When they let me out of hospital, I decided to rent somewhere with space to write. Jo, the social worker, helped me find a terraced house in the old part of town, the only one in the row not converted into flats. Gentrification had leapfrogged the area. There were no skips outside the tumbledown houses; no four-by-fours blocking the narrow streets. The shades of my immigrant ancestors spoke to me in the place they’d once made a crowded, warm world of their own.
“Bit big for a youngster like you, on your own,” the landlord said, “Miss…er…”
“Claire Lev,” Jo said.
“Claire…Lev. Millwall…two!” I chanted, using the rising and falling cadence of a football commentator. Okay name for a house, Millwall. Bucolic. Strong.
Jo pursed her lips and shook her head at my display of what the shrink dubbed “knight’s move thinking.”
“Miss Lev.” The landlord leaned away from me, as though I was contagious. He told me a rabbi had lived in the house, which meant that he’d labeled me as Jewish. Once people slot you in like that, the label is like a flashing light in their heads, steering everything they say. I waited for him to ask if I knew the Cohens.“It was about 80 years ago. There were a lot of you people round here then.” You people.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
No one since the rabbi had smartened the house up. The faded, peeling wallpaper looked as if it had been there since the thirties. It was patterned with overblown tea roses that I saw faces in. The bathroom looked even older, with its rust-streaked basin. The bathtub stood on little bunched feet, poised to run.
The attic became my writing room. I scattered rag rugs and beanbags over the floorboards. The light poured in through two huge skylights and blasted the frozen shadows off my brain. Sometimes I’d be writing a poem and in mid-sentence I’d have to stop, as though someone had plucked the thoughts right out of my head.
It didn’t help that the house was full of noise; pipes clanging, stairs squeaking, floors groaning. The cat flap in the back door banged, even on windless days. I rang the landlord and asked him to get rid of it. I heard soldiers marching in one of the bedrooms, but when I went in there was nothing to see, even though I could still hear them. And always the smell of wet mud, the sound of water dripping.
Outside the kitchen was a tiny garden, grass with a couple of anonymous scrawny trees. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. The tablets made me constantly hungry. I decided to go cold turkey, to stop the medication and to try to lose weight.
I never seemed to be able to keep the cracked, dull linoleum on the kitchen floor clean. I washed it every morning, but a few hours later there would be another line of muddy blobs leading from the back door, like animal tracks.
In bed I squirmed, trying to sleep. A mob of problems whirled round my mind. When I had worried about each one, they all took another turn. I stood in the middle as they danced around me, pulling at me, demanding a piece of me in higher – and higher-pitched voices. Bills. Poetry. Weight. Leaky roof. Benefit. Noise in the house. Food.
One night, a hand stroked my hair.
“Claire, poor Claire,” the female voice said.
“That’s all you ever say,” I replied. Two old women’s voices discussed a cake recipe. It made my stomach rumble.
I had to have a peanut butter and banana sandwich for lunch, cut diagonally, set on the plate with the red line round the edge, otherwise my nerves would jangle and a band would tighten around my ribs as I forced myself to breathe. The sandwich had to be sliced with one of the blue-handled knives that made me feel safe when I held them. I rummaged about in the drawer but my fingers met one of the solid metal ones. It weighed my hand down and the edges of the handle felt alien. My heart pounded faster as I poked and prodded in the drawer. My mouth dried. I felt sick and the room became fuzzy round the edges.
“Claire, poor Claire,” said the woman.
“She’s useless and you know it,” a new, male voice said. “Can’t even find the right knife.”
I smelled that muddy, earthy odour even though it wasn’t raining. The cat flap banged and movement flickered in the corner of my eye. I grabbed a carving knife and whipped around, jerking the blade forwards.
“Get out!” My voice caught on the lump in my throat as tears rose behind my eyes.
A tiny, human-shaped pile of mud stood by the back door, in front of the cat flap. I dropped the knife, with a clatter that seemed to go on and on. I rubbed the back of my hand across my nose.
The man’s voice started again. “You clumsy, filthy whore. Give up. You’re worthless. Take that knife and slit your—”
“Shut it!” the mud man-thing shouted, “my voice is the only one she needs to hear!”
Silence. I reached down.
“No,” said the mud-thing, “I’ll deal with that.” It kicked the knife under the fridge.
I backed away, my fists clenched, until I was pressed against the wall. The thing walked towards me.
