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The Hypnotist’s Love Story, Page 2

Liane Moriarty

  She opened her eyes, refreshed and reinvigorated. She looked around. Nobody was staring at her. Of course, she knew that she hadn't really levitated above her chair while glowing like a lightbulb, but sometimes the feelings were so astoundingly real she couldn't believe they hadn't physically manifested in some way.

  Self-hypnosis was such a wonderful tool. She could always tell when a student or client actually got it. They were awestruck by what their minds could achieve. The first time that levitating sensation happened to her it was like she'd discovered she could fly. She could wipe out the drug problem if she could just teach teenagers self-hypnosis.

  Patrick still wasn't back. She looked at the meal in front of her. No point letting it go to waste. A waiter gliding by stopped and refilled her wineglass. Good wine, good fish. Pity she didn't have a book.

  She thought about her day.

  Right up until the moment that Patrick put down his knife and fork, it had been perfect. Exquisite, even.

  She'd slept deeply and dreamlessly to the rhythm of the rain on the roof and woke late to sunshine on her face. The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the branch she'd hung from the ceiling as a reminder of the Buddhist sutra of mindfulness. She'd then inhaled and exhaled three gentle breaths while maintaining the "half smile."

  (Although she wished she'd never mentioned this practice to her friend Julia, who had asked Ellen to demonstrate her half smile. When Ellen finally complied, after much cajoling, Julia had rocked with laughter for ten minutes straight.)

  When she got out of bed, the windowpanes were icy against her fingertips, but the new gas heating system her grandparents had installed (thanks to Great-aunt Mary's lucky lotto ticket!) before they'd died had transformed the house into a cozy cocoon. She ate porridge with brown sugar for breakfast while she listened to the ABC news, which was upbeat and wry. The recent flu pandemic was probably not a pandemic after all. (Her mother, who was a GP, had said all along that this would be the case.) A missing toddler had turned up safe and sound. The latest gangland killing was probably just a family feud. The latest political scandal had fizzled. Traffic was moving well. Winds would be southwesterly and light. For once the world seemed extremely manageable.

  After breakfast, she'd rugged up warmly to walk along the beach and come back exhilarated and windblown, licking salt from her lips.

  She'd had four appointments that day. She had her last session with a man who had wanted help overcoming his flying phobia so he could take his wife to France for their ruby wedding anniversary. As he left, he shook her hand vigorously and promised to send Ellen a postcard from Paris. She'd also met two new clients. She always enjoyed meeting new clients. One was a woman who had suffered from some sort of debilitating unexplained pain in her leg for the last four years and been to countless doctors, physiotherapists and chiropractors, who were all baffled. The other was a woman who had promised her fiance that she would give up smoking by their wedding day. Both sessions had gone well.

  Her final appointment was with a client who was probably not going to be one of her success stories. She was having trouble pinning down what Mary-Kate really wanted to achieve from hypnotherapy, but she refused to be referred to anyone else and insisted that she wanted to continue treatment. Ellen had decided not to try anything too complicated today and just given her a simple relaxation session. She called it a "soul massage." Afterward, Mary-Kate said her soul felt exactly the same, thank you, but that was Mary-Kate.

  After Mary-Kate had plodded off, Ellen cleaned the house, carefully leaving a few things lying about so it didn't look like she had cleaned up but was just naturally tidy. She had considered taking down some of the Buddhist quotations she had displayed all around her house on pale purple Post-it notes. Her ex-boyfriend Jon used to make such fun of them--standing at her fridge, reading them out in a stupid voice. But hiding her true self wasn't the way to start a potential new relationship, was it?

  She also remade the bed with her crispest, nicest sheets. It was probably time to sleep with him. Oh, yes, it was a bit clinical, but that's how it was when you were dating in your thirties. It wasn't hearts and flowers anymore. They weren't sixteen. They weren't religious. They had met on the Internet: a dating website. So it was all very clear and upfront. They were both looking for a long-term relationship. They had ticked corresponding boxes to indicate this.

