‘When did you eventually leave home?’ he says, almost before I’ve sat down.
‘Er... ‘87? Some time around then.’
‘So, you were... twenty-two? Am I right?’
‘Yes, I suppose...’
It’s another thing I’m not proud of – leaving it so late.
‘What made you move, in the end?’
‘I don’t know really. I was just ready to go I suppose.’
‘It had nothing to do with the fact that no woman would want you once they found out you lived with your mother and father...’
I look at him. There’s something so... slapable about him, smug, patronising git. I decide to brazen it out.
‘No, not particularly. That had always been a problem... not just then.’
‘Ok, when did you have your first real relationship?’
‘I am simply building a picture. Tell me.’
‘You sound unsure.’
‘Well, she wasn’t the love of my life exactly’
‘But you had sex.’
‘When we could.’
‘When your parents went away.’
‘My parents never went away.’
‘Oh? Why not?’
‘Dads bloody alpine plants. Don’t get me started...’
‘Ok, but at other times, when they were at work perhaps?’
‘Look, is this really relevant?’
I’m beginning to suspect him of just being a voyeur, or a sadist, or both.
‘I hope so.’
‘We had sex sometimes at her place, yes.’
‘How old was she?’
‘Ah. An older woman.’ (Hah, that surprised him.) ‘Good for you’ he says. ‘What made you choose a woman older than yourself?’
‘It wasn’t so much a matter of choice...’
He looks at me. I know what he wants to say about making choices. I back-track a little. ‘She was one of the carers at the nursing home. She took me in hand, if you know what I mean.’
‘I can imagine. But you would not have been with her from choice?’
‘She was quite domineering. And quite, er... large...’
I see him smile broadly. It is quite funny, in retrospect, but at the time it was a bit intimidating. I really didn’t feel I could say no, and in a way, I did enjoy it. ‘She was rather smothering, if you know what I mean.’ I deliberately include the double meaning but he reacts as if he’s noticed an unintentional Freudian slip.
‘With her on top?’ he says with a slightly queasy smile.
‘Yes, exactly’ I say, humouring him. ‘But motherly too?’
‘But not like your mother.’
‘God no.’ (Perish the thought. Yuk!) ‘My mother never... She wasn’t very touchy-feely if you know what I mean.’
‘Like the mother you never had then.’
‘Maybe’ I say doubtfully. Actually, now I come to think about it a few of the other care workers were very solicitous, if you know what I mean. A lot of them were middle-aged women and they were always covering for me when I was late and helping me out and I think one or two of the old queens there were convinced I was just being shy, so they were extra nice to me a lot of the time too. Actually I think I brought out the mothering instinct in almost everybody except my own mother.
But I have to admit, I did like Pamela (that was her name) taking care of me and all I had to do was perform a few times a week. If I’d fancied her more it might have been a very good arrangement indeed. She had these immense breasts, which was quite an experience for me, as a barely post-pubescent lad, but it was all a bit too much to be honest.
‘But she was good for you, no?’
‘She showed me the ropes’ and I know what I’ve said almost before it leaves my mouth. He gives me the saucy grin again. Unfortunately he’s right this time. It was a Freudian slip, and she did tie me down a couple of times. I didn't really like it.
‘I can imagine she did’ he says, knowingly.
‘Anyway...’ I say, trying to change the subject, or at least, move it along ‘I learned a lot.’
He nods and writes. I wonder briefly what kind of doodles this session will inspire. Maybe it’s his way of taking notes. I could imagine doing that but it’s hardly short hand.
‘And before her did you have other girlfriends?’
‘Nothing serious’ I say. Nothing sexual is what I mean.
‘But you would have liked to.’
‘Do you think you could stop saying “God” for me? Thank you very much.’
I look at him. What a very strange little man. I feel like starting an argument but can’t be bothered. He looks up at me, realises I’m watching him.
‘I know this is irrational’ he says. ‘It is an old habit but I can’t seem to change it. Blasphemy hurts even though I am no longer sure there is anything to blaspheme against. However, I would be very grateful...’ He smiles slightly in a brave kind of way. I nod and smile, and once again my opinion of him is instantaneously inverted.
