Freud in Cardiff, by Christopher Walker
West Coast Eisteddfod Online Short Story Competition 2017
Freud in Cardiff
“And how does that make you feel?”
“It makes me feel like I don’t belong in the marriage, doctor. Frankly speaking, I wonder why he ever married me in the first place.”
“So the feelings that you seek, of love and companionship, not to mention acceptance – all of these are entirely absent?”
“Doctor Freud, you must help me. I can’t live like this; I simply cannot!”
Freud pursed his lips. He scratched a few notes onto the ledger, and then with a theatrical sigh he placed his pen on the table beside his armchair. Slowly he took from the top pocket of his blazer a handkerchief with the initials ‘SF’ sewn into the corner. With measured movements he cleaned first the left and then the right lens of his glasses. His patient, curious about the doctor’s silence, craned her neck round to see what was going on.
“Please remain as you were,” the doctor admonished.
“That’s quite all right. The silence helps me to think. However, my dear, I must say that the case that you present is rather straightforward.”
“Most certainly. You must divorce the man. I can recommend a lawyer if you wish.”
The patient sat up on the chaise longue. She gripped a cushion, holding it close, her knuckles turning white.
“There’s no other way?”
“None that I can see.”
“Goodness, doctor. This is not the diagnosis I had come to expect.”
Freud raised an eyebrow.
“I assure you my conclusion is correct. Everything you have said suggests that your id is right. Both your ego and your superego are aware of this; I’m surprised that you find this shocking.”
“Id, ego, superego,” the patient mumbled. “I don’t know these terms.”
“They are my own inventions. Quite famous by now, and accepted in the profession. The whole field of psychoanalysis is mine, also. I would refer you to another consultant, but there are none here in Cardiff. I myself shall only be here for a short time.”
“So you must do as I suggest.”
“Yes, doctor. Thank you.”
“You’re more than welcome. Now, if you would like to discuss the matter of my fee…”
When the patient had left, Freud approached the high window and looked down at the traffic on St Mary Street. Up here in the attic of the Royal Hotel, Freud felt like the king of the country. His private suite had been a costly arrangement to make, but after word had gotten about that the great Viennese psychiatrist had deigned to pay a visit to Wales, a constant stream of clients had made the hotel’s rate seem like a pittance.
Freud put the envelope stuffed with crisp banknotes in the drawer of his desk, next to all the others. Cash was simply more convenient, he would say, since he had yet to open an account with the bank here in Cardiff. What he didn’t say was that he had no intention of ever opening a bank account. What he also didn’t say was that he couldn’t, even if he had wanted to.
There was a demure knocking at the door. A young girl of perhaps fifteen, dressed primly in a black uniform with a white apron tied across the front, came into the room. She placed his espresso on the desk, and next to this a pile of calling cards and the morning’s post.
Freud watched her leave, admiring her posterior.
“Ah, the wonders of the id,” he mumbled to himself.
He flicked through the calling cards. Each one represented a potential client, and each potential client represented another thickly-stuffed envelope. You have to help me, doctor, they’d say on the preliminary visit; I’ll give you anything. They generally blanched when his fee was mentioned, but so far every single one had paid up.
The correspondence was fewer. It was not widely known that Freud had taken up residence in Cardiff. One letter, neatly addressed, contained an invitation to an evening dinner courtesy of some local government official. Another was a polite note thanking Freud for thinking of Wales, and asking whether he might be willing to lead a talk on Welsh nationalism from the perspective of psychoanalysis. Well, thought Freud, whatever might that mean?
There was one more letter, at the bottom of the stack; different from the others.
Freud glanced at the address and then recoiled in shock, dropping the letter to the floor.
He left it there while he attended to his coffee. He pinched the white hairs of his pointed beard and pulled out a few. They were black near the roots.
He bent over and scooped up the letter.
The address read ‘Harry Whitehead, c/o “Sigmund Freud”’, and gave the name of the doctor’s hotel, though not the room number.
