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An Afternoon Appointment



Estimated reading time — 14 minutes

Every day, the same client visits in different forms, and every day this metamorphic changeling wishes to have his or her head rubbed, hair played with, or to be read to.

When will it be enough? When my fingers are worn down to the knuckles? When I refuse to drink the dreadful tea and die of thirst?

For now, I wait and keep this diary to maintain my sanity.

Date: 16th of April 1935
The first afternoon appointment

When one sits in the same room for most of the day, day after day, listening to people pour out their problems, it stands to reason that one may become a little mad.

This was why it took two appointments with the client before I understood that it is reality which is beyond the edges of mankind’s sanity not my mind.

The afternoon we met had proceeded like any other.

I sat in my leather chair. I’d chosen this one for my consulting room for its comfort when sitting for long periods of time; it does no good to stand or wander about when clients are expecting your undivided attention. I was waiting for Dot to bring in my afternoon tea.

I was thinking Dot’s services as a secretary were somewhat inconsistent when I noticed that, once again, she’d forgotten to dust the frames of my doctoral certificates hanging on the wall. I ran my finger over the gilt edge framing my PhD of Psychological Philosophy from the University of London when the door opened with a creak, and Dot entered carrying a tea service on a silver tray.

‘On your desk, Dr Ward?’ she asked.

Why she continued to ask the same question bothered me. I was beginning to wonder if I should probe her to determine where this damn diffidence originated, but she stood there waiting for my response, so I simply said, ‘yes, yes, Dot. Always on the desk at 3 pm, please.’

She placed the silver tea tray down. On it were lemon slices on a saucer and a small silver jug of milk.

‘Dot. One takes lemon or milk in tea. Not both. The acid from the lemon curdles the milk.’

‘Sorry, Doctor.’ Her brown eyes momentarily met mine in respect before she dropped them in deference. She poured the tea into the cup.

‘I take lemon.’ At this, she placed a slice of lemon into the cup with a pair of silver tongs.

‘Yes, Doctor. I’ll pour the milk back into the bottle.’

My eyebrows lifted at this whiff of self-efficacy as Dot took the silver jug and proceeded to exit my room, but then I lowered them as I recalled instructing her to do that very thing the previous afternoon. I shook my head. Waste is such folly at the moment. Over in the U.S., Hoover had called this downturn a ‘depression’, a kind of melancholia of the economy, and just last night the wireless had announced the Black Sunday dust storms that Teddy would be cleaning up after for a very long time. Here in the United Kingdom MacDonald, the first ever Labour Prime Minister, spoke of a burgeoning democracy. Dark times indeed. Thriftiness was essential.

‘Are you ready for your next client, Doctor?’ Dot asked, standing in the empty centre of the door frame.

‘Yes, Dot. Send them in. And please, dust these frames on the walls before you leave today.’ I waved my hand towards my credentials.

‘Yes, Doctor.’

I sat again, comfortable in the deep impressions I’d made in the cushioning of this chair over the many years. I picked up my teacup, sipped the hot lemon tea, and as I lowered my teacup, I saw my client standing in the doorway over its porcelain rim.

He was a teenager of about sixteen or seventeen with white skin where it wasn’t smudged with grime, blonde hair, and blue eyes that suggested Germanic stock. He wore pants, a shirt, and a tweed jacket that had once been worn by a man with money much bigger than he. On his head of unbrushed hair sat a cap. Nothing remarkable even about the dull vacancy of his eyes. Hope had parted company from many of the young.

‘Excuse me,’ I addressed the young man. ‘Dot!’

She entered the room. ‘Yes, Doctor Ward?’

‘Please close the door.’

‘Excuse me,’ she said to the boy and did as instructed, blocking him from view.

‘Come here, Dot.’

‘Yes, Doctor.’ She approached my chair, and stood very straight, hands clasped together in front.

‘Have you taken payment from this boy?’

Her eyes cast about nervously. ‘That’s not our usual procedure, Doctor.’

‘Well, no. Have you informed him of the cost?’

She relaxed. ‘Oh, yes, Doctor. He said he has “all the clams in the world.”’

‘All the clams in the world?’ I may have cocked my head at her.

‘They were his words.’

