Cara Linden was leaving work when her mobile phone rang. She fished in the outer pocket of her bag and retrieved the buzzing object. She checked the incoming number, and answered. “Hey Sian how’s Belfast?”
“I’m at home.”
Sian’s voice did not sound like itself. Her tone was a pitch higher than usual. “I thought you were going to be in Belfast until late?”
There was a short pause. “Can you call round?”
The words were clipped and came out in a rush. If it had been anyone but Sian, Cara would have said that the voice was fighting back the urge to cry. “Something’s wrong?”
“Very wrong.” There was another pause. “Is it unethical for you to see me... you know as a client?”
“Professionally... God, Sian, what happened in Belfast that makes you think you need counselling?” On the other end of the phone Cara heard Sian take a long breath. It faltered a bit.
“This morning I walked into a client’s office to find that she’d shot her brains out onto the vertical blinds behind the desk.” The sob that had been coming, finally forced its way out.
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
In all the years she’d known her, Cara had seen Sian cry only twice – and one of those times was at a funeral. She did not cry easily. So to meet her at the front door, hand partially covering her face to conceal her sobbing left Cara completely taken aback.
“I’m sorry, I think it’s a delayed reaction, I just don’t seem to be able to stop.”
“It’s okay.” Cara went into the hallway closing the door behind her. “Come here.” She hugged her. It seemed to open a floodgate for Sian, her body shuddering as she wept. Cara waited the wave out, and didn’t let go.
Finally Sian calmed enough to make a stab at recovering her normal self. “Some host I am. Go on in to the sitting room, I’ll make tea.” She turned towards the kitchen.
Cara ignored the instruction. “Wait, I’m coming with you.” She watched Sian closely as she put the kettle on. She would have done it, but sensed Sian wanted the comfort of a routine task to steady her. Cara got two mugs from the press and put tea bags in them. But for the odd an involuntary gulp of air, the rate of Sian’s sobs was slowing. Cara noticed she’d been home long enough to change. She was dressed in combats and a zipped up micro-fleece top, though the central heating pipes were drumming a tattoo against the ceiling joists and the house already felt hot to Cara. The unfinished remains of a mug of tea and a slice of toast with peanut butter and strawberry jam were on the small kitchen table. Cara got milk, and raided the bread bin for biscuits. When the kettle boiled, she loaded everything up onto a tray and nodded to the door. “Sitting room now Sian, come on.”
Sian led the way and took up a well worn place on the two-seater couch that faced the telly. Cara put the tray onto a coffee table between them, and sat on the other two-seater. It ran perpendicular to the first, facing the fireplace. She passed a mug to Sian and let her settle back into her place.
Sian smiled uncomfortably. “Thanks. How do we start this?”
“Take the bull by the horns,” Cara said, “tell me about this morning.” She waited, clearing the floor for Sian.
She began tentatively, probing for the right starting point. “I was with Karen.” She looked up at Cara. “Karen’s in Provincial Bank, she’s the girl I was working with.”
Cara nodded for her to continue, without interrupting.
“We were going to give Ms McCauley, her boss, a final update before I left today. So we went to her office. Karen went in first.” Sian closed her eyes, lying back in the seat, holding the mug like a charm. “At first, I thought she wasn’t there. I couldn’t see anyone from the door. The office was quiet and really… still.” Sian was shaking her head slightly. “It seemed empty, but there was something out of place. A smell that wasn’t right. It wasn’t very strong, but it was repellent. We went in anyway.”
Sian’s brow was furrowed as if the odour still lingered around her.
“Karen went first, but she froze when she got to the desk.” Sian’s eyes opened. She looked directly at Cara. “And, I mean froze... Like the breath stopped in her throat.” Sian released the gaze and retreated inward again. “The blinds were jarred. So, the light was leaking in on what Karen was looking at. I walked over to see what it was. As I got nearer, I saw a stain on the blind.”
Sian inhaled sharply, and looked at Cara again. “It was a dark stain, like Ribena. The back of Ms McCauley’s... Reena was her name. The back of Reena’s head was lying against the foot of the blind, and blood was seeping up the strip.” She exhaled again, fighting to control the flow of her breath. “She was just lying there. Her face was distorted, and she looked surprised. Surprised or afraid.” Confusion crossed Sian’s face. “I can’t understand why. The gun was still in her hand.”
Sian stopped. A pause developed. Cara didn’t want to push too quickly, or deflect Sian’s train of thought, but when the pause grew too long, she asked, “What did you feel?”
Sian’s expression changed, part puzzled, part pained. “Nothing. Nothing that makes any sense.”
“What doesn’t make sense?” Cara probed.
