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Telling Time

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Everyone has secrets. Lisa Harden has spent years polishing her image as a successful psychotherapist, highly respected and well known in her field. When a new patient appears in her office asking for therapy, Lisa is inexplicably unnerved and fights hard to keep up appearances. Only when the price of keeping her secret takes her to the brink of losing everything, including her marriage, does Lisa finally return to Canada to confront her past. But it may already be too late.

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22 Chapters

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One

ePub

On the last day of my old life I closed and locked the office door behind me, handbag knocking hard against my hip while I turned the key, that one extra click to ensure it was double bolted. There was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to indicate a breach in the predictable pattern of life except that I was in a rush, and now I don't know what for, or why. To meet someone important, or to catch a train?

I've always been good at closing doors, those invisible portals between one stage of life and another. I suppose this particular talent of mine, this ability to effect closure, at least within my own mind, is what helped me to shut the door behind me and move back into my own life at the end of every working day. Not to do so would mean drowning in the sorrows of others, and I have a horror of death. The transition isn't always easy. To sit for hours listening to patients, to witness raw grief and withstand the hot tip of molten anger are the everyday fodder of my profession. Now I know I was hiding behind their misery—behind that door again, where I could pretend they were all so much worse off than me, and where I truly believed that I could be of some use.

 

Two

ePub

On Tuesdays I begin seeing patients at seven, before Keith sets to work with his infernal drill. I am alone in the building until my first appointment. There are mornings I come in earlier, particularly if Frank is away and I am restless. I tell myself that this is an opportunity and I use the time to write. This day, though, I arrived at the office thirty minutes before my client, time enough for a cup of coffee and a quick piece of toast in the building's communal kitchen down the hall. I had to rub the crumbs from my fingers before going down to open the door. I am always a little anxious before meeting a new patient and all our arrangements for this session had been sorted out over the internet.

Dorothy was a blur on the other side of the bubbled glass, the angled pitch of an umbrella protecting her from the rain. I opened the door and she stared at me, eyes wide open in shock, not sure what to expect. As if wondering whether I might hit her or kiss her.

Instead, I offered her my hand, “Hello. I'm Lisa Harden.”

 

Three

ePub

I am a therapist who prides herself on her ability to remember details. Most clinicians are good at this, but I like to think that I am particularly good at it. If I don't recall something, I need to ask myself why, what is important about this fact or bit of information that I have dismissed it out of memory and, therefore, attention? You see, I cover my back both ways. Both remembering and not remembering are crucial.

At the weekend, however, and in the evening after work, I try to let the day go, leave my patients behind and re-enter my own life. My marriage to Frank is another portal out of one room into another, and this one has light.

Frank has a great capacity for reassurance. I sometimes wonder if he has acquired this through his relationship with numbers, their very concreteness providing him with a stability I certainly don't have. I cling to Frank because he is planted firmly in the ground, a rock of rational thinking. If both of us were busy analysing the other, empathy flying back and forth in both directions, life would be insufferable. The extension of compassion is one thing, to receive it quite another. Perhaps that is why I so often write about it, my preoccupation with this therapeutic essential nothing but an effort to understand what I so abhor receiving myself. I believe I extend it towards my patients, not in a gushing sort of way, but through my very capacity to understand and perceive their pain, though with some clients it isn't so easy to identify with their distress. With my new patient this week, I had experienced such inexplicable confusion I wasn't sure I had really taken her into account at all. Too early to speculate and I pushed any thoughts of her to the back of my mind.

 

Four

ePub

April Fool's Day again. I took an extra large gulp of coffee and nearly choked, but it felt good, a sharp lift to the spirits. Frank would be up to something. He likes a practical joke. It fits his mathematical frame. A forward planner, my husband, his pranks worked out days in advance.

I sat at the kitchen table and scanned the papers for the spoof article, not always so easily spotted. One year I fell for the piece claiming the arms of Venus de Milo had been found. Two perfect limbs, dredged up by a Greek farmer ploughing his field. You can see why I am wary. I am also not fond of Sundays. The day is too loose and I like things wrapped up and determined. There is something about a Sunday that invites less formality than other days, as if lying in or doing nothing is something to be treasured, while I find the notion of so much reflective space anathema and far too disquieting. Luckily, I usually have deadlines to meet, though I never seem to accomplish quite as much as I intend to and, like many other working people looking over the tip of the weekend into the prospect of Monday, I suffer an element of pressure. A new week is about to begin, another clean slate to be filled with creativity and meaning, and the avoidance of failure. Failure is invariably accompanied by paralysing feelings of shame, or at least with me it is. No wonder I work so hard.

