by Giles Ward
Look at those simpering faces, those blank-eyed, hollow-headed masks. Row after row of them—each and every one a Polaroid snap from the casebook of my life. I’ve never liked bringing the various bit-part characters of my life together. And I certainly don’t like seeing them all in one place now. They just don’t all belong in the same room, at the same time. ‘Compartmentalising’, my psychoanalyst, Dr Grost, calls it, like it’s a weakness or a problem. What’s he earning? $150 an hour? I don’t call it a problem—I call it controlling my life. $50,000 an hour to your one-fifty says I’m right.
And there he is, Dr Grost, six rows back on the right, his dome topped head bouncing the light all over the walls. If your glasses keep slipping down your nose, get them fixed or get some new ones. Don’t keep edging them back up with your pinky finger: Every. Two. Minutes. He asked me once why I had missed the previous three sessions. I told him it was because he constantly pushed his glasses up his nose. He snorted in that ‘you’re-being-evasive-again-Lucas’ way. But I wasn’t. I was being serious.
I really can’t explain why I kept going back to therapy, other than I’ve always liked the sound of my own voice and he had to listen to me to get his money. But you could say that of my Board of Directors as well. I’ve paid them handsomely for years to listen to me and, more importantly, to agree with me. The alternative, that they might have had their own ideas how to run the business is, of course, utterly preposterous. My merry band of pussy-whipped lap dogs. Here they all are now, here in this chapel, all staring at me dumb-faced, just as they used to at company meetings. There’s Stoyle, my hatchet man, with his heart carved from pure granite. Gupta, my money-man, scratching his wiry flake-peppered beard. Peel with his nervous blink and Stoveski in his cheap, sweat-dampened suit. Then there’s Young and Krajnc. Lopez and Fischer. And a fuck load of others all waiting for someone else to tell them what to do, what to think and how to wipe their asses. Directionless fools the lot of them.
But then there’s Zhang Wei. The exception. My genius. Heaven forbid he should ever work out how clever he is or how much money he has made me over the years. Scared witless by his own shadow, of course, he looks nervous on the front row with his palms clamped between his knees. Zhang’s not only the guy who’s put me where I am now, but also the guy who’s put me where I am now:
In an upright glass box, cryogenically frozen at my own Memorial Service.
That achievement alone merits a moment’s ponder. Genius. Even if I’m sure I can feel a slight melting down the length of my thigh. Ever so slowly. A tiny rivulet of moisture trimming the edge of the box.
I see Dr Grost has conveniently ignored his own advice: That is clearly not his wife sat beside him six rows back. What happened to working through relationship problems? Respecting your wife? I would recognise Lara, his receptionist, with her seductive pillow pout, across the fullest of rooms: A daisy raising its head in a lawn of moss. Seems a psychoanalyst is only human, after all. Lara sat there – right there – on her perfectly shaped behind. Just one more reason that I continued to indulge the good doctor’s psycho-babble for so long – giving him my hard-earned cash in return for long silences and lots of questions to my questions.
“Do you think I alienate people on purpose?”
“Do you think you alienate people on purpose?”
One version of my regular therapy-visit-daydream might see her wordlessly approach me in my waiting room chair, turn around and place herself down on my lap. I feel a twinge, I confess, even now as I stand here in front of everyone. Is that decent at my own wake?
I’m glad Lara’s sitting six rows back, I’m not sure I could control myself if she was sat on the front row. That might be embarrassing in front of my wife. Mischa has been my life partner for the past forty-five years, sharing every step of my journey along this road. And she’s the one person – bar my mother who couldn’t be with us today thanks to being dead for more than twenty years – who I despise more than any other in the whole world. Despise. Loathe. Resent.
Dr Grost had something to say about this.
“Why do you think you have never left her?”
Let me see.
Rather than the ‘I don’t know’ that I’m sure Dr Grost was expecting, I reveled in the discomfort that followed my admission that ‘I need someone to truly dislike close to me: That I took comfort in her humourless company. That every time I sat across her at the dinner table I was reminded at how clever I was.’
“Sometimes you need to put yellow next to grey to really appreciate it. Anyway,” I told him, “I’m not about to give half of my hard-earned wealth to someone who has contributed absolutely nothing to its creation. And I can amply satisfy my sexual appetites elsewhere.” Dr Grost was silent for quite a while after that. He enjoyed punishing me with silence. I think they were designed as moments for contemplation. Poor, poor Mischa some might say. But please, consider the actuality. Mischa would have been Mischa if we had married or not. If we hadn’t, she would have found a John or a Bob to be with and lived a perfectly acceptable existence in the suburbs, filling her days with the same inane gossip and irrelevant worries that she managed so well to do over all these years – regardless of all the money at her disposal. She had just done it in nicer shoes.
