He’s going to tell me why he’s done it. He’s calling my name to get my attention and his mouth is opening and …
I open my eyes and the blank ceiling is staring back down at me, a single exploded paint bubble mimicking Dada’s mouth – open but wordless. Just the dream again. And I haven’t had it in ages.
I say it softly to the smoothness of the freshly painted ceiling and the open-mouthed paint bubble. It merely pouts back at me, a soft ‘oooh’ like that last, lingering breath before death. Why today, of all days? I close my eyes, and wait for the unease to dissipate, but it lingers until I slam the alarm off just as it starts to buzz. The timebomb of a new day can’t be avoided even if the dream can. And today is the day.
I sit upright, impatiently kicking the drift of bedclothes onto the floor and looking along the line of my body. Me. Long, lean, languorous – but now also with that creeping sense of bewilderment the dream always brings with it. Outside the hum of rush-hour traffic has already started and I’m conscious of the need to go with it. Come on, I mentally chastise myself. Not the same old dream and the same old bewilderment today. That is all behind you. Today is your fresh start so move it, baby, or you’ll be late and then what will they make of the new girl? And you ought to check your notes again before you leave. Be on top of things – a real professional for your patients, not a facsimile of one. Correction, clients. They don’t use patients at Ethos. No one is sick at Ethos, only seeking assistance.
That does it. I cannot linger in the past when the present is so much more pertinent. I roll out of bed and dig my toes into the luxury of new carpet. Everything new today, including me. The smell of new wool is overlaid by the smell of fresh paint. I’m not sure which is the less attractive – or the most abrasive. Both odours will dissipate in time, of course. Everything does, even uncertainty. Who said that? I shrug. Me possibly – in a whimsical moment. I laugh at the thought and stretch. The tightness in my neck reminds me of Romaine’s concern yesterday as I left.
‘You’re going to be entirely on your own there. Are you sure …’
‘I’ll be fine. I’ll be busy. And you could visit? There’s a spare room, you know.’
‘I know. I will. But you’ll still be on your own until then. What if …’
‘That hasn’t happened in ages now.’
‘I know,’ and then that moment’s hesitation. ‘But promise me you won’t dwell on it nevertheless.’
‘I won’t dwell on it.’
But here I am, dwelling on it. Both of us dwelling on it. Secretly. Reluctantly. Guiltily.
No! I breathe in and out slowly and do some stretches. The tension in my neck releases a little as the mental notes start forming to be successfully ticked off. Shower, dress, check the Ethos notes. I pad into the bathroom, avoiding the bathroom cabinet. I don’t need what’s in there any more, even though I keep it there to remind me. I step into the shower, turning it on full force and it hammers on my skull before shattering into droplets over my skin. I can see a shadowy reflection of myself in the shiny new shower screen until it mists over. Blonde hair plastered to my head and face like a tarnished gold swimming cap, full lips partly open, tongue catching the water droplets as I had as a child when it rained. Blue-grey eyes observe a partial me as I’m gradually engulfed by the steam. Now I see me, now I’m gone. Maybe there’ll be a different me in my place when the steam clears? I play the game I always play at times like this. Which me shall it be? I run my hands over my body since I can no longer see anything in the clouded bathroom. I close my eyes and feel, skimming the curves, lightly touching the curling down between my legs and then letting my hands slip to my sides as the water purges me. It’s good to have a sense of yourself. That’s what I’ve had drummed into me from infancy, all the way through university and on to training afterwards. Know who you are. Accept who you are. Act on who you are. Unless you do that, you will always be weak, at everyone’s whim.
Dada wasn’t weak, he was strong, but still he …
I shake the thought away.
‘I know who I am,’ I say decisively to the hazy form in the shower screen. Despite the damn dream, I swear I have moved on – so far, I can barely even see where I was anymore. ‘I am a shooting star,’ I tell the blurry impression of me. Director Anhelm called me a shooting star, when he read my CV. Didn’t that confirm it? ‘And I will be fine,’ I add on the tail end of that thought, although whether I’m reassuring me or the image of me, I’m not sure.
