'Emancipation,' a Story by Tim Parks
A man is perplexed by his repetitive thoughts about standing up to his boss over a young colleague of his who has been let go. He visits his former therapist to try to understand himself.
All photographs by Darin Mickey
This story appears in VICE magazine's 11th annual Fiction Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.
Returning from the bathroom in the early hours, Mark knew he wouldn’t sleep. He would lie in bed playing over and over the confrontation that must occur in three weeks’ time. He pictured his colleagues finding their places in the needlessly plush conference room. He heard the desultory, pre-meeting conversation, saw the department chief stride in ten minutes late with his smile of circumstance. Staring at the ceiling from his pillow, but simultaneously seated in his executive chair, Mark waits for the moment when the fourth item on the agenda will be raised. It may be an hour or more, but sure enough that moment will come. Point four. Assignment of the Talbot Row project. He hears out what Matheson will say, the bland spin he will put on events. The others would let it pass of course. The others are craven. Then just as the chief is moving on to point five, Mark raises his hand. Frank, if I may, I’d like to say a few words about the way this whole thing has been handled. After which, nothing would be the same again. War.
Mark lay still, letting the future conflict play over and over in his head. It would be the moment when he finally showed courage and behaved like a man. Yet far from taking any satisfaction from that, it seemed the more angry, cutting, and destructive the comments he imagined making, so the more helpless and pusillanimous he felt in the present. His mind was out of control; he could get no rest.
Mark climbed out of bed and wandered around the flat. Why were his thoughts so ungovernable? It was not that he feared the consequences of this declaration of war. Matheson was hardly in a position to fire him, and even if he had been, Mark would never be out of work for long. If he was afraid of anything, it was how he would feel about himself if he did not speak out. He did not want to grow old feeling cowardly.
But no, he wasn’t afraid of that either. He had decided to speak and speak he would. There was no question of his not raising his hand at the moment Matheson finished his spiel, smiled his bland smile, and said he presumed he had the board’s unanimous approval. Nor would it be difficult to say the words that needed saying.
Why was his mind in such upheaval then?
Mark sat in an armchair in the dark. Nothing was being gained from this. He was just eating himself up. But the scene would not stop playing itself over and over in his head. Matheson’s PA would raise an eyebrow that said, Why didn’t you say all this before, Mr. Miller? It’s too late now. Battersby would come to Matheson’s aid. For heaven’s sake, old chap! he would say. Or he would say, Don’t you think you’re rather exaggerating, old fellow? Scandal is a strong word. What we’re talking about here is a perfectly ordinary economy. And Mark would say, No, he was not exaggerating. If anything he was understating the case. If anything…
Mark Miller jumped to his feet and went to put his head under the cold tap.
† † †
The following afternoon, he phoned his analyst. He hadn’t seen her for more than a year now. Not that anything formal had been said the last time they parted. There had been no explicit closure. Just that Mark had had the feeling, once his divorce was done and delivered, that he no longer needed the older woman’s wisdom and support. That phase of his life was over. He listened to the phone ringing until the answer service clicked in. She would be with a client, he thought. Or on holiday. She would call him back.
But the analyst did not call back. Mark tried again. He left a voice message. He wrote an email. Any day would be fine. From here until September. Even weekends, or evenings. She did not call back.
This was unexpected. For five years, this fine elderly woman had been a refuge for Mark. She had shown him much about himself and helped him through the toughest time of his life. Of course, his problems were all private matters then. He had never spoken much about his work, nor imagined it could be a source of difficulty. But now he was experiencing very similar feelings of mental distress, for quite different reasons. It would be good to talk.
Mark called his girlfriend, but she had her children home from school, the youngest was ill, and her mind elsewhere. He felt foolish telling her he couldn’t sleep over a boardroom clash that was still more than two weeks away.
“Just chill,” Jenny laughed. “Weren’t you supposed to be house hunting?”
“I guess I feel it’s my fault,” he was saying.
“But how can it be? You didn’t fire the girl. You gave her a glowing report.”
“She wasn’t fired. She just wasn’t renewed.”
“So it’s not even that bad.”
It was worse, but Mark saw there was no point explaining. He asked about little Tommy’s ear infection, and they agreed to go to the cinema in the evening. Closing the call, he felt disappointed.
The fact is, Frank, that when you mooted the exchange with New York, I specifically asked whether this would have implications for Suzanne’s renewal.
Should he say Suzanne?
