I began my PhD in the summer of 2014. The topic was Ecology and Genetics of Insect Predators. I intended to focus on the ladybird, latin name Coccinellidae, as I would refer to it in my thesis, and my aim was to develop a renewable pest management system. I chose Stephen as my supervisor because of a fascinating lecture he had given us on predator/prey relationships and also, as silly as it sounds, he reminded me of my childhood sweetheart, Tom, who had lived next door to me in St Kilda. Stephen had a reputation in the department as being a little ‘different’. He kept a uloborid spider in a jar in his office and trapped small insects to feed it. He had made the spider lazy as it did not have to hunt for prey. When I first visited him to discuss my PhD topic Stephen talked mostly about the spider and how it does not use venom on its prey, but instead wraps its victim in huge amounts of silk, up to 450 feet of it, creating a type of bondage-death-cocoon. The process takes over an hour and kills by suffocation.
Part of me felt sorry for Stephen because it was common knowledge that his wife had left him to be with her family when she got brain cancer. Rumour had it that she didn’t think Stephen was capable of taking care of her properly, which was a slap in the face to Stephen. The word on the street was that Stephen was too preoccupied with his work to look after his wife when she became unwell, that her brain cancer was a serious, a terminal, condition. Some people said he should have taken time off work to look after her and to be with her during her dying days, but I didn’t want to pass judgment. The implication was that he only cared about himself and not about others. I felt that people were being too hard on Stephen, and I had noticed the signs of depression in him, the fading eyes and the drooping shoulders and so, when he was my PhD supervisor I worked hard to cheer him up.
I would crack jokes in an effort to make Stephen laugh. Then I started giving him back rubs and things progressed from there. Before I really knew what was happening we were engaged in an ill-advised affair. I knew that it wasn’t a good idea and could influence my PhD grade, not necessarily in a positive manner. What would happen if the affair came to an end? I knew as well as anybody that these things can turn nasty when they finish, with bitter and acrimonious feelings involved and I did not know how it was going to turn out with Stephen.
My PhD progressed slowly. At times I felt as if I was drowning in research notes. I didn’t see my own friends very often while I was seeing Stephen; he didn’t like it. He said I should be busy with my PhD and that he could fulfill all my needs. A couple of times, early on in the relationship, I caught him checking my mobile phone. When he saw that I had been texting a friend called Gus he flew through the roof, even though the texts were harmless.
“Gus!” he screeched. “I have never heard of Gus! Tell me who is this Gus that you were texting at 9.57pm?”
“Gus is Augustus Marshall,” I said. “An old friend from high school. We don’t keep in touch that often I just wanted to know how he was doing. He’s just started a new job.”
“Augustus is it?” he mocked. “Oh fancy, like Augustus Gloop? Bring on the oompa loompas”
He curled his index finger under my chin and brought his face in close to mine.
“Listen sweetheart, I don’t want you contacting any strangers, and especially not strange men.”
“But Gus isn’t a stranger, he’s…”
“I don’t care what you say. He’s a stranger to me. You’re not to contact him again. I forbid it.”
This was a new side to Stephen that I was seeing. Even though it was controlling, I justified his behavior by telling myself that he only did it out of love. He didn’t want to lose me. He saw Gus as a threat and he didn’t want me to begin an affair. I felt sorry for him. He seemed to really need me. He told me about how his wife had been faking how sick she was as an excuse to skive off her responsibilities. I felt like I needed some space from him so when my friend Sophie asked me out for a girl’s night I jumped at the chance. I just needed to go out and forget the intensity of it all. Sophie and I went shopping for some new outfits.
We had a ball. I hadn’t hung out with Sophie in ages. We found this great new clothes shop that hadn’t been around that long. Trying lots of dresses on I found the one I liked – a light grey colour, tight fitting with an asymmetrical hemline. We indulged in some new make-up too and I bought a new bra. We dined for lunch at the Rave Café and then Sophie and I went our separate ways, planning to catch up later that night at the pub.
I stopped in to see Stephen on the way home. I had dropped off the first draft of my PhD for him to check two weeks earlier. Arriving at the university I ran up the stairs, excited to see Stephen. Entering the lab I smiled and gave him a big hug.
“I’ve been shopping with Sophie,” I blurted out. “It was so fun – we brought a new outfit each to go out in tonight.”
I pulled the dress out of the bag as I was talking and my new bra fell out too.
His face dropped and darkened. “What’s this?” He said as he stooped down to pick it up.
“So you are going out with Sophie and you brought a tarty dress and some new lingerie?” he asked accusingly.
“Yes.” I said quietly, the excitement draining out of my body. “We are going to have a girl’s night – it was her idea.” I added as an afterthought as I sensed his disapproval.
