Chapter no 51

Anxious People

The truth? It’s hardly ever as complicated as we think. We just hope it is, because then we feel smarter if we can work it out in advance. This is a story about a bridge, and idiots, and a hostage drama, and an apartment viewing. But it’s also a love story. Several, in fact.


The last time Zara saw her psychologist before the hostage drama, she arrived early. She was never late, but it was unusual for her not to walk in at precisely the agreed time.

“Has anything happened?” Nadia wondered. “What do you mean?” Zara replied contrarily. “You’re not usually early. Is anything wrong?” “Isn’t it your job to work that out?”

Nadia sighed.

“I was only asking.” “Is that kale?”

Nadia looked down into the plastic tub on her desk. Nodded. “I’m having lunch.”

Other patients might have taken this as a hint. Not Zara, of course. “So you’re vegan,” she said, without a question mark.

The psychologist coughed, the way you do if your throat takes oPense at you being predictable.

“I don’t have to be, do I? I mean, I am vegan, but surely other people eat kale?”

Zara wrinkled her nose.

“But that was bought in a carryout. So you could have chosen anything. But you chose kale.”

“And only vegans do that?”

“I can only assume that lack of vitamins aPects your 1nancial judgment.” Nadia smiled at that.

“So you look down on me because I’m a vegan, or because I pay for vegan food?”

Nadia swallowed the last bit of both the kale and her self-esteem, closed the lid of the tub, and asked, “How have you been feeling since we last met, Zara?”

Rather than reply Zara took a small bottle of hand sanitizer from her bag, carefully massaged her 1ngers with her back to the desk, looked at the bookcase, and declared: “For a psychologist, you have an awful lot of books that aren’t about psychology.”

“And what are the others about, in your opinion?” “Identity. That’s why you’re a vegan.”

“It’s possible to be vegan for other reasons.” “Such as?”

“It’s good for the environment.”

“Maybe. But I think people like you are vegan because it makes you feel good.

It’s probably why you’ve got poor posture, too little calcium.”

Nadia discreetly adjusted her position on her chair, and did her best not to look like she was trying to sit up straighter.

“You pay for your time here, Zara. For someone who criticizes other people’s 1nancial choices, you seem remarkably happy to throw away quite a lot of money on talking about… me. Do you want to talk about why?”

Zara seemed to consider this seriously, without taking her eyes oP the bookcase.

“Maybe next time.” “That’s good to hear.” “What is?”

“That there’s going to be a next time.”

Zara turned around at that and peered at Nadia to see if that was a joke or not. She didn’t quite succeed, so turned away again, rubbed more sanitizer into

her hands, and looked out of the window behind Nadia, counting the windows in the building opposite. Then she said: “You haven’t suggested I start taking antidepressants. Most psychologists would have.”

“Have you met many other psychologists?” “No.”

“So that’s your own analysis?”

Zara looked at the picture on the wall.

“I can understand you not wanting to give me sleeping pills, because you’re worried I’d kill myself. But surely if that’s the case, you should be giving me antidepressants instead?”

Nadia folded two unused paper napkins and tucked them away in her desk drawer. Then nodded.

“You’re right. I haven’t suggested medication. Because antidepressants are designed to smooth out the highs and lows of your mood, and if used properly they can stop you feeling so sad, but often they stop you feeling as happy.” She held one hand up, her palm horizontal. “You just end up… on a level. And you would expect that patients who take antidepressants mostly miss the highs, wouldn’t you? But that isn’t actually the case. The majority of people who want to stop medication say they want to be able to cry again. They watch a sad 1lm with someone they love, and they want to be able to… feel the same thing.”

“I don’t like 1lms,” Zara pointed out. Nadia laughed out loud.

“No, of course you don’t. But I don’t think you need fewer feelings, Zara. I think you need to feel more. I don’t think you’re depressed. I think you’re lonely.”

“That sounds like an unprofessional analysis.” “Maybe.”

“What if I leave here and kill myself.” “I don’t think you’d do that.”


“You said a little while ago that there’s going to be a next time.” Zara focused her gaze on Nadia’s chin.

“And you trust me?”



“Because I can see that you don’t want to let people get close to you. It makes you feel weak. But I don’t think you’re afraid of being hurt, I think you’re afraid of hurting other people. You’re a more empathetic and moral person than you like to admit.”