To use her first name implied a certain intimacy, a community, hence a duty, or at least a sense of solidarity. Spackman had an aggressive sound. It was hard to feel sympathy for a Spackman. On the other hand, it was important that no one imagine he had a soft spot for her. When you proposed the swap between Tyler and Surtees, I specifically asked whether this would have repercussions for Spackman, and you said, no, these matters were to be considered entirely separately.
Mark found himself staring out of the window at people round the bus stop. How pathetic he had been that day. He had just flown in from Tokyo and had been feeling rough. He hadn’t studied the agenda properly. He wasn’t prepared. So he had accepted a response that he must have known deep down could not be trusted. Matheson had realized Spackman admired Mark and was attaching her career to Mark’s. Hence he would find a reason to block her renewal. It was that simple. If you presented yourself in an organization as a person of substance, then you ought to be willing to defend those who gravitated toward you. Or at least warn them of the dangers of doing so. Did he have a soft spot for Spackman? No. She was far too young for him. He was happy with Jenny.
Mark phoned the analyst. He sent her a text message. The decision not to take a proper holiday was proving a mistake. If he had been somewhere new and exciting, with Jenny, very likely his mind wouldn’t be playing these tricks. But Jenny’s ex had chosen these days for his holiday with his new woman. He wouldn’t keep the kids, and they weren’t ready, apparently, for a holiday with Mark. Or perhaps that was just something Jenny and Mark told themselves because neither was enthusiastic about being away as parents. They wanted to be alone together, without the children. Why wasn’t the shrink answering his calls? Was it a way of telling him he must stand on his own two feet? You are a well-established architect, Mr. Miller, he remembered her observing on their second or third meeting. Why do you constantly let others tell you the kind of person you have to be?
She had meant his wife, of course. But also his children who had fought the separation tooth and nail. Perhaps even his mother. All of them had an idea of who he was and insisted he conform to it. Mark, we all recognize your talents in the field, Matheson would offer with fake compunction, but renewals are a matter for personnel and management. The fact is we have all the people we need for Talbot Row without Suzanne. Matheson would definitely call her Suzanne. To show he had nothing against her. To give the impression of being relaxed and affable. Would one of his lackeys be so craven as to point out that she was of childbearing age? If so, it would be one of the women, no doubt. Isn’t Spackman recently married, Frank? Lucy Hargreaves was bitch enough. And no, Suzanne was not recently married. She had recently left the man she had been planning to marry. Or he her. Which made her present plight all the worse. But Mark mustn’t seem to know too much about her private life. The fact is, Frank, I feel the board was misled when we voted to exchange Tyler and Surtees…
But why not say, I feel you misled the board, Frank? Why not say, Frank, your whole recruitment policy over the past seven years has been to stack the department with yes men? Play it more aggressively. Go for the jugular. Frank, despite the apparently unanimous consent of everyone here on the board, outside this room absolutely everyone knows that you are in this job and this company only and exclusively because you married a Hayhurst. Otherwise, it would be something of a miracle, Frank, if they let you manage the canteen. Spackman has ten times your talent, which is precisely why you are destroying her career.
Mark shook his head. This was dangerously gratifying, but humiliating too. You are a nobody, Frank. A nobody. Which is why you have to kick out anyone with promise. The more gratifying it was to imagine saying these truths, the more humiliating it became to think that he lived in thrall to this nobody. He had never said anything of the kind to Matheson before and most likely never would. It would be counterproductive to do so. Mark moved away from the window and called the analyst again. His hand was trembling as he heard the phone begin to ring. What I’m afraid of, he realized, is that I’ll lose my head entirely. I’ll start to shout. I’m so angry. The answering service clicked in.
Mark scrolled through the phone’s address book and selected Suzanne’s number. Tell her to go to a lawyer? Tell her she had made a big mistake relying on Mark Miller; he might be the company’s most prominent architect, but he had no say in her renewal. What’s eating me, for Christ’s sake? Mark demanded. Go to a lawyer, Suzanne! he muttered, but didn’t make the call.
