I don’t recognise her immediately. Why would I? I’ve never seen a photograph. She gave me only her first name when she booked in, and it’s not an uncommon name. It’s the first word I say to her, my voice rising into a question, as I come out into reception to greet her. There’s no-one else there, so of course she nods, and I give her my most professional smile, which is supposed to convey empathy but stop just short of friendliness, and I say, ‘This way, please.’
In the years I’ve been doing this I’ve learned to simultaneously make judgments and discard them. First impressions can be useful, it’s important to acknowledge them, but a good therapist will then shake them off as best she can and start with a clean slate. First impressions usually tell you more about yourself than the other person. So I let my initial observations trickle across my mind as we walk down the corridor: she strikes me as brittle, as so many people who come through these doors are, and nervous. But there’s something else too, a kind of heat radiating from her, a barely-suppressed…what? It feels like anger. She’s attractive, a little older than me, and too thin, but I check myself as I notice this, because I know myself well enough to know this is my own chubby-girl envy rearing its head.
‘Please, take a seat,’ I gesture with my right hand. My treatment room is sparsely furnished: there’s a small table and two chairs, carefully positioned at gentle angles, so as to be non-confrontational. She immediately corrects this, moving her chair so that both her bony knees point at me, dead on, and I make a mental note. On the table are a jug of water and two glasses, and a box of tissues. They don’t usually cry in the first session, but it happens sometimes. There’s a bed in the room too, one of those adjustable ones with a hole for the face, because I share my practice with Therese, a massage therapist. I rarely use the bed, although I have had clients who prefer to lie down.
I offer water, which she declines, and take out my notes. I tell her the session will last fifty minutes.
‘I see you’ve been referred to me by your GP,’ I say, ‘but I don’t have very much history here. I’d like to start, if it’s okay with you, by gathering a bit of background information.’ She nods; she’s not looking at me, she’s staring at the nail on her forefinger, which she’s worrying at with the thumbnail of her other hand, using it as a kind of file. Every now and again she brushes invisible nail shavings into her lap. I run through the basics: age, general health, any meds, eating and sleeping habits. I ask if she works.
‘Part-time,’ she says, ‘In a garden centre. Blooms. Do you know it?’ The first shiver of recognition runs through me and I think maybe I’ve seen her there. I nod. ‘We don’t really need the money, but it gets me out of the house.’
‘And who’s we? Can you tell me a little bit about who’s at home?’
‘I live with my husband and two kids. Well, the kids are grown up now, but they come and go, you know. And two dogs and a cat.’ She gives a little sharp laugh.
‘Sounds busy,’ I smile. ‘Tell me, have you had any kind of therapy before?’ She rolls her eyes.
‘Every kind,’ she says, ‘Hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, CBT, you name it. Not to mention AA and NA. Group therapy. Tell me,’ she leans forward, ‘What is it you think you can offer that all these others haven’t managed?’
I don’t flinch. I’ve come across this so many times before, this defensiveness, although it’s important to treat it each time as though it’s new. I call it the ‘Fix me if you dare’ position, and I know that what it really means is ‘Help’. I put my pen down and rest my hands in my lap, palms up.
‘Well, let’s see if we can find that out together. You know, everything you tell me here is in absolute confidence.’ I repeat the stuff I tell every client when they book in with me on the phone, code of ethics, boundaries, and so on, then I ask, ‘Why don’t we begin with you telling me what brings you here today?’
‘It’s my husband.’ She looks me dead in the eye. ‘I’m afraid I might kill him.’
Now, there are different ways a person can say they want to kill someone. There’s the jokey, embarrassed way; the exasperated, end-of-patience way; there’s the way that’s shouted or screamed in the heat of an absolute rage. But this is none of those. I can still feel anger seeping from her, for sure, but her words are cold, and measured, and as though she’s really thought about it. I get that sensation you get when you reach the top of the climb on a rollercoaster and you’re just about to tip over the edge. I feel the need to slow things down a bit, keep us in the moment even just for a second, because I’m afraid of the drop.
‘I see,’ I say. ‘Tell me a bit more about that. Your husband-‘
And then she says a name.
We first met at a charity ball, when we were both the best-dressed, shiniest versions of ourselves. We would never look that handsome or feel that confident in each other’s company again, but a spark was lit, and that was that.
You were – are – the kind of man who tops up a glass before it’s empty, and without asking. I’d come to the event alone, having been ditched last-minute by the friend who was to accompany me, due to a non-specific sickness bug (in her dogs; not her. Her two terriers were puking all over the carpet and she couldn’t leave them, she said.) So I had a space to the right of me, and to the left of me was you.