 

Five

ePub

I woke before the alarm went off at five-thirty. Frank grunted his usual early morning complaint: why the hell was he awake when he was under no pressure to rise early except to make me a cup of tea? I suspect he goes back to bed sometimes when I'm gone, recouping a few of those lost hours. His working schedule is his to set and most of his labour is in his head anyway. Frank only sits down at his desk once he's worked through one or another formulation, often refining it for weeks before beginning to scribble with his pencil, almost absentmindedly. His brain is a calculator, a big bag of numbers, but nothing tumbles out until he is ready.

That morning I was in my office by six-thirty. Before settling in I went to the kitchen, breakfasting on instant coffee and two slices of toast from last week's leftover loaf. I had a few minutes to look at my notes, focusing on my first patient of the day while I munched.

I've seen Sam, a man now in his early forties, for years. He came to me while in the throes of a cocaine habit that threatened his work and his marriage and I've never been sure which one mattered to him more. When sober he is extremely good at his job, working for a bank in the City. Despite his good fortune, he regards himself as persecuted these days because of the public perception that he makes too much money, and receives a giant bonus each year upon which he gauges his professional success. Sam is someone for whom how much money he makes is also the measure of his personal worth. Only now, after five years, are we getting down to some deeper internal work, which frightens him, so recently he has taken to skipping the occasional session. He wants solutions more than he does understanding and occasionally I wonder where, or how, our work will end. Does everyone need to understand themselves, or is it enough just to get by? Sam is proof that the question is viable, his life having improved immeasurably since he gave up drugs and partying and began to see himself as part of the general human race, albeit a segment that demands financial success. I doubt he'll ever agree with me that not being “special” is absolutely fine and that, in the end, beneath the surface of our accomplishments we are all pretty ordinary. Sam is also a charmer, so during our sessions I have to be careful not to be seduced away from the deeper material. He is a master at sidelining me, and everyone else, from any subject which might hold a greater meaning.

 

Six

ePub

I remembered Dorothy's name just as I opened my office door the next morning, half an hour before she was meant to arrive. Through the thicket of dense memory, it finally emerged. Until then I had only the vision of her bare knees in mind, and her little hand pounding against her thigh. I read her notes—one page—taken aback that I had put down so little. I knew nothing about her, not her job or where she had grown up. Was she married? Of course not, I reminded myself, she had said she struggled with relationships, though that could mean anything from the soup of friendship to the nuts of marriage or a committed relationship.

I was tired this morning following a restless night and the haunting edge of a dream I couldn't quite grasp after waking with a start around three. Must have shouted out because Frank was sitting up in bed when I shot upright and looked around the room to see where I was.

“Whoah!” I gasped.

“You were dreaming. A nightmare by the looks of things.” Rubbing my shoulder, reassuring me.

 

Seven

ePub

I don't get nearly so nervous as I used to before giving a talk. In the old days I would vanish into the loo beforehand, letting go all my anxieties in one almighty heave. Afterwards I was lightheaded, a bit on edge and once-removed from myself. Only then could I go out in front of an audience and it was almost as if someone else was addressing the crowd; I was simply the vehicle through which the information was being served. Purging myself beforehand was the way I coped.

Frank noticed my anxiety on Friday morning before I did. I spilled coffee all over the kitchen counter. What I actually did was forget to install the pot in its slot beneath the filter and the freshly brewed coffee poured out everywhere.

I was in the bedroom, blow-drying my hair and even above the racket of the machine I heard the thump, thumping of Frank down below attempting to contain the spillage. He must have tipped the whole contraption into the sink because when I came down to see what was going on, it was lying on its side like a capsized ocean liner. Brown gunk was everywhere, seeping underneath the toaster and the cereal packets and dripping down over the counter into the barely opened cutlery drawer, overflowing onto the floor. Frank looked beside himself, clutching a roll of kitchen towel in one hand and a scrunched-up wad of paper in the other in a frantic effort to mop up the mess.

 

Eight

ePub

Martha was to be avoided, timing my comings and goings to ensure we didn't meet in the communal kitchen or anywhere else. I brought sandwiches and ate them on my own between patients, or went home for lunch. Once or twice I saw Keith, but always while greeting or escorting a patient out the door. Would he never learn? Daniel, Martha's partner and the third therapist in the building, was his usual elusive self and perhaps he didn't really exist at all, although the evidence would soon be there in Martha for everyone to see.