“Look at me,” it commanded. Its eyes glowed red. Warmth ran through my veins. I breathed out and my heartbeat slowed.
“Don’t be scared. Forget the others, they’re gone. I’m your helper. Better let you see my job description. Here are my personal specifications and objectives.”
The top of its head opened. It reached inside, pulled out a roll of parchment, and handed it to me.
“Careful. It’s written in a special ink made out of oak galls, copperas and gum arabic. You won’t find them down in the shops.” The orange-tinted parchment was peppered with the hair follicles of the animal from which it came, as if hit by a tiny shotgun. The black, square letters were written with a sweeping hand: broad upstrokes and narrow downstrokes. Some were embellished with crown shapes at the top. Others stretched, giving a solid edge to each column of text.
My Hebrew was as rusty as the taps in the bathroom and my shaking hands made it hard to read, but I made out the letters: gimel, lamed, mem…
“You’re a golem?”
It nodded. “Call me Rishon. Don’t you know who lived here? Rabbi Yossi, one of the greatest twentieth-century mystics. He made me. I’m a servant made out of non-living stuff by magic.”
Okay. What would I have to say to get rid of it? I tried to dredge some Hebrew from my memory.
“Gleeda!” I shouted.
“Ice cream? You’ll have to get your own. But I’ll protect you, if you let me stay.” It spoke as if it was reading my mind.
“You? How? Jump up and bite attackers on the kneecap?”
“Now you’re being sizeist. I can’t help it if I’m only twelve inches high. I’m a mock-up; a prototype. Rabbi Yossi wanted to make the perfect golem. That’s why I can speak. The others couldn’t. He died before he could make the full-sized version. I’ll protect you from Cossacks, expulsion, blood libel, and the voices in your head. I can help round the house.” It ran its hand across a cupboard door and stared at the place where its fingertips would be. It tutted. “I do cleaning as well.”
“Those your footprints all over the kitchen floor?”
“Sorry about that, but I had to get in quickly. Couldn’t stop to wipe my feet.”
“Why were you in the garden?”
“Where else could I go? I was minding my own business in the attic. For eighty years I’ve been up there, but then you had to go and use it as a study. Couldn’t stay up there with you tapping at your keyboard all day. It’s like being inside a ticking clock.” It put its hands up to where its ears would have been.
“I’ve been hiding in the garden, but it keeps raining. I’m made of clay. The rabbi never got round to firing me in the kiln, so I have to come in out of the wet. I’m a priceless ethnic artefact, you know. And I’m not an it, I’m a he.”
“If you stay, do I have to tie a bit of red string round my wrist? Kabbalah, and all that?”
“Kabbollocks. Made-up nonsense. Anyway, I’ve got work to do. Now that I’ve shut up that lot of voices in your head, I’ll go get rid of the barmy army in the bedroom.” He reached out an upturned hand and twitched the curled fingers towards himself. “Scroll. Give.”
I passed it to him and he put it back inside his head. It clicked shut. The stairs creaked as he made his way upstairs.
I listened for Rishon, coming up and down, in and out through the cat flap, while I worked. And the poetry flowed. Now that there was silence in my head, instead of the crushing band around my ribs I felt a painless silver belt around my brain, squeezing ideas out, yet at the same time holding them back so that they didn’t all erupt at once. Everything in sight glowed, sunshine dancing on glass.
Rishon reappeared one morning as I was looking out the kitchen window at the gnarled, pallid leaves sprouting on the stunted trees. The doorbell rang. He ran out through the catflap.
I opened the front door a few inches. The community nurse put her hand through, showing her ID. I peered around.
“I’m Vikki,” said the woman by the nurse’s side. “I’m your befriender.”
I let them in. I didn’t look at the woman. If she spoke, I didn’t hear it.
“Let’s talk about your treatment plan.”
The nurse started some spiel about empowerment. About concordance between service user and caregiver. She gave me new tablets. I had to take one a day.
“You’re a bit isolated here. Pop into the Day Centre, it’ll do you good. They’ll send transport for you. Get to know people, learn new skills.”
When the bus came, I wouldn’t open the door. “You should go,” Rishon said. “Make friends. Maybe meet a nice young man.”
“I don’t want to meet someone like me. I’m fine here. I’ve got my poetry. And you. It’s perfectly okay.”
Rishon clambered onto the kitchen worktop and shuffled forward till his face was up against mine.
