Signal | Zakia Uddin | Granta

Signal

Zakia Uddin

I had begun to google the therapist reflexively whenever I was bored on the gallery reception. It was three weeks into my therapy, and she had posted a review for the first time in two years, of a device for relieving facial stress. The only previous hit was a review of a candle on Amazon, which she had also written using her full, unusual name: this candle did not match the seller’s description. It seemed unprofessional to review something for free so publicly when she charged so much for withholding her opinion in private. I didn’t know what facial stress was and didn’t get a chance to find out then and there because Vaughn, the gallery manager, came down from his little perch.

Sidra! he said, as if he didn’t see me every week, the same two and half days that I could afford to work there. My housemate Meike had the job the rest of the week while I worked the front desk of a hotel and tutored rich children. Vaughn was wearing a royal blue suit with red triangles that made my peripheral vision flare. On the laptop, I enlarged the browser window showing a blog with the latest review of Lam Hatweser’s show. Not sure I agreed with that, he said, turning on his heel for the daily floor inspection.

The gallery specialised in outsider and self-schooled art. Lam Hatweser, who Vaughn’s father had discovered on a New York street, was our biggest artist. His latest series of luminescent paintings lined the walls. Each canvas featured a complex diagram demonstrating that aliens were communicating through mistakes in astronomical data that coincided with key personal events: his ninth birthday in 1965, a graduation prom in 1975, and his road trip to Albuquerque in 1978. The impenetrability of his work made me uneasy. I often found myself staring at the pictures, wanting the dates to speak to me too.

What did that blogger say again? Vaughn asked, returning to my desk. I read from the screen: Is the ‘white cube’ the right place for this work? What do you think? Vaughn asked. He checked his loafers and nails while he waited. I read out the notes that I had written that morning in response to the blog. We could do more to open up the gallery to the public, in short, I said. Very good, very good, Vaughn said, turning away. He sounded as if he was tonguing out food stuck in his molars.

Have you heard of facial stress? I asked. No, he said, touching his face. He looked uneasily out of the front window before going upstairs again.

 

On the long bus journey home to Stratford, I called Anji, my mother, as I did every Tuesday. Your dad left today for Dr Patulas. It’s that time of year again. He’ll be in London for a bit longer than normal. He’s got a friendship group going with the other patients, she said. I haven’t spoken to him in ages, I said. I listened to the reverberation of her footsteps through the house as she bustled from room to room. My father had the downstairs, my mother had the upstairs.

I often alternated my searches for the therapist with one for my father, who had once been declared neither missing nor dead. My father had suffered a dissociative fugue seventeen years ago and vanished for four months. He had disappeared before people were easily found online without wanting to be.

He had given up on recovering that time, but we thought knowing what happened in that lost interval might dispel his more fanciful ideas. I had typed variations of ‘Everett Jones 2004 mysterious disappearance’, ‘Everett Jones 2004 reappearance’ but there was nothing, not even a link to a local newspaper article.

He’s always busy with the sightings, my mother said, loud over the bus engine. He doesn’t enjoy visiting Dr Patulas anymore. I told him at least she’s interested. Where’s he going to get that kind of professional help now? I haven’t mentioned your therapy to him in case you’re wondering. You know your father worries.

The bus began to slow near the Olympic Park. Hot beams pierced the powdery windows. Outside, the dusty yellow streets were deserted even though it was high summer. Anyone passing made a conspicuous figure. Well, at least we know he’ll be back this time, she said. Since my father’s return, my mother said this any time he travelled.

 

Someone keeps buzzing the door during the day without leaving parcels, Meike said, when I got home. I stood in the living-room doorway. She was typing, her laptop on her knees, and half-watching on television an episode of a 90s comedy that she used to rest her eyes. No one bothers to answer, she said. What if it’s urgent? I asked. They’ll keep coming back if it’s urgent, she said, are you expecting anyone? Maybe, I said.

Meike and I had lived together for a year. I moved into the flat not long after I moved to London, as a last-minute replacement for one of Meike’s unreliable friends. She was a conceptual artist and I’d been a painter at art school. Now I considered myself a receptionist-painter. I had not expected to stay in the flat or the job for long. At first the transience had nurtured a loneliness that kept me focused. But now I found the demands of that loneliness odd and unpredictable, like those of a mismatched companion.

My father might be visiting. He doesn’t have a phone, I said. I came in and sat down on the sofa. Families, I said, without delivering a punchline.

