Helena

 

At five on a Saturday afternoon only a scattering of people remained in Bruno’s, the indefatigable late shoppers and the remnants of the café crowd that occupied the fashionable Summertown haunt. Patrick slipped into a seat by the window, glad to have an uninterrupted view across the road, a chance to sit and reflect after a long day in his consulting room. Saturday was his busiest day. One client after another lay on the couch or sat in the chair, pouring out a stream of inchoate misery and insoluble problems while he, Solomon-like, soothed and suggested, or simply ‘held’ them as the jargon went as though he were a wise and all-embracing earth mother and they unhappy delinquent children. He didn’t see himself as particularly maternal. It surprised him sometimes how easily he had fitted into that role. How had he ended up as a psychotherapist? It had been the last thing on his mind when he’d gone to University twenty years ago full of eager curiosity and burning ambition. But then it had all gone horribly wrong.

Patrick sipped his café latte, seeking out the bite of caffeine through the mild surface froth. In his line of vision on the other side of the road were six tall terraced houses in faux-Georgian style, biscuit-coloured brick and steeply angled porches over the front doors, set back from the road by the easy-to-maintain front gardens, a few evergreen shrubs and paved paths. The houses were divided into three two-bedroomed flats, ruthlessly extracting the maximum use of the space available. He’d read in the Oxford Times how they had sold quickly and at what seemed to him inflated prices. Idly, he wondered who would buy such a place – young couples, their first step on the property ladder, single men like himself, families maybe though the proximity of the busy road might put them off. The houses had no sense of permanence and he suspected that few owners would stay long. Patrick lived in a Victorian terraced house on Thorneycroft Road. He had converted the large front room into his consulting room, seeking to create a neutral but welcoming environment for his clients. Several commented on how much they liked it, which pleased him though he took care not to show his pleasure, maintaining his professional detachment as he knew he should. A frown creased his forehead. He placed the coffee cup back in the saucer. What was this niggling dissatisfaction that swept over him from time to time, as it did now, a nagging sense of failure and vague discontent? He was a well-respected and valued psychotherapist. He enjoyed his work. He was working his way up in the Psychotherapy Institute and had just agreed to act as the journal editor for the next three years, a real coup to have been asked. He earned more money than he needed or wanted. But there was an undercurrent, a pulling sensation that disturbed him. Was it that he was still single at the age of thirty-eight? Was he missing the reassurance of a life-long partner? Nine years with Cecilia had seemed long enough especially the last two. That had ended over a year ago and there had been nobody since. Was it the absence of sex? Or love perhaps? If he hadn’t stopped seeing Martha Kinglsey, he might have worked it out on her couch staring at the tiny delta of cracks in the ceiling. Perhaps he should seek her out again, he thought, but without any real conviction.

It was in the midst of this disturbing reverie that Helena came into view. She crossed the street in front of the café and headed towards one of the faux-Georgian houses. She was laden with three large shopping bags plastered with logos, Hobbs, Whistles, Agnes B. Her smart burgundy leather jacket gleamed in the afternoon sunshine. Underneath she sported a light blue open-necked shirt, Levi jeans and black suede boots that crinkled about her calves. Her glossy brown hair bounced up and down as she walked. She was his 12.00 Tuesday client, a bit of an enigma, given to long silences and an air of perpetual irritation. Patrick was surprised to see that she lived in one these new flats. He must have her address in his notes though it was possible she’d given him a false one. It would not have surprised him. Through the café window he watched her intently, poised and still like one of those hunting dogs detecting a hidden creature in the grass. Helena’s body swayed slightly from side to side as she walked with her bags down the path and then suddenly, like in a silent film, she twisted to the left, the bags flying all ways in the air, her hands waving helplessly and collapsed onto the ground, the unexpected disintegration being almost comic. Patrick got to his feet. Swiftly, he left the café, crossed the road and came up to her just as she was pulling herself up, gathering up her possessions.

‘I was in the café and saw you fall. Can I help?’ The words were casually delivered as though his sudden appearance was quite normal. Helena stared at him, her brown eyes wide in surprise.

‘I hope I haven’t startled you,’ he went on. ‘Here let me.’ Boldly, he’d taken the bags from her and in no time at all he was standing with her in the tiny hallway of her first floor flat.