“That woman,” he murmured under his breath. “How has she found me? And so soon?”
He looked again at the address; Belinda’s sarcastic tone had even found its way onto the envelope. The quote marks around the doctor’s name were a terrible giveaway.
Whitehead began to panic. Why was she writing to him now? What did she want? And more crucially, how had she found him?
Still clutching the letter, he raced over to the en suite bathroom and fixed his attention on the mirror. He still looked like Freud, he thought. The hair was correct – the correct length, the correct colour, as far as he could tell. He’d only ever seen black and white or sepia photographs of the psychiatrist. His glasses were authentic, the lenses magnificently thick like the ends of milk bottles; anyway, nobody paid much attention to the glasses people wear. As long as they made him look serious and respectable he felt confident when he hid behind them, even though they made him see rather poorly.
He felt his heart rate begin to settle. After a few deep breaths and a glass of water from the cold tap he began to feel himself again – or more like Freud; he wasn’t sure which.
Then he opened the letter and the panic returned.
The message consisted of just one line, and was left unsigned. Whitehead knew who it was from, and now he knew when she’d be arriving: 10.44. That was all the letter said; without even checking, Whitehead knew that she’d be coming in on the train from London, and would be knocking on his door that very evening.
“I better clear out quickly,” he said to himself. He splashed some water on his face before proceeding back to the study. He lifted the receiver of the telephone and dialled reception.
“Freud here,” he said unnecessarily, but in a marked Austrian accent, as if now he was afraid that it wasn’t only Belinda who knew his secret.
“Cancel my appointments for the remainder of the day,” he commanded. “I have some other, more important business to attend to. A matter of some urgency.”
“Yes, doctor. Only, well, you see…”
“Spit it out, will you!” Whitehead said angrily.
“Your eleven o’clock is already in the lift on the way up. A young lady, doctor sir.”
“Fine. I have time for one more session. But no more. If anybody asks for me, tell them that I am indisposed at the present time.”
“Certainly, doctor,” the clerk at reception said; Whitehead had already hung up.
Whitehead scanned the room for any sign that could give him away. Suddenly everything struck him as suspicious, as if it could reveal his true identity to all but the most ignorant observer. The books on the shelf behind his desk all carried titles that sounded like they belonged to the field of psychoanalysis, but Whitehead had had these made up at a stationer’s near Piccadilly months ago. The books themselves were cheap medical texts he’d picked up for a few pennies at a second-hand bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. The phrenologist’s skull on the desk was papier-mâché. The framed certificates hanging on the wall across from the chaise longue were all reproductions. One even had his name spelled as ‘Sigmud.’
Whitehead’s mind raced as he plotted his next move. Packing, a cab to the station, the train – but where? And when he found an hotel to stay in, what name ought he to give?
The knock on the door brought him back to the here and now. The same young girl who had brought the coffee led a young lady into the room. All these young ladies look the same, Whitehead thought. They must all visit the same salon. Is there only one in all of Cardiff? I suppose her problem is precisely the same as all the others. This one has probably fallen out of love with her husband as well, I imagine.
“This way, please,” Whitehead said, adopting once more the character of the Viennese psychiatrist.
He took from the lady her grey raincoat and draped it over the back of his desk chair. Patting it gently he felt for the expected envelope. He picked up the ledger on which he pretended to make his notes, and waited for his new patient to settle herself on her seat.
Whitehead felt his anger growing as he half-listened to the lady describe her marriage’s descent into dull normality. He, the husband, had wooed her in 1910, had been away for the Great War, had miraculously survived, but now seemed to her distant, a shell of his former self. This was not a new story for Whitehead. He’d heard it many times before. He let his thoughts drift. Amsterdam, that was where he’d last managed to detach himself from Belinda. Twice before she’d caught up with him. Then he’d taken the boat train over to Dover via Calais, and he’d thought about throwing his papers into the Channel while on the ferry. In the end he was glad not to have done so – the customs agents in Dover were shrill little men with an inflated sense of their own worth. He ought to have had new papers made up in London; there was a man who kept an office in some dingy corner of the East End, though there had been the question of money…
Whitehead thought about the envelopes. There was enough there to start afresh, he thought, but how much would it end up costing him, this night flight out of Cardiff?
