Chapter no 24

Anxious People

The truth is that Zara, who appears to be a little more than 1fty years old, but exactly how much no one has ever dared ask, was never interested in buying the apartment. Not because she couldn’t aPord it, of course, she could probably have bought it with the spare change she found between the cushions on the sofa in her own apartment. (Zara regarded coins as disgusting little havens of bacteria which have probably been touched by God knows how many middle-class 1ngers, and she’d rather have burned her sofa cushions than pick one up, so let’s put it like this: she could de1nitely have bought that apartment for the cost of her sofa.) So she went to the viewing with her nose already wrinkled, wearing diamond earrings large enough to knock out a medium-sized child, if that turned out to be necessary. But not even that, if you looked at her really closely, could hide the lurching grief inside her.


The 1rst thing you have to understand is that Zara has recently been seeing a psychologist, because Zara has the sort of career which, if you do it for long enough, sometimes means you have to seek professional help to get instructions on what you can do with your life beyond having a career. Her 1rst meeting with the psychologist didn’t go terribly well. Zara began by picking up a framed photograph from the desk and asking: “Who’s that?”

The psychologist replied: “My mom.” Zara asked: “Do you get on well with her?”

The psychologist replied: “She passed away recently.”

Zara asked: “And what was your relationship like before that?”

The psychologist noted that a more normal response would have been to oPer condolences on her death, but tried to maintain a neutral expression and said: “We’re not here to talk about me.”

To which Zara replied: “If I’m going to leave my car with a mechanic, 1rst I want to know if her own car is a worthless heap of junk.”

The psychologist took a deep breath and said: “I can understand that. So let me just say that my mom and I had a very good relationship. Is that better?”

Zara nodded skeptically and asked: “Have any of your patients ever committed suicide?”

The psychologist’s chest tightened; she replied: “No.”

Zara shrugged her shoulders and added: “As far as you’re aware.”

That was a fairly cruel thing to say to a psychologist. The psychologist, however, recovered quickly enough to say: “I only completed my training relatively recently. I haven’t had that many patients, but I do know they are all still alive. Why are you asking these questions?”

Zara looked at the only picture on the walls of the psychologist’s office, pursed her lips thoughtfully, and said, with surprising honesty: “I want to know if you can help me.”

The psychologist picked up a pen, smiled a practiced smile, and said: “With what?”

Zara replied that she was having “trouble sleeping.” She had been prescribed sleeping pills by her doctor, but now her doctor was refusing to prescribe more unless she spoke to a psychologist 1rst. “So here I am,” Zara declared, and tapped her watch, as if she were the one being paid by the hour rather than the reverse.

The psychologist asked: “Do you think your trouble sleeping is related to your work? You said in your phone call that you run a bank. That sounds like it could be quite a stressful, high-pressure job.”

Zara replied: “Not really.”

The psychologist sighed and asked: “What are you hoping to accomplish during our meetings?”

Zara countered at once with a question of her own: “Will this be psychiatry or psychology?”

The psychologist asked: “What do you think the diPerence is?”

Zara replied: “You need psychology if you think you’re a dolphin. You need psychiatry if you’ve killed all the dolphins.”

The psychologist looked uncomfortable. The next time they met she wasn’t wearing her dolphin brooch.


During their second session Zara asked, somewhat out of the blue: “How would you explain panic attacks?”

The psychologist lit up the way only psychologists can do at that question: “They’re hard to de1ne. But according to most experts, panic attacks are the experience of—”

Zara interrupted: “No, I want to know how you would explain them!”

The psychologist shuAed uncomfortably on her chair and pondered various diPerent answers. Eventually she said: “I’d say that a panic attack is when psychological pain becomes so strong that it manifests itself physically. The anxiety becomes so acute that the brain can’t… well, in the absence of any better words, I’d say that the brain doesn’t have sufficient bandwidth to process all the information. The 1rewall collapses, so to speak. And anxiety overwhelms us.”

“You’re not very good at your job,” Zara replied drily. “In what sense?”

“I already know more about you than you know about me.” “Really?”

“Your parents worked with computers. Programmers, probably.” “How… how on earth… how did you know that?”

“Has it been hard to deal with the shame of that? The fact that they did jobs that had a tangible application in the real world, whereas you work with…”

Zara fell silent abruptly and seemed to be searching for the right words. So the psychologist, somewhat aPronted, 1lled in: “… feelings? I work with feelings.”

“I was going to say ‘fripperies.’ But okay, let’s say ‘feelings,’ if that makes you feel better.”

“My dad’s a programmer. My mom was a systems analyst. How did you know?”

Zara groaned as if she were trying to teach a toaster to read. “Does it matter?”


Zara groaned at the toaster again.

“When I asked you to explain panic attacks in your own words, not with the de1nition you learned during your training, you used the words ‘bandwidth,’ ‘process,’ and ‘1rewall.’ Words that don’t 1t easily into ordinary vocabulary usually come from their parents. If they had a good relationship with them.”

