He awoke, and found himself once again in his own private nightmare. Outside the sound of cars scraping against the road told him it was time to get out of bed, the light had burst through his window and cut past ragged curtains to fill the room with a searching glare. He hated this time more than any other. The light had found him out again and he had nowhere to hide. He hated living and would always lay in bed as long as possible in order to try to recapture some small remnant of sleep oblivion but an hour later he was up and about with both feet on the treadmill. The treadmill took him slowly and painfully to a happy event somewhere on the distant horizon many years from now; he’d spent all his life up to now waiting for it and would spend the rest of his life in the same manner. He was 26 years old he reflected, if he’s not careful about his habits, he might only have to wait another 30 years or so. He thought of death with pleasurable anticipation even though it was a lifetime away.
As he yawned open mouthed he cursed the ineptitude of a certain someone.
Someone it seemed to him, had made a mistake, but this was a planet which revelled in its mistakes: it was these mistakes that made the world go around. The wrong people were always elected to govern the countries, the wrong people invariably rose to the senior positions in business and the wrong programmes were always on TV. People bought and read the wrong newspapers, held the wrong views and invariably said the wrong things. Everything was wrong here, even love failed to compensate, as we always ended up loving the wrong people in the wrong way.
His presence here too was a mistake, how else could he explain his presence on this impoverished suburb of the milky way, but there was nothing he could do about it except await the next transmigration and a better position. He showered and dressed without enthusiasm then he walked into the kitchen, took a fresh carton of milk from the fridge and tried with difficulty to open it, the results were the same as ever, he pulled at the cardboard hoping to take off a clean strip and pour the milk but with excessive force and a lack of manual dexterity a large piece of the carton was ripped off and the carton jolted sending milk onto the floor and onto his red jumper:
‘Bollocks” he exclaimed aloud “you bastard!” He shouted at the carton. “Sod you” he threw the now ¾ full milk carton with force to the other side of the kitchen were it impacted with a splat against the wall, leaving a stain of milk running down the sunflower yellow walls, the carton fell to the floor and where it joined another carton which had shared a similar fate.
He closed his eyes and wanted to die right now. He willed himself to die, it was part of his morning ritual, though it never worked. He opened his eyes with a sigh, “God I hate this life!”.
Doctor Fournier looked around the room, and continued:
“Christophe’s essential problem was that he was 26 years old and hadn’t learned how to ‘live’. He had not yet acquired the skill, the art, of living.”
“What do you mean ‘didn’t know how to live’? I think that sounds really patronising, I know exactly what Christophe is feeling, that’s how I feel myself and…”
Sandrine was cut short by Doctor Fournier before she really got the chance to vent which was something she had lately started to enjoy.
“Ok Sandrine sorry to interrupt you and I respect your right to express any disagreement you might have but I don’t in any way mean to belittle Christophe’s problem, I’m fully aware of the seriousness of the condition, what I mean by not having “learnt to live” was more that he was expecting too much from contemporary society, he is a pathological idealist who finds it impossible to exist in a world that doesn’t conform to his, in a sense, all too reasonable expectations, learning to live is learning to accept your lot in life…”
This time it was Dr Fournier who was cut short, this time by Pierre-Alexandre, a tall dark haired skeletal man. “That kind of definition doesn’t help us Dr, why should we accept our lot in life, why should anybody? That’s the kind of state sponsored brain washing that we don’t need.”
“Yes but we live in a democratic society” The Dr answered and someone in the room snorted.
“…And as such we have to confirm to the norms of that society, just because for example, Christophe thinks eating meat’s a moral crime and that he gets depressed thinking about it, doesn’t mean that everybody else should have their rights violated by being denied the right to choose a carnivorous diet. A man is not an island and can never live like one.”
“Yes but if it’s for the good of mankind.”
“Who’s to say what’s for the good of mankind, only the majority can know and they choose…”
“Choose! Choose! You pretend that we have choice? You’re joking aren’t you? When our lives are carefully planned as soon as we leave the womb by statisticians and market researchers, social workers and school teachers, choice and freedom ha! Two words just like God: a nice idea that we all cling to but unfortunately they just don’t exist.”
“Well you’re entitled to your cynicism but you must understand that that too is only a point of view, there is an equal case to be made for optimism and yes, even for the existence of choice and freedom and God.”
Dr Antoine Fournier looked at his watch, noticing it was 1 minute to three he stood up.
“Well that’s the end of the session for this week, I’ll see you at the same time next week, and remember our motto…come on what is it?”
“Change into something more comfortable.” someone joked.
“Get changed by yourself.” someone laughed.
“Stop messing about” a Celtic red headed freckled man chided “it’s help yourself – to change.”
