“They jumped on their magic carpet and waved goodbye to their new friends. ‘Come back soon!’ said Mrs Moon-mouse. ‘Yes!’ said Herbert Moon-mouse. ‘We’re having broccoli with chocolate!’ Mr and Mrs Mouse promised to come back soon. But perhaps not in time for broccoli with chocolate. What an adventure they’d had!”*
“Read it again, daddy! Read it again!” sang Connor, tugging at my jacket.
Aidan nodded, looking serious whilst he sucked the edge of his small blanket.
“I’m afraid I have to go out with mummy now, boys,” I say, sadly.
The sadness isn’t feigned: I’d much rather stay here with them, reading stories about mice who visit the moon on a magic carpet, than attend a bloody tedious fundraiser, no matter how worthy the cause.
“Don’t go, daddy!” says Connor, sticking out his bottom lip in a sulk, a mannerism he definitely inherited from his mother.
“Mrs Olsen will read it to you, I’m sure,” I say, trying to appease them, and see off the looming tantrum.
“Nooooo! She doesn’t do the voices properly!” Connor whines.
The boys look up, distracted, and I turn to see Rhian watching us, a patient smile on her face.
“You look pretty, mommy,” says Connor, his eyes wide.
Aidan nods. “Like a princess. Sparkles. Daddy looks like a penguin!”
That is true: I am wearing a dinner jacket, which I absolutely refuse to call a tuxedo.
Both the boys have American accents – like their mother. It takes me by surprise sometimes and I have to remember that I am the odd one out here. I have my bath, I don’t take one; I have jam on my toast – thick-cut marmalade preferably – not jelly, God forbid. ‘I don’t drink coffee, I take tea, my dear.’
The west coast of America has become my home, but sometimes I feel very much the outsider, the alien. And, on occasion, it makes me work my Britishness just a little bit more, don’t you know.
“I think daddy looks very handsome,” says Rhian, “not at all like a penguin.” She smirks at me, then whispers, “more like Mr Darcy, to a discerning wife.”
“You have impeccable taste,” I agree enthusiastically.
She kisses the boys goodnight, handing over the reins to Mrs Olsen, and we head to the car.
“I’ll drive us there, you drive back?” I offer.
“I’m not falling for that, John,” she says, evenly. “Toss a coin: heads you drive, tails I don’t.”
“Very funny, Mrs Flynn.”
“Thanks, doc. Okay, heads you drive: tails I drive.”
I throw the coin. It lands heads up. Of course.
Throwing me a superior smile, she clicks her seatbelt into place.
“That coin was faulty,” I complain, but her smile is implacable.
“Suck it up, doc.”
“You know, this is your charity thing, Rhian. Now you’re dragging me here, I at least ought to have the option of drinking myself into a quiet coma – that’s only fair.”
“Don’t be so British, John. Just pretend you might actually enjoy yourself. And smile.”
I never argue with my beautiful wife: I like my testicles where they currently reside.
She directs me out towards Bellevue and as we reach our destination, we join a line of limousines, mostly with foreign marques. Our station wagon looks desperately out of place, a child’s dummy and several toys scattered across the back seat. Not that I mind that, but it makes me think the evening will be tedium ad nauseum, and a lot of rich people flashing their cash.
“I know what you’re thinking, doc,” says Rhian, “but it really is for a good cause – helping kids. Besides, it’ll give you a good chance to network.”
Network: Heaven forbid!
“I still know what you’re thinking, doc,” she smiles.
“You are the brains, my love, and I am merely the beauty.”
She pokes me in the side and mentions a number of repercussions if I continue to be bad-tempered. The realignment of my testicles is among her suggestions.
“I will smile like the proverbial sun, my little sugar-coated wasp,” I respond quickly.
“Yes, you will, John,” she says, rather vehemently, and I know she’s not joking.
A valet opens Rhian’s door and another takes my keys, looking irritated that he didn’t get to drive the R8 Spyder that is nudging up the driveway behind us.
