It was one of those days which are only too typical of an English summer; a week of hot sun – including, unusually, the weekend – had transitioned seamlessly into pouring rain, driving wind and dank chill. I sat in the park café with my coffee, biscuits and book, and watched the hardy people – mostly parents desperate to get their kids out of the house for an hour or so – queueing for snacks. One couple caught my eye – I don't know why. She was tallish, about five foot nine, he, an inch or so taller. He carried himself with confidence ... I thought it was arrogance, actually ... said something to her and looked around for somewhere to sit before heading for my table, carrying their umbrella.
"Anyone sitting here?" he asked abruptly.
"Help yourself," I said, "I'll be leaving in a bit, I expect."
He sat with no further comment and I surreptitiously watched his companion. Someone unkind might describe her as 'pear-shaped', her derrière being, well, noticeably larger than her upper body. Personally, I prefer to say 'womanly'. The other feature which caught my attention was her hair. Wavy, a glossy dark brown with lighter strands that made me think 'walnut', it cascaded down to her shoulder-blades. I finished my snack and stood. "You're lucky to have such an attractive companion," I said.
He didn't answer, but his expression made me wonder if I'd suddenly acquired a second head and his lip curled slightly. Anyway, I didn't wait for a response and left the café as the young woman was approaching the table.
In view of the weather, there didn't seem much point in walking up the valley. Instead I left the park and caught a bus into town and spent an hour in the art gallery before getting myself a light lunch in the attached café.
I didn't see either of them again for several weeks. Indeed, I'd almost forgotten them. I'm fortunate that my business as a psychotherapist is popular and profitable. I am even more fortunate that I don't need much money to live as I want. Even better, I enjoy what I do as I think there is nothing better or more rewarding than helping other people find some degree of happiness when that has previously been absent from their lives. But all these together mean I can take an hour – or even a day – or so off, or offer help to a particularly needy person, without having to worry about how to pay the bills. It's a good place to be. Anyway, there I was, walking in town towards my favourite coffee-shop (it being too early for me to indulge in a glass of beer or whisky) when I saw him.
He was dressed in a wife-beater top and fitted jeans. While not muscle-bound, the definition of his physique was very apparent. Purely on a physical appearance scale, I suppose he was a fine example of masculinity. His strutting, arrogant posture rather put me off, though (even had I been interested in another man; my interests lay entirely in the other gender) and his arm was around just the sort of young woman I'd expect to see him with. She was a few inches shorter than him, even in the heeled sandals she was wearing, impossibly slim, with long, tapered legs, the only part of her out of proportion was her chest. Large boobs were contained by a shirt, tied under them, displaying a flat tummy. Shorts covered ... just about ... her nether assets and her perfect face gazed adoringly up at him. They were the cliché.
I looked at my watch. Perhaps eleven o'clock wasn't much too early for a glass.
It was several weeks after that I saw her again. As before, it was in the park café; as before, it was raining. Instead of the umbrella, she wore a cagoule and swept the hood back as she entered. That hair...
I watched as she ordered and appeared to have a conversation with the manager, a very pleasant young man who took a full part in the excellent service. He looked in my direction and her eyes followed his. They were looking at me?
She collected a mug of coffee and made her way across the room. Now, usually of a wet day, the café would be full, but unusually there were several empty tables. Despite this, she came straight to me. "D'you mind if I sit here?"
On auto-pilot my mouth functioned without my conscious decision. Ingrained politeness, perhaps. "Not at all – please do."
I watched as she placed her mug on the table, pulled out the chair, and sat. Her face – round, with a peach-like complexion – was flushed with the chill of a windy, wet, summer's day. Warm, brown eyes looked consideringly back at me, and full lips quirked a smile.
"Jack says you're a counsellor ... a psychotherapist."
"Indeed – I am."
"And he says you're very good ... very helpful."
I'd seen Jack a few times when he was considering giving up a career in teaching for his present position. "That's very kind of him. Unsolicited testimonials are always welcome."
"Can you tell me how much you charge?"
"Officially ... sixty pounds a session."
Her face fell. "I'm a student ... I just don't have that sort of money."
I looked at her and came to a decision. "I sometimes make an exception. The reason for the charge ... well, two reasons. Firstly, many people don't value and take seriously something they don't pay for, and how seriously they take it depends on how much they pay. But secondly, the fee establishes a ... professional ... relationship, which protects both sides. In my opinion. I rarely take on a female client because of the risk of dependence, but if you want to try, I will offer you a trial session and you can see if it would be worth, say, five pounds an hour to you..."
She brightened immediately. "Would you?"
"Certainly." I handed her a card. "Give me a call this evening, and we'll arrange a mutually satisfactory appointment."
"May I ... may I stay and chat to you now? I mean, not seriously, just chat?"
My professional mind was screaming 'inappropriate!' Another part, however, was not.
I learned that she was twenty-nine, in an undergrad course heading, probably, for teaching, and her name was Aramina.
"My parents were very keen on Anne McCaffrey," and at my blank expression, added, "she writes science-fiction. Aramina was a character in one of her books. I nearly ended up as 'Lessa'."
"I could see how that might be less than optimal."
"Perhaps. But what about you?"
"Thirty-three. Masters in psychology; didn't stay for the doctorate ... did counselling courses instead. Qualified in several styles, mainly use Rogerian."
"Non-directive. The best counselling ... in my opinion ... doesn't instruct, just frees and leads the client to make their own decisions."