“Yes thank you Maurice, at least someone’s taking these sessions seriously.”
“But not too seriously ‘eh Doctor? If we get too serious in here we’re likely to start cutting our arms, then you’ll be a pickle won’t you, what with you in your nice white coat, blood’s a horror to shift Mrs Fournier wouldn’t be too happy will she.”
“Ok thank you Jacques I can always rely on you to set the parting tone. But seriously I think we’ve made a lot of progress here, the very fact that we’re now talking so freely and, yes even joking, says a lot. Have a nice weekend and I’ll see you all next week.”
With that they left the white walled room with the oval of chairs and went their separate ways. Dr Fournier went to the coffee machine, and drank a well deserved cup of coffee. He stood by the coffee machine in the corridor of Saint Anne’s hospital, he mused on the advice given him by Dr Pelle: “you must be both listener and a contributor, a catalyst and a problem solver. But above all, always be careful to keep them on the right track, I can’t stress enough the importance of letting them know what is normal, there is no room for ambiguity, the patient must be guided out of the maze of his psychosis, but there is only one path and it is the path of reasonable socially accepted behaviour, at all times you must watch that you don’t lose the patient to their viscidities of their own fantasies. Even a casual seemingly innocuous remark could lead the patient to reject everything we’re trying to teach them and relapse into a destructive neurotic cycle.”
He put down the coffee down on the floor feeling exhausted, he recalled the words from his studies, they seemed more relevant now than ever. As part of the new experimental behavioural therapy unit at St Anne’s hospital in the 13th arrondisement of Paris, he had a great deal of pressure on him to succeed. Firstly from the hospital administrator, the hospital had recently been in the news, and its new treatment had recently appeared in a national glossy magazine and so all eyes were watching them, without mentioning the international committees and professors.
He closed his eyes and thought about his patients, there was Henri who couldn’t even talk, he spoke French however, at least theoretically, but in practice he was simply too anxious to open his mouth and say anything at all, instead he would go about with small pieces of paper. Wherever he went whatever he needed he would hand them out, at the bakers “Une petite baguette s’il vous plait” at the butchers “Je voudrais un demi kilo de saucisse at une jarret de porc” and at the library “Je voudrais vous rendre ces livres dans ma main droite et emprunter ces lives dans man main gauche”. He had quickly become so pleased with the success of his system that he never spoke to anyone again, he would even carry out a basic conversation using his pen to speak and answer for him. Even at home with his parents, whom he still lived with at 35, he would use the pen exclusively, it was they who they who sent him to the hospital.
Then there was Laurie for whom every day-to-day action was fraught with potential disaster, the simple pleasure of having a meal was for her a dark cloud looming over her darkened day. She would eat with her head in her plate for fear of crumbs falling onto the table or even her clothes, she was totally unable to use her hands for anything, she couldn’t carry anything for fear of dropping it nor would she suffer to wash her hands as the running tap was to her an furious torrent of chaos which she couldn’t bear. He thought of his other patients, Rauol and his apopathodiaphulatophobia which drove him quite beyond reason into battering his fists into his stomach whenever the movement of his bowels didn’t follow his rigorous schedule, and then Seline’s hands. There was still much progress to make and it had not been regular, it was like organising a cross country race, some of the patients lagged behind, while others surged on gaining in confidence on seeing their fellows’ weakness, others still were in danger of walking-out and giving up and needed special coaching sessions to encourage them to go that extra mile.
Dr Fournier crossed the road to walk through the park Montsouris, he always found it reassuring to look at the terrapins swimming in the small pond there, it had started as a couple of unwanted family pets, a craze that quickly went flat when people realized you couldn’t stroke walk or cuddle terrapins they quickly got bored of them and dumped them into the park pond. From there a terrapin dynasty was founded and Dr Fournier found it deeply reassuring that these creatures, stolen from their own natural environment to be placed in a wholly alien and unnatural domestic environment and then rejected in turn from this environment should then thrive in a pastiche of their own natural environment in the middle of Paris. This amazed and strengthened him. He walked across the park, along the lawn heedlessly defying the “pelouse interdit” signs, walked past the fake concrete mountain (only in Paris he thought) and looked into the pool. He couldn’t see the terrapins this time.
He turned to a white haired old man standing at the water’s edge.
“Where are the terrapins, I can’t see the terrapins.” he said.
“Can’t you see them?” the old man answered incredulously.
“There they are, there are lots of them, they’re all there, look!”
Dr Fournier looked into the water the man pointed, “there’s one!” Dr Fournier followed the old man’s finger, “that’s not a…” He stopped, he was going to say that it wasn’t a terrapin but a rock and that the old man’s eyesight was letting him down, but he looked closely and saw that the grey motionless stone like object was a terrapin. He looked closer, it’s grey skin was tattered and flapping in the water, it was dead, at that moment all of the terrapins in the pool, about thirty in all, suddenly and simultaneously bobbed up to the top of the pond. They were all dead.