‘What a surprise,’ she’d murmured as he put the bags down on the floor. ‘I thought psychotherapists never left the sanctuary of their offices.’ In her voice he heard again the carefully modulated, crystalline accent he’d noticed when they’d first met. An artificial, cultivated voice, the sort that foreign students adopt when they tried hard to speak the Queen’s English. No trace of the West Country where she’d said she’d spent her childhood. He’d written ‘accent – a defence?’ in his notes, not at all sure against exactly what.

‘I didn’t know you lived here,’ he said looking around. ‘It seems a nice flat. Light. Airy.’ He was talking like a prospective buyer.

‘Would you like to look round?’ she asked politely.

‘Very much.’

They exchanged a glance and something passed between them, a moment of shared understanding. In the consulting room Helena rarely made eye contact. She lay on the couch and stared at the ceiling. She said very little. At the end of the session she always handed over a cheque, already filled in for the correct amount, sealed in a slim, white, unaddressed envelope. Patrick surmised that she didn’t want any obligation beyond their hour together.

The flat was nice enough in the anodyne, clean-cut style of modern conversions. They moved into a large rectangular living-room with two big windows overlooking the road below. The late afternoon sun made the cream walls glow and the room warm and inviting. There wasn’t much in the way of furniture. A bottle green two-piece settee. A square, dark wood coffee table in front of it. A waist-high pine bookcase standing against one wall with a few paperbacks on one of the shelves. A small TV in gleaming chrome and black on its one-legged stand facing the settee. Two rustic-looking rugs covered the light wood-effect floor. On one wall was a large Rothko-esque print in red and orange that looked as though it might have been part of the original fixtures. No clutter except for the bags that she’d brought into the room from the hall and placed carefully by the door.

‘The main room,’ she said simply, and shrugged, which was perhaps an apology or more likely, indifference. He followed her into the kitchen. Compact with all the usual features – chrome sink, gas hob, light wood surfaces – it was as indeterminate and uncluttered as the living-room. The small space brought them close to each other. Again, they exchanged glances, eyes locked for a moment. Patrick felt a swift surge of excitement, the stirrings of desire. Awkwardly, they moved back into the living room and from there to another room off it, her bedroom. A large double bed with a gold and black cover took up most of the room. On a chest of drawers by the wall was a tropical fish tank the blue-green water rippling gently as air was pumped through it. He could see only one fish, a small dark shape that darted in and out of the rocks and the floating vegetation.

‘Kali,’ she said following his gaze. ‘That’s what I call her. She killed all the others one by one. Kali the killer.’

‘You didn’t stop it?’

She frowned. ‘I didn’t like it, but I thought that’s nature. I let her get on with it.’

It seemed to Patrick that there was nothing natural about keeping tropical fish in an aquarium.

A scruffy teddy bear sat on the bed propped up against a dark wooden headboard.

‘Yours, I suppose’ he said pointing at the bear.

Her face lit up. ‘Teddy. Not very original. I’m afraid.’

Patrick sat on the bed as though testing it. He looked up at her and patted the gold and black cover. ‘Why don’t you sit next to me?’

She sat down, turning to look at him frankly. He reached over and took her hand. It felt smooth and warm in his grasp.

‘Why don’t we get undressed?’ he said as though they had known each other for years and had done this countless times. Patrick registered something in her eyes, a reaction he could not quite identify. Not hesitation, not the rejection of his advance. Later he thought it might have been something akin to disappointment.

She pulled her hand away and stood up. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’ It was then that she looked searchingly at him and said in her perfect Queen’s English voice, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ It was the only time either of them tried to be sensible.

 

******

 

The sky stretched light blue and cloudless to the horizon. Patrick drove along the M40, half listening to Desert Island Disks on the car radio. Along the verge the autumnal leaves sparkled in the sunlight like hoards of gold and copper coins. Large birds wheeled overhead in casual dominance of the skies. He was on his way to visit his sister Judy who would by now have fetched their mother from her flat. His mother would be on her first sweet sherry. From past experience he knew it wouldn’t sweeten her mood. Having just past seventy-five and having slowly recovered from his father’s death four years before, his mother had turned sour like cream that had stood too long. There would be a familiar litany of criticism and carping. Nothing escaped her sense of disappointment with the world. Judy let it all sweep over her head. But he was not so stoical. Patrick found it hard not to let his impatience show especially as her negativity was often turned on him.

