The lights had been up since October but it was only with the Big Day looming, that the mania set in. Everybody was getting stressed. I’d already had three desperate calls from panicked clients freaking out over poultry or puddings or oversized trees.
Town was heaving. I dribbled forward like a snail, squeezing between crazed Christmas shoppers, each with their own gravitational orbit caused by the multitude of bags stuffed in hands and under arms. I had a couple of bags myself but had finished shopping.
I was on my way to a last minute bonus clean for one of Mum’s friends. Trudy was my first client, after Mum, and if I’d known who she was I wouldn’t have taken her on. By the time I realised, it was too late and I was committed. She was the wife of my old psychology tutor at university; the one man I did not want to see. This meant carefully timing my visits to coincide with his lectures to be sure I didn’t run into him. However, this being the holidays, I was worried. They had a visitor for Christmas and needed the place sprucing up; I just had to hope the professor was out shopping like everyone else.
I stopped to look at the Fenwick’s window display. Carols screamed from the speakers on a loop and the animatronics jerked and whirled. This year it was scenes from the nativity: an angel bobbed on a wire, dangling before a surprised Mary, Joseph looked murderous, and there was a shepherd doing something unspeakable to a sheep.
All around kids giggled and pointed while their parents pretended not to notice. I was laughing along with them when I started to feel odd. Time seemed to slow, like I’d been dropped into a vat of treacle, and I sensed the presence of another mind pressing against mine.
Someone was watching me.
My blood froze, skin prickling in waves of unease. I scanned the faces reflected in the glass, looking for my stalker. Laughing faces, eyes wide and smiling, cheeks rosy with cold and happiness. All were watching the debauched shepherd.
I felt the pressure of the bodies surrounding me and clamped my jaw shut to stop myself crying out.
There’s nobody there, you’re imagining things.
Deck the Halls blasted from the speaker above my head, piercing the gloop in my brain and making me jump. I spun round to escape from the crush and came within kissing distance of a grinning middle-aged baby-man with two day stubble and a belly bigger than Father Christmas.
‘Easy, pet,’ he said. ‘Where’s your mistletoe?’
I laughed mechanically, then with a final desperate push, broke free.
I arrived at my tutor’s house and held my breath, sliding the key into the lock as quietly as I could. My ears strained for the slightest noise. There were voices: two men arguing.
He was here.
My heart started fluttering wildly. I fought to get the key out of the lock and retreat before they heard me, but one of my shopping bags crashed into the doorframe. I yanked out the keys and dropped them with a clatter.
The living room door burst open and slippered feet appeared in the hallway.
‘Ah, Zoe. Good. Trudy told me you’d be coming in.’
I retrieved my keys and stood up straight, taking a deep breath and trying to stay calm.
‘Long time no see, Professor.’
Professor Charles Harrison looked just the same, if slightly podgier round the middle. He must be nearing retirement now but still had dark hair and an unkempt beard. The avuncular look was misleading. Hidden under the hair was a mind capable of laser-like destruction. He smiled and offered his hand. I took it.
‘Good to see you again, Zoe.’
The last time I spoke to my tutor I was leaving university and trying to explain myself without letting on what was really happening. It hadn’t gone well. And following my miniature paranoid freak out in town, I wasn’t overjoyed at being in the company of a psychiatrist.
‘Come and meet Felix,’ he said. ‘I think you’ll find him interesting.’
I followed him into the spacious living room, the walls lined with shelves bulging with books. Sitting in an armchair was a man with the most extravagant facial hair I had ever seen. In contrast to Professor Harrison, his hair was pearly white and tied in a long pony tail. His moustache was enormous and lovingly coiffed into glossy arches. I couldn’t stop staring at it.
‘Dr Felix Baldwin,’ said my tutor, ‘this is the young lady about whom I was telling you. Zoe Popper.’
Dr Baldwin sprang out of the armchair, skirted the chunky coffee table and enveloped me in a warm embrace before I had a chance to even say hello. What had the professor told him? And what kind of doctor was he? He released me and gave me a long, appraising look.
‘Grab yourself a cup and join us Zoe,’ he said. ‘You can back me up against old Charlie here. He really is quite mad.’
‘I’d love to, but I’m here to clean,’ I said, desperate to escape.
Dr Baldwin screwed up his face and made a noise like a pregnant buffalo.
‘Balls,’ he said. ‘They want it clean for me. But which of us will care about a little dust when we’re drunk as hell on port and stuffed like turkeys with mince pies and novelty chocolates?’