A dark green carpet illuminated by tiny fairy lights leads the way around to a vast, cathedral-like marquee. Two enormous ice sculptures of a stag and a doe greet us: the event is forest-themed it seems.
“You said this event is for children?” I ask.
“Sure. Well, mothers and children, where the mothers have a drug problem.”
A cold trickle starts at my neck and works its way down my spine, and I tug nervously at my bow tie.
“Er, right: and what’s the name of this charity?” I ask, hoping against hope that she’s not going to say what I think she’s going to say.
“Coping Together,” she says. “Dr Trevelyan is tonight’s hostess – you’ll really like her. John, what are you doing?”
I have stopped mid-step.
“We have to leave, Rhian,” I say, abruptly.
“What! Why? We just got here.”
She stares at me in amazement.
“Seriously, Rhian. I can’t tell you.”
She catches on quickly and sighs. “Oh. Patient confidentiality?”
“Something like that,” I mutter quickly.
She doesn’t argue, God bless her; we turn to leave immediately.
And bump into Christian Grey.
“Not going already are you, John?” he says, raising an eyebrow and carefully hiding a smile.
His expression leads me to believe that he’s overheard our terse conversation.
“Good evening, Christian,” I say, keeping my voice neutral. “Yes, I suddenly realised that I had business elsewhere. I’m sure you understand.”
He stares at me appraisingly and Rhian gives me a puzzled glance.
“Well, perhaps now you’ve time to think about it, you’ll decide you can stay after all and introduce me to your wife.”
Oh, I wasn’t expecting that.
I can see from the look on Rhian’s face that she’s caught up very quickly.
“Rhian, let me introduce you to Mr Christian Grey; Christian, this is my dear wife Rhian.”
“Delighted to meet you, Mrs Flynn,” he says, with old-fashioned courtesy.
His formality makes him sound more like 75 than 25.
Rhian takes his hand and shakes it, smiling politely.
“A pleasure, Mr Grey.”
I am mightily puzzled: he is obviously aware that Rhian will by now have worked out that he is, in all likelihood, a client of mine, but he doesn’t seem bothered by that fact. He wants us to stay. Why?
Before we have a chance to say another word, there’s a shrill scream, and I turn suddenly, afraid that someone has been stabbed with a pastry fork before we’ve even reached the hors d’oeuvres.
A cannonball dressed in verdant green hurls itself at Christian. I wait for his defence mechanism to kick in and step aside; but he doesn’t.
He catches her as she lunges at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and reaching up to kiss his cheek.
This must be Mia. I am intrigued.
“Christian, where’s Taylor? I found this amazing website for gay people who are ex-services. I just know he’ll love it.”
“I drove myself,” he replies evenly, as she thumps him on the shoulder.
“You’re such a spoilsport, Christian,” she whines.
I can tell from the tone of their voices that this is all part of their regular interaction; it’s not a show put on for me. And I’m intrigued to see that she touches him and he doesn’t recoil. Interesting. It’s going to be useful to see him interact with other people.
He peels his sister off him and turns to face Rhian and I again.
“Mia, I’d like you to meet Dr and Mrs Flynn: John and Rhian. Mia is my little sister.”
“Oh my God! Are these like friends of yours?” she says, awed.
I’m intrigued to see how he’ll answer this question.
“John is my psychologist and I’ve just met Rhian.”
Oh. I wasn’t expecting that: twice in as many minutes, he’s surprised me. For some reason he wants me to meet his family. Why?
“Christian, you’re such a tease,” she huffs, as we shake hands, then finds her attention diverted by a sullen-faced woman of her own age in an unappealingly revealing evening gown. The minty colour does nothing for her. A smile might help.
But then she leers at Christian, and I have to admit a smile does nothing whatsoever to help this unfortunately plain young woman.
“Hi, Christian,” she simpers, and I can see she’s itching to throw herself at him. Perhaps Christian’s experiences of women are correct: they see him – then they lunge.
He takes a small step back and merely says, “Lily,” then moves away into the crowd, nodding at me as he goes.
The girl pouts, and Mia rolls her eyes.
