The bin man’s eyes widened and his mouth opened. But I told him, “Carry on.” He stared at me. “Just pick me up and take me to the truck.” Perhaps he sensed the urgency in my voice because he called to someone for help and clanged the dustbin lid back on top. My stomach twisted around itself; everything was dark again.
The bin man was speaking to another man but the syllables echoed and merged unintelligibly inside the continuous aluminium wall. I knew I had put them in a difficult position but I needed to get away, even if it was awkward for them and degrading for me.
Quiet. No one spoke. My bum hurt.
I put my hands down to shift my weight and crunched something crusty and my fingers sunk into goo. I stopped – she might have heard me rustling – and rested my head against the metal, trying to ease the pressure on my backside. But I wobbled. I was falling. Swinging. Rising. I heard metal scrape metal and a dull thud. The bin pendulumed as I slumped onto all fours. My toes went cold as dregs and waste juices pooled around my shoes. I listened, trying to picture the scene outside. The truck’s engine revved and my bin shook and shouted. The truck jostled forwards before stopping again outside my neighbours’ house. The subdued engine ticked over whilst rubbish bags slumped and steel crushed, until it revved again and the truck juddered forwards. We stopped at my neighbours’ neighbour. As well as being degrading, this was a slow getaway. But I was getting away.
Pounding – we moved again. I imagined myself hanging from the truck’s rear side as the lorry edged between parked cars. Men paced towards the next doorstep. I knew we drove under the summer-green trees that lined the street and, on the wall outside one house, past rows of pansies and pots of lavender. I pictured stinking, exothermic rubbish pouring into the hopper. Steel jaws chewed and swallowed, as if only inches from me. Men dropped hollow bins on the pavement or driveways and shouted to one another. Someone pounded the side of the truck. We all edged forward again. And again.
Around a bend, the truck stopped. Those same groaning and crushing noises stopped and a voice asked, “You alright, mate?”
I did not want to talk to him. She might have seen. “Fine, thank you. Carry on.”
“You can’t stay in there.” I knew that. But I didn’t want to enter into a debate, so I said nothing. He persisted, “Health ‘n’ safety.”
True enough – it was disgusting in there. “But I’m safer in here.”
He seemed to lean closer. “Look, my boss says you gotta get out.”
“Do you go down New Church Road?”
“We’re not a bus, mate.” He might have sighed, I couldn’t tell. He conferred with someone. “Yeah. But you have to get out then.”
“Just set me down outside the orange door on that road. The one with empty plant pots on the step, please.”
“This ain’t a Hackney cab either.”
I apologised but he must have left already.
Hopefully, Tessa – the client I needed to avoid – hadn’t noticed the man talking to my bin. She had begun materialising at every opportunity. Whenever I went to the corner shop, she found a need to buy a microwave meal. When I went to the gym, she joined it. When I opened the curtains, she waved at me from across the street, where she seemed to have set up a one-woman vigil. Imagine that – never being able to relax and always having to look your best. I tried to remind myself it wasn’t Tessa’s fault; I had to let her in once a week for an hour, which in itself was misleading. And I thought too often about our first time, which she might have sensed somehow. But I had no space to think about her objectively. Tessa’s presence, or pending appearance, was like her leaning over my shoulder during an exam, whilst I resolved some complicated equation, and she judged me on my working, rather than my final answer.
I rocked back and forth for some time. Distracted, I had lost track of where the truck had stopped and turned, which somehow made the scene inside the bin all the more real. The humid air thickened with sweet odors of rotting meat stock and the sulphur of egg shells. My knees ached too. But I stayed still and resisted the urge to move to a squat and risk lifting the lid, in case some sound or movement gave me away.