“I wasn’t aware of anything other than this was a place not to be. It was the only thought that occupied my mind. I grabbed Karen and walked both of us straight back out of there. She rang security, I rang the police... Afterwards I felt guilty. It makes no sense. I know now that I was flushed with adrenalin, because the slump hit on the train home. It was like falling off a cliff.” She looked at Cara questioningly.
Cara nodded but continued to probe. “Why does that not make sense?”
“When I think about it now,” Sian looked at Cara directly again, “and I can’t stop thinking about it now… I feel nauseous. I feel distraught, and I still feel guilty. I started crying just after we hung up earlier. I’m getting the shakes. My leg keeps trembling on and off.” She rubbed her thigh unconsciously as she spoke.
“The adrenalin makes sense, fight or flight because I was faced with something frightening.” She nodded to herself confirming her own reasoning. “But I don’t understand the lack of empathy. Why did I not feel anything for Reena? Karen went to pieces. What’s wrong with me, where was my sense of fellow feeling? How could I be so cold? And the guilt. Why guilt?” She looked plaintively at Cara.
“What happened then?” Cara wanted to know if Sian had gone back into the room or seen anything more.
“Security arrived, and then the police. I had to give a statement.”
“A statement of how you found Reena?”
“Yes. Not everything I’ve just told you. It was within a half hour. I hadn’t thought about it, so it was just the straightforward facts. Who was I with, when did it happen, why was I there, what did I see, how did we find her.”
“That was all?”
Sian nodded. “After that, I was supposed to be going to the sales expo in the Ulster Hall to help out. I’d been in contact, and they advised me not to. I knew by the time I’d given a statement that I couldn’t, I could feel the slump coming. I took the first train home. I rang you as soon as I knew you’d be out of work.”
That was it. Cara had heard what she needed to know. She stood up. “I’m going to make you some more tea.”
“Tea?” Sian couldn’t understand.
“It’s just a break” Cara reassured her. “I’m coming back to work it through with you. But, I think you were right earlier on when you mentioned a delayed reaction, and from what you are saying, I you have some of the symptoms of shock too. You need to drink hot sweet tea, and I’ll stay to make sure you start to feel better.”
“Thanks” Sian said in a small voice. She was exhausted.
Cara went back to the kitchen and made fresh tea. She returned and replaced Sian’s cup.
“You might get more waves of the trembling, or crying. If you do, just let them come, they pass, but in the meantime, a little company will be no harm.”
Sian nodded, then added anxiously “And the rest of it?”
“Nothing you’ve described is unusual Sian.” Cara waited patiently for an acknowledgement of what she was saying.
Cara continued. “You had an adrenalin rush, and you decided to flee. Your body and mind put everything else on hold to help you get away. That’s why you felt nothing at first. Faced with the same situation, I’d hope to do the same.”
“Okay.” Sian nodded.
“But you did act with fellow feeling, even then.”
“How?” Sian didn’t understand.
Cara cocked her head to the side a little. “You took Karen with you.” She watched as realization dawned on Sian’s face. “You acted with empathy, but prioritized the living. What you are feeling now is your empathy for Reena, catching up with you.”
“And the guilt?”
“The guilt is survivor guilt. It can happen when you’ve been in a traumatic situation, but not been the main victim. You feel guilty because you’ve been close to someone else’s suffering, but by comparison you didn’t suffer. Again it’s a form of fellow feeling. Now that you are out of immediate danger, you’re processing it all - because you can.”
Sian nodded. “Thanks.”
She wasn’t fully convinced and Cara knew it, but she had to pace herself. She had decided that she wanted Sian to follow up with a group therapy session. So she’d didn’t push any harder then.
Sian said. “And thank you for not asking me about my mother, like some retarded Freudian throwback.” It was a feeble attempt at a joke, accompanied by a feeble smile.
Cara shook her head, the humour was a sign of the barriers being reassembled. “I’m not going to ask you about your mother Sian. First of all, as you know very well, my professional opinion is that Freud was full of shit.”
“And secondly, as I know very well, if I want to get to the bottom of a lot of your neuroses, it’s Jack Ferguson’s mother I need to ask you about.”
Sian’s smile evaporated and she winced at how close to home the remark hit. “A boy can’t hide behind his mother forever you know.”
“What do you mean?” Cara asked, realising she’d hit a nerve.
“I saw him last night.”
“You saw him? You haven’t seen him in years. Why now?” Cara’s gaze wasn’t judgmental, but Sian recognized concern in it.
“It wasn’t planned, it was accidental. My taxi almost ran over a guy on the way back to the hotel. He was trying to get away from the police. He had a mate, and Jack was in the course of restraining him. Now I think the guy might want me to act as a witness in a police brutality complaint against Jack.” Sian tasted her tea. It was poisoned with sugar. She put it down.
“Why?” Cara pushed the tea back towards Sian insistently.
