The Seat

 

“Can I have a word, Colin?”

Henri Marcelin poked his head round the door of the staff room where Henderson was sitting. His angular face had a sleek, well-groomed look as though he spent his weekends on the tennis court or windsurfing. A smile hovered on his face, a characteristic expression that Henderson found irritating; it seemed sardonic, with just a hint of smugness. Marcelin was only forty-five, ten years his junior, but ever since he’d arrived in the Psychotherapy Department he had maintained an aloofness that at times bordered on discourtesy.

“Now?”

“Yes. If you have time.”

“I have a patient in ten minutes. Otherwise…”

A thin ribbon of steam rose slowly from the white styrofoam cup of coffee on the low table in front of Henderson. In the distance, he could hear the irregular rumble of heavy machinery as what had once been the psychogeriatric ward was being reduced to rubble. Marcelin slipped into the room holding the bulging, battered tan briefcase he always had with him. He took the seat next to Henderson, placing the case carefully on the floor before angling round so that they were face-to-face, a prelude to whatever was to be demanded or stated.

“If it’s about the new guidelines, I don’t see there’s any point in discussing it further.” Henderson spoke curtly. It made little difference, he’d discovered, whether he was friendly or not. Marcelin was indifferent to such nuances.

“No, no.” The French Canadian flapped his hand dismissively as though swatting a fly. “But I have something to ask you. You know about the European Trauma Conference? In Bristol?”

Henderson knew nothing about such a conference.

“I am registered, a delegate, but something has come up. My father is ill. In Montreal. I have to go back.”

“I’m sorry. Is he going to be okay?” He didn’t know Marcelin’s father, didn’t know that he had a father though of course he must have.

“A stroke, you know. Minor, I think. I hope. He’s seventy-nine.”

Henderson saw the anxiety fleetingly revealed on Marcelin’s face. “Of course, you must go.” He spoke warmly, feeling guilty about his previous coolness. The man’s father was thousands of miles away and ill, perhaps dying.

“Yes, I know that.” Marcelin spoke with scarcely concealed irritation. “I want to ask you if you can go to the conference, take my place. I am sorry to miss it for Jules Brassin is giving a keynote speech and the Rotterdam group will be there. You could tell me about it all. And it’s a shame to waste the ticket.”

The ticket! He made it sound like a play or concert. “Well, I don’t know. Trauma’s not really my field.”

“It will be very good. And good for you too I think to get up-to-date. It’s this weekend.”

Get up-to-date! The cheek of it. And this weekend. Well, he had nothing arranged of course. Eleanor? She would do what she normally did. Shopping. Seeing her pals. She wouldn’t mind, probably glad to get him out of the house. But a conference. Henderson had never liked conferences, all that sociability masking scarcely concealed rivalries and jealousy.

“I tell you what,” said Marcelin, pulling a clear plastic folder out of his briefcase. “Here is everything you need. In my name of course, but that will not matter. I will telephone to say you are taking my place. Go for a day if you cannot spare more time. Bristol is not far.”

He left the folder on the table and stood up in a sudden jerky movement like a marionette. When he got to the door, he turned round and nodded at Henderson, the smile gone, his face serious. “Thank you,” he said quietly as though Henderson had done him some enormous favour.

 

*************

 

Henderson was disconcerted to discover a large gathering of young people at Paddington, clusters of youths in groups, lounging about, aggressive and noisy. It was nine-thirty on Saturday morning and they were already knocking back cans of lager. Many wore baseball caps, the peak back to front, and baggy faded jeans that hung so low from the waist that the crotch extended almost to the floor. There was a preponderance of striped shirts of claret and blue. Football supporters, he supposed. A few were singing, arms linked. The electronic board showed the Bristol train departing at 9.55 but no platform was indicated. He ordered a cappuccino from a brightly coloured cart advertising ‘Real Italian Coffee’. It came with a sprinkling of light brown chocolate on the froth and tasted sweet and sickly. A mistake. Like the whole conference notion, he thought. If only he hadn’t mentioned it to Eleanor. She had badgered him into going, saying it would do him good to get away as though he were an invalid. She had checked the train times and reserved him a seat.

