Chapter no 27

The Silent Patient

STEADIER ON MY FEET, but still feeling faint, I followed Paul as he thudded up the dusty staircase.

Lydia Rose was waiting at the top. I recognized her scowling face from the window. She had long white hair, spreading across her shoulders like a spider’s web. She was enormously overweight—a swollen neck, fleshy forearms, massive legs like tree trunks. She was leaning heavily on her walking stick, which was buckling under her weight and looked like it might give way at any moment.

“Who is he? Who is he?”

Her shrill question was directed to Paul, even though she was staring at me. She didn’t take her eyes off me. Again, the same intense gaze I recognized from Alicia.

Paul spoke in a low voice. “Mum. Don’t get upset. He’s Alicia’s therapist, that’s all. From the hospital. He’s here to talk to me.”

“You? What does he want to talk to you for? What have you done?” “He just wants to find out a bit about Alicia.”

“He’s a journalist, you fucking idiot.” Her voice approached a shriek. “Get him out!”

“He’s not a journalist. I’ve seen his ID, all right? Now, come on, Mum, please. Let’s get you back to bed.”

Grumbling, she allowed herself to be guided back into her bedroom.

Paul nodded at me to follow.

Lydia flopped back with a deep thud. The bed quivered as it absorbed her weight. Paul adjusted her pillows. An ancient cat lay asleep by her feet, the ugliest cat I’d ever seen—battle scarred, bald in places, one ear bitten off. It was growling in its sleep.

I glanced around the room. It was full of junk—stacks of old magazines and yellowing newspapers, piles of old clothes. An oxygen canister stood by the wall, and a cake tin full of medications was on the bedside table.

I could feel Lydia’s hostile eyes on me the whole time. There was madness in her gaze; I felt quite sure of that.

“What does he want?” Her eyes darted up and down feverishly as she sized me up. “Who is he?”

“I just told you, Mum. He wants to know some background on Alicia, to help him treat her. He’s her psychotherapist.”

Lydia left no doubt about her opinion of psychotherapists. She turned her head, cleared her throat—and spat onto the floor in front of me.

Paul groaned. “Mum, please—”

“Shut up.” Lydia glared at me. “Alicia doesn’t deserve to be in hospital.”

“No?” I said. “Where should she be?”

“Where do you think? Prison.” Lydia eyed me scornfully. “You want to hear about Alicia? I’ll tell you about her. She’s a little bitch. She always was, even as a child.”

I listened, my head throbbing, as Lydia went on, with mounting anger: “My poor brother, Vernon. He never recovered from Eva’s death. I took

care of him. I took care of Alicia. And was she grateful?”

Obviously, no response was no required. Not that Lydia waited for one. “You know how Alicia repaid me? All my kindness? Do you know what

she did to me?” “Mum, please—”

“Shut up, Paul!’ Lydia turned to me. I was surprised how much anger was in her voice. “The bitch painted me. She painted me, without my knowledge or permission. I went to her exhibition—and there it was, hanging there. Vile, disgusting—an obscene mockery.”

Lydia was trembling with anger, and Paul looked concerned. He gave me an unhappy glance. “Maybe it’s better if you go now, mate. It’s not good for Mum to get upset.”

I nodded. Lydia Rose was not well, no doubt about that. I was more than happy to escape.

I left the house and made my way back to the train station, with a swollen head and a splitting headache. What a fucking waste of time. I’d found out nothing—except it was obvious why Alicia had gotten out of that house as soon as she could. It reminded me of my own escape from home at the age of eighteen, fleeing my father. It was all too obvious who Alicia was running away from—Lydia Rose.

I thought about the painting Alicia had done of Lydia. “An obscene mockery,” she called it. Well, time to pay a visit to Alicia’s gallery and find out why the picture had upset her aunt so much.

As I left Cambridge, my last thoughts were of Paul. I felt sorry for him, having to live with that monstrous woman—be her unpaid slave. It was a lonely life—I didn’t imagine he had many friends. Or a girlfriend. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was still a virgin. Something about him remained stunted, despite his size; something thwarted.

I had taken an instant and violent dislike to Lydia—probably because she reminded me of my father. I would have ended up like Paul if I had stayed in that house, if I had stayed with my parents in Surrey, at the beck and call of a madman.

I felt depressed all the way back to London. Sad, tired, close to tears. I couldn’t tell if I was feeling Paul’s sadness—or my own.

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