By Neil Lade
Sam was having a quiet smoke in the lounge room one afternoon. He’d just read several short stories by Chekhov and was deep in thoughts and submerged in his favourite leather chair. He felt warm and well protected from the winter. With a large glass of Dewar’s in one hand and a cigarette squeezed in the fingers of his other, his mind drifted – into the darkness of Tsarist Russia and to the darkness of his own world.
And as his mind meandered, he relaxed into a kind of numbness. He had peace. His wife wasn’t there. Pam, who hated the cold, had gone to Hawaii – or was it Fiji? – three days ago. She’d won a holiday for two. He feared he’d have to go with her but she had already decided to ask her younger sister Janet because Pam said Sam had too much to do, especially with the church fete only a month away. And anyway, Janet didn’t smoke. Pam really hated smoking, almost as much as she hated the cold. She’d had another go at Sam just before they left for the airport.
“God, you’re disgusting … a horrid, smelly little man, you are. A sickening, putrid smoker and then, I guess, when they cart you off to hospital you’ll expect grapes in the cancer ward – well, don’t hold your breath …”
Then she had laughed. An insidious, nasty, mocking laugh: an insane giggle sharply rising to a high-pitched cackle.
She laughed at the strangest times – whenever it wasn’t expected. And just when Sam learnt to expect her to laugh when it wasn’t expected, she didn’t laugh. And then she’d laugh at normal things like normal people – a good story, an amusing joke, a pun – just to confuse him. It made him edgy and confused.
But now, snug in his chair, Sam dreamed he was an old peasant, safe with the heat from his meagre fire blanketing the blizzard’s bitterness and numbing the pain of his arthritis – only his fingers ached and burned. Actually, cigarette ash, like a twisting snake, had been creeping slowly up his fingers and the end was now glowing into his flesh. He groaned, then jumped in surprise and pain. The ash, the cigarette and his whisky went flying, extinguishing his smouldering fingers and stinging him back to reality.
Then he saw the ash and cigarette stubs all over the carpet. The ashtray had gone flying too. And there was this big black burn mark on Pam’s white shag-pile carpet.
He began to panic. “Oh no, she’ll kill me,” Sam said. And he dropped to the floor and tried to scoop up all the mess in his hands. He was shaking and frantic. Pam’s parting words as they left for the airport were ringing in his ears. “If I find any tobacco muck on the carpets or in the pot plants when we come back, or if you clog up the house with your foul-smelling pig smells because you haven’t smoked outside, I’ll kill you …”
Life with Pam had been like this for years, especially if she caught him having a quiet smoke. On and on she’d go. Harping, always harping.
“Christ, they’re my lungs,” he said. “But you can’t hear me now, can you Pam? You’re in Hawaii or Fiji with Janet.” And he laughed and smiled and realised how relaxed he was. Over thirty years of marriage he’d learnt how dangerous it was to taunt Pam or answer her back. It only made things worse – she’d nag even more. She’d criticise and abuse and sulk and burst into fits of rage and mocking laughter. And he’d get leftovers for dinner for several days.
About a month ago, he’d actually interrupted one of her harangues. Three words escaped from his mouth before he could hold on to his thoughts, and Pam’s voice rose several decibels into a torrent of abuse and wild laughter that had him cringing in the corner for hours. He could ignore the abuse but the laughter seemed to eat into his mind and body. There were all these nasty little flying insects with faces like Pam, grinning and laughing and buzzing around his brain and gnawing at his bones.
He couldn’t quite remember when Pam and her laugh had changed completely into the mocking force he so feared. Perhaps three years before when he’d changed jobs and cities, or perhaps ten years before that when he’d told her he might be in love with a younger woman at work … Whenever, whatever, it was meaningless and futile to dwell.
But he clearly remembered the day he first saw Pam laughing at him from one of the photos on the mantelpiece. He was looking at their wedding photo, taken outside an old country church – they are smiling together. It was the beginning of the happy days of marriage, the many years of laughter before it all began turning into a bitter emptiness as Pam switched fondness into offence – nasty, biting, stabbing attacks that cackled into laughter at him, rather than with him and their friends.
About a month ago, while standing next to the fire and letting his third whisky’s smooth warmness trickle down his throat, he noticed a slight movement in their wedding picture. Pam’s lips were twitching, stretching and expanding – overwhelming all before it – and then this huge mouth leapt out of the photo and started scratching at his face, needling into his eyes, prising them open, slipping into his brain, devouring his thoughts in a high-pitched swarm.
And soon all the Pam photos everywhere in the house were smirking, snickering, giggling, niggling at him – scratching at his eyes, cackling inside his head.
