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Short Story: The Counsellor

Short Story: The Counsellor

Short Story: The Counsellor

Sitting in the industrial green room with its collection of tattered armchairs and lost souls, can John offer help to those who need it most – or is he too late to save them from themselves?

I’m ‘Mr Two Beers’, counsellor.”

John studied the man seated on the armchair opposite him. The physical signs of alcohol abuse were obvious. He glanced along the semi-circle at the four other clients – two men and two women – who were seated on similar armchairs. Tattered, stained, misshapen armchairs.

The Justice Department budget did not extend to buying new chairs for its counselling and treatment centre, he thought bitterly.

He locked eyes with Laura, a Justice Department psychologist and his colleague, who was seated next to him. She inclined her head slightly and he reverted his attention to ‘Mr Two Beers’.

“You are an alcoholic Lionel. That’s more than two beers.”

“Who says?”

“The judge says. This is your fifth DUI conviction. You were four times over the legal limit. He cut you a break in making the strict condition of your bail that you attend our sessions. You are in the right place. You need to accept that you have an alcohol problem – focus on eliminating it and get your life back. We will absolutely help you to achieve this.”

Lionel’s chin rose, his face an angry scowl. Turning suddenly, he pointed to Susan, sitting three seats away.

“She’s the alcoholic. She has chardonnay on Corn Flakes.”

All eyes turned to Susan and John felt worried. At 19, she was the youngest of the group. Her drug- and alcohol-abused body looked emaciated. The black crimped tank top and short black skirt accentuated the skeletal arms and legs.

Rock star insignia tattoos adorned her shoulders – and along with the tufted dyed yellow hair, highlighted with pink streaks, acted as a loudspeaker to the world that this was one ride-or-die chick.

A slow red flush was rising up Susan’s ghostly white cheeks as she flung an angry glance at Lionel. “I have chardonnay on Corn Flakes. So what?”

Lionel and Susan had started a relationship after meeting at the first session five weeks ago, but things had now cooled off. Finished, in fact, by Susan. This was Lionel’s payback.

John locked eyes with Laura and this time he inclined his head. Laura had the expertise in dealing with ‘Miss So What’.

Laura spoke gently. “It’s not good for you Susan. Don’t you have milk?”

“I prefer chardonnay. Okay?”

“This is your third conviction for possession but the judge has been lenient with you, referring you to us as one of your bail conditions. He recognised that you needed help to ease off your addictions and restore your health. But you have to meet us halfway.”

Susan rolled her eyes, her face a sulky pout. Laura glanced down at her notes in an open folder on her lap. “I note that you moved to Auckland recently from the rural town of Huntly, your home town. Your former probation officer there states that he arranged for you to attend Alcoholics Anonymous but that you didn’t turn up.”

“Who can be bloody anonymous in bloody Huntly!”

Laughter resounded around the group and John smiled, but noted that Laura did not. This job was getting to her – he had sensed this lately. A new worry for him. Laura carried on, a slight tremor in her voice now. John’s concern increased. “Our nutrition workshop must have been helpful to you. The tutor told me she gave you a copy of our free, easy, healthy recipe book. Have you tried any of the recipes yet?”

“I don’t bloody cook. Okay?”

“Please try, Susan. You may find you actually enjoy cooking your own meals. You could just start off easy and simple. A can of baked beans emptied into a saucepan, heated and poured over toast is a healthy meal in itself.”

“Baked beans give me gas.”

“Port gives me gas but I still drink it.”

Laughter resounded again off the industrial green walls, increasing to a roar as all eyes turned to Tilly, the octogenarian of the group and the teller of her port expulsions.

John studied Tilly, pity flooding his heart that a person of such a late age could continue to destroy their looks, their body, even their very soul. Her alcohol-abused body was as emaciated as Susan’s. Her thinning white hair hung in an unkempt mess over the collar of the long black fur coat that she wore to all sessions. It stank of booze, piss and cheap perfume. Her powder-caked crater cheeks, black eye make-up and bright red lipstick that smudged upwards at the corners gave her the look of the smiling painted clown. Her rap sheet for theft and drunk and disorderly behaviour stretched back years. She had ostracised herself from her neighbours with her late-night foul-mouthed drunken ramblings around their street. Her local police were tired of her. John intervened.

“Now Tilly, I received a phone call from your probation officer this morning advising that yesterday afternoon you were caught on your next-door neighbour’s property attempting to steal her mail – ignoring the trespass order against this very property issued to you by the police only two weeks ago after your neighbour caught you red-handed stealing her mail. Yesterday was a repeat offence. Please explain!”

“I wasn’t trying to steal her bloody mail.”

“Then what was your hand doing in her letterbox? You knew your neighbour was absent from the property at work for the day. Other neighbours heard your screams and came running to find your hand trapped in her letterbox. When they eased it out, they found your hand stuck in a mousetrap.”

