The Mysterious Bottle

Maria got out her notes for her next session. Ah yes, young Eric Godwin. She hardly needed to remind herself, but she was a professional, so she skimmed through her account of their previous three meetings. A rather dysfunctional family, though aren’t they all, nowadays? Eric had recently discovered that the man he had grown up with was not actually his father, and that his real father had been married to someone other than his mother at the time he was conceived – if only people realised how much harm secrets could do! Though at least the stepfather seemed harmless, may even have been a stabilising influence. The mother was obviously governed by her passions, although she was at least loving towards her son. Eric had it no worse than so many youngsters in modern society, and the court wouldn’t have called her in for a minor charge of shoplifting, were it not for the apparent delusions.

Maria had insisted on meeting the whole family at the first session, and had noted the mother’s lack of control of her emotions, the stepfather’s dependence on her, and Eric’s taciturn reluctance to be present. But there seemed to be no obvious problems between any of them; though they were rather an ill-assorted group, they behaved like a family. At his two further sessions on his own, Eric had gradually opened up, responding well to her suggestion that, as the court had insisted they sit together for an hour each week, they might just as well chat to pass the time.

Maria looked up from her notes and pondered. She had been told by the supervisor who had assigned Eric to her that Eric’s delusions seemed to be triggered by two things: the nickname his mother had for him, and a bottle of some sort. Maria decided that she had spent enough time gaining Eric’s confidence, and that today she would move towards these areas of concern.

She walked briskly to the door, opened it, greeted him, and ushered him in. As usual, he ignored the cosy corner, with armchairs aligned for confidences, and sat on the hard chair by her desk. She had expected this, and had thus aligned it at an angle, turned slightly towards the cosy area, and had set up an old unmatching chair between the two parts of the room. This was padded, softer that the functional item Eric had chosen, and yet not so comfortable looking that he would be alarmed; at least, so she hoped. Moreover, there wouldn’t be a desk between them, and this would model a breaking down of barriers.

Once the niceties were over, she said, “I’ve been thinking about names. As you know, my name’s Maria, but most of my friends just call me Ria. But my mother always called me Sylvie, which is my middle name – she still does, in fact. At first it was rather sweet, her having a special name for me, but it got rather awkward by the time I was in secondary school; people used to be confused when they heard her call me it, and then laugh about my own mother not knowing my name!”

She could have asked a question, but she smiled, and looked past him, as if she were remembering. After a short silence, Eric said, “It’s not nice, being different.”

This was an interesting angle, and she was tempted to explore it, but she wanted to keep her focus on working towards the delusions. “I think sometimes mothers don’t realise how much they embarrass their children.”

Another long silence. Maria kept her expression friendly and her gaze diffuse. “Have you got any kids?” he surprised her.

Some of her colleagues would have turned the conversation, refusing to allow their own life to intrude on the session, but Maria felt that confidences sometimes needed to go both ways. “No,” she replied. “It’s an awfully long training, to get to do this job, so it would be a shame not to be able to dedicate my time to my work, now that I’ve got here.” She didn’t say that her guardian, old-fashioned and fearful, had insisted that she attend an all-girls college, and that her studies had left her little time or energy for moving outside her limited social circle, so that she had never even really had a proper boyfriend; she hoped that sharing some small part of her life would be sufficient to encourage him to open up to her. “Even in this modern world, being a mother takes up a lot of time and energy. I expect you’ve noticed that with your mum.”

She watched him turn this over. “She hovers a lot,” he volunteered at last. “And she’s always stroking me and that. I wish she wouldn’t – it’s embarrassing, especially when she does it in the street or whatever.”

“I expect she loves you very much.”

“Not enough to tell me that I’ve got a Dad – another dad, I mean, not Don!” This seemed to burst out of him, and she felt it was progress, although she wanted to keep the focus on Netty.

“That must have been painful, finding it out at fourteen.”

