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The Agoraphobe`s Fear of the Hallway

by Iain MacLeod 

Posted: 20 February 2006
Word Count: 1793

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The shrill whistling of the kettle broke the silence in Alan's flat, and freed him from the stupor of staring incessantly out of the window. He poured himself a cup of tea before shuffling towards the front door to collect the morning’s post, and cursed silently as one letter ripped almost in half as he pulled it from the letterbox. Leafing through the few letters he found that nothing inspired him and so returned to his favourite vantage point: the window in the front room of his three-roomed flat. From there he had a majestic view of the street below, the seemingly endless road filled with shops and bustling crowds. He could feel the familiar stirrings of one of his panic attacks as he gazed down the void-like street; everything seemed to be moving further and further away from him. He quickly washed down one of his tablets with a mouthful of tea. Alan couldn’t help but stare at the tablets on the counter, those little, round and shiny pills which kept his agoraphobia under control. He remembered having a panic attack in the middle of the cereal aisle at the supermarket, the last time he had been outside properly. The embarrassment and the shame made him cringe now, even after eight months. He could remember distinctly the staring, quizzical faces of the other shoppers as the paramedics strapped him onto a stretcher and ferried him to the ambulance.

Alan looked out of the window once more to try and remove that memory from his mind. Watching from here was a kind of half-life: while he could see everything below he hadn’t been out there for an age, and so it occurred to him that he lived his life vicariously through the people below. His eyes fell onto a small girl in a green coat, who was wildly looking around and crying. He watched her waddle around and look up into the eyes of any adult walking past (at least those who showed enough concern to make eye contact) until she jumped up into the arms of her father. He gulped down he last of his tea, now following a group of football supporters as they made their way to the rickety old bridge leading to the football ground. Thinking back, he could remember the days when he went to the ground himself with his father, his uncle and his grandfather when they went to watch a gloriously inept team lose and lose, over and over again, yet he couldn’t help falling in love with them. Nowadays only his father and uncle made the trip to the ground, Alan and his grandfather not going for wildly different reasons. He leaned forward onto the windowsill and smiled, watching the growing group of supporters singing in the street, until one noticed Alan. He pointed Alan out to his friends before raising two fingers in the air. Alan whirled away from the window, pressing his back against the wall and breathing heavily. He didn’t move for another five minutes, waiting silently for them to go.

He returned to the window slowly, peeking around the edge to check they had moved on and realised how many people thought of him: the sad and lonely little man in flat 56 who could be seen every now and again sat at the window, watching like some solitary gargoyle. No one really understood how badly his agoraphobia affected him… except for sweet, sweet Ellie. Thinking of Ellie reminded him of her workplace, the pompously-named ‘Patrick’s Low Cost Goods Emporium’. All the locals simply called it ‘Pat’s Grocers’, much to the annoyance of the self-righteous Mr. Patrick. He checked his cupboards and found they were almost empty apart from a couple of tins of lentil soup. His illness had affected him so much that he even found it uncomfortable speaking to people, but he found the courage to call Mr. Patrick after having stared at the telephone for five minutes.

“Hello, Mr. Patrick’s Low Cost Goods Emporium.’”

Alan hated Mr. Patrick. He was a short, balding Ulsterman, with a gruff voice and remarkably unsympathetic manner, who like so many others just laughed and mocked Alan. He had hoped to get Ellie.

“Hello, Mr. Patrick. It’s Alan at number fifty-six at the flats.”

“Oh, you. I suppose you’ll be wanting an order?”

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

Mr. Patrick simply grunted in reply and Alan reeled off his list quickly, not wanting to be on the telephone to the odious Mr. Patrick for a moment longer than necessary.

“Thanks Mr. Patrick.”


The line went dead and Alan hung up. He knew that he could usually expect Ellie with the box at about 6 in the evening, a visit which would be a ray of sunshine. He sauntered back to the window and midday soon melted into 4 o’clock. He was woken from his drowsiness by the blinking of lights in the twilight. He rubbed his eyes gently and realised the Christmas lights were on again, and noticed a couple of young children staring in awe at the lights seemingly suspended across the sky. He had watched the workmen clamping the displays to the walls of the buildings on either side of the street a few weeks ago, and never tired of watching Father Christmas skiing across the road on a sea of bulbs.

He looked at his watch. Five-thirty, not long until Ellie’s visit. Before the illness had taken over he had seen a lot of her, but now he was confined indoors the only times that he saw her was when she delivered his shopping and on the occasional social visit. They had begun university together and became friends almost instantly. It was only in their third year, when Alan's illness crippled him and he had to drop out that they drifted apart a little. Ellie had completed her degree earlier that year and while Alan was so, so proud of her, he was crushed that he couldn’t attend her graduation, though her visit after the ceremony meant more to him than she could ever know.