“B’b’b’ how?” the doctor stammered.
“look over there!” the old man pointed the same finger away from the dead terrapin and over to the other side of the pond to were a small fair haired boy was crouching by the water side.
Dr Fournier smiled as he always did when he saw what he considered the innocence of children. His smile faded as he observed that the boy seemed to be pouring vast quantities of something into the pond.
“You see he’s filling the pond full of bleach, he comes here every day to do it, little monkey!” the old man laughed.
“What, it’s impossible!” he looked, indeed he was doing just that, the boy had two large empty plastic drums by his side and was pouring the contents from a third one into the water. “But…it’s not right” he felt utterly crushed and hopeless as he felt himself falling into the pond.
He opened his eyes with a start, wide eyed for a few seconds and his heart beating a fear rhythm. Relieved that it was only a dream but disturbed by its wantonness he tried to dismiss it, but Freud had taught him that he couldn’t just dismiss it, he had to get to the bottom of it and find out what it meant. “God I feel like my own patient” he thought with bitter irony, and decided that he didn’t like his own medicine so he quickly took his notebook from his left inside jacket pocket and noted the details of his singular dream. As he did so he felt uneasy
and anxious, which annoyed him as in this particular context the anxiety was totally irrational and counter productive. He wanted to make a note of his dream but his anxiety prevented him from expressing his feelings as clearly and transparently as he would have wished, he hid his feelings from the page and kept them in his heart.
Next week’s session was the fifth of the eight sessions and Dr Fournier realised that their time was running short and that many of his patients were still largely dominated by their anxieties. The group dynamics were a success however and his patients for the most part expressed themselves freely and confidently, but this was essentially an artificial environment were within the rarefied atmosphere of the counselling sessions, all their needs and neuroses were catered for. They still had some way to go before they could function properly in the outside world.
“Ok what we’re going to do now is a little bit different. We’re going to learn some particularly useful communication techniques. Now it takes all sorts to make a world and as some of you know, human nature can sometimes manifest itself in different ways. In short people can be cruel, selfish, manipulative and greedy. Now what do you think happens when such a person who exhibits these characteristics discovers someone who is kind, open, disinterested and generous. Any ideas?”
Seline shuffled uncomfortably in her chair “Dr”
“Can I go to the toilet?”
“No Seline.” At this repudiation she whined and fidgeted in her chair.
“What do you think then?”
The Dr looked at Henri who holding his pen, quickly averted his eyes from the Dr’s and started staring at the ground.
Laurie looked up as though gripped by inspiration started speaking quickly and breathlessly “Yes, I think that the cruel selfish woman would come away from the experience with a profound sense of peace which would change the way she thought about things in the future
And she would become a nice person.”
“Thank you Laurie, a nice idea which shows your own openness of spirit but, though I hate to disappoint you it is not the answer I’m looking for.”
“Of course it isn’t,” said Jacques “unbelievable!”
“Now Jacques you’re being very undiplomatic!”
“Sorry Doctor, Sorry Laurie, it’s my character I tend to lash out a bit as you know, it’s nothing personal, I’m harmless enough.”
After Jacques’ outburst Laurie started gazing at the floor again.
“Well Jacques you must be careful, as must everyone, the human being is not by nature a mind reader and as such has no idea what the other is thinking. You may say that you are ‘harmless’ Jacques but you are judged by what you say, words, however inefficient and insufficient they are what we give to the world they are our public image.”
“It seems to me” Began Maurice slowly and carefully “that when an honest man meets a crooked man, the crooked man, like a shark sensing fresh meat, begins his attack and in the end devours the honest man” At the end of his sentence Henri, still staring at the floor, shuddered and Seline paled and started rubbing her hands. Jacques however started laughing.
“I think you’re right Maurice old man, the bad man would gobble him right up, an easy meal!”
Sandrine interrupted “I had a friend once, I thought she was a good person, but she let me down. After all I’d done for her. The bitch. I hate her. Never trust anyone they’re after all they can get.”
“Even me darling” Jacques enquired smiling
“Especially you, I can see through you you know.” at this Dr Fournier interrupted:
“Ok, that’s enough, let’s stay positive shall we. Now, William Shakespeare once said “Neither a lender nor a borrower be as both friend and debt are soon lost..”
“Sorry who spoke? Who was that?” silence.
“Ok, it’s important not to let your better nature be exploited by somebody unscrupulous so let’s do a role play shall we. Let’s see, Pierre Alexandre I want you to ask Maurice a favour.”
