‘I’ve never been loved,’ he said. ‘Never.’
The silence didn’t say anything.
‘I don’t just mean I never had a girlfriend. I’ve had sex, sure. But love… nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada. I never felt that look that someone gives, that physical contact, the eyes that shine, that sort of thing. No one loves me. No one has ever loved me.’
The light from the window fell in a flat rectangle on the floor. ‘Your family…’ I offered. ‘Even if…’
‘No, Doctor, no, don’t go there.’ Greg made one of those heaves. It was somewhere between the heaviest sigh and a convulsive sob, with a bit of dry regurgitation in there. It was a nervous reaction that always occurred when he was agitated, but he showed no other sign of being upset. His eyes were dry; his famous voice perfectly controlled, employing the same cadences that I had got used to telling the nation of the latest terrorist attack, Tsunami or financial crisis. It had taken me a while to get used to hearing the voice I’d listened to for years as I cooked telling me about the employment figures now recounting his personal woes. ‘My father hated me. Hated us. And my mother also. She hated me as a way of trying to get on his side. I don’t know if she really hated me. She might have been pretending. I got the feeling, if he’d been out of the picture, that she would have been simply indifferent. Maybe benignly indifferent. But love? No. And my sister saw me as a rival. It was no coincidence that I was the only one she mentioned by name in her suicide note.’
I nodded though he couldn’t see me. I sat behind him in classical Freudian fashion, out of his line of sight. He didn’t mind. His job was to speak to people who were invisible to him. Millions in fact. ‘Colleagues and friends?’
‘Friends?’ another of those heaves. ‘Rivals in my business. You have to be liked. You have to manoeuvre yourself into a position where they like you but... I had my work my gravitas. A certain sociopathic charisma can go so far. People looked at me and liked me. I could see when I entered a room or saw someone approach, their faces would light up a little. They would be pleased to see me. But none of them got to know me, who I am, not who I really am, just who I am. Not what I’m like… inside. And none of them went further than the usual workplace bonhomie. At best it was amiable. And usually after a week or two of close contact, it would sour into a vague dislike, curdle into something like hate some times. The faces wouldn’t light up anymore.’
The silence stayed. I noticed the sound of the traffic drifting as if someone was slowly turning the volume up of the ambient noise outside. A long leisurely beep sounded.
‘I’m not seeking pity here, Doctor,’ he said. ‘I know that this sounds like it could be boiled down to no one ever loved me. I don’t think it is necessary to be loved. I think you can go through life and never eat a peach, if you wanted, never taste strawberries. It would be a pity to miss out on those experiences, but they are far from essential. And love would have been nice. I read about it in novels and I see people around me feeling it, sharing it, giving it. I can see that. And I see the price they have to pay. The toll. I’m sure if I’d loved my sister I would have felt terrible when she died. But I didn’t and I was frankly relieved when my parents were killed.’
‘A car accident.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They were coming back from a visit to my grandparents in Scotland. Icy driving conditions, the police said. My father’s blood showed three times the legal level of alcohol. I was working for North West Tonight. What was that sound?’
‘A five-minute warning. The session is almost over.’
‘Time’s almost up, huh? And we were just getting into it.’
He had spent his first twenty minutes in an unresponsive silence. I had let him stew. I regretted that now he was in full flow, we were going to cut off, but I had other patients waiting and the rules were the rules. There was a time I had used a silent alarm on my watch which had vibrated, but it was better if the patients heard the alarm so that they didn’t feel I was arbitrarily cutting them off.
‘Before I go, I don’t want to leave you with the idea that you should feel sorry for me. I’m not some sad sack who needs love, you understand? I’m not weeping into my pillow at night. You see?’
‘You are satisfied with your life?’
‘I wouldn’t go that far. There are things I would change. People I would happily see fired and replaced. Things I want to do. Moves I want to make. But this… absence is not crucial. In some ways, it’s liberating.’
‘We can discuss this next week.’
‘I’ll be in Washington next week.’
‘You know about the two-week cancellation policy.’
‘Yes, Doctor, and I shall pay the surcharge and bill it to Sky.’
‘Your employers know you are in therapy?’
