My first brush with the Happy Place could have happened one of two ways. It was either the email itself, sent en masse by them to a list that comprised what they presumed to be a target audience, or it was an advert that had popped up somewhere on a social feed and on which my scrolling thumb had rested long enough to count as a click. The laws of Internet probability dictate that some version of the latter led to the former – in either case it was there, at the top of my inbox, with “We Know You’re Unhappy” in the subject line and “We want to make it less lonely” in the preview text. The rest of the email was blank except for a link that took me to a webpage, which featured a street address about twenty minutes south of here by bus and a textbox that read: “Don’t forget to sign up before you go! Register here.” Obeying instructions, I saw a payment page that offered me a three-month membership and an instant checkout through PayPal and a guaranteed 10% discount on my first renewal. That the three-month membership cost four hundred and fifty dollars I was to learn only when I went through to the checkout page, which was when I saw the whole thing for the jejune affair it was and clicked on Exit indulgently. Three seconds later I was looking at a pop-up that confirmed the receipt of my money and expressed a hope to see me at the Happy Place on Sunday.
I could have emailed them to demand my money back, but instinct told me that that wouldn’t work, it would have to be in person. Griselda lifted her head and gave me a baleful look and I echoed the sentiment exactly. To convince myself to go through with it took another three weeks, a great deal of inward seesawing and an afternoon when two rats had chosen to die in tandem under my floorboards and that Griselda for all her vaunted keenness had somehow missed. Pest control having been summoned, I patted Griselda on the rump and advised her to brush up on her rat-catching skills before taking the next bus headed south.
The entrance to the Happy Place was through a motorcycle garage whose back door receded into a green-lined corridor that smelled of soup. A door with a brass handle loomed up at the end and the room it opened onto looked like the reception area of a 1920s brothel. The woman behind the fake-antique desk was thirtyish, had silver hair and looked up at me without interest. I showed her the payment receipt on my phone and she handed me a logbook to sign and indicated a door to my left.
“You’re right on time for coffee. There’s cake to go with it, decaf’s in the pot marked Decaf, WiFi password’s h-a-p-p-y-p-l-a-c-e-1-2-3.”
“I’m here to correct a mistake,” I said. “I tried to exit the payment page and my money got debited instead.”
“No mistake. That’s how we get members.”
She looked at me and I looked at her.
“You mean it was deliberate?”
“Our team is deeply committed to getting unhappy people to sign up.”
“And what if I don’t want to sign up?”
“Well, we still have your money. Now that you’re here you might as well give us a try.”
“Do you realise you’re defrauding people?”
“Do you realise no one made you click on that email?”
Even then I could have walked out. I had settled enough into my unhappiness to no longer find it fashionable, I had run the gamut of sad songs and now listened exclusively to metal, and I could afford to write off the four hundred and fifty dollars as the price of foolishness. Moments later I sighed inwardly and uncapped the pen to sign my name.
“If this turns out to be another Alcoholics Anonymous,” I told her, “I want my money back.”
“If you find us anything like Alcoholics Anonymous,” she said, “you can have double your money back.”
The room I entered was unexpectedly large – about the size and dimensions of a school library, and nearly as quiet. Chairs were situated throughout the room and a large window at one end had a stained-glass painting of a spaced-out Jesus. I counted sixteen people apart from myself, nine men and seven women of varying ages, ethnicities and degrees of facial expression. The coffee pots were on the table to my right and the WiFi router was blinking green. I looked around for instructions on club conduct and found none. Finally, I went up to a man with a limp and asked him whether there was something I was supposed to be doing.
“You’re new,” he said at once, and gave me a head-to-toe. “Well, I suggest you do what you like till you decide to leave.”
“So there aren’t any counselling sessions?”
“None at all.” He seemed to have been expecting the question. “This isn’t that kind of place.”
“So we all just come here and drink coffee and leave?”
“Pretty much. You’re free to bring along something to do, of course.”
“And you’re unhappy?”
“Desperately. Aren’t you?”
Desperation didn’t quite enter into it, I wanted to say and didn’t. I had had the foresight to bring a volume of Kant along, and I went over to the chair that seemed the least painfully stuffed and opened to Chapter 4. Philosophy had been my salve of choice during the recovery years and Kant in particular intrigued me. There was something almost preternaturally pleasing about the notion of a duty – rather than an emotion – underpinning every action. From time to time I would look up at the others and find them exactly as I had seen them before. Someone’s earphones were streaming out a near subsonic version of 'Brain Damage', but apart from that the only sounds were foot-shifting and clothes-ruffling. After an hour and fourteen minutes, I had had enough and got up. The woman at the desk looked up as I came out and handed me an envelope. The money was inside in crisp new bills, twice what I had paid online.
