COMMUNITY WAS HELD IN A LONG ROOM with tall barred windows that overlooked a redbrick wall. The smell of coffee was in the air, mingled with traces of Yuri’s aftershave. About thirty people were sitting in a circle. Most were clutching paper cups of tea or coffee, yawning and doing their best to wake up. Some, having drunk their coffees, were fidgeting with the empty cups, crumpling, flattening them, or tearing them to shreds.
Community met once or twice daily; it was something between an administrative meeting and a group therapy session. Items relating to the running of the unit or the patients’ care were put on the agenda to be discussed. It was, Professor Diomedes was fond of saying, an attempt to involve the patients in their own treatment and encourage them to take responsibility for their well-being, although this attempt didn’t always work. Diomedes’s background in group therapy meant he had a fondness for meetings of all kinds, and he encouraged as much group work as possible. You might say he was happiest with an audience. He had the faint air of a theatrical impresario, I thought, as he rose to his feet to greet me, hands outstretched in welcome, and beckoned me over.
“Theo. There you are. Join us, join us.”
He spoke with a slight Greek accent, barely detectable—he’d mostly lost it, having lived in England for over thirty years. He was handsome, and although in his sixties, he looked much younger—he had a youthful, mischievous manner, more like an irreverent uncle than a psychiatrist. This isn’t to say he wasn’t devoted to the patients in his care—he arrived before the cleaners did in the morning and stayed long after the night team had taken over from the day staff, sometimes spending the night on the couch in
his office. Twice divorced, Diomedes was fond of saying his third and most successful marriage was to the Grove.
“Sit down here.” He gestured to an empty chair by his side. “Sit, sit, sit.”
I did as he asked.
Diomedes presented me with a flourish. “Allow me to introduce our new psychotherapist. Theo Faber. I hope you will join me in welcoming Theo to our little family—”
While Diomedes spoke, I glanced around the circle, looking for Alicia. But couldn’t see her anywhere. Apart from Professor Diomedes, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, the others were mostly in short-sleeved shirts or T-shirts. It was hard to tell who was a patient and who was a member of staff.
A couple of faces were familiar to me—Christian, for instance. I had known him at Broadmoor. A rugby-playing psychiatrist with a broken nose and a dark beard. Good-looking in a bashed-up kind of way. He’d left Broadmoor soon after I arrived. I didn’t like Christian much, but to be fair I hadn’t known him well, as we didn’t work together for long.
I remembered Indira, from the interview. She smiled at me, and I was grateful, for hers was the only friendly face. The patients mostly glared at me with surly mistrust. I didn’t blame them. The abuses they had suffered— physical, psychological, sexual—meant it would be a long time before they could trust me, if ever. The patients were all women—and most had course features, lined, scarred. They’d had difficult lives, suffering from horrors that had driven them to retreat into the no-man’s-land of mental illness; their journey was etched into their faces, impossible to miss.
But Alicia Berenson? Where was she? I looked around the circle again but still couldn’t find her. Then I realized—I was looking right at her. Alicia was sitting directly opposite me, across the circle.
I hadn’t seen her because she was invisible.
Alicia was slumped forward in the chair. She was obviously highly sedated. She was holding a paper cup, full of tea, and her trembling hand was spilling a steady stream of it onto the floor. I restrained myself from
going over and straightening her cup. She was so out of it I doubt she’d have noticed if I had.
I hadn’t expected her to be in such bad shape. There were some echoes of the beautiful woman she had once been: deep blue eyes; a face of perfect symmetry. But she was too thin and looked unclean. Her long red hair was hanging in a dirty, tangled mess around her shoulders. Her fingernails were chewed and torn. Faded scars were visible on both her wrists—the same scars I’d seen faithfully rendered in the Alcestis portrait. Her fingers didn’t stop trembling, doubtless a side effect of the drug cocktail she was on— risperidone and other heavyweight antipsychotics. And glistening saliva was collecting around her open mouth, uncontrollable drooling being another unfortunate side effect of the medication.
I noticed Diomedes looking at me. I pulled my attention away from Alicia and focused on him.
“I’m sure you can introduce yourself better than I can, Theo,” he said. “Won’t you say a few words?”
“Thank you.” I nodded. “I don’t really have anything to add. Just that I’m very happy to be here. Excited, nervous, hopeful. And I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone—particularly the patients. I—”
I was interrupted by a sudden bang as the door was thrown open. At first I thought I was seeing things. A giant charged into the room, holding two jagged wooden spikes, which she raised high above her head and then threw at us like spears. One of the patients covered her eyes and screamed.
I half expected the spears to impale us, but they landed with some force on the floor in the middle of the circle. Then I saw they weren’t spears at all. It was a pool cue, snapped in two.
The massive patient, a dark-haired Turkish woman in her forties, shouted, “Pisses me off. Pool cue’s been broke a week and you still ain’t fucking replaced it.”
“Watch your language, Elif,” said Diomedes. “I’m not prepared to discuss the matter of the pool cue until we decide whether it’s appropriate to allow you to join Community at such a late juncture.” He turned his head slyly and threw the question at me. “What do you think, Theo?”
I blinked and took a second to find my voice. “I think it’s important to respect time boundaries and arrive on time for Community—”
“Like you did, you mean?” said a man across the circle.
I turned and saw it was Christian who had spoken. He laughed, amused by his own joke.
I forced a smile and turned back to Elif. “He’s quite right, I was also late this morning. So maybe it’s a lesson we can learn together.”
“What you on about?” Elif said. “Who the fuck are you anyway?”
“Elif. Mind your language,” said Diomedes. “Don’t make me put you on time-out. Sit down.”
Elif remained standing. “And what about the pool cue?”
The question was addressed to Diomedes—and he looked at me, waiting for me to answer it.
“Elif, I can see you’re angry about the pool cue,” I said. “I suspect whoever broke it was also angry. It raises the question of what we do with anger in an institution like this. How about we stick with that and talk about anger for a moment? Won’t you sit down?”
Elif rolled her eyes. But she sat down.
Indira nodded, looking pleased. We started talking about anger, Indira and I, trying to draw the patients into a discussion about their angry feelings. We worked well together, I thought. I could sense Diomedes watching, evaluating my performance. He seemed satisfied.
I glanced at Alicia. And to my surprise, she was looking at me—or at least in my direction. There was a dim fogginess in her expression—as if it was a struggle to focus her eyes and see.
If you told me this broken shell had once been the brilliant Alicia Berenson, described by those who knew her as dazzling, fascinating, full of life—I simply wouldn’t have believed you. I knew then and there I’d made the right decision in coming to the Grove. All my doubts vanished. I became resolved to stop at nothing until Alicia became my patient.
There was no time to waste: Alicia was lost. She was missing. And I intended to find her.