When did the nightmares really begin? Slowly, creeping up from behind. This time I shot bolt upright choking, the bedclothes sodden and Frank gently clucking beside me, “Lisa, Lisa, wake up.”

I could not describe the dream to Frank—it was gone the moment I opened my eyes—gradually returning over the course of the day: a mass of jelly rising up out of the earth, a skinless, translucent egg of blood and sinew that throbbed to the beat of my own heart. I ran and ran but I was powerless and, with me as its life force, it began to grow larger, finally forming a mouth out of which came nothing but a dreadful, silent scream. The nightmarish theme continued intermittently for weeks, the viscous lump of mucus small and silent, at other times actually taking wind and howling, the sound more like a screech than a cry, an accusation rather than a plea for help. Weekends were the most difficult, when I spent time with Frank going to the market and having lunch, so called relaxing. With nothing to distract me my anxiety levels skyrocketed, manifesting in the worst nightmares on Saturday and Sunday nights.

 

Nine

ePub

The self-help books only deepened my bad mood. I shuffled though my pile. I couldn't bear to sit down and read through any of them completely. I hated the language they used, continually encouraging the reader to share, or forgive, or to move on, and they were particularly fond of closure. The notion of “controlling your feelings” was particularly distasteful, with the implication that personal salvation is a disciplinary issue, like giving up drink or drugs. It was the simplicity of it all I so disliked.

I could rant to myself all I wanted, but whenever I sat down to write on the computer my ideas inevitably dissolved into irretrievable particles.

Are you someone who wants a quick fix, are you someone who imagines there is a short and easy answer to everything, and there is a snake oil salesman somewhere who really will have the solution.

Scribbled by hand in another feeble attempt to begin, Addiction and self-medication are a defence against pain. Are you addicted to self-help books, imagining that they can provide a solution to whatever ails you?

 

Ten

ePub

I was scheduled to see my supervisor that afternoon, though I hated the idea of seeing Max while I was feeling so raw. If Frank is my domestic anchor, Max is my professional ballast. For the first time in our history, I dreaded attending supervision.

To get to Max, I am forced to take the Underground. That afternoon I tried to lift myself out of the gloom by reading the newspaper on the train: politics and the Middle-East, issues I liked to convince myself are once removed from my life. But what is expressed externally is a reflection of our internal world and there's no getting away from war, even from a distance.

The route to his office has remained consistent, never more than a ten-minute walk from Islington station. These days Max lives in a small, terraced house into which he has squeezed both his professional and his personal life. His previous address, between marriages, was a mansion flat, which I preferred. It was quiet and there was a view from the window overlooking a small, private garden. Now, there is a dusty double pram shoved into the corner by the door and a pair of bright plastic, miniature cars. I can sometimes hear the children rattling around in them when I am in session with Max. The twins are now four, their noise levels escalating over the years rather than diminishing.

 

Eleven

ePub

Frank and I walked around one another for the next few days. It wasn't that he was ignoring me, or that I was shutting him out, but rather that for the first time in our marriage we did not know how to speak to one another. We were both locked into our own turmoil, unsure how to find a way out. For the first time, too, I wondered if Frank regretted marrying me. It wasn't so much what he said, but rather what he didn't say, and the silence was like a boom call, resonating throughout the house whenever we were both at home, which was as little as possible. There were no more early cups of tea, instead I subsisted on coffee. I took to switching on BBC's Radio 4, to hear another voice in the kitchen, and we ducked into our individual studies for relief, emerging for breaks at alternate times. All weekend I listened for his footfall on the stairs or in the hallway, but it never stopped outside my door.

On the Monday, Frank went to Scotland for a few days to lecture and I was relieved. I did not have to lie beside him in bed, terrified that nightmare furies would give me away. I needn't have been afraid. Though I lay awake for hours, the little sleep I had was blessedly dreamless. Instead, the demon surfaced during the day, a hovering shadow that hurtled towards me at the squeak of a door opening or closing, or the sound of a car horn from the street below my office window. The bubble of translucent horror rose on the tail of a gust of wind as I walked by the pond at Clapham Common. I staggered towards one of the benches on the other side of the park to stop myself from fainting. This was exhaustion; no avoiding it now. By the time Frank came back from Glasgow I had a plan, in part helped by a phone call from my brother, Tom, in Canada. He'd joined the bandwagon, encouraging me to get away.

