Peter Murphy

Writers Abroad II

The Cubicles

After the worst event in her life Ann had been advised to join a recovery group. Though troubled by the swift fashion in which the therapist moved ahead she was delighted at the charming sunroom in which the session had been scheduled.

‘Today …’ the therapist explained, ‘I’d like to lead you into a series of … revelations … that will change your lives.’

Ann, sensing that this might be a ruse to prod one of them into saying more than she wished, excused herself and made her way to the toilet. As in even the most wealthy places she’d visited the toilets had been no more than functional, though outstanding for their cleanliness, she felt something of the delight and surprise of Ali Baba upon entering the robbers’ cave from the first instant she passed through the door of this extraordinary facility. The first thing that caught her attention was a chandelier in the foyer area which was so large and brilliant it seemed to send out tentacles of trailing light which held the marble vanity units in a slithery but unshakeable grip.

Then her head literally jolted as her peripheral vision moved slightly to the left to include a regal and slightly plump woman so close they almost collided. This woman would certainly not have moved out of the way. She seemed as inward-looking as the place itself.

She had a strangely self-satisfied smile which might have included Ann in a condescending or self-effacing welcome. On the other hand, it might have been primarily an expression of deep contentment. It was at this point that Ann felt the extent to which the woman’s face and, indeed, her whole body were angled in such a way as to draw the attention of the visitor to the marble-topped vanity basins and the great mirrors framed in gold.

What she saw there strained credulity yet had a routine coherence which rendered it, if not exactly credible, at least ordinary. Into each basin water was pouring so rapidly as to produce a whirlpool rising to within centimetres of overflowing. Ann couldn’t imagine any benefit to outsiders from this yet from the cat-like satisfaction in the attendant’s demeanour she could only assume it was being managed very well indeed and would be highly appreciated in some quarters.

Whatever the rationale behind what she was observing Ann was sure it wasn’t for her. Indeed, she felt a tremor move through her body as she made her way to the far end of the cubicles so that she might have as faint a sensation of the attendant’s presence as possible.

Just as she was on the point of opening the third last door – not wishing to be obvious, still less to make a point – she paused to hear a faint voice cry out in a kind of whisper that might have been a suppressed scream, ‘Help me! Someone … help me!’ … after which it at once occurred to her that she might have paused in the first place because something within her had unravelled what was taking place and anticipated from where and when the weak cries might emerge.

But what was happening? Worse still, what could she do about it? Nothing on earth dismayed her more than the prospect of having to take action in such an uncertain situation, with little prospect of success and without anything within driving her to make a move or guiding her as to how to make it. She realized, of course, that you can’t stand still for long, whatever your level of conviction, and looked cautiously to see whether the attendant was watching or had heard the cries.

She wasn’t at all sure whether it was with relief or distress that she observed that the woman’s eyes were still firmly fixed on the vanity basins and it was with a chilling dismay about the country she was in that she surmised that there might be a connection between the tiny maelstrom in each of them and what was happening or had just happened in the cubicle.

‘Umm …’, this woman exclaimed unexpectedly – or she may have been clearing her throat – and, without a thought, Ann almost ran out of the toilet and back to the warmth of the sunroom where everything seemed as sharp and clear as one of those early mornings on her childhood holidays when she would wake early and get up to an awakening day to sit on the front steps and gaze at trees around the house.

She could not have picked a worse time for her return. The therapist was looking around with a hungry eye for someone who might be tempted into revelations. As Ann slipped discreetly into her seat, the faces in the group, concentrating on the ground or upon objects in the distance, resembled those of hostages wondering which one would be singled out.

‘Dear…,’ murmured the therapist and looked coaxingly at a very small woman a few seats away from Ann. ‘… would you like to start?’

As the small woman looked up with a rather flat, compliant expression it occurred to Ann that her accent was not unlike her own. Then, she noticed that the small woman was moving through her story as briskly as possible.

‘My uncle and I had gone home for a few weeks to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday. We hadn’t been there more than a few minutes when we learnt there was a shortage of drinks. Dad wanted to go into town and get a few more crates.

‘My brother offered to drive him and I went along for the ride. Half-way there the car went off the road and my father was killed outright. The neck. My brother said he’d walk home and get help. He told me to stay at the scene of the accident but, being hysterical and unable to stand still, I decided to walk into town.

‘On the way in two ambulances passed me on the way out. I tried to wave them down but they ignored me. When I got there everybody was talking about what had happened – my father’s death and the fact that when my brother got home he found dad’s gun and shot himself.’

The others listened with concern. When she’d allowed time for it to sink in, the therapist looked up carefully and asked,

‘Is there anything we could say to make this terrible memory manageable?’