“Maurice, er, could you lend me 10 euros”
“What’s it for Pierre?”
“I need to get my mother a birthday present but I’ve lost my wallet”
“No, no, Maurice, you must tell him no. Never a lender nor a borrower be.”
“Yes but he said it was for his mother’s birthday.”
“Yes but he was lying!”
“Was he? Pierre were you lying?”
“Yes I was, my mother died 12 years ago!”
“So what you should have said” the doctor began “was ‘No sorry mate I can’t help you’, let’s drill that shall we, everybody altogether: “Sorry I can’t help you”.
Everybody stood up and all except for Henri, started chorusing the words.
“Sorry I can’t help you!”
“Say it like you mean it!” the Doctor called out above the noise.
The chorus droned on, Sandrine shouted the words with feeling while spittle gathered at the corners of her mouth, Pierre Alexandre spoke the words quietly and scarcely audibly, and Seline repeated the words while rubbing her hands worriedly. Henri stared quietly at the floor.
“Can you lend me 10 Euros?” Dr Fournier called out.
“Sorry I can’t help you!”
“Do me a favour will you?”
“Sorry I can’t help you!”
“I’ve got nowhere to live, could I spend some time at your place?”
“Sorry I can’t help you!”
“Ok change the drill, this time “ Will you stop bothering me?”” the chant changed and “Will you stop bothering me?” was cappella’d around the room.
“Ok, lets get a bit stronger, your so called friend won’t take no for an answer so he’s asked for it “Get lost! Come on everybody!”
“Get lost!” “Get lost! “Get lost!” “Get lost!” “Get lost!” as the chant went on the patients became more excited and shouted out the words with expression and increasing violence.
“Ok and rest. Very good. Feels good doesn’t it. Ok, Raoul, can you stay late at work tonight?”
“Get lost!” he shouted.
“You tell him Raoul” Jacques laughed.
“Context, and diplomacy Raoul don’t forget!”
“No I can’t sorry Boss.”
“That’s better, I was nearly obliged to sack you for gross insubordination, you see what a fine line it is between standing up for yourself and being rude. Now Seline, would you like to have dinner with me tonight?”
“Er, well yes that would…”
“Sorry Seline, perhaps I wasn’t clear enough we’re role playing.”
“Perhaps if I asked her” Joked Jacques “We might get the desired response”
“If you can take it Jacques”
With that Jacques walked towards Seline, went down, very dramatically onto one knee, and adopting a romantic and husky tone of voice, gazed into Seline’s eyes and asked:
“Fancy a bang?”
“Get lost creep”
Everybody in the room laughed, and even Henri smiled.
“Okay everybody, in pairs, except for Laurie, Seline and Maurice making up a three, role play and improvise on the same theme, I’ll be monitoring for force and correct use of context.”
As the role plays were played out across the room, with favours and help refused minor insults and aggression proffered freely, Dr Fournier reflected on a successful session, only Henri still bothered him and Seline was picking at her hands. She caught his eyes
“Can I go to the toilet Antoine?”
“At the end of the session, Seline, you know that, it’s for your own good.”
At the end of the session, Dr Fournier asked Henri if he could have a quick word, and as Seline left the room to go to the toilet, Dr Fournier nodded to a nurse signalling her to follow her in.
“Henri, how was today’s, session was it good for you?”
Henri nodded assent.
“Any problems anything you’d like to tell me about”
Henri shook his head.
“Now, Henri, this has gone on too long, you know it has. Tell me how you really feel.”
Henri starred at the floor.
“I mean write how you feel”
Henri took his pen from his inside jacket pocket and wrote onto a piece of paper and handed it to Dr Fournier.
“I’m fine no problem really”
“That won’t do Henri, I’m a professional behavioural psychiatrist I know when there’s something wrong and when my patients are progressing. I demand to know how you’re really feeling.” Henri thought for a minute then jotted down some more words onto a piece of paper. He handed it to Dr Fournier.
‘I’m in hell’.
Dr Fournier read the paper gravely, ‘this is new’ he thought, “in some way an improvement, a first step in communication and self expression, but what could he mean, is he being in hell metaphorical or literal.”
“Henri, what do you mean when you say you’re in hell?”
“I mean what I’ve written, I’m in hell. I’m being punished” he wrote.
Dr Fournier was concerned, he looked at Henri, who’s face was marked with serious earnestness. “His file does say highly delusional but little else. 19 years old, above average intelligence, but hasn’t spoken to anyone for nine years. The usual anxiolytics prescribed, incidence of self harm and attempted aspirin overdose.”
“But Henri, you’re not in Hell, nobody’s punishing you, you’re here on planet Earth with all the rest of us in the land of the living.”
