‘My husband threw a party.’
‘Who did he invite?’
‘Just him and me.’
She shifts in the soft blue couch cushions, leans in towards the glass table. She pushes the box of Kleenex aside to reach for the glass of water. The tissues always sit unused when it is Belle. She flicks her blonde hair back, takes a drink. It is hot, the air barely shifting through the open window, but her skin is matte and dry.
‘There were streamers, cupcakes. He laid out a whole spread. A kids’ party.’
‘But you don’t have children.’
‘He took us through it step by step. Insisted on going through all the motions. We pulled the party poppers, blew out the candles, ate some cake. He was so funny and sweet and silly, by the end of it I just couldn’t stop laughing. Then he passed me a card. Told me to open it.’
‘It was a birthday card; he’d made it himself. It took me a moment to understand. Then I realised. It was — would have been — her birthday. The birthday of our unborn child.’
‘You… lost a pregnancy?’ Helena feels her pulse rise. She hopes she is not flushing. She reaches her hand into her pocket, where she touches a little scarab beetle brooch, worrying it around her fingers, the familiarity of its contours soothing, regulating.
‘He felt we weren’t in the right place to have a baby. He didn’t want me to continue with the pregnancy.’
‘He made you have an abortion?’
‘He doesn’t make me do anything. That’s not his style.’ Belle’s voice has risen a little. She collects herself, takes a pause.
‘I was happy when I found out we were pregnant. We were trying. I wanted the baby, and I thought he did too. But you both must want to have a baby, and I guess in the end he decided he didn’t. These are the decisions couples have to make.’
‘So… the two of you discussed it?’
The silence stretches long, and Helena doesn’t break it. Instead, she removes her glasses, and they rest before her, suspended on a string of tiny multi-coloured beads around her neck. The glasses chain evokes a woman of older age than she, but Helena takes a perverse pleasure in the incongruity of the choice. Besides, it’s a perfect practical solution to the problem of losing her reading glasses.
Eventually, Belle’s voice is little more than a whisper, ‘He booked me in for the termination.’
Helena is used to containing her patients’ distress. Most of the time she doesn’t find it difficult to maintain professional detachment, even for the most horrific of traumas. That balance between empathy and detachment, crucial to the job, has always come easily to her.
This twisted prick made her celebrate the birthday of the baby he forced her to abort.
Not trusting herself, she shifts tack slightly. ‘When you understood what the party was for, what did you do?’
‘I was taken aback. At first, I didn’t understand it. But he was trying to be thoughtful. I realised he was right. I didn’t want to forget our baby. I wanted to celebrate her memory. This was his way of helping me do that, of looking after me.’
‘Did you feel looked after?’
‘I know what you’re trying to do,’ Belle says mildly.
‘You’re trying to vilify him.’
‘Does he need any help from me with his vilification?’
Helena knows she is pushing hard. By trying to empower Belle, she may be putting her at increased risk. ‘Or is he playing the villain without my help?’
The power of words, their implication. It is the tool of her trade. Helena lets them sink into the silence. She pictures Belle’s mental frame readjusting. She almost feels the air in the room shift, imagines them both settling into a new alignment.
But then Belle says brightly, ‘Well, time’s up.’
She glances at the clock. ‘It’s you who’s supposed to say that by the way. I think you need to work on your boundaries.’
Helena smiles. ‘It’s OK. I don’t have a six o’clock today.’
‘No. It’s coincidence.’
Belle stands up, smiles at Helena. ‘Till next week.’
Helena nods. ‘Go safely.’
After Belle leaves, Helena walks over to the window, pushes aside one slat of the Venetian blind and peers down. She often watches her patients walk away. There’s something valuable to her about observing them out there in the real world, seeing how they move when they think nobody is watching; when they think Helena is not watching.
Belle Averell walks slow and tall, her blonde head held high. Her beauty is striking and draws glances from passers-by. She looks both ways and crosses the street diagonally against the pedestrian light. Then she disappears from Helena’s view.