It was the third week in August. Mark put on his running shoes and went down to the street in shorts and a T-shirt. The plan had been to use this time to find a proper house. In the three years since he’d left his wife, he had been more or less camping in rented accommodation. Proper of course meant a house where Jenny might eventually come to live with him. Jenny and her children. But he had lost interest at once. He had not been to see a single property. Frank, two months ago the board approved the most positive report that I have ever seen for any junior colleague. For Spackman. Yet to my amazement, our amazement I think I am right in saying (and he would challenge the other faces round the table as he said this), on the very day that we close for the summer break I hear that the directors have not renewed…
Let this cup pass from me, Mark said out loud, pushing through a glass door into the street. He did not want this war with Matheson, which, inevitably, would be a war with Matheson’s lackeys too. A war with the whole organization. It would sap his energy, eat up his life. Equally he could not live as the man who did not speak out when such an injustice was perpetrated under his nose, in his own personal sphere of operation. Spackman had been a wonderful person to work with. Her ideas were often ingenuous, but always inspirational.
Of course, Mark thought, when people said let this cup pass from me, they knew very well it would not pass.
But is it just your self-esteem you care about, he wondered, adjusting to the bright early-afternoon sunlight. Or Spackman? Do you really care about Suzanne for herself? Or about the fact that you have lost someone you enjoyed having around? Or is it simply that you wish you could think about something else?
No sooner had Mark turned into the main street, than someone was asking for money. A young, bearded man on the pavement with a dog on his lap. Mark passed him by. Frank, how can you explain—I’m sure that’s the question everybody in the company is asking—such a massive discrepancy? This young woman gets the best junior report in years, everyone approves of it without batting an eyelid, and yet the company lets her go.
Mark walked up the hill and threaded through side streets to the heath. At least he could get some air and stretch his legs. At least if his mind was captive, his body could be free. He drew a deep breath, filled his chest, looked up the hill and beyond to where a bright yellow kite was careering in the sky. Other people were having fun. He could buy a kite for little Tommy perhaps.
What if something had happened to the shrink? The question stopped him in his tracks. She was in her 70s. Her health was not great. She smoked. She wheezed. In the shade of a tree trunk, Mark peered into the screen of his phone and googled her name. Margaret Dukakis. Psychotherapist. But the only things that came up were the meager entries he had found years ago when someone had recommended her.
How odd it was, it occurred to him now, walking across the grass, that this elderly woman knew so much about him, had his whole life in her head, as it were, his childhood, his marriage, his anxieties and infidelities, yet he knew nothing about her. Friends had told him of analysts who discussed their own lives and problems, reciprocating, as it were, the confidences of their patients. Dukakis had never done that. She had never spoken of herself at all, and he had never seen her outside the studio where they met. She opened the door and offered her hand when he arrived; she showed him to the door and gave him her hand when he left. But she never crossed the threshold and became herself, never related to him in any way that was not the formal analyst/patient relationship, enshrined and enforced by the studio. If she died tomorrow, if she had died yesterday, he would be none the wiser. All that knowledge she held about him would be gone, and he would never have known anything about her.
The thought made him feel strangely vulnerable. It had been good to know the analyst was there for him whenever he needed help. Only now she wasn’t. And how pleased Matheson would be, Mark reflected, to hear he had got me in this state. He was crossing the heath now, vaguely aware that instead of heading uphill as planned, he was striding down toward Belsize Park, where Dukakis had her studio. The fact that much of the company’s success was attributable to Mark’s skills mattered nothing to Matheson. What mattered was to assert his power at any cost. Frank, I appreciate that in swapping Tyler for Surtees you got rid of one project manager too many in exchange for a designer we could use for Talbot Row. In place of Spackman. Theoretically, you have made an economy. Theoretically, you have saved, what, 80 grand a year? But if we had too many project managers already, why did you bring in Gorham and Simms just six months ago? Because they are friends of friends of yours, of course. And assiduous brownnosers to boot. So much for economies.
Mark threw himself down on the grass. There was no end to it. He should leave the company. But how in that case was he to go on making the very considerable alimony payments he had committed himself to and buy a decent house to live in? With Jenny. And Jenny’s children. And even if he did decide to leave, he must first face up to Matheson, or feel like a worm. Suzanne had been kicked out in the cold with all potential employers convinced she must have messed up big time in her three years at Hayhurst. Gentlemen, I want to propose that the board votes on a motion to renew Spackman’s contract as would normally have been the case when someone receives such a glowing report.