Zara was deeply, deeply oPended by this, and had difficulty working out if that was because Nadia had called her weak, or because she had said she was moral.

“Maybe I just don’t think it’s worth the ePort to talk to people I’m only going to get fed up with.”

“How do you know that if you never try?”

“I’m here, aren’t I, and it didn’t take me long to get fed up with you!”

“Try to take the question seriously,” Nadia said, which of course was hopeless. Zara bounced away from the subject as usual.

“So why ave you vegan?” Nadia groaned wearily.

“Do we really have to talk about that again? Okay: I’m vegan because I care about the climate crisis. If everyone was vegan, we could…”

Zara interrupted scornfully: “Stop the ice caps melting?”

Nadia deployed the patience vegans have plenty of time to practice when they spend Christmas with older relatives.

“Not quite, no. But it’s part of a larger solution. And the fact that the ice caps are melting is—”

“But do we really need penguins?” Zara asked bluntly.

“I would say that the ice caps are a symptom, not the problem. Like the trouble you have sleeping.”

Zara counted the windows.

“There are frogs threatened with extinction that scientists say would leave us smothered with insects if they disappeared. But penguins? Who’d be aPected if penguins disappeared, except maybe businesses that make padded jackets?”

Nadia lost the thread at that, which may have been Zara’s intention.

“You don’t make… what… do you think they make padded jackets out of penguins? They’re made of geese!”

“So geese aren’t as important as penguins? That doesn’t sound very vegan.” “That’s not what I said!”

“That’s what it sounded like.”

“You’re making a habit of this, you know.” “What?”

“Changing the subject as soon as you get close to talking about real feelings.” Zara seemed to consider this. Then she said: “What about bears, then?” “Sorry?”

“If you get attacked by a bear? Could you kill it then?” “Why would I be attacked by a bear?”

“Maybe someone kidnaps you and drugs you and you wake up in a cage with a bear, and it’s a 1ght to the death.”

“You’re starting to get quite disconcerting now. And I’d like to point out that I’ve had an awful lot of training in psychology, so I have a faivly high threshold for what counts as disconcerting.”

“Stop being so sensitive. Answer the question: Could you kill a bear then, even if you didn’t want to eat it? I’m not saying you’ve got a fork, but if you had a knife?”

Nadia groaned. “You’re doing it again.” “What?”

Nadia looked at the time. Zara noticed. She counted all the windows twice. Nadia noticed. They looked past each other for a while until Nadia said: “Let me ask you this, then: Do you think you mock the green movement this way because it’s the opposite of the 1nance industry you work in?”

Zara bit back faster than she herself was expecting, because sometimes you don’t know how strongly you feel about something until you’re tested: “The green movement doesn’t need any help to look ridiculous! And I’m not defending the 1nance industry, I’m defending the economic system.”

“What’s the diPerence?”

“One is the symptom. The other is the problem.” Nadia nodded as if she understood what that meant.

“Surely we created the economic system? It’s a construct?”

Zara’s reply was surprisingly free from condescension, and almost sounded sympathetic.

“That’s the problem. We made it too strong. We forgot how greedy we are.

Do you own an apartment?” “Yes.”

“Have you got a mortgage on it?” “Hasn’t everyone?”

“No. And a mortgage used to be something you were expected to repay. But now that every other middle-income family has a mortgage for an amount they couldn’t possibly save up in their lifetimes, then the bank isn’t lending money anymore. It’s oPering financing. And then homes are no longer homes. They’re investments.”

“I’m not sure I completely understand what that means.”

“It means that the poor get poorer, the rich get richer, and the real class divide is between those who can borrow money and those who can’t. Because no matter how much money anyone earns, they still lie awake at the end of the month worrying about money. Everyone looks at what their neighbors have and wonders, ‘How can they affovd that?’ because everyone is living beyond their means. So not even really rich people ever feel really rich, because in the end the only thing you can buy is a more expensive version of something you’ve already got. With borrowed money.”

Nadia looked like a cat who’d just seen someone skating for the 1rst time.

“I heard a man who worked in a casino say that no one gets ruined by losing, they get ruined by trying to win back the money they lost. Is that what you mean? Is that why the stock market and housing market crash?”