You wore your tuxedo in such a careless way that I could tell you were very wealthy. You captivated the people at the table, none of whom you’d met before, as far as I could tell, with self-deprecating anecdotes, and you were polite to the waiters. You were interesting, and more importantly, interested. You directed most of your interest towards me, the sad single middle-aged woman, and I did everything I could to appear wholly unimpressive.
‘Why do you do that?’ you asked, your eyes amused, your hands tearing a bread roll into small pieces and covering each one in butter.
‘Put yourself down. Make yourself seem…I don’t know. Small.’
I smiled. ‘I amsmall.’ I pushed my chair out slightly from the table, and waved a hand up and down, head to toe, to illustrate my lack of height.
‘You preface everything you say about yourself with words like “only” and “just”. But from what I’ve learned about you so far, you should be proud. You’re a self-made woman. You’re capable. You’re helping people, so you’re obviously kind, too.’ You popped a butter-laden crumb into your mouth. I stared at you, not knowing what to say, waiting for you to swallow.
‘You say “if”, “I think”, and “maybe” a lot too,’ you went on, swilling red wine around in your glass. Then you leaned in and added, ‘I’d like to hear you say definitely. I’d like to hear you say you know. I’d like to hear you say yes.’
I got up from my seat then, walked away, but was sure to give you a little glance over my shoulder, let you see that I was blushing. I’d noticed the wedding ring, of course I had. The most successful cheats never take them off; they don’t need to. I guess there are plenty of women like me, who either don’t care or see it as a positive. I was playing you, of course I was: this is my thing, you see. Married men. It wasn’t a deliberate strategy, not at first, but its advantages soon became clear to me. But you have to be careful: so I do the dance, I act all coy, I let them run and I pull back, run and pull back. I play them like violins, I pluck, pluck, pluck at their strings. When you asked me to dance, I said no the first time, and yes the second.
I didn’t really think I’d see you again, but you handed me a business card, saying ‘If you ever need any financial management’. I laughed and told you there wasn’t much to manage, then fished my own card, curled at the edges, out of my bag and pressed it into your palm, saying, ‘And if you ever need counselling.’
Two days later you called, and not for counselling.
‘You’re not married.’ It’s a statement, not a question. It’s obvious, of course, because I don’t wear a ring, so I agree with her. I’m not married. I pour a glass of water for myself; my throat is suddenly dry.
‘Have you ever been married?’ She cocks her head, a toddler waiting for a fairy story, a dog expecting a treat. I don’t give out details of my personal life, it’s not appropriate; I sometimes have to remind clients about the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship.
‘I’m interested in why you’ve asked me that question,’ I say. She narrows her eyes.
‘Fucking therapists. You always answer a question with a question.’
‘It wasn’t –’
‘It wasn’t a question, I know.’ She sighs, ‘It doesn’t matter, I suppose. I just wondered if you could understand…what it’s like. What it’s like to live with someone, day in, day out. What it’s like to know their habits, to see them at their best and worst, to know them, really know them, under their skin. Do you know?’ I make a head movement that is neither a nod nor a shake, but it seems to satisfy her. ‘I’ve been with my husband since we were seventeen. It’s crazy, how much you change in that time. How you can drive each other insane, too. But you can’t imagine anything ever separating you. Except death.’
I don’t say anything, so she adds, ‘I was wondering if you were still listening.’
‘Of course. You were saying you can’t imagine being separated, except by death. Is that right?’
‘Is it unusual, in your experience,’ she says the word as though she doubts I have any, her eyes scanning the room as though searching for certificates on the walls, diplomas and testimonials, ‘to feel homicidal towards one’s spouse?’
‘Well, that depends,’ I say. ‘It’s not unheard of. Perhaps if you wanted to share a little more about the feelings, the reasons, behind this…this impulse.’
‘Oh yes, of course,’ her face lights up as though just about to share a juicy tidbit of gossip with a friend, ‘You see, he’s cheating on me. He’s a lying, cheating bastard and that’s why I want him dead.’
It was weird at first, dating married men. If you can call it dating. The knowledge that they’re out there, living another life, a life you never really know however much they ‘confide’ in you, and you can’t call them or interrupt in any way. But quite soon I realised it was liberating. I could do whatever I wanted. They could ask nothing of me. They’d no right to. It was easy. Jealous, insecure men are soaccommodating. Add in guilt-ridden and you have pure alchemy.
They’ve got guilt coming out of their pores, these men. They feel guilty about The Wife, even if it’s clear they don’t really love her but just feel sorry for her / have too much ‘invested’ in the relationship / don’t want to hurt her / delete as appropriate.