‘Dot. Many of our clients don’t have a firm grasp on reality. Is he here with parents or a guardian?’

‘No, Doctor.’

‘Take payment for one hour first before you send him in.’

She nodded and briskly exited, closing the door once again behind her. I took the opportunity to finish my tea and listen to the sounds of traffic and pedestrians coming from the streetscape below the window.

The door opened. Dot stood aside for the teenager to enter. He walked over, pulling off his cap as he did so, and threw himself onto the sofa. His face was sullen, and his arms folded. Dot closed the door.

Silence passed.

‘How can I be of service to you?’ I began quietly.

The pressure of his thoughts built.

‘It’s no good,’ he shot out finally as if his mouth were a BB gun.

I waited for more.

‘What’s no good?’ I prompted.

‘Nothing. Nothing makes me feel good. I thought the war would help me feel better, but it was just a flash in the pan. All those deaths.’ He swung his legs down suddenly and leaned in towards me, blue eyes burning with intensity. ‘I come away as empty as ever.’

I picked up my pen and notebook from my desk and started to write in it.

May be older than he looks or lied to serve in war? I wrote. ‘How old are you?’ I asked.

‘In years? I don’t know when I was created.’

My pen stopped. I tapped it twice on the paper as was my habit when I realised something was amiss. Dot had not introduced the client.

‘I didn’t serve in the war,’ the boy said. ‘I started it. Lucifer. And my name is Lucifer, since you’re wondering. Call me Lucky. Everyone else does.’

I scribbled calls himself Lucky Lucifer at the top of the page. Religious delusions?

At this stage, I was not surprised by him guessing that I was wondering what his name was. Intelligent clients often anticipate the questions about to be asked.

‘You started a war? Tell me more about that.’

‘Not a war. All the wars. The recent war. Lined all those Euro country pawns up against each other and played the game. Knocked out the Archduke and bam. Watched the pieces fall. But it’s boring playing against yourself. What’s more, my brothers do everything I tell them to. That’s boring as well. And now this country. Austerity measures. What a wet blanket! I’ve run out of answers. When killing gets boring, what else is there?’

I hummed my appreciation of his comments while I wrote:

Delusions from war strain?

Lucifer looked at me, eyes sharpened. ‘You’re not going to be any good to me.’

‘Why do you say that?’ I asked evenly.

‘You’re not listening. You’re too busy writing down notes.’

My pen stopped. I looked up at him. ‘I need to take notes as a record of our conversation. It’s an important part of the process.’

‘No. You need an electric sound recorder. Then you can listen without all the scribbling. They’re the—‘ he smiled with a glint of cheek in his eye—‘bee’s knees.’

I cleared my throat. ‘Thank you for that suggestion. I shall keep it in mind. Do you live with anyone?’

‘Yes. My brothers.’ Lucky threw himself into the backrest cushioning of the sofa.

‘And your parents?’

‘My father kicked us out. He’s the Lord. It’s easier to stay out of his way.’

Bastard child of aristocracy? Schizophrenia? I started to take mental notes.

‘Why do you think he asked you to leave?’

‘He only wants people to do things his way.’

Authority issues.

‘Would you like to go back to him?’

Lucky looked past me to the narrow view of the Thames and London skyline visible through the window. He said nothing, but his face darkened.

A shadow came across the window. Outside, rain began to hiss and splatter.

I stood and pulled the window down shut.

‘How about your mother?’

‘My mother? What mother?’ It was the first moment he looked off-guard since we began the conversation. ‘Everyone knows I have no mother.’

I sat back in my leather chair and immediately, he stood up and walked over to one of my bookcases. Many psychology books, old and new, stood on the shelves alongside a model of a human head with a map printed on it.

He picked it up. ‘What’s this?’ he asked.

‘It’s a phrenology model. From a time when the idea that the size and shape of the skull and brain were determining factors in a person’s intelligence, personality, and abilities. The theory has since been disproved.’

‘Take a look at my noggin. I’m interested,’ he said passing me the phrenology model.

I saw no reason not to humour the boy. Especially if the assessment I relayed was favourable. It might help him relax.

‘Sit in the chair there. I’ll stand behind you and assess your skull—as a game, mind you. This is not to be taken seriously. Do you understand?’