“Lily’s liked Christian forever,” she says, shaking her head. “I mean, I don’t know if he’s gay or whatever, but he’s not interested, Lily!”
Her tone is exasperated.
Lily flounces off.
A real flounce: I haven’t seen that since ‘Gone with the Wind’.
Mia watches her for a moment then turns to me.
“Are you really Christian’s shrink?”
I open my mouth to reply but am too slow.
“It’s okay, you don’t have to say anything. But he must really like you. And Christian never likes anyone. And he never introduces me to anyone – you’re different. I mean, he’s not rude or anything; but he doesn’t introduce people unless he really likes them. He’s so good like that. I wish he thought he was good, but he is, isn’t he, Dr Flynn?”
Then she shakes her head again. “I know you can’t answer that either. But he’s just the best brother. I mean, he’s a great brother; Elliot’s great, too. He’s our older brother. But Christian’s always had time for me – even when I was a kid. He never got bored or impatient with me.” She sighs. “Oh well. Enjoy the party. I’ll tell mom and dad you’re here. I expect you’ll meet them later.”
She flutters away and then turns quickly.
“It’s Christian’s 26th birthday next week,” she calls over her shoulder. “I’m trying to persuade him to have a party. Will you come?”
She doesn’t give me time to answer before she disappears into the crowd.
Rhian watches her, looking slightly baffled.
“Well, that was… interesting.”
“Yes, wasn’t it.”
“So, you’re treating the mysterious Christian Grey. I’d have to agree with his sister, John: I think he likes you.”
I say nothing and she kisses me on my cheek. “And he’s almost as handsome as you.”
God, I love this woman.
We’re shown to our table, full of medical doctors and their spouses. Rhian is enjoying herself, but I find I’m paying only scant attention to the lively conversation. Instead, I’m watching Christian Grey. It soon becomes clear that he’s not here expecting any pleasure for himself: he’s working. He’s networking, as Rhian suggested I do. A word here, a handshake there. He’s right: he reads body language well. When someone comes too close, he slides away; when a woman lunges, he’s ready; when it’s someone he doesn’t want to talk to, he politely moves past them, without causing offence. He seems indifferent to all: except his family.
And then a tall man of about 30, with wavy, blond hair comes up to him, and punches him lightly on the shoulder. For only the second time that evening, a genuine smile lights up Christian’s face. He is transformed, and I know it’s because he loves these people. I assume that the man is Elliot, his elder brother.
Close behind is an attractive older woman whom is surely his mother. She touches him lightly on the arm, and he bends down to kiss her cheek. Again, his smile is sincere, but he holds back from real intimacy. There is no embrace. When he sees the man I guess must be his father, they shake hands, smiling at each other. Always smiling, never touching.
It’s clear he loves his family; it’s also clear that the only person who doesn’t walk on eggshells around him is Mia. It’s a fascinating snapshot of his family life. He loves them and they love him. He knows them, but they don’t know him.
And yet… and yet, despite their obvious love for each other, Christian is an unhappy man. He probably wouldn’t quantify it as such himself: he would describe himself as broken. I disagree. We have had numerous discussions on the subject: too many and yet too few, because I have not been able to convince him of his innate goodness.
I see him at this party: he steps into the light for a few moments, smiling and talking to people; then he steps back into his aloneness, his pool of darkness. He moves from table to table, doing the right thing, saying the right words, but he is forever on the periphery, spurning attention. And yet, as I watch, I see eyes drawn to him as if he were the puppet master, pulling everyone’s strings. Perhaps that is true charisma. Whispers follow him around the marquee: Yes, that’s him; that’s Christian Grey. They say he’s gay; they say he’s celibate; they say he has a mad wife stashed in the attic; they say he’s crazy; they say… they say…
The whispers continue: he must hear them, but he ignores them all.
And I wonder if I do him any good at all. He is haunted by his past; I am haunted by the words of Theodor Adorno: ‘Horror is beyond the reach of psychology’. Perhaps you are right, Herr Adorno.
After the meal, I am surprised to see Christian on the dance floor. He has never mentioned an interest in dancing to me. Rhian’s eyes join mine.