 

Twelve

ePub

I used the weekend to recover and Frank was solicitous. He had made his point, not pushing it further, particularly as I collapsed, spending most of the two days in bed with a headache. The lightest pressure, a stray hair, or a cool cloth was all the same, adding to the pain. Stomach cramps, too, as if going into labour. Frank was careful to see that I drank plenty of liquids and ate something light, crumpets or toast. He comforted me: “There's a summer ‘bug’ going around.” How else was he to make sense of this?

By the time Monday morning rolled around, the pressure had eased and, while still physically shaky, I was grateful to get back to work despite dreading the task ahead. Two weeks was very short notice to give clients of an impending break. Normally I gave them a few months’ warning. A psychotherapist's work life is planned out as far as is possible in advance, sometimes a full year ahead. The nature of the job is to provide a “container”, to give safety and predictability, consistency if you like. Within that consistency the unpredictability of life can be absorbed, such as illness or an unexpected death in the family. That's the theory anyway. I had certainly provided reliability, not having taken any time out in months, not since Easter, and before taking Dorothy on as a client.

 

Thirteen

ePub

The following Tuesday, as I sat in my office and waited for Dorothy to arrive, I was as restless as a woman in love with the wrong man, distracted in equal measure by a cocktail of both longing and dread. I moved from office to kitchen and back again refilling too many cups of coffee. Why had I arrived so early? I put it down to Frank having left the flat before me. The truth was I had been anticipating this meeting with Dorothy for over a week and I had no idea how the session would go. How could I? Dorothy was as unpredictable as the sensations she evoked in me, both exciting and terrifying, sometimes completely disabling.

I had been let off easy over the past week, most of my clients fairly sanguine about my taking a break. For some patients there might be a delayed reaction, those with unpredictable abandonment in their histories, for instance, who thought nothing of my absence beforehand, yet in retrospect might find it difficult. Sam had been the exception, his reaction resounding deeply with my own archaic guilt. Hadn't I been the abandoner once, leaving my country and what remained of my family to find a new and easier life abroad? I couldn't remember feeling remorse at the time, only enormous relief and an uplifting, internal tension focusing on what lay ahead, the promise of infinite possibilities. I could fashion myself any way I chose, without the detritus of recent events to pull me down. No one knew me in England and so I was relieved of the pressure of having to reveal myself. The old me, that young woman stranded between youth and maturity, she had hit a wall too big to find a way through. I had to leave her behind. Relief and determination moulded together to forge the new presentation of me. No wonder advertising had suited me so well. For years I had been nothing but a flesh and blood hoarding, a bundle of secrets exposing only those bits of myself I wanted the world to see.

 

Fourteen

ePub

Returning home after seeing Dorothy, I was still unsettled, despite having seen five more clients that day, all of whom seemed to appreciate my presence, particularly Lucy, who was fierce in her newfound insight concerning perfection. I was on comfortable, familiar ground there, and could honestly say that we were working well together.

That evening Frank and I had a barbecue on the patio, where I was always careful to keep my voice down because of the neighbours, particularly when speaking about my work. I told him something about my difficult session with Dorothy, without mentioning her name or revealing any of the details: that I found her a difficult patient and was relieved that she might be leaving to live abroad. I didn't admit to my raging sense of loss at the prospect of her leaving for New York, or to my intense shame at my equally powerful feelings of dislike towards her. How could I begin to describe the complexity of my feelings for this new patient, the warring conflict of emotions she provoked? Why did I still refer to her as my “new patient”, though she had long passed that stage and I had taken on at least three people since first seeing her in March?

 

Fifteen

ePub

In Winnipeg there is a new airport, slicker than the old one: souvenir shops and restaurants, with high tech ordering on tablets. My hometown has grown up, expanded in my absence. I am a stranger again, until I hit Portage, the long avenue of my youth opening up into six lanes all the way to town. This road, in either direction, if I stay on it long enough, will take me to the coast—Highway No. 1, an asphalt thread linking the country from one end to the other, a means of escape I failed to recognise as a young woman. Instead the city was like four walls without a door, until disaster struck and they all came tumbling down.