I can definitely feel liquid running. I wonder if the box might start to leak. There is something perversely amusing about the thought that my dripping cryogenic waters might ruin the fine twelfth century religious tapestries I’m stood on. It’s all vaguely ridiculous, of course, stood here like an Egyptian mummy in its casket whilst a priest I have met just a handful of times in my life makes great statements about me: Philanthropist, altruist, polymath, innovator and leader. The Priest is robed like a children’s party clown. I resent the way he’s turned my day into his day. His voice is too loud, his arms too animated. I may not be dead, but the occasion at least demands a modicum of respect. I wrote most of this eulogy myself, and it was supposed to be delivered with a certain amount of reverence.
If I keep thawing out like this, though, all my planning will have been for nothing. You would have thought Zhang, for all his genius, might have made some provision for such an eventuality: A pre-thaw warning alarm? A fucking red light flashing on top the box at the very least.
All I can hope is that the thawing reaches my face or fingers soon enough that I can signal to one of the faces in the pews. I wonder how many of this audience would raise the alarm first and which would feign not to notice me drowning? I have no doubt Robin would look the other way. But then my son has never liked me. That’s okay, I’ve never liked him either. As my only official son and heir I confess to having been grossly disappointed the moment he plopped into the midwife’s arms. He inherited none of my ambition. Instead every fibre of his wretched being is a reproductive throwback to my wife’s feeble-minded family. I could have put him on the Board long ago, but I didn’t and he’s hated me for that decision every day since. I can feel it in the coolness of his gaze every time we meet.
Dr Grost is full of theories: Child-envy he has labeled it. He knows it makes me laugh. I apparently envy my own useless son’s youthfulness. I envy him having his future trailing out before him. What future? I ask. No, I don’t envy my child. I dislike him.
Anyway, much to Dr Grost’s chargrin, I point out that I have another son – an illegitimate son. A bastard he might be, but at least he has inherited most of my genes. He is currently a big success on Broadway and is about to break into film. Which is why, I suppose, he’s not in the congregation today. He has everything: my looks, drive, passion, talent.
“Do you envy him?” Dr Grost persists.
“Shit, yes,” I laugh, “have you seen his girlfriend? What I’d give for half an hour with that.” He cocks his head, searching for some Freudian analysis. “I’m joking, jeez, man, joking,” I have to say.
“That’s not helpful, Lucas,” he says. Not for you maybe, but it’s doing me good.
My favoured son might not be there, but I’ve already noticed his mother on the end of a row to the left of the chapel. She’s got one foot in the aisle to ensure a brisk exit. She has to peer beyond a spray of calla lilies on a marble column. I chose them myself. Stylish. Slightly more disarming, however, is the sight of her sister beside her. I can’t remember her name, but she was always the more attractive one. She, I can’t help notice, is boring laser-guided pins into my ice-encrusted soul. Maybe it is her eyes that are thawing me. Maybe she wants to melt away the ice and leave me totally naked and vulnerable up here in front of everybody. I prey for a slow thaw.
My mistress’s sister is just another conquest of the past I shamefully admit to Dr Grost. It’s pretty much the pattern of my life: chase – conquer – discard.
“Why do you think that might be?” says the good doctor. Why do you think? You’re the doctor, you tell me, that’s what I’m paying you for isn’t it?
“What role do you see women play in your life?”
I’m not stupid, I know what he’s trying to get at.
“Why do you think this pattern repeats itself again and again in your life? As you put it: Chase, conquer, discard?”
Obvious isn’t it? And I’m not the doctor.
“But I want you to tell me, Lucas.”
This revelation and so many of those that I have confessed to Dr Grost over the years haven’t put me in a good light, I realise. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
“Lucas you can be completely honest with me. If you hold things back in therapy, I can’t help you.” Maybe that’s the real reason I’ve been happy for him to take my money for so long. Because he’s the one person I could be totally honest with.
“Why do you think you find it difficult to open up to the women in your life?”
I shrug again.
“What are you scared might happen?”
I know what I’m scared might happen. He knows too. I told him this story on my second ever visit:
When I was nine my father had an affair. With my nanny, how trite is that? My parents had several blazing rows, and my mother kicked my father out of the house. For three weeks he lived at my grandparents. They were the best three weeks of my life. For those three weeks I had my mother all to myself. Just she and I curled up on the sofa watching the Golden Shot. Every now and then she would start to sob, and I’d hold her close and protect and slowly her crying would stop. And then three weeks later she let my father back into the house. She never said a word to me about it, but we never curled up on the sofa like that again. Everything just returned to how it had been.
“Do you feel your mother rejected you by taking your father back?”
“Do you think that’s why you reject the women in your life – push them away from you – to stop them rejecting you? Get your rejection in first?”
When he says something he’s proud of, Dr Grost polishes the top of his bald head roughly with his hand. Like he’s shining a trophy or something.