The psychologist tried to regain the initiative in the conversation by asking: “Is this why you’re good at your job at the bank? Because you can read people?”

Zara stretched her back like a bored cat.

“Sweetie, you aren’t that hard to read. People like you are never as complicated as you’d like to be, especially not if you’ve been to university. Your generation don’t want to study a subject, you just want to study yourselves.”

The psychologist looked ever so slightly oPended. Possibly more than ever so slightly.

“We’re here to talk about you, Zara. What are you hoping to get out of this?” “Sleeping pills, like I said before. Ideally some that will go with red wine.”

“I can’t prescribe sleeping pills. Only your doctor can do that.” “So what am I doing here, then?” Zara asked.

“You’re the best person to answer that,” the psychologist replied.


That was the level on which their relationship began. Things went downhill from there. But it’s worth saying at once that it wasn’t at all difficult for the psychologist to make a diagnosis of this new patient: Zara was suPering from loneliness. But instead of saying that (the psychologist hadn’t burdened herself with more than half a decade’s worth of student debt just to learn to say what she thought), the psychologist explained that Zara was exhibiting signs that she was suPering from “nervous exhaustion.”

Zara didn’t look up from the newsfeed on her phone when she replied: “Yes, well, I’m exhausted because I can’t sleep, so just get me some pills!”

The psychologist didn’t want to do that. Instead she started to ask questions, with the intention of helping Zara to see her own anxieties in a broader context. One of them was: “Are you worried about the survival of the planet?”

Zara replied: “Not really.”

The psychologist smiled warmly.

“Let me put it like this: What do you think the biggest problem with the world is?”

Zara nodded quickly, and replied as if the answer were obvious: “Poor people.”

The psychologist corrected her in a friendly way: “You mean… 9ouevty.” Zara shrugged. “Sure. If that feels better for you.”

When they parted, Zara didn’t shake hands. On her way out she moved a photograph on the psychologist’s bookcase and rearranged three books. Psychologists aren’t supposed to have favorite patients, but if this psychologist had one, it de1nitely would not have been Zara.


It wasn’t until their third session that the psychologist realized how unwell Zara was. It was just after Zara had explained that “democracy as a system is doomed, because idiots will believe anything as long as the story’s good enough.” The psychologist did her best to ignore that, and asked Zara instead about her childhood and work, wondering repeatedly how Zara “feels.” Hom do you feel mhen that ha99ens? Hom does talbing about this mabe you feel? Hom do you feel mhen you thinb about hom you feel, does that feel digcult? So in the end Zara did feel something.

They had been talking about something else for a long while, and suddenly Zara seemed to be looking deep inside her, and when she spoke she whispered the words, as if her voice were no longer her own.

“I’ve got cancer.”

The silence in the room was so extreme that you could hear both women’s heartbeats. The 1ngers falling Aat on the notepad, the breathing that grew shallower, lungs 1lled no more than a third with each breath, terri1ed of making a noise.

“I’m truly very sorry indeed to hear that,” the psychologist eventually said, her voice trembling, and with carefully practiced dignity.

“I’m sorry, too. Depressed, actually,” Zara said, and wiped her eyes. “What… what sort of cancer?” the psychologist asked.

“Does it matter?” Zara whispered.

“No. No, of course not. I’m sorry. That was insensitive of me.”

Zara looked out of the window, not really seeing anything, for so long that the light outside seemed to have time to change. From morning to midday. Then she raised her chin slightly and said: “You don’t have to apologize. It’s made-up cancer.”

“S… sorry?”

“I haven’t got cancer. I was lying. But that’s what I was saying: democracy doesn’t work!”

And that was when the psychologist realized what a very unwell person Zara was.

“That’s a… an astonishingly insensitive thing to joke about,” she managed to say.

Zara raised her eyebrows.

“So it would have been better if I had cancer?” “No! What? Absolutely not, but—”

“Surely it’s better to joke about it than to actually have cancer? Or would you rather I had cancer?”

The psychologist’s neck Aushed red with indignation. “But… no! Of course I don’t wish you had cancer!”

Zara clasped her hands together in her lap and said in a grave tone, “But that’s how I’m feeling.”


The psychologist had trouble sleeping that night. Zara sometimes has that ePect on people. The next time Zara visited her office the psychologist had removed the photograph of her mother from her desk, and during that session Zara actually considered telling the truth about the cause of her sleeping problems. She had a letter in her bag that explained everything, and if she had only shown it then, everything that happened after that might have been diPerent. But instead she just sat for a long time staring at the picture on the wall. It was of a woman looking out across an endless sea, toward the horizon. The psychologist moistened her lips and asked gently: “What are you thinking when you look at that picture?”

“I’m thinking that if I had to choose just one picture to have on a wall, it wouldn’t be that one.”

The psychologist smiled tightly.

