It was on the Friday when Jean first saw the fishing net on the ceiling. She’d just woken from a nap: glasses sliding down her nose, book squashed on her lap, neck all stiff. Her eyes gradually focused and the net undulated, as if it was floating in water. She blinked several times, trying to concentrate on the wobbling squares of white artex. She couldn’t make any sense of what she was looking at. She closed her eyes and sank back into sleep with vague thoughts about dreams. She remembered the net later but flicked the memory from her mind, dismissing it as something she didn’t have time to dwell on.
On Saturday, coming back from the shops, she was shocked to see a man in her kitchen. He was little more than three feet tall, dressed in a dark frock coat, breeches and a waistcoat. He was leaning back, his head on the cutlery drawer. He was in the way of the kettle. Her heart thumped. She stood completely still, unsure of what to do or say or whether to do or say anything. She decided on her usual approach to new situations, that of doing nothing and seeing what happened.
The man watched her as she pottered around the kitchen. She put away the shopping and made a snack. Since she couldn’t get to the kettle, she poured herself a glass of water. She took her tray through into the living room and nearly tripped into a swimming pool. Steadying the tray, she looked down into the pool. Its ruffling wavelets were clear and aqua but with, she noticed, her paisley rug at the bottom instead of tiles.
She began to wonder what her niece would think if she knew what she was seeing in her bungalow. Over the past thirty years, Susie had become a mother, not only to her son and daughter but also, mysteriously, to Jean. She had begun to tell her what to do as if Jean, now over eighty, was a child again, needing guidance and not understanding those simple things she had known for well over half a century.
Jean decided not to mention the net, the pool and especially the ghost man in the kitchen, if that’s what he was. She began to imagine what Susie would say. She feared what she would do when she found out. She felt she had to tell someone but what would they say?
By Monday the net was back again, this time above her bed. Some creatures were trapped in it. Their squished, fishy faces stared out at her. They scared her. They made no noise but looked as if they wanted to. The net wobbled, as before, and the little faces swivelled and bobbed about. They were more populous around the lampshade, peeping out from between pink pleats. She couldn’t just lie there and stare at them. Whatever they were they were giving her the creeps.
She clicked the bedside lamp off and waited. She didn’t know what she was waiting for. Sleep was impossible. She found a toffee under her pillow, unwrapped it and put it in her mouth. She felt the creatures were still staring at her. She pulled the soft duvet over her head, breathing in Jasmine and Passionflower fabric conditioner. She began to feel a little safer. She reached out from under the bedclothes and switched the CD player on. With her eyes closed, she sucked the toffee and, with Frank Sinatra crooning, everything felt normal again.
The next morning she woke to watch black spheres float around the room and bounce off the dressing table like slow motion snooker balls. She got up and went into the kitchen. The man was still in his place in front of the kettle. She sighed. A whisper of irritation crept into her fear and blossomed slightly.
‘Tea!’ she said, in what she hoped was a forceful way. She leaned round the man and put the kettle on. Why didn’t he move? This was her kitchen after all. Should she offer him a cup? Then she noticed he had brought some friends with him and she knew she didn’t have enough cups. Most of them were women who wore long dresses with just a trace of her kitchen cupboards in the skirts.
The hall had turned into a fast flowing stream that Jean waded through as she took her tea back to the bedroom. She crossed to the window. She had a strong urge to see other people. She just didn’t know what to do. She went to the window to look outside, hoping to see someone walking past or cars in the road. Just anything of the real and outside world. She pulled back the curtain and got a shock that knocked everything else she had seen over the past few days right out of her mind.
In her front garden, obliterating her fuchsias and the pots with herbs in was a pair of enormous tigers. The shock of seeing them was nearly as strong as the surprise at her doing what she did next. She saw her hand go up to the window, form itself into a fist and bang on the glass. There was no response from the tigers.
Despite her fear, a part of her wanted to giggle, an old lady shouting ‘Shoo’ at these two beautiful and terrible tigers. Perfectly still and relaxed, their big soft paws flopped over the path and their rope tails disappeared into next-door’s hedge. The brilliant, orange, black and white stripes made the rest of the garden and the street look dull and sepia toned around them. Jean gasped as one of them yawned, displaying a set of frighteningly sharp, off-white teeth.
