“Let me get this straight . . . You're telling me that your friend Christabel is living in the loft above your bedroom . . . and you are having conversations with her?”
Lee thought that the frown on Sandy's face made her look constipated.
Lee was having a one-on-one session with Sandy. He thought that he had nothing to lose by telling her what was going on. What he really wanted was for her to somehow put his mind at ease and assure him that he wasn't going completely mental. And if he was mental? He had nothing to lose, except his mind. In the worst possible scenario, perhaps he could get some hardcore meds from the doctor.
The window near Lee's head was slightly ajar. A gentle breeze caressed the side of his face and touched his nose. He smelled the outside world: LYNX deodorant, cigarette smoke, and disappointment.
Sandy sat in a plastic chair, her back straight. Her posture reminded Lee of a woodpecker, preparing to bury its beak in a rotten log. He imagined Sandy banging her nose against a tree. It made him smile. Inside the room, time hardly seemed to move. It was musty, like a charity shop on a summer’s day. Sandy's grey cardigan hung loose over her body, belying the anxiety that made her feet shift back and forth in her tight, pebble like shoes. They were well worn and scuffed, the boots of a back street brawler. They'd seen better days—but hadn't everybody?
“I know this sounds crazy, Sandy.” Lee paused to gather his thoughts, but before he could get any more words out, Sandy interrupted.
“It doesn't sound crazy and you're not crazy.” But Sandy's face betrayed her words.
Fucking hell, she thinks I'm crazy, Lee thought. I knew I should've kept this to myself.
Although he would've been quite happy to get some funny farm pills, the last thing that he wanted was to get carted off to a One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest situation.
During their last session, Lee had told Sandy the story of Christabel's death and the importance of their friendship. She was up to date with Lee's emotional state.
“Lee, the sad fact is that Christabel was tragically killed many years ago. It seems that her death isn't acceptable to you. You've never come to terms with this painful loss. Now you want to see her so much that you've made her appear in your mind. Because you've just come off opiates, your emotions are enhanced and distorted. You were so young when you lost your best friend. She was a person who gave you many of the things denied to you by you mother: love, kindness, and honesty. Subconsciously—for all these years—you've been in denial.”
Denial, then? Lee couldn’t look at her. He noted the drooping bunch of roses in the clear vase. Looking like they were in denial of their own death, thought Lee. Outside, a magpie flitted through his line of sight. “Hello, Mister Magpie,” his mother would’ve said. That childhood rhyme.
One for sorrowTwo for joyThree for a girlfriendFour for a boy
“This is the first time your mind has been clean since you've been an adult. Perhaps for the first time since her death, you are mourning. Not only for Christabel, but also for the childhood that was taken away from you.”
Sandy's eyes widened: she obviously thought she'd just made a significant discovery. She caught his eye as he leaned back to glance at the bird’s landing spot. She clasped her hands together. Lee imagined that she was humming in her head.
“Hello, Mister Magpie,” she said. She looked at Lee and smiled. “Sorry, I always do that. Habit.”
He would have liked to bite its head clean off, horrible thing.
“Can you not ask the doctor to give me some fucking diazepam? The lack of sleep is killing me. No wonder I'm seeing the dearly departed—I've not slept properly for over a month. I feel like cutting my tongue out,” Lee said. A bit of dramatic flair, that eased his mood slightly.
“Have you thought about harming yourself a lot lately?”
“For fuck’s sake! I'm not being fucking serious.” Both Lee's hands moved so that they were covering his face as if he were hiding tears.
And then, the reassuring speech. It was fairly common for Sandy to come across addicts with mental health issues, she said. They often became apparent when a person came off the drugs that they'd been taking all their lives. Self medicating, keeping problems at bay. She didn't think that Lee was crazy, but she was going to keep an eye on him and have a word with the doctor. It was never simple, but it didn’t have to be, either. Clients like Lee would come in with a straightforward heroin or alcohol problem, and they would turn out to have multiple addictions and mental health issues on top of it. At least half the people would be more suited to a mental health unit. It was cheaper to just throw them all into a drug rehab.
Sandy's frown put years on her age. As she spoke, Lee saw the thoughts crawl through her head, making her look worn, beaten, and angry. Most likely wished she'd just been a hairdresser instead.
Sandy glanced at her watch, and with relief, noted that the session had come to an end.
The last group of the afternoon was called encounter group. Lee found himself sitting in a circle so perfect, it was as if somebody had drawn it with a giant protractor. Ashleigh and Matt were the members of staff leading. It started with each person stating one of the group rules.
No ismsNo aggressive behaviourNo leaving seatsNo eatingOnly one person to speak at a timeNo rescuing
“Simon, Dave, and Frankie, can you sit opposite Neil please.”
After they’d moved, everyone got their slips.