“On second thought,” I said as I handed the envelope back, “I might as well give you another try.”
She accepted it without change of expression and nodded.
“Welcome to the Happy Place.”
I should have seen it coming, I reckoned, the blatant show of goodwill that would induce a mind change. Irritating, and yet it had worked. I hadn’t taken the money, and I was aware – for better or for worse – that I would be coming back.
Unhappy people are told to make something of their grief – to bake cakes, to craft with pressed flowers, to write poetry, to volunteer at homeless shelters. At the Happy Place new members received home deliveries of plastic badges on which were inscribed in gold letters “I found my Happy Place”. It was the kind of absurdity that evoked weary amusement rather than indignation, and when I thought about it, I saw that this was yet another somehow successful cheer-inducing move. Post-badge, neither the woman at the reception nor anyone else from the Happy Place team took any further notice of me, and I was forced to heave a sigh of relief that in hindsight might have been their third and final trick. It is widely assumed that people kept together in a room for long enough will fall to talking, but at the Happy Place everyone seemed perfectly content with their own company. A good number of them spent their time staring up at the window or down at the shag, but I also saw four sets of knitting needles, two handheld video games (muted), a copy of Vogue magazine and a lump of modelling clay. Everyone came in as they pleased and left as they pleased and each of them seemed to be unhappy without being consumed by it, and within a fortnight I was so much at home that I went ahead and started asking some of them why they were here. There were those like me who refused to speak of it, and there were those who spoke of nothing else to whoever would listen. Among the latter was the man who suffered from chronic infidelity throughout the twelve years of his marriage.
“Why didn’t you stop?” I asked.
“I couldn’t,” he said sepulchrally. “I kept going from woman to woman, and each of them made me so miserable I thought I would die, and so I had to go look for someone else and it just went on.”
“And was your wife unhappy about it?”
“Oh, quite the reverse. You see, with me out of the way she could spend my money as she liked.”
There was the man with the limp whom I had spoken to on the first day, and who unbent enough to say that his problems were related to drink, and not the obvious kind. There was the woman with a birthmark on her face whom I felt a certain delicacy about questioning, and there was the girl with dyed bangs who always wore the same brown overalls paired with superhero T-shirts and looked more like a rebellious teen than any rebellious teens I had actually met. She would carry a book wrapped in brown paper under her arm, and from time to time she would open it up and look at something on the page and frown. I approached her one day and asked what her book was about, and without a word she opened it and showed me the back jacket. It was Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie.
“I’m trying to catch what it is they’re playing at but there’s nothing. There aren’t even any cameras that I could spot, and yet they’re bound to be watching us.”
“The people behind this Happy Place racket, of course.”
The girl had reopened to her page and was reading it while muttering something inaudible. I looked at her again and felt an inexplicable urge to get along with her. “There might be plants among the other members,” I suggested. She shook her head.
“No one who isn’t unhappy could fake it with people who are.”
“Well, none of them look particularly unhappy,” I ventured. She looked at me with scorn. “What earthly good would looking unhappy do?”
Suitably chastened, I proceeded to ask whether she was undercover for someone. Her look of scorn dissolved into pity.
“You really must be a mess.”
It was not a satisfactory exchange by any means, and yet on my next visit I found myself eyeing everyone a little more critically. There might well be something off about the place, and on the other hand the girl might well be neurotic. My conviction of the latter was deepened the next time I spoke to her, when she responded to my greeting with a shake of the head and an assurance that nothing in the room was as it seemed.
“Take the cake, for instance,” she said, pointing at the coffee table. “Have you noticed how it’s always lemon loaf?”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I really hadn’t thought about it.”
“Well, think about it.”
There seemed no plausible way to refuse.
“Well, from a certain angle it’s a smart choice,” I began. “Picking a cake that bridges the unlikeable and the likeable. Lemon loaf isn’t what you’d call a popular cake. It’s in the name, it’s lemon-y. But the way these folks make it, it’s delicious. Soft, moist, sweet, citrus-y without being tangy, browned on top. So what you have,” and now I was warming to my subject, “is a cake that no one ever gets addicted to, but no one ever passes up a slice of, either. Which means at the end of the day it’s almost always finished, but they never need to provide more than one loaf. Everyone gets their dessert fix, the Happy Place saves their money and their breath.”
“No complaints about substandard cake to respond to and no lawsuits about enabling food addiction either.”
She looked at me in a somewhat friendlier fashion.
“Do you know, that almost makes sense.”