I’ve always found something sinister about a group of people who resemble each other celebrating that fact, Meike said.

I nodded, even though no one in my family looked exactly like each other. I had never met Meike’s family but her antipathy made me feel less strange about my own parents. We sat in silence until I realised that I was listening for the door.

 

 

My father’s visiting London, I told the therapist the following evening. For how long? the therapist asked. She was wearing a black shift dress made of a shiny scuba material. I’m not sure, he doesn’t like to be contactable when he’s here or anywhere else, I said.

You keep coming back to the time he went away, but you haven’t described what changed when he came back, she said. Nothing really, I said, I used to help him with sightings before – typing the reports up or going with him to check out any accounts.

Oh yes, his hobby, the therapist said. Her face went as blank and smooth as her dress, and I wondered if she’d been using her facial stress machine. I didn’t say anything further about the hobby. She didn’t say anything when I didn’t say anything.

I looked around the room instead. Have you ever thought of redecorating? I asked. The therapist followed my gaze. The room was a chalky blue square with a narrow window that looked out on the rooftops of Bloomsbury. Aside from that, it had no distinguishing features, only a table from IKEA. There’s nothing wrong with the room, I said, I’m curious, that’s all. What about candles?

We both examined the neutrally coloured rug and the cardboard box on the table, with its single white tissue half-plucked and readily accessible.

I guess it wouldn’t be professional, I said, when she didn’t answer.

 

 

The next morning, from behind the frosted door which separated the reception from the main gallery, I saw someone shuffling in to stand in front of the furthest painting. Vaughn’s pink suit moved in and out of focus behind the visitor. But the figure kept shuffling nearer to the reception, looming larger until it radiated against the glass. Then it shrank and returned to the front of the gallery. I got up, opened and then closed the door involuntarily before opening it again.

Can I help you? I heard Vaughn saying, which he never asked in that tone, when he asked at all. Everett stood with his back to him, holding a distressed laundry bag and a maculated green anorak soft with age. If he wasn’t so fixated on the artwork, he would have appeared lost. He ignored Vaughn who was now beside him. I told myself that I was waiting and not hiding but the longer I stood there the easier it was to confuse the two.

Lam Hatweser – there’s a mystery that arises out of his formal simplicity, Vaughn said. Everett interrupted Vaughn’s explanation of Hatweser’s backstory. I read about him in the newspaper. He thinks he’s intercepting alien communication, Everett said. Yes, he’s trying to communicate what he thinks is going on out there, said Vaughn. It is going on out there, Everett said. Vaughn carried on talking over him. Yes, a lot of these beliefs arise out of complicated personal histories, he said.

Everett moved pointedly in front of a canvas closer to the reception. I stepped out too quickly. Vaughn and Everett both turned. My dad, I said to Vaughn, as if I were pointing out my father in the distance and he wasn’t actually in the room. He moved fast and clutched Everett’s shoulder. Vaughn’s wariness had been replaced by sympathy, which was more painful to see. It’s lovely, just absolutely lovely to meet you, he said. Did you travel far? Everett closed his eyes. Not far, he said. You should give your father a tour, Vaughn said. He addressed an invisible audience behind me, one that had witnessed me hiding malevolent and ashamed.

 

We were hesitant until Vaughn’s footsteps receded on his way upstairs. You didn’t see me here? he said. I stepped forward slowly to hug him. He patted me on the back. I didn’t mean to embarrass you, he said, when we separated. I tried not to look away. You didn’t, I said. His face became murky, his eyes narrow and sly. It was an expression that I had seen appear when I’d been caught sneaking food from the kitchen or taking temporary possession of something that didn’t belong to me, like the mouse-sized meteorite fragment that my father had kept in the basement where he did his research.

So, this is where you work. He looked around at the paintings and the desk behind the sliding door, and then at me again, as though I was also on display. I’m actually down to see Dr Patulas for a few days – the old check-up and overnight. And I’m meeting up with a few friends. I wasn’t actually sure whether you’d be here, he said. He gazed at the Hatweser painting. Strange that they’re showing this, he said.

Well, the gallery specialises in this kind of art, I said. I saw that Everett wasn’t listening. He was leaning in closer to the painting, data servers in a constellation. Did you choose this one? he asked. No, that’s the curator’s job. In fact, I should be working right now, I said. Sorry, he said. He glanced over the gallery walls again, skipping me this time.