They feel guilty about the kids, too, which has always struck me as weird. I mean, they’re not cheating on the kids, are they? And then they feel guilty about you, The Mistress. They can’t pay you enough attention, they expect you just to wait around for them, drop everything when they call, they can’t do this or that, oh it’s terrible, agonising and hand-wringing, then whoops looks like they can do it because they’re in bed with you.
The first time I slept with you, you said, all surprised, ‘oh, you’re nervous,’ and I smiled and looked up at you through my hair, laughing inside because you had bought it. Men love the vulnerable, little-girl bit. Makes them feel powerful or something, I suppose.
Eventually, inevitably, you started talking to me about Her. She was a drunk, you said. Not an alcoholic; a drunk. I said I thought your choice of words was interesting. You said she was a nightmare to live with. When she wasn’t incoherent or comatose, she was short-tempered and miserable with withdrawal. I asked you what you thought caused her to drink and you said, ‘Are you saying it’s my fault? It’s not my fault.’
You said if she ever found out about us, she’d probably kill herself. I said I for one had no intention of telling her. ‘Of course, she’ll kill me first,’ you said, and then, as an afterthought, ‘And you.’
When you train to become a therapist, you learn how to deal with suicidal ideation. Homicidal, not so much. I’ve talked a lot of people down from metaphorical ledges, though, and I reason that this can’t be so different.
‘You say you want him dead,’ I reflect, ‘Have you taken any steps towards…this?’ You can’t give someone the idea of killing themselves just by talking about it, that’s what they say, and it’s best to get it out in the open. I’ve always been able to judge the severity of the risk clients pose to themselves by the level of preparation they’ve done. Sometimes they’ve identified the means they’ll use, maybe even done a trial run. Perhaps it’s the same with murder. ‘For example, have you thought about how you’ll do it?’
She looks at me strangely. ‘When I say I want to kill him…I mean, I’m not serious. It’s a figure of speech, right?’
‘Maybe. I could run him over in the car. He bloody loves that car. It would be sort of perfect. Hoisted by his own petard, isn’t that what they say? I wouldn’t want to stab him – too messy. I thought about smothering him in his sleep, but he’d be too strong for me.’ An image of you flashes inside my head and with it, a sensation, the feel of your weight on me, so real in this moment that my breath catches in my chest.
‘Are you ok?’
‘Perfectly ok. Please, go on.’
‘Most of all I just want him to suffer.’
‘How certain are you?’ I ask. ‘About the infidelity, I mean.’
‘I’m certain,’ she says, ‘and I’m not surprised. He’s done it before, you know. Lots of times.’ This is new information. I keep my face perfectly still. She sighs. ‘That’s why I hit the bottle.’
‘And how would you describe your relationship with alcohol now?’ I look closely at her face for the telltale signs, the dry skin, the wrinkles, but in the low light of the room they’re hard to spot. I recall your stories, of her banging into walls, throwing up down the side of the bed.
‘I don’t have one,’ she says, ‘I’ve been sober for almost two years.’
She leans closer. ‘Now that’sinteresting. Why would you doubt me?’
You told me I was the first, of course you did. ‘I’ve been with my wife for over thirty years,’ you said, ‘and until tonight I’d never even kissed another woman.’ I didn’t believe you, of course, but there’s little satisfaction in being proved right. You said she’s a drunk; she says she’s been on the wagon for two years. You said you don’t sleep together; she says your sex life is ‘vigorous’.
You said her body is hard and flat, like a boy’s, and she holds no appeal for you anymore. You like my soft skin, you told me, and my curves. I’m a real woman, you said. She’s a shell, its outer layer cracking. I don’t care for these comparisons but I’ve let them ride. Why would I have cared if they were fair and truthful or not?
Work with what’s in the room, that’s how I was trained. Leave your own stuff at the door. That’s easy enough, usually. It’s often something of a relief. I like emptying my own head and letting others pour their problems in. But today my stuff walked through the door, dripping with anger. I haven’t trained for this.
‘You know, you’re just what I expected.’ It’s her voice but it could just as well be me speaking. We form a picture in our minds, a kind of photofit of our rival, our enemy, and while I didn’t recognise her at first, now that she’s coming into focus her face makes perfect sense to me.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I chose you.’
I frown. ‘You were referred…’
‘I was referred, yes, but I chose you. I knew it was you I wanted to see.’ ‘I see.’
‘I found your card and I knew it was you.’
‘I think you know my husband.’
‘I’m not sure I do.’
‘I think you should have declared a conflict of interest.’
I say nothing.
‘I’m not sure you continuing to treat me is strictly ethical.’
‘I don’t share those concerns. I’m happy to work with you, if you wish.’
‘Are you really?’
‘I don’t believe I know your husband.’
