“Ann had depression and had tried suicide before, but this time she succeeded. I found her body.”
“And after that the insomnia got worse?”
“Yes,” I agreed with the psychiatrist.
I had been at Marley Grange for a fortnight now, and they kept asking the same questions, thinking they were helping me.
“Before that I had been working nonstop for weeks,” I went on, “using coffee to keep awake for work, and booze to help me sleep. On the rare times I dropped off, waking up was almost impossible. I felt like hell. It was like being stuck in treacle, unable to claw my way out of the mess.”
“A never-ending nightmare?”
“If you like.”
“What about eating?”
I shook my head. “I just grabbed snacks wherever I could, no regular meals. Pretty soon I was finding it hard to function. Desperately tired all the time, miserable beyond belief.”
“Yet you pushed yourself further and further.”
I shrugged. “What else could I do? I was trying to keep the business going.”
“But it failed in the end, didn’t it?”
“Don’t rub it in.”
He paused. “What about friends and family?”
“No family. I used to have friends, but I’ve kind of lost touch with everyone these last months.”
“So you’re lonely?”
“I guess I am.”
“Sorry James, I know how hard this is. Yet you tell me you used to find comfort from doing the long-distance running?”
“That was about the only thing that kept me sane. Of course when things came to a head I could barely move. I could hardly get out of bed.”
“But now you’re here. And we’re going to help you.”
Herbert Anstruther steepled his fingertips, looking for all the world like an actor in a film playing an eccentric psychiatrist. “James, try to think of yourself as a car that’s been heading for a mechanical breakdown. You were able to run, but you were running on empty. It’s really no wonder that it’s come to this.”
“How long will I be here, do you think?”
“Hard to say. It depends on how you respond to the treatment.”
“And this is the treatment? One-to-one counselling with you and the others. Plus the group sessions and the medication?”
“As well as good food, mental stimulation and most importantly lots of sleep. Let your mind and body relax and get back to a normal rhythm. Try to lose those negative thoughts.”
The Marlowe Grange Psychiatric Hospital was a luxurious converted Georgian mansion and set in beautiful acres of landscaped grassland. Private health insurance was the only luxury I had forgotten to cancel when my business started failing, so that now, for a brief period, I was able to receive the best medical care available in these splendid surroundings.
So why did I know in my heart of hearts it was going to be a waste of time?
“I understand you ran a missing persons agency,” Anstruther bleated on, leaning back in the chair behind the huge oak desk.
“Yes, but I lost my touch, and failed in a series of cases, my reputation vanished and the business went bust,” I told him. “I used to have a real talent for finding people when everyone else had given up. I was so successful that my agency was even called ‘Needle in a haystack’. But one day I just lost my touch. That was the start of everything going wrong. People trusted me, believed I could help them find their loved ones. I built up their hopes but let them down.”
“Tremendously. Dealing with concerned relatives, and heart-breaking, giving them the news that I’d failed.”
“You took these failures to heart?”
“Every missing person that I couldn’t find was like a nail in my chest,” I told him honestly.
“All adding to your stress.”
“Stress, misery and guilt.”
I was tired out, wishing our talk was over. Herbert Anstruther was no doubt a brilliant psychiatrist, but sitting in his book-cluttered scruffy office, I couldn’t help noticing the twitch beneath his left eye, and the haunted look in his eyes. I judged him to be in his mid fifties, and his thinning silver hair, hangdog expression and seeming inability to smile had not made me warm to him.
“Well, that’s enough for today,” he went on in his prissy Edinburgh drawl, writing something in my file.
“So do you think I’ll get better?” I asked him as I stood up. “Or will I be one of those hopeless people who are drifting in and out of institutions for their whole life?”
“No negative thoughts now, James! The main thing is for you to stop feeling guilty about everything. Blaming yourself for your wife’s death, for not tracking down those missing people, for your business failing. None of these things are your fault. You have to believe that.”