Dressed and groomed, I head to the kitchen. Everything in here is as new and shiny as in the bedroom and bathroom. The brand-new coffee machine is the first thing I spot. I need coffee the most this morning. A prompt, not a crutch. I set my laptop up on the breakfast bar and log in, then head back to the coffee machine. The laptop screen flickers into life behind me but I am too busy fiddling with the coffee machine’s switches and dials to bother with the news headlines for the moment. I select what looks to be the programme for a latte, one cup. I load the coffee capsule into the top, fill the water container at the back and slide a mug in place to catch the coffee. The machine hisses and spurts into the mug but doesn’t stop when it reaches the top. It overflows onto the counter and dribbles onto the floor.
‘Shit!’ I say, searching for something to mop up with as the jaunty ring of a Skype call chooses precisely the same moment to come through. I’m about to ignore it when a glance at the screen changes my mind. It is Director Anhelm. ‘Oh God – now?’ I sigh and leave the overflowing coffee to talk to my new boss.
‘Dr McCray – Gaby!’ He is moonfaced-happy, grinning expansively at me.
‘Hi,’ I say, trying to emulate his grin. His eyes flick from my face to the coffee lake behind me. ‘Everything OK?’
‘Yes, oh yes,’ I say breathlessly, the smile now slipping into the right place on my face. ‘It’s fine. Everything’s fine. Really great.’
‘Good.’ He sounds like he’s praising a small child. ‘Had the place completely refurbed for you so I’m glad about that.’ I don’t miss the hint of gentle admonishment in his tone – so don’t mess it up… He hesitates – fractionally – but enough for something to stir in my stomach. ‘Look, Gaby, I’m ringing with my apologies. I’m afraid I’m not going to be there to greet you today after all. In fact, none of us will – apart from Jenny. She’ll be able to help you.’
‘My PA. Probably knows more than me anyway – or so she tells me.’ He laughs at his own joke, but I take note anyway. Jenny. ‘It's this conference. Didn't expect it to go quite so well for us, but hell, when you're the talk of the town ... Anyway, it means we're all staying on for the rest of this week to capitalise on it. There's a lot of money riding on this so I know you’ll understand. I’ve uprated your status to compensate. And you will be great, of course.’ He’s nodding and smiling at me and I know from the way he’s smiling that I’m meant to wholeheartedly agree.
‘Of course,’ I repeat, without being entirely sure what I’m agreeing with. My stomach is starting to dip and wheel now, like it used to.
‘Good.’ The same unctuous smile. ‘We'll be back next week, so do whatever you feel comfortable with in the meantime. I’ve told Jenny you only need tackle what you fancy to begin with, so it’ll be a gentle lead in for you, even without us there. I've emailed you the basics. Keep an open mind and your opinions to yourself and we'll talk strategy next week.’ He casts a glance over his shoulder at a distant knock on the door. ‘Oh, must go; breakfast calling. The full English here is to die for.’
The call ends but a little letter icon flickers at me on the top menu of the screen. The Director’s email no doubt. Great. I can’t help it, but already I don’t like him. Who abandons their new member of staff on their first day? A man expecting their new member of staff to be able to cope, is the wry accusation in my head. OK, I will – even if my rapidly beating heart suggests otherwise.
I read the email from the Director as I sip too-hot coffee and try to force down a piece of dry toast. Initially it’s pretty much a repeat of what he’s just said, but the killer is in the second paragraph – literally.
“So sorry I’m not going to be there for your first day, Gaby. It’s crazy here – apologies for the pun – since yesterday’s presentation. Need to keep our cohort at the conference to capitalise on it now, but I’m afraid that leaves you holding the fort. Just play the official representative for Ethos – you’re a much prettier face than me, anyway!
At Ethos we seek the unique solution for the unique client, so always keep deniability in mind and you’ll be fine. That said, there are two clients to avoid; Morgan and Client X. Sorry to bring your father into this, but I know he would want me to steer you away from these two. Foul play and suicide are never a good mix. And best to avoid muddying waters from the past.
