Before you start speculating, I feel like I should clarify that this is a work of fiction – it’s from a young woman’s perspective rather than mine, so don’t be fooled by the use of the first person!
I know his room much better than most people. I could walk into it blindfolded and still tell you exactly where everything is, down to the tiniest detail. Whenever I feel my chest tightening, or my head spinning, all I need to do is close my eyes and I’m there. I see the droopy pot plant on the shelf, fading more with every passing visit, and the feeble attempt at a motivational poster on the wall. It says “laugh like there’s no tomorrow”, but I always say that it’s not such a good thing to have in there – after all, it’s not so easy for everyone who comes in to do as it says. Whatever its shortcomings are, though, this is the only place I’ve felt safe in for some considerable time. To enter it is to be engulfed in an embrace, not just from the room but also from Noel, my counsellor.
We’ve been talking for a couple of months now. When I’m in with him, I feel like he and I are the last two living souls on Earth. In only one hour, he’ll give me more undivided attention than I can expect in twenty four at home, and he endures meltdown after meltdown without even batting an eyelid. This place only knows love, care and respect within its walls. I don’t blame Noel for choosing to follow this path, because who wouldn’t want to work in a place like this?
I’m walking along the street now, towards the office where I meet him. With every step, the anticipation builds and I struggle to stop myself from beaming like a lunatic. I try my best to keep a stiff upper lip, but it proves to be easier said than done and I find myself fidgeting with my hands as I wait for his door to open. After what seems like an eternity, it swings aside and I am warmly met with a gesture inviting me in.
“Would you like to come through?”
I see Noel standing there, stereotypically dark and handsome, and as is often the case I find myself lost in the empathy within his hazel eyes. At this point I lose control, and stepping over the threshold into the sanctuary of the office is almost like an out of body experience. It’s the safest hour of my week – and it begins now…
In front of Noel’s desk there are two black leather armchairs, directly facing each other. This is the arena in which all of my emotional battles manifest themselves before his very eyes. As always, I take a deep breath before sinking into the right-hand seat, and I exhale calmly as I feel the chair caress my body. Noel sits down opposite me, and he fixes me with his gaze. It isn’t that he’s being cold or distant, it’s just that as of now, he means business and he wants to listen.
“How have you been since I saw you last?” he asks.
I can already feel a rising lump in my throat. This is the truth frantically scrabbling for the surface, reaching for a release.
“I only wish I had good news,” I reply, “but the atmosphere at home is still pretty toxic. Even when it seems like the day is going well, there’s still things that are left unsaid. We just can’t seem to ever clear the air.”
As I say this, I notice that Noel’s hands – which had been clasped together – are now separated and open, and his palms are facing upwards. I glance at them for a second, but am quickly interrupted by his line of questioning.
“Is there no trust left at all?”
I think to myself that after so many sessions, he must know the answer to that by now. The only trust I can really rely on is between me and him, and as I see his hands before me I have to fight the instinctive urge to hold them. This is a strictly professional relationship, and I need to respect the boundaries within.
“No”, I say. “That’s why I’m so grateful for these sessions, as you well know.”
Noel allows a slight smile to cross his lips, the kind that is probably much smaller than what he reserves for his wife and his kids. I am hit with a hot flush of envy. “All part of the service.”
“The service”. Another reminder that he just sees me as a means to an end. Someone who puts food on the table and clothes on his back. Not unlike Charles, my boyfriend. He’s the one I come here to talk about, because I can’t communicate with him at home anymore. The dinner table used to be a hive of animated discussion, but now we sit slumped over our food in silence. We used to snuggle together on the sofa watching television, but now we choose separate chairs on either side of the room. I don’t know what started it, but it’s the elephant in the room and if he won’t talk to me about it, at least I know Noel will.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” I tell him. “Charles doesn’t trust me, I don’t trust him, and because of that, we can’t talk about whatever it is that’s ruining our relationship. It’s like a pressure cooker. The more things we leave unsaid, the more the stress builds, and in the end it all boils over and leads to a blazing row. There’s blame on both sides, I wouldn’t want you to think the worst of him.”
“Of course not,” Noel replies. “You don’t need to worry about that. It isn’t my job to judge.”
No, Noel. No, it isn’t. And I love you for it. We talk more that day, and I emerge from the office feeling once again like the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders. Later that night, as Charles and I lie in bed with our backs to one another, I manage to find Noel on Facebook. His account is private – evidently his professionalism has a much further reach than I had expected. I might not be able to see his photos, but my imagination runs wild when I think about what they must be like. I can see him beaming away with the family during summer barbecues in the garden, walks with the dog, or idyllic holidays abroad. And then I imagine myself in his wife’s place. Someone like Noel could bring me so much happiness. In a different world, maybe he has. But I need to pull myself together.