Henderson felt a spasm of irritation. Eleanor treated him as though he were depressed, needed distraction or cheering up. It was true he had felt low of late. But not seriously, not so that he couldn’t work though at times his mind was not wholly on his patients. Marcelin’s arrogance didn’t help either. But then no one could replace Dinsdale Wharton, a brilliant man, an expert Freudian psychoanalyst of the old school. Still, to choose someone who didn’t have a proper analytic training and a French Canadian. Not that Henderson objected to Canadians, French or otherwise. But he had been an unknown quantity. Then Marcelin had announced himself as a cognitive-behavioural therapist; short-term, quick fixes in Henderson’s view, everything he and Dinsdale had stood out against. He could live with that, he supposed. But the business with the Departmental Guidelines angered him. A maximum of four months therapy per patient! Sessions to be no more than once a week, exceptionally twice a week if the case merited it. It was ludicrous. Proper analytic work required time, the patience to explore and think things through. It was not about quick fixes. Marcelin, their representative on the Trust’s working group, blandly stated that such changes were inevitable, a product of budgetary constraints that couldn’t be avoided. Henderson, who never got involved in hospital politics, had been angry enough to take his concerns to Sean Bentley, the Directorate Manager, a man he barely knew, appointed last year in the reshuffle. Young, self-assured, wearing a smart black suit, he welcomed Henderson into his large office with exaggerated friendliness.

“Psychoanalysis,” Bentley said, “in its purest sense, Colin, you understand, the Freudian stuff, is outdated. No research evidence to support it. The Trust can no longer finance it.”

But the “Freudian stuff” was what Henderson did, what he was what he was good at. He protested, irritated at the easy assumption of familiarity, at the use of his first name, at the man’s casual insouciance. The research trivialised what was a complex process. There was a tradition of analytic work in the Department that went back forty years. They had a responsibility to help the really difficult patients. But his protests fell on stony ground.

“Have you thought about early retirement?” Bentley asked as he guided Henderson out of the room. In truth, it had never crossed his mind. He was fifty-five, too young to stop working. He was asked to think about it. Two days later a package came through the post containing brightly printed leaflets spelling out various options for retirement. Henderson had stuffed the papers angrily into his desk drawer.

The groups of young men were on the move, darting together like shoals of fish disturbed by a predator. Beer cans crushed and discarded. One man dropkicked a blue and gold can and it soared over the barrier to rousing cheers. The Bristol train was due to leave from Platform 5. Henderson picked up his overnight bag and followed the crowd. The train was packed and he had to struggle his way down the aisle, squeezing past people, looking for his reserved seat. When at last he found it, it was already occupied by a young man with a shaven head, a vivid tattoo on his bare right arm. Part of a gang of four, all lads together, cracking jokes and leering at any girls that passed. Henderson carefully checked his reservation against the red LED strip scrolling over the seat. It was definitely his.

“You lookin’ at summat, mate.” The young man with the tattoo stared at him brazenly.

“Yes. I think you’re in my seat.”

Your seat, is it? You own the fucking train then?”

“Yeah, he’s Richard Branson,” chimed in one of the others. “Well he looks like a virgin, don’t he?”

Raucous laughter.

“I reserved this seat, or rather my wife did….”

“Got a wife, eh? Married and still a virgin,” said the lad in his seat. “Mebbe we could help you out there, mister. Give her a bit of the old one-two.” He pumped his tattooed arm back and forwards to jeers and more laughter. There were people behind him, waiting to go forward. He sensed their impatience.

“I…” he began. And stopped.

“Yeah, go on. ‘I’,” said one of the other lads, leaning towards him. “Got something to say, mate?”

“Oh, what the fuck,” Henderson said. He retreated down the carriage, under the subdued gaze of the other passengers. He had to go right to the front of the train to find a spare seat, squeezing on to a three-seater, wedged between a middle-aged lady and a young girl listening to a MP3 player. He was hot, uncomfortable and his heart was pounding. He should have made a scene, called the guard, stood his ground, refused to budge. In his mind he rehearsed some clever remarks he might have made, none of which would have made the slightest difference. He imagined dragging the tattooed guy from his seat, hitting him hard in his leering face, the force of the blow snapping his head back against the seat. Henderson was shocked at the vehemence of his aggressive fantasies. He had never committed a violent act in his life, never hit anyone. Who was he so angry with? The guy who had taken his seat? Marcelin? Sean Bentley? The world?

