Sweat works its way down a strand of hair; worming its way over my ear and I’m hoping it will just drop, touch my skin and get it over with. The anticipation of the cold droplet is excruciating. My t-shirt clings to my back. I want to take off my track top and cool down but that would mean exposing my sweat drenched t-shirt and the thought of that is humiliating and causes more sweat to run. It feels like I’m wrapped in a damp piece of cling film. The gas heater is on and I wonder if that is making me drowsy, unable to concentrate. I yawn.
‘Adrian, are you listening? Adrian, focus.’
My attention is drawn back to the therapist sitting opposite. Dr McCafferey, though I’ve never called him that. ‘Hi’ is as far as I’ve progressed with a greeting. I thought about calling him by his first name once, Niall, but that seemed too informal. Then I thought about Doctor, as in ‘Hi Doctor’, or even Doc, but the words seemed foreign, uncertain in my mouth. He’s about my age, a few years older maybe, and Doc seems to suit someone grey, balding perhaps, definitely plump around the middle. A ‘Doc’ should have a red ruddy nose from too much after-dinner whisky.
‘Adrian, do you think we’re making progress?’
You should be able to tell me. Couple hundred an hour, you should be able to tell me what I want for lunch. I nod. Far from convincingly.
‘Your leg’s been doing a highland jig since you got here. I’d say you’re not managing your anxiety in the way we’ve been working towards.’
My leg? I look down and he’s right. Spot on in fact. Going so hard it’s a wonder it hasn’t gone through the floorboards. Well, if I’ve questioned his analytical powers, I certainly can’t question his observational capacities.
‘Two things I’m picking up here. Two things that could, should, be helping here. Your breathing exercises and your muscle relaxing exercises. This is the time these should be kicking in almost automatically. Have you been practising?’ He leans back in his chair. His legs are spread, one arm resting languidly on each armrest. He look like he’s had a hard day and is reclining in front of the television while his wife cooks up a nice stirfry and the wine is open and breathing on the benchtop. It’s 8.30 in the morning.
Practise, I think, sure I want to practise but who has the time. ‘Yup.’ I add a definitive nod as an exclamation mark.
‘Why are we here?’ he asks.
This question seems to have stirred some inner passion ‘cause now he’s upright, hands loosely melded, non-threatening but firm.
‘To save my marriage,’ I say and even I think that’s a good answer.
The smell of eggs on toast fills the house. I’ve never really liked eggs. There’s a word, onomatopoeia, which means words that are created to imitate a certain sound. For example the sound a cow makes is written as moo because that’s what it sounds like, or the mopoke owl is called that because mopoke is the hoot you can hear in the bush on a still night. Well, for me eggs taste like the smell they make. It is a gluggy smell that sticks in your throat and covers your body and when I eat eggs they stick in my throat and make it feel like all my pores have been clogged.
The house smells like eggs on toast because it’s Saturday morning and that’s the meal that starts my wife’s weekend. She cannot feel like the working week is behind her until she has sat down with the weekend broadsheet supplement and a plate of eggs on toast.
I’m lucky in a way that my therapist agrees to see me on a Saturday morning but it is a hell of a way to get the weekend off to a start.
In the kitchen I look at my wife, Nina, as she scratches away at the crossword. I hold the gaze even as I start my coffee making ritual; kettle on, gather plunger, coffee grounds, honey, milk, mug. But even with a ritual so second nature, I have to turn my focus to the plunger when I start putting it all together. This is when she speaks.
‘How was it today?’
Bloody awful, I think, bloody humiliating. I shrug. ‘You know,’ is all I can muster. Cutlery clinks on crockery. The kettle whistles. I freeze.
‘I don’t know, that is why I am asking?’ Her voice has risen slightly, each word pronounced with precision.
The kettle continues to whistle.
‘Sorry.’ That little word seems to have a string attached to my bottom lip ‘cause as it slips out and falls on the floor it drags my head down.
The whistling is like a goddamn banshee running naked through the house.
I drop a couple of spoons of grounds into the plunger, concentrating on the task, levelling off each spoon. I practise my breathing.
In and hold.
1…2…3 and exhale, relax. Too quickly, though, too deeply. Pulse is racing. Chest is tightening. Nina is out of her seat now. Yanks the kettle cord from the socket. Doesn’t flick the switch, just yanks it and the cord clatters against the benchtop. She is next to me and all I can think is I smell eggs.
Her voice is calmer now. Her hand resting on my sunken shoulder. ‘Listen, Aidy, this is meant to be helping us communicate.’
I know, I want to scream.
She pours the water into the plunger but it is straight on to the grounds, scorching them. You’re meant to pour it down the side of the glass.
‘But you need to contribute. You need to give me something.’
