Ian’s private practice was at his flat at Falcon Point, Bankside, a riverside council block situated between Blackfriars Bridge and the New Tate, overlooking Saint Paul’s. In 1992 there was no New Tate, that stretch of Southwark’s riverside was quiet, and council flats couldn’t be sold off.
I was early for my assessment and had drunk a swift pint of cider in the Founders Arms in front of Ian’s block, also overlooking Saint Paul’s. The pub had been quiet and the river still.
“Ian Barnes,” his voice through the intercom.
“It’s Liz,” I laughed to myself, it came out like ‘sleaze’ my Essex nickname when I was forever drunk in the Crown in Rayleigh.
“Take the lift to the 6th floor. I’ll be waiting at my door.”
I got out of the lift and took no notice of him, just followed his arm gesture that showed me into his therapy room. I sat on the chair with my back to the view of Saint Paul’s.
“We have an hour and a half today. After that sessions are 50 minutes. What brings you to counselling?”
“I’ve split up with my boyfriend, but I still love him. Also, my work has put me on a diploma in counselling course. I didn’t do much at school, I’ve never studied before, that’s all a bit scary. I have to go into therapy as part of the course so I thought I’d get heads up.”
A small black note-book sat on Ian’s lap, a pen resting on top secured to the book with an elastic band. I was glad he wasn’t writing this down.
“I know a lot about counselling already.” I continued. “There are counsellors where I work. I know about problems. When I was fifteen one of my father’s friends took me to one side in the pub and told me he was having an affair with his wife’s twin sister. I listened and he cried. I’m a good listener. When I worked in an Insurance office one of my colleagues was gay but hadn’t come out to anyone apart from me and he told me he was a Samaritan volunteer and that I’d be good at it. I left my job to go on the dole and travel and stuff and I became a Samaritan volunteer. I’ve even gone into Brixton prison as a volunteer. Sometimes I wonder if I’m more suicidal than the callers. That was a joke, sorry. Sorry. It’s not funny.”
I dared to look at Ian, he wasn’t smiling. He was about my father’s age, 50ish, handsome on first glance, like my father, and just as frumpy, he wore what were probably Marks and Spencer corduroys his wife would have bought him, I assumed he had a wife, he looked like he had.
“How did you come across me?” Another question and I was off again.
“The BACP book, we have the directory at work, you were the first on the list, nearest to me. I work as a clinic advisor, receptionist in the Marie Stopes Annexe, in Whitfield Street, West End, it’s an abortion clinic. I don’t see the abortions, they go out for that, but I had to go to all the clinics and watch so we understood what the women are going through. I haven’t had an abortion by the way. We see the women when they find out they’re pregnant. A lot come from Ireland, some girls as young as 12, they’ve been abused or raped. When the last client leaves we take the classical music off, put our own music on then we drink wine and dance. My friend Mary sings opera style punk. Then we go down the pub. I really like my job.” I stopped for breath but couldn’t bear the silence. “We listened to ‘Suicidal Tendencies’ today, they’re a Californian thrash band.” Ian looked bored. There were bound to be other clients needing him more than me, all I needed to do was get Fraser out of my head, then I’d be ok and I needed to make sure Ian knew I was fit for the course.
From my bag I got out a carton of low sugar Ribena and pulled away the straw sellotaped to the side, I pierced the lid open with the sharp end of the straw and Ribena spilled over my hand and onto my jeans, some trickled down the wooden leg of the chair, a frumpy chair, similar to those in my parent’s living room. I drank the Ribena, leaned over and threw the carton at a wicker basket a few yards away. It landed upside down, there were blackcurrant drips on the chair, coming through the holes of the basket onto the floor. I picked out some of the man size tissues from the table by my side and tried to mop up the mess I’d made.
“I’m fine really, I just worry that it’s ok to become a counsellor and work with people and their relationships when I’m still in love with a heroin addict just out of prison for armed robbery? That’s kind of a joke, he’s been out of prison for 9 months.”
I was testing Ian out, seeing if he would be shocked. He didn’t seem to find my chat shocking or funny. I talked and talked, at times wondering if I was talking too much. Fraser, Fraser, Fraser. I chatted about how he looked like Kevin Costner in the Robin Hood film and how he had a scar down the left side of his face from where a symbol had been thrown offstage into the crowd at a punk gig and struck him.
