“So.” She rests her hands over her notes, her fingers flat against the page. They’re slim and warm brown. She has pretty, oval fingernails, always clean. Not bitten or ragged, with no bits of torn skin around the edges. No visible cuticles. She’s fastidious, I’d say. She doesn’t work with her hands. She doesn’t do any heavy lifting, nothing dusty or dirty. If you were here, you would say: you hardly need to deduce the profession of your therapist, John.
I know, Sherlock. I know.
It’s just easier to be here if I only look at her hands. If I try and think like you do. Like you did.
She splays her fingers out as if she expects me to stare at them. By now, I expect, she does.
I reckon she doesn’t even wash dishes. She probably has a boyfriend who does that. Loads up a dishwasher. Puts them back into a cupboard. Maybe a girlfriend: I don’t know. I can’t tell. I never can. How could he always tell? Clothing? Product? I don’t know. It never made any sense to me.
What can I tell about her?
Her fingernails are manicured, polished, but only ever with clear varnish. Professional, not flashy. It’s kind of a neutral statement, wouldn’t you say? Clear nail varnish? What’s the point of it? It’s perfect varnish, too. Not like Harry’s. No fingerprints, no chips. Not ever. Not since I’ve been sitting here across from her, at least. Not that I’ve noticed. So that’s patience, isn’t it. Painting nail by nail, waiting for each one to dry before doing the next. She must be very patient. With nail varnish, if not with me.
Or: I suppose she has her nails done. Someone else paints them for her. It’s someone else’s patience I’m looking at. That’s more likely, isn’t it, Sherlock? Don’t laugh.
Of course it’s more likely. I don’t know need to hear him say it. I don’t need to see that amused and slightly horrified look on his face. Watching the monkey trying to wear a pair of shoes or something: so funny, isn’t it, Sherlock. That condescending smile of his, no. I don’t need to see that again.
Oh God, of course I do. I need to see it. I want to. This hurts.
Don’t think about it. Christ. Stop it. Just: stop.
Perfectly flat white ceiling. No: there was a bit of damp on the corner, by the window. It’s been painted over. But it’s still there. Spot on the rug behind her chair: a cup of coffee spilled there, maybe. Cup of tea. Hard to say. Hard for me to say, anyway.
Come on. Pay attention. She’s trying to get started, she’s going to say something, she’s going to ask. How I am. What I’ve been doing. She’s going to ask about you, but there’s nothing left to say. Be normal. Be average. Smile for a second, make it look like you’re trying. Look up at her face for good measure. Just for a second. No blood. No broken skull. No dead eyes.
Sometimes all I can hear is my own breathing.
Her eyes are always watching me. Judging me. She notices every fidget, so I don’t fidget. I don’t want to be too readable. I’m transparent enough as it is without making myself more obvious. I don’t want to make it so easy for her.
God. It’s not a game. I forget that it’s not. It’s not a game anymore, anyway. It’s a joke. But there’s no punchline, is there. No. There’s nothing.
It’s just this: talking. About nothing. Talking shit. Her skin obscures the last word on the page, but I know what it is. It’s progress. Written in blue ink. In cursive.
So she’s noticed that it’s harder for me to read upside down if she writes it in tiny, tight cursive. Did she notice? Or is it a coincidence? I don’t know. Progress. As in: I’m not making any.
There never were coincidences with him. Everything had meaning. Everything.
It smells like lavender in here, like an old woman. Is it meant to calm me, the smell of old women? I flatter myself. I’m not her only client. I mean: I’m not her only patient. Does lavender remind her other patients of grandmothers and comfort? Pillowy breasts and floured hands? My grandmothers smelled like gin and cat’s piss.
Ella’s not very old. It must be deliberate, the smell. Everything’s deliberate; if it’s not deliberate, it’s a mistake. Meaningless. Is it retro fashion? Is that some sort of hipster thing? I don’t know anything about perfumes. Or scented candles, or whatever it is. Nothing at all. There must be thousands of different scents. Millions, maybe.