“He’s very graceful,” she says quietly, as he sweeps his sister around the floor.
“Yes, he’s an accomplished man.”
“But a sad one,” she says.
I don’t disagree.
“Let’s dance, John,” she says, suddenly. “Let’s see if those two left feet of yours have miraculously turned you into Fred Astaire.”
“Skinny, bald and dead?” I ask. “And I’ll have you know that my hoofing is talked about on three continents.”
“Yes,” she says, dryly. “It is.”
I whisk her onto the dance floor, and lead her through the crowds, proving that I’ve still got the moves: Mr Darcy be damned!
I reach my limit when ‘Mambo Italiano’ begins to play, and Rhian is willingly whisked away by a doctor from Portland whom she knows slightly. I happily resign the floor. And I watch.
Christian dances effortlessly, gliding across the floor, never failing to match the rhythm, the picture of ease. Except I know better; he knows better. He dances with his sister, with his mother, and with his grandmother. No-one else. Not even the ill-favoured Lily. Poor girl.
Until an attractive woman in a flowing, black, satin gown approaches him. I wait for him to step back: but he doesn’t. She places her arms around his neck and he pulls her into his body. The gesture is shockingly intimate and speaks of prior knowledge. Then it hits me: the woman is Elena. His erstwhile Dominatrix; the woman who stole his virginity at the age of 15; the woman who influences his thought patterns and behaviours to this day, whether he knows it or not.
I admit to myself that I’m shocked. I knew he still saw her, but he called her a ‘business partner’. And here she is, at his mother’s fundraiser: still the trusted confidant within his family home.
I watch closely. Her hold is possessive, as if she’s staking a claim. No other woman, save his family, has danced with him. It’s a statement: I dare – only me. Only I could give him what he needed. He’s mine. And it chills me. He is still in her thrall.
My bleak musings are thankfully interrupted.
“Good evening, Dr Flynn. I’m Grace Trevelyan, Christian’s mother. I’m so pleased to meet you.”
I stand up to shake hands and offer her a seat.
“It was kind of you and your wife to join us this evening: it’s a very worthwhile cause and one close to our hearts, as I’m sure you can imagine – from what Christian must have told you.”
I start to speak but she smiles at me and continues.
“I know you can’t talk to me, Dr Flynn, at least, not about Christian, but my husband and I wanted you to know that… that we’re very pleased to meet you. Christian has had many therapists over the years, but never one that he’s bonded with before as he has clearly done with you. Thank you.”
I clear my throat, wondering how to answer her speech. She saves me the trouble.
“Christian is a wonderful dancer, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he’s very accomplished.”
“Oh, indeed. You should hear him play the piano. I had hopes once that… well, never mind. I do love to watch him dance – I think he must have learned those moves from his father. He’s been coming to our fundraisers since he was a child. Oh, look: he’s dancing with Elena. Oh, she’s so good for him – she’s the only person outside our family he’ll dance with. Well, she’s just about family – she’s known him since he was a child. Well, since he was seven or eight. She’s always taken a special interest in him: they have quite a close friendship.”
I grip the sides of the chair, horrified by what she’s said. This woman has known Christian since he was eight? She must have watched him, groomed him, for years. Suddenly, my Lobster Thermidor wants to make reappearance. I swallow back the bile, my years of practice as a doctor allowing me to seem calm on the outside. I’m anything but.
“Does she have children of her own?”
“Elena? No. I think she preferred my children,” says Dr Trevelyan, with a soft smile.
The Head Waiter approaches and Dr Trevelyan rolls her eyes.
“Please excuse me, Dr Flynn – duty calls.”
It’s disturbing. For ten years this woman has had a vice-like hold over Christian’s life. And yet, I must remember that he broke away from her when he was 21, choosing the role of Dominant that than to stay as her Submissive. It must have taken huge determination and resilience on his part. The thought gives me hope because he wants to change.
I can work with that.
* ‘The Magic Carpet Ride’ by Jane A. C. West & Steve Empson