Fiction

The raft

IF ASKED THEN why I had not returned to London I could have – would have – given several clear reasons that, looking back, I recognised as mere rationalisations; transient structures of thought that clear a space for some deeper instinct or intuition to do its work. I didn't go back because it felt right not to; because some inchoate resistance – some feeling that didn't need a name and would never acquire one – welled up in my chest and said stay.

Sometimes you just did things. You surprised even yourself.

Within weeks of returning to Sydney I was working for a corporation with headquarters in North Sydney. Just a few kilometres away in Kirribilli, walking distance from the office, I rented a shoebox apartment overlooking a small park and began to settle in to my new life. Compared to what I had been doing with UTOPIA the work was dull – devising programs for the setting up of new accounting systems – but I intended within the year to break out into my own consultancy. When I had settled in. When I had found my line and length.

I didn't think about the sudden death of my brother, Barry, because when I did I felt as if I had had a psychic limb amputated. For the first time I began to suffer from insomnia. Each night I woke around four in the morning. Sometimes, if I couldn't get back to sleep, I would switch on the BBC World Service. News from remote borders, of the warring factions of the Mujahideen, rendered in civilised English tones, seemed calibrated to run exactly the right kind of interference on my zealous mind. Sometimes I would be dozing within minutes, but other data was less reliable. The English football results made me think of pleasurable hours on the West Ham terraces with Dave. Then I would wonder what my ex-girlfriend Mira was doing. Perhaps I should call her. What time was it in Montreal?

 

THE WEEKS PASSED. Occasionally I would have a drink with a friend. There were company social nights when I would turn up and play my role (and these were not unpleasant) and there was a regular game of squash with a group of old school friends at a local club. They invited me to dinners and barbecues, but these were the lowest level of distraction and, if I were not in the mood, would only aggravate my condition of restless grief. And then, out of the blue, I got a call from my cousin Julie, to say that she and her husband had been transferred back to Sydney from Auckland, where they had spent the past five years. Would I like to come over for dinner?

It was a Saturday evening in late November and, driving across to their house in Tamarama, I thought of the last time I had seen Julie, not long before I left to work in London. But my most vivid memory of her was of a holiday when our two families spent Christmas together at Terrigal. I remembered her then as a tomboy; a short, muscular girl with sun-streaked hair and a deep tan; a powerful swimmer who moved in the water with the slow, lazy focus of a fish.

That first night she came out to meet me in the driveway and I was relieved to see that she had scarcely changed, apart from a slight thickening around the middle. The house was a nondescript brick bungalow, and she led me through a cool hallway and out onto a concrete terrace overlooking the beach. The water was still, and shimmered in the hazy light. In one corner of the terrace a thickset man with a beard was wiping down the metal plate of a wood-fired barbecue. Below him, on the grass, two small boys in wet bathers chased a featureless brown mutt around the yard.

Julie introduced me to Kieran as 'my clever cousin' and I thought this was not perhaps the best start. Kieran shook my hand a touch too firmly and went on with his preparations for the barbecue while Julie and I looked out over the rooftops and spoke the lingua franca of Sydney life: real estate. All the while I was alert to Kieran, his slow and intense focus on the barbecue, the way he sighed as he adjusted the battens of wood and poked at loose twigs, and I wondered if Kieran was not so much gruff as tired; he moved with the stolid weariness of a man who has worked all day in the sun.

'Kieran's been working on his boat all day,' Julie said, as if reading my thoughts. 'He bought this old whaling dinghy off a friend and now he's restoring it.'

'Huon pine, beautiful timber.' Kieran looked up from the waft of smoke.

'Why don't you show Rick the boat?'

Kieran poked at the fire again. 'Do you want to have a look?' he asked, and his asking was a courtesy, as if to say: I don't want to bore you with this.

'Sure.'

The boat, covered by a tarpaulin, sat in the side lane. Kieran became more animated as he removed the tarpaulin and ran his palm along the polished surface of the wood. Now he was at ease and happy to deliver a laconic discourse on glues and varnishes. Every now and then he would pat the side of the boat, as if it were an old friend, and nod his head in confirmation of its worth while I did my best to ask the right questions. I thought the shape of the boat was ugly, too wide in relation to its length, and this gave it a squat appearance, but the wood was ravishing, a golden honey hue with a soft plasticity that breathed. I saw that you could have a relationship with this wood, and was about to ask where it came from when Julie leaned over the terrace and said, 'Let's eat. The kids are getting ratty.'

