By Jade Green
Peter got the call informing him of his father’s death during his 10am appointment with Angela, one of his regular clients. She was sitting with one long, tanned leg crossed over the other, using the front-facing camera on her phone to check her eyebrows weren’t smudged.
“Every day I look in the mirror and ask myself: ‘am I a narcissist?’,” she sighed. “What’s your professional opinion?”
He had fucked Angela once, after they ran into each other at a bar near his office. Her skin smelled like old peaches and her body left orange-brown marks all over his Egyptian cotton sheets. Since the one-night stand, their sessions had grown more relaxed; now they were just two ex-lovers hanging out, chewing the fat, no pressure to dance the dance of the doctor-patient relationship. “I don’t know,” he replied, looking up from the Instagram caption he was halfway through writing. “Do you experience empathy for others?”
“Well, sometimes I wonder if Graham really enjoys going down on me, or if he just does it so I’ll owe him a favour.”
Peter’s phone started vibrating in his hand. A call was coming in from his father’s care home. He held up an index finger to Angela and swiped to answer. “Hello?”
A young man spoke in a high-pitched, semi-broken voice, like his balls were in the process of dropping. “Dr O’Brien. I’m so sorry to have to inform you, but, um, your father went into cardiac arrest last night.”
“Huh?” His first thought was that this must be some kind of sick joke. “What are you talking about?”
“He’s…passed away, sir. I think you should come to the home as soon as you can. I’m so sorry.”
The call ended but Peter kept the phone pressed to his ear, unsure of what to do next. He decided to finish writing the Instagram caption, which was for a photo of a Black baby and a white baby holding hands with the text: ‘nobody is born racist’. His Instagram page was a work of art, amassing him almost 700,000 followers. Late into the night he would comb through potential content, tracking trends, finding the perfect blend of hashtags, creating motivational videos with titles like ‘how to love yourself’ and ‘manifest your perfect life’. The most likes he’d ever received on a post was 42,838. Many other pages from the mental health community had stolen his content, but he was laid-back enough not to let this bother him.
When he had told his father about his impressive reach and innovative marketing strategies, his father narrowed his eyes in the way he always did when he was unimpressed. Peter remembered him sitting in the mustard-and-gold striped armchair near the window in his room, through which he liked to spy on the other residents. “I bet all those idiots sharing your silly pictures don’t even know what an acclaimed journal, printed on real paper, looks like,” he grumbled, “when I was your age I’d been published in the British Journal of Psychology.”
Peter drove to Coleridge House that evening. He had paid for his father’s residence at one of the top private care homes in the area. The lavish Georgian building was set among landscaped grounds, with tasteful décor and the highest quality nursing staff money could buy. Its restaurant served only organic food, tailored to each resident’s specifications. There was a koi pond in the garden and leather-bound books in the library. Peter visited most Sundays, as well as birthdays and Christmas. He never could tell if his father was happy in the home. He didn’t partake in any of the residential activities or socialize with the other elderly people when they gathered on the patio for afternoon tea or played bridge in the lounge. Mostly he stayed in his room, venturing out only for meals or solitary walks in the grounds. The nurses left him alone with his crosswords and pre-recorded golf tournaments. Peter couldn’t ever imagine his father dying; even in old age his body seemed sturdy and his mind remained sharp. His death had come out of the blue. Perhaps this was better, Peter thought, than having to endure a lengthy illness, watching him get slowly eaten away week after week. That was how his mother went, and it had been a long and trying process.
He thought he might get to see his father’s body, but it was already gone, the bed in his room made up as though the staff wanted to forget he ever lived there. Even his smell was gone, replaced by the mingled odours of disinfectant and artificial rose petals. The armchair in the corner looked smaller without his father sitting in it. Peter wandered around, opening and closing drawers, picking up a silver-framed photo of his parents sitting on a beach somewhere in the 1970s. His mother looked meek, leaning back to protect herself from the camera’s all-consuming flash. Her skin gleamed ghostly pale beside his father’s purple-red complexion. Peter looked closely at his father’s eyes, steel-coloured and slightly furious as though he were scrutinizing Peter from another time, another dimension.
Peter wrapped the frame in an old golf shirt pulled from the dresser, and tucked it into his bag.
“I just wonder what my life would look like had I married Nick instead of Chris. You know? Did I make that decision because, deep down, I don’t think I deserve to be happy?”
Natalie’s story was always the same. She suffered from low self-esteem, imposter syndrome, and crippling anxiety; the usual cocktail of misery for an unfulfilled, unhappily-married woman of her age. Peter probably hated her the most out of all his clients. Whether it was because she mildly resembled his mother couldn’t be known for sure. He hated her sagging posture, her nasally voice, the way she was constantly looking into his face to have her feelings confirmed. He especially hated how, at the end of every session, she would take hold of his hands and say with complete sincerity: ‘thank you. Our relationship means so much to me. I don’t know what I’d do without you.’ When she did this, he had formed the habit of closing his eyes as though he were meditating on her heartfelt gratitude. In reality, he was trying not to explode with rage, and knew that meeting her eyes as she thanked him would tip him over the edge. The palms of her hands were always unpleasantly warm, like flanks of recently-slaughtered pig meat.