Once again the faces were silent, some peering into space; some, indirectly, looking at others.

‘Let us pause before we speak our minds,’ the therapist added. Ann, fearing that she might be pinned down with a question, stood up as inconspicuously as possible and excused herself.

After leaving the toilets in the wake of the incident, it had occurred to her that she might have jumped to conclusions. Why not go back – especially as she had to go somewhere for the next ten minutes? It was, after all, the most amazing place of its kind she’d ever seen. Whatever had been under way in the cubicle – if there had been anything – would have been completed when she thought she heard those terrible sounds and must certainly have disappeared without a trace by now – and the attendant’s grunt was, however you considered it, no more than a grunt.

All the same, it was with an element of caution that she made her way into that resplendent foyer, noting with a gasp of relief that though whirlpools of the same height and force were still being unleashed into each of the vanity basins the attendant had temporarily left her post. She was making her way towards the nearest cubicle when something drew her attention to what she felt she must not see.

Not surprisingly what she saw, though it failed to immobilise her, stopped her breathing temporarily … for there, over the top of the furthest cubicle, were the fingers of two large hands, as if someone were gripping the door from inside. As if bewitched, Ann hurriedly tiptoed down and peered under the door … but could see no feet or legs!

Then, just as she was assuming an upright position, a door banged and the attendant rushed in and took up her station as if nothing had happened. Though Ann’s first instinct was, once again, to make a run for it she had gained enough experience in this kind of situation to gaze around with studied vagueness as she made her way out. As she avoided yet noted the attendant’s eyes it occurred to her that she might be involved in a form of dialogue, if not with the attendant, then, at least, with the place.

As she approached the door of the sunroom her relief at having escaped the attendant yet again was balanced by her unease at the possibility of having to unburden herself to the group. It was then that a nagging sensation which had temporarily been submerged by the whirl of events and consequent storms of consciousness refused to be ignored any longer. She had to go to the toilet.

Although before the event that had led her to seek therapy, retracing her steps would have seemed unthinkable, now her chief concern was to get it over quickly and slip past the attendant as unobtrusively as possible.

In fact, by the time she was crossing the attendant’s line of vision her attention was almost entirely focussed on one of the middle doors and what seemed the as yet remote possibility of passing through it. Unaccountably, though, when what would prove to be impossible appeared to be on the point of becoming fact, a sinking feeling gripped her in the pit of the stomach.

When she reached out her hand and lightly pushed the door, after glancing to see that the cubicle wasn’t occupied, she felt a chill come over her and beads of sweat force their way out over her brow as the sight of what was on the floor filled her mind. Instinctively, she lunged into the cubicle, sliding up against the wall to avoid fainting. In that position, she could only gaze at the narrow pool of blood flowing across the floor of her cubicle and into the next one. How could that happen? Wasn’t the floor horizontal?

It was bright and plastically glistening. Even through the deodorants and the somewhat clinical atmosphere she fancied she could pick up a trace of the damp, acrid odour to which she had once been accustomed in butchers’ shops. As if in a kind of trance, not caring in the least what the attendant might make of her behaviour, she half staggered and half slid around the adjoining wall into the next cubicle … only to see a wider pool of red which began to grow fuzzy. Then, just as it occurred to her that events of recent days might be playing on her mind, her mind went blank and she slid gently down the wall without a sound.

When she found herself being helped up by the attendant her vision was already clearing and she looked swiftly at the floor to see – precisely as her own imagination had pictured it in the instant before her eye encountered it – that it was shiny and clean. She was relieved to find that she was clean too. It occurred to her that the floor might be wet but she wasn’t up to reaching down to see. Had she been entirely deluded? Had the attendant, perhaps, cleaned the floor or dragged her into another cubicle? Why was there no blood on her?

She could only take so much of this, however, and was only too happy to find the attendant unobtrusively leading her out till, suddenly freezing at the prospect of being led back to the sunroom in this fashion, she stopped and said quietly but firmly,

‘Thank you … but I’ve got a grip on myself now. I’ll make my own way back.’

The attendant nodded and left her to her own devices. She managed to make her way back without further mishap and sank back into her chair, exhausted. She hadn’t missed anything. They were still, more or less, where they were when she’d left.

‘Now, has anyone anything else to add?’ the therapist asked.

After a considerable struggle, every instant of which registered in her mouth, a woman with a deep voice pointed out that it wasn’t correct to say ‘anything else’ or to use the word ‘add’ since no one had as yet said anything by way of comment.

For a second it seemed as if the therapist might say something cutting. Then, after hesitating, she observed,

‘Well, then … as this is our first … experience of sharing … I won’t press the matter. You’re still easing your way in. We’ll meet again, for our next session, tomorrow morning.’

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