The rule was, when you encountered another member of the community, you wrote a slip out. It was put in a padlocked box, then read out when the time came. This was Lee's second encounter group, so he was still trying to get his head around it. It had a bad reputation: people talked about like it was something to be feared. The other one that Lee had sat in was extremely intense. There'd been tears, noise, and an all-out emotional battle between certain members of the community.
The room was silent. Anticipation painted each face with a messy splodge of bright colors.
“The encounter group is now open.” Ashleigh spoke each word with clarity and volume.
Dave was first to speak. “Neil, I'm encountering you for your constant lateness to check in and lack of effort with your jobs and participation in groups.” He struggled to make eye contact and kept rubbing his nose for comfort.
“Neil, I'm encountering you for snorting washing powder in the laundry.” Before Frankie could finish, sniggers of laughter broke the intense silence.
Wonky Lee kicked Lee's foot and rolled his good eye.
“For fuck’s sake!” Lee smiled. The image of Neil snorting washing powder reminded him of the time his mate Murphy snorted a line of ants on Brighton beach.
“Boundaries!” Ashleigh’s voice cut through the disorder.
The room’s decibels immediately dropped, like a rough wave hitting a sandbar.
“Simon.” Matt prompted Simon Benton, who was staring out of the window with the focus of a loyal dog waiting for its. Probably getting a hard-on about rock climbing, thought Lee.
“I'm encountering you because A. You are constantly late for check in,” Benton held three fingers aloft, tapping each one as he annoyingly went through the list. “B. Your work on cleaning department is disgraceful, and C. You used my face towel after you had a bath.”
The circle chuckled as they imagined Benton with a mouthful of Neil's pubes.
After finishing his points, Benton folded his arms and stared at Neil for a few seconds before glancing at Matt and Ashleigh for approval. Dickhead.
“Neil?” Ashleigh was looking for a response.
Neil sat cross legged, which looked painful in his super tight, worn jeans. Not tight in a fashionable, “skinny jeans” way, but tight in an “I've had these jeans since I was a kid” way. They were so tight that you could see the outline of his testicles. The stubble on his face was several days old and his yellow socks shone brightly underneath his grubby, battered sandals.
“Hey, those are my socks!” Simon Benton yelled.
“Yes I know, I borrowed them and also a pair of your britches,” said Neil, matter-of-factly. He stood up and pulled Benton's undies out of his jeans to prove that he wasn't lying.
Simon Benton looked like he was going to explode. The room, briefly stunned, let out a torrent of laughter.
“Boundaries!.” Ashleigh repeated the word loudly, but it took a moment before the room finally settled.
“Neil, what have you got to say for yourself?” Ashleigh looked as if she could lose her cool. Her arms were tightly crossed over her chest.
The room fell silent once more, waiting and anticipating, enjoying the spectacle. Neil sat still, concentraing. He slowly and purposefully looked at each person in the circle as if trying to work out each person’s thoughts and agendas. He then placed a finger in each ear.
“Laaa, laaa, laaa, laaa!” he shouted, like a petulant child blocking out a parent’s words. He carried on for several minutes. Then, he opened his eyes.
“You are spitting venom,” he said. Then, he got out of his seat and walked away.
The staff members rolled their eyes at each other before following Neil out of the door.
Follow me, why don't you follow meto a place, where we can all be free
The American garage classic by Aly-Us wove into Lee's head, a perfect stitch to hold everything together. Music again. Music always.
Several minutes later, Neil returned. He walked in behind Ashleigh and Matt with his head hanging low. He'd changed his clothes: now, he wore a white karate suit, complete with a colored belt tied around the waist. Everyone stared at him with their mouths open.
“So, Neil, what was that little outburst all about?” Lee said. He looked into Ashleigh's eyes, but she was blank, oblivious what was in front of her. He wanted to shout, He's got a fucking karate suit on!
Neil slowly and carefully blinked his eyes. He adjusted himself so that both palms were resting against his chest. He opened his mouth.
“I've been in this place for over one hundred years, in one form or another. If you laid every moment of my life lived in this rehab upon the floor it would create a huge metropolis too bright to look at. Too loud to listen to. Top sharp to eat. You might find this ridiculous. You can either accept or ridicule. Let me say this. Each one of you hopeless addicts walked through the doors with a flaw of arrogance. You were broken and worn and your families had discarded you. Your own friends you'd stolen from and betrayed. You had no excuse for yourselves, no words for your shame. You came in without faith and now you have some. Can you see that faith? Can you touch it? It's there. How do you know? We see what we want to see. We live how we live. Time means life. Because what is death and what is memory, but a transient moment without a care in the world? Who's to say that what we see isn't right? I know what I see and I know that there's a spirit within all of you in this rehab, but not everyone had chosen to see it.” Neil’s eyes bored into Lee. Lee felt a surge of energy rush through his body.
The group was too confused to move: unsure, uncomfortable and scared. Only Lee felt the truth. Suddenly, he felt a quiet blooming of peace.
Wonky Lee jabbed Lee in the ribs.
“What a fucking crank.”
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