She was looking at him, waiting for an answer, but he’d only been half-listening. His father’s funeral was taking place that afternoon and he was thinking up ways to force himself to cry. Onions? Pepper spray? Pay someone to punch him in the face?
“We all make decisions for different reasons,” he said after a long silence. “Do you think you deserve happiness?”
“I know that I do, but then also kind of feel like I don’t, in my gut. Because I’m a bad person.”
“Well, your intuition never steers you wrong. Maybe the path your life has taken is just…what you deserve. The natural order of the universe.”
She blinked, thinking on this for a moment. “So what should I do?”
“Listen to that intuition of yours. What’s it telling you?”
“It’s telling me…” she pursed her lips and let her eyes drift to the floor. “I should just be grateful for what I’ve got, if it’s what I deserve. There’s no use dreaming about what could have been. You can’t help the way things are.”
He let that hang in the air for a few drawn-out seconds. “Acceptance is the key to salvation.”
“You’re right. You’re so right. Chris has his issues, his violent tendencies. I should just accept that. It will be better for the kids if I just solider on, right?”
“Sometimes marriage means making sacrifices. It’s not something people talk about. Doesn’t fit with the ‘Hollywood’ view of romance.”
She was nodding intently as though a great realisation had dawned upon her. Peter almost felt sorry for the woman. Maybe he could wear dark glasses to the funeral, so people wouldn’t see his eyes?
In the bathroom stall at the crematorium, he dug the end of his house key into a baggie of coke and lifted the bump to his nostril, while his free pinkie pressed the other nostril closed. It was bad; like inhaling an exhaust pipe, the taste of petrol hitting the back of his throat, making him gag. His usual dealer was in Berlin and he’d had to call his backup, a spotty young boy wearing red tracksuit bottoms and Birkenstocks. After snorting the coke he stood swaying in the stall, waiting to feel something. On the back of the door someone had written: ‘Those we love don’t go away. They sit beside us every day. RIP Andy 1959 – 2018’. The sentiment made him laugh out loud, and he almost dropped the baggie into the toilet. He noticed his hands were trembling. Sliding the baggie into his trouser pocket, he closed his eyes and took a low, deep breath. A cold sensation was prickling through him, excitement and anxiety twisting together like strands of a rope, tightening. He felt like a high wire walker, edging step-by-step over a vast chasm of nothingness, a black vacuum into which he could fall any second. The vacuum would swallow him up, erase him from existence. He couldn’t decide if the prospect thrilled or terrified him. The rapid thrumming of his heartbeat resounded all the way down to his toes as he opened the door and walked across the bathroom and back out to the chapel.
“My father was a great man,” he started, tapping his foot in time with his pulse on the worn carpet. “Anyone could tell you that. I mean, wow, I can’t even put into words, like, what he’s done for me. My whole life – ” he stopped, his mouth still forming the sentence. Rows of pinched faces watched him, anticipating the next word, but a fog had descended over his brain. What about his life? What was he doing here? What did these people want to know, really, about his dead father? Did they want to know about the time when he was thirteen and returned home one day after school to find his mother unconscious on the kitchen floor with purple bruises on her face and a dislocated shoulder? Did they want to hear about how he called the ambulance, went with her to the hospital, listened to her explain to the doctors how she’d slipped and hit her head on the counter?
No, because none of that actually happened. The bruises went away and his mother never spoke about how she got them. The following weekend his parents presented him with a brand new BMX bike, camo-green with metallic stickers on the frame. It was easier to convince himself that he had made up the incident in the kitchen. Later he learned about false memory syndrome. He even wrote an essay on it during his second year of University. Memory is prone to fallacy, he recalled writing, rather than being an accurate recording of what really happened.
“My whole life has been built around following his example, being the man he was,” he continued in the silence of the musty room. “I can probably never match up.” He looked sideways at his blurred reflection in the coffin’s lacquered wood. Was his father really lying in there, divorced from spirit, soon to be ash? It was hard to comprehend. He imagined the coffin lid opening and his father sitting up, making some comment about how bad his eulogy was, leering at the large-breasted woman sitting in the second row, the wife of some old work colleague. Peter was sure his father had affairs. He could hear his mother sobbing through the wall sometimes, when she thought he was sleeping.
