'One of my patients thinks somebody's trying to kill him.'
She had meant to sound light and casual, but the words gushed out, breathless and urgent, betraying her feelings, her emotion, her involvement. It had been madness to mention the boy.
Or perhaps I'm imagining it, she thought. Perhaps he's noticed nothing.
Her husband speared one of the rectangles into which he had previously divided his slice of quiche, dredged it thickly in mayonnaise and hoisted it into his mouth. After chewing conscientiously for a moment or two, he glanced over at his wife.
'Isn't that fairly . . . normal?'
It was a trap, of course. If she took him literally, he would claim that he'd been joking; if she treated it as an example of the pawky humour he was so proud of, he would ask pointedly what was funny about someone in fear of his life.
'A normal delusion, you mean?' Aileen asked as she refilled their glasses with wine.
Her husband paused judiciously.
'Well, I take it that the person in question . . .'
'His name's Gary. Do finish the quiche if you can.'
She watched as Douglas lifted the remaining segment of quiche to his plate, then thrust his knife deep into the jar of mayonnaise.
'I take it that he is mad,' he concluded.
'"Mad" is no longer a recognized psychiatric category,' his wife replied primly.
'Well, psychosocially disadvantaged, or whatever the current jargon is. Observing non-normative behavioural criteria, into a whole other perceptual thing, marching to the beat of a different . . .'
'He's suffering from depression following an extremely stressful experience,' Aileen went on even more stiffly. She realized too late that she had been outmanoeuvred, boxed into a corner, a po-faced Aunt Sally glaring disapprovingly at her husband's puckish jests.
Douglas Macklin mopped up the remaining mayonnaise with his last soggy piece of quiche.
'What happened to him?'
'He witnessed a murder, actually.'
For a moment, her husband looked genuinely interested.
'Well, he found the body, anyway.'
She knew the risk she was taking; but it made no difference, not where the boy was concerned. The pressure of unspoken words was too great to be denied.
'His social worker referred him as query schizophrenic, but . . .'
'Now hang on a moment,' her husband interrupted with a frown. 'Schizophrenia. What is that, exactly?'
Douglas Macklin repeated his question.
'Oh, come on!' his wife urged with a laugh that sounded almost natural. 'Have you forgotten all those long discussions we used to have about it?'
Forgetting, as she well knew, was not something Douglas Macklin permitted himself to do.
'About what?' he hedged.
'About schizophrenia! That's what we're talking about, isn't it?'
'I wasn't absolutely sure what you were talking about, to be perfectly honest. That's why I asked the question.'
Aileen locked her teeth together. She had already said far too much. Yes, it had been madness to think that she could afford the luxury of discussing this, of all cases, with her husband, of all people.
'As to those discussions, I haven't forgotten them,' Douglas went on with renewed energy. 'Although it must be, what, almost twenty years ago now?'
He paused for a reminiscent smile.
'I seem to remember you arguing that madness is just a strategy, a way of coming to terms with a crazy world. That the people we call mad are really too sane, so much so that the rest of us drive them mad. Tell me, do you still subscribe to that view? It's no longer quite so fashionable as it used to be, I believe.'
He spoiled things slightly by helping himself to more mayonnaise, which he ate with a piece of bread, ignoring the salad she had prepared. A parsimonious lower-middle-class upbringing in Aberdeen had left Douglas Macklin with a perpetually unsatisfied child inside, subject to indiscriminate greed that had no effect on his scrawny figure. Left to his own devices, Aileen knew, he would eat standing up at the kitchen counter, stuffing himself with lard sandwiches and sticky buns, washed down with mugs of hot sweet tea.
'Of course!' she snapped. 'You know me. I just parrot whatever idea is currently fashionable.'
She checked herself there, but it was too late.
'I didn't say that,' her husband recited slowly, as though dictating a letter to a not-very-bright secretary. 'I was merely asking about your views on a subject of professional interest. What's wrong with that?'
She said nothing.
'Honestly, Aileen, I'm beginning to worry about you, you know. You seem to get things completely out of proportion sometimes. To overreact grotesquely.'
He completed his triumph with a look both solicitous and critical.