I’m not in love with you. Would it make the story better if I said I was? We couldn’t help ourselves, that’s how the narrative is supposed to go. A seismic romantic pull that couldn’t be resisted. But it was baser than that, for me anyway.
‘I don’t want him,’ I tell her, ‘I never wanted him, not permanently.’ She sits back, a triumphant look on her face. Is this what she came for: an admission? Only that? She’s shaking her head.
‘So you’re telling me that you’ve dropped this bomb on our lives and you’re not even in love with him?’
So we’ve moved now, from your fault to mine. I want to tell her that it wasn’t me that set off the bomb. I wasn’t the one cheating. I want to shut her stupid mouth by telling her how you pursued me, and why, as well – because she had no time for you, because she had no affection left having poured it all into the kids, the church, the bloody PTA; because she’d changed and grown miserable and bitter and drunk.
I don’t tell her any of this; I stay quiet and listen as she calmly tells me precisely how much of a bitch I am.
This is what women do: we blame each other. So much for the sisterhood. It should be you that she is hating, but it’s me, of course. Women compete, turn on each other, pull each other down. We’re raised to do it. We’re alley cats and the wiliest will survive.
I have a practised move for looking at my watch. I used to have a clock on the wall, positioned just behind the client’s head. But it was distracting and I worried that in any moment that I wasn’t engaging in eye contact they would suspect me of checking the time. Also there was the ticking. A lot of therapeutic work is done in silence, in the spaces you leave. The clock was an intrusion.
So I’ve learned to glance discreetly at my wrist, and when we have ten minutes left I let the client know. I look down. Fifteen minutes to go, but are we playing by the usual rules? I think about the keys in the handbag at my feet, keys not just to this office but the entire building, because she booked the last appointment of the day and there is no-one else here. There’s no-one at home either, not for me. No-one would notice, I don’t suppose, if I went missing. I suppose, too, that she knows that.
‘I thought because of what you do,’ she says, ‘you might be a good person. In some way.’
If she did think that, she was wrong. What if I became a therapist not to help people, but because it makes me feel clever?
You know those patterns you keep repeating in your life? I can see them and I can see why they happen. You know that tangled mess in your head that stops you from ever feeling truly happy in the moment? I can take the threads of it and unravel them, pull out the knots. I can give you clean lines. I have wisdom. I am a kind of guru.
I tell every client ‘This is all about you’ but really it’s all about me. They are just absurd marionettes and I am the puppeteer.
‘It’s all the lying,’ she says, ‘That’s the worst part.’
‘Really?’ I try to keep my voice impassive but it comes out incredulous. Does she really not know? Everybody lies.
I look at my watch again, but don’t try to disguise it this time. She starts to rummage in her bag. For a delirious moment I imagine she might pull a knife. I feel strangely safe while we are lodged in these chairs, but once we move, what might she do? She’s petite but she looks wiry, strong, to me now. She might wrestle me to the ground, throw a punch. She extracts something small and white from the bag: my business card. Curled at the edges. She studies it.
‘You’ve got a lot of letters after your name.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘I could add a few more.’
‘I’m sure. Look,’ and she does look, looks up at me as though I might have some sort of answer, but all I have are questions. All I ever have are the questions. ‘What is it that you want?’ I ask.
‘I wanted you to know, first of all.’ She holds up a hand and flicks at one brittle-nailed finger, as though counting items off a list. ‘To know that I know, and that you are not all that clever.
‘I want you to be lonely, and so depressed you drink yourself to sleep at night because poison in your veins beats your pathetic reality. And if you do find a man who isn’t married to someone else, I want him to grind you into the dirt with his criticism, his loathing, and to go off and fuck younger women at every opportunity.’ She smiles. ‘That ought to do it.’
I’m already lonely, but I don’t tell her this. Instead I say, ‘I’ll stay away from him.’
She laughs, a sound like pans being clanged together. ‘Him? I couldn’t give a shit about him.’ She starts to gather her things together, looking for all the world like any other client at the end of a session. Correction: looking like a client at the end of a great session. Looking somehow lighter. ‘I mean, I might still murder him,’ the laugh again, ‘or I might just divorce him and take all his money. Come to think of it, that would hurt him even more.’ She sits back, bag on lap, and looks at me, and I swear I can hear the tick of the discarded clock, sounding out interminable seconds.
‘Oh one last thing,’ she says, and drops the agreed £50 onto the table. I stare at it as she gets up. I don’t move, don’t do my usual handshake, perhaps a comforting pat on the arm, show them to the door. I am small in my chair.
‘I don’t want it,’ I whisper. ‘I don’t want your money.’
‘Oh, do take it.’ She beams. ‘I feel so much better now.’