“A great man…” he echoed, pushing his hands into his pockets so no one would notice them shaking. He fondled the baggie with clammy fingers. “A great doctor, therapist, husband. What else can I say?” He shrugged, nodding at no one, and started to walk away from the coffin. So that he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with anyone, he took a seat at the back. He was daydreaming about his next Instagram post, something about death and acceptance, the fleeting nature of everything. He could already smell the new followers; insecure teens; lonely housewives; confused middle-aged men with co-dependency issues. They would all belong to him.
He left the funeral quickly and did another couple of bumps in his car. Angela had messaged him: ‘Thinking of U hun’ with several broken heart emojis. He wondered if he could leverage his grief to get her to come over later. He remembered being twenty and bringing his first serious girlfriend home to meet his parents. Her name was Joanne, a sweet-natured Fine Art student with golden hair and dimples in her cheeks. During dinner his mother kept pretending not to hear Joanne when she spoke, while his father was overly friendly and full of compliments about every aspect of Joanne’s appearance. When they left, his father winked at Peter and flashed his eyebrows at Joanne’s bottom as she walked across the driveway to the car. His mother didn’t speak to him for two months. Peter hadn’t been able to maintain a substantial relationship with a woman since.
He decided to drive around for a bit, stopping to do more coke until the inside of the baggie was scraped clean. By this time it was dark and the streets were filling with young people stumbling along the pavements and shouting at each other outside pubs. Peter ogled the girls in their tight skirts and silly heels. Some of them could barely stand. He stopped at a red light and watched three teenagers throwing cans at a homeless man sheltering in a bus stop. Peter’s mind raced with visions of hurting someone. He thought about parking up, following the teenagers and cracking their skulls with a metal pipe. But he didn’t have any metal pipes in the car, or weapons of any sort. His fingernails made little half-moon impressions in the steering wheel as he gripped it tighter. Behind him, a horn blared. The traffic light pooled green in the polished surface of his bonnet. He flicked his indicator and turned into the shadows of a side-street, pulling up onto the kerb.
The boy was no older than seventeen. He appeared to be drunk, zig-zagging across the pathway snaking through the park, then stopping to lean on a bench for support. Peter kept his distance. They were the only people in the park. Against the purple-black sky, the trees tossed their branches in the 2am breeze. Beyond the border of the park, a nightclub pumped out drum and bass. Peter clenched the heavy silver frame in his hand, still wrapped in the golf shirt. The boy veered sharply from the bench, ejecting a thick stream of vomit onto the cracked tarmac. Steam rose from the puddle, evaporating as it curled through the cool air. Afterwards, the boy straightened his posture as though disgorging the contents of his stomach had erased all trace of his drunkenness. Plunging his hands into his pockets, he stepped onto the nearby grass and started to walk. Peter followed him furtively, careful to maintain the distance between them in case the boy turned around suddenly and saw him. But the boy didn’t turn. His thin shadow lengthened across the grass as he walked towards a street light at the edge of the park. Peter quickened his pace, beginning to close the distance between them. They were nearing a large oak tree, the perfect place to jump the boy, Peter thought. He was getting closer, panting lightly as he broke into a jog, the boy’s scruffy t-shirt nearly within reach. He lengthened his stride and grabbed hold of the boy’s shoulder with his free hand. Before he fell to the ground, the boy’s head turned and Peter saw the fire of anger flare in his eyes, brows knotted in sudden confusion. Then they were both on the grass, Peter straddling the boy, catching hold of his skinny arms as they tried to pummel him. He had dropped the frame and it lay, unfurled from the shirt, beside them in the dewy grass. The boy grunted, half-shouting. Peter picked up the shirt and stuffed part of it into the boy’s mouth. Then he reached for the frame, his sweaty palm closing around the cold, hard silver. His heartbeat thundered in his throat. He felt electricity shooting through his limbs. Their surroundings fell away, like they were floating in space.
Then he heard a chorus of male voices bellowing through the blackness. Peter looked up to see several figures running along the path. Holding tightly onto the frame, he glanced down at the boy, who was writhing and turning his head in the direction of the voices. Peter groaned and let go of the frame. The figures were getting closer. “Oi!” one was shouting, “wha the fuck you think you’re doin’?” He rolled off the boy, sprang to his feet and ran as fast as he could out of the park. When he reached the main road he joined a stream of people disembarking the nightclub, becoming anonymous.
Back in the safety of the car, Peter unlocked his phone and checked Instagram. He had 14 new followers, 38 likes on his latest post, and a message from someone whose profile photo was just a pair of breasts, asking if he wanted his cock sucked. He dropped the phone onto the passenger seat and placed his hands on the steering wheel. Faces and flesh swarmed in the rear-view mirror, and the glare of city lights obliterated the darkness.
Through her writing Jade Green attempts to understand herself and the world on a deeper level, and hopes to help the reader do the same. She will never forget how affected her English teacher was by a horror story she wrote when she was ten. Jade runs a feminist publication called oranges journal, and co-hosts a podcast about creativity called Pivotal Slice.