The Comfort Zone

Entry by: Tauren

9th November 2016
Paul glanced out the window as he lifted the plate from the water, it was a beautiful early autumn afternoon, the street outside alive to the sound of children freed by the mid-term break, and as he began to scrub, decided he would go to the shops after all.
He swished the scourer across the face of the plate seven times in a circular anti-clockwise motion, counting aloud as he did, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” When he`d finished, he turned the plate over and scrubbed the underside, this time clockwise, once again, seven times, and like before counting aloud as he did.

After rinsing, he placed it in the rack on the draining board, reached into the near scalding sudsy water, his searching hand finding the knife he`d used to butter the toast, pulling it clear, his hand lobster red. With a fingertip sponge he swabbed the handle seven times, again counting in time to each stroke, then repeating the ritual with the blade; until, with a relieved sigh, he dropped it handle first into the racks utensil cubby.

With a tea-towel he patted the back of his right hand, then his left; then the palm of his left, before finally his right, seven times each, again counting aloud in time to the "Pat, pat, pat," sound. When he finished he chucked the now soiled cloth into the waiting maw of the washing machine.
Once, his sister Maeve, who had watched in horrified fascination as he`d performed this ritual had asked, “Why don’t you get a dish washer, save yourself all that trouble?”
“Because I couldn’t see the dishes being washed,” he`d told her, “I`d never KNOW they were actually clean.”
He had toyed with the idea of buying disposable utensils, the hermetically sealed pack type that came with their own napkin, but he hated the sensation of the flimsy plastic knife and fork, so hadn’t bothered.

From a drawer he pulled a carrier bag, the heavy duty ones that cost 35cent, that had been folded down to the size of a handkerchief so neatly, it looked as if it had been ironed, placing it on the end of the kitchen table.
He glanced around the room, satisfying himself that everything was in order and went out into the hall, turned right and passed through the living room, heading for the back hall.

He checked the back door; it was locked, even though he could see the key in the lock he touched it anyway to be sure it existed. Satisfied he pulled the connecting door shut, it “Clunked” satisfactorily. When he`d bought the house four years earlier he`d had all the flimsy interior laminate doors replaced by solid pine one`s, a terror of housefires being another of his phobias.

In the living room, he inspected the window, it was shut, the latch handles closed, nevertheless, powerless to do otherwise, he tested each handle in turn, they were as closed as they looked. Satisfied, he toured the room inspecting the sockets, pulling the plugs on the T.V. and the Sky box, something the installer had explicitly told him not to do, waiting until the red standby lights on both faded out. At the doorway he checked the light-switch, the light was obviously out, but he tested the switch with his fingers anyway, then pulled the door on that room shut.

Back in the kitchen he checked the sockets, unplugging the kettle but not the fridge, microwave or the washing-machine; the fridge for obvious reasons, the microwave because it was the only clock in the room and he would have to reset it every-time if he did, and the washing-machine because the plug was under the counter, and going under there, where a hellish world of dirt and cobwebs lurked, would necessitate having a shower afterwards.
He checked the window, again testing the handles, they were in the closed position, again, though he could see the wall-switch for the cooker and the light switch were both in the off position, he ran his fingers over them anyway. Content, he picked up the carrier bag as he left, pulling this door shut.

The little front hall was gloomy with all the doors closed, the only light coming through the half-moon glass panel in the top of the front door. He stepped out of his slippers into his slip on shoes, a bone of contention between his therapist Dominic and himself. Dominic told him he was using the slip-ons as a crutch, that he should get back into lace-ups, but Paul had refused.
It wasn’t so much the tying and re-tying of the laces that Paul objected to, it was that the laces were so close to the ground, that they would pick up all kinds of germs, didn’t Dominic know what was on the ground, what animals did; he surely couldn’t expect him to touch anything so dirty.
They had decided to tackle this issue at a later date.

