Chapter no 36

The Silent Patient

THE CANTEEN WAS THE WARMEST ROOM at the Grove. Piping-hot radiators lined the walls, and the benches closest to them were always filled first. Lunch was the busiest meal, with staff and patients eating side by side. The raised voices of the diners created a cacophony of noise, born from an uncomfortable excitement when all the patients were in the same space.

A couple of jolly Caribbean dinner ladies laughed and chatted as they served up bangers and mash, fish-and-chips, chicken curry, all of which smelled better than they tasted. I selected fish-and-chips as the lesser of three evils. On my way to sit down, I passed Elif. She was surrounded by her gang, a surly-looking crew of the toughest patients. She was complaining about the food as I walked by her table.

“I’m not eating this shit.” She pushed away her tray.

The patient to her right pulled the tray toward her, preparing to take it off Elif’s hands, but Elif whacked her across the head.

“Greedy bitch!” Elif shouted. “Give that back.”

This prompted a guffaw of laughter around the table. Elif pulled back her plate and tucked into her meal with renewed relish.

Alicia was sitting alone, I noticed, at the back of the room. She was picking at a meager bit of fish like an anorexic bird, moving it around the plate but not bringing it to her mouth. I was half tempted to sit with her but decided against it. Perhaps if she had looked up and made eye contact, I would have walked over. But she kept her gaze lowered, as if attempting to block out her surroundings and those around her. It felt like an invasion of privacy to intrude, so I sat at the end of another table, a few spaces away from any patients, and started eating my fish-and-chips. I ate just a mouthful of the soggy fish, which was tasteless, reheated but still cold in

the center. I concurred with Elif’s appraisal. I was about to throw it in the bin when someone sat down opposite me.

To my surprise, it was Christian. “All right?” he said with a nod. “Yeah, you?”

Christian didn’t reply. He hacked with determination through the rock-solid rice and curry. “I heard about your plan to get Alicia painting,” he said between mouthfuls.

“I see news travels fast.”

“It does in this place. Your idea?”

I hesitated. “It was, yes. I think it’ll be good for her.” Christian gave me a doubtful look. “Be careful, mate.” “Thanks for the warning. But it’s rather unnecessary.”

“I’m just saying. Borderlines are seductive. That’s what’s going on here.

I don’t think you fully get that.”

“She’s not going to seduce me, Christian.”

He laughed. “I think she already has. You’re giving her just what she wants.”

“I’m giving her what she needs. There’s a difference.”

“How do you know what she needs? You’re overidentifying with her.

It’s obvious. She’s the patient, you know—not you.”

I looked at my watch in an attempt to disguise my anger. “I have to go.” I stood and picked up my tray. I started walking away, but Christian called after me, “She’ll turn on you, Theo. Just wait. Don’t say I didn’t

warn you.”

I felt annoyed. And the annoyance stayed with me for the rest of the day.

* * *

After work, I left the Grove and went to the small shop at the end of the road, to buy a pack of cigarettes. I put a cigarette in my mouth, lit it, and inhaled deeply, barely conscious of my actions. I was thinking about what Christian had said, going over it in my mind while the cars sped past. Borderlines are seductive, I heard him saying.

Was it true? Was that why I was so annoyed? Had Alicia emotionally seduced me? Christian clearly thought so, and I had no doubt Diomedes suspected it. Were they right?

Searching my conscience, I felt confident the answer was no. I wanted to help Alicia, yes—but I was also perfectly able to remain objective about her, stay vigilant, tread carefully, and keep firm boundaries.

I was wrong. It was already too late, though I wouldn’t admit this, even to myself.

* * *

I called Jean-Felix at the gallery. I asked what had happened to Alicia’s art materials—her paints, brushes, and canvases. “Is it all in storage?”

After a slight pause he answered, “Well, no, actually … I have all her stuff.”

“You do?”

“Yes. I cleared out her studio after the trial—and got hold of everything worth keeping—all her preliminary sketches, notebooks, her easel, her oils. I’m storing it all for her.”

“How nice of you.”

“So you’re following my advice? Letting Alicia paint?” “Yes. Whether anything will come of it remains to be seen.”

“Oh, something will come of it. You’ll see. All I ask is you let me have a look at the finished paintings.”

A strange note of hunger was in his voice. I had a sudden image of Alicia’s pictures swaddled like babies in blankets in that storage room. Was he really keeping them safe for her? Or because he couldn’t bear to let go of them?

“Would you mind dropping off the materials to the Grove?” I said. “Would that be convenient?”

“Oh, I—” There was a moment’s hesitation. I felt his anxiety.

I found myself coming to his rescue. “Or I can pick them up from you if that’s easier?”

“Yes, yes, perhaps that would be better.”

Jean-Felix was scared of coming here, scared of seeing Alicia. Why?

What was there between them?

What was it that he didn’t want to face?

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