He’d have a catalogue of them. In his head. Or hidden away somewhere in a notebook, a file on his computer. An index of gradients, like paint chips.
There’s a mark on her face, by her right eye; a smear of something. Eyeliner. Black. Maybe it’s brown, I don’t know. Sherlock would know the brand by now. He’d know why it’s smudged on her face. The whole story. He’d know.
I can only make up stories.
She’s pretty. She knows she’s pretty. Should I ask? Dinner, a movie? Back to my flat? There must be a bed upstairs here, somewhere. Her thighs around my hips? No. I can’t shag my therapist. Way too awkward. She’d probably keep notes. I can’t even look her in the face.
Anyway: there’s a boyfriend, right? A girlfriend? Maybe I should ask.
“How are things, John?”
How. I don’t know how. There’s a generic answer, the one everyone gives. The default. “Fine.” It’s like punctuation. It doesn’t mean anything. No: it means don’t bother me, don’t ask. It means none of your fucking business. “I mean, you know. As fine as...I can be.” That’s ridiculous. “Under the circumstances.”
She swallows. I watch the motion in her throat and it seems far too intimate. I can feel my face getting hot. It embarrasses me, I’m embarrassed. By what? Nothing. Sitting here, staring at her hands. Saying nothing at all. Or talking shit. Our chairs seem too close together all of a sudden. If she reaches out to touch me, I might spring back, or wrap my hands around her throat. No. I wouldn’t. I swallow too. My tongue feels too thick. I have to give her something. Say something. Fingernails. Varnish. Women’s fingers. I remember.
“Women in the media tend to prefer what some might consider to be an alarming shade of pink, have you noticed that?”
Pink coat, pink shoes, pink nail varnish. A pink case. Her jagged fingernails left a password. It would have hurt. It was something to go on. She knew she was going to die, that there was no hope for her. It must have made her angry, the injustice of it. So she gave us something. Before there was an us. She’d never heard of us. I’d never heard of him. He talked so fast, I could barely make sense of him. But sense was all that came out. It was like love at first sight.
Love at first sight? Well. Love. What? I can’t say that out loud. God knows Ella’s just waiting for me to say something like that. Everyone is. They don’t understand. It’s not like that, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. I mean.
I don’t know what I mean.
I can almost feel his withering look. Almost. And I can almost hear him say: don’t be boring, John. Ella must think I’ve gone off right the deep end; I’m grinning like a lunatic. It feels so good to almost hear him. But then I lose him again, and he’s gone. He’s not sitting next to me, he’s not at home talking to me even though I’ve gone out. He’s dead. My feet are so heavy on the carpet I think I may never move again.
I find him and lose him a hundred times a day. And each time is just as painful as the last. This might be what hell is like.
“What?” Ella doesn’t understand. She doesn’t remember about the pink lady. She read my blog, I know she did. At the time. She doesn’t remember now. I need to clear my throat first.
“Women on the telly. You know. The newsreaders. So often in pink. Bright pink. Have you not noticed that?”
“No,” she says. She’s stone-faced. She thinks I’m talking in code, or taking the piss. I suppose I am. In the days before, I didn’t notice them either, those pink newsreaders. Never noticed them at all. I never saw anything. I lived in a fog. Now I can’t stop noticing. Turn on the telly: women in pink. You taught me to notice them, Sherlock. Now I notice, but it I can’t make it mean anything.
Maybe I am talking in code.
Jennifer Wilson gave us a password. She used the last seconds of her life to communicate that one thing. And what did Sherlock give me?
That pool of blood next to his head that’s burned into my brain. No pulse. His wrist was warm, but of course it was. Warm skin, and blood everywhere. He made me a witness to something I can’t ever pretend I didn’t see. And a note, he says. That wasn’t a note, Sherlock. It was a lie.
No. Don’t think about it.
Smile. Look her in the face, for once, even though it’s uncomfortable. “It’s just...it’s nothing.” Forty three minutes to go.