When I was at my last session, I wanted to ask Angela, What sort of feedback do you give to the school? What stays confidential? But I didn’t want to make her think I had something to hide; I just wasn’t certain I didn’t. Besides, I knew the circumstances where a therapist broke confidentiality anyway: where the client might hurt themselves or someone else. Naturally, depending on the client’s occupation, they would be more or less sensitive to the risks. With a trainee therapist, it might not take much for their feedback, even just concerns, to end to my training. And I really wanted to become a psychotherapist. It was all I was good at – listening. Being a student for a sixth consecutive year was financially tough, without having to re-join the capitalist work you despised by explaining to a potential employer why you were struck-off.
“You seem distracted today, Jeremy.” Angela had rightly judged the pause, and that my reflection was drifting into distraction. “Would you like to talk about it?”
“Yes.” I shifted in the seat, making the wicker backrest creak, and opened my mouth. “And no.”
“That’s honest of you.” Angela had smiled then sat very still, watching me. She had acquired one of those particular therapeutic ways of sitting, where you’re taught not to be too open or too closed, formal or informal, all magnified by the intimately short distance between you and them. Angela’s one black loafer was planted on the rug, her legs crossed, the other pointed off to the side, and her hands each held an elbow, without actually folding her arms.
“I was thinking about a client. But I don’t think I should talk about them.”
She had waited, giving me time to continue, if I wanted to. “Is it something you need to take up with your supervisor?”
Absolutely not. I knew they would fail me in an instant. “Probably.”
“Shall we talk about you then?”
There are many defense mechanisms people deploy in life. Denial is probably the most infamous. But I’ve found the best strategy for keeping the truth from a therapist is to talk about your mother. Luckily, mine was a real bitch.
The bin men dropped my bin, with me inside, on the pavement. I had arrived at Angela’s place. I wondered, had Tessa followed me? My skin crawled like she had. I decided to take my phone from my pocket and try calling Angela rather than be caught waiting on the doorstep. The screen cast a blue light across my crumpled shirt and the corrugated aluminium cell. I flicked potato peel off my chest. No answer. I guessed she was in a session with another client. My breathing quickened and deepened, loud like I was inside a beaten drum. I needed to talk. As soon as I heard Angela show her client out, I would call again and ask her for help.
I worried I would not have long with Angela. She might finish with one client and have just a few minutes before the next, so I tried to plan exactly what to say. I held my hands against my face and bit my lip; my right hand reeked of pear and chicken. My left had a tea bag stuck to it. I worried about looking and smelling like a tramp when I met Angela but even trying to wipe my face with my sleeve brought an off-putting odor to my nose. Disgusting. I gave up. What did I want to say? Basically, I met a woman and we shared a connection but can’t be together. Not quite. I have a stalker who won’t leave me alone. Closer. My client wants me to have sex with her and I want to but I worry I’ll be ejected from counseling school. All versions of the truth.
As a trainee therapist, Tessa was my first client. When we met she seemed unsure. Standing in the doorway, waiting for an invitation, one hand rested against her pelvis as the other held out towards the door handle, as if she might close it on me. I beckoned her inside and pointed to the chair across from mine, next to the wilting aspidistra. She took off her scarf and her lank hair livened. I explained that this first session was not therapy; we had an opportunity to get to know one another and decide if we were a suitable fit. She smiled with dimples. Perhaps this would strike some people as false but it had sounded good to me too. (When Angela had told me nothing therapeutic would happen in my first session, it took the pressure off.) I had expected Tessa to quiz me about my experience, my training and theoretic position et cetera. My hands were sweating. But she only talked about herself; she assumed I was more than I was and I warmed to her for that.
Between hesitations and diversions, Tessa explained why she was there. She told me she had broken up with her boyfriend, the prompt for her entering therapy, but there was something underlying that, the real reason she was here – fear of rejection. I found it odd that she already had the answers. I had been taught therapy was a joint exploration of the conscious and subconscious; with a relationship, the therapist’s adoption of a blank canvas persona allows clients to paint their own transference, presenting an opportunity to inspect unhelpful, habitual behaviour. Perhaps that – her having the answers – was the first sign that ours was not an entirely therapeutic relationship. I did try and help her. And she helped me experiment and learn. I just did not expect to enjoy her company so much.