The train lurched off and gathered speed. They were due to arrive in Bristol at 12.10. Henderson closed his eyes, trying to sleep. Perhaps he should take early retirement. Get out. Marcelin would be happy. He’d get one of his pals in. The department would be transformed into a sleek, modern psychotherapy department. There would be no problem with the guidelines. He drifted off into a light sleep.

A bang like the sound of a massive thunderclap was followed instantly by a wrenching jerk that threw Henderson suddenly forward, propelled without any volition or understanding into the man opposite. A tangle of legs and arms. Another jerk threw him back against his seat hitting the side of the young girl’s head with his, a cracking painful blow. He knew immediately what had happened: the train had crashed. There was a short, terrifying silence. Then a sobbing cry. And from somewhere far off, muted, horrible screaming. In his line of vision the man’s face, haggard and confused, eyes staring at him, unseeing. The carriage moved again, seemed to roll to one side, an awkward unsettling movement producing sharp cries of distress. A bag tumbled off the rack and fell on the middle-aged lady next to him who fended it off as though it were a ferocious animal. It landed precariously on one edge in the aisle. The carriage stopped rolling, moved briefly and then was still. Afterwards Henderson felt ashamed of the way he had behaved, but at the time his one, overriding thought was to get out. He pushed his way past the middle-aged lady, past other dazed people, and somehow got himself off the train. Outside, standing beside the track, he looked back along the carriages. This first image, extraordinary, intense and unreal, stayed with him more than any other, more than the haggard face of the man in the carriage, more than the firemen in their yellow boots and helmets or any of the bleeding and injured people that later were gathered along the track like the wounded after a battle. Two of the middle carriages of the train had been lifted up into the air so they formed a bizarre triangle with the ground. Underneath was a mangled mass of metal bulging horribly to one side at an oddly distorted angle like the flap of a leg that is badly broken. At first it made no sense until Henderson realised that this was another train, one that had cut into theirs from the side. He looked up again at the two middle carriages of his train and saw a pale arm jutting out of a window, swaying slightly and almost, it seemed, waving at him. Even from a distance Henderson could see the mark of a tattoo on the man’s biceps.

 

*********

 

The letter arrived on Wednesday addressed simply to ‘Mr Henderson’. It was ten days since the crash and he was at home on sick leave. It was not his idea to be off work. He had protested that he could manage but he had been firmly overruled. Eleanor had supported the hospital, telling him that he needed time to recover from the accident. It was true that he found it difficult to concentrate on other people’s problems. His thoughts would drift back to the train crash and images replayed in his mind, the bizarre triangle of the wreck, the man’s tattooed arm waving from the carriage window, the suitcase tumbling from the rack. Flashbacks. These were normal reactions to trauma; they should lessen over time and eventually go away. Henri Marcelin had not yet returned from Montreal for his father was more seriously ill than he had thought. So the Department was leaderless. They had drafted in a locum consultant and cut back on the outpatient clinics.

The letter was an invitation to attend a support group for victims of the train crash and their families. It was signed “Susan Ebbings, Principal Psychologist, Forest Hill Trust Psychological Trauma Service”. Henderson recalled that, when he had been in A & E on the day of the crash, a young woman had spoken to him, talked brightly about counselling. She had asked for his name and address so she could send him some information. This was the result, he thought. The group was to meet next Wednesday evening at 6.30 p.m. at the Forest Hill Health Centre in Sydenham. What was the point of a support group? He didn’t need support from strangers. But the date and time stayed in his mind like a nagging itch.