Henri’s pen worked quickly and he tore off a piece of paper and handed it to Antoine.
“I am dead and I’m in hell, so are you, as are we all.”
“I assure you I’m not dead Henri and neither are you, our hearts beat pumping blood throughout our bodies which nourishes our brains with oxygen and keeps us conscious and alive. Feel your own heart beat, you’re certainly not dead.”
“All that is an illusion” he wrote.
“An illusion, why should any of this be an illusion, for what purpose?”
“To punish us.”
“Why should we be punished Henri?”
“Because we are sinners and God is evil. There is only hell.”
For a moment Dr Fournier felt a cold chill run down his spine and words failed him for a moment. He felt distinctly out of his depth and a little submerged by Henri’s extraordinary fantasy.
“How long have you felt like this Henri?”
Henri pondered a moment before writing “I died when I was a child”
Dr Fournier felt a little triumph, a small invaluable piece of information was gleaned, but before continuing he would have to seek guidance and do a little research. And so he let Henri go, his parents had come to collect him, they asked him how he was doing and he answered them trying to wring out every drop of positivity from today’s session, but it was like trying to draw moisture from stone.
Henri left St Anne’s silently with his parents, trailing behind them as they held each-others hand. Dr Fournier watched them cross the road and considered it odd how little they seemed a family. Henri seemed to be quite a stranger to them.
That night Dr Fournier was haunted by another strange dream. He was at a family dinner with various members of his own family, some of whom were still living and others were long since dead. One of his cousins, Marie Françoise came down the stairs, he’d not seen her since she was 19, the last thing he’d heard of her was that she was pregnant. She was carrying her baby swathed in linen, she approached the table and showed the baby to the family, his grandmother cooed and chuckled with delight, his grandfather he noticed smiled at the baby and held out a finger to it. As the baby was dutifully carried around the table by Marie Françoise he noted with professional acuity the different reactions to the baby. A young man, one of his sister’s boyfriends narrowed his eyes almost imperceptibly but quickly plastered a smile on his face but it was clear that he hated children, the baby went to his sister who greedily gorged on its innocence, the alarm of her body-clock had been ringing loudly for a few months now and she clearly wanted one of her own and was dying of frustration at her boyfriend’s procrastination. Finally the baby made it’s way over to Dr Fournier, it was swaddled in cotton and its face was obscured by a piece of fabric, it felt surprisingly cold, and he noticed, had a strange unhealthy smell about it, ‘maybe it needed changing’ he thought, he removed the piece of white cotton and saw that the baby had been dead for several hours. It lay with its unseeing eyes wide open in a blue face. He looked nervously at everyone around him who seemed as happy as ever and passed on the bundle on to his mother who started cooing and toying with the bundle. It was strange but it seemed to him that he was the only person in the room who knew that the baby was dead, but then he heard a gurgle of satisfaction from the baby and wondered if he was mistaken, apparently the baby was very much alive and well. He walked over to Marie Françoise who was now cradling her baby, determined to get the to the bottom of this mystery, he looked again into the bundle of innocent whiteness and suddenly he awoke. What had he seen before awaking, had he seen anything? What did this mean? It probably was just a remnant of the previous day’s ‘conversation’ with Henri, nothing more sinister.
Later that day, at two o’clock he was to meet Jacques, Maurice and Pierre at the hospital to do what he called battle-field training. This involved taking his patients around Paris and observing how they deal with practical day-to-day activities.
When Dr Fournier arrived he noticed that the three men appeared apprehensive, even Jacques who was usual buoyant and quite self assured in the counselling sessions, was like a crab taken out of its shell.
“I find it very hard to talk about but, well, I’ve recently discovered from talking to Dr Fournier that it was my psychoanalyst who send me insane, he literally drove me crazy. I know it seems unbelievable but it’s true.”
“I believe you.” assented Pierre Alexandre “They’re nuttier than their patients, I read this book by one once, “Face to face with madness” it was called by a Dr Bigas. It was frightening really, from what he says about his patients you would think they were his private fan-club. A young male pre-schizophrenic patient had a dream about him so Dr Bigas surmises from this that his patient has a homosexual crush on him. Another patient a girl, he says something like “she needed me like a drug”. They’re sick people, sicker than we are, take my word.”
“Power corrupts absolute power corrupts absolutely” Maurice said sagely
“Don’t generalise please Pierre, I have some very close friends in the profession.”
“Yeah but not that close eh Doctor? I bet you keep them at a distance all the same” joked Jacques.