In the seventeenth session, I thought I saw an opportunity to explore something together: a rift with her father. I had recently learnt about the “Empty Chair Technique”, so I suggested she vocalised her side of the argument in her chair and her father’s in mine. I would crouch on the floor. This was when I realized her dimples never disappeared, whether she smiled or cried or covered her eyes in shame. Adorability was imprinted in her skin.
In her chair, she said, “You know what I want, Daddy. Will you come play?” Her voice was higher and eyes looking up.
She moved to my chair, her eyes staring at the aspidistra, and deepened her voice. “I’ll play with you later. I have to spend time with Mummy right now.” She turned her shoulder to the other chair. “Go on, now.”
She stood and stepped back to her chair, leaning forward as she sat down again, her left hand reaching out. “Just quickly? I won’t tell Mummy.” Her lips quivered. “Please.”
I had moths in my stomach. Blood pulsed through my calves. I rose to intervene and sat in my chair as I said, “Now, let’s stop there—”
“No, Daddy. I don’t want to stop.”
My mouth was still open. I felt awkward, responsible for the misunderstanding.
“Come on. If you fuck me,” she said, smiling with pure white eyes and deep dimples, “I promise not to tell.”
Within a day, the course administrator left me an agitated voicemail. Tessa had called her that morning and described how I handled the session. “Ah,” I said, “I think there’s been a misunderstanding.” And I proceeded to explain, without any mention of “fuck”, the transference and counter-transference: her projecting her love of her father on to me, and my frustration at her not understanding the duality of my role and my perspective. The coordinator seemed relieved, less steel in her voice. But she told me, if anything like that happened again, my position on the course would be reviewed immediately. She suggested I discuss the episode with Angela and my supervisor. I dared not ask either of them; my mind was not the pure white canvas it needed to be.
In the next session, Tessa began reframing what she had previously said to me, although she avoided mentioning the daddy-play specifically. She talked about “mishandled trust” and how she struggled to talk to people “normally”. She said to me, “You know, I do lie more often than I should. But every lie I tell holds truth. You can see that?” I asked her what she had lied about; her dimples deepened. She did not answer. I knew for sure she had blended truth and lies when she spoke to the course administrator. And she seemed to know it too. But I never got a complete answer from her. I told myself that was part of being a therapist.
But then Tessa started to appear wherever I went. When I met her in the corner shop I nodded politely. When she was two people behind me in the queue at the bank I tutted with good humour. In the gym I winced and grunted as if it was the weights. But when I opened my curtains on the umpteenth morning, and saw Tessa examining me from the pavement opposite, I had to say something. I hurried down the stairs, muttering to myself, and opened the front door. She waved and smiled. I waved and smiled back.
She asked, “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, thanks. And yourself?”
“You know, I’ve seen you around here a few times…”
“It’s beautiful around here.”
“Including the corner shop?”
Tessa laughed and put a hand over her mouth. “Everything. Including the corner shop. In fact, I’ve been looking at a flat.” I broke into a sweat. “I’m just getting a feel for the area before I put in my offer.”
An urge to turn and run into the house came over me. I put my hand to my neck. “Tessa, can you stop this.”
“Who are you asking as?”
I laughed, I don’t know why, and said, “Just me, this time.”
“Good.” Tessa tilted her head to one side. “You look flustered, Jeremy. What is it?”
“I’d better get ready for the day.”
“OK. See you around.”
I leant against the inside of the door and replayed the conversation in my head. Were we flirting? Had I flirted? Did I want to? Those questions seemed too difficult to answer. Did I have a choice or would she call the course administrator again? My mind raced. But I was careful as I walked up the stairs and into my living room, in case Tessa still watched me. I played it cool.