 

The room, like the Health Centre itself, was one of those large, functional spaces that Henderson was all too familiar with, no doubt used for multiple purposes, none of which had left any impression of its passing. There were seven of them seated in a circle in the middle of the room, including himself and the psychologist, Susan Ebbings. More had been expected. They had moved several empty chairs to the side and then shuffled their chairs closer to make the circle smaller. To his right sat a young pale-faced man in a crumpled, light-grey suit, then next to him another young man in jeans and a black sweatshirt with the Guinness harp on it, and further along an older woman, small and stick thin, sitting straight-backed in her chair. Susan Ebbings, the psychologist, was next. She was wearing a white open-necked shirt and light grey trousers. She looked young, thirty or thirty-five perhaps, and pretty in a wholesome sort of way. On her lap was a royal blue ring-back file, which she held loosely with her left hand. Next to her sat an elderly couple. They sat stiffly and held hands. On their taut, strained faces, he could read the devastation of losing a son or daughter. Henderson didn’t know why he had come. He profoundly wished he had stayed at home.

Dr Ebbings introduced herself and told them the purpose of the group, which she said was to enable them to process the feelings raised by the trauma of the train crash and to share their experiences with others similarly affected. But Henderson had no such feelings to process or to share. She outlined some simple ground rules and then there was a silence. Henderson felt acutely uncomfortable as though all eyes were fixed on him urging him to speak.

“Maybe each of you could give your first name,” resumed Dr Ebbings, “and say something, anything, about your involvement in the crash and what brought you here. Shall we start with you, Margaret?”

The thin woman sat straight up in the chair.

“I’m Margaret,” she said, speaking slowly, “and I’m here because my son, Lee, was killed in the crash.” She stopped, looked down at her lap and then up again. Her eyes were glistening. “He was only nineteen and had his life in front of him. It’s a crying shame.”

“Thank you, Margaret,” said Ebbings gently.

The man in the light-grey suit spoke next. He’d lost his brother. He launched into a diatribe against the railway companies and the government. Bitter words of anger and recrimination spewed out over all of them until he ran out of steam and fell silent. No one said anything and Henderson felt himself become hot. He had not lost anyone. He hadn’t even been injured. He shouldn’t have come.

“My name’s Brendan,” said the man in jeans and sweatshirt, “and I was on the train with a few mates going to the match.” He spoke in a lilting, Irish accent. “You could say I was lucky. I was in the first coach. We got thrown about a bit. I was okay, you know. Bumps and bruises, that sort of thing. But I dunno.” He shook his head. “You see things you don’t ever expect to. It shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t. ”

“Thank you, Brendan. That’s one of the reasons we are here. To share our experiences and help each other if we can.” She looked at Henderson then, a signal for him to say something.

“I’m Colin and…. I don’t know why I’m here.” He stopped abruptly.

“You were on the train, Colin, weren’t you?”

“Yes. I was in the front carriage though I had a seat reserved in the middle.” Again he stopped.

“And you couldn’t take up your reserved seat, was that it?” asked Ebbings drawing him out.

“There was someone in it. A young man with a tattoo on his arm. He wouldn’t move so I went elsewhere.” It was only then that Henderson fully grasped how close he had been to death. If the boy hadn’t been there, he would have been killed.

“Lee had a tattoo.” The woman called Margaret was speaking. “There was a Welsh dragon on his right arm. His father’s from Wales, you see, and Lee was a fanatic about Wales. Rugby, football, anything. Maybe it was Lee who was in your seat. Did you see what the tattoo was?” She was looking intently at him and he felt a strength of will in her that surprised him. The image of the young lad came back, jeering at him, moving his arm back and forwards in that obscene gesture he had made. He couldn’t recall what the tattoo had looked like.

“It might have been a dragon. I can’t be sure.”

“It could have been Lee in your seat then?”

“I don’t know. All I remember he was a young man with a shaven head and an earring. He was wearing white singlet, you know, a sort of vest.”

“It was Lee,” said the woman. “He’d had his head shaved though his dad didn’t like it. Thought it made him look like one of those hooligans. I’m sure it was Lee.”

“Yes,” said Henderson mesmerised by the woman’s intensity. “Maybe it was Lee.”