  There had been some kissing (quite lovely), and now it was time for sex. She'd been celibate for almost a year, and Ellen liked sex. It surprised some men, who seemed to develop an ethereal, sweetly innocent image of her in the beginning, which she didn't mind; she even played up to it a bit. It just wasn't quite accurate.

  (She also liked horror movies, and coffee, and steak cooked medium-rare. A lot of people were convinced she was vegetarian, that, in fact, she should be an herbal-tea drinking vegetarian, even going so far as to prepare special meals for her at dinner parties and then insisting that they "clearly remembered" her saying she didn't eat meat.)

  She had taken her time getting ready for tonight: a long steamy bath with a glass of wine and a Violent Femmes CD. The violent chords and strident voices were so startlingly different from the chiming, bubbling relaxation tapes she played all day that it was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over her head. The Violent Femmes reminded her of the eighties, and being a teenager, and feeling supercharged with hormones and hope. By the time Patrick had knocked on her front door she was in such a deliriously good mood, the thought had actually flitted across her mind, You must be heading for a fall.

  She had dismissed that idea. And now ... There's something I need to tell you.

  She laid down her fork. Where was that man? She could see one of the waiters giving her a circumspect look, obviously trying to work out if he should offer some form of assistance.

  She looked at Patrick's half-eaten meal. He'd ordered the pork belly. A poor choice, she'd thought, but she hadn't known him long enough to tease him about it. Pork belly! It sounded disgusting, and now it looked like a big slab of cold, congealing fat.

  If he was the sort of man who ordered that sort of artery-clogging meal all the time, perhaps he'd dropped dead of a heart attack in the toilets? Should she send in that concerned-looking waiter to find out? But what if the pork belly had just disagreed with him? He'd be mortified. Well, she'd be mortified in similar circumstances. Maybe a man wouldn't care.

  She was really too old for all this dating angst. She should be at home baking cakes, or whatever it was that parents of primary-school-age children did with their nights.

  She looked up again and there he was, walking back toward her. He looked shaken, as if he'd just been in a minor car crash, but he also had a "The game is up" expression, as if he'd been caught robbing a bank and was walking out with his hands in the air.

  He sat down opposite her and put the napkin back on his lap. He picked up his knife and fork, looked at the pork belly, sighed and placed them down again.

  "You probably think I'm some sort of lunatic," he said.

  "Well, I'm quite curious!" said Ellen in a jolly, middle-aged lady tone.

  "I was hoping not to have to tell you about this until we'd ... but then I realized that I was going to have to tell you tonight."

  "Just take your time." Now she was speaking in the calm, slightly singsong voice she used with clients. "I'm sure I'll be fine--whatever it is."

  "It's nothing that bad!" said Patrick hastily. "It's more embarrassing than anything else. It's just that, OK, I'll just come out and say it."

  He paused and grinned foolishly.

  "I have a stalker."

  For a moment Ellen couldn't quite understand what he meant. It was as if English had become her second language and she had to translate the words.

  I have a stalker.

  Finally she said, "Somebody is stalking you?"

  "She's been stalking me for the past three years. My ex-girlfriend. Sometimes she disappears for a while, but then she comes back
with a vengeance."

  Glorious relief was washing through Ellen. Now that she wasn't being dumped it was suddenly clear to her how much she actually liked him, how much she was hoping this would work, how she had actually allowed the words "I could fall in love with him" to cross her mind as she was putting on her mascara. The reason she'd been so deliriously happy today had not been because of the weather or the porridge or the new heating or the news. It was because of him.

  A stalking ex-girlfriend was fine!

  It was interesting.

  Although, then again, stalking ...

  She saw notes written in letters cut out from magazines and newspapers. Messages written in blood on walls. Crazy fans sitting outside celebrities' houses. Violent ex-husbands shooting their wives.

  But who stalked a surveyor? (Even if he did have an especially lovely jawline?)

  "So when you say stalking, what does she actually do? Is she violent?"

  "No." Patrick looked as if he was being forced to answer a series of highly personal medical questions. "Never physically violent. Occasionally she yells. Gets a bit abusive. She makes phone calls in the middle of the night, sends me letters, e-mails, text messages, but mostly she's just there. Wherever I go, she's there."

