The Sympathy Society
The phone rang just as Martin was cracking the second egg into the frying-pan. He wedged the receiver under his chin and said, 'Sarah! Hi, sweetheart! You're calling early!'.
There was an uncomfortable pause. Then,‘Sorry, Martin. This is John
- John Newcome, from Lazarus.’
‘John? What can I do for you? Don't tell me Sarah's left some more documents at home.'
‘No, no, nothing like that. Listen, Martin, there's no easy way of saying this. We've just had a call from the British Embassy in Athens. I'm afraid there's been an accident.’
Martin suddenly found himself short of breath. ‘Accident? What kind of accident? Sarah's all right, isn't she?’
‘I'm sorry, Martin. We're all devastated. She's dead.’
Martin turned off the gas. It was all he could think of to do. Whatever John Newcome said next, he wasn't going to be eating the full English breakfast that he had planned for himself. The flat was silent now. The television had switched itself off. The birds had suddenly stopped chirruping.
‘You're going to hear this sooner or later,’ said John Newcome. He was obviously trying to be stable but his words came out like a bagful of Scrabble tiles. ‘The press will be onto you. You know. Sarah had an accident on a jet-ski, late yesterday afternoon. It seems as if she went between two boats. There was a line between them. The chap from the Embassy said that she probably didn't see it. Only a thin line. Braided steel.’
‘No,’ said Martin.
‘I'm sorry, Martin. But it's probably better that you hear it from me. She went straight into it and it cut her-’
Martin could never tell afterward if he had actually heard the words, or if he had imagined hearing them, or seen what had happened to Sarah in his mind's eye, as if she had sent him a Polaroid snap of it. Full colour, blue sky, blue sea, yachts as white as starched collars.
No this can't be true. This is Thursday morning and as soon as I've finished my job in Fulham I'm flying out to Rhodes to spend the next ten days with her, swimming and snorkeling and going to discos. Not Sarah. Not Sarah with her long blonde hair and her bright gray oystershell eyes and her Finnish-looking face. And the way she laughed - wild exaggerated laughter, falling backward on the futon. And those toes of hers, kicking in the sunlight. And she hated fat, she used to take her ham sandwiches apart and put on her reading-glasses and search for fat like a gold prospector. And her kisses, clicking on his shoulder, in the darkest moments of the night. And suggestive little whispers.
His mother said that he was very brave. His father stood with his hands deep in the pockets of his brown corduroy trousers and looked as if he had just heard that interest rates had gone down again. He spent most of the weekend in his old room, lying on his candlewick bedspread, facing the wall. He saw so many faces in the floral wallpaper. Devils, imps, demons and fairies. But he couldn't clearly remember what Sarah had looked like. He didn't want to remind himself by looking at photographs. If he looked at photographs, he would remember only the photographs, and not the real Sarah. The real Sarah who had touched him and kissed him and waved him goodbye at Stansted Airport. Turning the corner. The sun, catching her hair. Then, gone.
After the funeral, he went for a long walk on the Downs, on the bony prehistoric back of Sussex, where the wind constantly blew and the sea always glittered in the distance. But no matter how often you walked up there, you always had to return. And, as evening turned the sky into veils of blue, he came down the narrow chalk path, clinging on to the hawthorn bushes to keep his balance, and he knew that he was going to go mad without her. He was going to kill himself, take an overdose, cut his wrists, fill his car with carbon monoxide. She was gone, and she had left him all alone in this world, and he didn't want to be here any longer. Not alone. What was the point? What was the purpose? Everything that he had ever done, he had done expressly for her. His whole life from the moment he was born had been leading him toward her, by all kinds of devious paths and diversions. They had given him her jewelry. Her necklace, her watch. What was the point of them, if she wasn't alive to wear them?
And more than anything, he kept imagining what it must have been like for her, rounding the prow of that yacht, laughing, revving up her jet-ski, only to see that steel cable stretched in front of her, far too late. Maybe she hadn't seen it at all. But what had she felt, when she hit it, and her head came flying off? Don't tell me she felt nothing. Don't tell me she wouldn't have suffered. Don't tell me that for one split-second she wouldn't have realized what had happened to her?
Nobody had any proof, of course, but didn't they always say that when they guillotined the nobles in the French Revolution, and their heads had tumbled into the basket, some of them had cried out in shock?
In their flat, two weeks later, he stood in front of the bathroom mirror and tried to cut his throat with the steak knife that he had stolen from a Berni Inn the previous summer. Because Sarah had dared him to. Now he believed that he knew why she had dared him. She wanted him to have a way of joining him, when she died. It was drizzling outside. One of the gutters was blocked with leaves and water was clattering intermittently into the basement area outside.