'Such beautiful wood,' I said, looking up.

'Well, enjoy it,' she said tartly, 'because by the time they finish logging old-growth forests there'll be none of it left. They'll have to put boats like that in a museum.'

'Now then, Jules, you're winding up into a rave,' said Kieran, quietly, looking ahead. His eyes were hooded and his weathered lips set firmly against causes.

At this I felt a prick of annoyance; I did not like to hear my cousin rebuked. But Julie seemed oblivious. She had moved away to the other side of the terrace, where she was calling to the boys. Her husband had thrown out the net of his words but she was not caught.

Up on the terrace, bread and salads were laid out. Kieran set about the serious business of searing the meat while the boys, Ryan and Matthew, whooped around the garden. Conversation over dinner was broken but accommodating. The boys, though shyly deferential to me, were ragged with fatigue from a blustery afternoon on the beach with their mother. After they tired of tormenting the dog they whined and fought over who would ride the bike around the lawn and show off for the visitor. At last, Julie rose with deliberate calm and bundled them into a bath.

Despite the way they had interrupted my every sentence I was sorry to see them go. Watching them reminded me of the hours Barry and I had spent playing cricket in the backyard in that same enchanted hour of dusk, our subliminal sense of the light of the day falling away behind us, our innocent faith in its renewal.

With the boys in bed we settled into recliners on the deck and sniffed at the smell of meat and barbecue smoke, still wafting tantalisingly in the air. Kieran wasn't much of a talker and the wine soon sent him into a soporific slump. The small talk trailed off into companionable silence, and for a while we just sat and gazed out at the horizon. After a while I turned to Julie and said, 'Do you get much swimming in these days?'

'Not much. If it's hot, I go for a swim at night, when the kids are in bed, and if Kieran's home. That's the best time. The wind's dropped, there's no one on the beach.'

This struck me as somehow foolhardy. 'Can you see what you're doing?'

When she looked at me there was a gleam of the old mischief in her dark brown eyes. 'No,' she murmured. 'That's the point of going.'

I remembered how she used to wade into the surf at Terrigal, swimming beyond the breakers like a sleek porpoise, so evenly, so smoothly, as if she were in her element, as if she might never come back. It seemed to me then that there was a mystery in her, something unfathomable.

A warm breeze wafted up from the water and the sky glowed pink at the edge of the roofline. I saw that a trance came over these beach suburbs at night, a subtropical stupor in which all fear, all resistance was dissolved in the warm penumbra of dusk. Nature giveth, and Nature taketh away.

Beside us, Kieran snored gently on his recliner.

I drove home around nine, the last glow of daylight rimming the horizon. I wondered if I, too, could live like this, in the suburbs, a father of small children, with a sundeck and a barbecue, a double garage and a frangipani tree. These were the surfaces, and then there was the reality. Reality was the man polishing his boat on land and the woman swimming in the dark, but they were a riddle, one that I was not yet ready to unravel. Supposing I were to enter into this riddle? What would it make of me? Who would I be?

My mind drifted again to surfaces, the form of the thing. I saw my weary commute home in the evening, backyard cricket with my kids at twilight, supper on the beach on hot summer nights, an enigmatic wife who would form the impenetrable substratum of my dreams. This was the core of it. Everything depended on this last figure in the landscape: the woman on the beach. Without her I was just a cog in the machine. And with her? With her, we were mysterious creatures at the edge of the tide: liminal, amphibious, entwined.

I drove on, into the dark, and felt that I was some great displaced sea creature, splayed on a vinyl seat behind the wheel of a car; a beached merman waiting dumbly for the enveloping wave.

 

FOR THE NEXT eight months I did nothing but work and for all of that time I was celibate, the longest period in my life since I was seventeen. I began to frequent a Korean bathhouse near Taylor Square, in a rundown building that looked out onto the Doric columns of the Supreme Court. That bathhouse became a haven. You went up a seedy narrow staircase and into a foyer hung with paper scrolls. You rang a small brass bell and a chunky Korean who spoke no English would appear, nod and indicate the change room. Once undressed, you entered naked into the bathing area. This was a dimly lit room with two circular pools in the centre surrounded by wide tiles. The smaller of these pools was a warm spa bath filled with a pale brown infusion of ginseng with leaves floating on the surface, and as you stepped out and down onto the tiles (the baths were raised above the level of the deck) some of the dark leaves would cling to your skin, creating the brief illusion that you had just stepped out of a brackish lake.