Patrick liked his older sister. He was grateful that she readily took on the care of their mother, visiting twice a week and phoning on other days. And he was grateful too she never made him feel guilty about it. She simply accepted that this was to be her role just as she gave up her career as a solicitor to look after her children while Ben, her rich and successful husband, jetted round the world. Ben was in Sri Lanka. His absence suited Patrick. When he was around, Judy faded into the background. Not that he disliked Ben, who was a large affable bear of a man, shrewd too with a ready wit. But he preferred it when it was just the two of them alone together, brother and sister. They talked to each other quietly, intimately, as they had as adolescents before Judy had left home for university. Patrick wondered if he should tell her about Helena but he thought he wouldn’t.

The sex had been fantastic. Just thinking about it now turned him on. She’d returned to the bedroom wearing a flimsy black dressing gown. Her feet were bare, revealing toenails painted blood red, one little toe slightly chipped. Patrick had quickly got out of his clothes. Fragments came back to him as he drove. The warm softness of her breasts under his hand, the thrill as their legs intertwined on the bed, the ecstasy as her mouth closed over his penis, the urgent sounds as they went at it, fucking like animals, intent entirely on pleasure. He realised that from the moment Helena came back into the bedroom until they had lain spent and sweaty in each other’s arms they had said nothing to each other.

Patrick exited the motorway at the Beaconsfield junction. It was a short meandering journey along small country roads to reach Judy’s house. His sister lived in this well-heeled part of Buckinghamshire in a large detached house and grounds – eight bedrooms and a separate annex that housed a billiard room. Quite a transformation from the fervent radical in the 70s and 80s, rabidly anti-Thatcher, hotly defending the unions from class oppression. In the miner’s strike she helped out on the picket lines. Meanwhile Ben had turned his communications business into a hugely successful international company. When the kids came along Judy’s radicalism disappeared, submerged in domesticity.

The gravel drive crunched under the car tyres as he drew it up in the semi-circular forecourt outside the house. Judy was out of the front door before he had got out. Her light brown curly hair flopped on her head. She wore a shiny white apron over a checked shirt and dark jeans. On the apron there were pictures of herbs, their Latin names written in scrawling italic script. A dusting of flour smudged her left cheek, reminding Patrick of childhood games when they’d pretended to be chefs running a restaurant.

‘Pat, you’re late again,’ she scolded. ‘You’re always late.’ She put her arms round him and hugged him really tight.

‘I’m fashionably late, he said as he disentangled himself. Her hair smelt of apples and cinnamon. ‘Are you making apple crumble?’ he said hungrily.

‘Apple and blackberry pie.’ She grinned at him. ‘Mother said pies were bad for her gut.’

‘She’ll eat it though.’

‘Won’t she just.’

He put his arm affectionately round her shoulder as they walked into the house. A cut-glass vase with a mass of red and white roses stood resplendent on the hall table under a mirror that reflected their image. ‘Who’s sending you roses? A new boyfriend?’ he teased.

‘Ben sent them,’ she said. ‘He’s just phoned. Sri Lanka’s hot and humid and he’s bored. Desperate to come home. La, la, la.’

‘I’m sorry to miss him.’

‘No you’re not.’

‘I am, Jude,’ he insisted. ‘I tell you I like Ben. He’s good fun.’

‘Come and meet Mother,’ she said lowering her voice. ‘She’s certainly not.’

 

After lunch, brother and sister went for a walk in the garden. During the meal their mother had been querulous, irritable about every little thing, particularly with Patrick, his unsatisfactory life as a psychotherapist, a job she never seemed to understand. With an effort of will he had managed not to react. Now she was deeply asleep in an armchair, her mouth hanging open, a piffly wheeze accompanying her steady breathing. In this state she seemed to Patrick no longer the woman he had known all his life but a stranger who had been foisted on them. There had been a time when they had been very close, when he had confided in her and she had listened and made suggestions and had appeared to understand him better than anyone. He’d been at Oxford, struggling with the History degree he had unwisely opted for. He could never talk to his father without it ending in a row and Judy had been in Thailand or Malaysia, somewhere in the Far East, teaching. Long conversations over glasses of red wine. All that had ended when he’d had his breakdown. Leaving Oxford degree-less had cast a huge shadow over the family. Only Judy had been able to accept that the golden child had feet of clay. He fell into a spiralling depression. He blamed himself for his failure. He had thoughts about killing himself. Once he went as far as searching for all the paracetamol and aspirin in his flat and piling them up in a pyramid but the desire to take them had immediately evaporated. Then had come the years of psychotherapy with Martha Kingsley and his life had turned round.