There had been a time, earlier in their marriage, when Aileen had thought of the contests which took place at their dinner table every evening as a kind of psychological chess. She had soon come to realize that this image was totally inadequate. It was more like mud-wrestling than chess; intimate, bruising, slimy, devious and degrading. Facing her husband across the ruins of yet another meal, she asked herself once again how she came to be there, what it was that had brought her to that point. They had met in 1968 at the University of Sussex, where Douglas was finishing a BSc in what he liked to describe as 'the chemical soup we carry round in our skulls'. Aileen, too, was studying the brain, although from a different direction. She could have done her degree in psychology somewhere safe like Exeter, as her parents had wished, but the much-publicized high jinks of the glittery Sussex students tempted her to apply there. Eight months later, she was depressed, lonely, overworked, underfed and homesick. Out of season, Brighton proved to be cold and cheerless. The flat she was sharing with two other girls was smelly and damp, in particular the room which she had been allocated, and to make matters worse, her social life obstinately refused to take off. This was the more unbearable in that her flatmates were constantly being called for, taken out and brought back at all hours, or even not till the next morning. Aileen was cast in the role of housekeeper, taking messages and passing on directions, handing over keys and notes, making excuses, telling lies and answering the telephone, which never rang for her. Such invitations as she did receive were of a kind she could hardly flaunt before the Londoners, such as her tutor's Saturday morning 'at home'. Nevertheless it was there, amidst saucers of over-salted peanuts, thimbles of Cyprus sherry and sterile acres of strenuously intelligent conversation, that Aileen was introduced to Douglas Macklin.
Aileen had actually felt quite excited to be at the reception, until it dawned on her that attendance was virtually obligatory and everyone else was wondering how soon they could decently leave. The realization that she was the only person present who didn't have something more interesting to do brought on a crippling attack of self-pity, and so she felt quite grateful to the skinny sandy-haired Scotsman who talked her ear off about his work for the best part of an hour. When they said goodbye, he noted her address and phone number as impersonally as an estate agent. She was therefore quite surprised to be rung a few days later and asked out to the cinema. The following week Douglas invited her to a restaurant whose pretensions were reflected in the oppressive furnishings and overbearing service rather than the food. Afterwards they went to a pub to unwind, and when they reached the flat Aileen invited him in for coffee. When her trendy flatmates burst in with the usual admiring crew in tow, Aileen abruptly decided that she would not be sleeping alone that night. Although not technically a virgin, she had never been to bed with a man before, but it proved to be remarkably similar to what she had imagined. Douglas monopolized the action much as he had at her tutor's party, and as on that occasion Aileen was neither overwhelmed nor disappointed, merely grateful for the attention. When she got up to make tea in the morning, she knew that the other girls would never be able to impose on her in quite the same way again.
The affair staggered on for the rest of the academic year, although Aileen's commitment to it was progressively undermined by the confidence and assurance she had tasted for the first time that morning. She would have broken off their relationship eventually, if it hadn't become clear that it was dying a natural death. Douglas was going to London to do research at the Institute of Neurology, and although they made vague plans to see each other, nothing definite had been arranged by the time Aileen took off with a girlfriend to hitchhike to Greece. When she returned to Brighton in October, she met Raymond, a literature student from California who introduced her to marijuana, acidrock music, anchovies, reincarnation, William Blake, tie-dyed T-shirts, peanut butter, Zen parables and oral sex.
When Aileen thought of Raymond now, it was the ghostly resemblance between him and her young patient, Gary Dunn, which compelled her attention: a resemblance all the more eerily disturbing for being fortuitous. But at the time, of course, she had known nothing of the horrors to come. Then, it had been Raymond's resemblance to his predecessor in Aileen's life which had struck her. Like Douglas, the American was over six feet tall, lithe but unathletic, with russet hair, grey-blue eyes and a weak chin. The similarity ended there, however. It was not simply that Raymond had shoulder-length hair which he wore in a pony-tail, or that he sported a large moustache of the type associated in England with RAF pilots. The two men's personalities could hardly have been more different. Douglas was a paragon of caution, guile and understatement, a man whose way of praising something was to list the various defects and drawbacks it didn't have. Raymond, on the other hand, splashed out recklessly on terms like 'fabulous', 'unbelievable' and 'amazing', which thrifty Douglas saved for occasions so special that in practice they never occurred. By turns vivacious, lethargic, sentimental, mordant, vulgar, rhetorical, tolerant, selfish, wise and superficial, he seemed remarkably unspoiled by the knowledge that he could get away with anything. Even those who couldn't stand him in principle found his charm irresistible in person.
