‘Sometimes the appropriate response to reality is to go insane.’
—Philip K. Dick—
Jennifer lay semi-upright in the velvety reclining chair, trying hard not to disappoint her hypnotherapist, Doctor Stuart Ryder. ‘Now, Jennifer, I want you to take two deep breaths with me,’ he said in a soothing voice. ‘In, slowly… hold… hold… and exhale. That’s great. Now again…’ He was sitting next to her on a swivel button stool on wheels.
Stuart had carried out the laborious preparatory work when he first opened his doors for business—getting out there, calling on all the local and a few not-so-local medical general practitioners. He aimed to introduce himself and establish a reciprocal association and offer his supportive services.
With this hands-on approach, he had achieved rapid success in growing his clinical psychology practice.
A year on, and Stuart could not believe his accomplishment. He had allowed himself twice that period to build his client calendar to its current level. His clinic being in the heart of a young and trendy business district hadn’t hurt any.
To Jennifer, Stuart Ryder appeared to be in his mid-to-late twenties, early thirties. He wore dark trousers, a matching vest, and a white open-neck shirt—his general dress style, not wanting to appear stuffy in a suit yet professional enough to boost his clients’ level of expectation.
Jennifer noticed the silver chain attached to a buttonhole on his vest. After the traditional loose circlet, the other end disappeared into the vest pocket. Even though she was a few years older than him, fob watches were still before her time. But Jennifer was sure that an old-style timepiece rested in the pocket on the other side of the vest. She wondered if he would use it to hypnotise her in much the same way as she had seen in old movies, where they used it in pendulum mode to induce a deep, compliant trance.
Jennifer had never been to a regular psychologist, let alone one specialising in hypnosis. If it were not for her flatmate Louise, she would never have considered such a submissive and unquestioning therapy style. But it had worked well for Louise. A full six months since her treatment, and she was still off cigarettes. Equally important, she hadn’t put on a gram of the customary kilos that were a common after-effect of quitting nicotine.
‘Stuart gave me extra suggestions so I wouldn’t offset the lack of cigarettes by overeating,’ volunteered Louise. ‘So make sure you remember to tell him to do the same for you. And don’t forget—I saw him first!’
‘Sorry girl, anything over three months doesn’t count,’ replied Jennifer.
‘He’s too young for you anyway,’ teased Louise. She was a few years younger and occasionally pitched an age-related snipe. But Jennifer knew they were empty remarks and never took them seriously. She had been working for a small events company for quite a while before Louise joined the team. The owner-operators were both males, and with the usual gender rivalry always on the agenda, the two girls soon became best friends and, later, flatmates.
Jennifer considered the young hypnotherapist to be a twenty-first-century update of the old big-screen images, including the predictable yet refashioned version of the goatee, a style of beard that had invariably been synonymous with hypnotists.
Stuart Ryder was of average height with longish brown hair and dark, commanding eyes. His natural, well-proportioned physique appealed to Jennifer way more than the present-day beefed-up body form. For a fleeting moment, she wondered why Louise hadn’t already moved on him. Surely six months was long enough to overlook the doctor-patient taboo.
Jennifer had recently dared to bring home one of the so-called sculptured heavyweights. ‘Purely for stress relief,’ she had said, grinning at Louise the following morning over a Special K breakfast.
‘What was he like? You were very quiet,’ said Louise.
‘I had to keep his mouth busy to stop him from calling out his own name,’ countered Jennifer, laughing.
‘Was he a big guy?’ asked Louise, continuing with the spirit.
‘Yeah, you could say that. Undressed, he looked like a stuffed turkey—all puffed up and ready for my oven,’ Jennifer replied. But then squirmed, biting her lip when she heard her own crude joke.
‘I think you take everything too negatively, Jen…’ said Louise, ‘Not to mention too frigging personally.’
‘Nah… I’m just trying to see the humorous side of today’s propensities, or should I say clichés?’
‘Fancy words aside, I love their firmness—I can’t stand overfed jelly-bellies,’ pronounced Louise before adding a tongue-in-cheek summation of her own. ‘Jen, you should look at men more positively… in the same light I do; you know, social dildos.’
Attempting to dispel the controlling submissive myths often associated with hypnosis, Doctor Ryder made his usual confidence enhancing speech, trying to put Jennifer at ease. ‘Even though you will be under my implicit therapeutic suggestions for a time, you will always be aware of everything around you. And at no time will you do anything under hypnosis you would not normally do in your waking state.’