‘Anyone new on the girlfriend front?’ Judy had linked her arm into his. They walked on a mossy flagstoned path at the bottom of the garden. Trees flanked the path, their branches entwining at the top, creating a fairy-like arbour below. Birds twittered and scolded in the undergrowth.

‘Not really.’

‘Slightly evasive answer, I’d say.’

‘Just something that happened recently. Too soon to talk about.’

After the sex they had lain on the bed side by side, naked and silent. The realisation of what he’d done dawned on him in all its chilling reality. She was his patient. He had a duty of care to her. He’d smashed the professional boundary. If anyone found out, his career would be at an end. Her large brown eyes searched out his and he thought she might be reading his mind. Phrases echoed hollowly in his head: I shouldn’t have done this. I’m sorry, I was wrong. Let’s pretend it didn’t happen, forget the whole thing. All totally false for how could they just forget it or pretend to forget? It had happened, his urgent desire ‘acted out’ as the psychotherapy jargon has it. Her hand rested lightly on his arm. She smiled as though to say ‘don’t worry.’ He bent over and kissed her lips, tasting sweat. They lingered over the kiss and once again Patrick’s body responded, his penis hardening, his hands searching her body. They fucked again, slowly this time, more like lovers than animals. He cried out as he came within her. She shuddered in response, her legs entwined round his, their bodies commingled in a softer, longer ecstasy.

 

***********

 

‘I’m not sure we should be doing this.’ Patrick spoke hesitantly. Helena, lying on the couch in his consulting room, turned her head and looked at him.

‘Doing which? Therapy or fucking?’

‘Both.’

She held his gaze for a moment before turning away. Her eyes were again fixed on the ceiling. Patrick waited for her to say something. He heard the regular tick-tick-tick of the clock in the silence. He hadn’t been sure if Helena would turn up. Now she was here, she’d behaved as though nothing had happened, lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling. Earlier, Patrick had tried to analyse his behaviour. Time’s winged chariot? He was thirty-eight, scarcely old. Proving his masculinity? But what did he have to prove? And with a client? That was auto-destruct if anything was. Maybe, he thought, he was acting out an unconscious impulse to bring the house down around him and destroy everything he’d carefully built up over the past ten years, his practice, his growing reputation, his involvement in the Psychotherapy Institute. But why? What would Martha have said? More to the point, why hadn’t he called her?

‘I hated my father.’ Helena’s clear voice broke into his thoughts, startling him. ‘I wanted to kill him. I planned it. For years.’

His professional senses were on full alert.

‘I thought of poisoning his soup. He always had Baxter’s tomato soup. But I thought he might detect the poison. He was finicky about his food. If I’d known anything about cars, I would have tampered with the brakes like they do in books. I used to read thrillers galore and plan ways of doing it. But I didn’t. So there it is.’

Her father had abused her. That’s what she was telling him. Patrick realised that he had half suspected it all along.

A long silence.

‘When I went back for my cousin’s wedding, when I crashed the stupid car, I had made up my mind to confront him, to tell him what a shit he was and how much I despised him. I was rich, you see, and I’d heard that the farm was on its last legs. I could have easily bailed him out. That would have humiliated him. But what happens? I end up in that awful hospital flat on my back while he brings me flowers and sucks up to me.’ Bitterness had crept into her voice. She was close to tears. ‘I couldn’t do anything.’

‘You were like a child again, helpless.’

‘Yes. Nobody cared. Nobody understood. Except him of course. It always comes back to him.’

Everything revolved around her father, Patrick saw that. Her whole life had been a reaction to this man who had abused her. She couldn’t get him out of her system. And now he had done the same thing as her father. He saw how easy it had been to do it, how she had sent out all the right signals and, he, like some testosterone-fuelled male, like some galumphing bull seal, had mounted her and taken his pleasure. Shame flooded through his body. What had he done? Savage thoughts filled his mind. Am I just another rogue male unable to control my desires? Is psychotherapy just a charade, a pretence, a way of dressing up the inevitable disasters, of pretending they could be understood while in reality the id worked its destruction on us willy-nilly? ‘Willy-nilly’ was a phrase Freud would have liked, he thought wryly.