Aileen's social life lifted off like a rocket. Raymond possessed the most extraordinary facility for making friends, and by British student standards he seemed to have plenty of money. Aileen was not surprised by this, casually taking it for granted that all American parents were rich and generous. Where Douglas had taken her for wet walks along the coast, Raymond arranged a trip on a fishing boat whose skipper he'd got to know. He bought a motorbike and took Aileen over to France for weekend excursions. On her nineteenth birthday they drove to a small airfield outside Brighton, where a friend with a pilot's licence loaded them both into a small plane and flew low over the roofs of the city for an hour while Raymond urged him to ever more daring exploits. Afterwards Aileen was trembling so much he had to carry her to the car. 'You think I wasn't scared too?' he told her. 'I was shitting bricks, man! But let me just ask you one thing. Are you ever going to forget today? No way, right? That's what it's all about!' There was a darker side to this spontaneity, too. Raymond would disappear from Brighton for days on end without the slightest notice. Aileen's attempts to make him feel guilty about this brought out his most irritating vein of cracker-barrel philosophizing. 'Hang loose,' she was told. 'Go with the flow. Don't fight your karma. If you love me, set me free.' Nor was it the slightest use trying to find out where he went or what he did on these trips. It was not that he seemed secretive, merely that his total dedication to the present moment -- 'the only one we ever actually live, here and now, where it always is' -- precluded any interest in what had happened yesterday. When he was away, he ceased to exist; the moment he returned, their relationship resumed with undiminished intensity. So Aileen was not unduly surprised when she arrived back at their Kemp Town flat one winter afternoon to find Raymond packing. 'I've got to go,' he told her. 'It's my mom. She's ill, like really. I just got a call.' That evening they took a train to Gatwick. Raymond bought a ticket on the first flight out, to Amsterdam, where he could get a connection to Los Angeles. He promised to phone regularly, gave her a number to call, and estimated that he would be back in a week at most. After seventy-two hours without news, she rang the number he had given her and discovered that it was 'inoperative'. Seventeen days later a wrinkled aerogramme arrived, informing her that he had decided to stay on 'for a while'. In terms whose extreme vagueness seemed almost insulting, he described a life of mild indolence. There was no reference to his mother's health.
The following period of her life was the worst Aileen had ever known. The pain was so dreadful, so real, that she was worried it might be doing her some permanent injury. Sometimes she would survey her body in the mirror, astonished that it was all there. She looked pale, strained, emptied, stripped of the beauty that Raymond had lovingly discovered and cultivated. She wrote shameless letters, holding nothing back, not trying to be clever. The few he wrote in reply were brief and superficial, but she forgave him that, knowing that no sane person could choose to feel the intensity of emotion which had been visited upon her. She had decided that the moment she completed her degree she would go to him, and in the meantime she immersed herself in bureaucratic details: arranging for visas, applying for the graduate programme at UCLA, studying for her final exams. She arrived in California in late June, having received a first-class degree almost without noticing. Raymond appeared at the airport an hour late. In his native environment, he seemed a different creature: slighter, quieter, dowdier, poorer and less exotic. More alarmingly, he didn't seem particularly glad to see her. They drove a long way through an unvarying suburban landscape to a rickety wooden house on a block zoned for redevelopment which he shared with a group of other 'heads'. The mood was downbeat, the vibes bad. Most of Raymond's former friends were either in Vietnam or exiled to Canada or Mexico. He himself had successfully avoided the draft before going to Europe. by volunteering for immediate action on the grounds that he liked killing people and couldn't wait to begin. But the recruiting boards had wised up since then and the local drop-out community had been decimated. Every evening the television news sprayed scenes of carnage over the walls of the doomed head-house, and all the occupants' jokes about the footage being mocked up on a back lot down the road at Burbank, like the famous moon walk, didn't really help. The sixties were over, things had changed, the feeling had gone. In an attempt to bring it back, Raymond and his friends continually upped their consumption of speed, mescaline and acid.
Excerpted from The Tryst by Michael Dibdin. Copyright © 2003 by Michael Dibdin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.