‘Yes,’ he replied impatiently.

I placed the model head on my desk and stood behind Lucky, who’d made himself comfortable in the wooden chair. My fingers hesitated diving into the straw blonde morass when I realised he’d probably have head lice. Nevertheless, I’d assured him I’d perform this favour, so I started with his forehead.

‘The numbered areas on the model were thought to correspond to different areas of the brain responsible for various characteristics. For example, here—‘

I pressed the tips of my fingers onto two points equidistant from each other above his brows.

‘—there are protuberances which match area 23 on the model. That represents mirth. Therefore, according to the theory of phrenology, you have a well-developed sense of humour. There now.’

I removed my hands.

He turned to look up at me. ‘And the rest of my noggin’?’

‘Oh.’ With courage, I plunged my fingers through the thatch of his hair and onto the base of his skull to investigate the bedrock of bone and suture. My fingers walked outward to the bulging temporal bone, just behind his ears. Increased combativeness. They ventured higher above his ears to the enlarged zygomatic arch. Heightened destructiveness. I’d need to go higher. My hands crawled up to his parietal bone.

‘Ah, just here,’ I said as I rubbed a spot on either side of his skull, ‘number 15. You are conscientious. Do you know what that means?’

‘Of course I do! I know everything. Nearly everything.’

‘I see.’

I reached the crown of his skull. In the late 1800’s, he’d have been thought to have firmness and high self-esteem. The pads of my fingertips ran forward towards the hairline of his forehead. They stopped. Two sharp little lumps rose up from his skull on both the right and the left side like two steep-sided hills in the landscape. I pulled my hands back in surprise.

‘Have you had a recent knock to the head?’ However, even as I said it, I knew this could not be a logical explanation for the aberrations I’d felt a moment ago.

Lucky looked at me, eyes glittering. ‘Did you feel something unusual, Doctor Ward? What does it mean?’

He picked up the model head from the desk and held its diagram-lined crown towards me.

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‘It means nothing. As I said to you, the science of phrenology has long been outmoded. Let me check your head once more; it’s possible those lumps could be dermoid cysts.’

He sat and I checked over his head once more, but felt nothing. It felt completely normal.

‘I must have been mistaken,’ I said.

Lucky stood and looked at the books standing on my shelves. ‘I’m sure that doesn’t happen often.’ He ran his finger across their leather-bound spines. ‘When do you think all these ideas will be out-dated?’

A cold shiver ran up my back. ‘Let’s talk some more about your mother.’

‘No. I’ve had enough.’ He crossed his arms.

‘You still have some time during this appointment.’

‘No. I’m leaving. I might be back.’

‘We don’t give refunds.’

He started towards the door. ‘I’ve got all the dough in the world, remember?’

Just before he opened the door, he shot me a look. ‘Your girl out there. Dot? She’s a doll. I’d liked to get into her.’

He exited before I could reply and slammed the door shut behind him. His last comment hastened me forward over my chair to the door. I flung it open, looking left for a sign of him, down the stairwell, and right, up the hall, and straight ahead at the reception desk where Dot usually sits. There wasn’t even a hint of him.

‘Dot?’ I called. ‘Dot?’

‘Yes, Doctor. Is everything OK?’

‘Are you OK?’ I asked, greatly concerned.

She looked taken aback. ‘Yes. Shouldn’t I be?’

‘Yes. No. That client. The boy. Did you see him leave?

‘Yes, Dr. Ward. He left about half an hour ago. I knocked on your door afterwards, but you said you didn’t want to be disturbed.’

‘Half an hour ago?’

‘Yes, Dr. that’s correct.’ She looked at me with complete earnestness. I frowned. That wasn’t possible. Was Dot losing her mind?

‘Your next appointment is scheduled for 4:15 pm. Would you like a fresh pot of tea beforehand?’ Dot asked.

‘No, thank-you Dot.’ I returned to my consulting room.

Date: 17th of April, 1935
The second afternoon appointment

This afternoon, Dot entered with the tea tray and announced that Lucky was here for his 3 o’clock appointment.

I looked up from the manuscript I was reading at my desk. ‘Oh, he booked another session, did he? My tea, Dot? Lovely. Lemon only? Please send him in. Make sure he pays first though. Be mindful of him Dot. Don’t smile at him or speak any more than necessary.’