Helena went on talking. It was as though a tap had been turned after a long blockage. For the first time Patrick heard about her miserable life in a tiny village outside Truro. He discovered she’d had an older brother who had run off when Helena was eight, never heard of again. Her sister, Marie, had married at seventeen. For six years Helena had been the only child in the house and it was in those years that her father had come into her bedroom at night and raped her. She didn’t use the word ‘rape.’ Nor did she spell out exactly what her father had done. But now some twenty years later her voice shook with anger and revulsion.

At the end of the session Helena took a white envelope from her bag. She held it out to him, her eyes on his, something unfathomable written in them. Patrick hesitated and then took the envelope from her.

‘Shall I come to your flat on Saturday?’ he said astonishing himself. He had firmly decided that this would be their last session, that he would never see her again.

She looked appraisingly at him. ‘I thought you were going to say ‘never darken my door again.’’

‘I was but the words came out differently.’

‘Okay,’ she said after a moment as though she’d been weighing up the pros and cons.

‘Do you still want to come to therapy? I mean,’ he said in some confusion, ‘I’m not supposed to…’ He stopped unable to put his thoughts into words.

‘To mix business and pleasure?’

‘Yes.’

‘For whose benefit is that, Patrick? Yours or mine?’

 

Patrick and Helena met twice a week, once on Tuesday mornings in his consulting room and again on Saturday afternoons at her flat in Summertown. On the couch Helena continued to talk about her past. She told him how she’d escaped from her family at seventeen, moving to Bristol and then London. She worked in cafés and bars. She met her first husband, Giovanni, an Italian entrepreneur – ‘small time crook,’ she called him dismissively. He beat her up. It was a pattern Patrick was familiar with. The victim of abuse falls helter-skelter into another abusive relationship. Psychologically, she expects to be mistreated. Abuse is something she knows and at some unconscious level she feels it’s justified. But unlike many abused women Helena had broken free. Again a man loomed large, this time a rich, successful businessman who ran string of property companies across Europe. Helena had started working in his firm as a temp and ended up as his PA, then his mistress. She learned about the international property market and found she had a knack for brokering deals and making money. She developed a reputation for ruthlessness. Her boss, thirty years older than her, asked her to marry him. She refused at first but changed her mind. A year later he was dead. A heart attack one morning at the office. Helena inherited the company. Overnight she became a millionaire.

Patrick heard all this as he sat in his therapist’s chair. He listened, rarely saying anything. He sensed what she wanted most was a witness. It was something she’d never had, someone to hear her story. The shame he’d felt after the first transgression left him. He inhabited his professional persona, rarely thinking about the other Helena, the naked, sensual woman whom he fucked every Saturday between five and seven. It was as though the two meetings took place in separate universes. ‘Splitting’ was the psychological term. Not in the Kleinian sense of dividing objects into good and bad, for in truth Patrick didn’t see their sexual relationship as bad. Rather, it was his ego’s capacity to hold two contradictory positions without needing to reconcile them. But somewhere at the back of his mind he was aware it couldn’t last. Reality would return in all its mundane, drab ordinariness. What he did, and he presumed Helena did the same, was choose not to think about the real world. In some respects their Saturdays passed like other people’s, in taking pleasure for its own sake. In many ways, he thought, they were like children. Despite the grunts and groans, the intensity of their search for sexual fulfilment, there was an innocence about their meetings.

Patrick once came with a bottle of wine but it remained unopened. Another time passing a flower shop he thought of buying Helena a bunch of flowers, roses perhaps. It didn’t seem necessary. She liked chocolates and after the sex, they would guzzle from a box of Belgian truffles, feeding each other until sated, a paler version of what they had just been through. So he took to bringing chocolates, the only concession to romance if that’s what it was. In the quiet aftermath lying on her bed side by side, they sometimes talked but never about anything personal. Events in the news. The weather. Casual conversation. Quite often they slept. Once he watched her sleeping, observing the gentle movement of her diaphragm as the breath passed to and from her body. On the chest of drawers the aquarium gave out a low light, the water pulsating as though it too was breathing. A dark shape occasionally darted back and forth and then stopped abruptly, floating almost to the surface before darting away again. Kali, all alone in her watery world.

