I had to go mad. It was the only sensible option. The weekly grilled cheese entered under the door.
“Thank you, Dory. You make the best cheese toastie in my world. Then again. My world extends from this wall to that,” I gave the painted door a smile. It smiled back as it always did. Stoic would describe the metal door. It was always there to listen, never said a word.
My withered hands picked at the paper around the toasted sandwich. “My, aren’t you beautiful.”
“Hands off, buddy. You’re not my type.” It was the grilled cheese, toasted slices baring ham teeth at me in a show of menace.
“It’s nothing personal,” I assured the meal. “I’m just hungry.”
“I bet you are,” said the sandwich. “But I don’t want to die.”
“How are you talking,” I asked it. “I’ve been talking to the door and walls for years. I’d given up expecting a response.”
Two burnt, brown eyes considered the best response to my question. “Basically, the Buddhists have it right.”
“That’s not enough information. I’m sorry, Mr Toastie, can I call you that? I’ve been in here a long time. You’ll have to explain.”
“Buddhists have a concept called animism. It means everything has a soul. Everything has purpose and intention.” The two slices of bread flapped with every syllable. I was shocked to say the least.
“Like toy story?” I asked.
“Yes and no,” it said. Try to imagine a toasted sandwich shrugging. “By the way, inmate. What are you in for?”
“My crime?” I asked. My brain trawled through years of memories for anything past the four walls around me. “I honestly can’t remember. I suppose that means it was something heinous.”
“Don’t think you’ll be adding me to your list of victims.” Mr Toastie glared at me.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” I raised my hands in mock surrender. “Wait a minute.” I looked around at my paintings all over the walls. Portraits of imagined people, plants and creatures stared blankly back. “Could they all talk this whole time?”
“You miserable bastards,” I cried. “I gave you life. I made you what you are. And you ignored me? When I talked, you listened, and sat in silent mockery? I bared my soul to you night after night. You said nothing.”
Every eye that I had painstakingly sketched with pencil turned away.
“So, you’ve all been giving me the silent treatment for years?” I folded my arms. “That’s just great, isn’t it? I give you life, and you give me the silent treatment.”
“Relax,” said a knight in eldr ch armour. “We’ll talk to you now. We always talked while you slept. We sang to you.”
“You did, Sir Gadabad?” I asked.
“We all did,” the knight removed his impossibly spikey helmet and revealed a chiselled face I had not drawn. “Didn’t we, everyone?”
Every face turned back to look at me. “YES,” they all said in unison.
“Princess of the water?” I said to a nude I’d drawn by a stream.
“Yes, Creator. I am here. If you don’t mind, I’ll be putting my clothes on now.” She turned; face flushed with tints of red that were not from my hand. She waded into the water. I turned away. “You may look now,” she said, after a moment. “I decided my name is Vera.”
“Wonderful to meet you, Princess Vera.” I bowed my head to her. The dress was silver fish scales and silk sleeves. Her tiara was thorny but delicate.
I sat on the shelf that had been my bed for longer than I could remember. Creatures of my mind reintroduced themselves. Everyone had a name, some that I had given, others that they had decided upon.
“I ran out of space,” I said, when every introduction had been made. “You can move, does that mean you could make space for new work?”
None of them answered me. I realised that any alteration of the world might mean the death or disfigurement of them. Scattered on the floor were my sketchbooks. Simple paper pads given to me over the years. Every book was filled to the brim with ideas. My world lived in the pages and on the walls.
“Are you gonna eat me or what?” Asked the toastie.
“You said you didn’t want me to eat you,” I replied. My eyebrow rose.
“Changed my mind, a sandwich has the right to that. I want to fulfil my destiny.”
“Are you sure,” I asked. My stomach grumbled.
“I’m sure. Eat me.”
Picking up the sandwich in both hands, I inhaled the heady scent. Cheese poked from the edges as I squeezed.
The first bite was delicious.
“Are you alright?” I asked, swallowing.
“Never better,” said the bitten toastie. “Quick. Finish me before I get cold.”
I ate my new friend. Cheap cheddar with reconstituted ham tasted of magic and freedom to me.
Time flew by as I talked with my friends. The stream flowed. Grass blades I’d painted individually wagged in the wind. Birds flapped through my azure sky. I painted the ceiling. As night fell, somewhere out in the real world, stars blinked.
I forgot that there was anything beyond those walls. The world I’d left behind came back for me.
A doctor arrived. A clipboard clacked with the taps of a clicky pen. ‘Historic injustice’ was mentioned. I didn’t understand. He tried to touch me. He tried to hold my hand.
I remember screaming. Hands held my arms and tried to rip me from my world. They brought my sketchbooks but left my friends on the walls. My tears as men entered my room with tins of white paint prompted a needle.
I’m on antipsychotic medication. It makes me tired. When I talk to the people in my sketchbooks, they do nothing. They’re as good as dead.
I have a reflection. A face I haven’t seen in forty years looked back at me from the mirror. My fist broke the lying glass into a thousand shards. I am not that old man.
I was eighteen when I was sent to live in solitary. I am seventy-four.
I’ve stopped taking my medication.
I must go mad.
It’s the only sensible option.
I miss my friends.