Dot obliged and set the tea tray down on my desk before pouring my tea as usual. I was pleased to see that she’d only put lemon on the tray this afternoon. I continued reading the manuscript sent to me for a professional opinion by a publisher in the United States titled ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. It was mediocre at best: its science incomplete. The science of psychology couldn’t be made into a ‘do-it-yourself’ activity. I heard the door open and close, footsteps tap closer and then the wheeze of the sofa as it was sat on.

‘Lucky,’ I said, still looking at the manuscript.

‘Dr Ward,’ came the reply and there was something about his voice that caused me to look up sharply.

The boy sitting on my sofa was not the same boy who’d come for a consultation yesterday. No. Indeed, this boy was quite different. He was brown, from his hair and his eyes to his skin, which was the colour of milk coffee. He could’ve been from the continent: Italian, Spanish, or Jewish.

‘Is this some kind of joke, young man?’ I bookmarked the page about the principle of ‘beginning in a friendly way.’

‘Is what some kind of joke, Doctor Ward?’ He looked at me, eyes big with innocence.

‘You do call yourself Lucky, do you not?’ I peered over my spectacles at him.

‘Yeah. It’s my nickname. Short for Lucifer. You’ve got a bad memory, Doctor.’ He shook his head at me.

‘We’ve never met before,’ I said this firmly enough to sound convincing even to myself.

‘What do you mean? I came in here yesterday. You checked me noggin, remember?’

I restrained myself from speaking while my mind swam with possible explanations for this unusual situation. I watched this ‘Lucky’ with narrowed eyes. Perhaps he was part of a street gang intent on robbing me. However, so far payment had been made for two consultations, a very unusual situation in itself for teenage boys. Perhaps they’d been paid by a rival psychologist and this was a trick to unhinge my sanity and discredit my professionalism, except I could think of no enemy who’d have cause to direct such malcontent my way. My logic exhausted, I sunk with the terrible inexplicability of the situation and the unpredictability of what was to happen.

Lucky cleared his throat. ‘I’ve been thinking about what you said. About mothers. Why do people need mothers anyway?’

‘Mothers provide the love and care needed for infants to establish a secure attachment, not only to their mothers, but also to others. A mother’s love is the foundation of trust.’

He scowled. ‘Sounds weak to me.’ At that, Lucky stood and started pacing about my room, touching and playing with my possessions as he’d done yesterday.

I watched him. He stopped in front of a print I’d hung on the wall only a month ago.

‘What’s this?’

‘It’s a drawing of an impossible triangle created by a young Swedish artist. His name is Oscar. Oscar Reutersvärd.’

Through the glass, Lucky traced his finger along one of the 3-D planes of the triangular prism that twisted and twisted before folding back to merge with its own beginning. He chuckled in a way that gnawed at my feeling of calm. ‘It doesn’t go anywhere, does it Doc? Look at the centre: the star of David.’

‘It’s interesting because it subverts expectations. It’s a 2-dimensional drawing that looks 3-dimensional, but it would be impossible to create in reality.’

‘Nothing is impossible.’ Lucky looked at me seriously.

I scoffed unintentionally.

‘You’re no good to talk to,’ Lucky retorted. ‘Play with my hair again…I mean test my head again. I liked that.’

He dragged out the wooden chair from the other side of my desk and dropped himself down onto it.

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‘Young man, I’m not a barber or a masseuse.’

Lucky glowered. ‘You will play with my head.’

‘I beg to differ. That is not my profession.’

‘I told you to play with my head.’

‘I’m afraid, I cannot entertain that game again.’

Lucky stood. ‘Play with my hair now, you old cow,’ he yelled.

‘No. I won’t.’ I maintained a steady composure despite the boy’s display of aggression. Being a female doctor, it was not the first time I’d experienced abuse targeting my womanhood.

At my refusal, he seized the phrenology model on my desk and hurled it at the wall. It smashed loudly into sharp porcelain pieces.

He puffed in anger, yet I held myself in check.

‘Perhaps you can come back when you feel calmer and we can talk—’

‘—You will rub my head!’