What Jean had always thought about tigers, when she’d seen them in pictures or on television, was that if she ever met one, which until a minute ago she had thought unlikely, she’d look into it’s wise, yellow eyes, and feel an urge to touch it. She would want to reach out and stroke the plush fur and soft muzzle, at the same time knowing that the tiger could tear her head off with one lazy, playful swipe.
It was too much. It was the last straw. She couldn’t live with tigers in her garden. She just couldn’t. She made a decision, grabbed her coat and handbag and left by the back door.
‘It’s your brain making up for gaps in your sight. As it tries to make sense of what your eyes can see it throws up all these images. I know it’s a bit disconcerting but I can assure you it’s nothing to worry about.’
Jean wondered, if the doctor had herself seen those tigers, she would have chosen the words ‘a bit disconcerting’ over ‘absolutely terrifying’, but she didn’t like to mention it.
‘It’s a normal reaction to deteriorating sight.’ the doctor continued. Jean bypassed ‘deteriorating sight’ for now and clasped at the word ‘normal’. Never before had she been so happy to hear the word, although she didn’t feel normal sitting in the doctor’s surgery with those black blobs bouncing round the room. There were some shadowy figures in one corner but she didn’t turn to look.
‘It’s called Charles Bonnett Syndrome.’
‘Syndrome?’ Jean echoed, trying to concentrate on the doctor’s words.
‘It’s just called that after the man who discovered it.’ The doctor smiled the same smile Jean often saw on Susie’s face. ‘If only you’d come earlier. We always try to warn people if we can. Had you noticed any change in your sight recently?’
‘Well, yes … but I kept putting it off.’ Jean felt foolish now. She didn’t like to mention her fear of the opticians, of getting those bewildering tests wrong; seeing the wrong light or overreacting to that cold blast of air they forced into your eyes for an unexplained reason.
There was a pause, which Jean felt she should fill but she didn’t know what with. She looked up and noticed the fishing net had followed her on the bus and was hanging from the surgery ceiling. She checked that thought. It was her eyes. Then she remembered the worst fear of all.
‘There are no tigers. They’re not real. People see patterns, figures dressed in different costumes, animals, buildings, landscapes, often bigger or smaller than in reality.‘
This all sounded familiar to Jean. The doctor was still talking, saying something about an appointment with a specialist but Jean couldn’t take in anymore. Just knowing that this happened to other people gave her such a rush of relief.
Around a month later, Jean carefully folded clothes and layered them in her suitcase. The net above her swayed and the tiny faces nodded. They seemed friendlier these days but she usually managed to ignore them. She zipped up the case and dragged it off the bed. She left it in the hall and went to fetch her sandwiches from the fridge.
Jean had been surprised that Susie had listened to her without interruption while she’d explained what had been happening on the phone. She’d even laughed when Jean had told her about Charles. He never answered her when she spoke to him, of course, but someone at the hospital had suggested she talked to the images she saw. A way of dealing with it, they said.
She quite liked the way Charles appeared to be listening to everything she said. Sometimes he even looked as if he was interested but that was probably her imagination. If he ever did answer her, she supposed she would have to go back to the doctors and enquire about hearing tests. She did wonder why Charles couldn’t be taller and the tigers smaller. It would make more sense that way round but she only had her own brain to blame.
The shrill voice of the doorbell cut through her thoughts.
‘That’ll be my taxi. See you in a couple of weeks, Charles.’
She assumed he would be there when she returned from her holiday. Or perhaps he would be in Susie’s kitchen. As she walked to the front door she noticed the stream in the hall had run dry and there was just beige carpet instead. It made it much easier to walk to the front door but it was a bit boring.
She opened the door and said hello to the taxi driver. He took her case and she followed him down the path. She felt nervous as she walked past the tigers. She didn’t look to either side but saw their bright stripes and amazing bulk out of the corners of her eyes, the parts that worked best. She had not yet attempted to speak to them. She looked down at the path and concentrated on the crazy paving at her feet. Crazy paving! She chuckled. And that was real. That had been there forever.
She didn’t know if any of her images would show up while she was away or whether there would be new ones. Nothing really surprised her anymore. It was amazing what you could get used to, she thought, as she got into the taxi. She would never get used to those tigers though.