‘Zo...’ said Joe in a cod Viennese accent, ‘tell me about your childhood’.
He was wearing a plastic Groucho Marx nose, moustache and glasses and was pretending to smoke a fat pen. I didn’t smile. For all I knew this was how people normally behaved in the after life, but Joe assured me it was supposed to be a joke. ‘Never mind’ he said, putting the mask on the table. ‘You ok?’ he continued more seriously, almost apologetically. I shrugged.
‘Ok. Part of what happens here’ he continued, ‘is you get the chance to look at your life, think about what’s really important, try to make some sense of it.’
I suppose I was looking a bit blankly at him. Anyway, he leaned forward. ‘Is it about, for example, beauty, or love, or truth?’ he suggested ‘or having a career or a vocation perhaps or, I don’t know, is it about “making a difference” as they say? Hmm? You know, standing up for what you believe. Stuff like that. Or is it just about hedonism – getting what you can get out of life, just living for yourself, sex, money, sensation, experience. Do you see what I mean?’ I nodded but I didn’t know what to say.
‘You’re very young’ he said unexpectedly. ‘Too young really.’ I was a bit offended. I was nearly nineteen. I’d read Plato, and Sartre and Oscar Wilde for God’s sake.
‘I do understand’ I said, more peevishly than I’d have liked. Why can’t I stick up for myself without sounding like I’m sulking?
‘Of course you do Gabriel’ he said but he was thinking about something else.
‘My parents’ he said eventually, ‘they thought life was all about duty – doing what you had to do, that and the church. They thought life was all about having to give an account of yourself to God at the end. I have no idea what they make of all this.’
‘What about you?’ I said.
He looked a little sideways at me and I knew he didn’t really want to talk about himself so I said ‘It doesn’t matter, you know, if...’ I shrugged and he looked away, towards the window and we sat in silence for a while.
‘Anyway’ he said at last, clapping his hands on his knees. ‘Now’s a good time to consider all that. Think about what you want, what’s important to you. And think about who you are, deep down.’
‘Some,’ he added, nodding toward the door ‘choose not to, but it’s a great opportunity. I recommend it to you. Have you ever been to a therapist, counsellor, whatever?’ I shook my head. ‘Ever read any psychology?’
‘I read some Freud’ I said.
‘Oh. Good. What did you read?’ he sat forward in his chair eagerly.
‘I don’t remember. It was a book about him from the public library. Sorry’
‘No, that’s cool. At least you know something about it. You wouldn’t believe some of the... Anyway, what did you make of it?’
I said I vaguely remembered some things about the sub-conscious, the id and the ego and superego and infant sexuality. I mumbled some stuff about what I thought about that - about how so much of a person’s life was set in the first few years and how it keeps coming back to mess things up later on. He told me that I’d basically got it and how that made things a lot simpler for him. He told me his degree had been in psychology, partly anyway, and that he was always amazed how people tried to get through life, get married, have children and so on without ever thinking about what was going on in their heads, far less checking what other people had worked out about it previously. ‘It’s like driving a car without ever looking under the hood to see where all the grinding noises and sparks are coming from’ he said with exasperation. ‘So, really, I mean it, ‘tell me about your childhood’’.
‘Where do I start?’
‘At the beginning? When? Where?’
‘Brighton, England, February 24th 1966.’
‘Ah, Pisces’ he said portentously.
‘What does that mean?’
‘Probably nothing, but you never know. Which was pretty much what I concluded in my dissertation: “Astrology and Psychology”. Anyway, do go on. Brothers, sisters?’
‘Two sisters, nine and twelve years older than me. I was a bit of a mistake.’
‘That’s an unfortunate way to put it, don’t you think?’
‘How do you mean?’ But I knew exactly what he meant. I’d said it like that deliberately.
‘Do you think your parents saw you as a mistake?’
‘Well, they were getting on a bit’, I smiled ‘well, late thirties. I don’t think they thought they were old... but you know what I mean. Mum was running a nursing agency and Dad – um – was busy. They didn’t need another kid running around the place messing their things up did they?’
‘But it wasn’t your fault?’
‘No no.’ Now I felt disloyal and ungrateful. ‘I know they did their best and everything. It was ok.’
He takes a moment – gives me a hard look, as they say.
‘Forgive me’ he says at last ‘but you don’t seem to be taking any of this very seriously – what happened to you, the effect on your friends, your family...’
I want to say ‘Hah! What friends? What family?’ I want to say ‘Well serves them right. Those shit heads’ll have to take me seriously now.’ But I know they won’t. They’ll just think it’s yet another stupid thing I’ve done. And they’ll be right.
I expect Joe to tut and be very ‘patient’ with me but he doesn’t. He looks into my face with an expression like he might cry any moment himself and says softly ‘Good God Gabriel. You basically killed yourself – at eighteen years old. You don’t seem to understand. That’s not a cry for help.’ He shakes his head slowly, wondering. ‘What happened to you?’ he says and I can feel the tears welling up again. He passes me a tissue from the box on the table. I sit and sniff for a while, feeling sorry for myself. Then I say ‘My sisters were good with me.’
‘And what were their names?’
‘Justine and Amelia...’
‘Tell me about them.’
‘Well, I don’t know, they were just... when I was little... I...’
And the next thing I know I find myself crying, tears pouring from my eyes onto my knees, then my whole body hunching forward in the armchair with deep groaning noises coming from my chest. Everybody must have heard. I started to slap the side of my head over and over, trying to stop this stupid howling but I couldn’t. I could see their faces, looking down at me, Justine and Amelia, the way it must have been when they found my body. I’d caused so much hurt. I couldn’t stand it.
Later, I felt Joe’s hand gently but firmly holding my wrist to stop me hitting myself, I tried to pull away, but not very strongly and I ended up slumping forward against him, my head in his lap, his trouser legs saturated from my tears. It felt a little embarrassing, but really I didn’t care enough to move. Eventually I sat back, but he stayed squatting in front of me, holding a tissue for my face. The sobbing subsided and I took some deep breaths. I sat back. I felt absolutely spent. He sat back. That was when I noticed someone else in the room. It was the young woman who’d first shown me to my cabin standing by the door. They both looked concerned, but not horrified as I’d expected. In fact they didn’t seem at all surprised by my behaviour, which was reassuring. Eventually she – Angie – left and Joe waited for me to settle.
‘Do you want to go on a bit more?’ he asked gently. I felt drained but oddly at peace. ‘You don’t have to today, or at all, if you don’t want to.’
‘No, I’d like to. Maybe another time. Could I have a drink?’
‘Not a whiskey?’ he said smiling.
‘Not a whiskey’ I confirmed.
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