You don’t have to go right this second, I said, as he picked up his bag. Have you been calling around?

You moved without telling me, he said lightly. I wasn’t going to just turn up like last time.

I’m not always there, I said. He was now going through the bag. Outside the street was empty. I couldn’t see my father walking around in the busy and indifferent city, but he couldn’t stay in the gallery with me.

From his bag, he pulled out three bloated old-fashioned diaries with the years 2004 and 2005 on their covers. A post-it fell to the floor. Take these, he said. If you’ve got a few hours, you might want to photocopy them or type them up. It could be of interest. I was going to throw them away, but Dr Patulas told me to hang onto them in case they brought something back. I could give you a bit of money for it, he said.

I don’t need any money, I said, thinking of my meagre lunch. Of course, of course, he said. His shoulders slumped with relief. I picked up the post-it. On it was written an email address with the words send it here and don’t use this email again underneath. He watched me and didn’t elaborate, which meant that I shouldn’t ask. He then took the diaries from me and put them in the laundry bag again and handed it all over, neat as a present.

Take my address again, I said. I went to the desk and returned with my address and mobile number on a postcard of the exhibition. They have phones at the hospital, don’t they? Call first, I said.

Boundaries? I have heard of them, he said.

Any evening but tonight, I have a thing, I said. He paused to look at the postcard. I had been incautious with my choice. I prepared myself.

Alien aircraft looks nothing like that in real life, he said.

 

I went to the therapist after work. I didn’t want to be visibly stressed on my arrival. I didn’t want the therapist to think we got a real one here! Can’t even go up four floors of a building without getting into a situation! When the therapist eyed the laundry bag, I moved it behind my legs. It’s my father’s, not mine, I said. I didn’t mention the diaries. You met? the therapist asked. He came to visit me at work, but he’s here to see his specialist, I said. The therapist rearranged her feet. I don’t think anything has changed in years, but he keeps returning, I said. Her shoes were similar to those of Dr Patulas.

A lift sounded outside. He still doesn’t know what happened, I said. And mostly he goes now because he says that she’s interested in his work. Is it too much for him just to come and go like a normal person? I asked. I expected her to repeat the word normal in quote marks, but she only moved her puffy notepad about on her lap.

Who do you resemble in your family? she asked eventually. I’m not sure anymore, I said. I want to picture who you’re talking about, the therapist said, looking into the distance. I closed my eyes. My father has had the same haircut for nearly thirty years, I said.

 

 

At home, I took out the diaries from the laundry bag and laid them on my bedroom floor. A smell of peat and damp rose from the speckled paper. The first and second pages were full of calculations about his benefits and weekly expenses. Everett’s cursive, which I could still read, covered every inch. I closed the door and began skimming:

5 Oct 2004: Teacher in Wivelsfield got in touch – told me that orange light from outside field flew into kitchen and went inside cutlery drawer. Now eating with hands.

7 Oct: Anji moved upstairs.

11 Oct: Keep forgetting and going upstairs.

14 Oct: Dr Patulas called from the memory hospital. Says that she’s been assigned to me, but I’ve never heard of her. Sidra pretended it was her ninth birthday.

15 Oct: Dr Patulas warned me on phone that people often begin lying when they think you cannot remember.

19 Oct: Five months today since the incident.

20 Oct: UFO Society said that the MoD is no longer ‘diverting resources’ to investigations.

1 Nov: In London with Anji and Sidra to meet Dr Patulas. The only thing anyone remembers from the day before I left was that I was ‘determined to fix the fence’ and the big woman in garden opposite was ‘trampolining’.

2 Nov: When we were alone, Dr P talked about the order of events being the key. What does it matter the order of events? I told her I’ve always been a believer, long before fugue incident. She said that there are others in the patient group I should talk to.

12 Nov: Filed five cases: all terrestrial. No life out there or in immediate area. House empty. Where is everyone?

 

 

When I woke up, my hand was loosely clasping the diary. The unopened ones were scattered around me on the floor. I neatened my hair, brushed down my clothes, and went into the hallway, teetering with sleep. I grappled for a switch, but everything felt the same after I turned it on – inexact, boundary-less. I listened for Meike, or the neighbours, but the whole building seemed abandoned.

