WE PULLED INTO THE CAR PARK fifteen minutes away from home. There were all sorts of operations here: a drycleaner’s, dog-grooming salon, Korean hair salon, South African butcher, Indian restaurant, Sushi, Alcohol, Bubble Tea, a dairy, immigration consultants and an accounting firm. Cedric’s office was up a flight of stairs above the drycleaner’s. We shook his hand and I caught sight of myself in a mirror on the wall. My hair was all tangled and oily and my face, flaked winter white, had a few days’ worth of stubble, dry.
In the office Cedric sat to my left in a cushioned wicker-back chair. Beside him a high-legged table was pushed against a wall, and on the table sat a black sand-tray with toy trucks, a road cone and a rake. There was no desk, no computer, but there was a painting on the wall, above the sand-tray. Opposite me, my mother and father sat on a sofa. And to my right, outside and below, a woman from the sushi store lugged a black bag to the skip. A van reversed out of the entry to the carpark while another car entered. Sirens. The A&E was further down the road.
My mother had already begun dabbing her eyes as my father, staunch and croaky, recounted the last few days. The three of them looked at me from time to time but I couldn’t add much, it was all as my father described it. I watched cars come and go, a lady and her dog, and school kids exiting the dairy with rolls of liquorice and cans of Coke. I still wasn’t sure – had it happened? Of course it had. I did it. I had the cuts. A boy with his socks neither up nor down tucked a fist into a bag of chips, greedily removed a handful and scoffed them. Cedric asked my parents to leave the room, he suggested they go for a drive and return in twenty minutes. I nodded at them and Cedric shut the door.
‘So, Bernard, how are you feeling today?’
‘Pretty shit,’ I said.
‘Do you feel the same as you did a few days ago?’
‘In some ways I feel worse.’
Cedric handed me a box of tissues. He was good. I was already crying like a baby. I hadn’t cried in front of a man in, I can’t think how long, maybe in front of Alfred the last time I lost it? That wasn’t long ago. A month or so. Alfred had asked me if I heard voices and I said I didn’t. So he prescribed me Fluoxetine. We used to work at the A&E together on Sundays. He’d tell me stories about South Africa. It was a dangerous world. He shot a man once. He’d stopped at a set of lights and a guy tried to car-jack him. Bang. Alfred thought highly of me and predicted I’d go places but what would he think of the place I’d now got myself into?
‘It’s the worst thing you can do to your parents, isn’t it,’ I said. ‘A real slap in the face after everything they’ve done for me. I don’t think I did this for attention. I’m sick. I’m fucking sick.’ Cedric reached for the table beside him and pulled out a pad of refill. He scribbled a few notes down while I traced my shirt cuffs with my fingertips. The cuffs drooped an inch below my thumbs. I couldn’t decipher Cedric’s handwriting. It was all twirls and dots and dashes and quick. And what was the deal with that sand-tray anyway?
‘Bernard, before we continue we are going to make a contract. In this contract you have to promise that if you have any feelings or thoughts of self-harm or suicide you must inform either me or your parents. I’ll give you my cellphone number.’ He tore the number from the page. ‘You don’t have to tell anyone else about this contract. The point is that you’re making a promise to help yourself so we can all help you too.’
I signed the contract. Then Cedric moved his chair a little, on an angle so we weren’t side by side and not exactly face to face either. He prodded me about what I was doing and what I’d done, the time of day that I felt best – I hated afternoons – my nightmares and flashbacks of the two dead bodies I’d seen in Fiji. But I didn’t go too far into detail. He said he wanted to assess me before starting the recovery route and he was happy I didn’t need hospitalisation now.
‘But this makes the contract important,’ he said. ‘The rules will be that in future consultations you’ll do most of the talking. You are the heart of your recovery.’
Was he South African? Dutch? Or was it some other European-infused New Zealand twang? He booked me in for an hour-long appointment in two days. Then he left the room.
Finally. All I wanted to do was take the rake and smooth out those lumps of white sand. There were toy trucks, a road cone too. But I couldn’t. That would make me mad, wouldn’t it? The sand-tray was some kind of joke, a gesture toward my time in Fiji and two months later, Pauanui. They’re places known for their beaches. How did he fucking know already?
At Pauanui beach, waves roll from a height, crashing into foam only to roll again as if broiling what’s left into silence. A little girl runs toward the southern end of the beach. She picks up her pink hat, pops it on her head. She looks at me again then makes a dash for it, holding the hat as she runs. Where the sand is dry her parents suck steaming, dripping noodles from chopsticks. I stand with hands in pockets and my shoes are splashed cold. I’m filled with doubt.
There are things you just don’t consider. Like a picnic, weather systems. I can’t do this in front of her.
My parents returned to the room wide-eyed, as if hopeful of a miracle. All they got was me, wiping my face, pulling down my sleeves, with one eye on the rake.
‘Assuming Bernard responds well to the Fluoxetine, I’ll need to see him twice a week at this stage. Have you got his regular GP’s details? Just to keep him or her posted on Bernard’s progress and to know whether a visit to a psychiatrist would be useful… I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but I’d like to keep in contact with the GP at any rate. It’s up to all three of you, of course.’
I nodded. So did my parents. Then Cedric informed us how much an hour he charged. It was pricey. And he wasn’t registered for the mental health subsidy so I knew it would fall on my parents to pay. My parents said money wasn’t an issue. As for my files, even my mother couldn’t access them. Alfred kept my records confidential and accessible only to him, since I’d already worked there and was familiar with the staff.
When I was first diagnosed with depression Alfred and I made arrangements to keep the matter quiet. But wasn’t I beyond the point of saving face now? My mother, of course, knew about my previous depressive episodes and was a part of my recovery, as were my father and my siblings, but what about everyone else at the medical centre? Barbara was on the desk and she saw me at my worst. And I used to talk about all sorts of medical histories with my friends over a drink – this one has crabs, that one had a heart-attack, this one wanted a morning-after-pill, that one’s pregnant, bi-polar, schizo, a drug-seeker and so on. People tend to talk even when they think they don’t.
‘Like I said, at this stage Bernard has signed a contract that he won’t harm himself, and if he has these thoughts at all, he is to tell you immediately. Or he can ring me. I have given him my cellphone number.’
My mother gave him Alfred’s details. What the hell would I tell people? I’d turned into the kind of psycho that cuts himself, the kind of nutcase I used to joke about with my friends over a beer.
Cedric showed us out on the hour. Outside, I kept my head low, but high enough to see my eyes reflected on the tinted windows of my father’s work car. My mother offered the front seat as if it were a treat. I passed. My father unlocked the car and I slunk into the back, slung across the seatbelt and clicked.
On the drive home they talked about me, about getting better, and about their impression of Cedric.
‘He seems reassuring, calming,’ someone said. ‘A guy you can talk to,’ someone else said. It could’ve been me both times. I can’t really recall that drive except we were all passing each other one after another after another. Everyone weaving in and tacking out. All those cars with people inside. Some people were angry about a slow driver in the fast lane, others were singing or eating lunch or bouncing their legs busting for the loo. Some had escaped their meeting and were unsure if they’d get a parking space at their child’s school – it was five-to-three. Some drove their AVIS rental, tip-toeing the accelerator, maybe off to the airport, maybe on a road-trip around the country. And maybe one had taken the wheel for the first time and he was freaking out and holding the wheel with his foot heavy on the accelerator but still in control.
‘I’ll ring Alfred tonight,’ my mother said. She turned around.
‘Yep.’ I looked away, then tracked the dashing white centre lines until they blurred into one.