A Prandial Interrogation
When she met Ashley that evening at the Tub and Basin, Spring Rock's only non-fast-food eating establishment, Nancy glowed with a confidence she had never previously felt in her brief remembered existence. Inspecting her reflection in a clinic washroom mirror after she had donned her borrowed outfit, she discovered herself to be positively beautiful. With the help of an infinitesimal amount of makeup her complexion emanated a clear and soft radiance. Her eyes, her superfluous spectacles discarded, shone with the promise of an intelligence and depth of character of which she had, as yet, precious little acquaintance. Her hair, when brushed, seemed full and lustrous. Even her teeth looked bright, straight, and undecayed. She marvelled that her appearance had so greatly improved. Did she, in reality, look so greatly different from that slatternly domestic drudge presented for her own inspection in the Drew garret a few days before? Or was it because she glowed, with an energy coming from an unknown source deep inside, knowing that a handsome someone fancied her?
"Good evening, Nancy," smiled Ashley, as he took her coat. "You look resplendent tonight!"
Nancy smiled, and took her escort's arm as they followed the obsequious waiter to their immaculate booth.
Without consultation, Ashley immediately ordered for both of them. "Those are the only interesting items on offer, and I find that it wastes a tremendous amount of time on a date if we spend it perusing the menu."
With that the two young people fell into earnest conversation. When their meal arrived, they did eat, but otherwise scarcely noticed the intricate presentation or even the arresting flavor of their food. The pains taken by Tub and Basin's culinary staff was not, however, entirely unappreciated. The pair basked in the restaurant's cozy glow and felt warmed inside and out. The restaurant's métier, it seemed, was the "art that conceals art."
"Do you work for the clinic?" Nancy began her investigation with what she hoped was a safe, pedestrian topic. She wanted to gradually work up to the more personal questions that might be a prelude to sharing her own inner grief. If only she could get Ashley first to open up to her!
But the question was met with an unanticipated hesitation.
"I guess I do, in a manner of speaking," he replied.
Nancy tried to cover his embarrassment with some gentle teasing.
"Either they pay you or they don't. If you don't get a check, you don't work for them. Do you get a check?"
"No." Nancy could tell that her companion had intended to lie to her, but somehow had not been able to. This gave her confidence in pressing her investigation. At the same time, she realized that his regard and care for her increased the emotional stakes considerably.
"Not exactly. I wouldn't be here except for my sister. She used to work here, but now is sick. I work at the clinic in order to help her."
Nancy got the impression that, while she seemed to have the power to extract truth from him, he yet practiced the art of the "truth that conceals truth." Seeing him uneasy at her line of inquiry, she decided to change tack. She would try to approach the mystery of his current situation from another angle. But she pressed her questions one after the other, hoping by the interrogative flow to fend off any awkward questions that he might bring to bear. She liked Ashley, and like him, did not wish to have to prevaricate.
"Where do you come from?" This had to be a safe topic. She could tell by an easing of the muscles around his forehead that it was.
"I was born in Glasgow."
"No!" squealed Nancy. "You don't have a Scottish accent."
"You should hear a Glaswegian one. The untrained ear cannot make head nor tail of it. My mother thought the Scots on Sauchiehall Street were talking Russian. But no, my parents only stayed there for a few months after I was born. I grew up in Boston."
"So you are not now far from home," observed Nancy.
"Not as the crow flies," commented Ashley. Nancy could tell by the tone of this remark that he meant that in some other way he was very distant indeed.
"Tell me about your family," Nancy pressed. She had a presentiment that a minefield lay ahead, but thought it better to press onward than to allow Ashley to direct questions at her. His answers might be painful, but she didn't have any answers at all.
"My parents are both crazy," he commented laconically.
"Practically everyone says that," said Nancy reassuringly. She didn't know where she got that specious information, but it sounded plausible to her.
"No, Nancy. I am not commenting on the generation gap. Before I got old enough to get even the least bit alienated, when I was barely potty-trained, both my mother and my father were taken away. They tell me that my mother is so deeply insane that it would be dangerous to be in the same room with her even for a moment. It is said that she once killed and partly ate an orderly. I have never seen her since she was institutionalized. My father is in a different asylum. I used to visit him until he forgot who I was. I got tired of being other people to him, and the strain of playing make-believe with a demented old man who used to be my dad got too great to bear. Since he doesn't know me any more, I decided not to bother going to see him."
This story was very distressing, not only to Ashley, but, for different reasons, to Nancy as well.
"Do you have any brothers or sisters, besides the one who is a patient here?"
"Only my surviving older brother Glen. He has been living in Switzerland for years. I had three brothers, actually, but my father shot two of them. That is why he is mad, I guess. He can't bear to remember what he has done."
Every new detail sent a shiver down Nancy's spine. This latest revelation rendered Nancy quite frantic, though she did an excellent job of preserving an unperturbed outward demeanor. What if she had done something truly horrible in her past and didn't remember it? They had told her that her amnesia was due to an electric shock. What if they were not telling her the full truth? Or, what was more likely, she had an accident was just as it had been related to her, but something in her past had predisposed her to want to make her memory a blank. Could it be that she was hiding from herself the terrible fact that she was a criminal, even a murderer? She could barely maintain her composure, or even to face Ashley at all. And what if he knew who she really was? Had he brought her to the restaurant out of pity? Or did he date her because he rejoiced in finding someone even more miserable than he was? But, then, after all, isn't that what she was doing-looking for a fellow sufferer? The thought that their two paths might be so converging rewarmed her agitated heart, disarmed her suspicions, and made her think once again quite fondly of him.
