poisoned antidote

The room looks like an Edwardian office belonging to an upper-class gentleman. It screams professionalism and taste, maturity and knowledge. When I first entered I was utterly intimidated by it.

He looks slightly younger than I expected but otherwise, every bit the professional who should occupy this room, a room laced with his qualifications and wealth. The scent of leather and sandalwood enhances this and I notice the diffuser tucked in the corner of an impressive bookshelf. This guy has thought of everything.

“I just don’t know if I can ever forgive him.”

“I see.”

“Should I?”

“Tell me what you think.”

So, I think. For a minute or two and as I do I look around the office again. I wonder if I’m paying for his skills or his mahogany furniture. It’s probably both.

“I think I should because it’s right. The right thing to do.” I say.

“Let’s explore that.” He speaks softly and with warmth. For a moment, I feel as though he really cares. He wants to help me. I breathe out and allow some of the tension to release from my shoulders.

“What do you mean by right, by whose definition?” He asks.

“I don’t know. I’m not religious, it’s a feeling, it feels right. He hurt people. He made a huge, unchangeable mistake. I know this but still, my brain tells me it’s not helping me to hold on to this anger.” I pause.

So by right I guess I mean, the best for me and it is me that defines it that way.” I don’t understand why I sound so lucid and self-aware.

“So actually, you want to forgive and not for him or anyone else, for yourself?”

“Yes.” A wave of doubt strikes me as I watch him note this down.

“I think you understand yourself better than you realise. It is a common occurrence for a person to know the correct path and experience a battle within themselves to walk that path. I wouldn’t tell you what you ought to do, but studies have proven that holding on to bitterness and anger has a negative impact on mental and physical well-being. So I think you’re right, forgiveness is the right thing, for you”.

I detect a slight pause before those final words. The warmth is still present in his voice as he delivers this spiel, holding eye contact. Yet, I sense a rehearsed air about him, is it… boredom, I detect? My shoulders tense again. Perhaps I took some pride in seeing myself as a complex case but he’s heard it all before.

“You know the facts, but could you do it?” I blurt out, surprising myself. He is still writing and appears unaffected by my pointed question. He places the pen down and looks at me. Something blazes in his eyes very briefly, I’m not even sure it was really there as almost immediately he radiates that calming confidence.

“I expect I could yes, knowing it to be the best course. Would I find it easy? I doubt it. No one does.” He uncrosses long, thin legs and shifts to a more upright position before changing the focus back to me.

“Let’s talk about the events that lead to you making this appointment.” I take a deep breath and my stomach knots.

“Okay.”

“Tell me what happened.” He picks up his pen.

“I was angry.”

“Do you know why?”

“No.” There is an edge to my voice and I feel a flutter of the same feeling as I recall the event. A phone is ringing in the next room.

“Alright. So what happened?” He sounds ever so slightly impatient and my throat tightens. After a long pause, he looks directly at me and lifts an eyebrow a fraction.

“You’re safe here. I’m not going to judge you.”

He has misunderstood my hesitation.

“I threw bottles of alcohol on the floor of the shop. One nearly hit someone.” A throb of guilt, pulsing. I still didn’t understand where that rush of pure rage came from.

I have never done anything like that before. Never… felt like that before. I’m a normal guy. From a normal family. Well, I was.” I look at my thumb, which has been absently rubbing a smooth patch of leather on the arm of my chair.

“What triggered it?” He asks, gently.

“I saw an old family friend. We used to live next door to her.”

“What happened?”

“I’ve had the worst two years of my life. I’ve had a breakdown. I lost the life I loved. And she said, those poor people, and their families… I just, exploded.” He nods and notes something down. I wonder if it is part of their training to always appear calm and as if they understand everything that is said no matter how weird. Nothing I say makes any sense. I haven’t told him how my father died yet.

“Did she provoke anger that you feel towards your father?” He ventures. I stop for a moment, focusing on the short-pile rug in the middle of the floor. I was angry at him. I am angry at him, but why would that make me angry at her?

“I… I don’t think so. That’s sort of what I’ve assumed but now that I think about it. No, I don’t think so.” I suddenly remember what I’d been thinking the moment I bumped into her. A pack of French lager had caught my eye and I was instantly transported to our family holidays at a resort in France.

It was the same place each year; a place I loved. We all loved it. We swam, hired bikes, ran about with new-found friends, returned to our tent amidst the fragrance of barbequing meat and seafood. My father truly shrugged off the stress and pressure of his business during those holidays and gave us a glimpse of the trouble-free version of himself. I loved him but this version made me most happy and most sad. Sad that this was not the Dad I knew 50 weeks of the year.

“I was thinking of our family holidays when she spoke to me.”

“Was that a good memory or a bad one?”

“A good one. A very good one. My childhood was mostly happy. It’s just… My Dad was not.”

“Not happy?”

“No, he was not happy.”

“Do you know why?”

I pause and close my eyes. He asked me a question I have asked myself for most of my life. I still hadn’t found the answer.

“No, I don’t know why. Perhaps I should have asked. It was hard to talk to him though, in the last couple of years. Alcoholics aren’t great conversationalists.”

“I see. Is that what made you angry in the store, the alcohol?” He seems thoroughly intrigued now, like I was a puzzle to piece together.

“No, I wasn’t thinking about that. As I said I was thinking about our holidays. I think I was missing him.” Something I had not allowed myself to do.

He scans over his notes.

“You said, she commented on those poor families. Why did that make you angry?”