“That bloody bitch put that mousetrap in there to deliberately cause grievous harm to my person. Nearly broke me bloody fingers she did. The cops had to drive me to the emergency department at Auckland Hospital. I told them I wanted that bitch arrested and charged with grievous bodily harm but they refused. One smart alec cop told me I was lucky they didn’t cuff me and haul my arse into a cell. Those were his exact words. What way is that to speak to an old woman? It’s bloody disrespect’n.”

“Perhaps the police feel that they owe you no respect because of the disrespect you show to them. According to the police report, you abused them with screeching obscenities all the way to the hospital and then continued that abuse to the hospital reception and medical staff who were just helping you.”

Tilly suddenly threw herself out of her chair, her face outraged. She pulled her right hand out of her stinking fur pocket and flung it high into the air for all to see. It was heavily encased in a gauze bandage.

“Look what she done to me bloody hand!” At that exact moment something metal slipped from within the bandage and clattered to the floor. Laura was quick – launching herself from her chair, she pounced on the object a split second ahead of Tilly and held it high, her cheeks an angry red. “One of our tea trolley teaspoons. They have been going missing each week. We had 25 when our sessions started. I counted them this morning before you arrived, only five left.

Laura’s eyes were bulging with rage, her voice shaking as she held it in front of Tilly’s face. “Do I have to put a mousetrap in our teaspoon bowl? You steal from the hand that feeds you.”

As Tilly retreated to her seat muttering obscenities, Laura flounced over to the tea trolley, pulled off the crisp white cover and slammed the teaspoon into the teaspoon bowl to join the remaining four. John watched her as she neatly replaced the cover, taking extra care to cover the plate of biscuits and the neatly sliced banana cake that she herself had baked the night before. The tea trolley was a source of pride to Laura – an obsession, John felt – plus the home baking she provided daily.

“Our clients could do with a special treat,” she had answered John when he’d told her that the biscuits the Justice Department provided were sufficient. John turned back to the group. He glanced over at the remaining two clients. Lawrence, the silver-haired, now-debarred lawyer, convicted of fraud and embezzlement; and Manu, the Māori ex-bouncer of an inner-city club, who had beaten a patron to within an inch of his life after the patron had insulted him with a racial slur.

John’s heart softened on looking at Manu, the one success story of this group so far. He had met them halfway and turned his life around. Manu smiled at John, his big round face lighting up like warm butter. John’s heart melted. The Manus of this world made the job worthwhile. He stood up.

“Morning tea break everyone, resuming again in 20 minutes.”

That night, he slept fitfully, not helped by the atrocious weather – heavy rain and ferocious winds pelting his bedroom window. Images of his clients haunted him. Susan’s emaciated body; Tilly’s painted clown face cackling at him; Lawrence’s expensive suit and shoes, his new Mercedes parked outside the Justice Department doors – a sort of Mercedes ‘up yours’, his smug, scam smile, Manu’s warm-as-butter smile; Lionel driving drunk, he’ll kill someone, he’s got to stop him, stop! He sat up ramrod-straight in his bed, a cold sweat breaking out all over his body, his head splitting. He got up, took two painkillers and made himself a cup of tea.

Entering his work premises the next morning, Laura appeared from her office, flinging herself into his arms, sobbing. He tightened his embrace as between tortured sobs she told him of Tilly’s death during the night. He listened quietly as she gave the details, his eyes over Laura’s shoulder resting on the tattered green velvet chair Tilly always sat on, the chair others knew to leave free for her or face a tirade of abuse.

Last night during the storm, Tilly had been upsetting her neighbours again, swaying drunkenly around the street in her dripping wet fur coat, yelling obscenities, an open beer bottle in one hand, a heavy rock in the other. Attempting to throw the rock at her next-door neighbour’s house, she slipped, falling forward onto the beer bottle, which had broken in two on the path underneath her, a pointed jagged piece slicing through her carotid artery, larynx and jugular. She bled to death before police and ambulance arrived.

John continued to stare at Tilly’s chair, his face grim. An icy hand clutched his heart. She lived by the bottle, she died by the bottle. He would attend her funeral, oh yes he would. A professional courtesy, always a given – he had attended many of his clients’ funerals over the years. For some he had cried buckets, for others he could not shed a tear.

He would shed no tear for this one, oh no he wouldn’t, a personal given. There would be no tears for Tilly.

About our MiNDFOOD Short Story author: Diana Short

Diana, 69, lives with her adult son Kane in Northcote, Auckland. Her passion since childhood has been reading novels (particularly crime thrillers) and writing short stories. Diana’s past career involved working as a clerk in the criminal justice system, the probation service, Magistrates Court and Auckland Central Police Station. This gave her a fascination with true crime and justice, and was the natural choice as the theme for her story. Her success with The Counsellor has inspired her to keep writing and submitting her works for publication.

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