“May I continue” Asked Raoul seriously “It’s just as you say, he was a leech my shrink he would leech out of me my whole soul and give me nothing in return and he would attack me too. For no reason he would suddenly spring up and get me in a head lock. It wasn’t terribly good for my confidence to be honest, he said he had to be careful as I had a history of violence, he said I had a funny look in my eyes sometimes and it was better safe than sorry, for my own good apparently. He’d get me in a kind of double bind, he would tell me that the only way to be cured was to talk about what I was thinking and when I told him what I was thinking he would say that there’s no curing.”
“There are many ways of attempting to cure anxiety of course” Dr Fournier began
“some people turn to the church; others see a psychoanalyst; others still buy special ‘stress-reducing’ accessories such as small electric indoor running water features or even pillows specially impregnated with the scent of maternal milk, although I can’t testify to their effectiveness there are many different methods, I would however suggest that cognitive behaviour therapy is the most practical.”
“But with all due respect all of your analysis and your therapy is quite worthless you know. You’re taking someone who has become sane and trying to force insanity upon them so that they have the requisite delusions necessary to reintegrate into a sick world. Democracy, respect, law and order, capital, property and politics, all of these are sick delusions that only the sane man rejects.” Pierre harangued.
“You can’t survive long in the void dear fellow,” said Maurice “I’ve been there too, I still go there sometimes, but life’s just tends to be easier if you learn to play the game.”
“A little bit of anxiety and worry is essential though” started Dr Fournier “For example I once met a totally non anxious person once, a very interesting case. I took him for a Diogene, he was utterly serene even being with him was restful, I thought he must be the happiest person alive. On closer inspection however I saw that he was far from perfect. His life had been a series of dead-ends. He had no ambition and found it impossible to hang on to a job because he had no motor to push him on, he had no anxiety about anything at all least of all if he was making the most of his life. He came to me because he was too content, he somehow felt that there was something wrong with this, to this day I’m not sure if there is. He was like one of the ravens in Christ’s parable: he neither sowed nor reaped, he had neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God fed him.”
“Ok let’s have your poems, let’s express ourselves, that as you know is half of the battle, Jacques would you like to start us off.”
“Ok you asked for it:
How would you feel Dear Doctor,
If your life was stolen from you,
And how would you feel Dear Doctor,
If you were sitting here expressing your misery,
After working hard, day and night,
No man could have done more,
To support his family in a cradle of comfort and security,
No man could have done better,
But my happiness was so great it had to be shared,
Or so it seemed to me,
My good fortune I would be greedy to keep to myself,
Or so I thought,
So I did a good deed and acted honourably,
By helping a friend in need,
I shouldered my friend’s burden,
But it wasn’t enough for him so he climbed onto my back,
I cried out as the burden was heavy,
but still he climbed higher and higher,
until standing tall he broke my back,
And left me crippled,
Then I became a beggar without friends or family.
“Ok who’s next, how about you Laurie.”
“Ok” She said haltingly:
My thoughts seem scattered like walking underwater,
I fall asleep while drowning and float like a log, in a dream,
And awake some time later I sit and I wonder, “what was I.”
They make me good for nothing and force me to wake,
So they can take it all from me,
And straight-jacket my mind and force my attention,
But what they don’t know is that I’m not really there,
And they’re grasping at thin air.
“Very good Laurie. Ok next.”
“What is my condition?
My mind evades my control,
I can only concentrate,
On varying levels of stupidity,
That I used to call my intelligence,
But I still have some way to go,
I will not watch TV,
As my brain would never forgive me,
I won’t believe a politician’s lies,
Because I see the insincerity in his eyes,
Neither will I puff myself up with pride,
And sneer, belittle and deride,
And I am not such a fool.
To believe what I was taught at school,
But there are some things that I know,
But I never seem to hold on to them for long,
I drop my rusty old bucket full of holes,
Into the well of knowledge,
I wind it back up and for a moment I am clever,
Then little by little the bucket empties, until again I am empty,
But most of the time I try to keep myself half empty of half full,
But it’s never enough to fight the blaze.”
“My home is a pine forest, pure and clean .
The surfaces dazzle with shining clean whiteness.
The bathroom is laden with forest fruit.
The air is so fresh it burns my nostrils and scars my hands.
I love the crackling fizz of caustic soda as it burns at nameless things.”
Henri opened his mouth, everybody in the room froze and looked expectantly at Henri silently praying for a sound to leave Henri’s lips. Any sound at all.
The seconds ticked by, Henri’s open mouth suddenly closed, he stood up and handed a mall piece of paper to Dr Fournier.
“Thanks Henri, Ok I’ll read Henri’s poem.
A shadow has lain with me since I was a child
I spoke once to tell them all
But they didn’t hear
So I closed my mouth
Once and for all
I’ll keep my secret that nobody wants to hear
My life has been stolen and now I’m dead
Waiting for a miracle to show me heaven.”