‘I guess they will when they get the bill. Don’t worry. There’s no prejudice there. I might even get some brownie points for vulnerability. They like admissions of stress and what have you. It makes everyone feel like they’re doing something vital. Like coal miners or air traffic controllers.’
He got up and did a series of stretches. He spent a lot of time hunched on a seat and so he had a series of calisthenics to ease cramped muscles in his back and neck. He did the stretches automatically, with no self-awareness. He looked at me with the slight surprise of the recently awoken. His smile relaxed into that camera ready warmth. His eyes twinkled a little, but again the half-vomit reflex took over and his eyes bulged. His eyes watered and he covered his mouth. ‘Sorry.’
‘You can rearrange your appointment with Asif,’ I said. We shook hands formally and I opened the first of the double doors which were supposed to serve as a kind of airlock to the real world.
Moira was home and she was cooking Mexican food – gazpacho, stuffed peppers, tortillas and guacamole. We drank cold beers and talked about our patients. Moira was intent on her social work and her dreary tales of self-harming schizophrenics in council houses served as a nice cold starter to my lasagne of high paying, semi-famous narcissists. After coffee we gave ourselves thirty minutes for digestion and then fucked on the living room couch. After we’d cleaned up and showered, we lay in bed and Moira said, ‘I love not having children.’
When I saw Greg Periweather again, I had already seen him twenty other times on the television. I used to only listen to the news and I used to flip between channels, but since he had become a patient I watched him exclusively and more intently. Watching a client at work was a cheat, I suppose, tantamount to spying, but I felt I would have been a fake if I didn’t deny he intrigued me. He read the news with deliberate seriousness, but his resting face was reassuring, friendly, warm, slightly ironic. His unscripted sign offs and occasional off-the-cuff remarks were always apposite and well-judged. He never got into trouble because of gaffes and occasionally he was wont to a moment of apparent sincerity that would go viral. Anger at a government minister spilling over the line of journalistic objectivity.
‘He killed his parents, you know,’ I told Moira one night as we watched him reporting the run up to the US presidential election with a night scene of Washington DC lit up behind him.
‘You don’t say!’ she remarked coyly. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything but it had been my turn to cook and I always drinking heavily while chopping vegetables. It is one of my ‘things’. I’m so happy. I just go on chopping and swigging and refilling until Moira shouts at me or the guests arrive.
‘It feels like I haven’t been here for a while,’ Greg said as he lay back on the couch. He squirmed a little until the position felt comfortable. ‘And at the same time, it feels like I’ve been here just five minutes ago.’
‘Time folds,’ I said, thinking vaguely of a Science Fiction novel I’d read one summer when I was …oh twelve years old?
I waited for the silence to do her work. The rain gave an insistent tapping rhythm to the voiceless space. I was about to ask how the trip was, but I knew he wasn’t here for the kind of conversation he could get in the make-up room of the television studio or any number of journalistic drinking holes, so I held my tongue.
‘Love. We were talking about love,’ he said.
‘I spent a lot of time thinking about our last session. I really wanted to work out whether I was exaggerating. I could tell that you couldn’t believe me. I almost got to reading my autobiography to check if there was someone I’d forgotten who had loved me. A doting aunt, a childhood friend, an early girlfriend. But I didn’t have anyone. I know it. I know it in my heart. I know it like someone who has never broken an arm knows they’ve never broken an arm. But my concern that you believe me is tied to something else. I think if you don’t believe me you must think that I’m lying for some reason and that reason must be to elicit a response from you. If I say I’ve never been loved, I must be asking for love.’
‘And are you?’
He waited a full minute before answering. Enough time for me to regret having intervened and thrown him off course. He was always talking and my rule was to say the absolute minimum. The time was beginning to mean something. No matter what he answered now, the preceding minute was telling me something just as loudly as his eventual ‘No.’
It is useless to say that you are objective or don’t have any feelings when it comes to patients. It is a denial of our basic humanity. And without being human we are not just useless as therapists, we are in fact dangerous. I spoke to Moira about how I didn’t feel sorry for Greg. ‘You envy him,’ she said, taking a moment to sniff at her Barolo before sipping it and holding it in her mouth. She liked to savour things, I gulped.
