Chapter no 58

The Silent Patient

THE COURTYARD WAS POPULATED WITH PATIENTS. They were huddled about in their usual groups, gossiping, arguing, smoking; some were hugging themselves and stamping their feet to keep warm.

Alicia put a cigarette to her lips, holding it between her long thin fingers. I lit it for her. As the flame caught the tip of her cigarette, it crackled and glowed red. She inhaled deeply, her eyes on mine. She seemed almost amused.

“Aren’t you going to smoke? Or is that inappropriate? Sharing a cigarette with a patient?”

She’s making fun of me, I thought. But she was right to—no regulation prohibited a member of staff and a patient from having a cigarette together. But if staff smoked, they tended to do it covertly, sneaking to the fire escape at the back of the building. They certainly didn’t do it in front of the patients. To stand here in the courtyard and smoke with her did feel like a transgression. I was probably imagining it, but I felt we were being watched. I sensed Christian spying on us from the window. His words came back to me: “Borderlines are so seductive.” I looked into Alicia’s eyes. They weren’t seductive; they weren’t even friendly. A fierce mind was behind those eyes, a sharp intelligence that was only just waking up. She was a force to be reckoned with, Alicia Berenson. I understood that now.

Perhaps that’s why Christian had felt the need to sedate her. Was he scared of what she might do—what she might say? I felt a little scared of her myself; not scared, exactly—but alert, apprehensive. I knew I had to watch my step.

“Why not?” I said. “I’ll have one too.”

I put a cigarette in my mouth and lit it. We smoked in silence for a moment, maintaining eye contact, only inches from each other, until I felt a strange adolescent embarrassment and averted my gaze. I tried to cover it by gesturing at the courtyard.

“Shall we walk and talk?” Alicia nodded. “Okay.”

We started walking around the wall, along the perimeter of the courtyard. The other patients watched us. I wondered what they were thinking. Alicia didn’t seem to care. She didn’t even seem to notice them. We walked in silence for a moment.

Eventually she said, “Do you want me to go on?” “If you want to, yes … Are you ready?”

Alicia nodded. “Yes, I am.”

“What happened once you were inside the house?”

“The man said … he said he wanted a drink. So I gave him one of Gabriel’s beers. I don’t drink beer. I didn’t have anything else in the house.”

“And then?” “He talked.” “What about?”

“I don’t remember.” “You don’t?”


She lapsed into silence.

I waited as long as I could bear before prompting her, “Let’s keep going.

You were in the kitchen. How were you feeling?”

“I don’t … I don’t remember feeling anything at all.”

I nodded. “That’s not uncommon in these situations. It’s not just a case of flight-or-fight responses. There’s a third, equally common response when we’re under attack—we freeze.”

“I didn’t freeze.” “No?”

“No.” She shot me a fierce look. “I was preparing myself. I was getting ready … ready to fight. Ready to—kill him.”

“I see. And how did you intend to do that?”

“Gabriel’s gun. I knew I had to get to the gun.”

“It was in the kitchen? You had put it there? That’s what you wrote in the diary.”

Alicia nodded. “Yes, in the cupboard by the window.” She inhaled deeply and blew out a long line of smoke. “I told him I needed some water. I went to get a glass. I walked across the kitchen—it took forever to walk a few feet. Step by step, I reached the cupboard. My hand was shaking.… I opened it.…”


“The cupboard was empty. The gun was gone. And then I heard him say, ‘The glasses are in the cupboard to your right.’ I turned around, and the gun was there—in his hand. He was pointing it at me, and laughing.”

“And then?” “Then?”

“What were you thinking?”

“That it had been my last chance to escape, and now—now he was going to kill me.”

“You believed he was going to kill you?” “I knew he was.”

“But then why did he delay? Why not do it as soon as he broke into the house?”

Alicia didn’t answer. I glanced at her. To my surprise, a smile was on her lips.

“When I was young, Aunt Lydia had a kitten. A tabby cat. I didn’t like her much. She was wild, and she’d go for me sometimes with her claws. She was unkind—and cruel.”

“Don’t animals act out of instinct? Can they be cruel?”

Alicia looked at me intently. “They can be cruel. She was. She would bring in things from the field—mice or little birds she’d caught. And they were always half-alive. Wounded, but alive. She’d keep them like that and play with them.”

“I see. It sounds like you’re saying you were this man’s prey? That he was playing some kind of sadistic game with you. Is that right?”

Alicia dropped the end of her cigarette on the ground and stepped on it. “Give me another one.”

I handed her the pack. She took one and lit the cigarette herself. She smoked for a moment. “Gabriel was coming home at eight. Two more hours. I kept staring at the clock. ‘What’s the matter?’ he said. ‘Don’t you like spending time with me?’ And he stroked my skin with the gun, running it up and down my arm.” She shivered at the memory. “I said Gabriel was going to be home any minute. ‘And what then?’ he asked. ‘He’ll rescue you?’”

“And what did you say?”

“I didn’t say anything. I just kept staring at the clock … and then my phone rang. It was Gabriel. He told me to answer it. He held the gun against my head.”

“And? What did Gabriel say?”

“He said … he said the shoot was turning into a nightmare, so I should go ahead and eat without him. He wouldn’t get back until ten at the earliest. I hung up. ‘My husband is on his way home,’ I said. ‘He’ll be here in a few minutes. You should go, now, before he gets back.’ The man just laughed. ‘But I heard him say he won’t be back until ten,’ he said. ‘We’ve got hours to kill. Get me some rope,’ he said, ‘or tape or something. I want to tie you up.’

“I did as he asked. I knew it was hopeless now. I knew how it was going to end.”

Alicia stopped talking and looked at me. I could see the raw emotion in her eyes. I wondered if I was pushing her too hard.

“Maybe we should take a break.”

“No, I need to finish. I need to do this.”

She went on, speaking faster now. “I didn’t have any rope, so he took the wire I had for hanging canvases. He made me go in the living room. He pulled out one of the upright chairs from the dining table. He told me to sit down. He started wrapping the wire around my ankles, tying me to the chair. I could feel it cutting into me. ‘Please,’ I said, ‘please—’ But he didn’t listen. He tied my wrists behind my back. I was sure then that he was going to kill me. I wish … I wish he had.”

She spat this out. I was startled by her vehemence. “Why do you wish that?”

“Because what he did was worse.”

For a second I thought Alicia was going to cry. I fought a sudden desire to hold her, take her in my arms, kiss her, reassure her, promise her she was safe. I restrained myself. I stubbed out my cigarette on the redbrick wall.

“I feel that you need to be taken care of. I find myself wanting to take care of you, Alicia.”

“No.” She shook her head firmly. “That’s not what I want from you.” “What do you want?”

Alicia didn’t answer. She turned and walked back inside.

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