 

He didn’t return to the support group. He told Eleanor that it had been just a ‘one-off’ meeting, which was untrue; the group was to meet every Wednesday for six weeks. But he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he was a fraud compared to the others. The days passed. He took to going for long walks in the park. It was May and he was surrounded by a surge of new growth. Everywhere there was greenery, so fresh and vivid it looked newly painted. And blossom blowzy on the fruit trees, pink and white like a wedding cake. The sun shone bright and hard. Henderson would sit on a park bench feeling its warmth on his face. He watched people strolling by, walking their dogs, pushing babies in pushchairs. He preferred being on his own although his mind rarely stayed on one subject. Time would pass without his being aware of it. But gradually he recovered a sense of normality. The flashbacks receded. He knew that very soon he would have to return to work. Eleanor had asked him if he had thought about taking early retirement. No, he had snapped at her, but the idea of going back was not welcome.

The week before he was due to return to work Henderson got a phone call from Susan Ebbings. “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr Henderson,” she said. “I hope I am not intruding. You remember Margaret from the group, She asked me to call you. You see, she would like to meet you again. She feels you might help her with respect to Lee. I couldn’t give her your details of course. But she is so very keen that I said I would phone you myself. To see if you might be willing to meet her. But it is up to you.”

He didn’t know what to reply. A picture of the small woman sitting rigidly in her chair came into his mind.

“I’m sorry,” said Ebbings, clearly feeling awkward. “It’s an unusual thing to ask and, well, of course you don’t have to. What I’m saying is that it’s entirely up to you.”

“No. That’s fine,” he said. “I’ll meet her.”

Two days later they met in a Starbucks café in Sydenham High Street. The café was bustling with people but Henderson spotted Margaret, sitting on her own in the window. She was wearing a smart outfit, a black, pleated skirt and a cream, open-necked blouse. A small gold cross on a slender ribbed chain hung from her neck. He noticed again how small she was, and so painfully thin.

“Thank you for coming,” she said and shook his hand firmly as he sat down opposite her. Her dark eyes were fixed on him, seeming to take everything in. “Now you are here, I’m tongue-tied,” she said.

“Don’t worry.”

“You see I was very disappointed when you didn’t come back to the group. I wanted to ask you some more questions about Lee.”

“You know, it may not have been your son in my seat.”

“No. It was Lee. I feel sure it was. Did you speak to him at all?”

She caught Henderson’s hesitation. “He cheeked you, I bet,” she went on. “Refused to get out of the seat. He could be a real blighter, could Lee.”

“It was something like that.”

“Still he paid for it, didn’t he? If he hadn’t been in that seat.”

“It was a matter of chance,” he said. “I found a seat in the front carriage which is usually the one most likely to get it if there’s a crash. Yet it turned out it was the safest place. Just chance. Nothing Lee or you or I could do about it.” Yet the thought floated in his mind: he had escaped death by a hair’s breadth.

“I know,” she said. “But it’s still cruel. To lose your life when you are just nineteen.” She asked him some more about Lee, about the lads he was travelling with, whether he had seemed happy. He told her what he could. Then there was nothing more to say and a silence fell between them. He found himself thinking about work, about Henri Marcelin and wondering whether he was back and what happened to his father. Was Marcelin suffering too?

“People die all the time,” said Margaret. “Babies, young children. All over the world there are people dying. Of starvation. Or they’re killed in wars. I never thought about it until Lee died. But now I think about it quite a lot.” She looked at him in that direct way of hers. “You always think it won’t be you. Not your son. Not Lee.” A rueful, half-smile appeared on her face and was instantly gone. “But it’s always someone, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

She sighed. “But what about you, Colin? How have you been? Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t ask.”

Henderson was startled by her use of his first name. Then he realised that she didn’t know him by any other.

“I’ve been off work, have been ever since the crash.” He paused. “I’m a psychotherapist. You’d think I’d be able to get over it. I wasn’t even injured. I didn’t lose anyone.”

“You might have been killed though. That’s what makes it hard, I suppose. It could have been you.”

Without warning the image of the dead man’s arm came back to him, obscenely waving at him from the carriage window. Tears prickled at the back of his eyes. He remembered the four young men laughing and jeering at him and how angry he had felt. They were only boys, just out of school, their lives in front of them.