Perhaps my eyes shone with amusement. Perhaps the corners of my lips turned up momentarily. Whatever tiny sign of dismissal I gave inflamed his anger like a spark thrown on kerosene.

The spectre of his rage exploded into shadowy flames that danced on the ceiling and walls and shook the room.

‘You will be my mother,’ he screamed, ‘and you will rub my head and play with my hair every single day. And I will keep you here until you do as I tell you.’

With violent energy he charged from the room, slamming the door on his way out. I heard him thunder down the stairs.

A palpable after-shock of discomfort afflicted me. It wasn’t until his footfalls had faded completely that I called for Dot.

‘Are you alright, Dr. Ward?’ she asked and I don’t know whether it was the taint of my previous encounter, but the tone of her question seemed to be of mock concern.

‘Yes, yes, Dot. All part of the profession. Fetch me a fresh pot of tea please, Dot. Lemon.’

‘Of course, Doctor.’

My fingers shook as I re-opened the manuscript and found the beginning of the next paragraph. Try as I might, I could not process the sentences. The words jumped around as they would in the aftershock of a bomb.

Dot returned with my usual tea tray. She set it down on the desk. I kept my gaze on the meaningless printed letters of the manuscript’s page to avoid appearing nervous to my secretary.

Dot poured the tea, and put in two slices of lemon, just as I liked it, and then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her suddenly pour milk—yes, milk—into my cup.

‘Dot!’ I gasped. ‘Have you lost your faculties?’

‘Sorry, Doctor.’ A smile squirmed on her lips.

I looked into the cup. Clumps of creamy goo floated in the brown liquid like an off scum. Disgusting! Revolting!

I huffed. ‘Dot, I cannot drink that. Why did you even bring milk on the tray? That kind of waste is unforgivable. I’m going outside for a breath of air. Please get me a fresh cup.’

I walked out of my office, past our reception desk and turned down the narrow stairwell that led to the street entrance. I went down three flights, turning a corner on each landing as I did so, watching my black Mary Jane shoes land in the middle of each timber tread. Howbeit that when I looked up, I found my descent had finished at the very place I started: the reception area and the door to my office.

‘Just preparing your tea now, Doctor,’ Dot called from the small kitchen upstairs.

I remember thinking that I must’ve been disorientated.

I tried again. This time holding the brass handrail attached to the wall. Three flights, three landings, but again, arriving in exactly the same place I’d started. My palms began to sweat.

‘Dot?’ I called.

‘Yes, Doctor.’

I followed her voice up the stairs, the sound of my own breath wheezing in my ears, twisting and twisting, only to find the same empty reception desk and my office door.

I spun about, looking at the room in a series of broken images.

Dot carried my tea tray down the stairs with the serenity of an angel of mercy descending from heaven.

‘Are you okay, Dr. Ward?’

‘I-I-I’m not sure, Dot. I think I may be having a spell.’ I sat in a chair in our small waiting area.

‘Here, let me pour you a cup of tea.’ She set the tray down on the reception desk, turning her back to me as she poured and then approached me with a cup and saucer. I noticed her pupils, wide enough to engulf me.

‘Here, Dr. Ward. Tea, just the way you like it—

A lemon slice floated in a curdled, creamy tea-brown swamp.

‘—with lemon and milk.’

Date: Unknown

I’ve lost track of the days. Every record I’ve kept, the marks on the calendar, the lines I’ve drawn in my journal won’t count beyond three days. I know it’s been longer. I’ve tried phoning for help only to hear the echo of my own desperate voice on the other end of the line. Dot is no longer Dot. She is in league with him and his brothers. Each time I tell her I cannot leave the building and ask her if she’s able to escape, she gives me a mechanical smile and that stare, with those big pupils full of malicious delight, and asks me if I need another cup of tea. I haven’t seen her leave. I haven’t seen her eat or drink. What has she become?

I’ve tried escaping through the windows into that afternoon upon which the sun never sets. Each time I climb out, I fall straight back into the room. I even looked up the fireplace chimney with hope at the wedge of light at its top rim but, of course, the shaft is far too narrow.

Every day, the same client visits in different forms and everyday this metamorphic changeling wishes to have his or her head rubbed, hair played with, or to be read to.

Credit : J. J. Dunmill

https://photonfishcreative.wordpress.com

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