Framed

“‘My phobia is simple: I am constantly terrified that a crime is going to be committed and that I am going to be implicated in some way.” A new short story

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(Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck)

I was relieved when Mrs Marshall agreed to my request before she moved.

The new addition to her house should go unnoticed. The young couple only gave the property a perfunctory 10-minute once-over before putting in an offer. They probably have plans for the place, big renovations. The street will be thundering with machines and workmen soon, I’m sure. How thorough could they have been on their quick house tour? All the clutter at Mrs Marshall’s was very distracting—the competing ticks of carriage clocks, the unblinking stares from her collection of antique cameras—so a discreet window into my house next door could have been overlooked if it had been there at the time. When the new occupants ask me about it, I will tell them that it is an architectural feature, historic. All buildings have quirks, particularly rows of old terraces with blue plaques outside.

On my side the new window is just a mirror. There is nothing for them to worry about, I can’t see anything through it. They can check (I’m sure they will want to) and when they do, they will see a simple rectangular mirror, frameless, flush with the wall though sitting slightly lower than most conventional mirrors, at waist height. It sees into my living room and has been carefully positioned so that on the rare occasions I’m at home in the evenings, reading or watching television, I am neatly framed. My head fills a third of the two-way mirror perfectly.

Before she moved out to the residential care home in town, I persuaded Mrs Marshall to help me: once the mirror-window had been installed it took a little while to decide precisely where I should sit on my small sofa. I wanted to be sure we got it just right. After a bit of trial and error we agreed on a good position based on the photographs Mrs Marshall took of me on my phone from her side of the looking-glass. I marked the spot on the sofa with a flat blue cushion and then sewed it into place using elastic strapping at each corner to anchor it down. I know that I must lean against this cushion whenever I sit down so that I can be accounted for in the hours before bed.

‘They can check, and when they do, they will see a simple rectangular mirror, flush with the wall, though sitting lower than most conventional mirrors’

I enjoyed composing the view from the other side. You can’t see much of the living room, but, crucially, it’s enough. A stage set almost: the arm of the sofa, my head and the slope of my shoulders, and the base of a lamp behind me, gold. The lamp caught my eye in the shop when I bought it as sunlight tore through the dusty windows and hit it at an angle. The base projected its own powerful line of light to rival the brightness of the bulb on top. I knew I could replicate this effect at home. I thought of it as a little lighthouse, catching light and spinning it into  the eyes of the new people next door. It might encourage them to turn and look at me every so often. A subtle reminder that “Yes! Look! I’m here.”

‘My phobia is simple: I am constantly terrified that a crime is going to be committed and that I am going to be implicated in some way’

Beyond the frame of the two-way mirror there is a large coffee table. It secretly holds every receipt and train ticket that has come into my possession for the past eight years. It is not for tax purposes, although if anyone should ask, that is the ready-in-waiting response. Receipts are important to me, as they prove where I have been. They provide a date and a time, meaning I have a traceable track record. I always try to pay for everything by card as I can then cross-reference with my bank statement if needs be. It would be easy for me to confirm, for example, that I was indeed buying a new battery for my Dictaphone at the particular time in question—here is the evidence.

(Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck)

The fear of not having an alibi isn’t that uncommon, a therapist reassured me several years ago. My phobia is simple: I am constantly terrified that a crime is going to be committed and that I am going to be implicated in some way. I won’t have any proof to say that I was not involved and then I will go to prison for it.

All of this leads to certain strange behaviours, although I normally think of them as sensible actions. Standing under every CCTV camera at train stations, for instance, could be seen as a responsible precaution when travelling alone. No one would ever guess that I’m doing it to make sure that my presence is being recorded.

When I had finished explaining my worries in my first session, the therapist flicked through her notes. She said: “You live alone, you told me you distance yourself from every meaningful relationship. Do you think it might be attention-seeking behaviour on your part? If so, that’s easily helped.”

“No. The reason why I don’t have any ‘meaningful relationships’ is because there’s no point. If I was called into a police station or court to state where I was at a certain time and they needed confirmation from someone else, then they wouldn’t ask a significant other, because they would go along with everything I say. Someone with a romantic attachment to me could even supply a completely false alibi if I asked them,” I explained for the second time.

I had already made up my mind not to pursue another session with the therapist the following week so I could be completely honest about it and had no qualms about how ridiculous I sounded.

She sighed. “Maybe this is all linked to a lack of self-esteem. Have you thought about that? The fact that you need to justify your place in the world at every possible moment, does that hint at an innate insecurity, hmm?”

“No,” I told her. “I’m fine. I’m confident! Outgoing! Vivacious!”

I am very outgoing, particularly towards the people I meet during the day. I always make colourful conversation with every barista or sales assistant I encounter who I know I’ll be able to rely on for confirming my whereabouts. The topics I touch on must be memorable. Last week, I chatted with the boy pouring my latte about the vacant shop opposite. I pretended to be interested in renting it, and I asked him about the stream of customers in the high street, the busiest hours and did he think a French Interiors shop would be successful around here? Throughout our brief conversation about my invented business enterprise, I made sure he got a good look at my face so that he would remember me, just in case.

