The young man kept himself busy throughout his professionally short stay in the waiting room. He tapped his foot, read a magazine and even whistled a vaguely recognisable melody. The receptionist was neither surprised nor distracted. Here at the Hallow Clinic, they all kept themselves busy until it was their turn. The young man's turn came quickly, here every attempt was made to keep them as quick as possible because if one thing was obvious it was that the client hated being alone with their thoughts, why else would they come here? "Mr Care?" Called the receptionist, speaking out to the largely empty room. He stood up immediately, not even bothering to disguise his anticipatory eagerness. He was shaking a little. There were large beads of perspiration trickling down his brow, though the receptionist pretended politely not to notice. A nervous one, common enough. "The Doctor's just down The Hall." She said with a proficient and reassuring smile, teeth and eyes, the smile that had gotten her the job here. It was a misjudgement on management's part however, as a pretty girl with a nice smile was just what the young man, Mr Care, had come to forget.
The Hall was a long, unobtrusively white corridor. On either side neatly dispersed photographs of the sea were enclosed in cool white frames. Lolloping, crashing waves, frozen in time. Mr Care only took one glance. He had also come to forget the sea, and beaches. Days at the beaches with a pretty girl with a nice smile. His footsteps made swift, short patting sounds on the linoleum floor in time with his heartbeat. He could feel his sweating skin sliding against itself, against his clothes, against him. Disgusting, animal, hysterical. Be cool, he told himself firmly. But he didn't know why that specific phrase popped into his head. A therapist somewhere along the line had given him that mantra, that was it, it was on a self-help CD. It must have been quite some time ago, back when he still bothered to listen to the CDs. That particular therapist himself was the short one, Mr Care remembered now, with the thick glasses. He had looked like Woody Allen, and was possibly the least cool of the lot of them. Maybe that was why Mr Care remembered the ironic little mantra. He reached the door. Be cool.
The door opened a fraction of a second before he reached for the handle. It was not enough time to register and he first jerked forward, then jerked back, like a lunatic. On the other side was a tall woman wearing a long white jacket. Her hair was scraped up in a bun. She smiled but, thank goodness, it was not a very nice smile. An automatic smile reserved for all nervous looking customers, carved in icy mint lip-balm. "Mr Care?" She asked, leaning forward to shake his hand. Her voice was a pleasant, doctor voice, the one they must be trained to use somewhere along the line.
He felt her hand grip his lightly before rapidly letting it go once more. "Could you call me Ted?" He asked. Her eyebrows raised a little. She had obviously read his file, and knew that was not his name. But it was another tip he had picked up, from another therapist. Or maybe just a survival technique he had tailor-made himself. It was too painful to hear a girl say his name, however different the tone, the setting. It reminded him, of course, what didn't?
She nodded gracefully, and opened the door so that he could enter. "Alright then. Ted."
The young man walked in and took a look around him before sitting down. The walls were deep blue this time, with no pictures interrupting. Just books. Mountains and mountains of books, stacked on top of each other with incredible skill. Even her desk had a few, evenly placed at the very corners. She sat down at the other side. Mr Care deigned eventually to sit too. There were no pictures, no photographs of loved ones smiling blissfully out to the camera. He had burnt his long ago. A second later, he wondered if her own desktop photos had met a similar fate.
There was a second's pause, where each party waited for the other to speak. She caught on quickly. "How can I help you, Ted?"
He fixed his gaze on a point just above her left shoulder. "I – I want to forget." He said, amazed at how strangled it sounded. She did not seem to spot anything unusual, however. He supposed everyone who came in here must behave strangely. It was, until very recently, an outlandish request. She nodded, a grim warning that she wanted him to go on. But the young man could not say anything more. The minute he opened his mouth another strangled sound came out. He shut it quickly and shifted quickly back to the spot above her left shoulder.
"I see." She said smoothly. "And, Ted, would you mind telling me just what you want to forget?" She shifted deliberately so that she directly filled his eye line. He stubbornly looked down at his feet.
"I can't." He said. This he could do. He was good, by now, at obstinately not talking about it, in a manner in which people withdrew immediately, feeling horribly guilty at their clumsy obtrusion. This lady doctor was a precedent , because she did not withdraw, nor even look horribly guilty.
"I understand it is painful for you." She said, fair but firm. "But the nature of the procedure means that I must know. You don't have to give me the precise details just yet. Is it a love?"
Ted nodded. She prompted, gently needling deep inside of him, "A very special love?"
"I – yes."
"Did she leave you?"
A familiar feeling began choking his throat, stinging his eyes. "Yes."
"What was her name?"
"I can't!" He pleaded, feeling his eyes brimming over. He wiped them viciously. He had thought he was beyond crying by now, that he had sobbed it all out. But it seemed there was just more and more where that had came from. The tears had started now. He made a weak effort at composing himself, but once they had started they would go on, he knew that by now. Meaningfully, she pushed a box of tissues in his direction.
They all came in here. They all cried. But she never desisted until she had what she needed. "Can you at least tell me a bit about her?"
He raked his face with the tissue, a few times, before he knew he could delay it no longer. "She-she wasn't like anyone else at all, or at least I thought she wasn't. She never pretended. I thought she never pretended."
She cocked her head. "But she did?"
He nodded, fresh sobs tearing gulps in his throat. "We-we went to the beach together."
"On Good Days – we – special occasions. We called them Good Days."