By the way, enjoy the little bonus for the inconvenience and enjoy your first week at Ethos.
Director, Ethos Consultants
‘Finding ethical solutions.’
I linger over the organisation’s tagline before going back and re-reading the second paragraph. So he knew Dada – or was it he knew of Dada? Correction. Everyone who was anyone in the world of experimental psychology knew of Dada, but Dr Anhelm’s mention implied a more personal knowledge. He hadn’t mentioned him at interview though, and surely he would have? There is an attachment too, but it is brief and useless. It simply lists various patients’ names, their next appointment times – the first ones seemingly not until tomorrow – and the secretary’s phone number. I go back to the body of the email and hang over it. ‘… and best to avoid muddying waters from the past…’ What muddy waters? And why mention Dada? What had they to do with Dada? The hairs on the back of my neck bristle with sudden concern. I got this job so easily, so quickly. Too easily, maybe? I should have asked more about it first, and how I came to be approached when I have no experience to speak of yet. Ethos: not treatment but solutions. Not illnesses but issues. Not patients but clients – and two already specifically forbidden me; that Dada would have specifically forbidden me if he’d been around to do so. The implication is that Director Anhelm must have known my father rather well, given his claim that Dada would have wanted him to intervene.
I take the laptop with its open email into the bedroom, to the chest of drawers near the window. It is still bare other than for the photograph lying flat on its back because the stand broke when I’d unpacked it last night. Man, woman and child smile up at me as if there have never been any questions to answer, or any explanations to seek. Me, Romaine and Dada. I brush the glass with my fingertips. Truth be told, Dada is the sole reason I’ve ended up here, trying to figure out the sicknesses that made people do things so unlike themselves they defy explanation. To mend the broken, understand the inexplicable. But Dada wasn’t sick; couldn’t have been sick. He’d been the one who’d cured the sick, restored the damaged soul, healed the broken mind. He couldn’t have been broken himself. I had never believed that, whatever they’d said. Neither had Romaine, whether she admitted it or not. So why? That day is lodged in my memory, even if my memory won’t release it from the fissure it has become wedged in. And I have dwelled on it every minute of every day between then and now – wedged it in tighter, more inaccessible, safer. My eyes blur with tears as I try to concentrate on the photograph and I admit now I haven’t moved on. I have never moved on from that day my father voluntarily left the world – and me – with no explanation why. I push the photo away and hold my head in my hands, one elbow resting on the laptop and the other on the photo, as the tears flow. They slow only when the wild scrolling of my laptop screen breaks through the haze of misery. Beyond the sign-off on the Director’s email, there is a single sentence making up a message below what the Director has sent – one that looks more like a note than a message, and some of it deleted. I read and re-read it trying to comprehend.
“Steer her away. A would have insisted. Chiaro-”
I read it several times more before it shoots a hole as clear as the hole in Dada’s skull through what little composure I have left. The Director’s email to me has effectively forwarded another, surely not intended for me. I am amazed at the negligence – and yet Director Anhelm can’t be so stupid or careless as to have overlooked it. He wouldn’t be Director of the most sought after psychological treatment centre in London if he was. This must have been deliberate. Suddenly I have the sense of having walked into a lion’s den, with me abandoned to the prowling lions and what else?
I decide there and then how I’m going to tackle this. There are things here that affect me; issues that affect me and I’m not going to tuck them away into fissures or crevices and pretend they don’t exist. At least one of these forbiddens has brushed with suicide so they must know. Potentially they have the understanding that I have always been denied. Is it that? And what would Dada say if he had spoken in the dream? Something tells me that Director Anhelm might even know what that would be, but he is deliberately and frustratingly absent for the next week, so it is in my hands now to find out. They shall be mine, these forbidden ones. Then Dada will tell me why, and I will break my dream. And I will prove to Director Anhelm and everyone else that I am my father’s daughter and I am a shooting star, just like him: but one that isn’t going to fall from the heavens.