I had forgotten what it was like to blush, but there was a warmth near my cheekbones that I couldn’t otherwise account for.
“I just made that up. Used to be I’d make up stories all the time.”
“You mean you’d write stories?”
“A while ago, yes.”
The ejaculation seemed unwarranted, as did the hard stare she fixed me with. For lack of a response, I retreated to a high-backed armchair and started reading Bertrand Russell with fierce and deliberate concentration until a shadow fell across the page.
“He ended up refuting all of that, you know.”
It was a fifty-something woman with close-cropped grey hair.
“Everything he wrote in that book. Never could hold up his head again after, and him winning the Nobel and everything. Sad, in a way.”
“Why not sad absolutely,” I asked.
“Well, on their own heads be it if grown men want to spend their lives questioning whether a chair is a chair, don’t you think?”
Evidently, I was not the only one who had turned to philosophy for coping.
A week later I walked in to see most of them turn around to look at me. For a moment I thought it was the new jacket, and then the woman with close-cropped grey hair marched up to me, caught me by the shoulder and said, “You – you’re a writer?”
I have never understood the fascination people have with writers. Musicians and painters are a certain sort, but writers are regarded as something else altogether. I cannot describe this attitude any better than by saying that people expect writers to be doing something remarkable all the time. There are some who might well fit this mould – poets, for instance, seem to be uploading new verses on Instagram every hour – but I had opted to write because I used to like it once upon a time and I was a hopeless failure at banking and there was nothing either remarkable or unduly pleasant about it. My mumbled response only served to intensify everyone’s gazes, and as I poured myself a cup of coffee to avoid looking at them, the woman with the birthmark on her face accosted me and asked whether I knew what life was.
“Well…” I began before I realised the question was rhetorical. With the air of a magician pulling a trick she held up her hand, shrivelled and blotched. It had been four years ago, she recounted, that she and an unspecified ‘he’ had fallen afoul of a gang whose preferred form of entertainment was to take people into a locked room and subject them to torture in various ways. She had been unable to bear it, watching the ‘he’ scream as nails were driven into his palms and feet, and decided to volunteer for a little torture of her own.
“I held my hand to the fire. Thrust it inside. Kept it there for a whole half-minute. They said if I did that they would let him go, and they did. And then he called me a masochist and left me.”
“My soulmate. Living without him wasn’t living at all. He left me – packed his things in an old briefcase and walked straight out the door.”
“I’m sorry,” I began. She seized me by the shoulders at once.
“But that’s life,” she said, breathing heavily, “That’s life!” She looked at me for a moment longer before subsiding. “You won’t be much of a writer unless you see that for yourself,” she said primly.
“Well, I think it’s a good idea,” I heard the woman with closely cropped grey hair say. I turned around and saw her detach herself from a knot of others and lock eyes with mine.
“We’d like you to conduct a writing class with us.”
“Writing’s supposed to be therapeutic, right? I’ve talked to the others and we’re up for giving it a try. Get some catharsis, closure, whatever you want to call it.”
In vain I tried to say that I wrote clickbait, not fiction. Within the space of two minutes they had lined up the chairs and seated themselves and were casting expectant gazes up at me. Having never learnt writing myself, I had no idea of how to teach others, and the only writing class I had ever attended I had left halfway through. “The notion that you control your stories always is a lie,” the class instructor had been saying as I walked out. “Once you commit a story to the page, it takes on a life of its own, and often you’ll find it leading you in directions you’d never have gone down yourself. And it is your duty, as a writer, to submit to that leadership. You aren’t just pushers-out of sentences, you are creators. Parents. You can’t rear a creation with control alone.” The instructor had subsequently acquired sixty seconds of fame as the mother of the man who had convinced her to keep an eye on a backpack full of unpaid-for beer cans while he went back into the convenience store for wine. By then, however, I’d already absorbed the truth of her teachings and applied it to my own emotional crisis. Creation wasn’t control; creation involved a duty to go where your sentences lead you, which meant that if all you could create were unhappy sentences then you must go down unhappy paths and end up in unhappy places, and since you were unhappy to begin with you might as well save yourself the trouble and not write. What you should do instead is absorb more and more – that way, you force the unhappiness to compress itself into a smaller part of your mind, or even to ooze out if you’re lucky. Hence the philosophy. Nothing compresses feelings like philosophy. But my audience was waiting, so I composed my face into one of scholarly soberness and asked them all to write down what their unhappiness meant to them. Writing materials were in short supply, and the one notebook in evidence was considerably diminished by virtue of pages being torn out and passed around. Only two people had pens, one of which proved to be out of ink. Friction was on the uptick until I suggested that they each take a turn with the working pen and pass it on, which gave me enough time to finish a second cup of coffee and count the number of stripes on the coffee table runner up to one hundred and eighty-nine. Most of the answers read out were conventional enough – doesn’t let me sleep, doesn’t let me eat, like someone’s got a death hold on my neck. Some were clearly trying to be clever – unhappiness is like a guest that overstays its welcome, unhappiness is the enemy of Zen. And then there was the woman with the closely cropped grey hair who stood up at the very end and read out her piece with all the force of an orator at a Roman forum. “Unhappiness is truth,” she announced, and refused to say another word.