I needed help. My own therapy sessions were an obligatory part of my course, scheduled in on the same day and same time each week. But I needed the next one immediately.
Through my front door peephole, I watched Tessa sit on the garden wall opposite my flat and settle there. She reached out a hand to admire some of the perennials. She gazed at the street around her. She shuffled the contents of her handbag, exploring the items one by one like historical artefacts. All the time in the world.
When she eventually slipped from the wall and strolled off, I cracked open the door. This was my opportunity. I hurried down the steps, down the path and closed the gate behind me. But then I saw her again, talking to one of my neighbours beside his van, out of sight of my front door but in clear sight of where I stood now and, if she looked around, any escape route up or down the road. As I watched, the man laughed and waved goodbye and she started to turn back.
I ducked into the alley between my flat and the house next door. I was out of sight for a moment, but there was nowhere for me to go; my neighbour had bricked up the entrance to their garden and set barbed wire on top. Tessa would have seen me from across the street. Footsteps. I could have hidden behind the bins but the angle would still have left part of me exposed. There was no time. My bin wasn’t full. I knew that already. Panicking, I lifted the lid and clambered in.
Perhaps because of the darkness, scenarios of every kind passed through my mind. I imagined continuing as Tessa’s therapist. Then I imagined ending her therapy so I could be with her. I even considered transferring her to a more experienced therapist, on the grounds she was more severely troubled than first diagnosed. But each of my phantasies failed. Primarily, if I carried on in my current direction with Tessa, sooner or later, something else inappropriate would happen and I’d get caught. Yet, if I didn’t keep Tessa happy, she would get me struck off with another complaint. Equally, if I told my supervisor the reason for not wanting to see her, I would be ejected from the course and no longer be eligible to be anybody’s therapist. Every hypothetical scenario seemed to end in me being expelled, barred from the profession or imprisoned. Some even ended with her hating me.
Click – a door opened. From inside my bin I heard, in a clipped and educated voice, “Thank you. Goodbye. See you next week.”
Angela replied, “Goodbye.” My therapist’s session was over. I imagined her standing on the doorstep, waving her client off. Footsteps – louder and then quieter.
Angela was calling me back. I panicked she would hear the vibrations. The last thing I wanted was for her to think I was in a bin, waiting for her. She would think I had lost control of my transference. I put the phone to my ear and, quietly but without whispering, I said, “Hello.”
“Hi, Jeremy. I’m just returning your call.”
“Jeremy, are you OK? You sound very faint.”
“I’m fine, Angela. Thank you.”
“OK. Well, what did you call about?”
“Please stay inside.”
I panicked. “There’s a strange, stalker type in the area. You should be careful.”
She gasped – I heard it both through the aluminium and on the phone. “Really?”
“He was just near my place, hiding in a bin.”
“There’s a bin outside my house. Jeremy, it’s not mine.”
“Just go inside. I’ll be right there. Bye.”
I put the phone down. I tried to picture Angela going inside. But there was no click of the door. Had I missed it whilst I was talking? Was she coming down the steps? Was she going to take off the lid? See me? Call the school and have me expelled? Blood beat around my ears. Still no click.
I knocked the bin over. Metal banged; someone screamed. I was wedged in so I had to half clamber out to use my legs. On my knees. I kept my head and torso inside. It would all be over if she saw me. I stumbled to my feet with the bin on my head and shuffled away. I wanted to run. But I could only see a small semi-circle of cracked paving slabs beneath me.
Three doors away. My pumps had soaked up more bin juice than I realised; only the white rubber parts were free of blood and tea leaves.
Thunder – loud. I stumbled back. Had I hit a tree? A sign?
“Coward!” Thunder hit me again. And again. Was Angela hitting me? Was my therapist actually hitting me? I tried running but my thighs bashed the rim of the bin and the whole thing wobbled around me. My nose hurt. I tried to lift it so I could see. Thunder – she beat the bin back down. “Stay in there, you coward!”