“It was before my birthday – I was only thirteen. I don’t mind, really, that Don’s not my dad. I mean, he’s always been there, and he takes me fishing and that. I took it for granted that he was my father – well, you do, don’t you? And he’s still who he’s always been. But she should have told me. There’s other kids – lots of them – have separated parents, or a second dad, and I always kind of felt better than them, because my family’d stayed together. Now I feel like a right numpty!”

“Why did you think your mum didn’t tell you?”

“She says I wouldn’t have understood, when I was little, and then she didn’t want to spoil things between us. Me, I think she didn’t want to have to answer all the questions I’ve got. Like, who is my dad, and what’s he like, and why doesn’t he ever come to see me?”

“Have you been asking her, now you know?”

“Yeah, but she’s very good at avoiding giving a proper answer. Like, she’ll say that he’s a nice man, but very different to Don, and Don’s always been good to me, and to her, and we all have a nice life, and on and on like that. And she’s right, but that’s not what I wanted to know. She did say that he’s very precise and organised, and very decided about how to do things. That he wanted to do his best for her, but that she felt stifled with him. But I wasn’t really interested in how she felt; I wanted to know how he felt about me!” He frowned, and Maria know better than to interrupt his thoughts. “I do like Don, you know. He’s always been there, and he’s the one that’s treated me like a dad should, which is more than the other one did.” He frowned again. “It’s just that we don’t feel like a family, sometimes. Like, there’s Mum and me, and then there’s Mum and Dad – well, Don. They can be very embarrassing, you know; always stroking each other, and looking at each other in a soppy sort of way. And sometimes, Don takes me fishing or whatever. But there’s nothing that’s all of us together.”

“What do you and your mother do?”

A crafty look came over his face. “That’s nobody’s business but ours. Mum’s got nothing to do with this! I’m here because I took that book, it’s not about my Mum.”

“What was that about, then? ‘Charms and Potions in Roman Literature’: an unusual choice for a teenage boy, I’d have thought.”

“It was an impulse. I was waiting for Mum, and I saw it, and I wanted it. So I put it in my school bag.”

“Because you couldn’t have afforded to pay for it?”

“Because I didn’t want Mum to see it.”

“Often, mothers don’t understand.”

He pursed his lips, and she could see him weighing up whether to confide in her. “I’m lucky; my mum’s all right. But she won’t tell me … well, let’s just say that there are things she starts saying, and then she won’t explain the whole story. And I don’t know if it’s because she doesn’t trust me, or what.”

Maria put together the book about potions and the two occasions when mention of a little bottle had triggered Eric’s delusions, and suggested, “Like with the bottle, for instance?”

“How do you know about that?” The crafty look was back. “Well, if she’s told you, I s’pose there’s no harm in talking about it. That’s exactly the sort of thing I mean! It’s fine, if she wants me to look after the bottle, without telling me anything about it. I mean, it’s not fine, but I’d do it for her, if she needed me to keep it safe. Or I wouldn’t mind if she told me all about it – explained the whole story. But to ask me to keep it always on me, and never to open it unless it’s the time to use it, and then to use all of it in one go, and on no account to taste it myself – well, that’s not saying enough, is it? Or maybe it’s saying too much! And she won’t answer any questions! It feels like one of those spy stories, where there’s a poison capsule, and the spy will know when the situation’s so desperate that he has to kill himself, so he doesn’t give away any secrets. But if I mustn’t taste it, who am I supposed to give it to? And how will I know when? And what if it kills someone? I’d be a murderer!”

Eric seemed distressed, but hardly delusional. Unless, of course, thought Maria, there was no bottle. Something occurred to her. “You say that your mother needs you to keep it with you at all times.” She waited for his nod. “So you’ve got it with you now. Would you show it to me? If I put my hands in my lap, and don’t touch it – just to see it.”

He hesitated, and then said, “Go and sit in your own chair, then, behind the desk.”

This would prevent her reaching forward and seizing the bottle, but as this had not been her intention, she had no qualms about falling in with his request. When she was sitting down again, he said, “Swivel your chair round, so you’re facing the wall. I don’t want you to see where I keep it.” She complied, and tried to emit the willingness to do whatever he asked, without trying to cheat him. “All right,” he said after a while, “You can turn round now.”

