Authors: Lucy Beresford
SIDE BY SIDE BY SIDE and BEING ALIVE (from the musical play “Company”) Words and Music by Stephen Sondheim - Â©) 1970 Range Road Music, Inc., Jerry Leiber Music, Mike Stoller Music and Rilting Music, Inc. - Copyright renewed. - All rights administered by Herald Square Music, Inc. (ASCAP) - International Copyright Secured. All rights reserved. Lyrics reproduced by kind permission of Carlin Music Corp., London NW1 8BD.
We tend to be incredibly distrustful of our own perceptions â¦
we do not trust ourselves as witnesses â¦
and ultimately we surrender and give ourselves over
to a process of perpetual interpretation,
applied even to those things we know to be absolute fact â¦
â JAVIER MARÃAS,
Your Face Tomorrow
, 1: Fever and Spear
Table of Contents
if you ever catch Robbie Taylor,' says Amber, by way of avoiding Dr Ramji's question. âWe had him on in the car coming here. He runs a sort of therapy phone-in. Not sure I'd broadcast the secrets of my psyche to an audience of millionsâ'
Amber hesitates. The woman in the opposite armchair sits absolutely still. Amber wants to continue, but she is distracted by the woman's eyebrows, immaculate crescents of smooth, dark hairs along the line of the brow. Anger flutters at Amber's throat, and she wants to shake the woman. Is it jealousy, in the face of such perfection? Shame, at being caught skirting the issue with therapy small talk? Or a fear that Dr Ramji knows all?
ââso it took a radio show to make me see that, actually, I'm very lucky.' Strident is how Amber hears herself sound.
âLucky,' says Dr Ramji, her voice a warm drink on a cold night. She cocks her head in a way Amber bets she has to practise. âIn what sense?'
âWell, my husband saysâ'
Panic prickles Amber's skin, as if this woman's correct pronunciation of Matt's Afrikaans name has somehow upped the stakes in a hitherto covert competition. Amber glances round the room, with its surfaces free from paperwork, before noticing a pinboard on the wall. It is covered with a collage: various Madonna and child postcards, and Polaroids of newborn babies. Amber's stomach churns, and she refocuses on the doctor.
âWhere was I? Oh yes, Matt. Well, he's a psychiatrist. He works with people at their wits' end. I guess you get them like that here, too.' The doctor makes no comment. âWhich makes me realise that the life I've created is good.'
âSo it's been a conscious process,' says Dr Ramji.
Amber feels the words brush against her skin. She senses the minute movements of air between the doctor and herself. Always there are hidden meanings in a woman's speech. Again she glances at the pinboard, her eye drawn to a postcard by Joshua Reynolds. It's of a girl hugging a puppy. And, maybe it's her imagination, but in the room she now catches a warm scent of incense.
âThere was a letter.' Again the doctor remains silent, and Amber feels tears welling up in her eyes. âI was five or six. My school was perched on the shingle bank beside a bird sanctuary. The school rented the building from the sanctuary, and most days we had nature study. Brent geese flew in from Russia, and we plotted their route on a map in the classroom. Sometimes we got to hold newborn chicks, their warm bodies flickering in our hands.' Amber looks up. âI'm sure you don't want to hear thisâ'
Amber notices the doctor tuck stray hairs of her geometric cut behind one ear. It's a simple gesture that makes Dr Ramji suddenly seem very competent, very containing. Amber can whisper secrets, tell her anything, and Dr Ramji will make sense of it all.
âThere was a letter.' Amber clears her throat. âTo parents. From my teacher, Miss Gibson. Announcing the arrival of baby field mice, and future plans to loan them out at weekends. To
children. A sort of rodent sleepover. The letter was to get parental permission. I ran all the way home that afternoon, to make sure my mother got it as quickly as possible.' Amber stares into her lap.
âThe next morning, over porridge, I watched my mother sign the form and slide it into a used envelope. At registration, Miss Gibson collected the forms (mine was the only one in an envelope) and announced that on Thursday she'd post a rota on the noticeboardâ'
Amber cannot sit still. The Reynolds painting keeps catching her eye. The girl's cheeks are flushed with pleasure as she squeezes the puppy on her lap. Amber has not recalled the episode of the mice for thirty years. And yet, it's as though something inside Amber has lately cut loose. The letter to Miss Gibson is now as vivid as this evening's drive through the November drizzle to Dr Ramji's clinic.