He drew the serrated blade across his neck. It tugged at his skin and blood suddenly poured on to his shirt. It didn't hurt, but the tugging was deeply unpleasant, and the knife obviously wasn't sharp enough. He had expected to cut through his carotid artery and send spurts of blood all over the bathroom, up the walls, over the mirror.
Sarah's neck must have pumped blood, when her head was cut off. He remembered reading about the beheading of a British soldier in a Japanese PoW camp. His commanding officer said that blood jumped out of his neck like a red walking-stick.
He lifted the knife again. His hand was already slippery and his fingers were sticking together. He tried to cut again, but his neck was so messy that he couldn't see what he was doing, and he was beginning to tremble.
He slowly dropped to his knees on to the floor. The knife fell in the washbasin. He stayed where he was, his head bowed, his eyes streaming with tears, his mouth dragged down in a silent howl of loneliness and agony.
Jenny came to see him in hospital. Jenny was plump and pale with scraped-back hair. She worked in the accounts department at Hiya
Intelligence, but ever since he had started working there, she had made excuses to come up and see him in software. She had brought him a box of Milk Tray chocolates and a John Grisham novel.
‘You've lost an awful lot of weight, Martin,’ she said, laying her little nail-bitten hand on top of his.
He tried to smile. ‘Throat's still sore. Besides, I haven't got much of an appetite.’
‘How long have you got to stay in here?’
‘I don't know. The psychotherapist said he wasn't very happy with me. I said, "What's happiness got to do with anything?"'
'So what did he say?’
‘He said, "If you don't know, you ought to stay in hos?pital."'
Jenny reached down and fumbled in her big woven bag. She produced a folded copy of the Evening Standard and handed it to him. ‘There,’ she said. ‘Read that ad I've circled. I don't know if it'll help, but you never know.’
It was a small display advertisement in the classified section, under Personal Services. It read: ‘Grieving? Suicidal? When you've lost a loved one, The Sympathy Society understands how you feel. Unlike all other counselors, we can offer you what you're really looking for.’ Underneath, there was a telephone number in Buckinghamshire.
Martin dropped the paper on to the floor. ‘I don't think so, Jenny. The last thing I need is even more sympathy. I've had so much sympathy I've been feeling sympathy-sick. Like eating a whole box of chocolates at one sitting.'
‘By the way-’ he said, handing her back the box of Milk Tray, ‘I don't like milk chocolate. You eat them.’
‘It's all right. Give them to the nurses.’
She looked so disappointed that he took hold of her hand and squeezed it. ‘I'm just pleased that you came, that's all. I can't expect you
to understand how I feel. Nobody can. Sarah was everything to me. Everything. I'm not making a song and dance about it. I simply don't
see the point of living without her.’
‘What about your family? Your mum and dad? What about all of your
‘They'll get over me.’
‘You really think so?’ she challenged him, with tears in her eyes, and her lower lip quivering. ‘You're hurt, of course you are. You're absolutely devastated. But why should even more people have to suffer?’
‘I'm sorry, Jenny. It's my life and I have the right to do what I want with it. And that includes ending it.’
Jenny stood up, and sniffed, and picked up her bag. ‘If that's the way you feel, I hope you make better job of it next time.’
Martin gave a painful cough and held out his hand to her. ‘Don't be angry with me, Jenny. Please.’
‘I'm not. I just can't stand to see you giving in. I'd give my life for you, you know that.’
He looked into her eyes and he could see how much she loved him. He had the dreadful, unforgivable thought that if only she had died, instead of Sarah. Hadn't she offered her life? And if it could make any difference, would he have taken it?
‘Thanks for the book, and the chocolates,’ he said.
She didn't answer, but she leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. Then she left the ward, dancing awkwardly in the doorway with a man on crutches.
Martin lay back on the bed. The sun crossed the ceiling like the spokes of a broken wheel. He dozed for a while, and when he opened his eyes it was almost four o'clock.
‘You've been sleeping,’ said a soft voice, very close to his ear. ‘Mmm,’ he said. Then he suddenly opened his eyes wider. That was Sarah's voice. He was sure that it was Sarah's voice. He turned sideways and she was lying right next to him, her eyes bright, her blonde hair spread across the pillow. She was smiling at him in that gently mocking way she had, when she caught him doing something embarrassing.
