"Tom, we know that isn't true."
"You don't. You don't know anything about me"
"I know you're not coping."
"Who said I wasn't coping?"
The stupid snotty-looking bitch in front of me was watching me closely. I didn't like it. I felt like I was a mental patient with handcuffs cutting into my wrists or something. Like she didn't trust that I wouldn't flip out and throw myself out of the window, head first.
"Why can't you just leave me alone?"
"We don't think that's in your best interest."
"What the fuck do you know? You don't have a fucking clue what's best for me!"
"Thomas, can you please try not to swear.."
"I'll swear all I fucking want. You're winding me up!"
"Its not intentional."
"You must just be a natural then." I retorted sarcastically. Karen, my so-called guidance counsellor, was the most infuriating woman I'd ever met. She was treating me like a child. Why am I having to listen to this?
"I'm twenty-nine for god sakes. I don't need baby-sitting."
"That's not what this is."
"No. It's a healing process."
At that moment, I couldn't take it any longer. I burst out laughing. I realise now that it was inappropriate, but my balance was all off. I laughed and laughed and laughed some more. I laughed until my stomach cramped and my eyes were streaming with tears and my face was scarlet. Eventually, Karen interrupted me, mid-hysterical outburst, by placing a cup of black coffee, closely resembling treacle, on the table in front of me, carefully on a coaster. It had some seaside town scrawled round the edges of it. It was all blues and greens and yellows, well, from what I could see around the bottom rim of the cup. Saying nothing, I reached over and moved the cup from beside her knees to where I was slouching on the chair. Minus the coaster. Karen's eyes darted to the coffee stain the cup was making on her expensive-looking table. I smirked. Now who was watching who closely?
"Can you, er, I mean, would you mind just-"
Seeming oblivious. I got a really morbid sense of satisfaction watching her squirm.
"Well, I'd like you to use a coaster."
"I'm sorry. You'd LIKE me to use a coaster?"
"Well, I'd LIKE you to discharge me. But that's not going to happen is it?"
She ignored me, and reached to move the coaster to its rightful place, snuggled under the cup, but I grabbed it first, tormenting her.
"What's the matter, Karen? Are you stressed? Well! Are you? Are you finding this difficult? Hard to handle? Why do you think that is? Do you think you're suffering from mental health issues? 'Cause you want the fucking coaster moved? Slightly OCD if you ask me."
"I didn't though."
"Ask you. I never asked your opinion. All I said was MOVE THE FUCKING COASTER!"
She broke. I watched it. There and then. The screaming and shouting and swearing turned the pair of us into a pair of snivelling teenagers. I broke down, watching her struggle. Evidently, I'd hit a nerve. I admired her really. I shouldn't have been treating her like shit. It wasn't fair.
"I'm.. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have."
"Don't worry about it. I'm the one who's supposed to keep a professional distance."
"Yeah, well. I'm still sorry."
She was silent a moment, using the sleeve of her wooly cardigan to mop up her tears, before she spoke.
"Thomas, you do realise this isn't a punishment don't you?"
I nodded, because I kind of suddenly got the point of it all.
"Good, because its supposed to be helping. I know how you're feeling."
"No you don't." I snapped. "You don't have a clue. How can you possibly understand how I'm feeling?!"
"I understand more than you'll ever know."
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" I practically spat at her.
She paused. Hesitated. Before carrying on. I guess that's why they call them shrinks. They know what they're supposed to say. They tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. She picked up a photo frame from beside her desk, and showed it to me. A girl, pretty, about nineteen, blonde, natural make up. Smiling. Drop-dead gorgeous. But I didn't say that. I just smiled.
"Is she your daughter?"
"Yes, she was."
That was the key word there. Was. Meaning, past. Gone. Lost. I'd been so heavily concentrated on the fact I'd lost Kassie that I'd forgot about everyone else. I never imagined, I never even stopped to think that my own bloody shrink might be grieving too.
Eventually she spoke.
"It'll be her two year anniversary next tuesday."
"I'm sorry. How did it, I mean, did she.."
"Its okay, you can ask. I'm used to people asking. Its just a bit weird having the shoe on the other foot, I suppose. I'm the one with the questions, not the answers, usually. She had cancer, she fought until the end, but..but it was too much for her."
"God, I'm, I'm so sorry. Really." Perhaps the first honest thing I'd ever breathed.
"I had no idea."
"Why would you?"
I shrugged. I realised. It all made sense.
"I clean because that's all I can do right. Well, this and my job. Or that used to be the case. Megan's death tore my family apart. I blamed my husband and he couldn't cope. It was unfair of me to ask him to cope alone. How on earth could he bare the guilt of something like that? I forced myself into work, into helping other people, while he was at home, pickling his liver and slowly fading away. Six months after she died, I found my husband in the garden. He'd put his rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I...I."