‘I do?’ her raised eyebrows were a challenge. Deny it. Deny it and see where that gets you. ‘I do,’ I admitted.
But surely we all need love. Want love. How can someone go a lifetime – Greg was in his fifties – without love? It seemed to be as improbable as going so long without bumping into someone on the street. Just the law of averages. There are always extremes. Rare, but there. After telling me that he wasn’t asking for love he hadn’t spoken for the rest of the session. He was comfortable with the silence – the occasional heave notwithstanding – and so it wasn’t until the next session that we made some progress.
I decided to change tack and try and give the session some direction from the beginning. It was unusual for me and I didn’t feel comfortable, but my comfort – personal or professional – was surely not the point.
‘You’re not asking for love and you don’t see the lack of love in your life as a problem. It doesn’t depress you. In fact, you identify it as an advantage. So the question is why are you here? What do you see these sessions achieving for you?’
‘The show jumper?’
‘She said that you were good.’
‘Her husband, erm, is a CEO of some big firm. I don’t know his name.’
‘Ah yes.’ He was a director of a city bank, I now remembered, who had an Olympian medallist as a wife who he was enthusiastically cheating on. The dots were joined.
‘She said you were old school and I liked the idea of that. It’s relaxing. I enjoy thinking and talking about myself. I like your couch. I like the room. The blinds on your window. I like it when it’s quiet. None of these seem compelling reasons, I know.’
‘Usually people come here with specific problems in mind.’ He was lying to me. This was evasion.
‘I thought it would look good. Everyone knows there is something wrong with me. Everyone perceives it. But they can’t get it. I’m not tortured about my sexuality. In fact, I don’t feel I have any at all. My libido the last few years has crashed through the floor. I don’t drink to excess. I don’t do cocaine or any other drug. I suppose I wanted people to find out I was going to a shrink and that would give them some explanation.’
‘Everyone knows now because of the bill. Finally, an explanation. It will hold them off for a short while. Then I think I’ll give them a bi-polar diagnosis. I wouldn’t mind doing a documentary. Raise issues of mental health. A brave confession.’
I wasn’t sure how much of this cynicism was brazen lying, but the provocation was not to be risen to. I allowed silence and distant thunder to cleanse the space between us. It went on and I knew that this time he wasn’t enjoying it. He had put too much of himself forward. Even though he was screening himself with bullshit, the nature of the bullshit gave him away.
By my clock, thirteen minutes had passed before he spoke again.
‘Hate,’ he said.
He heaved a little and held his face with his hands.
I was about to tell him to continue, but he was already there. ‘Hate, I love hate. I love provoking it in others. I love feeling it in myself. I nurture my own hatred. I care for it. I apply it silently to everyone I see. You manage to escape it because you sit back there. That’s why I can talk to you I suppose. I hate the people I work with, my colleagues, people who surround me. My so-called friends. I do my best to force myself to be in their presence only so I …’
Here he was interrupted by a convulsion. It was a version of the hiccup/sob that had bothered him in the past. I was sure that the real reason he was coming to me was nothing to do with his emotional state. It was this physical manifestation which was upsetting him. I saw him on the news the other day. He was reporting about Russia and Ukraine and he had a slight coughing fit. He sipped his water, apologized and returned to the autocue, but I saw he hadn’t been coughing, not really. He had almost been sick on camera. This was going to happen again and again. It was more violent now than it had ever been.
‘Don’t stop it,’ I said.
He swung his legs over the sides of the couch so that he was sitting his head bowed, his eyes squeezed shut, breathing heavily through his open mouth. ‘What?’
‘Stop fighting it.’
The convulsion hit him and his hand reached up to cover his mouth, but when I told him not to, he managed with a great force of will to lower his mouth and let his hand drop.
‘It’s like having a baby,’ I told him. ‘You have to allow it out. Your body is going to do this with or without your help. The next time you feel it coming on you, just let it go, let it go all the way.’
He sighed, wiped his lips and then his face with a handkerchief. He had recovered. I could see he was trying to recover at least. He looked at me once he had regained his breath. ‘It’s the stupidest thing but I…’
His rationalisation was understandable but it had the opposite effect to the one he intended. With a huge convulsion he toppled forward from the couch and onto his knees. ‘Oh God…’ he gasped as he held his sides with one hand and his other rested on the rug Moira had bought from the IKEA catalogue. His mouth opened so wide his jaw dislocated and a deep growling could be heard. It wasn’t Greg. There was a high pitched whine behind the growling – that was Greg – but the growling itself was rumbling and gravelly, a totally different voice.