Dr Fournier and Seline had a special session together on Friday afternoon. As part of the behavioural therapy technique, patients had to enter the outside world and deal with a situation which would ordinarily cause them stress and anxiety. The Doctor would be on hand if anything went wrong, but it was more an informal, almost social occasion between Doctor and patient.
They walked out of the hospital down the Seine.
“Ok Seline here we are in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, what would you like to do?”
“I want to go home Doctor, it’s so dirty here.”
“The chances are Seline it’s neither cleaner no dirtier than your own home.”
“No Doctor, my home is very clean, I use Mr Clean all the time on all living surfaces.”
“Well Selina you shouldn’t use too many detergents in the house, they’re very toxic you know.”
“But they smell nice Doctor. My house smells nice and clean. Not like here in the street, it’s disgusting I feel sick I really do.”
“But we’re human beings, we live hand in hand with germs and bacteria we wouldn’t be able to live without the you know. In your intestines you have millions of bacteria that help you digest your food.”
“I know it makes me sick thinking about all those monstrous little creatures inside me. I tried to kill them all once.”
“I know.” Said Dr Fournier with a shudder thinking about the mention on her referral notes that she had been rushed to the hospital with a hole burnt into her stomach after swallowing half a pint of bleach “and what happened to you: you nearly killed yourself. It’s all in your mind you know. There’s nothing wrong with bacteria, they’re wonderful really, miraculous little creatures our best friends. That reminds me, I’ve got something for you” He took out a small paperback book from out of his inside jacket pocket “it’s War of The Worlds, it’s a classic, it might help you.”
“It’s about aliens isn’t it, it’s not really my thing?”
“Yes but you should read it, in fact I am prescribing it as part of your treatment”
“Let’s have a coffee somewhere what do you say, let’s go by the Seine and look on at Notre Dame.”
“I don’t really feel like it.”
“Well, consider it doctor’s orders, come on.”
They caught the metro to St Michel, where they alighted and returned to ground level.
They found a café overlooking Notre Dame and Seline removed her gloves.
“Seline, I’m so proud of you, this is real progress..” but before he had time to finish, Seline discarded the used gloves in a bag and with her red hands took out another plastic bag with a fresh pair of black cotton gloves and put them on.
“Oh I see.”
“I have to change them because the metro is so dirty and now I’m going to drink a cup of coffee in a café.”
Still it was progress. Only a few weeks ago this outing would have been unthinkable, the fact that Seline had consented to sit in a café in the middle of a city which was essentially a tourbillion of dust and decay was a minor miracle. While most people got on with their lives happily oblivious to the microcosm that swirled around us, it was all Seline though about, indeed it was all she saw. Another human being was to her eyes not really a person but more a vessel for disease and dirt. A word of greeting: a “Hello how are you,” was not for her a prelude to a pleasant conversation as it is to most people but was instead a deadly salvo of saliva and potential disease. She winced whenever anyone opened their mouths to her; germs clung to every word; a laugh was plague wind blowing in from fetid pit; she instinctively turned away from anybody as soon as they talked to her and kept up a minimal conversation while keeping her back turned to them. As a result very few people ventured a second conversation with her. And so as the waiter brought the coffee she recoiled at his approach, ‘God alone knows where’s he’s been’ she thought. To her right a few tables along, she saw a waiter with a sponge washing down a table.”
“Can we move over there?” she asked Doctor Fournier.
“I wouldn’t be so sure, the chances are it’s probably not, that sponge looks like it been around a bit.”
“Oh I suppose so.” At that she took out of her bag a small lemon scented alcohol based cleaning tissue and started wiping the side of her cup, then the table top, then she took out a fresh tissue and stated wiping her face.”
“It’s terribly bad for your skin you know, it kills germs but it also kills your skin, drying it out and aging it prematurely. How are you hands Seline?”
“They itch a lot, they’re full of bacteria, I can feel them creeping all over my hands”
“Are you letting them heal properly?”
“I suppose so”
“Your mother tells me you had beautiful hands as a child, wouldn’t you like to have beautiful hands Seline?”
“Of course, I hate my hands I don’t like to see them”
“Well just leave them alone, let nature take it’s course, you don’t give nature enough credit you know. She knows what’s she’s doing she won’t let you down.”
“But they’re so dirty, my hands feel so dirty, they leave slime everywhere it’s disgusting”
“But it’s a good sign for you, it means the oils are returning to your hands, it’s natural”
“It’s not dirty, it’s natural. Nothing can live in a sterile environment because it’s not natural” he thought about last week’s unsettling dream “what happens if you pour bleach into a fish pond.” He answered himself.
“You clean the pond?”
“You kill everything, the bacteria, fish everything, it’s the equivalent of an atom bomb.”