He slipped on his coat, the grey knee length one, putting the folded carrier bag into his right pocket, then buttoned the coat, starting at the bottom. It was when he reached for his keys, which hung on a hook to the right of the door that the panic attack struck.
Suddenly dizzy, his heart accelerating alarmingly and his chest aching, he struggled for breath; if he hadn’t had one before he might have thought he was having a heart attack.
Which was what he`d thought he was having the first time it had happened eight years ago when he was nineteen. The works first-aider had thought so too and called an ambulance, but the attack passed before it arrived, though as a precaution they took him to the hospital anyway.
Now he closed his eyes, made a fist, pressing his knuckles against the wall, leaning on them, concentrating on his breathing, focusing on slowing it. He could almost hear Dominic`s voice in his head, “Deep breath in, hold it, release as slowly as possible, deep breath in.” As his breathing eased he began to sing softly to himself, a nursery rhyme, something he used to distract himself….

“Hush, little baby, don't say a word, Mama's going to buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird won't sing, Mama's going to buy you a diamond ring.
If that diamond ring turns brass, Mama's going to buy you a looking glass.
And if that looking glass gets broke, Mama's going to buy you a billy goat.
If that billy goat won't pull, Mama's going to buy you a cart and bull…..”

He stopped singing, his heart had subsided back to something close to its normal rhythm, his head cleared and he opened his eyes. Forcing his shoulders to relax, he thought, It`s okay, I`m fine; but then a treacherous voice, one he`d come to know too well piped up, “Did you check upstairs?”
Yes I did, he thought.
“Are you sure?” it asked, as always it sounded like a sly old fox.
Yes, he thought again, I`m sure, but the seed of doubt was already sprouting, its roots burrowing into his subconscious, wickedly undermining his willpowers foundation.
“Are you Sure you`re Suuure?” it drawled the last word, teasing it out; he could hear the smirk in its tone, “you were sure the last time, remember?”

He had been sure that day two years ago, sure he`d checked everything, but as he`d pulled the garden gate closed behind him he`d glanced up and saw the window in the spare bedroom slightly ajar. That had precipitated the worst panic attack ever, undoing him so completely that he spent the next four hours in the shower, emerging only when his skin could take no more scrubbing, the pain keeping him awake for more than twenty four hours until he collapsed with exhaustion. If he hadn’t had an appointment with Dominic three days later, it is quite possible he might never have left the house again.

He knew there was no point in fighting it; things would only get worse until indecision paralysed him, best to concede now.
“Damnit,” he cursed aloud, “Damnit, damnit, damnit.”

He unbuttoned the coat from the top down, put his slippers back on and trudged up the stairs. On the landing he paused, all the doors were shut.
Which should mean I`ve already checked, he thought, but knew the futility of logic in the face of unreason, and headed for the box-room anyway.

The small room’s window was closed, but still he tested the handle, and though he had never plugged anything into any of the room’s sockets, he checked them too, finally as he left he fingered the light-switch; safely off, he shut the door.

The spare-bedroom was next, everything was as it should be, he went through his ritual, lastly testing the light-switch before pulling that door closed.

His bedroom, the only occupied upstairs room was next, again the window was shut, the only things plugged in were his bedside lamp and digital clock, his questing fingers tested the wall-switch as he left, sighing as he closed that door.

Last but not least, the bathroom; the little opaque window over the toilet was closed just like all the others. As it was the last one he gave it an extra hard push, it didn’t budge. No sockets here and because the light-switch was in the hall he shut the door, tested the double switch, hall and bathroom, before relieved, he went back downstairs.

Of course because he had broken the sequence in which things had to be done, he was compelled to go through his downstairs ritual all over again, but finally he was ready once more.
He had his outdoor-shoes on, he had his coat on, buttoned from the bottom up, he had his keys; he patted his pocket, he had the carrier bag. The carrier bag, the carrier bag was already in his pocket? That wasn’t right.

“No,” smirked the voice, “the bag shouldn’t be in your pocket, the bag is out of order, the bag is dirty, you can`t use the bag now, its unclean, where has it been while you were upstairs?”
A sob of desperate frustration escaped him then; it was the sound of hopeless surrender.

He unbuttoned his coat from the top down, stepped from his outdoor shoes to his slippers, carried the offending bag to the pedal bin, dumping it before retrieving another from the drawer, setting it on the table.

Right then he considered not going out that day, he could go tomorrow; yes the weather forecast is equally fine for tomorrow, he thought. But then thought, No, no I`m going to the shops today and that’s that.
He set his shoulders, not feeling at all as confident as he hoped he looked, and marched up the stairs towards the box room; this time he would do everything right.
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