 

**********

 

“Can you come, Pat?” His sister’s voice shook. Their mother had had a stroke that morning. She had been admitted to hospital. “Ben’s away. I don’t know if I can cope. It looks… serious.” He knew what she meant.

After he put the phone down, Patrick sat absolutely still. Somewhere in his mind thoughts came and went but it was as though they were behind a barrier and he couldn’t reach them. He felt an emptiness that he put down to shock. Eventually he got himself together, cancelled his clients and headed down to his sister’s. He drove too fast at first and almost crashed the car. After that, he drove with exaggerated care.

In the hospital ward his mother looked deathly pale under the fluorescent lights. She lay flat on her back in the bed her arms stretched out on either side of her body. On the pillow her lank grey hair framed her small, puckered face. Her eyes were closed. Occasionally her eyelids fluttered. Machinery pulsated, keeping her alive. The stroke had been massive, a bleed that had spread insidiously through her brain as she lay unconscious on the floor of her flat. Judy had found her eventually, alarmed that she hadn’t picked up the phone. They didn’t know how long she’d lain there. Several hours probably. Hours during which she might have had potential life-saving treatment. The doctor told them brutally that her chances of recovery were extremely slight. Another stroke would probably happen soon. The implication was that they should welcome it.

They went back to Judy’s house in the early evening, persuaded by a kindly nurse that they would be better off resting. If anything happened, they would be called. Patrick felt relieved to be away from the impersonality of the hospital where death and dying was an everyday business.

“Cheers,” he said automatically, lifting his glass of whisky as they sat on the terrace, looking out at the gloomy shapes of trees and bushes in the twilight. “Though not much to be cheerful about.”

“She dreaded having a stroke. She didn’t want to end up a vegetable.” Judy started to cry, her body shaking with convulsive sobs. Patrick held her in his arms.

“The doctor’s right. It would be better if she had another stroke and died.” It seemed to him that someone else was saying these words, not him.

Judy nodded mutely. Patrick felt the whisky warm him. “You couldn’t have done anything, Jude. You couldn’t know it would happen today.”

“I know but I feel bad. She was lying on the floor, her life ebbing away. No one was there.”

“You offered to take her in. She didn’t want to. She was fiercely independent.”

“I know, I know.”

Should they have insisted, he thought? He was acutely aware that he had been content to let Jude do all the running. He hadn’t thought about his mother getting ill and dying as though by refusing to think about it, he could pretend it would never happen.

The children were in boarding school. Judy hadn’t told them yet. Patrick suspected they wouldn’t be too upset for his mother had never been a loving, involved granny. Ben was away in Los Angeles where he was in the process of setting up a new base for his company. Patrick overheard Judy on the phone telling him what had happened. She told him not to come back. There was no predicting how long their mother would go on. She would call again if something happened. He was impressed by her self-control, the matter-of-fact way she talked about it all to her husband.

Their mother took five days to die during which time Patrick stayed with his sister. The two of them visited every day, sitting dutifully by her bed in that horrible limbo when nothing can be done except wait and wait. She never regained consciousness. One morning when they arrived, they were told she’d died in the night. That was it. It seemed to him a sorry end though he was not unhappy, just relieved it was at last all over.

 

In the late afternoon of the day their mother died Patrick and Judy sat on either side of the kitchen table eating an Indian takeaway they had bought on the way back from the hospital. The pungent smell of cardamom and curry wafted around them. Judy picked at her food. Patrick remembered suddenly that it was Sunday. Up to this moment he had forgotten all about Helena. He gave a start.

“Something wrong?”

“Not really…well,” he corrected himself. “I was supposed to see someone yesterday. I forgot all about it.”

“Your new girlfriend?”

Judy’s eyes were upon him. He nodded. “It’s a bit of mess actually, Jude.” He found himself telling her what had happened, how he was sleeping with one of his patients. It all sounded so tawdry, so stupid and thoughtless. Judy didn’t say anything. But tears fell from her eyes, dropping one by one onto the kitchen table. He took her hand, squeezing it.

