“Courage arises when escape is possible.
Heroism arises when it isn’t.”
“TELL me about your mother.”
Doctor Flem Funnel-Bremly leant back and waited for an answer, already aware what it would be. He’d asked the question of this patient each week for the past five years. Over that time, her response had not improved. It began with verbal abuse, was followed by blazing row, and culminated in the sort of violence that demolition is renowned for. She’d throw things at him, smash his pot plants and storm from his office, before confirming her appointment with his secretary for the following week.
This was because Lydia-Emther-Essden-Plthrthg-Tonquaroughly was both insane-of-the-mind and not getting better. Her lack of progress, coupled with desperation to make some, had been financially rewarding for Funnel-Bremly, even after taking office damage into account.
Funnel-Bremly sat in a plush armchair and held a pen over a pad of notepaper. The chair was expensive and upholstered in green Cavaron leather which squeaked when he moved. The chaise longue upon which Lydia lay was a similar design, and both went well with his office, which was also expensive, green and plush. Green wallpaper had gold flower motifs above a wooden beading that ran around its middle, which complemented a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. At one end of the room was a mahogany desk, upon which resided a gold-nibbed writing set and an elegant reading lamp with a cover of green glass. There were pot plants in reinforced concrete containers either side of floor-to-ceiling bookcases, the latter brimming with leather spines and folders containing years of patient notes. His office had an air of sophisticated, intellectual establishment, which pleased him, as he aspired to the same.
He pushed at glasses that slid down his nose, before pondering Lydia through them. Most practitioners who’d treated a patient for five years without improvement would consider it failure.
Funnel-Bremly, however, did not.
As far as he was concerned, if a patient couldn’t be cured then there was nothing wrong with them in the first place. Indeed, he’d written a book along these lines entitled Stop Whinging, which had been published to considerable acclaim. In it, he suggested all mental disorders were a result of self-indulgent moaning, and its release had inspired a new movement in psychiatry known as Funnelism. Stop Whinging excused practitioners’ unsuccessful treatment by suggesting they probably shouldn’t have bothered treating patients in the first place. Up until Funnelism, psychiatry had focused on patients. After Funnelism, focus turned to the practitioner. It insisted that mental illness was the patient’s problem, not theirs, and consequently, neither was failure to cure them.
Funnelism advocates a two-stage treatment regime regardless of patient presentation. Firstly, a clinical insistence that they stop whinging is implemented, followed by a serious dose of perspective. For example, if a patient hears voices that aren’t there or sees things they shouldn’t, or wears gardening tools on Thursdays, or eats house bricks, Funnelism insists they stop moaning about it while pointing out that in a hundred years no one will care. For more difficult cases, a millennia may be used. Highlighting patients’ whinging against a backdrop of eternal indifference turns out to be the proverbial slap in the face necessary for patients to re-evaluate their behaviour. Moreover, because they’re mad, they readily accept this and continue wearing gardening tools and eating bricks without beating themselves up about it.
Lydia, however, was different. She did not accept this proverbial slap; five years of expensive therapy being testament to the fact. And although she didn’t wear gardening tools on any day of the week, she did hear voices that weren’t there and certainly saw things she shouldn’t.
Funnel-Bremly glanced at his bookcases, and at one shelf in particular that bulged with notebooks from their previous sessions. Lydia’s insanity had cultivated a temper so short that she had a habit of losing it—and even finding it again often left her furious. As a result, she had a tendency to punch animals in the face.
She didn’t mean to.
She wasn’t an aggressive dog at all, despite her habit of hospitalising strangers. Had she a choice, she’d prefer discussing the weather or cheese, rather than smash animals’ faces in. And although she didn’t understand why she heard voices that weren’t there and saw things she shouldn’t, she remained adamant that it had nothing to do with her mother.
Which is why Funnel-Bremly was convinced it did.
Habitually punching animals in the face inevitably compromises socialising for both parties. As a result, despite her tender years and charming looks, Lydia was yet to converse with anyone for longer than twenty minutes without involving causality departments and bail application. She lay on the chaise longue and stared at the same ceiling she had for the past five years. She’d wanted to be a doctor, but had decided against it when realising there was little point helping others if she couldn’t help herself.
Instead, she worked in a library.
Funnel-Bremly asked the question again. “Lydia, tell me about your mother.”