‘No problem’ I say.
‘What I’m aiming for here...’ he says, laying down his papers, looking into the middle distance ‘...is some sense of whether this impotence you felt in life was simply about finding your place in the world of work, money, making a career, or if it extended to other things...’
‘It was everything’ I say. He could have just asked. ‘Although I wasn’t, actually...’
‘Impotent’ he says. ‘No, I’m sure, but it is all frustrated, bottled up.’ He mimes being bottled up, pulling his shoulders, elbows and knees in. It would be funny if he didn’t do it because he feels he’s trying to communicate with a moron.
‘I want to know where that comes from. You need to know.’
‘When do you first remember feeling that way?’
I think back. It must have been in secondary school. ‘Thirteen?’ I say.
‘No’ he says with total certainty. ‘Earlier. Adolescence is when it comes out, and when it begins to damage your future, but not all teenagers are alike. The causes are further back.’
‘Ok, that makes sense.’
‘I’m glad you think so. So...’ and he looks at his notes again. I’d love to have a look at them. ‘Just to complete the picture then, there were other girls you wanted before her?’
‘I lost my virginity with her, but yes, other...dalliances.’
‘A good word’ he says looking at his papers. ‘Little used these days. “Dalliances.” Excellent. Tell me a little about those.’
‘Erm, well’ I look about, playing for time. There’s really nothing to tell. It’s a bit pathetic really. There was really only one proper girlfriend.
‘There was Naomi. She fancied herself as some sort of pixie-woman – went on to go to Cambridge I think it was.’
‘How old were you?’
‘Seventeen I think, she was a bit younger.’
‘And then Pamela – the auxiliary I told you about.’
‘Nobody else? No infatuations, no dates, no er... “ones that got away”?’
I try to look challengingly at him but he doesn’t flinch.
‘Look’ I say. ‘Why do you want to know all this? Really? After nearly twenty years struggle I threw my career as a painter away in a fit of pique and you want to know about my adolescent crushes?’
I look at him as he prepares an answer. I’m not angry exactly. It’s just beginning to seem ridiculous. What’s worse, I like talking about women and sex, which seems like a bad sign. Shouldn’t this delving be difficult for me? I feel sorely aggrieved about my sex life, certainly, but it seems self-indulgent. We need to talk about more adult problems surely – money and careers and paperwork and taxes.
‘Your problems are of a sexual nature Gabriel.’
‘Well, that’s all very Freudian, but...’
‘Not Freud’ he says. ‘People’s problems spring from many sources – mothering, violence, sickness, school, race, poverty, genetics... But yours spring mostly from sex, or relationships anyway. Do not ask me how I know this, but I do. You had counselling in life yes?’ I nod. ‘But it’s different here. We know which questions to ask. Trust me. We know. Ok?’
‘Ok’ I say, pretending not to be convinced but actually I’m relieved. I hadn’t really wanted to talk about tax and careers.
‘Good. Who did you first fall in love with?’
‘Girls at school, different ones, Donna, Camille, Gillian – there was always someone.’
‘From about what age?’
I think back. Donna was in Miss William’s class. That would have been... ‘Eight?’ I say, not quite believing this can be true. What kind of a perv was I? He nods and writes it down. Evidently it’s not that shocking.
‘And what did you do about it?’
I shrug. ‘Nothing. I was just a kid.’ What did he expect?
‘No little games? Doctors and nurses? Kiss-chase?’
‘I was a bit too shy. I stared at them a lot.’
He writes some more. ‘I expect that made you popular’ he says, not looking up.
‘No they thought I was a weirdo.’ Nod nod. Write write. I want to say something about how off-putting it is but decide to let it go. I look out of the window at the sea. It’s still raining horizontally out there but the sky is paler. Sea birds whiz past on the gale.
‘I asked a few girls out later on but they weren’t interested. It was all a bit sad really. Camille I think quite liked me but couldn’t bring herself to actually be seen out with me. I always felt she saw through the outer, gawky, nerdy me to the real me underneath. There was something oddly wise about her, womanly, for her age, like she knew things. Beautiful eyes.’