After this you slipped into the larger pool, which was cooler, and bathed until you were ready for the Turkish steam room at the far end. At any given time there might be seven or eight men in the pools, some in the water, others sitting at the edge, dangling their feet and waiting to be rubbed down on one of the futons spread along the deck. Once you were prostrate on a futon another of the chunky Korean masseurs would come and kneel, and begin to scrub your body with a loofah, scouring the skin hard, almost to the threshold of pain but stopping every few minutes to sluice you down with warm water out of a long-handled bucket that an attendant kept refilled.

This was the best moment of all, the sluice of clean water across your shoulders, your lower back, thighs and feet. The warm, willing cascade of it; the luxurious blur of expectation just before the next deluge, the grateful exhalation of relief as you lay there like a slippery fish foetus in the womb of the pool room, with its dim steamy air and its becalmed bodies; warm, silent, anonymous.

And I would walk out of there, loose and light, and drive home, and often I would eat nothing that evening because I felt clean, purified.

One night after a session at the bathhouse I had a dream. I was in the big circular pool, or a space that resembled the pool, only it was not. And there was no one there but me, floating outstretched and naked on a raft at the centre of the water. And I dreamed that the raft was also my bed, so that it was not as if I were somewhere else; rather it was a sense of being on my bed in a state that was half-awake, and the surface of the bed was the surface of the raft. And all the while the raft was hovering, idly, on the surface of the pool... And every now and then I would wake... It was such a long, drifting dream, but even in the waking state a mirage of water persisted in my brain, like a hallucination, so that when I looked up in the dark I could see the water eddying across the ceiling and around the fan in a soundless swirl, rippling on and on across the blackness. And after a while it came to me. I can't get off the raft. Any moment now I will fall and sink to the bottom of the pool, and there's no one here and they'll never find me, and my body will be flushed away through one of the corner drains.

That's when I saw the woman with the baby. Standing at the end of the pool was a young woman in a white dress, and in her arms she was holding a baby, an amorphous white bundle swathed in swaddling clothes, swathed so tight that all I could see was its eyes. And the woman? She was familiar to me, I had seen her before. But where? And as I stared at them – thinking, who are they? and what are they doing here? – slowly, the baby began to glow. At first it had a faint glimmer but then it began to glow brighter, the white shimmer of the image growing more intense, until suddenly it flared into a blinding cone of light. At that moment I felt a tight nostalgic sweetness in my chest, a terrifying vertigo of joy, and I knew then that the light was coming to annihilate me -

And I woke with a gasp. And lay in the dark, open-mouthed and holding my breath. That feeling...that feeling was indescribable. For a moment I had felt as if I were falling...falling into bliss.

The feeling stayed with me for the whole of the day, until late afternoon when it began to fade. As it receded I tried to hold on to it, to wilfully recapture glimpses of the dream – the tilt of the raft, the hem of the woman's dress, the glow from the baby – but inevitably it grew more and more faint, like a silk fabric dissolving in the mind's eye. It could not be hung on to, and by late evening I had ceased even to try. The yearning around my heart had evaporated. The painful joy in my chest was gone.

 

MY VISITS TO Julie and Kieran's became a regular thing, and I grew fond of the boys, remembering on each occasion to bring them some small treat. One night, when Kieran was away on business, Julie packed some cooked sausages in buttered rolls smeared with tomato sauce and we walked to the beach. After our no-frills picnic on the sand the four of us played beach cricket until it began to grow dark. At one point Matt lobbed a ball into the water.

'I'll go,' I offered.

'No, I'll go,' she said, and in one supple movement she slipped out of her shorts, unselfconsciously, and waded into the surf.

Later, when the boys were in bed and we were sitting out on the deck, she asked me about Barry. I don't know why, but we'd never discussed it before. Suddenly a rush of pain ambushed me behind the eyes, like the prickly, needling onset of a migraine. I faltered mid-sentence and it was clear to her that I had tripped over an internal landmine.