“The guy was roaring about brutality as they were holding him down, and when they took him away, he shouted ‘witnesses’ at me and the cab driver. They walked him right past me, as close as you are now. His face was a mess. Then later I saw Jack’s hands, and they were a bloody, bruised mess too.”
“That’s not conclusive, Sian. If bloody knuckles were enough, you’d have convicted me of brutality every time I fell off my bike when I was little.”
“Maybe not. But I had a sleepless night last night anyway. Could he do that? Jesus...” Unconsciously Sian was lifting her hands to cover either side of her head, in a defensive gesture. She took a breath and relaxed a little. “It’s funny. Last night I couldn’t sleep because I was questioning Jack Ferguson’s fellow feeling. Today I’m a wreck because I’m questioning my own.” She paused. “Talk about twisted.”
“You’re beating yourself up over nothing Sian.” Cara replied firmly. “I’ll vouch for you, and even if I can’t vouch for Jack Ferguson, based what you saw last night, I don’t think you can draw any conclusions.”
Sian studied Cara’s earnest face. “Thanks. I’ll have to take your word on that for now.” She felt better though, having gotten everything out. “Thanks for coming around, I do feel better.”
Cara looked at her steadily she wasn’t going to get a better chance. “Sian, you need consider further counselling.” Sian’s face contorted, so Cara continued in a sterner tone. “Verbalizing this to me is only a first step. Contextualizing it through group therapy is the next.” Sian’s face remained sceptical. “I’ll recommend a group. Go when you feel up to it.” Cara took a card out of her bag and wrote a name and number on the back of it.
Sian protested. “I’m not good with strangers. It’s hard enough to do this with you.”
“It’s good that they are strangers, Sian. Anonymity will allow you express yourself more freely.” She looked sternly at Sian. “This is not something to neglect because you feel embarrassed. You wouldn’t ignore a doctor’s advice on how to treat a physical trauma.” She proffered the card to Sian. “I’m going to keep prompting you until you go. Promise me.”
Sian conceded. “Okay.” She couldn’t offend her now. “Okay I promise.”
Cara stayed until almost midnight, before heading home. Sian went to bed. To her surprise and relief, the first thing she knew after putting her head down, was the Wednesday morning alarm. She’d slept deeply the whole night, but was still tired when she got up. A shower and breakfast helped. She cleared away her dishes and the remains of the previous night, leaving all washing up for the evening, and went to work.
Tim called her into his office immediately when she arrived. He offered to have her take the rest of the week off, and said BankSys would arrange for counselling at the company’s expense. Sian thanked him and explained that Cara had already recommended a group. Tim suggested that she took the first available appointment. Sian agreed, but said that she didn’t want to take time off. She felt that normality would be the best support for now.
Tim nodded. “Carry on with whatever work you want to. If you need to leave at any stage - don’t even ask, just let us know that you’re safe.”
Sian rang the number on Cara’s card. They gave her an appointment for Friday. She took it half wishing that there’d been a longer waiting list. With nothing more pressing being pushed her way she reopened the prototype files she’d been working on with Karen. She started to document the requirements formally so that a developer could proceed if Provincial wanted to. She checked with Tim, and he said to go ahead and ask a developer to start when she was happy. If the bank gave them the go ahead, they’d be ready, if they didn’t, they had some useful new features to add to the off the shelf product. By Thursday night, she was done. She handed the requirements over to Trish in development, and wished her a good weekend. On Cara’s advice, Sian had arranged the whole day Friday off for the group therapy session. She wouldn’t be back in the office until Monday.
On Friday night Cara rang to make sure Sian had gone to the session. She had. “How did it go?”
“Fine. I expected it to be humiliating to be honest, but it wasn’t. I’m going back for some follow up sessions, an hour a week.”
Cara was relieved. “That’s great. When do they start?”
“Next Friday, four o’clock. I’ll leave work early.” Sian snorted. “I promise I’ll never make a joke about needing a mental health day again.”
“I’ve been warning you about those for years. Do you want me to call around?”
“No, thanks for offering but I need to get back to normal. I feel fine by myself again.”
She wasn’t one bit sure. But she wanted to feel fine by herself again, and how else could she start? Sian smiled. “I’m sure. You can’t keep staying here until the wee small hours. Alison will get fed up of it. It’s the weekend. You need quality time for yourselves.”
“Alison has me all to herself for a romantic weekend next weekend - in Belfast would you believe?”
“It’s where it’s all happening.”
“Okay. You know you can call.”
“Don’t worry. I promise you won’t hear from me before noon tomorrow.”
“Okay. Talk then. Take care.”
“Bye.” Sian hung up. Weariness still hung over her, undiminished since Tuesday. She rang DaVincis and ordered a pizza and salad. While she was waiting on it to arrive, she opened a bottle of wine and poured a half glass, rationing herself while her stomach was still empty. By ten o’clock she was in bed, by ten thirty asleep.