“I usually ask my patients what they think about the woman in the picture.

Who is she? Is she happy? What do you think?” Zara’s shoulders bounced nonchalantly.

“I don’t know what happiness is for her.”

The psychologist said nothing for a while before admitting: “I’ve never heard that answer before.”

Zara snorted.

“That’s because you ask the question as if there’s only one type of happiness.

But happiness is like money.”

The psychologist smiled with the superiority that only someone who thinks of themselves as being a very deep person can.

“That sounds super1cial.”

Zara groaned like a teenager trying to explain anything to anyone who isn’t a teenager.

“I didn’t say that money was happiness. I said happiness is libe money. A made-up value that represents something we can’t weigh or measure.”

The psychologist’s voice wavered, just for a moment.

“Well… yes, maybe. But we can measure and evaluate the cost of depression. And we know that it’s very common for people suPering from depression to be afraid of feeling happy. Because even depression can be a sort of secure bubble, it

can make you start to think, If I’m not unha99y, if I’m not angvy—mho am I then?

Zara wrinkled her nose. “Do you believe that?” “Yes.”

“That’s because people like you always look at people who are wealthier than you are and say: ‘Yes, they may be richer, but are they ha99y?’ As if that was the meaning of life for anyone but a complete idiot, just going around being happy all the time.”

The psychologist noted something down, then asked, still looking down at her notepad: “What is the meaning, then? In your opinion?”

Zara’s reply was the response of a person who’s spent many years thinking about this. Someone who has decided it was more important for her to do an important job than live a happy life.

“Having a purpose. A goal. A direction. And do you want to know the truth?

The truth is that far more people would rather be rich than happy.” The psychologist smiled again.

“Says the bank director to the psychologist.” Zara snorted again.

“Remind me again how much you get paid per hour? Can I come here for free if it makes me happy?”

The psychologist let out a laugh, an involuntary laugh, on the brink of unprofessional. It surprised her so much that she blushed. She made a feeble attempt to pull herself together, and said: “No. But perhaps I’d let you come here for free if it made me happy.”

Then Zara suddenly let out a laugh, not consciously, but as if the sound just slipped out of her. It had been a while since that last happened.


They sat in silence for a long while after that, somewhat awkwardly, until Zara 1nally nodded toward the woman on the wall.

“What do you think she’s doing?”

The psychologist looked at the picture and blinked slowly. “The same as everyone else. Searching.”

“What for?”

The psychologist’s shoulders moved up one inch, then down two.

“For something to cling on to. Something to 1ght for. Something to look forward to.”

Zara took her eyes from the picture and looked past the psychologist, out of the window.

“What if she’s thinking of committing suicide, then?”

The psychologist didn’t look away from the picture, just smiled and gave away none of the feelings that were raging inside her. It takes years of training and two parents you love and never want to worry to master that facial expression.

“Why do you think that’s what she’s thinking?”

“Don’t all intelligent people think about that, some time or other?”

At 1rst the psychologist was going to reply with some practiced phrase she had learned during her training, but she was well aware that wouldn’t help. So she replied honestly instead: “Yes. Maybe. What do you think stops us?”

Zara leaned forward and moved two pens on the desk so they were lying parallel. Then she said: “Fear of heights.”

There isn’t a person on this planet who could have said there and then with any certainty if she was joking or not. The psychologist considered her next question for a long time.

“Can I ask, Zara—do you have any hobbies?”

“Hobbies?” Zara repeated, but not in an entirely condescending way.

The psychologist elaborated: “Yes. Are you involved in any charities, for instance?”

Zara shook her head silently. The psychologist thought at 1rst that it was a compliment that she didn’t just 1re back with an insult, but the look in Zara’s eyes made her hesitate, as if the question had toppled and broken something inside her.

“Are you okay? Did I say something wrong?” the psychologist asked anxiously, but Zara had already looked at the time, stood up, and was now

walking to the door. The psychologist, who hadn’t been a psychologist long enough not to be struck by panic at the thought of losing a patient, found herself saying something quite remarkably unprofessional: “Don’t do anything silly, now!”

Zara stopped at the door, surprised. “Such as what?”

The psychologist didn’t know what to say, so she smiled awkwardly and said: “Well, don’t do anything silly… before you’ve paid my bill.”

Zara let out a sudden laugh. The psychologist joined in. It was harder to identify the extent to which that was also unprofessional.


While Zara was standing in the elevator, the psychologist sat in her office staring at the woman in the painting, surrounded by sky. Zara was the 1rst person who had ever suggested that the woman might be thinking of ending her life, no one else had looked at it like that.

The psychologist herself always felt that the woman was gazing oP toward the horizon in a way that can only have two explanations: longing or fear. That was why she had painted the picture, as a reminder to herself. It was the sort of subject psychologists love, because you can look at it for ages without noticing the most obvious thing. The fact that the woman is standing on a bridge.

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