Julie was unfazed. She turned her gaze away from the sea and stared at me. 'The only thing to do,' she said, 'is have a good cry. Just cry your eyes out for as long as it takes.'

'I can't.'

'Can't what?'

'Can't cry. I've never been able to cry.'

'You must have cried as a child!' She was looking at me in amazement.

'Not that I recall.'

She continued to stare at me. 'You know, Rick, you should talk to someone.'

'I'm talking to you.'

'I mean a professional.'

'Like who?'

'A friend of mine has been going to a therapist, a woman. Sue thinks she's really good. Do you want me to ring her and get the number?'

I shrugged resignedly.

I thought Julie must have misinterpreted the shrug because she made no effort to move, but a week later a business card arrived in the post with a note on the back in her handwriting. 'Thought you might want to hang on to this for future reference.'

I looked at the card.

---------------------
SARAH MASSON
psychotherapist
---------------------

It gave an address near the Manly Corso.

The next day I rang and made an appointment.

 

THE FIRST SESSION.

The house was set well back from the road behind a high cream brick wall. There was a Norfolk pine in the front garden, like the ones on the Manly Corso but with much more life in it, more density and spring. For a moment I was distracted by that tree; was willing to be distracted by almost anything since I had misgivings about being there. It was the realisation that I was becoming almost catatonically unable to speak to anyone about anything much that had finally driven me to this door.

Julie had said, 'You just need to talk to someone about the way you feel.'

That sounded reasonable. Unthreatening. Or so I thought when I rang and made the appointment. But on that first day, when I stood there, staring up into the radiating fronds of the Norfolk pine, it felt a good deal more confronting.

Yet I knew why I had come. I wanted to cry, and I couldn't. Perhaps she could teach me.

It was 1993. I was a week off my thirty-first birthday.

I stepped onto the veranda. Next to the stained-glass door was a brass plate that was inscribed 'Wholistic Therapy Centre'. Suddenly I felt nervous, like a child about to sit some kind of unorthodox examination. And I didn't like that word 'wholistic'. It had a phony ring to it. What'll I say? I thought. I'll just say that I have depression, that in the past year it's gotten worse. I'll just set out the facts, flatly. Describe the situation. Tell her about Barry and, before that, my ex-wife, Jo. And maybe about the dream, the one about the woman and the baby. Yes, definitely the dream. What could be difficult about that?

I pressed the brass button.

A short, muscular woman of about forty-five with prematurely white hair opened the door. 'Rick,' she said, as if she knew me. I looked at her, sizing her up sexually, as I did with any woman I'd just set eyes on. It was a reflex, even in this state; one I imagined would never leave me. To my relief there was nothing there for me. Good. It would make the encounter easier.

Sarah wore loose-fitting white pants, a white top and leather sandals. I noticed she had good skin, a good healthy tan, and deep green eyes. She put out her hand and I shook it. As I stepped in she indicated a room to her left. It was light and cool and carpeted, with a sofa and two nondescript armchairs. She gestured at one of the chairs and waited for me to sit down. We sat, facing one another, a metre apart. When I was settled, she looked at me and said, 'What is it that you want from this, Rick?''

That's when I leaned over and put my head in my hands. For a few moments the room blurred around me until I became aware of the silence. I couldn't speak. Something lurched and began to rise in my chest and I thought, then, with a pinprick of amazement, that I might be about to cry. Could it be this easy? But no, my eyes were dry. Finally I managed to open my mouth. 'I'm sorry,' I said. 'I'm tired. I've been working long hours. I'm not usually like this...' The truth was that I was increasingly like this: unwilling, or unable, to communicate.

'Everyone who comes here apologises for something.' She smiled. 'They always say they're tired and they're not usually like this.'

Opening my hands, just a little, I stared at the floor. I heard myself sigh, and that sigh seemed to come from a point just beyond my hands that were, unaccountably, still pressed up against my forehead, as if glued.

'What is it that you want, Rick?'

'I want to lose my fear.' I heard myself say this with surprising matter-of-factness. Out it came. Clear, sharp.

'What are you afraid of?'

'Everything.' I heard myself sigh again. This wasn't true. I hadn't been afraid of abseiling when my team had been ordered to go on one of those bogus corporate bonding programs some months before, nor was I afraid of many other things. What was I talking about? Where did these words come from? In my chest the black wind bellows were squeezed hard up against my ribcage. I sighed again.