Before the end of the session Ian asked me to fill in a form with questions about my health, GP etc. We agreed to meet for 12 sessions. At the end of the 12th session, Ian handed me a copy of a letter he would send to my GP.
Dear Dr Payne, (that’s what he was called)
Re Miss Bentley, 25th June 1964, c/o 5, Bartholomew House, Long Lane, London SE1
I understand that this young woman is a patient of yours and I believe you would wish to know that she has recently approached me for counselling regarding primarily, difficulties over a personal relationship. I gather that she has been diagnosed as suffering from multiple sclerosis which understandably causes her additional anxiety.
Miss Bentley feels she would like to continue with our arrangement ‘ongoing’.
Fucking MS. I shoved the letter in my bag and marched back to Long Lane where I had been staying at Marni’s flat after fleeing from the tower block where Fraser and I had been renting a room from Dougie. Marni rented her council flat from a solicitor, who was also sub-letting. It was two bedroom, but one bedroom was set up for the solicitor, just in case a housing officer turned up. The deal was that she wasn’t to use it. I slept on a thin mattress in a sleeping bag on the living room floor. All evidence of me staying there was hidden every morning under the sofa, in case the solicitor or housing officer turned up. Neither ever did.
Marni was away visiting a commune in Spain for the week. I had an early night in her bed. It was luxury in comparison, despite the spunk stained black sheets that stunk of patchouli oil. It was easier to get out of Marni’s bed than up from my mattress. Everything was painful and uncomfortable. My toes and finger joints were red and swollen, my legs numb with pins and needles and my knees hurt like fuck especially first thing in the morning. I had been under 3 different hospital clinics, Guy’s neurology, Guy’s Rheumatology, and a new lupus clinic at St Thomas’s hospital. I didn’t like consultants or hospitals and even though it turned out I didn’t have lupus, I ditched the other departments and only went to the lupus clinic because the nurses were kinder, the clinic brighter and the consultant listened and didn’t try to thrust new bullshit medication down my throat.
That morning I’d had another session with Ian, he’d upped my sessions to twice a week, Thursday at 6pm, Friday at 8am. I was doing a ‘buy one get one half price’ deal. I didn’t understand why he’d done this but went with it. I was feeling a bit better, not obsessing so much about Fraser and I was starting my counselling diploma course the following week.
“I’m concerned about you,” Ian unusually interrupted. “You have a good job, one that you like and one where you are appreciated, your course begins next week and you are homeless,” with an emphasis on the homeless. I hadn’t thought of myself as being homeless, just in between accommodations and boyfriends. “Have you thought about applying to the council for a flat? I would be happy to write a letter to help an application.”
The next letter from Ian was in the making, and as soon as I got to work I rang Southwark housing for the relevant form. I was on an extra late shift, at a different Marie Stopes Clinic called PreTerm in Mortimer Street and didn’t finish until 9pm. There’d been a drama the previous Friday evening when a boyfriend of one of the women had broken in shouting “Where is the bitch who killed my fucking baby?” Luckily my colleague Cathy was in the toilet emptying urine samples so she locked herself in, climbed out of the window, down the drain pipe (PreTerm was on the first floor) and called for the police. The man turned over furniture and a few pot plants but the police were there fast and carted him off. Cathy had been given a week off to deal with the stress.
At the end of the shift I counted the day’s money. I was stuck for cash and needed fags and booze to get through the weekend. I looked through the pregnancy test forms. At least 4 were negative. I put £20 and two of the forms into my bag. The rest of the money went into the safe and the forms filed neatly in the ‘weekly pregnancy test’ drawer. Once the building was locked I walked back to Goodge Street tube station, tore up the forms into tiny pieces and watched them flutter to the bottom of the bin outside the station.
On the tube I felt a little guilty. Ian had been getting me to think about my feelings and I was beginning to link these with past events. I felt guilty now like I had done when stealing money from the church collection after Mr and Mrs Agerer left (No. 2).
“Can you do maths?” A church steward had asked, taking note of my uncontrollable crying. I fucking hated going to church but my parents had forced me to go, even though they never went themselves.