  "You mean she follows you?"

  "Yes. Everywhere."

  "So, goodness, this must be horrible for you!" There was that middle-aged lady again. "Have you been to the police?"

  He winced, as if at an uncomfortable memory. "Yes. Once. I spoke to a female police officer. I don't know if she--look, she said all the right things, I just felt like an idiot, like a wuss. She suggested I keep a 'Stalking Incident Log' recording everything, and I've done that. She said I could take out a restraining order against her, so I was thinking about doing that, but then, when I told my ex that I'd been to the police, she said if I took it any further, she would tell them I'd been harassing her, that I'd hit her--well, you know, I'm the guy, who are they going to believe? Her, of course. So I backed right off. I just keep hoping she'll stop. And the years keep rolling by. I can't believe it's been going on so long."

  "It must be..." Ellen was going to say "frightening," but that might offend him; it was her belief that the male ego was as delicate as an eggshell. She said instead, "Stressful." She couldn't quite keep the undercurrent of joy out of her voice.

  "In the beginning I really let it get to me," he said. "But now I've sort of accepted it. It's just how my life has worked out, but it's hard on new relationships. Some women get freaked out by the whole thing. Some of them say they're fine with it at first, but then they can't handle it."

  "I can handle it," said Ellen, quickly, as if she was at a job interview and she was proving she was up to the challenge. Hearing about ex-girlfriends' weaknesses always brought out a competitive urge to prove she was better.

  Flustered, she took a mouthful of her wine. She'd just put her cards on the table. She had basically just said: I want a relationship with you.

  She pretended to be frowning down at her wineglass, as if she was about to make some disparaging comment on the quality of the wine, and when she finally looked up, Patrick was smiling at her. A big crinkle-eyed smile of pure pleasure. He reached out across the table and took her hand in his.

  "I hope you can," he said. "Because I feel really good about this. I mean, about us. The possibility of us."

  "The possibility of us," repeated Ellen, savoring the words and the feel of his hand. It was all such rubbish about getting clinical and jaded when you were in your thirties. The feel of his hand was shooting endorphins throughout her bloodstream. She knew all about the science of love, how her brain was currently surging with "love chemicals" (norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine), but that didn't mean she wasn't as susceptible as anyone else.

  So now all their cards were on the table.

  "What made you tell me tonight?" asked Ellen. His thumb was tracing circles in her palm. Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear. "About your stalker?"

  His thumb stopped.

  "I saw her," he said.

  "You saw her!" Ellen's eyes darted about the restaurant. "You mean, here?"

  "She was sitting at a table under the window." He gestured with his chin over Ellen's shoulder. She went to turn around to look but Patrick said, "Don't worry. She's gone now."

  "What was she doing? Just ... watching us?"

  Ellen was aware of her heart rate picking up. She wasn't sure how she felt: frightened, possibly a little thrilled.

  "She was texting on her mobile," said Patrick wearily.

  "Texting you?"

  "Probably. I've got my phone switched off."

  "Do you want to see what she said?" Ellen wanted to see what she said.

  "Not particularly," said Patrick. "Not at all, actually."

  "When did she leave?" If only Ellen had known earlier, she could have seen her.

  "When I stood up to go to the bathroom, she followed me. We had a little chat in the corridor. That's why I took so long. She said she was just leaving, and she did, thank God."

  So she must have walked right past Ellen! Ellen searched her mind for a memory of a woman walking by but came up blank. It was probably when she was doing her self-hypnosis, damn it.

  "What did she say?"

  "She always puts on this pathetic act, as if we just happened to run into each other. You'd think she'd look like a crazy bag lady, with, you know, crazy hair, but she looks so normal, so together. It makes me doubt myself, as if I'm imagining the whole thing. She's a successful career woman. Well respected. Can you believe it? I always wonder what her colleagues would think if they knew what she does in her spare time. Anyway ... shall we talk about something more pleasant? How was your fish?"