Zara shrugged.

“Sure. If that makes it feel better.”

Then the psychologist suddenly, and without quite knowing why, asked a question that knocked the air out of her patient’s lungs: “So do you feel more guilty about the customers you hauen’t lent money to, or the ones you’ve lent too much to?”

Zara looked untroubled, but she was holding on to the arms of the chair so tightly that when she eventually let go her palms were bloodless. She hid it by rubbing them, and evaded eye contact by counting windows. Then she let out a quick snort.

“You know something? If people who worry about animal welfare were really bothered about animal welfare, they wouldn’t tell me to eat happy pigs.”

Nadia rolled her eyes. “I don’t see what that’s got to do with my question.” Zara shrugged.

“All this talk about organic farming, adverts for free-range chickens and happy pigs… isn’t it more unethical of me to eat a happy pig? Surely it’s better if I eat a pig that’s lived a terrible life than one of those carpe diem pigs with a family and friends? The farmers say happy pigs taste better, so I can only assume that they wait until the pig has just fallen in love, maybe just after it’s had kids, when it’s at its absolute ha99iest, and then it gets shot in the head and vacuum packed. How ethical is that?”

The psychologist sighed.

“I’ll take that to mean that you don’t want to talk about your customers and how much they’ve borrowed.”

Zara dug her 1ngernails hard into her palms.

“Have you ever thought about how vegans always talk about saving the planet, as if the planet needed you? The planet will survive for billions of years even without human help. The only people we’re killing are ourselves.”

It wasn’t much of an answer, as usual. Nadia looked at the time, then regretted doing so at once because Zara noticed and got to her feet, as usual. Zara never liked to be asked to leave, and that tends to make you more alert to the way people check the time, and the second time they look you get to your feet. Nadia felt embarrassed and stammered, “We’ve got some time left… if you’d like… I haven’t another appointment after this.”

“Well, I’ve got things to do,” Zara replied.

Nadia composed herself and asked straight out, “Can you tell me one personal thing about yourself?”


Nadia stood up and moved her head in an attempt to catch Zara’s eye.

“In all the time we’ve spent talking to each other, I get the sense that you’ve never told me anything truly personal about yourself. Anything at all. What’s your favorite color? Do you like art? Have you ever been in love?”

Zara’s eyebrows rose as far as they could go. “Do you think I’d sleep better if I were in love?” Nadia burst out laughing.

“No. I was just wondering. I know very little about you.”

Of all the moments they shared, this was one of the most remarkable.


Zara stood behind her chair for several minutes. Then she took a deep breath and actually told Nadia something about herself that she had never told anyone: “I like music. I play… music, very loud, as soon as I get home. It helps me gather my thoughts.”

“Only when you get home?”

“I can’t play it that loud in the office. It only works if I listen to it at very, very high volume.”

Zara tapped her forehead as she said that, as if to illustrate what it was that didn’t work.

“What sort of music?” Nadia asked gently. “Death metal.”


“Is that a professional opinion?”

Nadia giggled, which was embarrassing and highly unprofessional—you certainly aren’t taught how to giggle in psychology courses.

“It was just so incredibly unexpected. Why death metal?” “It’s so loud that it makes your head silent.”

Zara’s knuckles turned white around the handle of her handbag. Nadia noticed, so she pulled a pad of paper from one of her desk drawers, wrote something, and handed Zara a note.

“Is that a prescription for sleeping pills?” Zara asked. Nadia shook her head.

“It’s the name of a good pair of headphones. There’s an electronics store down the street. Buy them, then you can listen to music no matter where you are, as soon as things start to feel difficult. Maybe that would help you to get out more? Meet people? Maybe even… fall in love.”

Of course the psychologist regretted saying that last bit at once. Zara didn’t respond. She tucked the note in her handbag, stared at the letter at the bottom of it, closed it quickly. As she was leaving Nadia called out anxiously, worried that she had gone too far:

“You don’t have to fall in love, Zara, that wasn’t what I meant! I just meant it might be time to try something new. I just think you should give yourself… just give yourself the chance of… getting fed up with someone!”


Zara stood in the elevator. As the doors closed she thought about loans. The ones we grant and the ones we refuse. Then she pressed the emergency stop button.

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