Professor Harrison rolled his eyes then shot me a look I could only describe as guilty. What was going on?
‘To tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘we don’t need any cleaning. You do such a good job at keeping the place spotless, Zoe, and I feel bad for bringing you here under false pretences. I’ll pay you for cleaning anyway, if that’s acceptable?’
‘Let me at least do the bathroom.’ I wanted to run from the room.
The professor smiled his agreement then put his hand on my shoulder so I couldn’t escape. The three of us stood in silence for a moment and the two men smiled down at me in the most disconcerting way; like they were sizing me up for a coffin. Finally, the professor broke the silence.
‘Felix is a psychiatrist, Zoe.’
Shit, shit, shit. SHIT.
I had been ambushed. Someone must have told them about me. But who? I kept the serious craziness hidden from Mum, so it couldn’t have come via Trudy. Was it Jonah? Maybe he had been checking up on me.
I had to get out of there.
‘Professor, I really-’
‘Zoe, please. I’m not your tutor any more. We’re all friends. Call me Charles.’ He removed his hand from my shoulder. ‘I’ll get you a cup. Tea okay?’
I managed to nod. Panic was making me stiff with fear. I could barely breathe. What were they up to? Dr Baldwin was still smiling benignly at me through his abundant facial furniture. I hovered next to him, mind racing, trying to look relaxed and normal and sane.
‘I think we both know you must call me Felix, eh Zoe? None of this doctor bollocks from you.’
He winked, and despite my anxiety, I found I liked him. A warning bell tinkled in the back of my mind. I must be careful not to let my guard down. That’s how they get you. They trick you into relaxing then next thing you know you’ve got a syringe jabbed in your arse. I smiled at Felix and tried to stop thinking.
‘Charlie tells me you were one of his best students,’ he said.
The professor reappeared with a cup and filled it with tea from the pot. Struggling to see the Prof as a Charles, let alone a Charlie, I inched over to the armchair beyond the table and perched on the edge of the seat. I was now too far from the door to make a run for it. I was going to have to brazen it out.
Charles handed me the cup, ‘You did good work, Zoe. You’d make an excellent psychologist. Good instincts.’
‘That’s rare,’ said Felix, slurping his tea. ‘He even compared you to Jung. In a complimentary way, I hasten to add. You know how he feels about all that, quote: mystical eyewash.’
‘I kept a place open for you,’ said Charles. ‘I was disappointed when you didn’t return. Did you succeed in rearranging your priorities?’
That day in his office had been one of the most humiliating moments of my life. I told him I wanted to leave due to family problems, but then Trudy had talked to Mum and I was called in to explain myself. The official line was that I had been unwell. My priorities were changing and I needed some time to sort myself out.
I wasn’t sure he’d bought it at the time, and now, sitting here in this Kafkaesque ordeal, I knew he hadn’t. They were both watching me, waiting for me to betray myself.
‘Yes. I run my own business now.’ I mop up other people’s shit. Not a million miles from being a psychologist. ‘Things are much better.’
‘Waste of a good mind, if you ask me,’ said Felix.
‘You sound like my mother,’ I blurted, then wished I hadn’t.
Charles leaned back on the sofa and cleared his throat. I remembered this behavioural habit. It meant he was about to say something confrontational just to see your reaction.
‘Your father was schizophrenic, was he not?’ he said.
‘He was dead long before I dropped out of university, professor.’ My hands started to shake. I was keeping it together, but it was just a matter of time.
‘You misunderstand,’ he continued. ‘The age your problems started. Might there be a connection?’
My tea cup started to rattle in its saucer. I leaned forward and placed it on the table, spilling half of it in the process. I took a deep breath.
‘What are you insinuating?’
‘Why do you think I’m insinuating something?’
I clamped my hands to my knees to keep them still and stared at the moat of tea surrounding my cup.
‘Why have you brought me here?’ My voice was tiny, shrunken by fear.
‘You’re scaring the poor girl half to death, Charles. For goodness sake, what the devil is wrong with you?’
‘This is a delicate area, Felix. I’m not blundering into this the way you would.’
‘Looks a lot like blundering to me, my friend.’
‘Zoe,’ Charles sat forward and smiled at me in a way he obviously believed conveyed empathy and compassion. It didn’t. ‘I’m sorry, but there’s no easy way to say this.’
‘You think I dropped out because I’m schizophrenic like my dad?’
Felix was shaking his head, a volcano bursting to erupt.