All week, she's imagined the mice (christened Hector, Kiki and Zaza) in her home. It's like waiting for Christmas. And she wants so badly to see her place on the rota she decides to set off for school earlier than usual. She can feel her heart pumping.
The Reynolds girl, clutching her pet, gazes down at Amber. Amber blinks away.
âI stood in front of the noticeboard for ages. I knew how to spell my name, and the names of all my friends, even long ones like Stephanie's, because I went to her birthday party, and wrote in her card. But where was my name? Its capital
? Why wasn't I on the list?
âI turned at the sound of Miss Gibson walking towards me. I used to think the tap of her heels in the corridors was like a white stick on a pavement. “What are you doing here so early, Amber?” she said to me. “I didn't expect to see you reading this list.” She looked confused. My eyes filled, blurring her. I wanted to say that she'd forgotten my name, but the idea in my head was too jumbled up.
â“I am sorry your name won't be on the list, Amber,” Miss Gibson said. “You should have told us the truth.” Her eyes narrowed on me. “You might have become seriously ill. Thank goodness your mother saw fit to inform me that you are highly allergic to animal fur.”'
Amber reaches into her handbag and retrieves a tissue. Dabbing her eyes, she notices a pair of unfamiliar ankles, elegant, precisely crossed, and remembers where she is. She looks up and tries to smile at Dr Ramji. âI'm sorry. I'm not sure where all that came from.' She blows her nose, and tucks the tissue up her sleeve.
âWhat did Miss Gibson say when you told her the truth?' asks Dr Ramji, in an even voice.
âWhen I told her?' cries Amber, fresh tears sliding down her cheeks. âWhat could I say? That it was my mother who dislikes helpless creatures? I overheard her at coffee mornings, saying she didn't really like children. Although all mothers love their own. Don't they?'
Dr Ramji leans forward in her chair. âYou don't seem so sure.'
Amber's gaze darts once more to the Reynolds girl before settling on the doctor's groomed brows. âMy friends are my family now,' Amber whispers.
âIn what sense?'
Amber flicks an imaginary thread from her trousers. âIt's complicated.'
âYou know you can takeâ?'
ââmy time. Yes, but everyone's waiting downstairs. Shouldn't we just get on with the surgery?'
âThey can wait,' says the doctor emphatically, reaching out across her polished coffee table to activate an answer machine.
And, as the doctor settles back in her armchair, Amber finds herself taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly before starting to speak.
kind of person who plans my spontaneity. Matt's not on call this weekend and, apart from some CVs I've brought home, our weekend is free. Which means a structure is in place.
The CVs should only take a couple of hours; those that mention long gaps in employment and a large family to support are the hardest to read. Then, while I'm preparing supper, I'll watch a video of last month's men's Wimbledon final; it's how I like my sport, knowing from the start who'll win. Supper is for catching up with my oldest friend, Dylan. Or, rather, meeting his new boyfriend.
The heat this summer has been relentless. Strangers complain to one another of discomfort. London Underground's schedules have disintegrated, and, with them, commuters' patience. Weather forecasters sound increasingly apologetic, as if they know their bulletins to be morally reprehensible. A vicar in South Wales declares the hellish temperatures to be a sign of God's wrath over America's homosexual bishop. And it seems to me that the known world is suffocating, and that this will be averted only when hand-knitted ghosts from our past are cast off.
And I'm reminded of Dad, currently snoozing upstairs. He and his friend Audrey are staying the weekend. This morning we went to what he calls the Stately Tate, meaning the old one. Escaped the heat by entering its coolness. I watched as, at eighty, he hurried down the corridor the way a mother might bustle into the kitchen to fetch treats. You'd never guess he'd had a minor stroke earlier this year. By the time Audrey and I, in our leisurely gossip, had finally caught up with him, my dad the erstwhile potter was busy studying the ceramics made by a well-known transvestite. Classical- shaped vases evoking genteel sensibilities, yet decorated with disturbing images and text. âWonderful,' my father wheezed, tears in his eyes. âJust exquisite.'