Read The Silent Patient Online
Authors: Alex Michaelides
Tags: #Thrillers, #Psychological, #Fiction, #Suspense
I was interrupted by a sudden bang as the door was thrown open. At first I thought I was seeing things. A giant charged into the room, holding two jagged wooden spikes, which she raised high above her head and then threw at us like spears. One of the patients covered her eyes and screamed.
I half expected the spears to impale us, but they landed with some force on the floor in the middle of the circle. Then I saw they weren’t spears at all. It was a pool cue, snapped in two.
The massive patient, a dark-haired Turkish woman in her forties, shouted, “Pisses me off. Pool cue’s been broke a week and you still ain’t fucking replaced it.”
“Watch your language, Elif,” said Diomedes. “I’m not prepared to discuss the matter of the pool cue until we decide whether it’s appropriate to allow you to join Community at such a late juncture.” He turned his head slyly and threw the question at me. “What do you think, Theo?”
I blinked and took a second to find my voice. “I think it’s important to respect time boundaries and arrive on time for Community—”
“Like you did, you mean?” said a man across the circle.
I turned and saw it was Christian who had spoken. He laughed, amused by his own joke.
I forced a smile and turned back to Elif. “He’s quite right, I was also late this morning. So maybe it’s a lesson we can learn together.”
“What you on about?” Elif said. “Who the fuck are you anyway?”
“Elif. Mind your language,” said Diomedes. “Don’t make me put you on time-out. Sit down.”
Elif remained standing. “And what about the pool cue?”
The question was addressed to Diomedes—and he looked at me, waiting for me to answer it.
“Elif, I can see you’re angry about the pool cue,” I said. “I suspect whoever broke it was also angry. It raises the question of what we do with anger in an institution like this. How about we stick with that and talk about anger for a moment? Won’t you sit down?”
Elif rolled her eyes. But she sat down.
Indira nodded, looking pleased. We started talking about anger, Indira and I, trying to draw the patients into a discussion about their angry feelings. We worked well together, I thought. I could sense Diomedes watching, evaluating my performance. He seemed satisfied.
I glanced at Alicia. And to my surprise, she was looking at me—or at least in my direction. There was a dim fogginess in her expression—as if it was a struggle to focus her eyes and see.
If you told me this broken shell had once been the brilliant Alicia Berenson, described by those who knew her as dazzling, fascinating, full of life—I simply wouldn’t have believed you. I knew then and there I’d made the right decision in coming to the Grove. All my doubts vanished. I became resolved to stop at nothing until Alicia became my patient.
There was no time to waste: Alicia was lost. She was missing.
And I intended to find her.
PROFESSOR DIOMEDES’S OFFICE
was in the oldest and most decrepit part of the hospital. There were cobwebs in the corners, and only a couple of the lights in the corridor were working. I knocked at the door, and after a moment’s pause I heard his voice from inside.
I turned the handle and the door creaked open. I was immediately struck by the smell inside the room. It smelled different from the rest of the hospital. It didn’t smell like antiseptic or bleach; rather bizarrely, it smelled like an orchestra pit. It smelled of wood, strings and bows, polish, and wax. It took a moment for my eyes to become accustomed to the gloom, then I noticed the upright piano against the wall, an incongruous object in a hospital. Twenty-odd metallic music stands gleamed in the shadows, and a stack of sheet music was piled high on a table, an unsteady paper tower reaching for the sky. A violin was on another table, next to an oboe, and a flute. And beside it, a harp—a huge thing with a beautiful wooden frame and a shower of strings.
I stared at it all openmouthed.
Diomedes laughed. “You’re wondering about the instruments?” He sat behind his desk, chuckling.
“Are they yours?”
“They are. Music is my hobby. No, I lie—it is my passion.” He pointed his finger in the air dramatically. The professor had an animated way of speaking, employing a wide range of hand gestures to accompany and underscore his speech—as if he were conducting an invisible orchestra. “I run an informal musical group, open to whoever wishes to join—staff and patients alike. I find music to be a most effective therapeutic tool.” He paused to recite in a lilting, musical tone, “‘Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.’ Do you agree?”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
“Hmm.” Diomedes peered at me for a moment. “Do you play?”
“Anything. A triangle is a start.”
I shook my head. “I’m not very musical. I played the recorder a bit at school when I was young. That was about it.”