Was that a card that could reasonably be played? Could a vote of the board make any difference if renewal was entirely at Matheson’s discretion? Probably not. Mark lay on his back in the long dry grass of the heath, letting the sun press on his eyes. What did people do when their thoughts became intolerable? What can I do? he demanded of his analyst. How dare she not answer his calls? Repeated calls. He could be in serious trouble, as in the early days, when she always answered. But he was in serious trouble, Mark realized. What was the point of denying it? Frank, quite apart from anything else, by keeping Spackman waiting from the day that ridiculous exchange was decided to just two days, just two days, before her contract expired you created a situation of anxiety that weighed heavily on the whole department and…
Tranquilizers, Mark thought. Go to the pharmacy. He sat up to find a big Doberman sniffing at the soles of his shoes. A woman’s voice called the animal. “Susie, Susie! How many times…?”
The analyst’s studio was in a mew behind the Tube station. You could see her window on the third floor. And it was open. But that hardly meant much. Dukakis shared the place with other practitioners. Rents were high. Why am I so prone to falling into mental traps like this? he would demand of her. What lies behind it all? He felt sure that with her knowledge of his past, accrued in tens and scores of hours together, she would have the answer. She might at least write him a prescription. But now he felt pathetic. Loitering under a shrink’s window, as if she were a sweetheart! The truth was she had gone on holiday without her phone, leaving him and all her other patients in the lurch. Never fall ill at weekends. That was the moral of the tale.
Mark picked up two pounds of fancy ice cream from Häagen-Dazs and took a taxi to Finchley where Jenny explained that Tommy’s temperature was up again, and the cinema was off. Watching The Force Awakens with the family on the sofa, traveling the galaxy in search of Jedi masters, Mark never strayed far from the Shoreditch premises of Hayhurst Inc., and in particular the conference room as it would be on Thursday September 15 at 3 PM. In his mind, the future was already present. It was a giant sore drawing everything toward itself. The present didn’t exist except as pus gathering to burst on the fateful day.
“Earth to Mark,” Amy squealed. “Earth to Mark.” At nine, the girl was already a looker. Clearing up their bowls, her mother said there wasn’t much point in his bringing ice cream if he didn’t bring himself along with it. After midnight, making love, he told her: “Now we’ll see who’s all present and erect.” “The force awakens,” she giggled, “finally!” Frank, he was rehearsing moments later, the truth is you must be one hell of an insecure guy if you have to fire a kid like Spackman to keep me in my place.
† † †
The following night, Mark dreamed a troubling dream. Climbing dark stairs, he entered a large, seedy room in a decaying block of flats. Apparently it was Suzanne’s room. She wasn’t home yet, but had said he could go on in and wait for her. How depressing the place was! A threadbare carpet. Grimy windows. Battered sofa. He became aware of a noise of some kind, a gurgling. Water was welling from the floor where the old boards met the wall. Mark stared. He should find the bathroom and see if a tap had been left on. Realizing he needed to pee, he removed his trousers. But no sooner had he done so than the door opened. How could he explain to Suzanne that he had removed his trousers to pee? It wasn’t Suzanne. Two gruff workmen hurried in. They wore blue overalls. At once Mark realized he should have locked the door. He should have defended Suzanne’s home. They had come to evict her. The men paid Mark no attention and began to measure the room with a long measuring stick. They hadn’t seen he had no trousers. They weren’t concerned about the water welling around the walls. Now the door opened again. Mark turned anxiously. But it was a young man he didn’t know. A tall, handsome, well-dressed man. Her boyfriend, most likely. Suzanne will be late, the man said calmly, but you’re very welcome to stay. He picked up a guitar, sat on the sofa, and began to sing a song, something Mark knew from his own youth, rousing, but tuneful. A protest song perhaps. Looking across the room, Mark saw a big canvas on the wall showing a landscape with reddish hills on either side of a lush green valley, and he was standing at the door now, half in half out of Suzanne’s room, still without his trousers, contemplating this strange landscape, listening to the young man’s plaintive voice as the two workers banged about with their measuring stick, when he woke up needing a pee. It was a bright summer morning. In the bathroom, he caught his eyes a moment in the mirror, thinking how old he looked.
† † †
Around ten that morning, he phoned Suzanne on her mobile. She was in town. For job interviews, she said chirpily. Mark asked if she would like to meet up for lunch to discuss “her situation” and she said Baker Street would work for her, around 1:30.
“Great,” he said. “I’ll book somewhere and text.”