I tried moving faster again.
Thunder shook me.
I got to my knees. The bin twirled around on my head. Sediment and litter fell to the pavement. “Run, coward!” She hit me so hard she sounded out of breath. My own wheezing filled the battered aluminium shell.
I lifted the bin up slightly, my fingers clutching the rim, so in the periphery I could watch for where the row of houses ended: hedge, gate, hedge, white fence, gate. When I reached a curb, since there was no sound beyond my breathing, I hurried blindly across the road. I saw the gutter, a white line and then tripped up the curb on other side. The floor smacked the wall of the bin into my face. I could only see my feet and, beyond them, Angela’s black loafers pounding towards me.
“Leave him alone!” I couldn’t tell who it was “What do you think you’re doing?”
Angela’s shoes twisted on the spot. “This coward was stalking me.” Was she proud of what she’d done to me?
“My brother is not a coward.” I recognised her as soon as she lied – Tessa. My gut turned over from the thought of what might be said between the two women. “Did he go inside your property?”
“I have a right to—”
“Do you own the street then?”
“No, but he needs to—”
“You know what he needs? Oh, suddenly you’re a therapist, are you?” There was no reply to that. “Then tell me, Mrs Therapist, can you imagine why he might be waiting in the street, wanting to be with people but not strong enough to approach a single one? What he might want to say but be too anxious to risk? Can you imagine why he has to hide himself in his own filthy bin?”
My breathing had grown loud again. Nobody spoke. A hand took the handle on the outside of the bin and yanked me onto my knees. I stood up and, before anyone could try and lift it, gripped the rim of the bin. A hand touched mine and Tessa said, “Come on. Let’s get you home.” I nodded but didn’t speak. “Be careful with the curb this time.” I shuffled forward and took an oversized step onto the pavement.
Tessa and I walked along the street in silence. I appreciated that.
But after we went the length of a couple more streets and turned a few corners, feeling safe again, I lifted the bin over my head. I could not look at her, so I overly focused on patting myself down. Not all of the muck came off. Stains still soaked into my clothes. The breeze goose-pimpled patches of my body: right calf, left forearm and buttocks. I ruffled my hair, expecting pieces to flick away, until I realised how viscous and matted it was. I looked at my free hand and tried not to sniff the various brown shades; my body had marinated in decay. But, perhaps because Tessa was there, I tried to coif my hair into something more acceptable than flattened, drying bin-crust.
“Thank you for that.” I looked up at her for the first time but put a hand to my face from shame. Something like marmalade lay under my eye. I scraped it away and flung the jelly back into the bin beside me. I couldn’t look at Tessa then. My arms slumped to my sides, as if penned in the bin again. “You could have said more but you didn’t.”
I turned and lifted the bin onto my back, immediately trudging on. I walked past the rows of terraced houses, ignoring anyone who put their hand to their nose, until I arrived at my own gate.
It seemed natural that Tessa should follow me. As I walked, I wondered how far she would go, half-expecting she would turn off on her own way home at each corner and half-knowing she wouldn’t. Of course, I knew she couldn’t follow me in to my flat though. I could be struck off for that.
I set down my bin at the back of the alley alongside the flat and shambled back to the street. She watched me approach and go through my gate. It occurred to me that perhaps Angela would have helped me, if she had known the truth. But somehow, Tessa had given me the answer to our predicament.
From the steps up to my front door, I turned around and saw Tessa was still watching me. I took a deep breath and held my arms out. “I think all this needs cleaning up, don’t you?” I paused and then said, “You can come inside, if you like.”
Tessa smiled with dimples.
About the writer:
Chồn Lười has been writing for years in various forms, but when he attended Comma Press’ Short Story Course, he was encouraged to submit. Lười has recently been published (as BA Cullen) by Popshot Magazine, Five 2 One, Dirty Chai, Centum Press and Strange Fictions (Vagabondage Press).