His right hand was on the desk, cradling a small bottle – more like a phial – and his left hand was grasping the neck of it firmly. He was, she saw, taking every precaution to prevent her going beyond a simple look; he did not completely trust her, then, although he was willing to entrust her with this information.

The bottle was small, and made of glass with a tiny cork in the top, and a ring, presumably to allow it to be suspended from a necklace. It was full of an iridescent blue liquid. There was a handwritten label on it, and Maria read, ‘The Philtre.’

“It’s very unusual,” Maria ventured.

“I need to go now,” Eric stated firmly. “Don’ll be here to pick me up in five minutes, and I need to hide this again.”

“I’ll turn around,” she said quickly, doing so. “Have you decided what to do?” There was no action necessary, from the topics they had been discussing, but she hoped to provoke one final confidence, and she was not disappointed.

“Tell you what,” he said quietly, “I’m gonna find my dad – the real one, I mean. I’ve been looking through her things, while she’s been watching Eastenders. And I found a photo, hidden away, of a baby and two adults. ‘Martin, Netty, and Cups’ it said. And the name of the house. And I’ve been searching on the internet, and I know where the house is. I’m going to go there, tomorrow after school. And I’ll think of something, not to give away who I am.”

“If you were a baby in the photo,” Maria suggested gently, “He may not live there anymore. In fact, it may have been where your parents lived together – he might have moved at the same time as you and your mum did.”

“Oh, I know that. You can turn round again. But it’s a start, isn’t it? I checked on the internet, and that house hasn’t been sold for fifteen years, so maybe he’s still there. Or they may have rented it of course. Whoever’s there may know who lived there before though. It’s got to be worth a try.”

“Why does your mother call you Cups?” If she hoped her abrupt question would elicit another confidence, she was to be disappointed.

“That’s part of it, of what’s weird, I mean. She says it’s to doing with my destiny, and how you can’t go around shooting people, not nowadays, not even to be helpful. So I’d better work with a different method. It doesn’t make any sense, and I do wish she’d tell me properly about whatever it is. Anyway, it’s a silly nickname. Mind you, we’re a nicknamey sort of family: everyone calls Mum Netty, but her real name’s Venetia, and I don’t know what Don’s short for, except it’s not Donald – he laughed, when someone asked once.” He stood up. “Remember: I’m trusting you. If you tell anyone about this – ‘specially Mum or Don – I’ll never trust you again.”

He walked out of the consulting room with, Maria thought, considerable dignity.

* * *

Having confided in her so completely, Maria expected Eric to pull back the following week; usually, having thought about it, clients regretted the extent to which they had opened up in their breakthrough session. She was therefore prepared for an hour of reassuring him, of allowing him his privacy, and of gently working towards a more permanent trusting relationship.

Her preparations were not necessary. Eric strode into the room and threw himself into the same chair that he always took, and immediately said, “Have I got some stuff to tell you!”

“Oh?” She put a gently enquiring look on her face, but he didn’t notice; he was eager to explain.

“I found him! I found my Dad! Not straight away – he moved about three years ago – but the old lady who lives there said she rents from him. And that now he lives in the flat about the boxing studio he started. So I went there.”

“How did it go?”

“He’s all right, my Dad. A bit intense, maybe, and a bit of a stickler for doing things the right way – he was taken aback, that I’d just walked in. What did he want me to do, make an appointment? He was working – going around supervising the teachers and the trainers and that – so he said I could stay and watch, and he’d take me out for dinner. And I was so glad to meet him! I told him about school and that, though I didn’t say anything about Mum, because that would have been disloyal. And he told me about the boxing studio, how he wanted young men to channel their aggression in a good way, and to learn self-discipline and so on. He said the bloke I’d been watching while I was waiting for him could be a real star one day, but that he hadn’t learned to control his emotions yet. I felt really good, you know – it was like he was confiding in me, telling me all about The Boar’s potential and his faults – that was the Boxer’s stage name. They all have a name like that, something that suggests they’re wild, or strong, or deadly, or something. Dad even made a joke, that the boxer should have chosen another name, one that would inspire him to be less like a bull in a china shop!