It surprised him at how quickly, how sharply she got the implication. Nobody else ever got it, even when the girl had been with him, it had just been a cute couples thing. "What did you do on Bad Days?"
"Bad Day... I didn't see her. She wouldn't let me. She was pretending..!" His voice rose to a wail. In all his therapists, he had never confessed so much so soon. He didn't know what it was about this room, with it's solitary high window and piles of books, and conscious lack of photographs staring at him, that had made him like this.
"What was she pretending?" Her voice had risen an octave, a single hair escaped her tight bun.
"I don't kno – I don't – she was pretending to be happy!"
She was a pretty girl with a nice smile. A pretty girl with a nice smile that had got her into trouble. A pretty girl with a nice smile that meant you never guessed the sort of secrets she hid.
The doctor leant back a little, and attempted to tuck the hair back into place. It fell loose again. "Were you happy?"
"Yes." He said steadfastly. Perhaps a little defensively. The doctor was not satisfied.
"Were you really happy, Ted?"
"Ted?" She asked coolly, regarding him like a teacher who knows a pupil is telling a lie. Did you really do your homework?
"I – I was happy when she was happy."
"But she wasn't happy."
"Not all the time. I tried, I tried to make her happy. I did everything." He felt his face twist of it's own volition to a grotesque mask of misery. He did not attempt to wipe away the tears. "But I wasn't good enough."
"She left you." No more nice smiles. No more trips to the beach. No more hand-holding and hair stroking. Never again. All he could do was nod. This was the worst time he had ever had to talk about it. Christ! It felt like That Day all over again. But at least now he was sure. He was certain. He could not live with this.
"It sounds to me, Ted, like you need to forget. Am I right?"
"Y-yes." He sniffed, she tutted sympathetically and patted the tissue box. And he knew that she understood.
"The mind is capable of inflicting so much pain. And it sounds like you won't ever truly escape it until you can forget her. Forget everything about her."
Before her. Mr Care had often envied his blissfully ignorant youth where love was just a plot device in films , something straightforward and simple. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, happy ending. He had been so stupid! He had raged. He had been so content. How he missed being just content. He was joyfully happy with her, ecstatic with her, but oh, the higher he got the steeper the falls, each worse than the next until finally, one huge cruel fall he could not recover from, and he at last learnt that content was not so bad after all. He would give everything to be content again.
"I", he wiped away the remnants of the last tears. "I just want to be okay again."
"Of course you do." The doctor agreed, soothingly. Once more she reminded him of a teacher, this time holding his hand whilst getting ready to rip a plaster off his knee. It will all be over in a minute.
The young man remembered the time he had ripped a plaster off her arm. Seen the scar. How he longed to forget.
He remembered her kissing him immediately afterwards, as if she could block out what he had just seen with love alone. He remembered how her lips felt directly on his. They say you forgot what they looked like after a while (though he had not), but the sensations, just how they felt next to you, never did. That must have been a therapist. Or it could just have been his mother, who had sat helplessly throughout this all with a permanent cup of tea and ever expanding lexis of comforting words. He remembered once when his pretty girl had whispered, so clumsily it must be true, "I can't stop kissing you." and he had known just what she meant and felt her lips curl into a beautiful smile up against his own.
Could he ever forget that?
And then, alarmingly, the first seeds of doubt in his mind since he had circled the Hallow Clinic advertisement in the newspaper. Did he want to forget that?
You've got so far. He told himself. You've been on the waiting list for months. Don't stop now. Please don't stop now. I need this.
But should I do this should I do this should I do this should I do this was suddenly thumping through his veins, tattooing itself on his brain, and he was powerless to stop it.
The lady doctor knew. She always knew. "It is natural to have doubts." She said smoothly, tucking yet another rebellious stray hair behind her ear. "Every single patient I've had has had doubts. But, though they of course cannot recommend the procedure, I get numerous letters of thanks from friends and family every day, describing just how much better they are now."
The young man nodded.
Her manner promised that she understood, her white coat all but guaranteed that she knew best. But still it would not leave. Should I do this? She pushed forward a piece of paper. He could not even begin to read the print. His mind could not stay in any single place long enough. Here. Now. Her. Mum. Friends. Woody Allen. Be cool! Her. Should I do this? The doctor placed a red biro firmly within his sweating grasp. "Just sign there, and you'll never have to feel again."
Yes. Just sign here. Never feel again. Never feel again?
"Never feel like this again." She corrected herself with a self-deprecating smile, pulling out a lip-balm from her pocket and applying it swiftly, expertly.
Yes. Never feel like this again. Be content. Be cool.
What he wouldn't give to feel her run her hands through his hair again. Never again.
He scrawled something he couldn't read on the line she indicated. "When do we start?" He croaked. A frightened schoolboy. An animal; crouched, shivering, sweating in his seat.
"Legislation requires a two week waiting period." The Doctor said, snatching the paper away. Her hair was very loose from it's bun now. Long thick strands were escaping bit by bit and cascading down her tight face. Like a mask, he noticed, for the first time. A mask stretched tight across her bones. "But I think you've waited more than enough, haven't you, Mr Care? We have a very simply fast-track procedure nowadays. We'll operate immediately. Just think! You can wake up tomorrow Care-free." She laughed, a high-pitched and unnervingly heartfelt sound.
Wet sand crunching deliciously under their clasped hands. Clumsy crashing waves. Her smile. Never again.
Should I do this? He asked himself one more time, for the last time.
"Yes, Mr Care." The Doctor assured him sweetly. "Yes."