 

The following week, I left work early for the therapist’s appointment. At the desk in the lobby of her building, the receptionist tapped on her computer and told me that the therapist was away. I opened the calendar on my phone; a reminder that I had created three weeks ago noting that the therapist would be at a conference popped up. It had not been there an hour ago. The receptionist made a sad face before returning to her screen.

 

On the bus, I found myself searching for the therapist again. When I clicked on her facial stress device review, I saw that she’d answered a question earlier that day from the username lklarer: What’s the charging time? The therapist had replied only a few hours ago: Five hours. Be careful – it gets very hot. Since then, username igormolke had asked: has it helped with the facial stress? I’ve had the condition for several years. I waited for an answer as though the therapist might still be sat somewhere, waiting for a question.

Nearly thirty minutes later, the therapist replied: It’s perfect for those ‘difficult’ days at work. I created an account on the website. Under the username Hatweser, I asked What kind of work do you do? Are Tuesdays a problem? I deleted and typed: Have you used any other such devices? How frequently are you stressed? I pressed send. Through the bus window, I watched people go nonchalantly past. I replied to Anji’s texts. I checked the gallery email account.

I refreshed the product page again ten minutes later, but no answer appeared. I wrote down suggestions in my Notes app for gallery events to promote an upcoming exhibition. I refreshed the website again and only the panel for related facial products updated. Just as the bus arrived at my stop, I received a notification from the website. The username rmatthews had replied to my question with an extensive comparison of all available electronic facial stress machines, with pictures of the devices and close-ups of his face. My slivery connection with the therapist had been broken, as fragile as if I had imagined it in the first place.

 

Everett was waiting in the living room when I got home. He twisted about on a floral armchair that Meike had restored from the street. The light in the room was the colour of the inside of a lozenge. Meike sat opposite him. I didn’t know Everett was an artist – a photographer, or did you say you write about photographs? she asked, redirecting her attention to him.

Everett opened his mouth and then snapped it shut again after taking a seemingly pre-determined quantity of air. His clothes were heat-rumpled and his shoes dusty, but the laundry bag leaning against the sofa was new. I could see my father was confused by Meike’s attention. He was out of place in our tiny flat, with his large red hands clamping the sides of the rose-budded armchair.

Do you want to get something to eat? The place across the road opens in half an hour, I said.

Yes, yes, that would be good, he said. He shifted about and looked purposefully at his belongings before realising that he had to wait. I had no choice but to sit next to Meike in the manner of an interrogation.

I’m not an artist, Everett said, sinking into the chair again. Not like Sidra. I examine photographs taken by other people of – he paused – phenomena. It’s a scientific process. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the chance to take any myself, he said.

What phenomena? Meike asked. They’re more evidence than art, I said, not looking at Everett. That’s exactly it – they’re proof, he said. He ungripped the sofa and folded his arms in his lap. He had taken what I said for agreement, rather than a concession.

Evidence of what? Meike asked.

 

I sat in the restaurant across the road from our flat. Everett had gone to the toilets, clutching his coat and new laundry bag. The place was always sparse, the only business from occasional visitors to the on-site estate agent next door. The air conditioning was off and my skin unpeeled from the plastic seats as I shifted. Staff hovered over white tables that ghostily floated in the soft dark. They stopped now and then to rearrange tissues and condiments or stare out of the large glass front.

While I waited for my father, I checked whether the therapist had got back to me. My open tabs all appeared at once and I could see her name in every search field alternating with that of Everett. I closed all at the tabs at once. Everett approached the table slowly, eyeing the phone with his unreadable expression. Checking the weather, I said, placing the phone face down on the table.

Everett settled his belongings next to him like small children. A feeling of anxiety coursed through me whenever we were somewhere unfamiliar to him. The waiter brought our burgers in small red baskets. He stood at the table a little too long after we said that they didn’t need anything else. Everett turned to check how far away the waiter was before he started speaking again. This is nice – just us, Everett said. I watched him wrestle the burger out of its cage. His fingers shook a little. Music came on, spiking up and down so we had to lean closer to hear each other.

Do you like living in this bit? It’s like a desert on the edge of the city, he said.

It’s cheaper, I said. They keep building new flats, so maybe it won’t stay that way. I like my housemate though. We’re good friends, I said. I started eating. I had never thought that of Meike before, but it was true.

Did you see Dr Patulas? I asked, when I thought enough time had passed. Yes, but there’s no progress to report. That time is lost now, he said. He chewed quickly, eyes down, as if to ward off any questions. But I’ve got friends here now, he said eventually. The patient group, I said. There was a correction in my tone.