‘Sarah,’ he whispered, reaching up and touching her hair. ‘I had this nightmare that you were dead. It seemed completely real. You don't have any idea.’
She didn't reply, but very, very slowly closed her eyes.
‘Sarah, talk to me. Don't go to sleep. I have to tell you all about this dream.’
Her eyes remained closed. The colour gradually began to seep out of her cheeks. Her lips were almost turquoise.
‘Sarah - listen to me - Sarah!’
He tried to take hold of her shoulder to shake her, but his hand seized nothing but blanket. He sat up, shocked, and it was then that he realized that only her head was lying next to him. Her severed neck was encrusted with dried blood and part of her windpipe was protruding on to the sheet.
He made an awful moaning noise and half-jumped, half-fell out of the bed, tangling his feet in the sheets. His head struck the edge of his bedside table and his plastic water-jug dropped on to the floor, along with his book and his chocolates and his wristwatch.
A nurse came hurrying over. ‘Martin! Martin, what's the matter?’
She helped him up. He tilted on to his feet, and twisted around to stare at the bed. Sarah's head had vanished, and he knew that it hadn't really been there at all. It had been nothing more than a nightmare. He sat down on the side of the bed, feeling shocked and bruised. The trouble was, it was worse being awake. Sarah was dead and he was alone, and he could never wake up from that, ever.
Back at the flat, with the blinds and the curtains drawn, he sat at the kitchen table and smoothed out the page from the Evening Standard that Jenny had given him. He had read the advertisement for The Sympathy Society again and again, and every time he read it he had been left with an odd feeling of unease. ‘Unlike all other counselors, we can offer you what you're really looking for.’ How did they know what he was looking for? How did they know what anybody was looking for?
He ate another spoonful of cold spaghetti out of the can. That was all he had eaten since he came out of hospital. He didn't have to cook it,
he barely had to chew it, and it kept him alive. It seemed absurd, to keep yourself alive when you wanted so much to die, but he didn't want to die a lingering death, through starvation and dehydration; and there was always a chance that somebody would find you, and resuscitate you, and feed you with drips and tubes. He wanted to die instantly, the way that Sarah had died.
After almost an hour, he picked up the phone and dialed the number in Buckinghamshire. It rang for a long time, with an echoing, old-fashioned ringing tone. Eventually, it was picked up. There was a moment's breathy pause, and then a clear voice said, ‘Miller.’
‘I'm sorry. I think I must have the wrong number. I wanted The Sympathy Society.’
‘You've reached The Sympathy Society. How can I help you?’
‘I've, er - I saw your ad in the Standard.’
‘I see. And may I ask if you have recently been bereaved?’
‘About six weeks ago. I lost my partner. She-’ He found that he couldn't
get the words out.
Mr Miller waited for a while, and then he asked, with extreme delicacy, ‘Was it sudden, may I ask? Or an illness?’
‘Sudden. It was very sudden. An accident, while she was on holiday.’
‘I see. Well, that means that you're very suitable for Sympathy Society
counseling. We don't counsel for illness.’
‘I've had some psychiatric counseling on the NHS. It hasn't made me feel any better, to tell you the truth.’
‘That doesn't surprise me. Psychiatrists, on the whole, have a very conventional view of what it is to be "better".’
‘I don't quite understand what you mean.’
‘Well, if you're interested in us, why don't you come to see us? It never did anybody any harm to talk.’
‘How much do you charge?’
‘You mean there are no fees at all?’
‘Let me put it this way. I do expect some output from all of the people we help. I'll explain it you when you come to see us.’
‘You sound pretty confident that I will.’
‘We word our advertisement very carefully. It appeals only to those
who we can genuinely help.’
It started to rain again. Martin couldn't see it through the blind, but he could hear the castanet-clatter of water on the concrete outside.
‘Tell me how to reach you,’ he said.
The taxi dropped him off by a sagging green-painted gate, at the end of a driveway that was made almost impassable to motor vehicles by its overgrown laurel-bushes. His feet crunched up the wet pea-shingle until eventually a redbrick Victorian house came into view. Its windows were black and empty, and one of its side-walls was streaked green with lichen. Three enormous ravens were strutting on the lawn, but they flapped away when they saw him coming, and settled on the roof instead, like three bad omens.
Martin went to the front door and rang the bell. He waited for two or three minutes but nobody answered, so he rang it again. He couldn't hear it ringing anywhere in the house. A corroded brass knocker hung in the center of the door, with the face of a hooded monk. He banged it twice, and waited some more.