“What do you think it means, doctor?” the patient asked suddenly.
“Hmm,” Whitehead murmured mechanically, giving himself time to think. “I imagine the possibility is there of some childhood trauma, deeply repressed. Tell me about your father.”
“My father? Why, he’s been dead since I was a child. The Boer War.”
She sounded disappointed. Whitehead worried that she wouldn’t part with her cash on this visit if he didn’t intervene, offer something with enough finality that she would go and never return. His anger, previously directed at Belinda, was sublimated into his analysis of this unidentified woman.
“The problem, my dear, is that your id is unsatisfied by the life you are living.”
“Yes. Your id represents your primal passions, your creativity, your lust for life, your sex drive.”
At the mention of sex the lady blushed.
“I think you might be right,” she said at last.
“Of course I am. But why do you think I am?”
“It makes sense. My husband, since the war… he’s become so controlling. Always throwing cold water on my every idea, making me bury my passions, trying to force me to lead a life that I’m simply not cut out for.”
“In your imagination, your husband has taken the role of the superego, the controlling aspect of your mind. It’s entirely natural. Most marriages devolve into this kind of duality – the id on the one hand, the superego on the other, and the ego split down the middle.”
Whitehead nodded appreciatively at the profundity of his own thoughts; he sounded like he was describing his own marriage and Belinda’s role in his life, rather than anything to do with this woman.
“But doctor, what can I do in that case? Is it possible for the id, as you call it, to triumph over the superego?”
Whitehead timed his response for maximum impact.
“No,” he said. “No, I do not believe that it is possible at all.”
Now he definitely was thinking about Belinda.
“So there is no possibility of an escape.”
“There’s always divorce.”
“Doctor, I could not do that to my husband. He’s a war hero. What would people think of me? I’d be an outcast.”
Whitehead listened unsympathetically as the woman broke down, her sobs muffled by the cushion she was crying into.
When she had managed to compose herself, Whitehead decided to go for broke.
“There is one thing that you can do. You can effect a psychotic break.”
“You must prove to your husband that your id is in total control, that it is stronger than his superego, and to do that, you must make him believe that your sanity is at stake.”
“But – how?”
Whitehead uncrossed his legs and rose from the armchair. He placed his ledger face down on the table so that the woman wouldn’t see the unblemished first page. He began to prowl around the room, as if searching for the right object. The woman followed him with her eyes, her mouth slightly agape in wonderment.
“You must find something suitable for the occasion,” he said.
“The occasion? Doctor Freud, I must own that I feel quite confused by all of this. What is it precisely that you are suggesting?”
“Aha,” he said, ignoring the question.
On the bookcase he found a large pair of scissors. He’d borrowed them from the porter when his books had arrived from London and he’d had to cut the string that tied the parcel together. He’d quite forgotten to return them, and the porter had been too polite to ask for them back. One did not remind the great Sigmund Freud of borrowed scissors.
“Take these,” he said, handing the scissors to the woman.
“They feel so… cold,” she said.
“Well. Let’s not get too dramatic right now, shall we? Remember, all of this is merely an act, a warning shot if you will. That is something I imagine your husband might understand if, as you say, he is some kind of a war hero.”
The woman nodded.
“Now, I want you to take these scissors, and use them to stab this… cushion,” he said, picking up the cushion she had been crying into. “Imagine that it is not a cushion that you are attacking, but rather your husband.”
“But I don’t want to stab my husband!”
“Yes, I know that. You must trust me. I know better than you do, after all. It is not your husband that you wish to stab with these scissors, but rather what he represents.”