'What does this fear feel like?'

At last I lifted my head. 'How do you mean?'

'What's your body telling you? Where can you feel this fear?'

'In my head, I suppose.' I paused. 'All over.' Silence. 'Nowhere in particular.' It was excruciating; my lips were made of sticky latex and I had to force the words out.

Sarah looked at me. 'All right. Let's get down on the floor.' She stood, and slipped out of her sandals.

I continued to sit, woodenly.

'You okay with that?'

At last I got my mouth open. 'Should I take my shoes off?

'Whatever you're comfortable with.'

I left my shoes on.

Sarah pushed her chair back against the wall and walked over to a wooden chest standing by the door. It looked like a child's toy chest. She lifted the lid and took out a roll of pale blue foam. Glancing into the open chest, I could see a basketball there, and other things I couldn't identify before she closed the lid.

'My box of tricks,' she said, smiling, and unrolled the foam onto the floor. 'Just lie on your back, and get comfortable.'

I followed her instructions.

She knelt beside me. 'All right, now, take a deep breath.'

Breathing deeply was an effort. Plus it had always been my experience that as soon as someone told you to breathe deeply, you couldn't. I tried to make my mind go blank, to relax my stomach muscles. Then, with effort, I inhaled deeply – but the air seemed to get stuck above my navel. I turned my face from side to side, away from her, and began to sigh again, almost as if hyperventilating, though not quite. Then I covered my face with my hands.

'Why do you cover your face?'

'So I can't be seen, I suppose.'

'Why?'

'I thought for a minute I might cry.'

'What's wrong with that?'

'It's ugly. People look ugly when they cry. Ugly and weak.'

'Say, "I look ugly when I cry".'

'I never cry.'

'Alright then. Say, "I would look ugly if I cried".'

'I would look ugly if I cried.'

'Who mustn't see you cry?'

'Anyone.'

'Who's anyone?'

'What do you mean, "Who's anyone?"'

'Can you be specific? Name names? Who mustn't see you cry?'

'Friends...colleagues...my parents...teachers...friends...anyone.'

'What will happen if they see you?'

'I'll feel stupid...ashamed.'

'And?'

'They'll ask questions. I'll have to explain myself.'

'How does that feel?'

'How does what feel?'

'Explaining yourself.'

'I don't know. It feels tight.'

'You're holding your breath.'

'I know. I always hold my breath.'

'Holding the fort?'

Smiling, I exhaled, and the smile stayed with me. It occurred to me that I liked her. Had from the minute I set eyes on her. I started to relax.

She put her hand on my stomach, a large, square, practical hand. I liked the feel of it. 'If I do, or say, anything you're not comfortable with, tell me,' she said. 'Okay?'

'Okay.'

'Okay. Now, tell me...'

As I talked, occasionally she removed her hand and shook it away from her, as if she were flicking off some dross or contamination, some negative charge. It was weird.

 

BY THE TIME I walked out of there I felt lighter. I felt as if I had handed over my problems to someone else, had stored them in some kind of psychic safe. I felt also as if someone was on my side. Paying them to be on your side didn't matter. In fact, it helped: there was a freedom in the clarity of the transaction. For one thing, I didn't have to pretend to be interested in her. It wasn't a date. I could fall into myself and wallow about in the childish pain of all my stored-up sense of grievance, all my hatreds, my buried sense of outrage and grief (not just grief for Jo, and Barry, but every blow ever dealt to me). Though I still had the problem that I wanted to impress her; wanted her to think well of me, that I was a decent, sensitive, mature human being, so much more appealing than all her other clients – whoever they were.

And then she spoiled it. On the fifth visit she began to talk astrology. If there was one thing I couldn't bear it was prattle about the stars.

'You're an Arian,' she said, one hot afternoon, 'but you're holding your power in. Give yourself permission to be powerful. You're locking your energy away in your head and this creates a sadness in the heart area, this feeling you describe as boredom, as ennui. Breathe. Unlock the channels and the breath will flow through your body and enliven the surfaces of your skin. Enlarge your aura. If we lock our energy away, our skin is vulnerable. If we let the energy flow our surfaces are stronger; we're stronger all over; we're not contracted inwards, we radiate outwards. Our aura is enhanced. People feel our energy, our strength. They think twice about attacking us – if that's what you're worried about...'