The only thing she’d said about her mother was her bizarre choice in names. Lydia had no siblings. Her mother worked in a laundrette and her father in a coal mine. On this alone it was a convenient marriage. Both were kind and loved her, and gave her all she needed. She’d changed schools twice; once when her father had changed mines, and again when she’d set fire to a teacher’s car after ensuring the teacher was in it.
“Lydia? Your mother. Tell me about her.”
She wiped at tears. “We’ve been over this before.”
Funnel-Bremly glanced at his bookcase again. “Indeed,” he said, “yet never once have you answered.”
“I mean without destroying my office afterwards.”
“It needs redecorating.”
“It does after you’ve trashed the place. We’ve been over this too: your violence toward my office is an excuse to avoid talking about your mother.”
While she stared at the ceiling, he felt a déjà vu so intense that he wondered about jotting it down. With a sigh, he lowered his notebook. “Lydia, you must understand that your reaction insists I probe further. You don’t want me to resort to Funnelism, do you?”
She rocked her head against pillow.
“Good. Now, do you know why you find it so hard to talk about your mother?”
“Because there’s nothing to say.”
“Well, I think there’s a great deal to say.”
She turned to glare. “What is it with you and my mother anyway?”
“It’s you and your mother I am interested in, Lydia. This has nothing to do with me. You know that.”
“I know only that there is nothing to say on the matter.”
“There is always something to say about mothers.”
“It depends on the mother.”
“You’re avoiding the question again.”
“I’m not avoiding anything,” she said. “I’m answering your question by saying that there’s nothing of relevance to say.”
“Perhaps I ought to be the judge of that.”
After a time, she said, “She had a bizarre choice in names. Clearly she was a fan of hyphens.”
Funnel-Bremly nodded, having noted this over two hundred times already. “Yes, but more than that. Tell me about how she makes you feel.”
“I don’t feel anything. I feel nothing good or bad regarding her. I am completely devoid of opinion on the matter.”
More nods as he flipped through well scribbled pages. “So you’re indifferent to her?”
“I’m indifferent to the question. It’s irrelevant. She’s irrelevant. It’s like asking me to express my opinions on pompoms: they’re fluffy, light and often found on hats. But I see no point in deliberating over them.”
“But most animals would consider their mothers rather more influential that pompoms, Lydia.”
“Perhaps. Certainly she avoided sitting on hats.”
“Now you’re just being flippant.”
“No. I am answering an irrelevant question with irrelevance. It makes perfect sense to me.”
“If things made perfect sense, Lydia, I don’t think you’d be here, do you?”
“Then what do you want me to say?” she growled. “If you keep pestering me like this, then I’ll end up mentioning something about her which you’ll insist arises from a deep-rooted maternal pathology that gives rise to hallucinations, and that I’ll spend the next six months agonising over until it’s contradicted through further questioning—which will not only leave me in a greater mess for a further six months, but you in traction for even longer!”
Funnel-Bremly sighed. It wouldn’t be long now, and he cast an uneasy glance at his reinforced concrete pots. They were designed for war zones, so should survive another of her outbursts. He’d had them installed by specialists, having gone through seventeen standard ones already this year. He peered at the floor beside him where an empty tray waited as impromptu shield. “All right,” he said, trying a more lateral approach. “Tell me how your mother makes you feel.”
“Oh, for fluff’s sake! How many more times? My being insane-of-the-mind has nothing to do with my mother!”
“Nevertheless, Lydia, tell me how she makes you feel.”
“I don’t think—”
“Don’t think, Lydia. I want to know how you feel. Begin the sentence with I feel.”
“I feel your pedantic wording is ridiculous. Using words interchangeably makes no difference to what I’d wish to say!”
“And what do you wish to say, Lydia?”
When she turned to glare again, he said, “Lydia, need I remind you that I’m a psychiatrist and you’re a librarian. There’s a difference. A big one.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You know very well my reasons for surrendering medicine,” she said. “I did not take the decision lightly. My being a librarian does not make me less of an animal than I otherwise might have been. Indeed, such sacrifice might prove I’m a far finer one.”
“Are you certain of that?”
“You know I am. You must have written it down often enough. I cannot hope to help others if I am ill myself.” She folded her paws and turned back to the ceiling. “It was a sacrifice necessary.”
