An essay by Doctor Rufus Highgate, as provided by Maureen Bowden
Art by Scarlett O’Hairdye
My receptionist bounced through the doorway without knocking. “The new one’s arrived, Doc. He’s a jitterer. D’ya want a slug of Mother’s Ruin before I haul him in?”
I sighed. “Please show our patients some respect, Becki, and no, I don’t require alcohol-induced euphoria in order to cope with a phobia sufferer. I’m fully in control.”
She shrugged. “Whatever you say, but you know where the bottle is, and if a tooth and claw situation develops, yell, and I’ll come a-running.”
She bellowed into the waiting room, “Edwin Pollock. In here, now.”
He shuffled up to my desk. She hovered behind him, ready to spring to my defence if he displayed anti-social tendencies. I said, “Sit down, Mr Pollock. Becki, close the door on your way out.” She slammed it. The patient flinched, then sat.
“Relax,” I said. “I’m here to help. May I call you Edwin?”
He nodded. “You don’t have any breakfast cereal in here, do you?”
“No. Do you want some?”
“What? No. Keep it away from me.” He trembled, and broke into sobs.
“Ah, I understand.”
“Do you? I wish I did.”
“You’re suffering from manifrumentaphobia.”
“Literally, fear of morning grain, in other words, breakfast cereals.”
“Can you cure me?”
“If you trust me and co-operate fully, I believe I can.”
He grabbed my hand. “I’ll do anything, Doc. I can’t live like this. Supermarkets are a nightmare, holiday hotels are hell, and how can I eat healthily when I have to start the day with bacon, sausage, and fried egg?”
“Well, actually, half a grapefruit, a boiled egg, and toast fingers would be healthy enough, but if all goes well, we’ll soon have you tucking into Wheaty Pops.”
I led him to the couch. “How long have you had this problem?”
“For as long as I can remember.”
“It may have been caused by something that happened when you were a child. Lean back and close your eyes. We need to unlock the memory.”
I regressed him through his pouting and sulking adolescence, and his cringing, timid childhood. I knew we’d found the memory when he squealed, “Mammy,” clutched his throat, and began to choke.
“Step away from what’s happening,” I said, “and describe it to me.”
“I is a baby. I swallow something nasty that was in my Wheaties. Mammy holds me upside down and bangs my back. I cough it up.”
“Look at it. What is it?”
“Little man, made of hard stuff. Mammy throws him in the bin. I is scared he climb out and hurt me again.”
“Wake up,” I said.
He awoke, sweating and shaking. “I remember. I must have swallowed a plastic Superman, or some-such, given away free with the Wheaties.”
“And you believed it was still a danger to you?”
He nodded. “I had nightmares about thousands of them, climbing out of cereal boxes, hiding under fridges and in cupboards, waiting to pounce and kill us all.”
I reflected, for the hundredth time, on the jabbering imbeciles lurking inside each of us, waiting to spring through a window of opportunity and take over our rational minds. They’re the real danger, I thought, not plastic Supermen hiding under the fridge.
“That’s enough for today. Edwin. We’ve now established that there’s no basis for your fear, but understanding its origin won’t cure it.” I escorted him to the door. “Make an appointment with my receptionist. We’ll start your therapy next week.”
I opened my bookcase and took the gin bottle from behind Sigmund Freud’s The Ego and the Id. No more than three mouthfuls had traversed my oesophagus before Bouncing Becki invaded my space. “Pollock’s booked in for next Wednesday. What’s his heebie-jeebie?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Manifrumentaphobia? That’s surprisingly common. What will you need?”
“A dozen photos of a Wheaty Pops box, ranging from tiny to actual size. I’ll also need the box. You can keep the contents.”
“I’m on it.”
The following Wednesday Becki led Edwin into my consulting room and handed me a folder of photos. “Good luck,” she said, and bounced out.
“I want you to look at one of these,” I said. “We won’t move onto the next one until you’re comfortable with it.” I handed him a photo containing the image, no bigger than a fingernail, of a cereal box. He peered at it, recognised it, looked away, and whimpered. “Take your time,” I said. “Continue glancing back at it for a few seconds until you become desensitised.”
After half an hour, he could look at the photo without fear, and we repeated the process with a larger image. After two hours, we reached the third photograph. He glanced at it, curled into the foetal position and howled like a banshee. The door swung open, and Becki charged in brandishing the brass candlestick she keeps under her desk in case of emergencies.
“Don’t hit him, Becki,” I screamed. “He’s harmless, and we don’t need another law suit.”
She lowered the candlestick. “Shall we give him the gin?”
“No. Fetch him a glass of water, and please don’t put anything in it.” She means well, but sometimes I suspect she’s as mad as the patients.
I half-carried, half-dragged him to the couch, and Becki cradled his head while he drank. I told him to take slow, deep breaths, and I took his pulse. When it stopped racing, I said, “You’ve done well. Make another appointment for next week.” I gave him the larger of the two images he’d learned to tolerate. “Stick it on your fridge, and keep looking at it.”
After three more sessions, he was able to hold the actual Wheaty Pops box in his hands without having a panic attack. “It’s up to you now, Edwin,” I said. You need to buy yourself a box of cereal. Check there are no plastic super heroes in it, and enjoy your breakfast.”
He shook my hand. “Thank you so much, Doctor Highgate. You’ve changed my life.” He skipped out the door, leaving me with a warm glow inside that wasn’t a result of the gin.
Two days later, Becki intruded. “Pollock called in,” she said. “He left you this as a token of his gratitude. It’s a new brand.” She dropped a box of Coco Crackles on my desk, and bounced out.
I took it home. Next morning, I filled a cereal bowl with Edwin’s gift, and I was about to add milk, when an inch-high figure poked its horned head out of the sugary, brown clusters, and glared at me with malevolent yellow eyes. I screamed and attempted to whack it with my spoon. It eluded me, jumped out of the bowl and ran behind the toast rack. I lunged at it and missed. It jumped off the table and disappeared under the fridge.
What could I do? Becki was right. Manifrumentaphobia is surprisingly common. Now I understood why. It isn’t a phobia. It’s an awareness of a real threat. Edwin was right, too. I must warn them. I must warn the world. The monsters are here. There must be thousands of them, climbing out of cereal boxes, hiding under fridges and in cupboards, waiting to pounce and kill us all.
Dr Rufus Highgate obtained his doctorate through the Open University. He is a renowned psychologist and leading expert in phobias. In 2016, he suffered a psychotic episode, and is currently receiving treatment as an in-patient at Grassendale Mental Health Clinic. It is expected that he will remain there for some time.
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had eighty-four stories and poems accepted for publication by paying markets. Silver Pen publishers nominated one of her stories for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire, set to traditional melodies. Her husband has performed these in Folk clubs throughout England and Wales. She loves her family and friends, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare, and cats.
Scarlett O’Hairdye is a burlesque performer, producer and artist. To learn more, visit her site at www.scarlettohairdye.com.
“Snap and Crackle” is © 2015 Maureen Bowden
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Scarlett O’Hairdye