You could stay with me, I said, when he didn’t reply. We could go to the Planetarium and that kind of thing – you know, tourist stuff, I said. I don’t always know where I’m going to be, what might come up, he said. Of course, I said.

Everett put down his burger. He waited for a few seconds. I carried on eating. He started picking conscientiously at his cheesy fries, as though he had only been distracted from them.

I told Patulas that my hobby predates the incident, he said. Everett always referred to the fugue as an incident. If there have been any ‘after-effects’, it’s from before, he said. That doesn’t make sense, I said. He raised his voice above the music. He was no longer speaking to me, but a sense of me that he carried.

Not many people are willing to spend time disproving something they believe in, he said. If only aliens would appear to the intelligent people instead of idiots and you’d have less work to do, I said, before he could, even though he had not said that for years. The music stopped and we both sat there in silence. Everett had stopped eating and was staring down at the table, his fingers on his temples.

You know, I can’t on bad days, when everything starts going, he said. You can’t do what? I said. I felt my mouth hang open a little like a bully.

Hard to tell sometimes, he said. You don’t know what is you and what is – he stopped and pointed at my phone. You’ve never had them? When everything stops working?

No, I let my phone update overnight usually.

Oh, I didn’t mean that.

I’m going to get the bill. They’re very slow here, I lied.

I called the waiter over and he brought his card machine. I tapped my card before Everett could protest and offer to pay himself. A face reset itself on the machine and became blank. Not working, the waiter said. He looked at Everett, who was now staring at me. It’s not what you think, I said. I was too embarrassed to say that it had been declined.

I’ll pay, Everett said. He fished his wallet out of his bag; furry receipts and memos fluttered across the table as he placed two notes on the small unused plate between us. After the waiter took the money, Everett pushed his cold half-eaten burger away and leant back. It was never a promising sign when Everett looked certain.

You saw something yourself once, he said. I’m not sure what you mean, I said. You can read about it in the diary, he said. I haven’t forgotten what you told me. It was the day after the meteor, he carried on. What meteor? I asked. You came running back from the woods; I filed a case, he said.

I don’t remember, I said.

When people can’t remember – what did Patulas say? he asked.

I don’t remember, I repeated.

 

We stood outside the restaurant. Above us, the moon was as flat and thin as cellophane.

You could visit us now and then, he said.

The old house with its permanently curtained windows and my mother’s neat rooms upstairs and my father’s tobacco-strewn basement downstairs and the sagging old bed surrounded by fading marbled files and the two computers next to each other.

I was planning to visit, I said. I haven’t had the time, sorry. I’ll make it. I promise.

A car rounded the corner, engine fading as it disappeared. A sense of sadness came from the now empty, darkening street.

I’ll be in touch before I leave. I’ve still got a few days here – things to do, he said. The hospital? I asked. He waved and walked down the road quickly as if he knew exactly where he was going and had been there many times before.

 

Back at the flats, I walked past our door and up a flight of stairs. A door at the top opened onto the rooftop, which no one other than Meike and I used. She was sitting on one of the loungers she had dragged up there, close to the edge. I sat on the other one. She gestured at the drinks next to it. From the roof, we could see for almost a mile. I opened a can.

How was dinner? Your dad’s so eccentric – in a good way, she said.

He has memory issues. He had a fugue once, I said. But he’s also just eccentric, I added for reassurance. Meike shook the last drops of her drink into her mouth, while I waited for her to ask.

A fugue? she said. Like that piano player?

Everett wasn’t on the news, so we don’t know what happened to him, I said.

She turned to me and examined me as if I was the one who’d been missing.

He must have had something terrible happen for his memory to just go, she said.

It’s not clear, I said. I didn’t tell Meike that Everett woke up one morning four months after he officially vanished, went to a train station and asked how to get home, even though he wasn’t sure that it was home. And that after arriving, he had walked to the UFO society headquarters. The other amateur ufologists had brought him discreetly to our house, instead of the hospital, like a piece of evidence that proved their theories.

I knew I would tell her later.

But he’s fine now. Just odd. Always has been, I said.

The edges of distant buildings fuzzed in the dusk.

