her hand and a grey hue spread up through her neck and face.

        I shot to my feet. ‘Your room. Come on, let’s go’.

        She scratched at her neck. A terrible strangled voice. ‘How can I make it go quicker?’

        I scrabbled for the alarm at my waist, but it was tangled up with my belt.

        ‘Wait. There’s someone behind me. His chest is rising and falling against my back. His breath is warm on my neck’. I had the alarm. I was about to press it, but the colour was coming back into her neck, her hands were relaxing. ‘I am lifted, lighter, pain quieter, quieter, held’. Her body unwound, and her face opened. I lowered myself back into my seat, trembling. ‘Spiced tobacco, the smoke idles about. Eddy-in-my head is screaming at me “you’ve failed again, bitch’’. Now a man’s voice’.

        That’s when it got really weird. Her voice dropped an octave, and it was cut like crystal. “This amount of pressure on a human neck can only have catastrophic consequences”.

        Her own voice resumed. ‘Soles of my feet resting on wood. Wire tugging at my neck. Eddy shrinking, shrinking to a blathering fucking idiot with the voice of a mouse. And blip! Is gone. His absence is very, very strange. I am laid down, with the silky fur of the bearskin against my cheek’. Her hand hung limp on the book. Her eyelids fell. She rested her head on the back of the chair. ‘Pine wood smoke, the crackling, warmth penetrates my skull, glowing orange’. She sniffed. ‘Acid, and gas. Green absinthe of herbs, aniseed, and sweet fennel’. She dragged her eyes open, passed her gaze over the room. ‘Firelight dancing in the chestnut wood. A coalscuttle bursting with cigars. Newspapers. Test tubes, a violin with a broken string’.

        I looked round the room too. There were only the same sad creatures and institutional furniture.

        ‘A Persian slipper bursting with tobacco. Blue velvet cushions. Half eaten toast and tea. And Him’. And him? The detective, she meant. She caught her breath, and her awestruck eyes scanned an invisible figure. My eyes followed hers. There was nothing there of course. But she really seemed to see him. Completely fucking psycho. ‘Gaunt face, skinny as a beanpole, purple dressing gown. The letters on the mantelpiece are flying away. He spears them’.

        Her voice dropped again ‘ “Jolly good jack knife this one,” he says.

        ‘His eyebrows smile at me’. She chuckled, delighted. ‘He observes me from the rocking chair, back and forth, back and forth’.

        Back and forth. Back and forth. I rose and fell with her voice, despite myself.

        ‘‘My dear girl you look terrible’’ he pronounces.

        ‘Yes, I’m afraid I’m dead’.

         “Stuff and nonsense, Pray, take a seat. You’ve come to consult me, no?’’

        ‘Then I remember Eddy.  “Why did you do that?’’ I cry. ‘‘I want to die’’ ’.

        ‘‘That…’’ he says, ‘‘would be a colossal waste of a life. A crime’s been committed here and no one’s yet been brought to account. You have the sensitivity, the intuition, the sharp mind, the drive. You, my dear, can be a great detective”.

        Right, and I’m the Queen of Sheba. But the warmth was enveloping me. Phoenix’ voice drew me like a magnet. I had to get out of that fucking room.

       ‘Me, a great detective?’ Incredulity pervaded her face. ‘No, he’s beaten me’.

        ‘‘You miss the point’’ he proclaims. ‘‘It will keep him…’’ She tapped her head.  ‘‘…at bay. You will live’’.

        ‘I gape at him then’.

        ‘‘You doubt the word of the illustrious Holmes?’’

        ‘There’s a mischievous glint in his eye, but there’s something else too. I want to swim in those eyes. I trust him completely. I’m his. “A crime you said. What crime?”  I ask’.

        ‘‘Ah!’’ His fingers, stained brown, take a small bottle from the mantelpiece. ‘‘A new drug, a nerve tonic. Co-caine. Would you care to try?”

        ‘I’ve sworn I’ll never take drugs again, but this is different’.

        So, she’d made up this whole fantasy just to justify her drug use? How pathetic.

        ‘I climb on to his lap. We roll up our sleeves, push the needle home’.

        And now, I was going to have to hear about her shagging him.  Christ. The trouble was it was pleasant, the rising and falling of her voice. I could imagine the dancing firelight, the smell of pinewood and tobacco. Part of me craved it too.

        ‘As it enters our veins, we cry out. Afterwards, the sting of my neck fades, and there’s only the rocking, the smell of the pipe, the wire hanging loose around my neck. We roll out of the great redbrick, flat-fronted house, into Baker Street. It stinks of horseshit. We laugh and dance and flail in the street’.

       ‘ ‘‘I have great hopes for you my girl’’. He claps me on the back. Then wooden wheels on cobbles explode in my head. A hansom cab is bearing down on us. The horse is startled, harness ringing’.

        It was then that I heard the cartwheels. I mean really heard them. I was there too, about to go under the wheels with them.