“Now look,” he shouted. I could see inside his mouth. “You have to do more with your life than skulk around here all day. When you do creep outside it’s only to scuttle to those pokey little shops. Get out! Look at nature! You might pick up some ideas for poems!”
“No, you look, Mister Perfect Golem. I do have a choice about all this, and I’m not going. I don’t want to write about how it feels to sit in one of those care-in-the-community buses with people gawping at me.”
“Why don’t you learn to drive, then?”
“I can drive. Used to have a car.”
“Stolen, was it? I’m not surprised, around here.”
“Sort of, but it happened where I used to live, before I went into hospital. One night the police took my car away. By the next morning, before I got up, they’d replaced it with one that looked exactly the same, only, they could control it. So I had to get rid of it.”
“That’s clever of them, considering they couldn’t catch a one-legged burglar with his arms tied behind his back.” Rishon picked up my tablet box and looked inside. “You’re meant to take these every day, you know. Get yourself a glass of water.” He pushed the box towards me.
A week later, the Vikki woman came back. I shouted at her to go away, but she said she couldn’t hear me. I opened the door. A shove at the back of my knees ejected me, staggering and stumbling, onto the path. The door slammed shut.
“Let me in!” I shouted through the letterbox. “Please! I haven’t got my key!”
“Go on, now! Get some fresh air,” Rishon called, from inside the house. “It’s a sunny day, I’m off into the garden. I’ll open the door—later.”
I stood up. Breathed in. Breathed out. Turned around.
Vikki looked to be in her mid-thirties, slim, with blonde hair tucked into a knitted teacosy hat. Her woolly tights were zigzagged with colour, like the patterns you see when you press on your eyelids.
“Hello, again. Walk with me?”
“Is your name short for Victoria?”
“Not short for anything. I’m just Vikki.”
“Just Vikki’s an okay name.”
She smiled. “Does this mean you’ll come for a walk?”
I nodded. “I’m on a drug called aripiprazole. Okay name for a man, that. Sounds Greek.”
“Nah, nobody’d be able to spell it.”
We walked up the street, the wind scudding cans and empty crisp packets across the pavement in front of us. Our path lit up, then dimmed, as clouds tore across the sun.
I’d never noticed the park entrance at the end of the street before. The park was deserted, except for old men sitting on benches and people with nowhere else to go. Vikki pointed to a seat outside.
“We won’t go in this time. Let’s sit here. Recovery is like climbing a flight of stairs. You have to take one step at a time.”
I turned my face upwards and closed my eyes. The sun shone red through my eyelids. Vikki told me about her ceramics studio and the class she ran.
“I write poetry,” I said. “Here’s one about the shrink at the loony bin:
“Take head off, bin man,
“They call that a clang association.”
“Don’t you start. That’s bin man talk. But Clang Association would make a good name for a band.”
We talked about music. The sunlight drained away. Coatless, I shivered in the wind.
It began to rain and we ran back down the street.
I hammered on my door. No reply.
Vikki made up for saying that naff thing about climbing stairs by riffling in her bag, taking out some pottery tool, sliding it between the frame and the door, and opening it. If that was a skill they taught at the Day Centre, I might just go. I didn’t ask her in. I stepped into the house and slammed the door.
A note lay on the kitchen table. The landlord had nailed the catflap in the back door shut.
I hurled the door open and rushed into the garden. A puddle of wet clay lay on the ground. A bit of yellowing paper, washed clear, lay to one side. I stood, water running down my face.
I scooped up the mud and the paper and stashed them in a plastic bag at the back of the cupboard under the eaves. Alone in the silent house for the first time.
Vikki’s guiding me back into the world. We’ve been out for coffee. We’ve been shopping at Tesco’s. I entered a poem about her in a competition; I’m still waiting to hear if I’ve won. She’s a shoulder to lean on, someone to trust. She believes in me as a whole person, with true abilities.
As I believed in Rishon the golem, who showed me the way.
I’ve started Hebrew lessons. I’ve been copying the bit of Genesis (Chapter 17, verse 1, actually) that says “walk before me and be perfect.” I’ve nearly got it right. Between that and Vikki’s pottery class, I’m hardly in the house these days. I’ve made friends at Hebrew class, but the potters won’t sit with me. “She’s weird,” they say. “All she makes is little clay men.”
I’m practising. Until I can make perfect.
First appeared in Stupefying Stories, August 2012.