He glanced at his watch once more but paid no attention to the time on this occasion; instead he focussed on the date. The twenty-fourth. Christmas Eve. He switched on the radio before returning to the window. He’d lost track of the date these past couple of weeks; each day seemed little different from the one before. He looked down again, seeing the families, the children, the friends, the lovers walk the streets. His anger with himself increased, and he clenched his fists at his sides as he realised he wasn’t able to join them all. The anger soon subsided and as he swallowed another of his pills, it turned to sorrow.

Another couple of pills made it worse. Alan felt the dark hand on his shoulder once more, like a shadow passing over and through him. He unbuckled his belt, tied it into a knot and slung it over the coat-hook on the back of the front door. He shuddered and took one last lingering look out of the window. He stared at the belt waiting for him, while a soft and comforting voice from the radio announced that Quote of the Day was about to begin. Singing floated up from the street below and Alan closed his damp eyes to try and blank it out while he groped blindly for the belt. He failed to shut out the quietly insistent voice from the radio:

“Happy the man, and happy he alone
Who in all honesty can call today his own,
He who has life, and strength enough to say,
‘Yesterday’s dead and gone, I want to live today’ ”

Alan stopped dead in his tracks as soon as the man finished speaking. His mind whirled as he glanced at the belt and through the window again, and he rolled those words around in his head – “Yesterday’s dead and gone, I want to live today.”

The belt hit the opposite wall and Alan searched the hallway for his jacket, which he put on for the first time in months. He rummaged through the drawers for his scarf and gloves, pulling them on as he tipped the rest of his pills down the sink. Breathing heavily, Alan found himself in the hallway again. He reached for the door-handle but pulled it away instantly, as though the door had been connected to the mains. He pulled himself together, still breathing irregularly and rested his hand on the doorknob. The door opened with a soft click and Alan was met by a rush of cold air and to his own surprise, he found himself out in the stairwell of the flats. There was a thump from close by and Alan pinned himself to the wall, searching for some shadows to melt into.

“What are you doing out here?” asked a concerned and familiar voice. Alan looked up and saw Ellie in the dimly lit passage, shock on her face and his shopping all over the floor. She continued to stare, waiting for an answer.

“I’m going down to see the lights,” he gulped. “That’s the plan, anyway.”

“Are you not scared?”


“Where’s your medicine?” She eyed him closely, clearly worried about him and slightly uneasy.

“I, ah… tipped them down the sink.”

“Great. What happens if you have an attack now?”

“I don’t care.”

With those words reverberating in his mind, he gingerly held out his hand. She took it in hers and they made for the stairs, each shaking as much as the other. Descending the stairs was the easy part but as Alan got to the entrance to the main street, he froze and rocked slightly backwards and forwards on his heels as though he was waiting for something to push him. His heart was pounding so hard that it felt like it would erupt, and he squeezed Ellie’s hand tighter. She took a step forward, put her hand gently around his waist and softly whispered into his ear.

“Are we going out into the street?”

He nodded, as if to convince himself more than anyone else. He took one tentative step out, beneath a line of flashing bulbs. Ellie watched him with concern and wonder when he took another two steps… and more, out into the crowd. He began to laugh giddily and Ellie joined in, as they took in all the people around. Alan twirled her around and breathed in a lungful of frosty air.

He looked up at the lights and at Ellie, at his window where the light was still on, before gazing into the never-ending night sky. It began to snow, and Alan began to cry.

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Comments by other Members

Earl Grey at 10:35 on 21 February 2006  Report this post
He sauntered back to the window and midday soon melted into 4 o’clock
That's a lovely line.

He reached for the door-handle but pulled IT away instantly...
extra/unnecessary word

ok - finished reading...
This is a lovely little piece of writing Iain. I like your 'stream of consciousness' style - it works well. And the juxtaposition of the man on his own staring out of his window, and the bustling high street onto which his gaze fell, really captured his isolation. I liked the way he reacted to being caught staring by the football supporters. My only (very small) gripe is that I feel your MC conquered his demons remarkably effortlessly - in fact at the very first attempt! But that didn't spoil it - a very enjoyable read.

P.S. There was no need to include the entire story in your forum post. Most people would simply include an http link to their work there instead.

Iain MacLeod at 10:42 on 21 February 2006  Report this post

Thanks for commenting, I do appreciate it. Sprry about posting the thing to the forum, I'll know in the future!

Yes, I must admit I was a little worried at how the MC manages to overcome things just like that - perhaps I should have hinted at a few failed attempts in the past to make it seem like more of a struggle.

Thanks for your kind words!


