Four To The Left
The applause was heartfelt. You clapped with enthusiasm but were careful not to exceed your limit of eleven claps. You stopped, palms tingling, and listened. The volume of applause was sufficient for you to fit in another eleven. Careful judgement was essential. With palms just so you started to clap, one, two, three, four; each clap a perfection in itself. Five, six, seven and – oh my god you were on your own. With four more to go the audience had betrayed you and were rising from their seats and glancing at their watches.
With face aflame you clapped on, keeping up the rhythm and the strength. Slowly but surely your claps rang out. People averted their eyes with small pitying smiles.
That very morning Don had lost his temper and called you, amongst other things, a compulsion freak. He was referring to the way you had gone round the house three times the night before checking the locks on the doors and windows and he hadn't understood how it frightened you the way he could be so casual. He had wanted to make love urgently, as was his way, but you knew that if you didn't climb out of bed again and re-check, burglars would break in and there would be terror. Don left to live in a bed-sit.
You cried as if your heart might break and said that life was unbearable. You thought it was strange that nobody came to visit you. It wasn't as if you were bad-tempered or unfriendly. Your friend, Carol, said that you had an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She was training to become a nurse and you thought she was becoming a know-all.
Losing your job was the final straw. Desperate, you met Carol for lunch; and she was kind and listened and arranged for you to see a counsellor for not too high a fee.
Mrs Comfort lived up to her name. Her office was a total mess. There were books and papers everywhere; on the floor and any which way on the shelves. You ached to set the room to rights. You sat down carefully; not once, but three times. Each time you would rearrange your skirt and check the chair for dust or grease or worse. Mrs Comfort smiled. She told you that you wouldn't need to stand again until the end of the session. You felt a fool because you knew what she was getting at but did what she asked. Your nerves were stretched to the limit. Every few seconds your body tensed to spring because you knew that some horribly dirty thing was going to stain your skirt and it was only ten minutes before you burst into tears and sobbed out your anxiety.
She asked you what did it matter if your skirt became dirty or creased? You couldn't reply and she told you very matter-of-factly that it didn't matter at all. You watched her writing on a pad and you wondered what sort of pills they would be and hoped you would be able to have a drink or drive or both when you were taking them. Mrs Comfort wrote carefully and neatly – not all scrawly like most medical people. When she had finished she asked you to read aloud what she had written.
At the top of the page was the next appointment day and under that she had written: Do everything once and once only. Phone me if you need to talk. Keep practising and I promise you that you will be free of your problem before too long.
You read slowly and carefully and said that you were surprised there were no pills. Mrs Comfort said there was no need for pills and showed you to the door with a reassuring pat.
Mrs Comfort listened and listened tirelessly over the phone and at the sessions to you crying with exhaustion and frustration. When you were all cried out she told you that you would now be able to break the cycle and you put your heart and soul into the project. You read every book on psychology you could lay your hands on. You talked to Carol. Your daringly left dishes in the sink. You even went to a concert and didn't count your claps.
Don came to visit and marvelled at the newspapers on the floor and the dust on the mantelpiece and said it was like a real home now and you made love to him on the floor in the middle of the afternoon.
Years later you have a husband, children and a big hair-shedding dog.
You glow with fulfilment as you stir the sugar into your coffee. Four to the left and three to the right.