 

 

In bed, I took out Everett’s diaries. I had started keeping them close to me, like a person clutching identifying possessions. I opened the book and flicked through to December. My head reeled from the smell of decaying woods, rained-on paper:

 

2 December: Dr P said she can help bring it back but not all at once. Fireball sighting reported.

5 December: Sidra came back from wood this morning. Claims she saw something.

9 December: I found Sidra drawing in the kitchen. Told her to keep drawing and asked her details – have watched a lot of films in which this works. Told me two bright lights in the wood (‘like disco’).

10 December: Cross-referenced Sidra’s claims with older sightings. Very similar cases in 2002–2003 – cases typed up by Sidra.

13 December: Have been watching Sidra carefully. Electromagnetic fields in area strong after meteor. Might affect developing brain.

14 December: No observable difference in her behaviour, possibly because she is avoiding me.

16 December: Tried to fix fence. Woman trampolining in garden at same time. Had moment when disappearance came back as I was lifting fence. Carried out muscle memory exercises recommended by Patulas. Kept lifting fence, dropping fence until it got dark.

17 December: Anji said that I shouldn’t ‘encourage Sidra’s lies’.

19 December: Should I take Sidra to be examined by Dr Patulas?

 

 

Walking to the therapist’s office the next day, I tried to remember what my father had told Dr Patulas when he took me to London. She had questioned me when we were alone. You can tell me anything, she had said, the light smoke-thick through the smeared windowpanes of her room. Her foot had tapped while I tried to come up with an answer. I entered another space, the therapist’s lobby.

I was early for my session. As the front door closed, the traffic of the Bloomsbury street fell away. The light shifted rosily on the marbled floor; the old-fashioned station clock ticked into the silence. I approached the desk. The receptionist was a new one, but she seemed to recognise me. All receptionists everywhere were prepared for my arrival, like I was walking through a long corridor where every room was the right one, as long as I told them the correct and secret words.

I sat in the seating area in a forward-facing position with the other visitors of a nervous disposition. The building housed an anxious-driving coach, a life coach and a reiki specialist. I googled the therapist. On my phone I refreshed an open tab with the therapist’s name in the address field and saw that she had reviewed a set of room diffusers on the same website. As expected, she had written. I typed another question: What does that mean? Would you recommend?

You can go up now, the receptionist said. I looked up and accidentally pressed send. It was too late to delete; I watched the question appear under the name Hatweser.

Heraclitus, I said, sitting down in the therapist’s room. You never step in the same stream twice. Is that what you’re saying? I asked. I pointed to the new soft-focus picture of riverbed stones on the wall next to me.

I didn’t take out the paper insert that comes with the frame, the therapist said. It’s interesting that you’re asking.

I didn’t think that I was supposed to ask questions – personal ones, I said.

You can ask me questions, she said said. I’m surprised not to get asked more, but obviously, I won’t answer all of them.

I found an Amazon review with your name on it. Well, a couple of reviews, I said. The therapist looked away from the wall to the door. I had left my own body and was watching my vacant shell with its still-twitching fingers press send. But I wanted to be honest, like a trespasser priding themselves on resituating a prized household ornament for better effect.

You were forthcoming in the reviews. That surprised me, I said. I thought if I carried on talking it would be the same as a normal therapy session, where if I spoke long enough into the silence I would understand my own motivations.

Ah, it’s important to give feedback, the therapist said.

I started imagining your life, I said. I tried to imagine you saying those things to me. Like, I can’t give you an answer to that or that I didn’t arrive on time. It’s like you have this other way of communicating where you’re your real self, except via Amazon or wayfair.co.uk, I said.

Why would I communicate through popular online retail sites? she said.

I just read all the reviews in your voice – not literally but they seemed like things you could say to a person, I said.

She moved her head a little to the side. I did not know what this gesture meant. What do you think you’ve learned about me? she asked.

When I say that you were communicating, what I mean is that sometimes I asked you questions, I said.

What kind of questions? she asked. Just things, I said. What kind of things? she asked. About facial products and sometimes diffusers, I said.

What name did you use? she asked.

Hatweser, I said.

Did you just contact me?

Yes, I said. There was a beeping noise outside again, the whoosh of doors opening and closing.

This is curious behaviour, Sidra. Did you not think of asking me in person? the therapist asked.

No, there would have been this awkward exchange between us about me searching for you on the internet and then you would want to know why I needed to know about you, I said.

Yes, but it’s not as though we don’t google clients ourselves now and then, she said.

You’ve looked me up? I asked.