Mojo at 14:01 on 21 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Iain

This is an interesting piece; a sort of alternative Christmas story with an uplifting ending. Like Earl, I also thought the resolution was a bit too easy, but as you say, that shouldn't be too difficult to rectify with a reference to all the other times he's tried and failed. I like your imagery and use of metaphor, especially the MC's fascination with that Santa skiing endlessly across the street, but, like himself, going nowhere.

One thing I found unsettling from the off was the realisation that you've given your troubled MC your own name. If this is a personal story, even a cathartic exercise, I, personally, would relate to it more if it was either in 1st person or the name was different. Somehow, reading a story in 3rd person about a guy called Iain, written by a guy called Iain, distanced me from the character. It felt slightly voyeuristic, whilst, conversely, 1st person would not. Sorry - it may just be me!

One or two technical points:
His eyes fell onto a small girl in a green coat

It's impossible to ignore the literal meaning here - a somewhat gruesome image! Maybe better if his gaze falls/lands on her?

though her visit afterward the ceremony meant more to him than she could ever know.
Shouldn't this be after the ceremony, or is this a dialect phrase I've never heard before?

He pulled himself together, still breathing irregularly and rested his hand on the doorknob.
Two points here: 'He pulled himself together' is vague and a cliche, and his 'irregular breathing' suggests that he hasn't done so anyway. It might be better to show us how he pulled himself together - maybe 'He concentrated on breathing slowly, deeply' - that kind of thing?

The portrait of a phobic is, for me, very well done - and I was particularly pleased with the happy ending. Bring it on!

BTW - adding extra spaces between paragraphs before you upload work makes it much easier to read on WW, and makes up for the lack of indents. Also, to post into the group, tick the box 'Fiction Writers' Group' before you click 'Upload'.


Iain MacLeod at 14:09 on 21 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Julie,

Thanks for having a read and taking the time to reply to it.

Aye, you are both definitely right about the resolution. I had toyed with the idea of less happy ending, but it just seemed the right way to end it. It does need some reference to the past, maybe those attempts which ended in hyperventilation rather than escape.

As to the name of the character, I am of the opinion that it should change too. It was written a long time ago, and I've not really come back to it until recently. I think in a revised edition the name will change. I think, as with almost any story, there is a wee bit of your personal experience in there, but I wouldn't (thankfully!) say this was explicitly personal.

Thanks for your stylistic comments too, I tend to always miss a few when going over my own work. And for the help on upoading - forgive my youthful indiscretions! ;-)

Becca at 13:07 on 25 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Iain,
I guess you've edited your story a bit, as the name is now Alan.
It's an interesting story, and a romantic one. As a general thought I'd say that there's a little too much telling in it, the information contained in the explanatory parts would be better done through 'showing.' Julie's mentioned it already in the context of the MC trying to leave the flat. Another place is when he realises he's got to phone for groceries, you'd raise the quality of the story if you could show it to the reader, rather than tell the reader. So, instead of: - 'His illness had affected him so much that he even found it uncomfortable speaking to people, but he found the courage to call Mr. Patrick after having stared at the telephone for five minutes.'- you could have something more along these lines: '... they were almost empty apart from a couple of tins of lentil soup. He felt his hands go clammy and a wave of nausea swept through him as he stared at the phone. After five minutes he picked up the receiver and punched the number in slowly.' [the reader will understand this perfectly].

The other thing that struck me was it is better to keep the whole story in his POV, it's very personal and intimate, and I can't see that the story benefits by switching to Ellie's POV. I think you might have done it accidently,.. 'Ellie watched him with concern and wonder.'
The conversation between him and Ellie could be very central in the story, very pivotal. I feel you haven't made as much of what dialogue can do in a story as you might have here. There's an echo of an idea that if he could get over his agrophobia, the two of them might get together. I'd think about going into a bit more depth with the actual story, working up the dialogue until it sings for you, [so to speak], and making the MC more sculptured and solid.
I hope these thoughts are of use.

Iain MacLeod at 20:46 on 25 February 2006  Report this post
Hi Becca,

Thanks again for your comments, and taking the time to look over this. Aye, I had a look over it since I posted it and changed the name of the MC a bit.

I understand what you mean about 'telling' rather than 'showing'; I guess that's the academic training in me bursting out when it's not that welcome.

The switch to Ellie's POV was accidental, yes, so I can straighten that out easily. That was my aim, to write something intimate, possibly claustrophobic and try and emphasise that feeling of captivity.

Thanks for picking up on the dialogue issue - I know that it's not my strength and is something I have to work on, and is where the characters are often fleshed out most effectively. I tend to think I'm better at descriptions, so perhaps my next mission should be something dialogu-based to force myself to improve....

Thanks again, Becca. This was a great help is much appreciated.

all the best,


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