        ‘The driver swerves. We dive out of the way, and into the pool of warmth under a streetlight. He wrestles his horse back under control, and rattles off, cursing. We’re lying in a heap, like a pile of puppies, panting, exhausted, exhilarated. Eventually, we fall asleep, giggling, in that circle of light, in the horseshit gutter’.

        All three of us that is. I know I closed my eyes for an instant too, felt myself giddy and happy and entwined with other warm bodies under that streetlight. I know because my eyes snapped open with the sound of cartwheels close by again. Except they weren’t cartwheels, it was the trundling wheels of the food trolley, and accompanying high heels, in the hallway outside.

        And suddenly I was back in that foul vomit-smelling place, my trousers soaked in someone else’s piss. Phoenix’ head was resting on the back of the chair, her face supremely serene. For a moment I was jealous of that place she was in. Then I was terrified. I was crazy too. They’d lock me away. I’d never get out of here. ‘Breakfast’, I snarled at her. She lowered her shades, pierced me with her blue eyes, and smiled.

        ‘You think I’m delusional’.

        ‘Some of us have to live in the real world’ I spat, but my words were lost as Agnes burst in, trailing the smell of plasticised bacon and eggs. A flutter, as across a flock of birds, passed through the residents. In her wake came the skeleton, its dressing gown hanging from one shoulder, wearing only one slipper.          

        ‘Perfect timing’ said Phoenix.

        What the hell was she talking about now?

        She raised her arm and snapped her fingers twice. The skeleton ceased its activity and slipped towards us. Perching on a chair close by, it pulled a small notepad and pencil from its dressing-gown pocket. ‘Ellen’s my assistant. She records all my cases for posterity’.

        ‘She does what? For what?’

        Phoenix raised one finger, and paused, like a conductor in the moment before the first baton falls. ‘The Mystery of the New Keyworker’.

        Ellen put pen to paper, and I disappeared down Alice’s rabbit hole.

        ‘It’s not difficult to deduce that your CV is a fabrication. Exhibit A: clothes, three sizes too big. Why? You were offered this job. You had no suitable clothes because you haven’t worked recently, but nor did you have time to go shopping, suggesting, of course, that they wanted you to start immediately. After all, keyworker Mary had left rather suddenly. You borrowed clothes from a friend, or a relative, your mother or mother-in-law I suspect, given by the size and dated style. These clothes were made around 1990, just about the time a woman now in her sixties would have last worked’.

        Ellen wrote feverishly. ‘Exhibit B: observe flaccid stomach muscles. Two separate patterns of stretch marks suggesting two children born in the last five years’.

        I pulled down my top to contain my protruding stomach.

        ‘Exhibit C: Bruise on your hip from hoiking around a child age one to three’.

        I yanked up my trousers, dragged down by the keys.

        ‘It’s a deep bruise, from a repetitive action. I deduce you are currently looking after a child, or children, full time, and have been for some time. Exhibit D: photo on your phone of children aged approximately six months and two years’.

        How had she seen my phone? My hand flew to my pocket. It was open, the phone poked out.

        ‘You should take more care. Benny only has to spot it. Photo taken with a Canon 40D camera, evidenced by its 6.5 frames per second, introduced 2007-8. Taking into account the age change over time puts children at five and three years currently’.

        I was spinning downward. The words were slow to reach me. When they did I forced a smile. ‘You’re making it up’.

        Those intense blue eyes. The sound of Ellen’s pencil scratching paper. I could tear it from her, but she’d scream.

        ‘And how are Tess and David?’

        How did she know their names?

        ‘You introduce them on your answer machine’. Phoenix pulled two sheets of paper from the flyleaf of her book. She held aloft my CV, complete with covering letter, peered at the top right hand corner. ‘01395 632 457. Yes?’

        ‘How..?’ An infuriating Homesian lop-sided smile. She shot a look across the room, at Benny the Burglar, still raking through his bag. ‘You, he, stole it?’

        She could barely keep the smirk from her lips. ‘This organisation -Nourishing Lives- didn’t come into existence until three years after you worked for them. I’m sure Jane would be interested to know that’.

        I watched the paper dance in her hand. I could dive for it, or I could scream for help. I did neither. ‘You’re blackmailing me?’ I choked.

        She tucked the CV into her book, and hauled herself to standing. Ellen put down her pencil. ‘It was a mistake for you to think, given my talents, and my extraordinary patron, that you can outdo me in this arena. Goodbye then Claire Antonia Roberts’.

        My full name as well. I seethed.  How dare she? The arrogance. She was clever. I had to be cleverer. It wasn’t over yet. I swayed to my feet, and I was taller and broader than this frail bird of a woman. A strange calm descended on me. ‘Stealing is a crime too’.

        ‘What can they do, put me in jail?’ Her eyes bored through me.

        ‘You’re insane, a murderer. Who do you think they’ll believe?’

