Chapter no 69

Anxious People

The windowsill outside the office is weighed down by snow. The psychologist is talking to her dad on the phone. “Darling Nadia, my little bird,” he says in the language of his homeland, because “bird” is a more beautiful word there. “I love you, too, Dad,” Nadia says patiently. He never used to talk to her like that, but late in life even computer programmers become poets. Nadia assures him over and over that she’ll drive carefully when she sets oP to visit him the following day, but he’d still prefer to come and fetch her. Dads are dads and daughters are daughters, and not even psychologists can quite come to terms with that.

Nadia hangs up. There’s a knock on the door, like when someone who doesn’t want to touch the door taps on it with the end of an umbrella. Zara is standing outside. She’s holding a letter in her hand.

“Hello? Sorry, I thought… have we got an appointment booked for now?” Nadia wonders, fumbling 1rst for her diary, then for her mobile to see what time it is.

“No, I just…,” Zara replies quietly. A gentle tremble of the metal spokes of the umbrella gives her away. Nadia spots it.

“Come in, come in,” she says anxiously.

The skin under Zara’s eyes is full of tiny cracks, worn down by everything it’s had to hold back, 1nally on the brink of bursting. She looks at the picture of the woman on the bridge for several minutes before she asks Nadia: “Do you like your job?”

“Yes,” Nadia nods, unsettled. “Are you happy?”

Nadia wants to reach out and touch her, but refrains.

“Yes, I’m happy, Zara. Not all the time, but I’ve learned that you don’t have to be happy all the time. But I’m happy… enough. Is that what you came here to ask?”

Zara looks past her.

“You asked me once why I like my job, and I said it was because I was good at it. But I unexpectedly found myself with some time to think recently, and I think I liked my job because I believed in it.”

“How do you mean?” the psychologist asks, in her professional voice, despite the fact that she feels like saying, unprofessionally, that she’s really pleased to see Zara. That she’s been thinking about her a lot. And has been worrying about what she might do.

Zara reaches out her hand, as close to the picture as possible without actually touching the woman.

“I believe in the place of banks in society. I believe in order. I’ve never had any objection to the fact that our customers and the media and politicians all hate us, that’s our purpose. Banks need to be the ballast in the system. They make it slow, bureaucratic, difficult to maneuver. To stop the world lurching about too much. People need bureaucracy, to give them time to think before they do something stupid.”

She falls silent. The psychologist sits down quietly on her chair.

“Forgive me for speculating, Zara, but… it sounds like something’s changed.

In you.”

Zara looks her straight in the eye then, for the 1rst time.

“The housing market is going to crash again. Maybe not tomorrow, but it’s going to crash again. We know that. Yet we still lend money. When people lose everything, we tell them it was their responsibility, that those are the rules of the game, that it was their own fault they were so greedy. But of course that isn’t true. Most people aren’t greedy, most people are just… like you said when we were talking about the picture: they’re just looking for something to cling on to. Something to 1ght for. They want somewhere to live, somewhere to raise their children, live their lives.”

“Has anything happened to you since we last met?” the psychologist asks.

Zara gives her a troubled smile. Because how do you answer that? So instead she answers a question that’s never been asked: “Everything’s become lighter, easier, Nadia. The banks aren’t ballast anymore. One hundred years ago practically everyone who worked in a bank understood how the bank made money. Now there are at most three people in each bank who really understand where it all comes from.”

“And you’re questioning your place there now, because you no longer think you understand?” the psychologist guesses.

Zara’s chin moves sadly from side to side.

“No. I’ve handed in my notice. Because I realized that I was one of the three.” “What are you going to do from now on?”

“I don’t know.”

The psychologist 1nally has something important to say. Something she didn’t learn at college but knows that everyone needs to hear, every so often.

“Not knowing is a good place to start.”


Zara doesn’t say anything more. She massages her hands, counts windows. The desk is narrow, the two women probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable sitting so close to each other if it hadn’t been there between them. Sometimes we don’t need distance, just barriers. Zara’s movements are wary, Nadia’s cautious. Only after a long time has passed does the psychologist venture to speak again.

“Do you remember asking me, one of the 1rst times we met, if I could explain what panic attacks were? I don’t think I ever gave you a good answer.”

“Have you got a better one now?” Zara asks.

The psychologist shakes her head. Zara can’t help smiling. Then Nadia says, as herself, in her own words rather than those of her psychology training or anyone else: “But you know what, Zara? I’ve learned that it helps to talk about it. Unfortunately I think most people would still get more sympathy from their colleagues and bosses at work if they show up looking rough one morning and say ‘I’m hungover’ than if they say ‘I’m suPering from anxiety.’ But I think we pass people in the street every day who feel the same as you and I, many of them

just don’t know what it is. Men and women going around for months having trouble breathing and seeing doctor after doctor because they think there’s something wrong with their lungs. All because it’s so damn difficult to admit that something else is… broken. That it’s an ache in our soul, invisible lead weights in our blood, an indescribable pressure in our chest. Our brains are lying to us, telling us we’re going to die. But there’s nothing wrong with our lungs, Zara. We’re not going to die, you and I.”

The words drift around between them, dancing invisibly on their retinas before the silence takes them. We’re not going to die. We’re not going to die. We’re not going to die, you and I.

“Yet!” Zara eventually points out, and the psychologist bursts out laughing. “Do you know what, Zara? Maybe you could get a new job writing mottos

for fortune cookies?” She smiles.

“The only note a cake eater needs to 1nd is ‘this is why you’re fat’…,” Zara replies. Then she laughs, too, but the quivering tip of her nose gives her away. Her gaze darts 1rst through the window, then it sneaks back to glance at Nadia’s hands, then her neck, then her chin, never quite up to her eyes, but almost. The silence that follows is the longest they’ve shared. Zara closes her eyes, presses her lips together, and the skin beneath her eyes 1nally gives way. Her terror forms itself into fragile drops and sets oP toward the edge of the desk.

Very slowly she lets the envelope slip out of her hand. The psychologist picks it up hesitantly. Zara wants to whisper that it was because of the letter that she came here, that very 1rst time, when exactly ten years had passed since the man jumped. That she needs someone to read out loud what he wrote to her, and then, when her chest has caught 1re, stop her from jumping herself.

She wants to whisper the whole thing, about the bridge and about Nadia, and how Zara watched as the boy came running over and saved her. And how she has spent every single day since then thinking about the diPerence between people. But all she manages to say is: “Nadia… you… I…”


Nadia feels like embracing the older woman on the other side of the desk, hugging her, but she doesn’t dare. So instead, while Zara keeps her eyes closed, the psychologist gently slips her little 1nger beneath the back of the envelope and opens it. She pulls out a ten-year-old handwritten note. Four words.

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