They had come to the point in their conversation where one was supposed to say something hurtful, or at least I know you are but what am I. Surprising himself, he said neither. She, on the other hand, called him an ungrateful bastard, which is not to say that he didn’t appreciate all she had done, or that she was a difficult person. He was grateful enough, and she was normally a very pleasant and intelligent woman. But every romance is born with a stale date, and acknowledging theirs, he had decided to do what others might think unimaginable, and end the liaison rather than face the quiet self-inflicted sorrow of a loveless relationship.
“I truly believe we must depart each other’s company,” Thomas Wilcox said, there in front of the art gallery, where the van Gogh exhibited hung. Then he turned and walked away.
“Real men don’t walk away,” Natalie Bellamy shouted at his back, making small fists at her side.
“Then real men are rare,” he said, without turning round.
Their romance had been a splendid one. Or, at least like most lovers, this is what they believed, and belief is always the sworn enemy of fiction.
And their lives, on the surface, were good, each enjoying personal prosperity and apparent occupational satisfaction.
She was a ghostwriter, creating honoured thespians out of dreadful actors, and admired statesmen out of hated and moronic politicians, by stealthily writing their autobiographies, which otherwise would have been illiterate and delusional.
He was a psychologist, who, thought to have an uncommon tolerance for blood soaked histrionics, specialised in adolescent counselling.
They had met at a lecture entitled The Rise and Long Awaited Fall of Idiot Culture. Afterwards, there was cake and coffee in the lobby, and they chatted over Sachertorte and steaming lattes. As her clients’ conversation-killing need for confidentiality became obvious, he bravely attempted to explain why idiopathic avascular necrosis of the femoral head was still lacking as a clinical entity. And by 11:00 p.m., they were swimming in an ocean of rhapsodic sexual bliss only the truly repressed are capable of, when their moment has finally arrived.
After that, it was all candlelight, dreamy eyed weekends, and journeys out of town to quaint bed-and-breakfasts where they would playfully bicker over the Sunday New York Times crossword, walk hand-in-hand on beaches, and in the spring and summer, do the thing they loved most when in each other’s company. They would watch the bees.
“They’re all dying,” she said grimly one day, on an island in the Gulf. They were standing in a field of sunflowers, watching as a flock of healthy bees flew from one flower to the next. “It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder. It’s caused by neonicotinoid pesticides. They’re made by Bayer, the aspirin people.”
“I know,” he said. “I had a patient who committed suicide over it.”
“No, she sent Bayer an email demanding that they stop making the stuff. If they didn’t, she said, she’d cut her wrists. They didn’t stop, and, well, you know. There was more behind it, of course. I’d had her GP prescribe an SSRI, but finding right one before a tragedy occurs is problematic sometimes.”
It was, and a tear fell.
“How do you cope?” she said.
“Mostly,” he replied, “I try to keep my screams to myself.”
She stopped thinking about bees when she heard him say it, and reached out and touched his cheek.
“You’ve never said anything like that before, Thomas.”
“You’ve never asked. Besides, the fear of an outcome always goes away eventually.”
“What does that mean?” she said.
“It means that you’ll eventually get used to the idea that the bees are doomed, and I’ll ultimately become accustomed to the idea that I lose teenaged clients to suicide.”
“That can’t be true,” she said, and wondered if the comment was made on impulse, or if it originated elsewhere.
“It’s a textbook truth, nothing more.”
“I don’t want to get used to the idea of doomed bees,”
Somehow, the trip lost its magic after that. Things had shifted, something hidden was revealed. They departed early.
On the ferry, they stood together on deck, silently watching the sea. It seemed very still, in spite of the ferry’s pace. He only spoke once, asking her to drive when they docked. They didn’t touch.
He presented her with his silence in the days that followed. There were no more playful work-interrupting phone calls, no more shared coffee bar detective novels. When she called, he wasn’t home; at his office, his receptionist told her that he’d cancelled appointments and would be away until further notice. She sent texts and email, and even knocked on his townhouse door, refusing to use her key to let herself in. It was a timid but necessary knock. But there was no answer, no evidence of a curtain drawn back inches for a reclusive peek. He had disappeared, and she waited for a reason.
Then on the twelfth night of his absence, her telephone rang.
“It’s me,” he said.
She was silent for a moment, wondering if, after all of her anxiety, there was anything to share.
“Where have you been?” she said. “And I don’t mean geographically, I mean in terms of being the other half of this thing we’ve been doing for over a year.”