‘This is exactly what I was talking about,’ he said, rounding on Charles. ‘How are you supposed to understand anything about the individual’s lived experience if you expect everything they do to make sense according to your priorities? It’s no wonder Zoe, and countless others like her, is unable to be honest. You force her into an Apollonian straightjacket made from monotheism and fallacies about normality and sanity, and watch her try to wriggle free. And then you have the audacity to claim it’s her who is insane.’
‘I have never claimed any such thing, Felix. You are putting words into my mouth, as usual.’
‘You know very well sanity is culturally defined,’ continued Felix, ‘but you refuse to take the cultural context into account when diagnosing patients, or even to question the validity of our cultural constructions in the first place.’
He lunged forward, nearly flying out of the armchair. I thought he was about to throttle Charles, but he just continued to rant. They appeared to have forgotten I was there. Perhaps I could sneak out while they fought. With my eyes on the door, I rose from my seat in slow motion, their dispute raging in a world parallel to mine.
‘You lean too heavily on that damn book,’ said Felix, thumping the table with his fist and making the tea things jump like startled bunnies. ‘They add the Spiritual Problem category and then fail to adequately train practitioners in recognising the problem. Just because an experience is painful, or difficult, or hard to understand, doesn’t mean it should be medicated out of existence.’
‘Which was precisely your approach for 25 years,’ said Charles. ‘The DSM is useful. It works.’
‘Well, we all know you want to tear up the rule book, but give me some credit.’
I was on my feet and about to dive behind the sofa and bolt for the door, when Charles looked up and caught me.
‘Zoe, I didn’t invite you here today to humiliate you.’
‘You sure about that, old boy?’ said Felix.
Charles glared at his friend then turned back to me. I was ready to throw up all over the coffee table.
‘Just answer one question,’ he said.
I reluctantly returned to my seat.
‘Are dreams real?’
Was this a trick question? I knew Professor Harrison was a hardcore reductionist materialist. As far as he was concerned it’s all just a load of chemicals sloshing around in your brain. All your experience comes down to neurons and genes.
This must be what they’d been arguing about when I arrived. I swallowed my nausea and took a deep breath. If this was some kind of test they would need more than my beliefs on the nature of dreams to section me. So far, I hadn’t done anything to alarm them. As long as I didn’t have a trance, I’d be safe.
‘I know you don’t think dreams are real,’ I said carefully, ‘but then why use them in treatment? Why consider them meaningful at all if they’re just produced by a bunch of randomly firing neurons. There may be a correlation between brain states and conscious experience, but correlation doesn’t equal cause. Dreams are real because we experience them as such, just as we experience our own consciousness – from the inside. Also, dreams have real effects in the real world. How many times have you woken with a racing heart, or sweating, or with a massive boner?’
Felix chuckled and patted Charles on the knee. ‘Not so often these days, eh, Charlie boy?’
‘How do you know you’re not dreaming now?’ I continued. ‘You only know you’ve been dreaming. Any minute you could wake up and realise: it was all a dream. That’s what I’m hoping will happen now, at any rate.’
‘Quite so,’ said Felix, leaning across to Charles and pinching him.
‘Ow!’ Charles clutched at his arm.
‘Is one of you going to tell me what, in the name of Freud, I’m doing here?’ I said, getting some sense of myself back and relaxing a fraction.
‘I’d like to offer you a job, Zoe,’ said Felix. ‘It wouldn’t be until next academic year, but I need a research assistant with an open mind. With your background and experience I think we could do good work together.’
‘What are you researching?’
‘The epistemology and technologies of shamanic states of consciousness and their effects on healing individuals and communities. Been travelling round tribes in America, Africa, Siberia, and I want to compare it to our experience in Western medicine. Shamans were the first psychotherapists, first artists, first doctors, first storytellers, first everything. And yet, their skills are derided by the likes of our friend Charlie, here. Interested?’
‘I never qualified. I mean, I don’t have a degree.’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ He grinned at me. ‘I need your mind, not your subservience to a system of mind control.’
Charles rolled his eyes and coughed. ‘Really Felix, you’ll be the death of us.’
Felix whipped out a business card and handed it to me. ‘Give me a call and we’ll get organised.’
I looked at the card in my fingers, an alternative future unspooling itself in my imagination, one that didn’t involve hours on my knees with an arm shoved down somebody’s U-bend. I could explore, create new ideas. I could be happy.
Would that even be possible? Could I keep it together long enough to convince them I was capable of doing the job?
‘Let me think about it,’ I said, hoping my voice sounded reasonable and businesslike.
Felix smiled and twitched his whiskers. ‘Absolutely. Take your time.’