As I wandered in the grounds, I mused on the ramifications of my last missing person case: Grace Simmonds, the fifteen-year-old runaway, whose parents were going through hell. This last case had actually been the one that had tipped me over the edge, and irrevocably reinforced my ever-present feelings of failure and guilt. I closed my eyes at the horrible memory of finding her sleeping rough near Waterloo Station in London. I had talked to her, told her how much her parents missed her, begged her to come with me, but she had refused to leave the scruffy pavement she shared with her new friends. I even grabbed her by the hand and tried to drag her, but I had been beaten up by a couple of her vagrant pals, who had mistaken my intentions.
Of course I told the police, but as soon as I returned to the place with an officer, she had gone, goodness knows where, and despite more days of searching, she was apparently gone for good.
I thought of her poor parents, relying on me, and how I had let them down, and all the heart-breaking things they said to me when I told them how close I’d come to bringing her home to them.
And I remembered my wife Ann, who had suffered from depression for years, who had often kept me up all night talking, yet I had never been able to lighten her load.
And that’s when I decided that I would do the only thing that ever seemed to help. Being here had at least resurrected my one and only pleasure.
I would run.
Running alone for miles was the only thing that ever helped me put my mind into neutral, the only thing that kept me from losing control completely.
I lost track of time, running out of the estate and along the country road, into other fields, not caring where I ended up, or how far I was going. . .
Eventually the landscape changed, there were woods nearby. It was getting dark. And suddenly I stumbled over a half concealed stone, landing awkwardly, and hitting my head on something hard.
My dream was amazing. I was an observer, seeing Grace Simmonds arriving home and the emotional reunion with her parents, how she had told them that seeing me had finally made her realise that she should come home, apologising for causing them so much trouble. She was saying lovely things about me, about how she thought I was a kind considerate person, and brave too, the way I stood up to her street friends.
Then I saw my wife Ann. She was smiling at me, and I knew from the expression in her eyes, that her troubles were over, that now, finally, she was happy. “James,” she whispered. “You were the only thing in my life that made me happy.” And then the clincher “It wasn’t your fault.”
When I woke up it was pitch dark, and all I could hear were the sounds of the countryside. Frogs croaking, a fox screaming to the sky, the lonely hoot of an owl. A fine drizzle was falling and there was a chill in the air, but my shiver was pure pleasure, a feeling of oneness with nature.
With trembling fingers I plucked the mobile from my tracksuit pocket and phoned Grace’s parents, Molly and Tim. To my delight they told me that just that morning Grace had come home, and that they were so grateful to me for talking to her, and how a month after meeting me she had decided to come home as a result of what I had said.
And I felt filled with a strange kind of inner peace.
“Are you okay?”
The stranger leaned over me. She was a middle-aged lady wearing a sensible anorak, and her smile was as warm and welcoming as the kindly hand that she lay on my shoulder.
“I’m fine thanks,” I lied, despite my headache. “I was out running, tripped and must have knocked myself unconscious.”
“Lots of folks have stumbled over these stones – half grown over, they are now, hard to see ’em in the dark. Did you know that this is all that remains of the old monastery that was here in the middle ages? Lots of monks spending hours praying and tending to the sick in their hospital, and you’re sitting plumb in the centre of their main hall where they said their prayers every day. Makes you think, don’t it?”
“They do say that the ground around here has good vibes, or some such nonsense. We’ve had psychics and mystics saying that they’re in touch with the spirits of the monks, how their positive thoughts can still help people who believe.”
“Maybe they’re right.”
She chattered away for a while, then gave me directions back to Marley Grange, and I dutifully set off.
I knew that I would be able to go home soon. The terrible feelings of guilt I had suffered from for so long had miraculously disappeared.
I looked back along the road, expecting to see the dark figure of a kindly monk raising his hand in a benediction to the lost soul he had healed, but real life never includes those kind of story-book clichés.
Instead I just felt a sharp blast of wind and a gust of rain.
And a lovely warm feeling deep inside.
And this time when I started to run I felt as if I could run forever. . .
(image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer, from Pixabay)