“It’s okay, Jude. I’ll sort it out. It’s my fault”

She shook her head. She said something he couldn’t catch for she was crying with loud sobs that racked her body. She repeated it. “It’s what he said. He said he’d sort it out.” She sobbed, her body shaking. It dawned on Patrick that she meant Ben.

“You mean…?”

“Yes.”

“Oh God, Jude, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“He wants to leave us. Maybe he has. I don’t know.”

Patrick was utterly shocked. Judy and Ben were so close, so well suited, so easy-going. But as Judy spilled out her story, he heard that Ben was having an affair and that he’d had affairs before. They had even been to a marital counsellor. He’d promised to reform. Only he hadn’t.

“It was all lies. Now he has met the love of his life,” she said bitterly. “We don’t count any more.” She looked up at him, her blotched face wet with tears. “You know, mum’s stroke was a distraction. I almost welcomed it, Pat. Isn’t that awful?”

“No of course it’s not awful. You’re only human.”

 

Later that night Patrick lay fully dressed on his bed in the dark, wide awake, unable to sleep. Thoughts raced through his mind. It was as though something important, something vital, lay at the threshold of his consciousness if only he could grasp what it was. He thought of what Judy had told him about Ben. He’d had no inkling that anything was wrong in their marriage. But then what do we really know of other people’s lives? And what about Helena? What did he know about her? He wondered what she had made of his unexpected absence the day before. Would she think that he’d had enough of her? It was clear to him that their relationship – and it was the first time he’d used the word – existed only because each of them felt in control. Once he’d transgressed, once he’d fucked her, Helena knew exactly what sort of person he was. She could then safely tell her story to him for his interest in her could never be anything that put her at risk emotionally. All he wanted from her was sex and by giving him sex she remained in control. She could treat him like the other men she’d known. And by fucking her, his client, Patrick ensured that their relationship could never develop into anything deeper or longer-lasting. She would never be a pressure or a threat to him, not emotionally anyway. They took pleasure for pleasure’s sake. They were like children playing a fantasy game, escaping into a different, exciting world. Like he and Judy had done in their make-believe games as children, shutting out the sound of their parents’ ugly rows, his father’s hard, unrelenting anger and his mother’s pathetic sobbing.

They offered each other succour, he and Helena, without any of the messy uncertainty that defined truly intimate relationships. It was what he’d done with Cecilia, he realised, not wanting to confront the cracks and contradictions in their marriage, refusing to acknowledge that there was anything wrong until it was too late.

Patrick turned on the bedside light. The unfamiliar room sprang into life around him. He checked his watch. It was just before midnight. Sitting up he picked up his mobile phone and searched until he found her number. The phone rang just twice before she answered.

“Hello?”

“It’s Patrick. My mother’s just died. She had a stroke five days ago. I’ve been down In Buckinghamshire with my sister. I’m sorry I didn’t call you.”

He paused. There was no response.

“You must have wondered if I’d decided to stop seeing you when I didn’t turn up on Saturday. That’s why I’m ringing. To tell you I don’t want to do that, Helena. I mean, I want us to continue seeing each other and I wanted you to know that right away.”

The silence continued.

“Are you there?”

“Yes.”

“It’s late. I’m sorry. I must have disturbed your sleep.”

“I wasn’t asleep, Patrick. Thank you for calling me. I’m sorry about your mother.”

“Truthfully, I’m not that sorry. But that’s another story.”

“There’s always another story, isn’t there?”

“Yes. However much we try to keep things simple, they get complicated. But maybe,” he went on, “that’s what life, real life, is about, don’t you think?”

“Is this psychotherapeutic insight, Patrick?” she said after a short pause. “Shouldn’t you save it for the session?”

He laughed. “Perhaps. I’ll be back at work tomorrow. Shall I see you Tuesday?”

“Tuesday is fine.”

Silence fell between them.

“Good night, Patrick. I am truly sorry about your mother.”

“Good night, Helena.”

The click of the receiver being replaced sounded in his ear. Patrick got undressed and quickly got under the sheets. He lay there for a moment, thinking of Helena in the bedroom of her Summertown flat, the light from the aquarium bathing the room in a soft, iridescent light, the small, dark fish darting about in its artificial world. And then a resolution seemed to come to him just at the moment his eyes closed and he fell fast asleep.