That vow doesn’t last long, and I soon find myself crossing the biggest line yet, peeking out from behind a brick wall as he picks them up from school. I know this is bad, but it gives me the hit I’m looking for, however brief it may be. Instead of Noel the counsellor, I see Noel the family man – the man I want him to be. I notice that he exudes an even greater level of warmth that he could simply never show in our meetings. He embraces his children as they run out to meet him, and he absorbs everything going on around him with clear interest and optimism. I might be watching Noel from afar, ducking further behind the wall whenever he turns in my direction, but I feel I know him just a little bit better. I’ll get through to him, sooner or later. I can’t wait to make him squirm in his seat.
Sure enough, next time I see him, there he is, shuffling awkwardly like a schoolboy as I sit opposite him. I say nothing – I just can’t believe it’s worked. It can only mean one thing.
“Look, I saw you at the school yesterday, and it looked to me like you were watching us. I need to know that you won’t do anything like that again. You scared us,” he stutters.
I nod, and I tell him what he wants to hear. When we next talk about Charles, I see another opening and I go for it.
“It’s escalated now,” I say. “I could just about cope with the silence between us, but now he’s on his phone at all hours of the day. When I try to ask who he’s talking to, he makes excuses and puts it away. Silence is one thing, feeling like you’re talking to a brick wall is another. Do you ever get that?”
Noel bristles. He tries his best to gloss over my question with a smile. “I’m supposed to ask you the questions.”
“Just humour me.”
He evidently wasn’t expecting me to come back like that – there is a silence unlike any other. You could hear a pin drop. I imagine the cogs whirring in his head.
He begins to respond. “I…” Then he stops, reconsiders. “We all do, sometimes.”
Clever Noel – answering and avoiding the question at the same time. Note to self: must try harder.
Over the next few weeks, I make a mental list. I think about every time I see his cheeks go pink, and every time he clasps his hands together in his lap, twiddling his thumbs. These are signs of chinks in his armour and I train myself to spot them, just as he would spot a client’s cries for help. As the weeks go by, he latches on to this – but by now there is no escape, and human nature is beginning to get the better of him. One day I decide to catch him off-guard. He comes in, flustered, absent-mindedly apologising for his lateness. He hurriedly slams a pile of papers on a table and sits down opposite me, as usual. We begin, and I notice there is an oily sheen on his skin today – and then, like a coiled viper, I decide to strike while the prey is ripe for the killing. I’m going to make him sweat a little bit more.
“Tough day?” I ask, as innocently as I can.
Noel chuckles. “It’s a counsellor’s life. If I’m not seeing clients, I’m seeing paper – lots of it.”
He won’t suspect a thing now. I spring forward in my seat, and fix him with my widest smile as I softly rest my hand on his knee. “Never mind. You can get off after this.” I could withdraw at this moment, but I’m intrigued to see how long I can keep it there. Only a few seconds pass, but it seems like an eternity, and in that time he does to little to resist. Without looking, I wonder if the blood’s rushed down from his head yet. I’d like to see him try to hide that.
After this, Noel makes a point of asking me about Charles, so as to draw attention away from himself. When I tell him we’re looking at a fresh start – finding a new place, starting with a clean slate – he jumps at the chance to know more. He seems even more interested in my life than before. He wants to know how many bedrooms there’ll be, how much garden we’re going to have, thinking it’s going to take my mind off him. But it’s only a temporary distraction for me. As long as Noel is sat in front of me, I can only restrain myself for so long.
I spend so long fantasising about it coming to a head, but even I don’t expect it when it does. I’ve spent so many weeks sneaking in whenever I can. A touch here, a fond brush there. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve seen emotion in his eyes. Appreciation, acceptance, expectation, and what is surely lust. He tries his best to maintain the counsellor façade, but it is no use. He knows he is at my mercy, and I will soon be at his.
He is perfecting his well-honed routine, feigning interest in Charles and me. Our move has been put on hold; I think we knew in our heart of hearts that neither of us really think it will solve anything. I tell Noel that, obviously, but he is clutching at straws, trying desperately not to show me he is faltering. When he breaks off, and there is silence, I make it last. Then I mutter something.
“Never mind. I can focus on what I really want now.”
It takes the locking of our lips to find out that isn’t what I had expected. I anticipate Noel recoiling in disgust; instead, his tongue coils its way around mine, invading and violating me in a way I never thought possible. Counsellors aren’t supposed to do that.
At that moment, I realise I’ve been wrong all along. Noel is first and foremost my confidant, and thinking about that suddenly puts me in his shoes. I feel uncomfortable. Nervous. Used. So I do what I’d expected him to do all along. I pull away, get up and leave without another word. I don’t look at him; I don’t want to see his reaction. I want him to see my disappointment. The one thing I need is a warm listening ear. Noel is anything but.