By the time Helena slides into her seat, Tala has already ordered a bottle. She sloshes white wine into two flat-bottomed, long-stemmed glasses. The cold liquid draws an immediate sheen of condensation from the warm evening air onto the glass, but Tala scoops her hand into the bucket and plops an ice cube into each, nonetheless.
She passes one to Helena. ‘You look like you could use a drink.’
‘Why’ve you filled it so small then?’
Helena accepts the glass from Tala before it touches the table, takes a large lug. The feel of it hitting her throat is so ecstatic it would be concerning, if it were a problem.
She feels the tension unwind a few millimetres, just enough.
‘That bad?’ Tala asks.
Helena sighs, ‘Just work shit.’
‘Want to talk about it?’
‘Yes,’ Helena takes another swallow of wine, ‘but I can’t.’
‘OK. Then I will. I got fired today.’
‘Well, that feels better.’
‘Sorry, Tala,’ Helena laughs but Tala doesn’t, ‘you know that’s not what I meant.’
‘I pity your poor patients if that’s the supportive talk you give them.’
‘I’m not there to support them. I’m there to challenge them. I’m there to help them find their epiphanies. Why did you get fired?’
‘Surely you should ask me about my relationship with my father and my repressed feelings of failure first.’
‘Don’t tempt me.’
‘Well, it wasn’t my fault this time.’
‘I… sort of misled an important client.’
‘That was a sackable offence?’
‘Well, it cost my company a few million.’
‘The thing is though, my boss told me to. The client was about to sign the contract. It was complicated, hundreds of different clauses and contingencies. We’d spent weeks ironing out the whole thing, and then he told me to change a paragraph, the night before they signed.’
‘Without telling them?’
‘Without explicitly re-discussing it, yes.’
‘And the client complained?’
‘Not only that, but Legal had already ratified the contract, and the electronic documentation showed it was me who altered it, after the fact.’
‘But your boss told you to do it. Collect evidence. Sue for unfair dismissal!’
‘Helena don’t be ridiculous. There’s no paper trail on this. I can’t show that my boss told me to do something illegal. And if I did, I couldn’t keep working there anyway. I have to take the fall for it. That’s the way it works.’
‘Why did you even do it? You must have known there was a risk to you.’
‘I guess I just…’ she shrugs, ‘didn’t care that much. Still don’t care really, to be honest. Anyway, he knows damn well what happened. I’ll get a great severance package and he’ll give me a reference that glows so bright, I’ll be impossible not to hire. It’s been too long at this company anyway.’
’Tala, it’s been a year and a half.’
‘So, you’re just going to lie down and roll over? There’s got to be a way you can fight this. Take the guy to industrial tribunal. It’s not right.’
‘I told you, I’m OK.’ Tala drains her glass. ‘Not every wrong needs to be righted.’
‘What a depressing motto.’
‘It’s not a motto. It’s a truth. Top up?’
Helena slides her glass forward.
‘So, what will you do?’
‘Relax. Sleep in. Knit.’
Helena laughs, shakes her head. ‘How can we be friends?’
Tala smiles, tips the remainder of the bottle into her glass. ‘Shall we get another?’
‘Sorry, can’t. I had to schedule an early session before work tomorrow morning.’
‘One of your kooks about to jump?’
The sombre note in her voice draws Tala’s eyes up to search Helena’s.
‘Sort of the opposite, really. She doesn’t think there’s a problem. She won’t see her shitty husband for the abuser he is.’
‘This case has got under your skin.’
‘It’s just frustrating. You wouldn’t believe the things — shit, forget it.’
‘Come on, it’s early. Just one more glass.’ Tala signals a passing waiter and orders without waiting for agreement.
They are silent until the drinks arrive.
Then Helena shakes her head, ‘He makes a spreadsheet. He marks her.’