"So all you have left is your sister?" asked Nancy, breaking the short silence that had descended over the couple as they munched on their appetizer.
"Yes," he admitted. "She is the only one from my family that I care about any more."
"Tell me about her," encouraged Nancy. She hoped that the sister, in spite of her current malady, would provide a less than distressing topic of dinnertime conversation.
It was not to be so benign a subject as Nancy hoped. Ashley blanched entirely, but continued in what he hoped was not a monotone.
"She is an amazing doctor, or rather, she was."
"Until she got sick?"
"Until she came here." The words were out of Ashley's mouth before he could stop them. He then felt that he had alternative but to continue doling out the truth. "She was an extremely successful neurosurgeon in New York City."
"What is her name?"
"Natalie, or at least it was. After she got religion, she changed it to Asta."
"Asta? That name sounds familiar."
"It is so embarrassing, Nancy," Ashley confessed. "I found out later that she had named herself after the dog in the Thin Man movies."
"Why?" asked Nancy reflexively.
"I don't know. But she became a different person at the same time. More distant. Not the warm and loving sister she had always been to me until then. Shortly after her conversion she came here to Spring Rock, set up a spiritual healing practice, and was surrounded by new age groupies, and I could hardly even approach her when I visited her for her birthday."
Nancy could sense the feeling of intense disappointment still lingering in Ashley from that past occasion.
"When was this?'
"A couple of years ago."
"But you say she is now sick herself?"
"Yes. She got to preaching about her methods and collapsed during a sermon. She has not been seen in public since.'
"Whatever is wrong with her?" Nancy inquired.
Ashley hesitated. "I don't know," he said at length.
Nancy knew that, for the first time, Ashley was concealing something from her. She wondered if she should go on in this direction. Her mealtime companion was visibly squirming, perhaps as much from the unhappiness of his memories as from reluctance to endure further examination. But her intuition told her that Natalie was the key to this man's character-and to his soul. If he were ever to fall in love with anyone, that girl would have to learn to love his sister as he did.
"The folks at the clinic won't tell you?"
"No. And I can't see her, except through a one-way glass. And I am only allowed that privilege if I do things for them."
This sounded horrible to Nancy. Was it legal to keep this man at such a distance from his ailing next-of-kin? She suspected that it was not legal, but wondered how she could know this. Her employer, Carson Drew, was a lawyer. She would ask him when they got home. She hoped that Mr. Drew would not think that she was trying to take advantage of him, seeking free legal advice.
"What things do you do?" pursued Nancy.
"Odd jobs, mostly," Ashley answered laconically. "Public relations."
"I hope I don't sound ignorant," the humble servant girl responed. "But what are public relations? Is it like advertising?"
"No, not exactly." Ashley looked concentratedly at his food, as if looking for some kind of answer there that perhaps Nancy might swallow. "It is more like the opposite of advertising. Sometimes I try to keep news from the clinic from getting out. I try to control any bad publicity."
"Do bad things happen here at Spring Rock?" Nancy asked with amazement.
"Not so many bad things occur here as perhaps they do at regular hospitals. But people know what to expect at hospitals. People die. Things go wrong in surgery. But here, the healers are doing something not so well respected as the medicine regular physicians perform. Since the people who come here are often as sick as those admitted to a hospital, well, you know . . . things do not always work out the way people hoped. When someone here dies, or even if their health takes a turn for the worse, there are those outside, the jealous and the skeptical, who are ever ready to decry the healing done here, label the healers quacks, and to call for the place to be shut down. So I try to keep any bad news from getting out."
"Do you like this work?"
"It's a lousy job. But I'm stuck with it. If I quit, they won't let me see my sister."
"But you said that she can't see you." Nancy wondered that Ashley did so much for so little, and wondered why more could not be granted him.
"They did tell me last year that I could go in her room and talk to her, if I performed a special difficult mission." Ashley winced visibly as he said this. "But they went back on their word. I was taken inside, but she was asleep and could not be wakened. I tried to go again later, but I was told there would be an additional price to pay."
"A price?" Nancy wondered.
"What kind of job?"
"An outside job. Delivering a message."
"That doesn't sound difficult." In her short remembered experience Nancy had seen numerous tradespeople arriving at the Drew residence. It seemed to her that, compared to being a household servant, those delivery agents had a slack job.
"The messages I deliver are not your ordinary messages," Ashley explained. "And it takes a lot of time to accomplish such a mission. The one that earned me my disappointing visit to Natalie took several months. It cost me so much effort and . . . well trouble . . ."
Ashley's voice nearly broke during his slow recitation.
"That I have turned down several such jobs since that time. And I have never since been admitted to see my sister!"
"What did you have to do to earn your last visit?"
"I can't talk about it. The people who run the clinic would not be pleased to have me sharing their secrets, even with someone as innocent and discrete as I know you are." Unconsciously Ashley's voice had descended to a whisper. "And besides, I don't like to think about that subject myself."
The man who had been so confident and debonair just a half-hour before, now seemed to have been reduced to a nervous wreck. Without knowing how, or why, Nancy had steered the conversation towards a precipice, and she felt that she must exert her energy to keep Ashley from going over. The only resource she could muster at such short notice was her own secret agony. As she looked at her distraught companion, his head bowed low over his plate, she prepared to offer her shameful history up as a sacrifice.