‘She may have been an old soul.’
I’m not sure what he means. I’ve heard the term before. New agers use it sometimes for people who they suspect might have lived before, who seem older than their years. I didn’t expect to hear it from someone as straight as Vincent.
‘She may have been one that remembered her previous lives in detail’ he says for clarification. ‘It is not common – maybe two or three percent, mostly women, as a very subjective estimate.’
I look at him some more. Is he being serious? This had really never occurred to me. People say ‘What would you do if you could live your life again, knowing what you know now?’ but it never occurred to me it might actually happen. I suppose, now I come to think about it, that I hadn’t really considered how we might carry this experience from here into the next life. I thought maybe it would come in confusing flashes, like deja-vu, or maybe just an instinct about things, but not this, this Groundhog Life. I’m lost in thought when he speaks again.
‘And Gillian?’ he says.
‘What? Oh, Gillian. Oh she was gorgeous, and a really lovely personality. She was quite popular generally, but I think she liked me. Well, most girls completely ignored me, so for one to even acknowledge my existence was a breakthrough.’ I look at Vincent for a smile of fellowship but nothing comes. At least he’s put his notes down and is looking at me properly now.
‘But nothing happened between you.’
I look at him before I answer. There’s something so condescending about his responses to what I say – like all his questions have full stops, and all my answers have question marks. I think a bit more about Gillian. She was gorgeous. I didn’t really stand a chance.
‘It’s a weird one – I was going to go to a party, which was quite an event for me – I didn’t get invited to a lot of parties back then... and this one, I wasn’t exactly invited, but I wasn’t excluded, if you know what I mean. Everybody at the shop was going.’
‘How old were you by this time?’ and he’s got his bloody pad out again.
‘Eighteen. I worked at a DIY shop for a while, a few months. I knew her from school but she was on the checkouts. Anyway, I knew she was going to this party – as I say, everyone was and I was quite keen to go, so I turn up at the pub where we were meeting that evening. I’d deliberately made an effort to not wear my usual geeky outfit – you know – the old school shirts and anorak and so on. I’d been out and bought some black tee-shirts and jeans and I got my hair cut and everything and I felt pretty cool that night actually. Anyway, I get to the pub, and there they all are, and Gill sees me and says how cool I look, which just makes me feel ecstatic. Anyway, later, as we’re about to leave I realise I don’t have a bottle to take. The off-licence is just next door and I tell Gill that I’ll be back in a moment and don’t go without me. It’s raining outside and I’ve not got a cool new jacket to go with the rest of my cool new outfit so I’m freezing but I don’t care, and the next thing I know, she’s followed me out, and she turns me around and looks at me and laughs, because the tee shirt’s quite tight, and my nipples are really poking out. And she says – I’ll always remember this – she says “Are those torpedoes in your shirt or are you just pleased to see me?” At first I’m really embarrassed but I can see in her expression that she quite likes it. And for a moment, I think she might come with me, we look at each other for a while, out there, in the drizzle, and she bites her lip and says, apologetically ‘You know I’m with Dave (or whatever his name was), don’t you.’ and I look at her and suddenly I know that going to the party is a really very bad idea. I’m disgusted anyway. This guy Dave is a total wanker and it sickens me to think of them together. “Come with me” I say, or something like that, and she looks uncomfortable, and says she can’t, and anyway she has to go, because he might see us and she kisses me, properly, on the mouth, and runs back inside. It was the most romantic thing I think that ever happened to me.’
I look at Vincent. For some reason he’s grinning extremely broadly at me.
‘Well done’ he says. ‘That was the one I wanted.’
‘I don’t know why. I simply know it was important. You know this too, no?’
I sit and think about it. Yes. I’ve always known it was important. I don’t know why or how.
‘We will continue next time. I want to hear about your time as a student, and about your wife. Ok?’
I nod and leave. For some reason I feel hugely uplifted and drained at the same time. I go to find Ned and the others. I want a huge drink. I feel like celebrating for some reason.