At last the door opened. Martin was confronted by a white-faced young woman with her hair twisted on top of her head in a messy but elaborate bun. She wore a simple gray smock and grubby white socks.
‘You must be Martin,’ she said. She held out her hand. ‘I'm Sylvia.’
‘Hello, Sylvia. I wasn't sure I'd come to the right house.’
‘Oh, you have, Martin. Believe me, you have. Come inside.’
Martin followed her into a huge gloomy hallway that smelled of frying
onions and lavender floor-polish. On the right-hand side of the hallway, a wide staircase ran up to a galleried landing, where there was a high stained-glass window in ambers and browns and muted blues. It depicted two hooded monks in prayer and a third figure in a thick coat that looked as if it were made of dead stoats and weasels and water-rats, all sewn together, their mouths open, their legs lolling. This figure had its back turned, so that it was impossible to see who it was meant to be.
Sylvia led Martin along the hallway until they reached a large sitting-room at the back of the house. It was wallpapered and furnished in brown, with two dull landscapes on the walls. Here sat three others - two men and a woman. They turned around as Martin came in, and one of them, a silver-haired man in a baggy brown cardigan, stood up and held out his hand. The other man remained where he was, black-haired, with deep black rings under his eyes, hunched in his big worn-out armchair. The woman was standing by the window with a cup of milky coffee in her hand. She was so thin that she was almost transparent.
‘Geoffrey,’ said the silver-haired man, shaking Martin's hand. ‘But
you can call me Sticky, my dear. Mary always did. Ardent stamp-collector, that's why.’
‘Sticky - the stamp-collector who came unhinged,’ put in the
black-haired man, in a West Country accent.
Sticky gave Martin a tight little smile. ‘This is Terence. Some?times Terence is extremely cordial but most of the time Terence is extremely offensive. Still, we've learned to take him as he comes.’
‘What he means is, they've learned to keep their gobs shut,’ said Terence.
Sticky ignored him. ‘Over here - this is Theresa. She used to be a very fine singer, you know. Cheltenham Ladies' Chorus.’ Theresa gave Martin
an almost imperceptible nod of her head. ‘It's a pity,’ said Sticky. ‘She hasn't sung a single note since she lost her family.’
Terence said, ‘Where's the pity in that? I haven't plowed a single furrow and you haven't stuck in a single stamp, and Sylvia hasn't strung together a single necklace. There has to be a reason for doing things, doesn't there? A reason. And none of us here has a single reason for breathing, let alone singing.’
‘Come on, Terence,’ Sticky chided him. ‘You know we do. You know what
we're here for, all of us.’
At that moment another door opened on the opposite side of the sitting-room, and a tall man entered, leaning on a walking-stick. He was very thin, almost emaciated, with steel-gray hair scraped back from his forehead, and a nose as sharp as an ax. His eyes were so pale that they looked as if all of the colour had been leached out of them by experience and pain. A triangular scar ran across his left cheek and disappeared into his hairline.
He wore a black double-breasted suit with unfashionably flappy lapels. As he walked into the room, Martin had the impression that beneath his clothes, his body was all broken and dislocated. It was the way he balanced and swiveled as he made his way across the carpet.
‘Martin,’ he said, in a voice like glasspaper. ‘You'll forgive me for not shaking hands.’
‘Mr Miller,’ said Martin.
‘Tybalt, please. Ridiculously affected name, I know; but my father was an English teacher at a very pretentious boys' primary.’
He eased himself into one of the armchairs and propped his stick between his knees. ‘You must tell us who you have lost, Martin; and how. But before you do, your fellow-sufferers here will tell you why they sought the help of The Sympathy Society. Sticky - why don't you start?’
‘Silly thing, really,’ said Sticky, as if he were talking about nothing more traumatic than allowing himself to be bowled lbw in a local cricket match. ‘I was looking after my grandson for the day. Beautiful little chap. Blond hair. Sturdy little legs. We were going to go down to the beach and look for crabs. I went to get the car out of the garage, and I didn't realize that I'd left the front door open. Little chap followed me, you see. I reversed out of the garage and he was so small that I didn't see him standing behind me. I ran over him. Slowly. And stopped, with the wheel resting on his stomach.’
He paused for a moment and took out a clean, neatly pressed handkerchief. ‘He was lying on the concrete looking up at me. There was blood coming
out of his ears but he was still alive. I'll never forget the expression on his face as long as I live. He was so bewildered, as if he couldn't understand why this had happened to him. I moved the car off him, but that might have been the wrong thing to do. He died almost at once.