She began to get choked up. I reached over, and put my arm on her shoulder. Our eyes met. She nodded. We were interrupted by the alarm sounding on her desk.
"Ah, I guess that's time up. Same time next week?"
"Oh. Actually Karen, I've got a better idea."
So, seven days later, at 3pm, I found myself sitting having coffee with Karen. Off-record. In a snug little cafe on the other side of town. We agreed that any sort of professionalism had been already breached, so we might as well meet properly and talk things through.
Karen looked uncomfortable. She was shuffling about in her seat. I was wearing a sort-of-smile, and it was strange. I hadn't smiled since Kassie died. I felt like I was cheating on her. It was wrong. I felt guilty, for expressing any kind of happy emotion when she was no longer around. Especially when I truly felt I couldn't be happy without her.
"I'm sorry, this is kind of weird for me."
"I bet. Its not really easy for me either."
We spent a good couple of hours, sitting and talking. Deeply talking. Karen told me all about her daughter, Megan, and how she died, and what she felt, and how hard it was, practically going through it alone. After all, living with a ticking time-bomb must be hard. Living with two, must be excruciating. I don't know what hurt her more, losing Megan or grieving for her cowardly husband. She was pretty cut up. I'd never ever noticed how sad she looked. For a woman of around 50, she looked ancient. Worn. Exhausted. Behind her eyes, a thousand What Ifs and Maybes. Hundreds of choked back tears. Thoroughly through with life, yet something was keeping her hanging on. Her job. Her ability to help others gave her a reason to get up in the morning. I found that kind of incredible. After Kassie died, I didn't get out of bed for three weeks. I'd never spoke to anyone about it, except Karen. And now, here, in this fancy, cosy, little coffee shop, I was about to, hopefully, get what I needed.
So, I'd better give it my best shot.
Karen sat patiently, with fresh coffees in front of us, and this time, there was no diary. No note-taking. No tape recorder, ready to be shipped to Dr such and such, to assess my "mental anguish." No weird, clinical analysis of my well-being. Just someone looking back at me, with genuine concern. A friend. Someone I needed. Someone with time for me.
"The day I lost Kassie was the worst day of my life to date, and hopefully always will be. I can't go through that again. Kassie was beautiful. Not just to me. You know what I mean. The kind of girl who always had strangers stopping her in the street complimenting her. Her brunette hair matched her eyes, and she had a smile that could knock you off your feet. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world, with her on my arm. We'd been together for six years, and I'd cherished every single second. So, the day I got a call saying my wife had been in an accident, I was physically sick, before pulling myself together, and inquiring as to what had happened, and which hospital I should break the speed limit when driving to. St. Peter's hospital. An awful place I can't even bare to think about now. Kassie was in a car accident that morning. We never truly found out what happened. Partly because I was too stricken with grief to pin the blame on anyone. All that mattered to me was that my Kassie was no longer with me. She'd kissed me that morning, before leaving the house for work, and I'd never thought anything more of it. I mean, why would I? It was the worst phone call I ever received. My heart broke that day. My girl was always a fighter, but I guess it was just too much for her. She didn't know her family, they'd drifted apart years before we met, and as for mine, they were hundreds of miles away, and never knew her like I did, so when it happened, I didn't want to turn to them. I became irrational and selfish and began drinking and not sleeping. Then I began sleeping and not eating. Starving myself. Not looking after myself. Not leaving my bed. Not leaving my house. Not picking up my phone, opening my post or anything. I couldn't function. I didn't want to be without her. I couldn't and wouldn't, imagine my life without her. The love of my life. My soul-mate. My best friend."
It wasn't until one day, there was a knock at my door. A woman, fifties, greying hair, with a clipboard and a professional looking pair of glasses in tow. She enquired as to my health, physical and mental. And told me she was from the NHS, sent to check on me after my recent bereavement. I slammed the door in her face.
Fourty five minutes later, she knocked again. And somehow, persuaded me to see her for an appointment. I did. Unwillingly though. I only really did it because she was the only person who made the effort, in spite of how much I pushed them away. She came back. Funnily enough for me, because I didn't know her and she didn't have any reason to want to go out of her way to help me. But she did. And after my breakdown in her office, I finally let it all go. We talked and talked until my throat was sore and dry, my cheeks were stained with tears and the smell of coffee was slightly intoxicating.
"So Karen. That's it. That's everything. I've just got one more question.."
"How do you live with a ghost?"
She shook her head, clueless.
"I have absolutely no idea. I'm living with two. They're always with me. But they keep the house tidy, at least."
I laughed, and so did she. We laughed until we were in pain. And we smiled. Releasing, comforting smiles. Reassuring one another that no matter what came our way, we'd cope.