There I was, beginning to trust her, and she started in on that astrology shit.

'...it's partly about learning to trust your environment. But only up to a point. There are times when something in the environment is hostile, is threatening. What you have to learn to trust is yourself. And your ability to deal with it.'

'It?'

'Whatever it is you're afraid of.' She got up off the floor. 'Let me look up your moons.'

My what?

She walked over to her bookcase and took a thick hardbound book off the middle shelf, began to flick through the pages, and stopped. 'You've got a moon in Capricorn,' she smiled, 'the goat. This means you're ambitious and single-minded. Ambitious, dogged, can be over-focussed...mmm, let's see...' Somewhere in the vault of my chest I gave a low, silent groan of dismay, but found myself listening intently, despite myself. I felt like Macbeth listening to the witches, but without the credulity.

It was after this session that I experienced a sense of massive letdown. I had been a fool to succumb, to get my hopes up. None of this stuff was going to work for me; for other people, maybe, but not for me. I had too sceptical an intelligence to enter wholeheartedly into the game, the spirit of it. Ninety per cent of it was faith in the cure. Faith. And no one with a first-class intellect (why be modest?) was going to come at that. Not that I hadn't at times been open to it, in a jokey kind of way. You got through the river of your day, sometimes wading, sometimes floating: sometimes it was a slow anguished crawl, sometimes an effortless sprint. And all the time you wondered if there was some other model that made sense of things, some other dimension that you were separated from by only a thin membrane. You felt this most when you were drunk, or stoned, like a mirage of the senses: a dreamy, floating state succeeded by a ravenous physical hunger that brought you down to earth with a pleasurable thud, and the plainest food tasted sublime, like manna. I remembered once eating a packet of ginger cookies that felt like the first meal, although the delayed effect, the wash-up, was more like the Last Supper and the taste of ashes. But that's all it was, a perpetual question mark in the mind, a disinclination to be a dogmatic naysayer rather than a yearning to be a true believer. As if the configuration of the planets meant something; as if there were a benign destiny moving through the heavens... Maybe all these counsellors were secret fruit loops, and behind those smooth, 'caring' facades were cultists who waved incense and burned cow dung at midnight.

The next week I cancelled my appointment. And then, when that felt hollow, I rang the following day to make another one. That night I dreamed about the baby again, almost the same dream in all its surreal detail...the floating on the water, the woman in white, the swaddled infant that began to glow. And then, tormentingly, the sweet, sharp pain behind the breastbone, so that I woke this time and sat bolt upright in bed with my chest heaving and my hand pressed hard against my heart. Was I having a heart attack? Was there some blockage or genetic weakness there that I didn't know about? Or was I just having a panic attack?

I came back to Sarah because I liked her, and because I couldn't think of anything else to do. Her house, that room, were soothing.

One evening when I knocked on her door I could hear the light soprano of a woman singing in German, and it was her. She was still humming and trilling the odd phrase as she unlocked the iron grille.

'Very nice,' I said.

'German lieder.' She grinned. 'It's an acquired taste.'

At the weekend I went into a specialist shop in Oxford Street and bought a CD of this lieder, only to find that while it had a certain charm, and the singer was no doubt more technically proficient than Sarah (I didn't have a musical ear and wouldn't know), it was not what I had heard from her lips. It was too studied; it lacked the same...the same blitheness. Did this mean I was becoming attached? I didn't think so, not really. While I might think of her between appointments in an 'I must raise this with Sarah' way, there was no more to it than that.

But there were layers to her that I would not have guessed at. I discovered that she had once been an industrial chemist and worked for the Bayer firm in Frankfurt, and that she spoke fluent German. In many ways she was salty and down-to-earth. After my initial surprise I realised it wasn't so out of character; there was that hard-headedness about her that I'd sensed in the first session, and that had made me trust her, something about that basketball in her box of tricks – and then she'd come up with that astrology drivel, though only that one time, as if she sensed I didn't like it. She never mentioned it again.

But she did eventually get the basketball out of the box and, with me stretched out on the futon, we began what Sarah called 'bodywork'. Lots of deep breathing, some massage, some acute pain in surprising places. I never knew what to expect, or where it was supposed to go. Sometimes I thought it wouldn't have mattered much what she did; it was her weekly dose of dispassionate warmth that kept me going, like taking the car into a garage to get the battery recharged.