Damn right, and I will. ‘I know,’ I say. I still haven’t looked directly at her since she came over. She sighs and it is like a blanket being thrown over me, like being under water and everything is muffled, and then she leaves the kitchen. Tension is building through every muscle. My teeth grind and my forearms clench. I try to stir the coffee and knock the plunger to the floor where it shatters, an oil spill of coffee tainting my environment.
‘I’ve got my hair appointment. I’ll be back later,’ she calls from the hallway.
I barely hear her as I scramble for paper towel. I’m on my hands and knees grabbing at the cupboard door. The roll of towel topples out into the spreading puddle. On my knees, the hot liquid seeping into my pants and I want to scream. It’s like my neck is about to pop and shoot my head through the ceiling. Then I see the roll sucking up the coffee and it occurs to me that the ad was right about the absorbent qualities of this brand and I feel suddenly ridiculous. To be so worked up over nothing. I slump into the coffee, rest my back against the cupboard and laugh as my arse gets progressively wetter.
I leave the house half an hour later. It has taken me that long to clean up the mess and even now I know that I have probably done a bad job. We’ll be finding splashes of coffee for weeks to come but I’m okay with that at the moment.
Walking is what calms me. Headphones on. I listen to classical. I have no idea of what is being played, who is playing and who it is by but it is relaxing until some damn opera solo comes on and then it sounds like shit. The thing about the classical music station is the presenters. The all have these slightly British, definitely educated, soothingly deep voices. They sound like the old film reels from the fifties when Australian presenters tried to sound like the Mother Country and not some backwater colony.
I’m far away now and my muscles are relaxing, and I don’t even notice the little woman waving her arms. I’m only a couple of metres away when I realise her histrionics are directed at me. Stopping I fumble with my headphones and they tangle in my hands, causing me to once again bemoan the fact I haven’t yet got off my arse and bought a set with the retractable cords. It takes me a minute to get myself sorted before I can focus my attention on this woman. She is a smidge over 5ft, I’m guessing, barely up to my shoulder. Her lined face looks as though it’s about to fill with a million little streams of tears. Her words are garbled and it’s a moment before I can decipher whether she is talking gibberish or Italian. I’m immediately looking for an escape but she has the footpath blocked and it would be rude to cross the road at this stage. She is making a turning motion with her hand and I’m confident enough to assume she is referring to a tap. I can only understand three words, ‘water’, ‘you’, ‘help’. And then she is walking past me and it is the first time I realise we are out the front of a block of flats. She has her back to me, confident that I will follow, and even though I hesitate she is right.
Her flat is dim, out of focus; it’s like viewing a room through a layer of gauze. It smells like boiling potatoes. I follow her to the sink and sure enough the tap is running. I twist it and shut off the water but no effort was required. It seemed even this old woman could have turned it off. My mind races and I think ‘trap’ but she is right next to me now and pointing at the stove. Next to the stove are two lighters and a box of matches. A pot is on the stove top. ‘You light’ and I feel a little put out as this is more in the form of a command than a request but I do it anyway.
This feels like I’ve done enough and at this stage I’m out of here without having to engage in conversation. I head for the door and then it happens. She pleads for me to stay. I’m having trouble understanding but I am getting the gist about the crooked landlord, the shitty neighbours upstairs, the non-existent family. The door seems agonisingly close but she begins to tell me how she has no one. She has no one who she can talk to.
‘You come visit?’ she asks me.
This question draws my attention to her face, which I have been studiously avoiding since the beginning of our encounter. Her top teeth are missing, the bottom row juts up from her jaw like some deep-sea anglerfish. I see how her eyes lay on me expectantly. But I can’t do this. My breathing is racing and I can feel the all too familiar beads of sweat start popping like spring buds across my body. I have to think fast and explain to her that it’s not possible. I don’t even visit my own grandparents and I have issues talking to strangers.
‘I’m moving to Sydney,’ I say and she immediately asks me when. ‘Tomorrow,’ I reply. Then she asks me about friends, can they come and visit? But I have to say I don’t have friends and that I have to go because I have to pack and all of this is blurted out in under a second before I turn and half jog my way back out on to the street, my flip flops slapping the pavement, my toes crunching to keep them on.
A couple of hundred metres down the road I slow and walk. My heart is racing and the heavy cloak descends. She had no one and I legged it. Just left her in her dank apartment with its urine coloured walls and cracking plaster. I should have done more. I should have been able to offer her something. What if I end up like that. What if Nina dies and everyone else abandons me? Would I be accosting strangers on the footpath for company? But I couldn’t, I couldn’t stay there a minute longer.
Passing a kindergarten, orange-vested workers are revamping the play area. Two carry a sleeper, another is directing a bobcat loaded with sand. I have a sudden envy at their manliness and then I trip and fall on a raised paver. I’m sitting on my arse and I see that my big toe is sans toenail. Blood is flowing. I can’t feel the toe but I can feel the opening of a valve. First a slow trickle and then I am sobbing uncontrollably. I haven’t cried since I copped a wooden spoon from my old man when I was twelve but now I sit here, in broad daylight, on a busy thoroughfare with council workers looking on, bawling like an infant. There is no pain at this stage but there is an outpouring of sadness. The bobcat has stopped. The sleeper placed on the ground and a crowd of orange vests watch in bewilderment.