“But then it all started to go wrong. Because I was really careful not to tell him where we live – I knew Mum wouldn’t want that – but he must have followed me. I was s’posed to meet him again on Friday, outside the studio, but I got there early, so I went in. The receptionist didn’t call him out, like the first time – I s’pose my Dad must have told her I was allowed in – she just waved me through. And Dad didn’t see me at first, and I got quite close up behind him, and he was telling one of the trainers that he’d just got back from following his woman, and she’d been all lovey-dovey with a younger bloke, and he’d had his hands all over her. And it wasn’t ‘til he said he’d followed them to their smug little house in Hamilton Road, with its white picket fence and its roses by the front door, that I realised it was Mum and Don he was talking about, ‘cause that’s where we live!

“Well, that’s when he saw me, and he stopped being angry, and took me out to dinner. So I asked him straight out if he still loved Mum. And he said he did. He said he’d always thought she’d come back to him one day, and that he’d forgive her for being wayward, ‘cause being unpredictable was one of the things that had made him fall in love with her; that and how wholeheartedly she followed her chosen path. And that when she came back to him, he’d marry her – he couldn’t, the first time round, because he was already married! But his wife found out about him and Mum, and now they’re divorced. I’d always thought Don was her husband, but when I asked her, after all the hoohah, she said they never got round to it! What a mess! Anyway, I left my dad straight after dinner, and I walked home, so I could think.

“But when I got there, it was chaos. There was the police, and an ambulance, and Mum was crying, and there was blood everywhere. It was that boxer – The Boar – who did it. He’d only gone and overheard what my father was saying, like I did, and decided to earn himself some brownie points by going and getting rid of the man Dad was jealous of! He’d gone round there with a knife, but he wasn’t a very good assassin, ‘cause he was so busy stabbing Don that he didn’t notice Mum creeping up on him. Apparently she clocked him over the head with the goddess statue that sits on the table at the bottom of the stairs!”

Eric seemed to have dried up, and Maria wondered if he couldn’t face telling her that Don was dead, or that his mother had killed the boxer. “That must have been a very unpleasant scene to walk in on,” she said in what she hoped was a sympathetic as well as a brisk tone. “How badly injured were they?”

“Well, Don lost a lot of blood. He’d got him in the shoulder – too high to be fatal, but very deep, so he’s still in hospital. The Boar was concussed, but as soon as the hospital released him – that was on Sunday – the police arrested him. He didn’t get bail – he’s done violent stuff before, so the magistrates said he’d be a risk if they let him out, and his lawyer didn’t argue. And Mum’s spending all her time at the hospital, sitting with Don, and everyone said I was too young to be on my own, even though I’m not, so I’m staying at Dad’s. He says he wants me to live with him, even after Don gets out of hospital. But I don’t want to. He’s a bit stuffy, for someone who runs a boxing studio, and it’s a bit dodgy, the way The Boar tried to kill Don. When he was arrested, apparently he said that he wanted to impress Dad and do him a favour, and that Dad didn’t know what he planned, and I think the police believe him, but I’m not so sure. I s’pose I don’t know him well enough to judge. But even if he had nothing to do with it, I don’t want to live with him. Mum’s annoying sometimes, but she’s all right, really. So’s Don. But my dad thinks we have to do the right thing, and that means that he’ll forgive Mum, and she’ll send Don packing and go back to him. No-one else wants that, though.”

“If your mother doesn’t want to go back to him, I don’t expect she will. She seems like a strong, capable woman.”

“Ah, but you don’t know how insistent my father can be. Even if he doesn’t convince her, he won’t give up. And he’s capable of keeping me with him, to try to persuade her.” He shook his head. “No; I can’t let it get to that.”