The place was called Chickens & Foxes. Suzanne was late and a little breathless. She had had her hair cut short and was wearing a dark suit that set off the color in her cheeks. She’d walked across the park from Knightsbridge, she said. The first interview had gone so-so. For a moment, he thought he might tell her he had dreamed of her. But it wasn’t strictly true. He had dreamed of a ruined apartment and a young man with a sweet voice singing old protest songs. There didn’t seem much point in telling anyone that. She ordered a beetroot salad with gorgonzola and nuts and drank tap water. “Have you considered seeing a lawyer?” he asked. He thought she might have a case for unfair dismissal.
“They should be shot for what they’ve done to you,” he said.
Suzanne twisted her mouth and grimaced comically. She was a tall young woman with a sort of involuntary wit about her facial expressions. “I’ve no appetite for working where I’m not wanted,” she said. “ I want you,” he replied. She laughed. “You’re not Matheson, I’m afraid.” Again she pulled a wittily disconsolate face. “Well, thank God I’m not,” Mark laughed. “I can’t imagine anyone I’d less like to be.” “Quite.” She wrinkled the freckled skin above her nose. “The wooden man!” She dropped her voice in droll imitation, “Ms. Spackman, it’s my unhappy duty to inform you that as a result of circumstances beyond our control…”
Taking a taxi home, Mark felt cheered. “Good luck with your interviews,” he had told her, shaking her hand in the street. If she gets a good job, I will feel I am off the hook, he thought. Everything can go back to what it was before. It was good to think they could meet for lunch like that.
Ignoring calls from Jenny, he changed his mind, told the cabbie to stop at Swiss Cottage and walked west to Belsize Park. “Fancy a weekend in Paris?” Jenny texted. “Mum says she can have the kids, but we should book now.” This time Mark went into the analyst’s building and took the lift to the third floor. The door buzzed open when he rang the bell, but there was no one to greet him in the corridor. Whichever doctor was working in the studio would have supposed this was the next patient arriving and had simply hit the buzzer to let him in. Sure enough, there were low voices behind the closed door to his left. Mark went to the waiting room, which he knew of old, with its low classical music and upmarket magazines. After 20 minutes or so, he heard the door opening and female voices saying goodbye. Was it Dukakis? He felt a surprising rush of emotion. But it was a much younger woman who greeted him with a frown in the corridor. At the same moment, the doorbell rang. Her next patient.
“I’m trying to get in touch with Dr. Dukakis,” Mark explained.
The woman went to the door and let in a man in his early 40s.
“I’m afraid Dr. Dukakis isn’t available at present,” the doctor said. “I’m sure she’ll be in touch as soon as she can be.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor, but it’s been weeks. And it’s urgent.”
The doctor invited her patient to go on into the studio, then came back and weighed him up. “If you need a prescription…” she began.
“No, I just really need to see Dr. Dukakis.”
When she hesitated, he added, “I fear I may do something desperate.”
The woman sighed. “Dr. Dukakis’s husband is in intensive care in the Royal Free,” she said. “I haven’t spoken to her for some days now. I would ask you to respect her privacy.”
† † †
The huge hospital was barely ten minutes’ walk away, at the bottom of the heath. Mark went straight to reception, but they had no news of a Dukakis in intensive care. Perhaps the doctor worked under her maiden name. Mark followed signs to the fourth floor, then suddenly felt ashamed of himself. What was he doing, barging into someone else’s grief? He retreated to the canteen for a coffee. It seemed he hungered for some kind of melodrama, but why and what? It was less than a week now to the boardroom showdown. That should be enough, surely. Afterward his mind would be free, he could move on. Again Jenny called, and again he didn’t answer. He loved Jenny, but didn’t want to speak to her. Would Suzanne be offered a job? This very afternoon perhaps. What a relief that would be. Would she call to let him know? He checked his mail, but there was nothing. At the same time, he kept glancing through the glass wall toward the main atrium where visitors had to pass, entering or leaving the hospital. Did he want to tell the analyst his dream? To ask about the handsome young man who sang protest songs. There had been something familiar about him. Mark hadn’t had the courage to ask Suzanne any personal questions over lunch.
His coffee long drunk, Mark sat in the canteen watching the concourse and thinking about Dukakis. At least he had stopped playing out the conversation with Matheson. Strange. Why? It would be back soon enough, he thought. But all at once he found himself smiling. After his first months of therapy, four or five perhaps, the analyst had stopped asking to be paid. It had worried him. Had she forgotten? At the end of their sessions, he would ask if she had an invoice ready for him, and on each occasion, she said no, she didn’t. “Not to worry,” she smiled, shaking his hands at the door. It was only after eight or nine repetitions of this formula—not to worry—that he had finally understood she was telling him it was not his problem. It was her business to get herself paid. Sure enough, only when he had finally managed, for some three or four weeks, to stop offering to pay, did she hit him with her bill.
