THE interview for this piece took place with just three of us in the room.

That was me, Charles Barker-Holmes, who has written a crime thriller called Mantis, and Lucy.

However, Lucy didn’t say much.

In fact she didn’t say anything at all. Because Lucy is a human skull.

A real ‘live’ dead human skull.

Charles paid 10 shillings for her a very long time ago to prevent her being incinerated, a fate that befell the rest of her skeleton.

He said: “I couldn’t bear the thought of Lucy being thrown away, she had become a fixture at the hospital where I was teaching.

So I bought her.”

Our conversation had only being going five minutes before Charles popped out of the room and came back carrying the aforesaid Lucy.

He placed her on a coffee table and she spent the rest of the interview staring at me. Well, she would have if she’d had eyes.

If you think that’s strange, that’s not the half of it or even the quarter. The assignment had been to chat with Charles about his life and times and his first, and probably last, book.

I knew he had been a psychiatric nurse and that certain characters in the book bore some of the traits of some of the people he had encountered in his work. What I wasn’t prepared for was for a short dissertation about the joys of owning an insect as a pet.

Although maybe I should have, given the title of his work.

“So you’ve never owned a mantis then?” Charles asked. I had to confess I hadn’t. Along with an alligator, a giraffe or a polar bear.

He said: “They make wonderful pets. We are a very nature orientated family and I bought one about 15 years ago. It came through the post – he purchased it on mail order – and we used to shut the windows and let it fly around the house. When you walked across the room it would swivel its head and follow you. It was a real character.”

Sadly the mantis, unlike the skull, never had a name and expired after 12 months, about the average mantis lifespan.

But its alarming aptitude for violence is reflected in the book named after it.

The culprit is the female mantis, which, having cajoled the male into mating, then proceeds to eat his head as he sets to.

Game lad, he keeps on going, but when he’s finished he really is – because the female kills him.

You’ve heard about a love bite, but this is ridiculous.

Anyway, mix the antics of the mantis with the menace of the seriously deranged and you have a psychological thriller subtitled ‘Never bathe with a stranger’.

Charles said: “It’s better than Silence of the Lambs.”

Career-wise, the 72-year-old, who was born in Leicester but now lives in Malvern, he trained as a psychiatric nurse and worked in psychiatric units and general hospitals before going into nursing teaching. Which was where he met Lucy. He said: “She was a real skeleton. They’re nearly all plastic now, so I had to give her a home.”

He came to Worcestershire in 1973 to work on the Worcester Development Project, which involved the closure of Powick and St Wulstan’s hospitals and their replacement by a community-based service or, as it became known, “care in the community”.

Charles said: “When I began training in psychiatric nursing in 1961 there were still padded rooms.

Also it was not unusual for one person to be left in charge of a ward at night with up to 64 patients, some of whom could be very scary. Although out of that 64, there would only be about three you tried not to turn your back on.

“For the most part they were lovely people. It wasn’t their fault they were ill in that way and you just wanted to make life better for them. If that meant through drugs or treatment, so be it.

“Over the years the word ‘asylum’ has lost its original meaning, which was to protect and feel secure. Somewhere people would be safe. That is what we tried to provide. I am not always sure that putting people out into the community and exposing them to greater risks is a better way for all concerned.”

The chilling side to this is that people who can be really evil often look so normal. They give no outward sign of mental instability.

Charles said: “One thing that always struck me was the normality of people who could be really dangerous. They are often very ordinary looking people. Take Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, for instance. He looked like anyone you might meet in the street. There was no outward sign of the evil within.”

Mantis was actually written 12 years ago as the book that this former psychiatric nurse had inside him. He said: “It is very dark in places. Very scary. Sometimes I look at it and think: ‘Did I write that?’ I don’t think I’ll be writing another.”

So not a bedtime read then, but a chilling insight into the blackest side of human nature. Mind how you go.

●Mantis by Charles Barker-Holmes (Aspect Design, £8.99) is available from Beacon Books in Malvern, Amazon and other outlets.