“I don’t want you going out with Sophie.” He said “I’ve seen her around campus and she’s always talking to males, flirting, I don’t trust her. She’s a tart.”
Silence. I didn’t know what to say.
“Why don’t you want to spend all your free time with me?” He continued.
“Well it’s already been planned.” I said quietly.
“What? Speak up girl, stop muttering.” He answered
I suddenly plucked up some courage. Why was he treating me like this? I was not a child who needed telling off. He used to be so nice.
“I’m sorry Stephen I’m going,” I said.
He shot me a filthy look and turned his back on me. “By the way the latest draft of your PhD was not crash hot, maybe you need to spend time doing research rather than hanging out with that tramp.” I was offended, Sophie was my friend and she wasn’t a tramp. I couldn’t believe he was jealous of my girlfriends.
I left the room. I had to get away. I loved him but I felt guilty. Why should I feel guilt?
Jessica was perfect. She had a perfect body. She had a perfect soul. She had flown through her undergraduate degree with First Class Honours. I had noticed her about the department as an undergraduate and had my eye on her, sizing her up. She used to wear tartan mini skirts with high heeled boots and V-neck skivvies in the winter and flowing patterned cotton dresses in the summer. I liked the way she dressed. She stood out from the crowd a little; at least for me.
My wife was becoming even more helpless and demanding. After work I would come home tired, expecting things done as they had been done for years. She had always been a dutiful wife. A great cook and a tidy housewife. But now her sickness had made her selfish and lazy. She was lying in bed feeling sorry for herself and whenever I tried to get her up to help me with the mountain of chores that were actually her jobs she would just tell me to have more sympathy and to google her sickness Glioblastoma multiforme. She told me it was a very serious condition that was fatal and would kill her in just a few months. Apparently that’s what the specialists had told her the ones she had being seeing for weeks. The ones that had almost drained our bank account from all their fees. They were probably all making it up to make money out of us I didn’t believe she was that sick. I’m sure it was just an excuse. I had never gone to the doctors with her even though she had asked me too. I was too busy at work, she should have known that. Also something that she didn’t know I was having a fantastic time with Jessica. The sweet naïve young thing – her innocence intrigued me. Her oblivious gullible opinion of me. She was still young enough and inexperienced enough to believe in true love. It was great – she was putty in my hands.
My wife was really beginning to get on my nerves. She was becoming a drain and I did not know how I could care for her. I could not tend to all her needs – she was so demanding. She seemed to want me to do everything for her and would not try to help herself. Sometimes I just wanted her to go to sleep and never wake up. One evening I took some chloroform from the biology lab home with me. I thought I would be doing her a favour by putting her to sleep until such time as a cure for brain cancer had been found. I waited until she was sleeping, then poured chloroform onto a hanky and smothered her nose and face with it. When I was sure she was unconscious (by shaking her to see if she would wake) I wrapped her body in silk, then slung her over my shoulder and carried her downstairs to the deep freeze. I opened the door of the freezer and placed her body inside, then closed the door. She would sleep soundly until it was time to wake up – when a cancer cure had been found. Now I could concentrate on my relationship with Jessica; spend more time with her so she would not want to go out on girl’s nights.
I texted Jessica and told her that my wife had gone to France where her family could care for her in her illness. That’s what I would tell everybody to avoid suspicion. I thought that Jessica would be happy to hear this as it would mean that we could then be together. Jessica thought that my wife had gone away very suddenly and she pondered why I wasn’t actually caring for her.
A few weeks went by before I informed the authorities about Stephen’s wife’s disappearance. After the body was found in the freezer, there was a lengthy investigation and trial, the upshot of which was that Stephen was ordered to a psychiatric institution for an indeterminate length of time, rather than being given a fixed jail sentence. He was sectioned under an inpatient compulsory treatment order. He wasn’t happy about it.
“At least a jail term has an end date,” he complained.
They sent him to Hillmorton. The first treatment order was extended to a second after Stephen played up and did not do as he was told in hospital where the staff liked everybody to follow orders, nice and obedient, then the second order was extended into a third indefinite one. It looked like he would be in there for the rest of his life.
We wrote letters to each other and I tried to cheer him up and tell him that the end could be in sight, but he thought I was just feeding him false hope. They had locked him in seclusion or solitary confinement after he had lost control and thrown a chair at a nurse. It went without saying that he hated the place and could not wait to get out. I encouraged him to make his room nice so that he would have a sanctuary in that pit of hell and sent him postcards and posters he could pin to the walls. I still had feelings for Stephen, even though I knew he had murdered his wife. I knew that in his own mind, his actions had been justified and he had thought that he was just putting her to sleep for a spell of time until a cure for brain cancer could be found. In his scientific eagerness, in his absentmindedness, he had overlooked the fact that the deep freeze could actually kill her. Or had he? This was the fact that the jury had debated for hours and eventually they had decided that a man of Stephen’s intelligence should definitely have foreseen that his actions could lead to his wife’s death. However, after Stephen’s performance in the courtroom, they had not been convinced of his sanity and had decided to send him to Hillmorton.