After the usual client history-taking, Stuart penned a few notes to include in Jennifer’s therapy spiel. As he leaned in for a closer look at her eyes, Jennifer snapped her attention back to the matter at hand—the good-looking doctor. She couldn’t help but notice his rimmed tortoiseshell spectacles and how they provided the finishing touches to his intended highbrow appearance.
Jennifer must have unwound sufficiently, given she was now having inappropriate dreamlike thoughts towards her therapist. A comforting yet assertive tone disrupted her self-indulgent musings. ‘Jennifer, I will perform another susceptibility assessment now, so I want you to remain as relaxed as you can.’ Doctor Ryder performed a well-rehearsed slide-and-rotate manoeuvre on his rolling swivel stool to reach his desk.
Way too organised, Jennifer thought, referring to his massive desk. He took a bright orange pencil from the top drawer, then repeated the glide routine in reverse to return to Jennifer’s side. He asked her to gently hold the pencil between her thumb and forefinger before continuing his monotone speech mode.
‘Now, I wish you to breathe normally and focus your attention and thoughts on the top of the pencil… and as you do, you will notice your fingers tightening on the pencil… glueing to the pencil.’ Stuart held his left hand up with his palm open several inches in front of Jennifer’s eyes. ‘Now, Jennifer, I will count from one to three, and on the count of three, I will ask you to try to let go of the pencil. But you will find that the harder you try, the tighter your fingers become—welding to the pencil—glueing to the pencil. Breathe deeply and concentrate. One… two—Fingers are clamping tightly on the pencil. Tighter and tighter—Three. I now want you to try to release your fingers and let the pencil fall, but you will find that the harder you try, the tighter your fingers will grip the pencil. Try—try—try harder….’
After testing the quality of his client’s suggestibility, Stuart would ordinarily click his fingers and lower his palm to snap his client back to a relaxed consciousness. Then do further tests to gauge the client’s critical faculty level to determine the induction technique best suited to that person. But since Jennifer was so susceptible, he took the shorter route and induced a full trance right then and there.
‘That’s excellent, Jennifer. Now I will count from one to three again. This time, I will snap my fingers on the count of three, and you will immediately go into a deep state of hypnosis. One—you’re feeling more and more relaxed. Two—you’re feeling safe and secure. Three,’ a click of the fingers, ‘and deep asleep.’
When the session with Jennifer ended, Stuart’s secretary, Livvy, gave a quick knock and entered the consulting office. Stuart sat at his bespoke glass-topped desk, angled to take advantage of the fifteenth-floor views over Lavender Bay to the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the city skyline. He looked up at the tall, extraordinary-looking girl he had grown very fond of ever since her employment interview twelve months earlier. Stuart had noticed her black-painted fingernails, which he thought nothing of at the time other than that they made her fingers look spindly and long. He hadn’t grasped that the unusual nails were perhaps a hint or a precursor to the goth subculture she was to embrace a few months down the track. However, she had discussed her dress preferences, and to her surprise, he gave her the thumbs-up. ‘That’s all good, Livvy. It may even help bypass the clients’ critical factor gateway, wouldn’t you say?’
Livvy wore a full-length, old-fangled black dress. He considered the outfit dramatic but quaint, coordinating both her dyed black hair and black lipstick. As intended, she achieved the preferred stark contrast to her flawless pale complexion.
‘You want the good news or the bad news first?’ Livvy asked, hooking her index fingers in a playful, childlike manner.
‘Give me the bad news,’ he said. ‘It can only improve from there.’
‘Ivy Hunter just called and cancelled. She’s got work problems, but she knows she’ll be billed for the session just the same.’
‘If that’s the bad news, I can’t wait for the good news.’
‘She was your last appointment of the day!’
‘Livvy, sometimes, but not often enough, mind you, you say the sweetest things.’
‘Merci, monsieur,’ she said, extending a mini curtsy before withdrawing to her desk. She had been in the middle of decrypting her boss’ slapdash handwriting to update the client records.
It was at around this time when Stuart knew he might have a few problems of his own. He had been having reoccurring nightmares, which had a way of preying on his deep-seated fears and insecurities. The dreams were tormenting, constantly occurring in the second half of his sleep pattern after his routine bathroom visit, but he paid no relevance to the timing.