‘Everything. The food she cooks. How neatly she makes the bed.’ Helena swallows a third of the contents of her glass. ‘How well she sucks his cock.’
She never talks to her best friend about her work. She sets careful boundaries. The only person she shares her clients’ secrets with is her supervisor, Martha. But the crass word feels good to say. The sweet release in its guttural stop makes a perfect synergy with the half bottle of wine, the warm night.
‘No!’ Exclaims Tala.
‘What else?’ Tala breathes, riveted.
And Helena finds herself talking: about Belle’s family, her husband’s job, the belittling things he’s said to her, the unfair limits he’s placed on her. As she talks, Helena is surprised to feel the tears of her own frustration threaten the backs of her eyes; surprised at the ferocity of her own reaction against the sheer injustice of it. She realises Belle’s vulnerability needles her in a place more sensitive than it should. Belle’s victimhood suddenly seems intolerable.
‘She wanted a baby, but…’
‘No, it’s nothing to do with that.’
Tala watches Helena drain the remainder of her glass. ‘It isn’t?’
‘No. Anyway, that’s irrelevant. He’s just a controlling prick. And he makes out like he’s trying to respect her feelings. That’s what she does, my client. She explains to me how all his twisted crap shows how much he loves her, then she smiles and leaves.’
‘So you’re making her come see you before work tomorrow morning?’
‘The husband’s dangerous. I’m worried what he’ll do to her next. I want to get her out of the house while he’s still asleep.’
‘You do realise you can’t protect her from him every morning of her life.’
There’s a tiny unsteadiness when Helena stands up, which she quickly rights. ‘I can try.’
‘Come here,’ Tala stands too.
‘You know I hate hugs.’
‘From everyone except me.’
‘Get off me.’
‘Love you too, Tala. Good night.’
‘I have a good feeling for this month,’ Dylan tells her.
‘You’ve had a good feeling for every one of the last sixty months,’ Helena points out, smiling.
She brushes the side of her husband’s face with the back of her index finger. The contrasting feel of sharp stubble over soft skin pleases her.
‘Where on earth do you find your confidence?’
‘Here,’ he places his hand, palm flat on her chest. ‘Because of you. The universe doesn’t owe me another life-saving stroke of luck.’
Helena laughs and gives a gentle eye roll, shakes her head.
‘What? You don’t believe in karma? I know I’ve fucked up. I’m imperfect. But you? You’re different. And that’s what I have faith in. That the universe will give you what you deserve.’
‘OK, (a), it doesn’t work that way. And (b), you’re too hard on yourself.’
‘I’m realistic. I probably wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you.’
He reaches into his bag and hands her a package. ‘Here.’
‘What’s that?’ She raised her eyebrows, and then, ‘Oh.’
Everything in her slumps. She passes it back to him.
‘Dylan, come on. I told you. I want to stop testing.’
‘I was waiting for the bus outside Boots on Ken High Street anyway. I just picked up a couple. What’s the harm?’
‘The harm is, that empty test window kills a little bit of me every time.’
‘Baby, be positive.’
‘Being positive doesn’t change anything.’
‘It’s too early anyway.’
‘It’s day twenty-eight.’
She double takes. ‘Is it? How do you know that?’
‘I know everything about you.’
She kisses him tenderly. ‘You’re wrong, about being imperfect. Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. I just — I feel like I can’t take it anymore. The day-counting. The temperature-checking. The charting. And most of all the negative tests. What we’re doing isn’t working. Let’s change things up. Stop focusing on it so much.’
‘I won’t buy any more after this. I promise.’
She eyes the box he is still holding out to her. It flashes malevolent. The enemy. A harbinger of disappointment. But Dylan doesn’t think so. He is smiling and his eyes are warm. The hope in them breaks her heart. She loves him for it.
She sighs, relents. She takes the box into the downstairs bathroom. In a slow motion of familiarity, she opens it, extracts the kit, discards the folded-up instructions.