“A friend said to me,” Margaret went on, “- she was trying to be helpful, I suppose – that some things are meant to be. Fate. But I don’t believe that. Do you?”

“No.” Henderson had long ago rejected religion, rejected all explanations that suggested that human beings were special or destined in any way. He had seen too many senseless tragedies, illnesses that struck people down in their prime, cutting life short and leaving grief and pain behind. “Your son was just unlucky to be there. Another day, another train…” He left the sentence unfinished.

Margaret nodded, as though satisfied. “Do you have children, Colin?”

“We never managed it. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like, to have a son or a daughter.” He paused. The woman was silent, her eyes on him. “You know I have just thought of something. I do miss not having a child of my own. I’ve always told myself it didn’t matter, that there are too many people on this planet anyway, and that I have Eleanor and my work. But there is a gap.” He wondered if Eleanor felt the same. Why hadn’t they ever talked about it?

“Lee was always a handful. Never still. They call it some fancy name these days, but I think he just had too much energy. He lived his short life to the full, I can tell you.”

“I imagine he did.” He felt close to this small, intense woman. Grateful to her for her honesty and her compassion. They looked at each other and smiled, sharing the moment. Henderson pictured the boisterous lad, the brazen look, his arm pumping back and forth. The tattoo, he suddenly recalled, had been a snake, not a dragon. He remembered the red forked tongue moving on the lad’s biceps.

When they parted, Margaret shook his hand and thanked him again for coming and talking to her. She told him it had helped. He said, honestly, that it had helped him too. He watched her walk into the busy crowds of shoppers. She stopped once, looked back and gave him a quick wave before disappearing from view.

Henderson crossed the road and got on a number 36 bus. He mounted the stairs to the top deck. He took a seat by the window, looking down at the shoppers milling about in the street below, oblivious to anything other than their immediate worlds. He had seen no point in telling Margaret that it hadn’t been Lee in his seat. What did it matter? She’d derived some comfort from the idea that he had talked to her son moments before he died. He did not want to take that away. The bus moved off and from the window Henderson stared at the brightly lit shops that came and went in his vision, each a cameo of people’s lives. I’m too young to retire, he thought. It was as though he’d spoken the thought out loud.

 

***********

 

When Henderson returned to the hospital, he found that the building work had stopped. Quietness had returned. All that remained of the old psychogeriatric ward were the foundations, now taped off with bright yellow plastic, like an archaeological site. Just a few truncated, narrow walls in empty rectangles and squares showing where the rooms had been. Soon they would be gone too.

As he walked down the hospital’s long, central corridor to his office, Henri Marcelin came briskly in the opposite direction carrying his briefcase.

“How’s your father?” he asked as they came face to face.

“He died.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

Marcelin shrugged. “C’est la vie,” he said and a thin smile appeared at the incongruousness of the remark. “He had quite a good life, you know. Seventy-nine is not bad.”

“Still, it’s hard to lose one’s father.”

“Yes.” There was a pause. “You too had problems, I heard. The train crash.”

“Yes. I’m okay now.”

“C’est étrange. My father has a stroke and you take my place and almost get killed. Les petits trucs. The little things. They make all the difference, I think.” Marcelin gazed unseeing over Henderson’s shoulder.

“Henri. I wanted to talk to you about the guidelines. I accept the need for short-term therapy but I think there should be flexibility. Some patients need long-term work. I think we should keep that option open.”

“Yes, why not?” He nodded his head, two quick jerks of assent. “We will need to change the guidelines then.”

“I’ll do that,” said Henderson. “We can go through them together later in the week.”

“Okay.”

Henderson held Marcelin’s gaze and smiled warmly at him. “And I am truly sorry to hear about your father.”

“You are most kind.”

The quaint formality of the response touched Henderson. Marcelin turned away and set off down the corridor. Henderson stood for a moment watching his colleague walking in his characteristic erratic way, clutching his briefcase closely to his chest as though he couldn’t bear to part from it. Then he turned and went into his office, shutting the door quietly behind him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Word count: 5153)