It’s my job to listen, so maybe I don’t look as much as I should. It’s so easy to let the eyes slide over the surface of things, all those familiar facades. Though I saw the girl who came to speak to me that day in April: I saw the way she sat in an invisible box, tight and drawn in, picking at her hang-nails. I’m alert to body language, as I’m trained to be; but somehow I really saw her, as though I’d never heard this story before. Something about her hurt me; I could feel the sore edges of her, smarting where she met the world. But normally I see my clients with only my professional eyes. And then, outside, I see the yellow lettering on the railway platform that marks my habitual spot, and the bridges and houses that measure my route home. They change the adverts on the billboards but I never remember what’s on them.
That April day, however, something made me look. The train was late, so I left my pitch by the N of MIND THE GAP and wandered down the platform, right to the end where no-one bothers to stand because the carriages never reach back that far. I found an alcove, a blind arch that can never have been a door as it’s far above street level with only a sheer drop outside it, and leant against the wall. In the corner at the angle of the wall I saw a crack. It wasn’t a dark crack in the mortar as you might expect. Behind it there was a light. I had to bend a little to peer through.
What I could see was a tiny world. It didn’t even occur to me that its smallness could be an effect of distance: rather, everything here was very concentrated, shrunk down to a pinpoint intensity, bright and precise. It was a beautiful landscape, apart from being extremely dry. There was a sweep of hills behind, and in the foreground a river bed, empty of water. A silvery leafless tree bowed from the bank. A road led away from the river towards a stone castle on a motte, a single, well-proportioned tower. It didn’t look like a desert. The land between the river and the castle was divided up for fields, and there was a windmill too, for grinding grain. But there wasn’t a drop of water, a blade of grass or a single living creature to be seen.
I had an Evian bottle in my bag, one of those bottles with a sports top, a cap that flips off and a narrow opening. I took it out and very, very carefully I dripped some water into the chink in the wall. To my delight the water ran down into the river bed. The river began to flow. Even when I tipped the bottle upright and put it away the river carried on flowing. It was a gleam of life in that dry, dry land.
All the way home and through the next few days this strange glimpse was like a little chink of gold in my mind. I kept wanting to go back and see it again – to check, indeed, if it was really there, because increasingly I thought I must have imagined it; but I was always too busy – in a hurry and on the wrong platform in the morning, in a hurry and needing to stay close to where the train would stop in the evening. I didn’t get a chance to return to the blind archway until a week later, when I had seen the girl again.
The girl’s name was – well, let’s call her Nina. Nina’s story wasn’t unusual. She’d been diagnosed with depression and referred for counselling by the College Health Service. Unlike many students with depression, her attendance was good, perhaps because her stepfather drove her into town each day and dropped her at college on his way to work, but in class she wouldn’t speak. She didn’t socialize with her classmates. She wasn’t submitting coursework. She seemed convinced that she couldn’t do the work and would fail, even though her grades at school had been strong.
“What made you choose to do Geography and Economics?”
“Um…did them for Leaving Cert. Mam thought they’d be useful.”
“So, your mother advised you to take these subjects.”
“Yeah.” Picking at the nails.
“What subjects did you like best at Leaving Cert?”
“I don’t know. Maybe English.”
“Perhaps it would be helpful if we talked more about what you liked about English, so we can explore what interests and motivates you.”
“No point. I’m going to fail anyway.” She stared away from me, out of the window; and all of the time there was this soreness, this awful all-over wince.
I managed to reach the station ten full minutes before my train. I was worried someone would follow me to the far end of the platform – commuters are like sheep, or perhaps more like lemmings; they’re habitual followers – but no-one did and I had the alcove to myself. Through the crack in the wall, my tiny land was still there, but now green and burgeoning. The silver tree cast a generous shade over the river and there were fish rising in the still water by the bank. There were marsh-marigolds laced into the damp grass, white hawthorn blossoms in the hedgerows. On the far hills I could see yellow splashes of gorse. The fields were unkempt, however, and the windmill was still. This was a human landscape, but it lacked people.
Recalling the magic of the Evian bottle, I fished around in my bag again and managed to find a lego figure, a stormtrooper from a Star Wars set belonging to my son. It was awkward wriggling it through the crack. I hoped I wasn’t about to ruin this beautiful landscape with plastic pollution – perhaps I was introducing this world’s first rubbish. But no. Here I was a benevolent creator. The lego man softened to a human shape in peasant clothes, stretched himself, was in scale to his surroundings. He raised his new face to the breeze and walked along the riverbank, out of my field of view.
