Chapter no 32

The Silent Patient

Alicia Berenson’s Diary


It’s even hotter today. It’s hotter in London than in Athens, apparently. But at least Athens has a beach.

Paul called me today from Cambridge. I was surprised to hear his voice. We’ve not spoken in months. My first thought was Auntie Lydia must be dead—I’m not ashamed to say I felt a flicker of relief.

But that’s not why Paul was calling. In fact I’m still not sure why he did call me. He was pretty evasive. I kept waiting for him to get to the point, but he didn’t. He kept asking if I was okay, if Gabriel was okay, and muttered something about Lydia being the same as always.

“I’ll come for a visit,” I said. “I haven’t been for ages, I’ve been meaning to.”

The truth is, I have many complicated feelings around going home, and being at the house, with Lydia and Paul. So I avoid going back—and I end up feeling guilty, so I can’t win either way.

“It would be nice to catch up,” I said. “I’ll come see you soon. I’m just about to go out, so—”

Then Paul spoke so quietly I couldn’t hear him. “Sorry? Can you repeat that?”

“I said I’m in trouble, Alicia. I need your help.” “What’s the matter?”

“I can’t talk about it on the phone. I need to see you.”

“It’s just—I’m not sure I can make it up to Cambridge at the minute.” “I’ll come to you. This afternoon. Okay?”

Something in Paul’s voice made me agree without thinking about it. He sounded desperate.

“Okay. Are you sure you can’t tell me about it now?” “I’ll see you later.” Paul hung up.

I kept thinking about it for the rest of the morning. What could be serious enough that Paul would turn to me, of all people? Was it about Lydia? Or the house, perhaps? It didn’t make sense.

I wasn’t able to get any work done after lunch. I blamed the heat, but in truth my mind was elsewhere. I hung around in the kitchen, glancing out the windows, until I saw Paul on the street.

He waved at me. “Alicia, hi.”

The first thing that struck me was how terrible he looked. He’d lost a lot of weight, particularly around his face, the temples and jaw. He looked skeletal, unwell. Exhausted. Scared.

We sat in the kitchen with the portable fan on. I offered him a beer but he said he’d rather have something stronger, which surprised me because I don’t remember him being much of a drinker. I poured him a whiskey—a small one—and he topped it up when he thought I wasn’t looking.

He didn’t say anything at first. We sat there in silence for a moment. Then he repeated what he had said on the phone. The same words:

“I’m in trouble.”

I asked him what he meant. Was it about the house? Paul looked at me blankly. No, it wasn’t the house. “Then what?”

“It’s me.” He hesitated, then came out with it. “I’ve been gambling. And losing a lot, I’m afraid.”

He’d been gambling regularly for years. He said it started as a way of getting out of the house—somewhere to go, something to do, a bit of fun— and I can’t say I blame him. Living with Lydia, fun must be in short supply. But he’s been losing more and more, and now it had gotten out of hand. He’s been dipping into the savings account. And not much was there to start with.

“How much do you need?” “Twenty grand.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “You lost twenty grand?”

“Not all at once. And I borrowed from some people—and now they want it back.”

“What people?”

“If I don’t pay them back, I’m going to be in trouble.”

“Have you told your mother?” I already knew the answer. Paul may be a mess but he’s not stupid.

“Of course not. Mum would kill me. I need your help, Alicia. That’s why I’m here.”

“I haven’t got that kind of money, Paul.”

“I’ll pay it back. I don’t need it all at once. Just something.”

I didn’t say anything and he kept pleading. They wanted something tonight. He didn’t dare go back empty-handed. Whatever I could give him, anything. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to help him, but I suspected giving him money wasn’t the way to deal with this. I also knew his debts were going to be a tough secret to keep from Auntie Lydia. I didn’t know what I’d do if I were Paul. Facing up to Lydia was probably scarier than the loan sharks.

“I’ll write you a check,” I said finally.

Paul seemed pathetically grateful and kept muttering, “Thank you, thank you.”

I wrote him a check for two thousand pounds, payable to cash. I know that’s not what he wanted, but the whole thing was uncharted territory for me. And I’m not sure I believed everything he said. Something about it didn’t ring true.

“Maybe I can give you more once I’ve talked to Gabriel,” I said. “But it’s better if we work out another way to handle this. You know, Gabriel’s brother is a lawyer. Maybe he could—”

Paul jumped up, terrified, shaking his head. “No, no, no. Don’t tell Gabriel. Don’t involve him. Please. I’ll work out how to handle it. I’ll work it out.”

“What about Lydia? I think maybe you should—”

Paul shook his head fiercely and took the check. He looked disappointed at the amount but didn’t say anything. He left soon after afterward.

I have the feeling I let him down. It’s a feeling I’ve always had about Paul, since we were kids. I’ve always failed to live up to his expectations of me— that I should be a mothering figure to him. He should know me better than that. I’m not the mothering type.

I told Gabriel about it when he got back. He was annoyed with me. He said I shouldn’t have given Paul any money, that I don’t owe him anything, he’s not my responsibility.

I know Gabriel is right, but I can’t help feeling guilty. I escaped from that house, and from Lydia—Paul didn’t. He’s still trapped there. He’s still eight years old. I want to help him.

But I don’t know how.


I spent all day painting, experimenting with the background of the Jesus picture. I’ve been making sketches from the photos we took in Mexico—red,

cracked earth, dark, spiny shrubs—thinking about how to capture that heat, that intense dryness—and then I heard Jean-Felix calling my name.

I thought for a second about ignoring him, pretending I wasn’t there. But then I heard the clink of the gate, and it was too late. I stuck my head outside and he was walking across the garden.