“The superego,” the woman said. “Although I’m still not completely clear what that means.”
“Be assured, my good woman, that I am clear on the subject, and as I have repeatedly commanded, you must trust me.”
Delicately at first, as though she was engaging in needlework practice, the woman began to poke at the cushion with the scissors.
“Not like that. With passion. With the full weight of your id!”
“But I’ll ruin the cushion.”
“The cushion matters not,” Whitehead said, and he meant it. If Belinda was likely to be here so soon he didn’t have time to worry about the furnishings.
On hearing this, the woman began to strike more vehemently at the cushion. Soon the wrath spilled out of her; she stood, so that she could pull back her arm and hit with more power; and then the screams came, first like sobs escaping from her throat, later as wretched curses that seemed to emanate from the centre of her being.
“Good, good,” Whitehead said, though now her behaviour was scaring him. What if she starts to take this seriously, he thought. She might actually go home and stab her husband.
The cushion had been reduced to shreds and stuffing. The woman wiped the sweat from her brow, and then turned to face the doctor. She pointed the scissors at him for a moment before realising what she was doing; when she calmed down Whitehead stepped forward and relieved her of the murderous implement.
“Doctor, I feel so much better,” the woman said, and when she smiled Whitehead could feel his blood freezing. He promised future sessions with her to go through a full course of analytic treatment with her, and then escorted her from the studio. It was only when he heard the click of the lift doors closing that he realised she had taken her money away with her.
Whitehead cursed himself for his impatience to be rid of her, but he began to feel better when he removed the envelopes from the drawer and began to count through his takings. He arranged the banknotes by denomination on the leather upholstery of the writing desk, and allowed himself a smile of victory.
He heard a banging outside the room.
“I recall asking that nobody be admitted,” he called out in annoyance.
The door swung open, kicked by a pale youth in a long army surplus coat.
“Guten tag, Herr Doktor!” he hissed.
“Who the hell are you?” Whitehead said, quite forgetting the role he was meant to be playing.
“Ich bin den ganzen Weg von Wien gekommen, um dich zu finden. Jetzt wirst du für das bezahlen, was du mir angetan hast!”
“Listen, mate, seriously. There’s been some kind of a misunderstanding.” Whitehead saw that the youth was holding a dagger in his left hand. “I’m not really Sigmund Freud. I don’t even speak bloody Austrian!”
“Come now, dear Doctor. Let’s not play games. Speak English if you like, but you cannot make a fool of me anymore. Prepare to feel the power of my id, you psychoanalytic fraud!”
He leaped towards Whitehead. The desk was all that separated them. The youth lashed out wildly with his dagger. Whitehead jumped backwards, but was caught against the wall. The youth moved one way towards the corner of the desk, and Whitehead the other. Out of the corner of his eye Whitehead saw the scissors lying on the end of the chaise longue. He couldn’t remember why he’d left them there and not on the desk, where they would have been of more use to him now, but he knew he had to get to them before the youth got to him.
Whitehead dropped his shoulder, feinting left then right, and managed to wrong-foot the youth. But he stumbled as he raced towards the chaise longue, and the youth, diving after him, caught him with the knife. Whitehead screamed out in pain.
“I will kill you!” the youth screamed. The knife was deeply embedded in Whitehead’s calf. The pain was excruciating, but he fought against it, dragging himself on towards the chaise longue. He reached out for the scissors, clumsily pushing them further away with his fingertips; he began to panic, to hyperventilate; if only he could grasp the scissors, but his hands were shaking, he was beginning to feel faint…
He perceived the scuffle at the edge of his consciousness, as if he was reliving a dream half-remembered. A uniformed figure that he recognised as the porter swung a massive fist at the youth, knocking him to the ground. In the doorway stood a woman, frozen in shock; then she dashed towards Whitehead, covering his face in kisses.
Whitehead laughed. The letter must have arrived later than it was supposed to. The 10.44 was, of course, the morning train. How fortunate, he thought sadly.