A pint of hot water spewed from Greg’s mouth and splashed on the floor, where it steamed. His face was blood red and his jaw was now working independently from his will and the tendons as if something was manipulating it from inside. Another convulsion wracked Gregg and another pint of water, mixed with strings of blood and what looked like egg white slopped from his gaping mouth. His eyes bulged and a vein was throbbing on the side of his contorted neck as well as another one standing out like a twig on his forehead. Both hands were on the floor and his head lolled as another respite allowed him a moment to gather his strength. Finally, it was time for me to intervene. I got up, put my notebook on the table and put my gloves on. I straddled him – this part always made me think of anal sex, something I’ve never tried, though always fancied trying – and leaned forward, careful to maintain my balance. I raised Greg’s head and, as he convulsed, reached into his now wide open and flapping mouth. I could reach easily to the throat as I pulled his head back by his hair and my fingers found the limb quickly and easily. It grabbed my finger, tightly. I worked my other fingers around as I pulled with a slight corkscrew motion and I felt the weight of resistance. Greg was fighting me. Then I had it firm and I pulled.
I couldn’t help but fall forward as it came out and Greg collapsed on the floor. I cupped it with my other hand as I dragged it out of Greg and waddled forward free of him. Another glass full of vomit and blood trailed and curtained from its compact heavy form. It thrashed in my hand and then settled to gnawing on my thumb. The tail slipped around my wrist, like a caress but then tightening enough to cut off the circulation. I held it at arms-length. The fur was wet with blood and the horns were white, like broken bone protruding through flesh. I stepped over Greg’s panting form and opened the bookcase, and the metal door hidden within. The lights to the chute flickered on automatically. I extricated my wrist from the tail and then plied its fingers from my finger and dropped it down the dark tunnel. I could hear it scrabbling on the metal sides of the chute and then sliding as the chute levelled off. Its guttural roar was greeted by louder insane barking.
Greg was coming around. He rolled over onto his back, instinctively so he could breathe. I buzzed Asif in and he brought a couple of Aspirin and a beaker of water. ‘You’re not allergic to Aspirin, are you?’ I asked.
Greg shook his head. He was now sitting on the couch with his head hanging. His hand was massaging his jaw. He drank the water down and took the pills and then drank again without looking at Asif. As professional as ever, Asif was gone and we were alone once more. There was always this moment of embarrassment when therapy had reached and surpassed a crisis.
‘Does this mean…?’ Greg wanted me to guess his question, but the rules were once more in place and if he wanted an answer, he would have to ask the full question. There was no room for guesswork or pity here. Even though he looked pitiable. The redness around the face; the retreating flush; the crushed eyes; the pallor and the sweat. When I deliberately turned on Sky to watch him on the news that evening, he looked so much better, so replenished that I almost wondered whether he had taped the news bulletin before our session. That was obviously impossible I realized.
‘He’s made a full recovery,’ Moira said as she handed me an overfull glass of Chablis. I took it carefully and drank down a quarter of the glass.
‘You can tell?’
She smiled and settled in her chair, a slight distance away. It was positioned slightly behind the sofa. I assumed it was out of professional habit but I didn’t mind. ‘He asked me afterwards, if he would be loved now. After all that bluff about not caring, he’s just like the others.’
‘What did you tell him?’
‘The truth, of course,’ I said.
I had told him: ‘You will never be loved. Never. They will always be able to tell. They won’t know what. But they can tell. You will die never knowing what it is to love and be loved.’
Greg nodded because he already knew. The way a cancer patient sometimes knows the tumour is malignant even before the test comes back. ‘And the…?’
Again I wasn’t going to make it easy for him, but this time he realized he didn’t actually want to know. He looked for a moment at the sopping rug with its Rorschach splashes of red and dark. He gestured mutely at it in dumb apology.
‘We’re done here,’ he finally said and got to his feet and left the room without saying another word.
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John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.