Mark reflected on this. Did other people perceive his readiness to feel guilty? Did they play on it? Matheson? Jenny? Or even Suzanne? Then he saw her. A small, elderly woman in a loose gray cardigan appeared from one of the lifts to the left, carrying a bulky canvas shopping bag. Her shoulders were stooped, her hair pulled back in a white bun. She crossed the concourse quickly, without looking to right or left. Mark got up, hurried out of the canteen, and strode across the concourse. There was a moment’s delay with people fussing around the door, but as soon as he was through, he saw her at once. She was walking toward the taxi rank, 30 yards away. She seemed to have a limp. He had never noticed that. Then the phone ringing for the nth time infuriated him. “Jenny, please,” he answered. “I’ll call back in ten minutes.”
“Hello, Mark,” said a strong deep voice. “Frank Matheson here.”
Mark stopped dead. “Frank, sorry, I was expecting someone else.”
“Please, don’t apologize. My fault for calling during the break.”
Mark struggled to pay attention, watching Dukakis who was now turning her back to the breeze to light a cigarette.
“It’s just I’ve had a request from Talbot Row. They want to know if we have any ideas to send them.”
Mark tried to think. “I was waiting for September to get down to things with Surtees.”
“Sure, but didn’t you say the Spackman girl had done something?”
Before Mark could reply, Dukakis turned and appeared to see him. He had the impression of a raised eyebrow.
“Suzanne?” he said vaguely. He started to walk toward her.
“If they’re interesting enough, we could send those.”
There was an extraordinarily fixed look on the elderly woman’s face. She blew out smoke and shook her head. He stopped. Was she discouraging him? She seemed to be staring straight at him, but perhaps she hadn’t seen him at all.
Confused, Mark said. “They are interesting, yes.”
A taxi drew up and the group immediately before Dukakis climbed in.
“Great, let’s send those. Mark? Are you there?”
Mark couldn’t think. Without even closing the call, he put the phone in his pocket and walked swiftly to the taxi rank.
The elderly woman drew on her cigarette.
Her eyes focused.
“Sorry, I saw you leaving the hospital.”
She frowned. Mark hesitated. He had missed an excellent chance to tell Matheson what he thought of him.
“Mr. Miller!” Dukakis smiled. Her tired face was suddenly warm. “What a pleasant surprise.”
“Could we speak for a moment?”
The smile faded. She drew on her cigarette. “It’s not a good time, I’m afraid.”
The next cab had already turned into the hospital gates and was approaching the stand. The elderly woman shifted to the appropriate spot on the pavement.
“Perhaps we could speak on the phone. I’ve been trying to call for a couple of weeks now.”
She turned to look directly into his eyes, and he remembered at once this was a technique she used both at meeting and parting. Her gaze took hold of you.
“I’ve run into a sort of brick wall,” he said.
The cab pulled up, and Dukakis bent to the open passenger window. “North Finchley,” she told the driver, dropping her cigarette on the pavement. Then to Mark she said, “If you don’t mind being taken out of your way, we could talk in the car.”
Mark hadn’t expected this, but at once hurried round the back of the taxi to the other door. Oddly enough, he told her, North Finchley was not that far from where his girlfriend lived. He could make a surprise visit.
“Very well,” she said.
He found it curious to be sitting side by side with the therapist in the back of the car. Her eyes could not search him here, as they did across the desk in her studio. She was looking ahead at the road, and he noticed that the bag she had placed at her feet was stuffed with dirty laundry.
“I heard your husband was ill,” he said.
Dukakis nodded. The car headed north up Highgate Hill. The navigator was indicating 16 minutes to destination. Only now did Mark realize how therapeutic in itself her studio had been; in the studio, you always felt there would be time to say everything that needed to be said, under the analyst’s protective gaze. Now he must hurry, and the driver would be listening.
“I’ve been losing sleep over something stupid,” he announced.
“Essentially, my boss used a cheap trick to fire, or not to hire, a talented young colleague we had. A very bright young woman. Probably the best we’ve ever had. I feel I should have done something. Or still should. I keep imagining doing battle. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
When he turned to look at her, he found she had closed her eyes, something she never did at the studio.
“It seems such a huge injustice.”