I wasn’t sure what it was about Nina that got to me so badly. I’ve had resistant clients before, clients who cling to their low self-esteem like some mouldy comfort blanket, clients who blame me for how bad they feel. They annoy me, I admit, but I’ve learned to notice the annoyance and put it aside; it is part of the evidence, teaching me something about them. With Nina I felt something different. I wondered if perhaps I was over-identifying with her. I’d been rather like her once: a high-achiever, but in my head not entitled to it, feeling that my successes came from no real ability but had somehow fallen on me from the sky. I clung to my family and was nervous with my peers. Then when I was eighteen a rising sadness engulfed me. I went into an exam one day and instead of analysing a passage of Plato I wrote a stilted, mad story about a girl whose lover peeled her like an onion and picked away her layers until she wasn’t there. (I had never had a boyfriend at the time.) I was sent to a counsellor called Ruth, about whom I remember nothing except that she had a red sofa and she sat with her back to the light. She must have helped me glue myself back together, swim back up from the dark; with Ruth’s help I made myself a better story to live in – or maybe it was just time, in the end, time and the ebbing away of sadness. So later I changed directions, left philosophy and became a counsellor too. But that peeled girl still lies drowned somewhere inside me. Perhaps it was her soreness I felt.
The promise of my miniature world in the station wall sustained me through our next meeting. What it needed now was animals and birds, and perhaps some more people, as I wasn’t sure the stormtrooper would be able to multiply his kind alone. My son had noticed the loss of the lego figure so I’d looked in a box of toys we’d tidied away to the attic and found some figures from a farm set: two sheep, ducks, and the farmer’s family. They were like amulets, carried in my bag; they took the edge off Nina’s presence. That made me a little more able to do my job, or at least more content with running through my usual strategies. It takes time, I told myself; it’s a slow teasing out, piecing things together, hearing what she’s ready to tell; and you have to protect yourself too. You can’t be a sponge soaking up all the sadness they carry. So I tried to get her to talk about her family. She had no brothers or sisters. She didn’t remember her father. Her stepfather gave her lifts. Her mam was her mam. But useless, like her. She was useless. At the end of the day I rushed to the station and fed my plastic figures through the crack in the wall, as though they were coins going into a slot-machine for hope.
I decided in the end, a few more painful sessions later, that I needed to pass on the case to someone else. I wasn’t quite sure why Nina kept coming each week to pick at her nails and refuse to be helped, but maybe she’d open up more to one of my colleagues. Somehow, however, I didn’t get around to talking to anyone about it and the first person I mentioned it to was Nina herself.
“I wonder if you feel that these counselling sessions are benefitting you. What do you think we have managed to do?”
“Um. Talked about stuff. Talked about work.”
“We’ve discussed your college course. But, well, I’m going to be honest here – I don’t think I’m managing to find the right line for you. I feel whatever questions I’m asking, you don’t want to answer them, or you don’t find them helpful, and I’m thinking it might be better if you saw one of my colleagues instead.”
“Which of your colleagues?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t asked anyone yet. I’m raising it first with you because I want to know if you feel our meetings are doing any good.”
For the first time she looked right at my face.
“I like you. I like you because you know absolutely nothing about me.”
The next day for once my husband was around to do the school run and I left the house early. At the station I crossed over to the northbound, homebound platform and found my crack in the wall. My little land was blooming. The fields were golden with wheat and silken with barley; fish swam in the river; a small village had been built in the middle distance; there were sheep on the hills. From time to time horses and carts or foot-travellers passed up and down the road. A flag flew from the mast at the top of the castle, but the walls had been pierced with large, ornate windows and the tower was now more a fine house than a fortress. No-one feared war in this country. It was finished; I couldn’t think of anything more to do to it.
From the station I walked towards the college. At this time the traffic flowed faster and not all the parking spaces were taken; delivery vans were unloading at the shops and cars were going into the side entrance of the college. I saw a large black BMW pull up near the college gate without going in. Inside there were two figures who seemed to be arguing – no, scuffling even. The driver, a man, was holding something up, and the smaller, female figure was trying to get it off him, scrabbling across the seat at him as he held her off with one arm. As I drew nearer she managed to grab it and at that moment I realised with a shock what the object was – it was a pair of knickers. I couldn’t let her see me seeing this – I turned sharply into the college entrance and quickened my pace, looking firmly ahead. But I had also, at that last moment, recognised the female figure. I had recognised Nina, being dropped off by her stepfather.
I found her half an hour later. She was sitting on a bench in the damp, smoking. I didn’t say anything, but she followed me and I led her back to the station, through the barrier – a quick dodge with my Leap card to get us both through – up to the platform, along to the alcove. I showed her the crack. She peeled in two. A bright figure of a girl slipped out of her, through the crack, into the glowing landscape under its blue and windy sky. She gazed around her, she stretched upright, she took her shoes off to walk barefoot on the grass. And the crack closed behind her, as I knew it would. The Nina who was left behind boarded the next train, taking my Leap card with her. I don’t know what became of her. I never saw her again.