“Yes,” I’d said between sobs, not knowing if this would be the right answer. From then on I was given the special role of collecting the collection money from all the Sunday school departments including the Bible Cors where my sister had recently graduated. Every week from the collection I took the equivalent of a pound in six and threepences and spent them on sweets at the offie, I soon graduated to buying ten sovereign filter from the machine outside the offie.
Maybe I stole because I was being forced to do something. I was an atheist.
My present guilt subsided when I reminded myself that most of Preterm reception staff stole money and anyway, I was doing a night shift at the Samaritans – that surely made up for it, giving of my free time to the community. I bought a litre of cider, had a quick drink and joint back at Marni’s and by the time I got to the Samaritans I was guilt free.
That night I was the only volunteer on the late shift, I had long since given up shagging other volunteers and preferred to do shifts alone.
“Hello,” it was a man, his voice deep, then silence. There was no heavy breathing so I kept on the line, then he spoke again.
“I know you’re there on your own. I saw the last one leave.” The last volunteer had left at 12.30 which meant the caller could have been watching for a few hours. The Samaritan’s window was frosted and had steel bars protecting us. I heard the sound of a train whizz through New Cross from the window, and heard the same train down the phone. He was calling from the payphone outside the station.
“I’m ready to come and see you now,” and he put the phone down. I was frightened but used to dealing with fear alone. The next volunteer was due in at 3.45am, nearly two hours to go. I picked up a bread knife from the kitchen and checked that the back door was locked, I checked the front door then locked myself in the telephone room. The next volunteer arrived early, I put the knife away and rang my supervisor to off load.
“Busy shift, there was a weirdo on the phone but nothing I’m worried about, my taxi’s here, I’ll ring you later if I’ve forgotten anything,” I would never fess up my fear, I wanted to be a good Samaritan – the best.
I didn’t speak with the taxi driver, I fantasized that the driver was also the man on the phone and was relieved when he dropped me off in Long Lane, in front of the flats. On the low wall in front of the block lay a homeless man asleep, his flies undone and his todger out, collapsed after a final drunken piss of the night. There were frequently men there that Marni and I encountered on the way home from clubs, the spill over from cardboard city at Waterloo. Bermondsey was a rough old place back then.
I walked up the stairwell. Marni’s yellow door was wide open. I didn’t walk in, I ran to the next block where her boyfriend Lang and Wand (from Pelekas) were squatting. I banged on the door and Lang answered it, looking like shit, dyed black spiked hair sticking out all over, dark rings round his eyes, scrawny man. Don’t know what she saw in him, he didn’t seem so cool away from Pelekas.
“Marni’s door’s been kicked in!”
“Has she been burgled?” Lang wasted no time in putting on his Dr Martin’s that lay by the newspaper covered wall of the hallway. The stale smell of the squat poured out into the night air.
“I didn’t go in. I was scared,” I didn’t care to be scared in front of Lang, he legged it, in front of me to the flat. When I walked through the kicked in door he was already in Marni’s bedroom looking under her bed.
“They haven’t taken any of it,” he gathered up his expensive camera equipment that Marni stored for him, her flat being safer than his and Wand’s squat.
I discovered Marni’s sound system had been nicked from the living room. Nothing else seemed to have gone.
“Where are you going?” I called. Lang was out the door.
“Back to bed,” he said his voice trailing down the stairwell.
“The stereo’s gone, they may come back, I can’t lock the door. Don’t leave me.” Lang was gone. “Come back you fucking little selfish American twat, I fucking hate you, you cunt, you fucking little shit cunt….”
Lang didn’t come back and Wand didn’t come to my rescue. The police came took notes then told me to ring the emergency council services. I had to wait for the man to sort the door and lock. It was comforting knowing the man and his todger were there. They might wake up if any disturbances happened. The council man turned up as the man got up and put his todger away.
“You should have been an emergency,” he said, clinking tools from his battered khaki fabric bag. “Young girl like you, left on her own,” clink clink. He finished the job and gave me a form to sign. I wasn’t sure whose signature to forge, Marni’s or the solicitors, I went for Marni’s, don’t suppose it mattered.
It was proper morning, I had a bath and was just thinking about which bits of the night’s drama I would tell to Ian in our next session when there was a knock at the newly fixed door. Thinking it was Lang or Wand I opened it.