He tried to stop them. He’d sneak up on them, moving softly, slowly from the side so the photos couldn’t hear and see. And then he’d grab them and stuff them into a pillow case, tie them up really quickly and rush out of the room as they struggled inside like squirming kittens. Then he’d hurl his Pam bags into the cupboard of darkness under the stairs.
It seemed to work for a while but they were getting so clever so rapidly that a week later they had escaped to outwit him again.
Pam’s little bastard laughs spread into new territory and began infiltrating everything else. Yesterday they had started smirking from photos in the newspaper. So Sam set the pages alight and grinned as they screamed in the flames. But he knew this would only delay their next attack. He knew they’d be back, stronger, nastier, more devious.
Sam shivered and snapped back to his present problem – what to do with the ash and cigarette butts. He’d dropped everything on to the carpet again and, although he tried to scrape up all the mess, it just seemed to slither out through his fingers.
His hands were shaking quite badly and he noticed he was sweating heavily. He knew they were back. He felt very small – as if he was shrinking and the room was engulfing him. He could feel Pam’s mad eyes burning into him and her thin lips snickered and curled. The distant thunder of her laughter loomed louder.
He shuffled back towards the windows and watched as a storm attacked the world outside. Branches of trees were scratching at the glass – long, bony fingers flicking. As the windows rattled, the lights dimmed and flickered and then flashed back to full beam. Glass exploded and a huge battered bird – bleeding and screeching – swooped inside.
Sam screamed like a small child in a tantrum. The bird’s face was Pam shrieking at him, her laughter howling, swirling and echoing off the walls and through his head. He dropped to the floor and scurried on all fours towards the door as the monster slammed into the walls and bounced off, and scattered and shattered everything in its path. He grappled for the doorknob and tried to escape the cyclone of his wife’s laughter. And as the lights started flashing again, images of Pam in uncontrolled fits of laughter punched at his eyes – from the mirrors, silver bowls, paintings and walls.
Then the room went black and, just as darkness began to devour him, he managed to open the door and escape down the hallway. He crashed into the toilet, slammed the door and locked it before the monsters of Pam’s laughter could catch him.
He felt safe and relaxed again. But, as always, Pam’s laugh couldn’t be stopped. The key dropped to the floor and, before he could put his finger to the hole, a tongue of laughter had slipped through. He jammed his finger into he hole, but the laughter outside was gnawing into his flesh and by the time Sam stuffed some toilet paper into the keyhole, blood was trickling down the door handle and dripping on to the floor.
The laughter inside the toilet grew stronger. It tickled and flirted. Sam, shivering from its cool caress and sweating with fear, grasped the doorknob and pulled and shook till his knuckles turned white. Where was it hiding? He checked the cracks. Under the seat. In a frenzy he tried the door. Remembered it was locked. Searched for the key but couldn’t find it. He shook the door, frantically, but the doorknob came off and Sam stumbled into the wall.
He saw the toilet paper dangling and gently flapping. Faces were chortling and snickering, waiting to attack. Pam’s face grew on each frame of paper like rapidly developing photos. The pictures were alive and menacing; her faces, like melting plastic, contorted into screaming laughter. He ripped at the pictures and stuffed them into the toilet bowl. He smirked while watching them drown. But as they gurgled up and gasped for air, they grappled at and clung to his fingers. He flushed the toilet and cleaned his hands, but flecks of faces floated to the surface. Sodden monsters slithered back to the bowl and, like striking cobras, jumped at his eyes. Soon the room was full of scratching, screaming monsters that twisted around his body and smothered his face. And in a sudden surge of power, they lifted him off his feet and flung him against the wall.
Sam’s head hit something sharp and the laughter stopped.
When Sam awoke he felt dizzy and his head was thumping with pain. He was in a room he didn’t know. It looked like a hotel room, clean and uncluttered. Peering through the bars of the window, he saw the stars outside. The sky was an eerie yellowish grey, swirling with menace. The trees were swaying crazily and the sea was wild– waves were slamming silently on the jagged rocks and exploding into showers of spray.
He was on holiday. Confined in a single room on a bad day. With the wallpaper threatening, a hundred faces sneering, smiling, laughter swelling. He rushed at the faces of his wife, clawed at them and tried to strangle her laughter
Sweat poured from his face, his clothes were saturated and his lungs were heaving. He was slumped in a corner. The laughter was on him, crawling over his body, growing on his fingernails – Pam’s face on every one.
He punched his fists into the walls, stamped his fingers with his feet, but the laughing faces remained.
He chewed on his nails till he had none, but the laughter was spreading like a germ on fast forward. He was the photo, a huge tattoo spreading.
He began biting into his hand. “It’s the cancer of her laugh,” he said to no-one.
“Having a wonderful time,” he said, as if composing words for a postcard to a friend. “The food’s great,” he said, as he swallowed another mouthful of himself.