“Are you certain, Lydia?”
She nodded as tears welled.
He hesitated. If she got upset, his office wouldn’t stand a chance. Nevertheless, he asked again, “Your mother. Tell me about her.”
With a sigh, she wiped her eyes.“Have I made any progress?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he said, thinking of his new yacht.
She sat up, which had him leaning toward the tray.
“I don’t think I am making progress,” she said. “What’s more, I think my boss is beginning to suspect the same.”
He frowned. “Fingelberry? But I was under the impression that you were finding the library very peaceful. As I recall, only last month you assured me you felt far less likely to punch animals in the face while working there.”
She nodded. “Yes. But recently arguments have been erupting out of nowhere.” Her eyes welled again. “I know it’s ridiculous: animals come to the library looking for books, not fights. So why do I end up telling them that they’re stupid and asking whether they want their snouts smashed in? If they’re in a library they’re not complete idiots, surely? So why do I find myself telling them that they are?”
“Perhaps you’re indirectly telling yourself?”
“No,” she said, with a defiant sniff. “It’s definitely them. I find their voices and questions and smiles irritating, even though all they’re doing is asking about due dates and where the non-fiction is.”
“And that irritates you?”
“Yes! It’s a library. Surely they can read? I mean, there are signs all over the place! It’s not difficult to work out where the non-fiction is if they read the signs indicating where the non-fiction is! They should consider it practice for when they get there.”
“The Great Library of Liebe is the world’s largest library, Lydia.”
“All the more reason to make an effort.”
“But it’s your job, surely? It’s part of what a librarian would do.”
“A librarian should not have to teach stupid animals how to be less so.” She began hitting her head. “They irritate me so much that I end up screaming.” Her blows lessened and she looked sheepish. “At least, I screamed up until recently.”
“What happened recently, Lydia?”
She bit her lip. “I began punching them in the face.”
He closed his eyes, realising he was going to need more shelving. “So even in the library you find opportunity to punch animals in the face?”
“I thought we’d been over this, Lydia. I thought we’d developed coping mechanisms to implement when you start feeling like thumping animals. Remember? So you can redirect violence into something resembling polite dinner conversation.”
“Yes, but there’s a problem with your coping mechanisms.”
“They’re rubbish. They don’t work at all. When I get infuriated, the last thing on my mind is implementing mechanisms of convivial dinner conversation because all I want to do is punch them in the face!”
He sighed and shook his head. Lydia did not look capable of such violence. She was beautiful, for a start. Her ears were long and floppy and hung around her shoulders as though they were the latest fashion. Her eyes, big and brown, seemed incapable of harbouring anything other than wonder at the world. Yet here she was, Lydia-Emther Essden-Plthrthg-Tonquaroughly: the most unstable patient he’d ever met. Who wasn’t in prison.
She had a sick note regarding that.
But even sick notes from psychiatrists as influential as he would become redundant if she’d begun punching animals in the face again. His reputation had persuaded Fingelberry to employ her at the library, and her relapse wouldn’t do much to sustain it. Although Fingelberry was a kind animal, the Library Board would be far less understanding. Ambulances were supposed to be noisy. Libraries were not.
Changing his approach, he asked, “The visions, Lydia. Are they as frequent?”
She looked away and fought tears. “Yes.”
“And still the same imagery?”
“And the voices, Lydia. Do they whisper more insistently than before?”
She stared at nothing; a lull before storm.
“Lydia?” he asked. “The voices. Are they more insistent than before?”
She shook her head and sniffed at an escaped tear.
“Are they lessening then?”
When she shook her head again, he frowned. “If they’re not as insistent, but they’re not lessening, are they getting louder perhaps?”
“What do they say?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
“Why? You can’t hear them clearly anymore, perhaps?”
Another shake of head.
He was encouraged. “Is that a good thing?” he asked.
When she turned to him, he felt kicked in the chest.
“I can’t hear them properly,” she said, “because they scream.”
He reached for his tray while swallowing at nothing. “All the time, Lydia? Do they scream all the time?”
She returned her attention to ceiling.
After a moment’s deliberation, he asked, “And you’re absolutely convinced that this has nothing to do with your mother?”
When she turned to glare, he retrieved his tray without any sudden movements.