‘Hey, you locked the door.’
‘A person can’t pee on a stick in private?’
‘Let me in.’
Dylan rattles the door handle. She finishes, places the test strip on the ledge of the sink, opens the door. Helena leaves him peering at the test. A prolonged muggy spell grips London and the air is close. She feels it will never break. She throws open the kitchen window, extracts two glasses from the cupboard, wincing as her neck sends its habitual shoot of pain down her shoulder. She is glad Dylan hasn’t seen it this time. She tries not to think about the single line developing on the strip. She tries not to hope for that elusive double.
‘Glass of wine?’ She calls.
She takes a bottle from the fridge and pours into both glasses. She refills the gulp she has taken from hers before replacing the bottle in the fridge. When she turns, Dylan is at the kitchen door.
‘Helena, maybe you shouldn’t be drinking.’
Cortisol surges in her gut.
‘Is it —?’
‘No. I just meant — I’m sorry baby.’
She was so determined not to invest in it this time, yet tears spring, deep and reflexive, into her eyes.
‘It’s OK,’ Dylan is saying. And now he is holding her, telling her he loves her, and this scene has repeated itself so many times. And her tears are soaking into her hair, and he is raking his fingers through the tear-soaked hair, stroking her temples, wiping away the new ones as they spill hot from the corners of her eyes.
‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I can’t be this upset every single time.’
His belief is unshakable, illogical. She searches his gaze. He lowers his face to her face, places his lips on hers. When he kisses her, he keeps his eyes open.
She reaches for her glass. He puts his hand on her arm.
‘You were home late last night.’
‘I was out with Tala.’
‘She got fired.’
‘You’re a good friend to her.’
‘She needed me.’
‘Tala’s a big girl. She can handle herself.’
‘I know she can.’
‘I love you, Helena. So much. I’m sorry about the pregnancy test. I really thought — I just really thought…’
‘I know you did.’ She feels her eyes prickle again.
She looks at the glass of wine, gathering droplets of condensation on the side table. He is right, of course. She’ll cut down. It’s no big deal.
‘I bear pizza.’
‘In that case, enter.’
Tala’s front room is a chaos of comfortable disarray. The hot spell of weather has finally broken and today the rain is coming down, spattering life onto the scorched pallor of Boston Manor Park, a tiny corner of which can be seen from Tala’s flat, if you lean into the far right of the kitchen window.
Tala takes the raindrop-stained pizza box from Helena and balances it on top of a stack of books on the coffee table. She walks into the kitchen and Helena hears a small avalanche of clinking crockery in the draining board. Tala returns with a bottle of wine and two mugs.
‘Soz. No clean glasses.’
Helena shifts the pizza box into a space she has cleared on the table. She picks up the top book from the stack.
‘How to Write a Novel. That’s your latest career move?’
‘Toying with the idea.’
‘You don’t make life easy for yourself.’
‘Course not. Don’t like boring.’
Tala places a mug in front of each of them and opens the wine.
‘Not for me thanks,’ Helena says.
’So, Tom turned out to be a psycho,’ Tala says, pouring for them both. ‘He only wants to have sex outdoors.’
‘Well, that’s not boring. Thought you liked that.’
Tala takes a swallow from her mug. ‘I’m scared.’
‘Of what? Being arrested for gross indecency?’
‘Of ending up alone.’
‘I’m thirty-nine. Look at me. I’ve been so busy not being boring, I’ve missed the fucking boat. The decent job boat, the stable career boat, the normal relationship boat…’ She takes another drink, ‘The being a mum boat.’
‘Who needs babies?’ Helena puts the slice of pizza she is holding back down in the box.
‘I thought I did.’
‘You want something so badly that you almost break yourself trying to get it for years, and now just — casually not want it anymore? You know, for a psychologist you’re pretty bad at diagnosing your own shit.’