“Is that why you push people away? To stop yourself being hurt?”
I don’t push them away, as such, I tell him. I just like to keep them separate, in those ‘compartments’ of yours. Sure they’re all allowed a bit of me, but none of them know the total me. Dr Grost does that skeptical brow thing he likes to do when he wants me to doubt myself. After all these years we have wordless signals: I do my indifferent shrug, he does his eyebrow shuffle. That’s what I pay him for: to be the glue that puts the ‘compartments’ of my life together.
I can tell Dr Grost the most despicable truths about myself, and he’s not allowed to judge. I love that power I have over him. The power that I know more about me than he does. I’m in therapy. I’m a person just like his other patients. Who’s to say I’m not pathologically damaged? Just my existence is an illness. Let anyone judge otherwise.
“Why did you start coming to me?” he asked many years after our first meeting. A question, I would have thought, more pertinent in our first session. But Dr Grost doesn’t do anything very quickly. I looked at him blankly, but he could out-stare a week-old cadaver so I caved in.
“I think I must have felt bad about myself,” I said. And I’m sure I probably did at the time – my mistress was pregnant, and Mischa was threatening to leave me.
“And you don’t now?” he asked.
And that’s when it struck me that the guy was a charlatan. Somehow I had forgotten why I was sat in front of him week after week; that I hadn’t felt bad about myself for years. Probably never had. And that him challenging me this way made me question my own mind.
“No. Not until now.” I’m sure I detected a hint of a smirk. He shuffled his glasses up his nose. There was something victorious in his handshake. The bastard just left that seed in my head. And it grew and grew and grew. It grew so tall that it reached into the darkest, furthest parts of my mind. I had always hated the people around me—that was nothing new. But now I started to think I might even hate myself: How, I asked myself, could I continue to look my wife in the eye day after day? How could I continue to welcome my reflection in the mirror every morning? And that, according to Dr Grost, is ‘feeling bad about myself.’ So I decided it was time to go. But I wouldn’t have been brave enough to kill myself, so I decided to wait for a new future: A future devoid of the people who had made me the person I had become. So, Zhang Wei built me my box, and I pretended to my family I had cancer and said my goodbyes.
I look six rows back. I can see Dr Grost’s bald crown bobbing, his mouth scarred into a ridiculous wide grin. There he is, his lover’s hand playing amongst the fabric layers of his crotch. I gaze around the faces. Stoyle is smiling. So is Gupta. And Peel. And Stoveski. And Young. And Krajnc. And Lopez. And Fischer. Even Zhang. Can they see me thaw? Is that why?
I notice now that the priest is holding a cable in the air. It is a white, long-tailed cable and dangling at the end is a three-pin plug. It’s like he’s proudly holding a dead rat. And the ice has thawed enough from my face to loosen my eyes in their sockets. And the priest is saying something about damnation. Something about bad. Something about hell. And I swivel my eyes just enough to follow the other end of the cable, and I can see it leads to the base of my glass box. And I realise the box will thaw completely in no time. If this is a dream I’m sure Dr Grost will have something to say about it:
“Do you think maternal separation has led to a feeling of isolation?”
I gasp for air that isn’t there. I think this might be a truly horrible way to go, and I stretch my eyes wide in panic. But nobody in the audience seems to care very much. They are all watching me as though gripped by the action in a film. A train’s crashing, the Titanic’s sinking, a man’s dying.
And they just watch, the smiles scribbled across their inane faces. It must be obvious by now what is happening, the water dripping from the box, the panic on my face, the priest waving the plug high above his head like an incense vessel. My son’s aunt looks quite jubilant. Mischa is clapping. Robin is on his feet. Even Gupta’s laughing. How dare Gupta laugh?
I open my eyes very, very wide and stare at the white ceiling of Dr Grost’s office. There is a single bulb in its centre. I can’t lift my head; it feels like it has been hollowed of its fibrous mush and filled with plaster. Dr Grost asks what I’ve been thinking about for the last half an hour, and I say, “I don’t think that I’ve been a very nice person.”
Dr Grost is silent for a while. Quite a while. Then he pushes his glasses up his nose and asks:
“Why don’t you think you’ve been a very nice person?”
And I want to scream at him, I don’t fucking know, you tell me, that’s what I’m paying you for. But I realise as I close my eyes again that he doesn’t know any more than I do.
No one knows.
“Do you think you can now accept who you are?” He pushes.
But at least, at last, I can feel myself start to thaw. Maybe, I want to say. Just maybe.
100 Ways To Improve The WorldGiles Ward is a copywriter and author based in the UK. He has two printed novels published, and The Price of Everything through Impress Books. He has recently had his latest novel published Where Beauty Is, the fictionalized biography of an artist. “Thaw” is reprinted from the Giles Ward collection of short stories, Spill (some stories) originally published by Watchword eBooks 2015.