He was sitting at a desk, in front of a blank computer screen in his home office, surrounded by a debris field of isolation. On the screen were four Post-it notes, each with a name: Janis, Roger, Matthew and Naomi. His four suicides. The clients who, over the years, had slipped out the back door, when no one was watching. Each no older than seventeen years. One, Janis, only fourteen.
“I’ve been thinking about bees.” His voice was different.
“What does that mean?”
“They eat pollen,” he said. “That’s why they go from flower to flower. It’s such a wonderful plan. The pollen sticks to them, and they pass it on, the genetic messages.”
“Please, I just don’t get it.”
“But it’s all so damn brittle, no matter how good the plan, or its righteous intent.” The names on the screen were like eyes. “Bees and people, are so brittle.”
“Where are you?” she said. “Let’s meet.”
“I really don’t know what tortured them. I mean, on the surface there were the obvious problems. But what was underneath? What didn’t I see? It was my job to see it, and I failed. Naomi Oby cut herself vertically, up both of her forearms. What makes a child act so self-destructively? I tried it the other night. I held a blade to my arm, just to see how far I could go, and it made me physically sick.”
“Who’s Naomi Oby?” she asked.
“My bee suicide.”
“It’s a defect in reasoning,” she said. My bee suicide. “A deficit of thought.”
“I’m not looking for gentle answers.”
“You need help.”
He was silent.
“Are you home? I’ll drive over. It’s late, so we’ll go to the emergency.”
“No,” he said.
“Then why are you calling me, goddam it? Is it just to brighten my evening, or are you asking for help?”
“I don’t know. My thoughts right now, they’re…. They’re a little disorganised.”
“What would you tell a client to do?” she said.
She’s an amateur, said an inner voice. It wasn’t her fault, but he still damned her for not knowing that that was the first question a professional asks.
She wondered if four suicides was a high number for a counselling psychologist, practicing for fifteen years. He’d seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of clients in that time. What was the acceptable ratio of teenaged suicides to non-suicides?
“Just come over here,” she said. “We’ll talk here.”
He looked round the room, and saw them all. Janis, who had jumped from a fog veiled bridge after texting that her father sexually abused her, stood in the doorway to the living room; Roger, who, exhausted by bullying, had hung himself, sat in an easy chair; Matthew, who was crucified for being gay by his family church and found his father’s handgun, now stood with his back to him, looking out of the large east facing window.
Naomi stood directly in front of him, ashen with her undisguised wounds, staring.
“I shouldn’t have called,” he said, looking into Naomi’s eyes, and rang-off. Then he turned his iPhone off, and put it into his desk drawer.
Within an hour, there was a knock at his door.
“Open, please.” It was an unfamiliar woman’s voice. “This is the police.”
He realised then that he hadn’t moved for hours, or was it days. He was surrounded by empty paper coffee cups and fast food trash.
“Mr Wilcox? Are you in there? We have to enter whether you are or not. Please don’t make this difficult.”
Yes, he thought. He mustn’t make it difficult, unseemly.
“Well?” Naomi said. “Are you going to answer the door?”
“But the bees,” he said, absurdly.
Bang bang bang, “Mr Wilcox? We have to make sure you’re okay.”
“The bees are beside the point,” Naomi said. “They always were, and you know it.”
They always were.
He could hear a muffled conversation at the front door. Then the lock turned. It was Natalie. She followed two police officers into the townhouse.
A walkie-talkie crackled, and a cop answered. “The ambulance is on its way,” she said.
“That’s not necessary,” said Wilcox.
“It’s out of your hands, sir.”
“You have to let us go,” Naomi said. “Go to the damn hospital, and get some fucking help.”
Their trip to the van Gogh exhibit was a gift from her, to him for enduring two weeks on a psychiatric ward. She sensed his nervousness as they moved from canvas to canvas, and attributed it to residual anxiety. He took his hand away when she tried to hold it.
“Despairing textures,” he said, wishing he could reach out and touch Sorrowing Old Man. “I’ve touched those textures on my body. I see them in the mirror, in clouds and on billboard signs. This artist and his damn scheming won’t leave me alone.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have come,” she said.
He wanted to wait until that evening to say good-bye. On a stroll after the restaurant. But he confronted her with it as they descended the steps and walked out onto the concourse.
“I’m not here, anymore,” he said. “I no longer occupy space. I’m closing the practice, or an accountant and a lawyer are. And I’m going away, alone.”
“Don’t,” she said. “You can’t make a decision like that now.”
“It’s now or not at all.”
“What about me, us? And don’t say it’s all about you.”
“But you know it is.”
That led to her desperate words, and his walking away, followed by four broken ghosts.