I missed him, I realise. I do miss him. He was my dad. He was a good man. He made mistakes but I should be allowed to miss him. To love him still. I notice a tear splash onto my jeans, a dark circle, a blot on the otherwise clean fabric. This was how I had seen my father’s presence in my life. Something to be erased. I had even changed my name.

I hadn’t realised that my anger toward him had worn itself out and now, I was angry at myself for disowning him so readily. I reach for a tissue out of the polished wooden holder.

“I was angry because no one ever says, I’m sorry for your loss.”

“I see.” I wish he’d stop saying that.

You want to be able to grieve for your father. That is understandable and it is important that you allow yourself to. When we don’t allow ourselves to grieve properly it tends to fester and produces other emotional problems that are hard to deal with.” He explains.

“So how do I do it? How can I forgive him?”

He looks up but not towards me. His gaze focuses on the window and his eyes narrow as if he is sitting a test and trying to recall the answer.

“Firstly, you need to evaluate the benefit of forgiveness in your life. Secondly, reflect on the situation and what happened and how it made you feel. Thirdly, when you feel ready, you actively choose to forgive. Finally, start to see yourself as no longer a victim and let go of the power that the situation has had on your life.” He looks at me.

Are you ready?” He gives me a penetrating stare as he asks this. His eyes are dark brown. Small and close together, under a thin, defined arch. He has olive skin and dark short hair, thinning on top.

“Yes.” I say. He briefly raises his eyebrows, then smiles unconvincingly. We are moving on before I can fully ponder his confusing responses.

“Do you feel ready to explain how your father died? Perhaps it would be helpful in the light of where our discussion has led us.”

“I’m not sure I’ll do the forgiving part if I go there. I’ve spent the best part of two years reflecting on it. This is what I came to do. I have to move past it.” My stomach starts to churn and my heart is pounding.

“I understand. Well, you need to speak this out. Close your eyes, if it helps. Visualise your father. When you’re ready, tell him you forgive him.”

I close my eyes and there he is with his sad eyes and pot belly. As I take in the familiar features I feel the same-old emotions stirring and a vicious war between anger and pity, rage and grief, takes place within me. I try to suppress it and in my mind’s eye, I look into his face.

“Dad.” I take a deep breath. Dad looks at me, waiting.

“I… Forgive… You.” My imagination races ahead of me and I see Dad smile. It’s as if he heard it and it starts to lift. The anger thuds slower, slower, then stops. Pity rushes in to fill the vacuum and turns into a deep sorrow. I weep. I weep over his loss of life, over my loss of him, over his pain and struggle.

Three simple words. When the tears dry out I take a deep breath. I still can’t believe I am here. I’d never known how to talk about emotions and what was going through my head. It hadn’t been modelled to me. Instead of turning to a bottle, I’d immersed myself in a career.

“Well done, Michael. I realise that won’t have been easy.” He says, softly.

“How do you feel?”

“Surprisingly, better.” My voice croaks as I reach for another tissue.

He doesn’t smile and looks down to his notes.

“It’s just the start Michael, this is a daily choice. No doubt the pain and disappointment will resurface and you have to make the choice to forgive until you can think about it without that sting of pain. It may be helpful now to explain the full story. To talk it through and how you feel in the light of having forgiven him. If the anger returns we can walk through the forgiveness again.”

“OK.” I consent, and begin.

“My dad ran his own business for years, as long as I knew him. He always seemed to dread going into work, though I didn’t really think much of that at the time, I was just a kid. Eventually it seemed to get too much for him. When I was at university I got a call from my mum. She was in tears. He had walked out on his business, taking a poor offer from a buyer and he got a job as a coach driver.

“For a short time he did seem happier, but then mum left. I went back to see him a couple of weeks after she’d gone and I could tell he’d been drinking. It was 4pm. I warned him he’d lose his job and he insisted that he didn’t drink the day before he drove. He lied.”

I look into his face for the first time since I started the story and his features are rigid. He is frowning and staring intently at his notes.

“Erm, Dr Mason, are you ok?” His head snaps up and he reapplies his calm expression but his eyes seem to burn into mine.

“Yes, sorry, I was reflecting on how difficult it must be to grieve for someone who has… caused an accident? The loss of other lives?” His eyes continue to stare directly into mine, unblinking. I feel nervous.

“Yes, a year ago my father drove a coach full of people travelling from Bristol to London off the motorway and down a bank. The coach overturned. He had been drinking. He and several passengers died.”

Suddenly Dr Mason stands up and briskly walks to his desk.

“Michael Langford, is that your real name?” His voice low and tone harsh. I am being interrogated now and I stand up instinctively.

“Yes, I changed it after the accident.”

“From?” He spits out.

“Michael Dunsford.”

He drops his head into his hands. I am stunned into silence. It feels like several minutes before he moves. Slowly, he lifts his head and fixes his eyes on mine. I gasp as I see the visceral anger and hatred.

“Dr… I…”

“My daughter was on that coach. She didn’t survive.” He says through gritted teeth.

“You want me to help you “deal” with this? With what your father did? I can’t because I was wrong. I will never forgive him. And neither should you.”

I take in a sharp breath but do not move or drop my gaze. He wasn’t wrong before. I knew it as I had felt the indescribable relief of letting it go, the fist of anger unclenching within me. Why keep it?

“I understand that, Dr. I’m deeply sorry for your loss. But… It’s done. I’m done.”

He marches to his door and swings it open with such force it collides with the large potted plant behind it.

“F**k off, then.” He orders, as he holds the door open. I pick up my coat.

I take one last look at the stage for his life’s work and walk out, staring straight ahead.

The End

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