 

TO BEGIN WITH I went to Sarah once a week, every Monday evening after work, and then once a fortnight, and then more irregularly. And it seemed to help. Not in any dramatic way, but with each visit some kind of minor catharsis took place, some discharge of toxic energy or emotions. I joked with her that she was a sixteenth-century physician of the psyche, that she bled me with leeches, that she saw to it that I was opened up just enough to leak out enough of my angst, my black blood, to keep the circulation moving, to stop all the circuits congealing with the thick bile of despair, the grey clag of sadness. It was, I imagined, a bit like being on a dialysis machine, like having your psychic blood rinsed.

One evening I found myself rambling to Sarah about Leni Croupe. Leni was the third wife of my boss in London, Jim Croupe, and she had invited me to spend a summer with them at their villa in Tuscany. The villa – more like a palace, really – was Leni's obsession. Her life's work, she told me, was to restore the building to its former glory, and she talked of nothing else, in long-winded detail, until I began to see that it was a form of mania.

Sarah listened, and then: 'Were you attracted to Leni?'

'Not sexually. She wasn't my type. Too skinny. And obsessive.'

'But she made an impression on you, obviously.'

'She sought perfection. In everything. I'd never met anyone before who was so uncompromising about it.'

'You admired her?'

'Yes and no. I felt a kind of weird kinship with her but I felt she was barking up the wrong tree.'

'And what would be the right tree?'

This was one of those times when I was lying on the mat, staring up at the ceiling. Now I looked sideways and up at Sarah, kneeling above me and sitting back on her haunches like a relaxed muse. 'If I knew that,' I said, smiling, 'I wouldn't be here.'

'From what you say it sounds like Leni was simply trying to create beauty, and unlike most of us she had the means to do it.'

I knew that. I wasn't a clod. I had no objection to beauty; it was a worthwhile project. I had no objection to comfort either, as in Jim's London office, a converted warehouse, with its jacuzzi and in-house barista and sculptor-in-residence. I had loved working there. Every morning that I walked into the atrium of that building I felt my spirit quicken. There was a lot to be said for a personal barista.

Talking about Leni was a dead end. I wanted to ask Sarah about my recurring dreams, about the woman and the baby. 'Why the baby?'

'I don't know,' she said, reflectively. 'In some schools of thought the baby is said to represent the self.'

'So the baby is me?'

She smiled, mischievously. 'Maybe. Some dream therapists believe that everyone in the dream is you: the baby, the woman, even the water. You can see the logic of this – if it's coming out of your brain, your mind, it must be you, all of it. You create the dream.'

'What do you think?'

'I think it's possible to pay too much attention to dreams. If you wake up and the meaning is clear, then listen to it. If not, forget about it.'

 

LOOKING BACK NOW I think of Sarah as a kind of transient angel in my life, someone I'd had the luck to find when I needed her. In some way I've never quite comprehended she had kept me from drifting heedlessly over the edge. She hadn't 'cured' me, but she had stopped me becoming more careless and self-destructive. It had been a conservation phase, a shoring-up of the best of what was already there.

Of course we had dealt with 'issues': my emotionally remote father, for one. Didn't everyone have one of these? I had asked.

'I'm not treating everyone,' she had said, 'I'm treating you.' Whenever I attempted to generalise she would always pull me up and bring me back to myself: what I experienced, what I felt. I could see the logic of it.

But what I was to recall later, in the light of subsequent events, was the time I told her about my inability to cry.

'You can't recall a time when you cried, as a small boy?'

'No.'

'Never?'

'Not that I remember.' What I remembered was being beaten at school and standing alongside other boys, and how they cried and I didn't, and how elated I had been at the hardness of my heart. Whatever else they did to me, they could not reach me there.

Sarah shook her head.

'I've wanted to cry, many times. But I just can't do it. I remember once, when I was nineteen, this girl dumped me. I felt I was on the edge of tears, and when they wouldn't come I put my fist through a wall.'

'A wall?'

'It was plasterboard.'

Sarah was silent for a while. Then she tapped me lightly on the arm. 'Don't worry,' she said, 'tears will come in their own good time.'

 

This is an extract from 'The Beloved', a novel-in-progress.

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