The taxi waited at the light in Archway. A full minute passed. Eventually she said: “I gather you’re not at work these days, Mr. Miller. Are you planning a holiday?”
Mark told her he had decided to use the break to look at houses. Hopefully, he would be moving in with his girlfriend in the not too distant future.
“Not too distant?” Dukakis turned and raised an eyebrow.
“Next year maybe. Her kids are still getting used to the idea. ”
“But you haven’t found anything you like.”
He laughed. “Architects never like the houses other people build.”
There was a long silence. The taxi was moving fast. “Perhaps I’ve just been distracted by this other thing. It’s driven me nearly crazy. I want to tell this guy what I think of him, but there’s no point.”
As he was speaking, Dukakis began to cough. It was a loud, rasping, repeated cough. Mark waited. Instead of easing, the attack intensified. Bent double, the elderly woman was rummaging in her bag for a handkerchief. The driver turned to see what was up. They were already on Finchley High Road.
Finally, Dukakis balled up her handkerchief. At last she was breathing normally. She shook her head and smiled wanly.
“Why not build a house yourself then, Mr. Miller?” she asked.
“If you don’t like the houses other people build.”
He couldn’t see the point of this.
“Find a fresh plot of land, or something that needs rebuilding from scratch. Build exactly the thing you want.”
He laughed and shook his head. “I presume you could do that.”
“I could, yes. I suppose.”
“Where exactly?” the driver asked.
Mark felt discouraged.
“Just before the Tally Ho,” she said. “There’s a dry cleaner’s on the left.”
When Mark made to pull out his wallet, she shook her head very firmly.
“Unless you want to stay with the cab.”
“No,” he said. “I’d prefer to walk.”
A moment later, they were on the pavement facing each other in the evening sunshine.
“Thanks for the chat.” He offered his hand. Dukakis took it and held it. He was head and shoulders taller than her.
“Mr. Miller,” she said, clearing her throat. “As you see, I’m in no state to be helping anyone. My husband died yesterday afternoon. Please, there is no need to say anything. It was long expected. In a week or so, I will start answering the phone again. Meantime, let me remind you of this. When you came to me years ago, it soon became clear—you will recall—that you were asking for permission. You found it impossible to confront your wife. You were desperate for someone to give you permission to make changes in your life.”
Mark frowned. Those days were well over. Suddenly, he felt eager to be away from the old woman. It had been a mistake bothering her in the state she was in. He would go and see Jenny and arrange the trip to Paris.
But Dukakis was still holding his hand. She looked into his eyes. “You will also recall that I felt we must work together to reach a point where you no longer needed permission to do the perfectly legitimate things you knew you had to do.”
Mark was silent. He should call Matheson back. The man would be wondering what had happened.
“I am not sure I understand your present situation, Mr. Miller. I mean why this firing at work has stirred up so much emotion. But please remember you do not need anyone’s permission to build a house of your own. You’re a free man.”
She smiled, let go his hand, and turned to enter the dry cleaner’s with her holdall full of clothes.
Unsettled, Mark walked north toward Torrington Avenue. He would give Jenny a surprise, he thought. They would get on the net and buy their tickets for Paris. He would send Matheson Suzanne’s drawings and then hopefully stop thinking about her. But almost at once something caught his eye on the other side of the High Road. He hesitated. When the traffic eased, he hurried across and studied the various guitars hanging in the bright shop window. It had been a quite a while, he thought. Would he still be able? The man in his dream had been so much younger than himself. Abruptly he turned round and headed back to the Tally Ho.
What if the house I want to build is ridiculous? That’s what he should have asked Dukakis. What if it breached all regulations?
All the same it seemed Mark Miller had come to some kind of decision, because once in the pub, sitting with a pint at a corner table, he opened his email and very carefully tapped out this message on the phone’s keyboard.
“Dear Jenny, the day before yesterday I saw the perfect house. In Ealing. It had all the requirements you listed, the garden, the easy staircase, the generous kitchen, the three bathrooms. I was excited. All the same, when it came to making an offer, I hesitated. I thought I should talk to you about it first, but then I didn’t. I haven’t. And not talking to you about it, I realized I didn’t want to talk about it. We’ve had great times, Jenny, but seeing the perfect house I just had to admit I didn’t want it. It seems I am headed for a period of radical change. I have no idea what I am going to do. Forgive me.”
Mark stared at the screen. He would send the mail when he got back home, he thought, and set off on the long walk back to Hampstead.