        She jerked the CV in front of my face. ‘The evidence perhaps?’

        I felt as stubborn as hell. ‘I told you before. I’m not going anywhere’. Our eyes locked.

        Phoenix smiled. ‘I know. Because, if you lose this job, you’ve got nothing left to lose, have you?’ Ellen took a pencil sharpener from her pocket, ground the end to a point. ‘I’ve got a proposal for you’

        ‘Have you indeed?’ Smug bitch.

        Ellen licked the lead expertly, and resumed her report. ‘I don’t want this written down, any of it’. I stormed her, gripped her twig of an arm, not caring if it snapped. She struggled to get the pencil to the page.

        ‘Let me go’.

        I scanned the writing. It was just meaningless squiggles, pages of nonsense. I dropped her arm. ‘It’s not real…’

        ‘Define ‘real’’ bristled Phoenix. I wasn’t going there. Ellen took up her pencil again. ‘It’s true isn’t it, that if you don’t keep this job, next Thursday at 2pm your house is going to be repossessed’.

        I propped myself up with the back of the chair.

        She held my CV between finger and thumb, and up to the light. ‘There’s the imprint of a house, and some sums. A doodle, probably during a phone conversation. Aside from that you’ve been repetitively humming snatches of the Shawn Smith song ‘Losing Home’. You’re unconscious, dear Roberts, is speaking volumes’. She didn’t wait for the question. Her voice speeded on. ‘Thursday afternoons are when repossessions happen in this area. But I concede that 2pm was a guess’. ‘Now…’ She moulded her face to register concern. ‘Do you really want your children living in a house that’s rotting from damp?’

        ‘I…’

        ‘I can smell it on your clothes. A particularly bad case given it’s so strong even though the clothes have most likely been in the house for only one night. By the way, where is your husband in all this?’ She raised her voice indignantly. ‘Not much help it seems. Unemployed I would guess. You’re twisting your wedding ring up and down, a sign of your ambivalence about the relationship’.

        My legs gave way beneath me, and I collapsed into the seat. I’d lost my job. I’d lost my house. I was sure of it.

        ‘We do understand’. That fake concern again. I wanted to punch her.

        ‘I’m nothing like you lot’. My voice was venom.

        ‘No? Your weak self-image is clearly seen in the negative internal introjects that cause the hesitations in your speech. The diminished and sometimes near threaded middle zone of your handwriting is small compared to upper and lower zones. And your signature, it’s tiny, my God’. She was dissecting me like an insect, and it delighted her. ‘Then there’s the holding of breath, the gargling quality. You feel like you’re drowning. I get the projective identification. They…’ she swept her arm across the room, ‘…get the projection.’

        Dot Dash Dot Dash- help me.

        ‘I can help you’.

        ‘I didn’t ask for your help’.

        ‘No? You’re tapping out the Morse on the arm of your chair. Girl Guides was it?’

        I locked my hands on my lap. ‘And you should know, the stress is causing a blockage in your anterior left coronary artery. See the fleck in the iris of your right eye..?’

        There was a terrible kind of satisfaction on her sharp face. I covered my face with my hands. Phoenix nodded to Ellen, who snapped the notebook closed, and sat stock-still. ‘Thank you Ellen. I’ll see you back in the office’.

        I roused. ‘The office? What office?’ Ellen trailed from the room. ‘You said you could help me?’ I bleated.

        ‘You can keep your job’.

        ‘Yes?’ Hope flickered.

        ‘But you have to understand that doing what they say, and keeping me alive are not the same thing. Like them, you perhaps believe that I will stay alive if Sherlock Holmes is absent from my life. But the opposite it true. So it’s simple, you support me in whatever I need to do with regards to crime solving, I stay alive, and you keep your job. But if the staff find out, well, your job goes, whether I’m alive or dead. Understand’.

        ‘But he doesn’t exist!’ My last energy. She recoiled, momentarily stung.

        ‘Understand?’

        I nodded. Because I had no choice. And because the line between sanity and madness was beginning to blur, and I couldn’t get my bearings. Was she not as mad as I thought? Or was she just mad in a different way?

        She stood up abruptly. ‘Now I need to go back to my room. I’m expecting a client’.

        ‘A client?’ I was on my feet, hedging her.

        ‘Alone’

        ‘Alone? But Jane said…’

        ‘Oh yes, it has to be alone. You can wait on the stairs’.

        ‘But you can’t…’

        She strode from the room.

        I looked around. Agnes was spoon-feeding a patient. Others stared at flickering images on a silent TV screen. Breakfast had been cleared away. No one seemed to have noticed that I had been broken into pieces and partially re-assembled. No one had noticed Phoenix was gone.

        ‘Ten minutes is enough’, Jane had said.

        Had I just signed her death warrant?

This is the first chapter of the, as yet, unpublished novel 'Phoenix, Supersensitive.'