“What you must try to understand is that much of what you’re experiencing is a symptom of modern life, therefore it is not a universal reality, it is totally subjective and largely down to too many TV commercials for household cleaners.”
“Well madness is relative to some extent. For example psychiatric surveys were carried-out, one in the 1950’s on a typical group of American children and another on a representative group of 1990’s American children. Now the extraordinary thing is that, by the 1950’s standards the 1990’s group of children would all have required some level of serious psychiatric intervention.
Dr Fournier sipped his hot cup of coffee, readying himself for the eighth and final session. Henri unfortunately had proved a dead loss, perhaps there was nothing to be done for him. He finished his coffee and walked down the corridor and into room 6B.
When he arrived the room was buzzing with conversations, Dr Fournier greeted his patients and reminded them that if all goes well today, he would be happy never to see them again, he looked around the room and noticed that Henri wasn’t there, the characteristic island was absent, he usually arrived about five minutes early but now he was cutting it a bit fine. As it seemed that Henri would not be present Dr Fournier decided to start without him, anyway, he thought to himself, I’d rather not see him, he’s a testimony to my failure I have no idea what’s caused his silence and what his essential problem is.
“As today is the final session you’re going to tell me about zero hour. Why it all started, why you think you’re here.”
“Can I start Doctor” Laurie asked
“Ok, well, it all started about 9 months before I was born. I was born an only child but I’d had a sister. That was why I came into existence in fact, to replace her. Her name was Amandine and she was only 8 months old when she died, a cot death. But she never really went away, she was always there haunting our family. My parents never really recovered from Amandine’s death, they half expected me to die at any moment, so they swaddled me and watched me every minute of the day. They prayed and invented strange rituals to protect me. As I grew older I too grew morbidly afraid of death, not only of my own but of all my family, all my friends and even my friend’s family. At 13 years old I remember that one of my friend’s had an older brother who was moving away from Paris to study in Nimes. This fact terrified me, I knew him well and he was a good friend, I even had a little crush on him, I was sure something bad would happen to him so I had to protect him. I would invent protection rituals, for example.
Whenever I would eat or handle knives I would always be careful not to point the sharp end of the knife towards the South as that he was in that direction and I didn’t want to cause him any harm. I would even sacrifice small animals as I had seen my parents do. I would buy mice or gerbils every month or so and cut their throats, then cut up the body and burn the flesh in a fire. Despite all my precautions, however, during his drive home for the summer holidays his car was struck by an overtaking articulated truck and his car was thrown from the road and he was killed in the fireball. I still didn’t know what I did wrong.”
“You did nothing wrong, it had absolutely nothing to do with you, it wasn’t your fault”
“Of course not Doctor, I forget sometimes.”
“Anyway as a result of that my live used to be a constant nightmare, anything I did or said might somehow, upset some natural order in the universe and result in the death of someone close to me. But I know that was all nonsense now, I’m cured I’m free, thanks Doctor”
“That’s what I’m here for.’ Dr Fournier replied, and he was about to continue when Henri walked into the room. Suddenly there was silence, the patients lifted their eyes, irresistibly attracted by a new and powerful force in the room. Dr Fournier looked his defeat kindly in the eyes, “if only he would say one word, if only I could help him” he thought.
Henri took a seat. He was smiling. Everyone looked at him without realising it, they seemed to all be waiting for some kind of explanation.
Henri looked around, registering all of the faces seemingly for the first time.
“There’s Jacques” he thought “Poor Jacques has to laugh to keep sane. And then there’s Maurice, seemingly so sturdy but like a hollow oak in a gale, then there’s the defenceless and wounded Laurie. Seline who has to keep so clean and Pierre who hates the world.
They remained silent while Henri looked at them, it seemed to them he was looking into them, something had changed in him, “perhaps they’ve finally found the right antixylotic for him” thought Pierre, not intentionally cynically, but judging Henri by his own experiences.
“He must be in love” thought Laurie, opening her heart to him and responding to Henri’s beatific smile with one of her own.
Seline looked at him, “he looks clean.” she thought.
Jacques was about to make a mildly irreverent over-familiar remark at Henri’s expense, something like “how was the lobotomy old man?” but something held him back. Maurice returned Henri’s gaze without smiling. “At least he’s happy.’ he thought.
Henri draw a deep breath, cleared his throat and said his first word in nine years.
“I’ve been very foolish. Sorry everyone, all these years I thought I was in hell?”, why didn’t anyone tell me?” and he smiled for the first time in a very long time.
“I’ve realised now that we’re all in heaven, but if you look at it the wrong way it looks like hell.”
Dr Fournier could have kicked himself, and wondered which delusion was worse. But then he pondered for a moment and fell silent as did everyone else.