He waved at me. “Hey, babes. Am I disturbing you? Are you working?” “I am, actually.”

“Good, good. Keep at it. Only six weeks until the exhibition, you know. You’re horribly behind.” He laughed that annoying laugh of his. My expression must have given me away because he added quickly, “Only joking. I’m not here to check up on you.”

I didn’t say anything. I just went back into the studio, and he followed. He pulled up a chair in front of the fan. He lit a cigarette, and the smoke whirled about him in the breeze. I went back to the easel and picked up my brush. Jean-Felix talked as I worked. He complained about the heat, saying London wasn’t designed to cope with this kind of weather. He compared it unfavorably with Paris and other cities. I stopped listening after a while. He went on complaining, self-justifying, self-pitying, boring me to death. He never asks me anything. He doesn’t have any actual interest in me. Even after all these years, I’m just a means to an end—an audience of the Jean-Felix Show.

Maybe that’s unkind. He’s an old friend—and he’s always been there for me. He’s lonely, that’s all. So am I. Well, I’d rather be lonely than be with the wrong person. That’s why I never had any serious relationships before Gabriel. I was waiting for Gabriel, for someone real, as solid and true as the others were false. Jean-Felix was always jealous of our relationship. He tried to hide it—and still does—but it’s obvious to me he hates Gabriel. He’s always bitching about him, implying Gabriel’s not as talented as I am, that he’s vain and egocentric. I think Jean-Felix believes that one day he will win me over to his side, and I’ll fall at his feet. But what he doesn’t realize is that with every snide comment and bitchy remark, he drives me further into Gabriel’s arms.

Jean-Felix is always alluding to our long, long friendship—it’s the hold he has on me—the intensity of those early years, when it was just “us against the world.” But I don’t think Jean-Felix realizes he’s holding on to a part of my life when I wasn’t happy. And any affection I have for Jean-Felix is for that time. We’re like a married couple who have fallen out of love. Today I realized just how much I dislike him.

“I’m working,” I said. “I need to get on with this, so if you don’t mind…”

Jean-Felix pulled a face. “Are you asking me to leave? I’ve been watching you paint since you first picked up a brush. If I’ve been a distraction all these years, you might have said something sooner.”

“I’m saying something now.”

My face was feeling hot and I was getting angry. I couldn’t control it. I tried to paint but my hand was shaking. I could feel Jean-Felix watching me—I could practically hear his mind working—ticking, whirring, spinning. “I’ve upset you,” he said at last. “Why?”

“I just told you. You can’t keep popping over like this. You need to text me or call first.”

“I didn’t realize I needed a written invitation to see my best friend.”

There was a pause. He’d taken it badly. I guess there was no other way to take it. I hadn’t planned on telling him like this—I’d intended to break it to him more gently. But somehow I was unable to stop myself. And the funny thing is, I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to be brutal.

“Jean-Felix, listen.” “I’m listening.”

“There’s no easy way to say this. But after the show, it’s time for a change.” “Change of what?”

“Change of gallery. For me.”

Jean-Felix looked at me, astonished. He looked like a little boy, I thought, about to burst into tears, and I found myself feeling nothing but irritation.

“It’s time for a fresh start. For both of us.”

“I see.” He lit another cigarette. “And I suppose this is Gabriel’s idea?” “Gabriel’s got nothing to do with it.”

“He hates my guts.” “Don’t be stupid.”

“He poisoned you against me. I’ve seen it happening. He’s been doing it for years.”

“That’s not true.”

“What other explanation is there? What other reason could you have for stabbing me in the back?”

“Don’t be so dramatic. This is only about the gallery. It’s not about you and me. We’ll still be friends. We can still hang out.”

“If I text or call first?” He laughed and started talking fast, as if he was trying to get it out before I could stop him. “Wow, wow, wow. All this time I really believed in something, you know, in you and me—and now you’ve decided it was nothing. Just like that. No one cares about you like I do, you know. No one.”

“Jean-Felix, please—”

“I can’t believe you just decided like that.” “I’ve been wanting to tell you for a while.”

This was clearly the wrong thing to say. Jean-Felix looked stunned. “What do you mean, a while? How long?”

“I don’t know. A while.”

“And you’ve been acting for me? Is that it? Christ, Alicia. Don’t end it like this. Don’t discard me like this.”

“I’m not discarding you. Don’t be so dramatic. We’ll always be friends.”

“Let’s just slow down here. You know why I came over? To ask you to the theater on Friday.” He pulled two tickets from inside his jacket and showed them to me—they were for a tragedy by Euripides, at the National. “I’d like you to come with me. It’s a more civilized way to say goodbye, don’t you think? For old times’ sake. Don’t say no.”

I hesitated. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But I didn’t want to upset him further. I think I would have agreed to anything—just to get him out of there. So I said yes.

10:30 P.M.

When Gabriel got home, I talked to him about what happened with Jean-Felix. He said he never understood our friendship anyway. He said Jean-Felix is creepy and doesn’t like the way he looks at me.

“And how is that?”

“Like he owns you or something. I think you should leave the gallery now— before the show.”

“I can’t do that—it’s too late. I don’t want him to hate me. You don’t how vindictive he can be.”

“It sounds like you’re afraid of him.”

“I’m not. It’s just easier this way—to pull away gradually.”

“The sooner the better. He’s in love with you. You know that, don’t you?”

I didn’t argue—but Gabriel is wrong. Jean-Felix isn’t in love with me. He’s more attached to my paintings than he is to me. Which is another reason to get away from him. Jean-Felix doesn’t care about me at all. Gabriel was right about one thing, though.

I am afraid of him.

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