I had not intended to sound hopeful.

No, she said. Sorry.

The therapist’s gaze dropped to her lap. She hadn’t opened her notebook, which I took as a bad sign.

It’s unfortunate that we can’t change what others see until we see it ourselves, she said.

I did not ask her what she meant.

Do you feel like you know me better? she asked.

I don’t feel like I know you better, I said.

Okay, she said, as if that was a sufficient response.

The familiar blankness came over her face again.

There’s no other place where I’m more or less myself, not to you, she said.

When I left the therapist’s office, I saw there was a large crowd outside the tube station and a station guard telling them to back away, shouting that there were power failures, and they should use the nearby buses. My regular stop had new and unfamiliar commuters queueing for the bus, emitting their cancelled tube energy. I went back and sat in the nearby park instead, which was still busy at this time, with people stretching out a weekday evening in the city.

On one side of the park was the building of my therapist’s office and, on the other, the teaching hospital my father attended. I was afraid that the therapist would see me as she passed, so I sat in the shade and looked in the direction of the teaching hospital. There were visitors walking up and down smoking or gesticulating on phones, demonstrating an urgency that united them in their private dramas.

One of the narrow windows above belonged to Dr Patulas, I had always imagined. But now I remembered that her room had been deep inside the building, so deep that I got lost on the way out of her office to meet my father again. Every time an old man shuffled past, I found myself inspecting his face, as if I might learn something about my father’s state of mind. I laid out the diaries on the grass. I tried to concentrate on the pages, but all I could think about was when they would go blank. The entries were becoming sparser and sparser:

 

2005

19 May: Nearly a year since returning. Fence needs fixing again.

21 May: Sidra told Dr Patulas that she did not see anything in the woods. Told me that she did see for certain. Won’t budge even though I point out suspect similarities to earlier case studies.

15 July: All cases verified (meteor debris; aircraft; sun dogs on moor). Sometimes hard to know what to do with self after work.

17 July: Thinking back to my own first sighting in 1985. No evidence but things were not the same again. What did it all lead to? Trying to spend all time proving something happened in someone else’s life.

2 August: Dr Patulas told me to carry on documenting. Exercise the memory. No one else can do it for you.

8 August: Anji out – always out now. That’s the trouble with people changing: they expect you to change too.

12 August: What difference does it make what’s true and what’s not if there’s no one who can confirm it?

 

Before I could finish reading, my phone started ringing, the screen flashing No Caller ID. I put the diary down, so startled by the noise that I accepted the call without thinking. Crackles, silence, the distorted names of places that I had passed so many times. Haywards Heath. Wivelsfield. Plumpton. Cooksbridge.

Hello? Is that you? I asked, when I heard Everett’s voice. He had never spoken to me from a mobile. Are you in Victoria Station? When did you get a phone?

Do not ask the wrong questions, Dr Patulas had once said, when she was explaining about my father’s condition. When I had asked her what the right ones were, she hadn’t replied.

It’s just a temporary one, cheap, burner, he said.

I tried to imagine my father watching The Wire.

I’m going back home now, so don’t worry about sending me the logs. I’m not going to remember or know that I’m remembering rightly. You can keep them, he said. He paused. That’s why I brought them down. I thought typing them up might be helpful, he said. They might help you in some way.

Don’t you want to remember where you were? I asked, even though his last words were resounding louder than the passing cars: I thought it might help you in some way.

An intercom announcement, doors opening. Railway staff shouted unfamiliar destinations, muffled by the vaulting echoes of passengers’ voices. Train doors closed, a warm compressed silence.

I’ve got to know what’s going on elsewhere – he began.

His voice cut off. I waited for the signal to pick up, but it didn’t.

 

 

Leaving work in the evening, a week later, I saw the therapist on the shady side of the street. She was walking briskly in the direction of the tube station. I stopped to adjust the strap of my bag, push my hair into a ponytail. The air was still and emptier, like when guests left after a long, complicated visit. The therapist glanced across but did not seem to recognise me. She was wearing large white trainers and leggings with a glitchy print on them. It seemed important for her to be able recognise clients out of context, but I let it pass. I wouldn’t have known what to say to her at that moment, on my way home. At my desk that morning I’d googled does my therapist search for me? The first thing that came up was does my therapist love me? And I felt sorry for all those people always looking, seeing signs that weren’t there.

 

Image © Leon Wilson