I heave myself up and there is the pain. Dignity is an overrated commodity that I have never fully had a grasp of and this is no exception. I haul my swelling toe down the street with a trail of blood dotting the pavement so I can find my way home. Even though my toe throbs throughout my body and my eyes are puffed to closing, my head feels clearer, lighter even.
Passing the local library I stop. If nothing else I can stem the blood with some toilet paper. In the foyer is a community notice board. At its very edge, just adjacent to the toilet entrance, is pinned a poster for a group called ‘Friends of the Community’. The posters says that it is a group that visits and provides companionship to people who are unable to leave their house or find it hard to assimilate into the community. The have ‘friends’ who speak multiple languages. I grab the first flyer I can from the rotating stand, ‘Ballooning for pensioners’ and hobble into the library proper asking for a pencil. I jot down the number and leave, forgetting to attend my damaged digit.
As I hobble back down the path I scribble down a note about the services provided, where the nearest pay phone is and wrap up some coins in the flyer. I pass the kindergarten and look straight ahead but it is not lost on me when the bobcat cuts its engine and the clang of shovels ceases. My ears inflame. Even though I try to focus on straight ahead, some part of me is struggling to hear what they say. To confirm that they are mocking me. I hear nothing but the chest flutter continues to spread. I keep going and, approaching with caution, noticing that the woman is not out the front of the apartment, drop the folded up flyer into her letterbox. My breathing has slowed, my heart seems normal, the sweat is now just a damp memory in the small of my back.
The week hasn’t been a bad one. There has been no magical breakthrough and I know Nina wants more from me but I think last Saturday’s encounter has opened me up a little. I feel unblocked. I’m sure Nina can sense this change even though I didn’t tell her about the encounter but when she bandaged my toe I felt that we were moving forward. ‘Making progress’.
I’m on the tram to see my therapist and the rain is lashing the windows but it doesn’t make me feel sad. I feel positive, jaunty even, and am looking forward to sharing my experience.
I push against the rain, umbrella held before me like an épée and to a certain extent I feel like I am thrusting against my inner demons. But this outer demon, the slicing rain is a canny foe and by the time I have reached the steps of my therapist’s Victorian terrace I am drenched to the skin. I ring the bell and shake out the umbrella. Dr McCafferey lets me in and I’m about to enter his office when I become acutely aware that I am dripping on the boards of his hallway. Do I just enter and to hell with it? Or, sorry ‘Doc’ you wouldn’t have a towel that I could borrow? Some paper tissue? One foot feels out the empty space behind, the escape back out the door but my upper body has already committed to forward movement.
‘I’m a bit wet,’ I mumble and notice how cold and numb my lips are.
He regards me, sizes me up to be more accurate, then relieves me of the umbrella, hooks it on a rack and retreats into his inner sanctum. I stand there shivering, waiting for his return.
The good doctor returns with a towel and ushers me inside. I’m feeling my legs and arms tensing and I begin to wish I had been doing my exercises. I’m trying to will away the tension when I realise he has asked me to take a seat for the third time. I bend to sit and am brushing the cushion when I bolt upright and decide to fold the towel and place it on the seat beneath me. When I am finally settled, I look up to find him ‘regarding’ me again.
‘And how has your week been Adrian?’
This is it. I really want to talk about last Saturday, the little Italian woman, the workmen, my stubbed toe. My mini-emotional breakthrough. Then it hits me. The Italian nona couldn’t really speak English. I doubt she would be able to read it. I had left her a note of gibberish wrapped around a few useless silver coins. I had contributed nothing to her, nothing to society. I am left with one response to his enquiry. I shrug.
‘How do you think things are progressing? The exercises helping?’
He’s meant to be helping but somehow all his questions just make me more anxious, like I’m failing some kind of assesment. I can feel the heat from the gas heater and I just want to lie on the floor in front of it. ‘You bet,’ I say.
He likes this because he’s up and out of his seat. He’s addressing his whiteboard. ‘Brilliant,’ he says and starts scribbling. ‘Today I want to move on to cognitive therapy…’
But I’m looking over his shoulder at the many degrees and diplomas displayed on the wall and they’re all attributed to a Jonathan Hardy and I’m wondering if this Jonathan Hardy that I’ve never met is his practice partner or if he owns this great terrace house and leases a room to McCafferey. And I think, that’s it, just call him McCafferey. Just a surname, like we were buddies in the old days. Then I feel a gust of warmth from the gas heater and I wish I was dry and in bed with Nina, enjoying a Saturday lie in like everyone else.
The Australian Literature Review