“Then you can read music? That is an advantage. Good. Choose any instrument. I will teach you.”
I smiled and again shook my head. “I’m afraid I’m not patient enough.”
“No? Well, patience is a virtue you would do well to cultivate as a psychotherapist. You know, in my youth, I was undecided whether I should be a musician, a priest, or a doctor.” Diomedes laughed. “And now I am all three.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“You know”—he switched subjects without even a hint of a pause—“I was the deciding voice at your interview. The casting vote, so to speak. I spoke strongly in your favor. You know why? I’ll tell you—I saw something in you, Theo. You remind me of myself.… Who knows? In a few years, you might be running this place.” He left the sentence dangling for a moment, then sighed. “If it’s still here, of course.”
“You think it won’t be?”
“Who knows? Too few patients, too many staff. We are working in close cooperation with the Trust to see if a more ‘economically viable’ model can be found. Which means we are being endlessly watched, evaluated—spied upon. How can we possibly do therapeutic work under such conditions? you might well ask. As Winnicott said, you can’t practice therapy in a burning building.” Diomedes shook his head and looked his age suddenly—exhausted and weary. He lowered his voice and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “I believe the manager, Stephanie Clarke, is in league with them. The Trust pays her salary, after all. Watch her, and you’ll see what I mean.”
I thought Diomedes was sounding a little paranoid, but perhaps that was understandable. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, so I remained diplomatically silent for a moment. And then—
“I want to ask you something. About Alicia.”
“Alicia Berenson?” Diomedes gave me a strange look. “What about her?”
“I’m curious what kind of therapeutic work is being done with her. Is she in individual therapy?”
“Is there a reason?”
“It was tried—and abandoned.”
“Why was that? Who saw her? Indira?”
“No.” Diomedes shook his head. “I saw Alicia myself, as a matter of fact.”
“I see. What happened?”
He shrugged. “She refused to visit me in my office, so I went to see her in her room. During the sessions, she simply sat on her bed and stared out of the window. She refused to speak, of course. She refused to even look at me.” He threw up his hands, exasperated. “I decided the whole thing was a waste of time.”
I nodded. “I suppose … well, I’m wondering about the transference.…”
“Yes?” Diomedes peered at me with curiosity. “Go on.”
“It’s possible, isn’t it, that she experienced you as an authoritarian presence … perhaps—potentially punitive? I don’t know what her relationship with her father was like, but…”
Diomedes listened with a small smile, as if he were being told a joke and anticipating the punch line. “But you think she might find it easier to relate to someone younger? Let me guess.… Someone like you? You think you can help her, Theo? You can rescue Alicia? Make her talk?”
“I don’t know about rescuing her, but I’d like to help her. I’d like to try.”
Diomedes smiled, still with the same sense of amusement. “You are not the first. I believed I would succeed. Alicia is a silent siren, my boy, luring us to the rocks, where we dash our therapeutic ambition to pieces.” He smiled again. “She taught me a valuable lesson in failure. Perhaps you need to learn the same lesson.”
I met his gaze defiantly. “Unless, of course, I succeed.”
Diomedes’s smile vanished, replaced by something harder to read. He remained silent for a moment, then made a decision.
“We’ll see, shall we? First, you must meet Alicia. You’ve not been introduced to her yet, have you?”
“Not yet, no.”
“Then ask Yuri to arrange it, will you? Report back to me afterwards.”
“Good.” I tried to conceal my excitement. “I will.”
THE THERAPY ROOM WAS A SMALL
, narrow rectangle; as bare as a prison cell, or barer. The window was closed and barred. A bright pink box of tissues on the small table struck a discordantly cheerful note—presumably it was placed there by Indira: I couldn’t imagine Christian offering tissues to his patients.
I sat on one of two battered, faded armchairs. The minutes passed. No sign of Alicia. Perhaps she wasn’t coming? Perhaps she had refused to meet me. She would be perfectly within her rights.
Impatient, anxious, nervous, I abandoned sitting and jumped up and walked to the window. I peered out between the bars.
