Waking out of a foul dream to gently hectoring telephone calls from her daughter, Anna Waterman allowed herself to be persuaded into one last session with Helen Alpert.
The doctor had spent much of the morning arguing with a Citroen parts supplier in Richmond and was pleasantly surprised when her client arrived carrying take-out lattes and almond croissants for them both. Had Anna lost weight since her previous visit ? Perhaps not, Helen Alpert decided; perhaps it was in fact a postural change. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Anna,” she said, though she never drank coffee after eight in the morning.
On her part, Anna felt ashamed of herself. It was like being the one to break up a relationship. Prior to buying the coffee she had spent half an hour on Hammersmith Bridge, gazing down at the brown water at some people learning to scull, miserably trying to bring herself to face the doctor. After that, the consulting room, with its cut flowers and tranquil light, seemed such a zone of peace, and Helen Alpert so welcoming, that she didn’t know where to begin. For years, she explained, she had lived in a kind of suspended animation. That seemed to be over now. During the last few months, life had been waking her out of a sleep she didn’t want to relinquish, forcing her to take part again.
“That’s what I haven’t liked about it.”
“No one likes that,” the doctor agreed.
“No. But they want it anyway.”
“Anna, I’m interested in the way you put it, life ‘forcing’ you to take part again. What sort of thing do you mean ?”
“For example, Marnie’s not well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I found that I welcomed it. I know that sounds odd.” Having admitted Marnie to the negotiation, Anna became unsure how much space to allow her. “Anyway, it’s time someone looked after her for a change.”
“You feel she’s been the parent for too long ?”
“And something else has happened,” Anna said, “which I’d rather not talk about.”
The doctor smiled. “Your business is your business.”
Given their circumstances, Anna considered this the cheapest of jibes. “Actually I just want to live my life,” she heard herself say, with somewhat more emphasis than she had intended.
“Everyone wants that. What exactly is wrong with Marnie ?”
“She’s having tests.”
There followed a silence, during which Dr Alpert played with one of her gel pens and made it clear that she was expecting more. Anna considered describing the visit to St Narcissus–the women shackled to their symptoms by the hospital system and to their lives by mobile phone; the fatuous receptionist; the cancer-shaped stain on the ceiling–but preferring to avoid the interpretive bout that would inevitably follow, in which she would feel compelled to take part out of simple courtesy, said instead, “I never wanted to examine my life, I just wanted to be inside it.” This had the nature of a bid or gambit, she realised. “Not,” she qualified, before Helen Alpert could take it up, “that I never had a point of view on myself. Of course I did. Look,” she said. “The fact is, Helen–you’ll understand me, I know you will–I’ve met someone. A man.” She laughed. “Well, more of a boy, really. Is that awful ? Michael is dead, but I feel alive again, and that’s what I want to be. Alive.”
This much denial filled the doctor’s heart with rueful admiration. “I’m delighted,” she said, though it must have been clear that she was not. She wondered why she bothered. She reached across the desk and put her hands over Anna’s. “Tell me what you dreamed last night,” she said, “and I’ll tell you why you mustn’t stop coming here. Not yet.”
“Do you know, I didn’t dream at all last night,” Anna said. “Isn’t that odd ?”
–from Empty Space, final book of the K-Tract trilogy, 2012