The terrifying visions would startle Stuart awake in a cold sweat with his heart thrashing. He often found himself in a sitting position on wet sheets, panic-stricken and fevered. In this distressed, wide-awake state, he relived the nightmare in real-life detail, but by morning the episode was usually little more than a washed-out conundrum.
Stuart suspected the cause might be associated with undisciplined eating habits, so he began putting more thought into his food intake, frequency, and quality. He believed nutrition and positive alpha-level affirmations should be his first point of attack on the punishing disorder.
Stuart left the clinic just after Livvy at 6:15 pm and made his way on foot to his apartment on Henry Lawson Avenue in McMahons Point. Livvy lived with her partner, Pam, at Lane Cove, only a fifteen-minute bus ride along the Pacific Highway. Still, since a brutal assault on a girl in nearby Kirribilli, Stuart had insisted she takes a taxi home at the office’s expense.
It was unusual for Stuart to leave his practice this early. Being such a pleasant evening, instead of walking at his usual brisk pace, he strolled along the pathway, taking in and appreciating the surrounding serenity and the spectacular views.
Although it was still light, the jagged city skyline had changed into its night facade. Stuart sat on a bench nearby to take a few extra moments to himself. The sun had slipped away over the western horizon; its smooth reds and yellows now reflected the city buildings onto the tranquil harbour waters.
He was sitting back, allowing the seductive twilight glow to embrace him when a compelling need to declare his gratitude for his recent success overcame him. This would seem weird to a layperson, if not hair-raising, but run-of-the-mill for a psychologist. After making sure no one was close enough to hear, Stuart offered his voiced declaration for his achievements and good fortune.
Stuart had come a long way since the Saint Bafana Orphanage days, where he had spent his ill-fated childhood. But not everything he remembered was terrible. He recalled a time when rumours spiralled throughout the institution. Even at that young age, he grasped that he needed to ignore the rumour mongering and focus more on his positive thoughts and judgements to endure such stomach-turning bleakness.
Stuart had petitioned for early emancipation at seventeen, pledging never to allow his future to be as cruel and unpredictable as it had been to that point in his life.
He had worked hard in high school, and despite his circumstances and troublesome peer tactics, he achieved top grades in his last year. Unsure of what to pursue career-wise, he took on full-time work at the local fruit market in Liverpool while he considered his options.
Stuart had been leaning towards the Human Services sector. After much consideration and help from the government’s loan scheme, he signed up for a Bachelor of Psychology degree at Western Sydney University. In case the general aspects of clinical psychology weren’t all he expected, he minored in criminology.
Vince and Maggie Cusumano, the fruit shop owners, accommodated Stuart’s requests for a more varied work roster. This flexibility often allowed him to work nights to carry out the more mundane duties of cleaning up and refilling the vegetable bins—and using a tad of extra flair, restocking the display shelves. This roster worked well for Stuart, even more so when Maggie insisted he joins them for dinner on the nights of his rostered late shift.
The Cusumanos had emigrated from Italy several years prior and had assimilated well. Vince’s cousin had initially agreed to co-sign a bank loan to purchase a house, but after receiving the cousin’s blessing, they instead bought a shop and residence to open a small fruit market and live in the flat above.
They wanted to start a family, but after years of trying and many consultations with fertility specialists, they had accepted the sullen fact they would never have children of their own. When Stuart asked about their progress at one of their regular dinners, Maggie’s response was pained and disheartening. He felt awkward having brought up such a sensitive topic and trying to appease her; he asked whether they had considered adoption. She admitted they had applied for a newborn but were unsuccessful because of their maturing age.
Stuart couldn’t let it go. ‘What about adopting a young child from an institution? Have you looked at that? They’re not restricted by so many rules.’
Maggie turned to her husband, now brandishing a resentful pale face, but added nothing. She looked back at Stuart. ‘Sorry, Bello, but we’ve heard so many terrible stories… and how would we know that he or she would love us and want to be with us forever?’
‘Forever is an awfully long time, Maggie,’ Stuart responded with sensitivity.
Frederick Mulae is married with three children and lives in Sydney, Australia. Having recently semi-retired from many years in the business/corporate and paramedical areas, he now enjoys writing works of fiction. The Alter Prey is his third novel.
Frederick Mulae is married with three children and lives in Sydney, Australia. Having recently semi-retired from many years in the business/corporate and paramedical areas, he now enjoys spending his time writing works of fiction.
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