  Are you kidding? There was no other subject Ellen wanted to talk about more. She wanted to know every detail. She wanted to understand what was going through this woman's head. She normally understood a woman's perspective in any given situation. She was a girl's girl. She liked women; it was men who often mystified her. But stalking your ex-boyfriend for three years? Was she a psychopath? Had he treated her badly? Was she still in love with him? How did she justify her own behavior to herself?

  "The fish was great," said Ellen. She tried to suppress her greed for more information. It was a bit unseemly when this was obviously such a distressing part of this man's life. She knew it was one of her flaws: a ravenous curiosity about other people's personal lives.

  "Who is looking after your son tonight?" she asked, to help him change the subject.

  "My mother," said Patrick. His face softened. "Jack adores his grandma."

  Then he blinked, looked at his watch, and said, "Actually, I promised I'd call him to say good night. He wasn't feeling that well when I left. Would you mind?" He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket.

  "Of course not."

  "I don't normally call him when I'm out," he said, as he turned the phone on. "I mean, he's a pretty independent kid now. He does his own thing."

  "It's fine."

  "It's just that he's had this really bad cold and then it turned into a chest infection. He's on antibiotics."

  "It's perfectly fine." She wanted to hear him talking to his little boy.

  His phone was beeping, over and over.

  Patrick grimaced. "Text messages."

  "From your, ah, your stalker?" Ellen tried not to look too avidly at the beeping phone.

  He studied the screen on his phone. "Yes. Mostly I just delete them without even bothering to read them."

  "Right." She couldn't help herself. "Because they're nasty?"

  "Sometimes. Mostly they're just pathetic." She watched his face as he read the messages, pressing buttons with his thumb. He smiled ironically, as if he was engaged in nasty banter with an enemy. He rolled his eyes. He chewed on the edge of his lip.

  "Want to read them?" He held out the phone to her.

  "Sure," said Ellen casually. She leaned forward and read as he scrolled thr
ough the messages for her.

  Fancy seeing you here! I'm at a table under the window.

  You look good in that shirt.

  You ordered the pork belly? What were you thinking?

  She's pretty. You two look good together. S xx

  Ellen recoiled.

  "Sorry," said Patrick. "I shouldn't have shown you that one. I promise you, you're not in any, you know, danger."

  "No, no, it's fine." She nodded at the phone. "Keep going."

  Nice running into you tonight. We should do coffee one day soon?

  I love you. I hate you. I love you. I hate you. No, I definitely hate you.

  Ellen sat back.

  "What's your professional opinion?" asked Patrick. "Certifiably crazy, right? Remember, this relationship ended three years ago."

  "How long did you go out for?"

  "Two years. Well, three years. She was my first relationship after my wife died."

  She wanted to ask how it ended but instead she said, "Why don't you just change your phone number?"

  "I used to change it all the time, but it's not worth it. I'm self-employed. I need people to be able to track me down. Hey, I'd better call my son. I'll be quick."

  Ellen watched him as he dialed a number and held the phone to his ear.

  "It's me, mate. How are you going? ... What did I have? Oh, pork belly."

  He glanced down ruefully at his plate. "Yeah, it wasn't that great. Anyway, how are you feeling? You're OK? You took your antibiotics? What's Grandma doing? Oh really? That's good. Yeah. OK. Well, maybe if you just tell me quickly."

  He stopped talking and listened. His eyes met Ellen's and he winked briefly.

  "Is that right? OK, well--right. A volcano? Parachuting? Geez."

  He kept listening, tapping his fingers on the tablecloth.

  Ellen watched his hand. It was a lovely hand. Big square-cut fingernails.

  "OK, mate. Listen, you might have to tell me the rest tomorrow. I'm being really rude to my ... friend. OK. See you in the morning. Waffles, of course. Yep, definitely. Night, kid. Love you."

  He hung up the phone, switched it off and put it back in his pocket.

  "Sorry," he said. "He wanted to tell me every detail of this movie he'd seen. Gets that from me, I'm afraid."

  "Really," said Ellen.

  She was feeling a shot of intense pleasure at the back of her skull. She loved the way he talked to his son, so casual and funny and masculine and loving. She loved the fact that they were going to have waffles tomorrow morning. (She loved waffles!) She loved the way he said "Love you" so unself-consciously.