The courtyard was three stories below me. The size of a tennis court, it was surrounded by tall redbrick walls, walls that were too high to climb, though doubtless some had tried. Patients were herded outside for thirty minutes of fresh air every afternoon, whether they wanted it or not, and in this freezing weather I didn’t blame them for resisting. Some stood alone, muttering to themselves, or they paced back and forth, like restless zombies, going nowhere. Others huddled in groups, talking, smoking, arguing. Voices and shouts and strange excitable laughter floated up to me.
I couldn’t see Alicia at first. Then I located her. She was standing alone at the far end of the courtyard, by the wall. Perfectly still, like a statue. Yuri walked across the courtyard toward her. He spoke to the nurse standing a few feet away. The nurse nodded. Yuri went up Alicia cautiously, slowly, as you might approach an unpredictable animal.
I had asked him not to go into too much detail, merely to tell Alicia the new psychotherapist at the unit would like to meet her. I requested he phrase it as a request, not a demand. Alicia stood still as he spoke to her. But she neither nodded nor shook her head nor gave any indication of having heard him. After a brief pause, Yuri turned and walked off.
Well, that’s it, I thought—she won’t come. Fuck it, I should have known. The whole thing has been a waste of time.
Then, to my surprise, Alicia took a step forward. Faltering a little, she shuffled after Yuri across the courtyard—until they disappeared from view under my window.
So she was coming. I tried to contain my nerves and prepare myself. I tried to silence the negative voice in my head—my father’s voice—telling me I wasn’t up to the job, I was useless, a fraud. Shut up, I thought, shut up, shut up—
A couple of minutes later, there was a knock at the door.
The door opened. Alicia was standing with Yuri in the corridor. I looked at her. But she didn’t look at me; her gaze remained downcast.
Yuri gave me a proud smile. “She’s here.”
“Yes. I can see that. Hello, Alicia.”
She didn’t respond.
“Won’t you come in?”
Yuri leaned forward as if to nudge her, but he didn’t actually touch her. Instead he whispered, “Go on, honey. Go in and take a seat.”
Alicia hesitated. She glanced at him, then made a decision. She walked into the room, slightly unsteadily. She sat on a chair, silent as a cat, her trembling hands in her lap.
I was about to shut the door, but Yuri didn’t leave. I lowered my voice. “I can take it from here, thanks.”
Yuri looked worried. “But she’s on one-on-one. And the professor said—”
“I’ll take full responsibility. It’s quite all right.” I took my personal attack alarm out of my pocket. “See, I have this—but I won’t need it.”
I glanced at Alicia. She gave no indication she had even heard me.
Yuri shrugged, obviously unhappy. “I’ll be on the other side of the door, just in case you need me.”
“That’s not necessary, but thanks.”
Yuri left, and I closed the door. I placed the alarm on the desk. I sat opposite Alicia. She didn’t look up. I studied her for a moment. Her face was expressionless, blank. A medicated mask. I wondered what lay beneath.
“I’m glad you agreed to see me.” I waited for a response. I knew there wouldn’t be one. “I have the advantage of knowing more about you than you do about me. Your reputation precedes you—your reputation as a painter, I mean. I’m a fan of your work.” No reaction. I shifted in my seat slightly. “I asked Professor Diomedes if we might talk, and he kindly arranged this meeting. Thank you for agreeing to it.”
I hesitated, hoping for an acknowledgment of some kind—a blink, a nod, a frown. Nothing came. I tried to guess what she was thinking. Perhaps she was too drugged up to think anything at all.
I thought of my old therapist, Ruth. What she would do? She used to say we are made up of different parts, some good, some bad, and that a healthy mind can tolerate this ambivalence and juggle both good and bad at the same time. Mental illness is precisely about a lack of this kind of integration—we end up losing contact with the unacceptable parts of ourselves. If I was to help Alicia, we would have to locate the parts she had hidden from herself, beyond the fringes of consciousness, and connect the various dots in her mental landscape. Only then could we put into context the terrible events of that night she killed her husband. It would be a slow, laborious process.
Normally when beginning with a patient, there is no sense of urgency, no predetermined therapeutic agenda. Normally we start with many months of talking. In an ideal world, Alicia would tell me about herself, her life, her childhood. I would listen, slowly building up a picture until it was complete enough for me to make accurate, helpful interpretations. In this case, there would be no talking. No listening. The information I needed would have to be gathered through nonverbal clues, such as my countertransference—the feelings Alicia engendered in me during the sessions—and whatever information I could gather from other sources.