“Would you please leave my mother out of this?” she hissed.
He glanced at his pot plants, hoping the war zone was a particularly violent one. He didn’t want his office inverted again. The repair bills alone were his greatest expense last quarter.
Next to hospital bills.
“It’s just that every time I mention your mother, you get defensive.”
“I am not getting defensive!”
“True,” he said. “I stand corrected. Offensive is perhaps more apt.”
“Offensive? How do you think I feel?” she cried. “I have no choice! Your insistence about my mother drives me mad—which is quite an achievement, considering I’m already insane!” She leant closer. “I can assure you, Funnel-Bremly, that my mother has got nothing to do with my problem!”
“That you admit you have a problem, Lydia, is the first step to recovery.” He wanted to jot this down, but didn’t dare surrender the tray.
Her glare hardened. “I told you I had a problem five years ago! For five years you’ve been supposedly curing my madness! Yet nothing has changed. I still hear voices that aren’t there and see things I shouldn’t! Am I beyond help? Tell me, Funnel-Bremly! Because I have seen five psychiatrists in seven years! None of them helped. All they could do was refer me to you—”
“You did put two of them in traction.”
“And here I am five years later having made no progress whatsoever, other than ample opportunities to discuss my MOTHER!”
She stood and lunged around his office. “Listen,” she growled, “my mother has nothing to do me hearing voices that aren’t there and seeing things I shouldn’t. She’s got nothing to do with the fact that as a result, I spend my lonely existence assaulting every second animal I come across!”
“Every second one’s not so bad—”
She turned to him as though mechanised. “That’s because the others run, Funnel-Bremly! They run from me! Can you imagine what that’s like? Can you imagine how it feels to have had no contact with any animal longer than twenty minutes?”
He shook his head and braced the tray.
“Twenty minutes!” she cried, waving her paws at everything. “I’ve never spoken to any animal for more than twenty minutes!”
“Lydia,” he tried, “we’ve gone over this many times and discussed various coping mechanisms you could—”
“You can shove your coping mechanisms right up your bottom! They don’t work, Funnel-Bremly. They never have! I am beyond coping mechanisms!”
“You see? That was a perfect opportunity to insert one and steer the conversation toward a more constructive narrative. It’s called conversation, Lydia, and it’s not difficult. It can be rather fun if you make the effort.”
She stared at him. “Are you patronising me?”
He sighed. “No, I am not. But I am frustrated that after all this time you still haven’t inserted anything into your interactions other than clenched paws.”
When she stormed closer, he raised the tray.
“This is not about inserting coping mechanisms!” she cried. “My inability to discuss the weather is a symptom of my illness! I need, therefore, to be cured! That is what I need from you! Not ways of discussing cheese prior to smashing animals’ faces in!”
With a groan, she lunged across the room and grabbed his desk.
“I don’t want to hear voices that aren’t there anymore! Or see things I shouldn’t! I want to be like all the other normal, boring idiots running around the place. I want to chat about spoons and cheese and weather without being compelled to smash snouts!”
She gripped the desk so hard that it shook with her.
“And what’s more,” she cried, picking the thing up and waiting while lamps and gold-nibbed writing sets slid to the floor, “I do not want to discuss my MOTHER!”
With a growl, she hurled it at a bookcase, which toppled, fell and spread its contents across the floor. With another one, she picked up his chair and smashed it across a pot plant. Her obscenities were so extraordinary that he wondered about jotting them down also. He didn’t, however, being too busy deflecting pawfuls of books she threw at him. With another cry, she wrenched open the door, stormed from his office and confirmed her appointment for next Thursday.
In the wilting chaos of her wake, Funnel-Bremly lowered his tray and wiped books from his lap. He stood and surveyed the damage, impressed that she’d managed to crack a pot plant after all. Wading through mess, he gathered the session’s notes and circled the word mother several times, before hunting for an intercom that used to be on his desk. He also hunted for his desk.
Finding both, he pressed a button on the former.
A broken speaker crackled when his secretary’s voice spluttered from it. “Do you need an ambulance?” she asked.
“Not this time, no.”
“Insurance details then?”
“Yes, please. Did she made a time for next week?”
“I’m afraid so. It’s rather hard to refuse her, you see.”
He sighed, knowing that it certainly was.
Thank you for reading!
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