The rental car is smooth. Automatic, it starts at the push of a button, the air conditioner purring. I clutch the steering wheel with both hands and aim straight for my mother's nursing home. On this road, along this track, I float above myself, watching the young woman below. She is the one driving the car: another era, another time zone. She knows the terrain, the map of the city, with her childhood articulated through the indelible actions of muscle memory. She knows when to turn and when not to, recognises hotels and businesses along the strip leading away from the airport. Names have changed over the years, yet this is such familiar territory. The Institute for the Blind on the left, the big electronics store to the right, fast food chains and the Richardson Building up ahead, tumblers falling into place. Where the roller rink used to be, now an imposing university building, the periodic table embossed in its facings. She blinks away the changes. A sudden chill in the air and the new hockey arena looms, monument to the prodigal Jets. She remembers the old one: bright lights and the smell of hot dogs, the sweet yeasty scent of spilt beer, and the slap of the puck against the boards. Blades scraping the ice, the roar of the crowd as another one lands in the net. The sound of the organ slugging out yet another tune: new for old, Eaton's department store gone and a rip in her chest, a streak of pain like fabric tearing across the grain. The car veers for a second into another lane and a truck honks behind her. Hard and angry, too long a scream. A shout like a roar and the car is back on track.

 

Sixteen

ePub

Up and over the bridge, Tom swung his truck like an anchor into safer territory heading straight for the hotel's underground parking lot, a dusty tomb if there ever was one. I bumped downwards along the circular concourse, edging my car away from the wall to avoid scratching my bumper. Why submit to such a low level existence when there were rows of empty spaces above ground? But this is the prairie way, the habit of a lifetime ensuring your vehicle, so often the casualty of weather, is kept safe from harm: the beat of the summer sun, or the corrosive effect of a winter climate harsher than any on earth. Down below the temperature is ambient, gently cool in summer, warm in winter.

Pulling into a spot beside Tom, I pinched the top of my nose. The walls were a concrete grey and the floor like parched earth, the smell of soot in the air. There were other tomb raiders down here, an old Lincoln Continental and a more recent Volvo, both cars an expression of pride and success. Tom was already peeling back the shiny black canvas at the rear of his truck. Pulling out an overnight case—my brother always travels light—he placed it on the ground, displacing a little puff of dirt. Without a word he walked to the side of the truck, stretched a little further into the cargo section, yanked at a cardboard box that was tucked behind the spare wheel bed, tied securely with a bungee rope and looped through a handle at the back of the cab. He flipped the cord loose and the hook clanged like a gunshot against the metal floor of the truck.

 

Seventeen

ePub

Steady. Steady. Tom led me to the couch. We sat either end, facing one another. Too much space between us, yet too close for comfort. I stood up and moved back to my previous perch at the end of the bed, the birth certificate flat on the table between us. Tom ordered a pot of coffee and we sipped it quietly together in the room. Silence between us wasn't typical and we were suddenly shy, peering at one another over our cups, quick little glances checking up on the other. Occasionally, Tom smiled. Was it me, or himself, he hoped to reassure?

My thinking had fragmented into a disjointed series of words and fractured phrases, nothing holding together. This was not the result of last night's alcohol, or the mark of a restless night, but the splintering, heart-wrenching tiredness of grief. For the first time I truly empathised with my clients’ struggles: Sam in his anguish, Dorothy in her disturbing account of maternal absence, her curiously swinging presentation and resistance in the room. Her bare knees. I took comfort from my work as a therapist, reminding myself that I had come a long way from the young woman who had given birth. The young woman who, almost without thinking, had lost her child.

 

Eighteen

ePub

My mother's room was hot, even with the blinds closed. It simmered with the heat of Tom's anger and I was dazed, like a blind person touching the surface of things—the walls, the door frame, the back of the chair—finding my way through the maze of forgotten territory.

On tiptoes, we took our seats either side of the bed. Rather than one another, we stared at my mother, willing her to rise up and face us. The seduction of hope over experience. Through the bellows of her open mouth she circulated tiny chunks of air. Sandpaper back and forth, in and out, barely grazing her lungs. Once her eyes popped open startling us both, yet nothing registered within that glassy, demonic stare. Her eyelids fluttered and closed, fluttered and closed and then dropped completely. We did not exist.

A refreshing breeze swept through the room as a nurse entered. Tom and I both raised our heads and laughed, grateful for the diversion. The nurse looked from Tom to me and then back again, smiled and carried on. She'd seen it all before. Gently she lifted my mother's head to fluff the pillow before tucking in a sheet corner. From her pocket she extracted a pair of blue rubber gloves. “How is she?” without taking her eyes off my mother.

 

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