The measures taken to combat my fears have extended into my sartorial choices too. I rarely wear sunglasses, I’m yet to find a pair eye-catching enough for my requirements. I have a bright red duffel coat for the coldest days. It is visible even in very foggy weather: I checked in the glass door of a restaurant one November morning. Between seasons I wear a short jacket. It’s very striking, in cobalt blue, boiled wool, with dramatic conversation-starting sleeves that sweep with every movement. I was so pleased with it. Until I realised that it was a very popular choice. Everyone else had admired it and got one too, it seemed. This was very disconcerting. The buttons, I suspect, were at the heart of the appeal. Tortoiseshell, deep and glossy with hammered gold eyelets. It grated on me, knowing that there were so many coats out there identical to mine. Even now the thought makes me shudder. I couldn’t ignore it. I knew I had to adapt the coat so that it would stand out and be unlike any other.

I remember feeling sad about everything, the state of my mind and the net it casts, the evening I took my jacket next door to Mrs Marshall to borrow her sewing kit. I had decided on a whim to replace each beautiful original button with a miniature bell. The sound twinkled through the silvery rain hitting her conservatory roof. As I slid the buttons into an envelope (to save for another coat or cardigan) I suddenly realised that I had unwittingly tapped into a line of thought previously unexplored: I could now be heard as well as seen.

The thought of appealing to a sense other than sight spurred another idea. What about perfume? Perfume! I set about sourcing the strongest, most eye-wateringly pungent fragrance imaginable, something to make every nostril I passed flare in shock and excitement. After a drawn-out hour of testing scents at different counters, I found the one. The sales assistant was clearly amused by my request for a bold, intense scent.

“This one is very strong. It’s an upside-down, inverted perfume. What’s normally a base note is actually in the middle, and the top note is served by tonka bean and cedar wood, which are popular middle notes. And the base itself, oooff, it’s doubly-deep . . .”

“Like a double bass!” I added.

She nodded as she lifted the lid, her face recoiling at the sudden fume. “It has the strongest concentration of white musk available on the market. It’s very . . .  daring.”

“White musk? It doesn’t sound that daring.”

“Believe me, it is,” she said, turning away as she sprayed a strip of card.

It nearly bought me to my knees. Heady, dizzying, chokingly present. No one would forget this smell in a hurry, I thought. I handed my credit card to another woman behind the counter, the manager, who encouraged me to sign up to their fragrance club. I couldn’t resist prolonging our conversation further when she complimented me on my handwriting as I handed back the form with my contact details filled out. I told her my cursive script was a result of a calligraphy morning at the library I had attended the previous month. She smiled and presented me with my purchase.

Before I left the store I went over to the next counter. While I was waiting for the assistant to fetch a ladder to reach my chosen perfume, my eyes had drifted to an enormous pair of lips, velvety and pure, suspended over the beauty hall like aircraft. They advertised a new statement lipstick aimed at the most unflinching of women. I grabbed two of the brightest shades and headed home via Mrs Marshall to show her my new purchases.

I used to think that it was my altered appearance (bright lips and influential perfume) that accounted for my promotions at the publishing house where I work, but now I’m not so sure.

“New look?” Doreen on reception said as she eyed my fluorescent tights when I returned to work after six weeks stuck at home.

“New outlook!” I corrected her.

It was during this time at home that the dividing line was drawn; the evolution of my thoughts had started. I had just moved into my terraced house and was excited about living by myself, with my own patch of garden. I enjoyed the space and silence. Family and friends were frequent visitors, Mrs Marshall came round often, I hosted dinner parties. I had a happy balance. Until I lost it. I lost my balance one day and fell over. That was all it took. My ankle twisted around my knee and my leg was badly hurt, so much so that I could hardly walk or put on shoes, let alone catch the train to work. I got a doctor’s note and I was off work for several weeks, leg elevated, with nothing but strong painkillers for company.

Everything changed when I realised one day that no one knew I was there, in bed, reading magazines and patiently waiting for my leg to heal. I could have been on holiday. I could have been doing anything, anywhere! Anyone who knows me will verify that I do not have one iota of criminality in me. But that alone would not stand up in court, under question.

From thereon in, I started to think about things from an entirely new perspective. Living alone, I was the perfect target for taking blame. I could be framed. If someone with dishonest, evil intentions knew I was at home on my own, what would stop them from setting me up and taking the rap for a crime? Nothing. I was unaccountable. And it disturbed me.

So as soon as my leg was better I made sure that I spent as much time as possible in full view, surrounded by other people. I go to work during the day, always the first to arrive, just after security open the buildings, and the last to leave. My sudden keenness to speak up at work and make myself heard perhaps also contributed to my rapid series of promotions. I have yoga on Monday evenings, paying extra to attend a small class. I used to check on Mrs Marshall who, curiously, just as my need to be seen emerged, had started to withdraw. She couldn’t manage the weekly food shop, so I helped her. It was good for both of us. On my way home I would always buy a few things and start to cook a meal for her. We would enjoy dinner together two or three nights a week.

Panic flared when she told me that she thought she needed to go into a residential care home. I told her I would be lonely.

“How am I ever going to manage without you, Mrs Marshall? I’ll come round more often so that you can stay,” I pleaded.

When I first suggested the idea of the looking-glass window, “the compromise” as I called it, I could tell she was worried. I explained that I needed someone to look out for me, I appealed to her experience of the difficulty of living alone.

“Oh, I’d feel much better knowing that the new neighbours could at least see me while I’m at home . . .” I said, airily.

Mrs Marshall has settled well into her new surroundings, I am pleased to report. It has been a positive thing, I think, after all. I have already found a crochet group to join on Wednesday nights and a life drawing class for Thursdays. Hopefully I’ll meet lots of new people to watch me. Meanwhile, I’m happy to have the window to serve its purpose.

I would hate to end up in prison.