“Is there something you think you can do, to influence him?”

He nodded slowly. “I reckon. It’s all in the detail, see. A potion, a philtre … they kind of sound like they should be the same thing, don’t they?” Before Maria could answer, Eric asked, “Would you do something for me? Would you meet my father? He’s out in the waiting room. I know it’s not quite the end of my session, but Mum and Don both got to meet you and have their say, the first time I came. Can Dad meet you, too? So he feels it’s fair?”

Maria considered, but could see no reason why not. “Of course.” She moved to the chair behind her desk as Eric left the room, for she was not seeking the sort of confiding atmosphere with the father that she had so successfully fostered with the son.

She heard the sound of voices in the waiting room, and after a minute of two a handsome man of around forty with an air of competent strength entered alone.

He shut the door. Before approaching the desk, he unstoppered a little bottle that he was holding in one hand, and swiftly tipped the whole contents into his mouth. “Hello, Doctor Maria,” he greeted her. “Excuse the informality, but that’s the only name Cups gave me for you. I’m so pleased to meet you.” A fleeting puzzled frown passed over his features, and he went on, “May I say that I think I love you? No: I know I love you!” With one bound, he leapt over her desk and took her unresisting in his arms.

***

From their hidden cave high on Monte Velino, the last of the Classical Romans watch these events.

“We’re not doing very well, are we?” says Adonis. Having been born a mortal, he is less well-equipped than some of the others to cope with a lifespan of thousands of years.

“Well, the boar didn’t kill you this time.” Whilst one couldn’t exactly call him an optimist, Mars is adept at coming to the heart of a matter.

“There’s still some uncertainty about whether you commissioned him to do it, though.” After so many centuries, Cupid has grown into a very sensible young man, and, perhaps because his original fault was small, is better able to analyse the situation objectively.

“We need to wait a bit,” objects Rhea Silvia. “I want to see if I find a way of bringing up my twins this time, in spite of all the obstacles that will be put in my way.”

“I’m so tired of this!” Again, it is Adonis who finds it hard to see a silver lining in the cloud of their existence. “All the other gods have been allowed to go. Why are we still stuck here?”

“Fond as I am of you,” says Mars to Venus, “I have to suggest that your behaviour has changed least over the centuries. Couldn’t Netty have controlled herself, and not been unfaithful? Or even left Martin in a more honest and decisive way, if she had to be with Don? As usual, it was her dishonourable attitude that started the whole miserable chain of events.”

“Oh, Mars, you’re so uptight! Anyone would think you’d never fallen madly, desperately, in love with someone! I had to have him, and I had to have him straight away.” Venus tilts her head coquettishly. “Much as you did with the mouse.”

“Just because I don’t flaunt it,” Rhea can’t help rising to the jibe, “Doesn’t mean I don’t have it. Mars has never had anything to complain of, with me.”

“Oh, for all our sakes, stop bickering!” It is Cupid, the aging child-god, his cherub looks at odds with his mature attitude, who brings them back to the task at hand. “We’re running out of places to retreat to; all our lovely hills are over-run with people. Look at this place! Bleak and snow-covered for half the year! And yet, we already get hikers and nature lovers and solitude-seekers … give it another generation or two, and there’ll be a hotel or a restaurant here, and tourist guides bringing parties, and we’ll have to move on, for fear of being discovered. I’m fed up of it. Yes, Rhea: I know you’re not ready to abandon this group yet, but even if you turn out to be the most devoted mother ever, you surely don’t think it’ll be enough to salvage the mistakes the others have made! No – let’s move on. It was an excellent idea, Mars, to try having our people born into a more northern climate, somewhere that passions would be less close to the surface. But we need a colder Venus. Let’s work on how we could achieve that. There’s no point arguing; Jupiter’s long gone, so it’s pointless wishing he hadn’t commanded that until the gods learned to overcome their mistakes, they would be doomed to repeat them.”

One by one, they nod, accepting his words. They muster up their courage, and prepare to seek another batch of unborn souls to influence.

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