That was as much as I said about my profession. She did get me to admit I had no attachments; again, I was unsure about the whole thing. I thought, though, we parted comfortably.
Our first session a few days later was so routine it was as though we'd never met before. When the hour was nearly up I said, "Well, we need to finish in a minute or so. Take your time and think about how you feel. If you want to continue, you don't have to answer immediately, but you do have to commit to a regular time for a few weeks."
"Oh, I do. This is a good time for me if it suits you. I ... well, I know I've got a long way to go, but I really do feel a lot clearer in my mind."
"Good. Between now and next week, though, I want you to do a little research. Look up Astarte and follow the related links."
One of the most common 'issues' presented by young women – and some young men – concern body image. I am constantly saddened and angered by the attitudes of society generally, the media, and more particularly young men, projecting a quite unreal image of feminine beauty. My assignment to Aramina was on the basis of my suspicion that this was part of her problem. Had I been wrong, she might have been puzzled, or angry that I suggested she resembled the ancient images of the goddess. (She did. Objectively, her wide hips, an exaggerated feature of many figurines, definitely called to mind the fertility goddess.) As it was, it provoked a useful discussion.
Gradually, she was able to accept herself as she was. I don't think I had much to do with her conclusion that she needed look for someone who shared her values and interests; that's what I hope for ... to be a place where a person can explore their options, free from the constraints of their family, and the expectations of society. As she left, she gave me a kiss on the cheek.
While it is true that the aim is for one's client to become independent, to reach for their potential ... and it is also true that there are always new clients waiting in the wings ... it is also true that one spends weeks forming a relationship, getting to know someone at a quite emotionally intimate level. Parting is, therefore, a bitter-sweet thing.
In Aramina's case I battled throughout with quite unprofessional feelings for her. I hope and believe I did so effectively, that I was able to do my job without bias and without revealing what I was feeling. It was not the first time I had worked with a client I found attractive, but never before had I had such ... intense ... emotional involvement. So it was with a degree of relief as well as regret that I bade her farewell.
"So what happened with Aramina?" Jack quirked an eyebrow at me as he poured my coffee.
I shrugged, nonchalantly. At least, I hope it was nonchalantly. "She was a client ... she graduated. She's moved on."
"Hm." He didn't say anything else, and I took my mug to a table and picked a paper out of the rack by the door. I skimmed through, read the comics, gave the Page 3 girl a second, longer glance ... but her tits were too large for my taste and drooped. She'd never pass the pencil test.
I swallowed the last of my coffee just as she walked in and went up to the counter. Something twisted in my chest and I stood; leaving the paper and the mug on the table, I walked away. She was a client. Just a client. Don't look back.
I strode up the valley. The sound of the water tumbling over the weirs, the wind in the trees, the autumn colours, the birds singing their territorial challenges ahead of the coming chill ... none of it mattered. Normally, I'd stroll along, absorbing every sensual impression, pausing to try to identify the tiny flitting shapes of birds. That day, not even the iridescent flash of blue of a kingfisher held my attention.
I had to pause as I climbed the path at the head of the valley, my heart pounding in my chest, my breath catching in my throat as I panted. Then, a little later, I was walking past the alpaca farm to Ringinglow and the Norfolk Arms.
Food. Meat and tater pie, mushy peas and gravy. A pint of Newcastle Brown Ale. Headache.
I was able, at last, to slow down, to savour the pie. It was good. The beer slipped down my throat smoothly and the headache faded. Halfway through my meal I closed my eyes and just absorbed the taste and smell. I was fine. It would be fine. I'd forget her, get on with my life. I'd lived this long without a woman ... it was better this way...
"Tim ... may I join you?" The sweet contralto soaked into my consciousness, rather than penetrating.
I opened my eyes and looked up. Our eyes met and I couldn't, for a moment, think what to say. She looked worried and her lips trembled; I couldn't resist.
"Aramina! Sure ... please do."
You know those awkward times, when neither person knows what to say? Long, uncomfortable silences broken with stilted comments, questions and answers.
Her food arrived, with a glass of cider and I watched as she ate.
I took a deep breath. Physician, heal thyself...
"You are beautiful," I said, steadily, "I particularly love your hair, like polished walnut..."
She stopped, her fork halfway to her open mouth. "You never said anything."
"You were a client..."
"I'm not any more."
"For the first time in my life, it matters to me what a woman thinks of me"
She coloured, and went back to eating her meal. After a few mouthfuls, "I liked you the first time we met. Then, when you listened, helped me think without pushing me in any particular direction. Like ... I don't know ... my father, perhaps."
"Transference," I sighed.
"I read about that. I don't think so. I never had any sexual attraction for my father. At least, not that I was aware of. I just meant ... that I could trust you the way I trusted my father to do the best thing for me. Despite any feelings you might have for me."
I thought about counter-transference and thought of the attraction I had felt – and fought – through each and every session. Maybe she didn't know the theory, but she saw the effect in my expression.
"I think..." she continued, "that you were attracted to me, too, from the beginning. It was hard to believe at first. Until you gave me that assignment. Am I ... am I ... Astarte to you?"
My blush was probably sufficient confession, but I said it anyway. "Yes ... well, sort of. You're shaped ... you're a classic beauty, Aramina. It's only our society that has distorted our expectations of feminine beauty. I saw you and thought of the murals, the wall paintings and figurines of the ancient world. But you are yourself; not a fantasy. It's been obvious to me that you're intelligent, interested in the world around you..."