It has been three days since I left my dear friend Derrick’s house, and never have seventy-two hours been more filled with fear – for him and myself. In almost thirty years of practice I’ve never let a patient get to me like this, never left them to deal with things when I could help them, yet I cannot bring myself to return to the house of one of my oldest friends when he, above all others, needs my help.
I met Derrick Ourbridge decades ago when we were both young pups in University. Our love of rugby had brought us together though our academic pursuits couldn’t have been further apart. Where I studied the sciences of the mind, his own avenues of study were business related, with a few classes devoted to art history on the side. Looking back I can see that I looked down on him slightly for becoming yet another businessman in a world crying out for doctors and lawyers. Had I known then what I know now I might have given up my psychology lectures and joined him in his other interests, especially as those interests had made him a millionaire many times over by the the time he was thirty. Still, we all forge our own way in the world, and where he earned money I cured many people of the mental maladies that ailed them, building a respectable name for myself in my field.
Derrick and I had remained fast friends through the years, I acting as his best man while he became godfather to my dear son, Jason. When Jason went to University himself it was Derrick who consoled me in my loneliness, bringing a bottle of nicely matured, and slightly oak flavoured, whisky with him. Upon the tragic loss of his wife, Joanne, I travelled to his mansion and we spent several days together drinking and talking of better days. Thinking back we were more foul-weather friends than fair-weather, our respective industries keeping us busy until some need called one to the other. So it was that when he sent me a telegram saying he thought he was losing his mind and begging for my professional services, that I cleared my calendar and bought a ticket on the first train out there.
Derrick met me at the railway station in an unexpected jovial mood, pumping my hand furiously and chattering away about his latest acquisition. He kept talking as we loaded my suitcases into his car, continuing as he drove us from the little village and up through the hills to his mansion. Weary from the trip I half-listened to what he was saying, offering non-committed grunts and nods to show my interest. Only as we entered the gates to the mansion did I start listening intently, and then only because of a marked change in his tone. Gone was his cheerfulness, replaced instead by something I’d never heard in his voice for all our years of friendship – fear. He talked of an old painting and how its eyes seemed to follow one around a room, how he’d felt like he was being watched ever since he bought it as part of an estate auction, how strange things had been happening ever since that day. As we entered the house I’m not ashamed to say a shiver went down my spine.
Dinner was a marvelous affair, a full roast chicken with all the trimmings. Our talk was of our victories in our University rugby days as we devoured the tender bird. After dinner we retired to the drawing room and smoked cigars over brandy while our conversation turned back to the painting and he filled me in on why he’d called for my help. Since buying that thing he’d felt that it watched him whenever he was in the room, a fact that had caused him to cover the painting until he could sell it on himself. It was then that the dreams had begun. He’d seen the woman in the painting climb out of the picture, seen through her eyes as she slowly climbed the stairs, watched with horror as she walked along the landing towards his bedroom. Each time as her hand reached out to the door handle he had awoken, covered in sweat and screaming. As he explained all this my eyes were drawn to the large covered painting on the mantle and I shuddered. Visibly shaken, we both turned our conversation back to rugby and filled the ethereal silence with laughter and cigar smoke. When we retired that night to adjoining rooms I don’t think either of us remembered the painting, but my dreams were fitful, haunted by ghostly figures rattling my door.
The next morning, over a breakfast of bacon, sausages and scrambled eggs, neither of us felt like talking. Poor Derrick looked like his night had been much worse than mine, the bags under his eyes telling me that if he’d slept it hadn’t been for long. After we finished breakfast as the maid collected the dishes, we entered the drawing room and approached the painting together. Without speaking we both knew we were going to do what neither of us could summon the courage to do last night. I found myself concentrating on controlling my breathing as Derrick reached up to the painting and pulled off the cover. There she was, the woman who had haunted his dreams these past weeks, and started to infiltrate my own. She wasn’t a pretty lady, though far from repulsive too. Her clothing suggested her as a nurse to some unknown child, though I feel for any child looked after by that monster, for her features were twisted with malice and insanity. A feeling of dread washed over me and it was only the false bravado provided by being close to my old friend that stopped me from stepping back away from the portrait. Immediately upon seeing this apparition I knew there was only one course of action that may save my dear friend’s sanity and I explained this to him. So it was that we both put on our jackets and walking boots, then went out into the hills taking the portrait with us. The fire we built was going strong when we put the painting on it and watched it burn to ashes, and we were both in a much better mood as we returned to the mansion.
I stayed with Derrick for two more weeks and watched the life return to him. Not once did our conversation turn to the woman in the painting, instead staying on sporting victories we’d shared, business successes he’d had and interesting psychological cases I’d discovered. We ate heartily and drank quite a bit more than we should, and soon I was satisfied that, with the painting gone from his life, he was fine again. As I lay in bed one night, contemplating this, I decided it was time to take my leave of Derrick in the morning and resume my own life and resolved to tell him of my decision right then. I went to his door and knocked, soon being answered and instructed to enter. That was the moment that I’ll remember for the rest of my life, the sight that caused me to leave that place right then, screaming as I did so. The sight that caused me, at my age, to lose the contents of my bladder right there in that hallway. The sight that caused me to abandon my oldest friend to his terrible fate, leaving my clothes and suitcases in the room beside his and running out into the night in just my nightclothes.
There was Derrick, sitting up in bed and smiling at me. He gestured to me to enter the room and there, reflected in the mirror, the same action was carried out by the woman from the painting like some grotesque puppet-master controlling her favourite puppet. And there was that grotesque insane smile, mirrored on Derrick’s face as he beckoned me.