I visited him just twice. I was not sure if the nurses would let me through to his room but they did. The first time I visited was after he’d been in there a year. We had been writing letters to each other and Stephen, who could be persuasive, convinced me to go and visit him.
I perched awkwardly on the end of the bed and tried to make small talk about movies I had been to see, when in reality I was fighting back the tears, seeing Stephen in this reduced state. He was drugged up to the eyeballs and could hardly speak. He had gained an enormous amount of weight and carried a psychotropic beer belly that hung out over his pyjama bottoms and wore a sad looking pair of worn out fluffy bunny slippers on his feet that made him look like a jaded clown. I asked him what medications they had him on but he said he couldn’t remember. He asked about the spider right away and I said I had been looking after it properly and feeding it hefty doses of insects each day. I told him that it was looking fat and healthy and was thriving in its new environment. He seemed happy with this news. He said he didn’t think they were ever going to set him free, that he thought he would never see the outside world again, and that he consoled himself with small walks around the courtyard, sometimes picking flowers, daffodils and jonquils from the garden to take back to his room.
“I never intended to kill her,” he said, looking me straight in the eye. “It was an accident. That’s why I think my punishment is too over the top. That’s why I get angry at the staff here. I don’t see that justice is being done. I’m sick of being treated like a little child. Locked away forever from society. Labelled dangerous – a big sticker stuck to my forehead. I’m sick of being labelled. My career is ruined. Even if I did get out, I’d never find work again. I wish I’d never met my wife, then none of this would have happened. I’m not saying there weren’t good times, but look at what the relationship led to in the end. The destruction of both of us.”
I tried my best to console him. I reached out and stroked his hair, then brought his head in close to my chest.
“Remember the good times,” I said. “I’ve seen the photos of the two of you together taking a cycling tour across Europe when you were young, having picnics in the park, sailing on the Rhine. It all looks so romantic, the early days of your marriage. The golden years. People would pay good money to have those memories.”
“It’s all been tainted,” he said negatively.
“It’s just your frame of mind,” I said. “You’re down in the dumps from being stuck in this place and who wouldn’t be? Perhaps I can help you get into meditation. I’ll send a tape.”
“You’ll have me into yoga next! No, I just make myself content with my daily ambles and my nonsensical conversations with the other inmates. One of them’s a maestro on the piano. If you stick around you might get to hear her bash out a tune.”
It was nearly lunchtime and something slightly manic in Stephen’s demeanour was beginning to make me feel uncomfortable. I excused myself and said that I had to get to Canterbury University to catch up with another lecturer who was teaching on a similar topic to me. I had landed a job as a junior lecturer after completing my PhD. Stephen’s trial had taken place before he’d finished supervising me, so I’d had to change supervisors and had finished up under the tutelage of Philip Watson who did a good job of helping me see the project through to its conclusion.
It was six months later when I visited Stephen again. We had continued to write to each other. In some of his letters he had professed his love and signed off with kisses. I hadn’t reciprocated, but I still felt that I should visit him as his was no doubt an odd and lonely life, locked away in Hillmorton for a crime he professed not to mean to commit. It was an overcast day; drizzle fell from the sky, coating everything in a fine spray. I had made the drive up from Dunedin the night before and was staying in a small unit at the Bella Vista motel. It wasn’t fancy but it was practical, clean and tidy and it suited me fine. I dressed in a simple navy wool suit to keep out the winter chill and topped it off with a woolen hat which had been a gift from my aunt. I drove to Hillmorton, parked in the carpark and walked briskly to the entrance. A nurse greeted me at the door.
“Hello, can I help you?” she asked in an authoritative tone.
“I’m here to see Stephen Barker,” I said.
“And you are?”
“Gillian Miles. A friend.”
“Alright,” she said in an icy tone. “Come through.”
I met Stephen in the hallway. He carried something in his arms – I could not see what it was. As I drew closer I saw that it was a length of fabric. He laid it on the ground and encouraged me to lie down on it.
“Won’t you lie down on this beautiful silk and rest your tired body a while?”
Laura Solomon has a 2.1 in English Literature (Victoria University, 1997). Her books include Black Light, Nothing Lasting, and Alternative Medicine and eight books out through Proverse Hong Kong. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize twice and has had work accepted in the Edinburgh Review, Wasafiri and Landfall. Her play Sprout was part of the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Her website is here where you will find two free books and short stories available to download.