“Why did you tell them I'm a writer?” I asked the Parker Pyne girl the moment I could speak to her alone.
“I didn’t tell them,” she said coolly, “only the grey-haired woman. She was asking about you – said she never thought she’d meet anyone fool enough to read Russell in this day and age.”
She opened her book and walked off before I could respond, and as though on cue the woman with the birthmark on her face came up to me, put an arm around my shoulder, told me that my way of teaching was execrable and advised me to read The Tin Drum.
“They cut onions there, the unhappy people, cut onions together in a room and cried. That was real catharsis. That’s what life is. Not all this writing crap.”
During the session I had noticed one of the people at the club looking at me somewhat oddly. It was a man of about thirty-five, plumpish, dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans. I hadn’t seen him at the meetings before, but what was stranger, I realised on the bus home, was that I had seen him somewhere in the recent past, and more than once. Matters cleared up on Monday when I was called into an executive cabin the moment I entered office by a semi-chief editor who had likely not known of my existence until that morning.
“Hear you’re part of that Happy Place club,” she said as she handed me a mug of tea.
Of course, I remembered. It had been Jason from the editorial team.
“Not your usual group therapy deal, I gather. You basically pay for access to a room in which to do nothing, right?”
The tea was oversweet and smelt of cardamom. A care package from a yoga retreat, undoubtedly, or a detox diet plan. The wealth of pimples on her face suggested it hadn’t worked.
“Anyway, we need someone on the spot. Rumour has it there’s something shady about the place, and we need an insider to dig it out. Keep an eye out for suspicious characters, funny behaviour, that sort of thing. Can’t have someone who can’t relate to unhappiness, so you’re up. It’s interesting, though,” she added. “You being there. Never would have pegged you for being unhappy.”
I wanted to repeat what the Parker Pyne girl had told me – that looking unhappy did no one any good. But the semi-chief editor had started chewing on the end of her pen and I was suddenly annoyed about this meeting and everyone in it.
“Why can’t Jason do it?” I protested.
She sighed irritably – more at the situation, I suspected, than at my question. “Man’s as anxious as a rabbit in a lion’s den. He’d break at undercover work. Resigned from the Happy Place too, now that he doesn’t have to be there anymore.”
“Then why keep him on the team?”
“Because his father owns this building,” she snapped, and sent me out.
There followed a trying few weeks when I was required to report on how often I visited the Happy Place, how long I stayed and whom I spoke to. Attempts to circumvent by lying about where I was didn’t work either – the semi-chief editor made it a point to call me into her office every Monday and extract from me the truth of what I had been doing. I had always viewed her as somewhat inept overall, but she proved unusually good at catching me out when I fudged. Ultimately, I gave in and began taking the calls as they came. The club had in any case lapsed back into quiet self-occupation after the writing episode, which meant I had nothing to report and hence needn’t lose much time by it.
One day I entered and saw the man with the limp holding the woman with the birthmark on her face by the hand and telling everyone that this was their last day at the club. “We’re making a match of it,” he said, “we decided we didn’t want to be unhappy anymore.”
“He isn’t my soulmate,” the woman confided in me afterwards, “but what I have with him, it’s...intense. It’s an intensity unlike anything I’ve ever felt!”
I waited for the official announcement to be made, for a notice to be put up outside listing it as one of the Happy Place’s ‘success stories’. There was none. I asked the woman at the reception about it and she nodded. “It happens sometimes. We don’t discourage it.”
“So this isn’t some sort of covert matchmaking enterprise?”
She looked at me with mild surprise. “You don’t really think love can fix unhappiness, do you?”
Not for me it hadn’t, but there was no accounting for other people. It was, however, not my last brush with love or the pursuit of it. The week after, the woman at the reception looked up as I entered and beckoned me closer with a strange look on her face, which after a few seconds I recognised as trepidation. One of the club members, it transpired, had ‘taken a liking’ to me and wished to ‘make my further acquaintance’.
“He’s asking you out to dinner,” she said. “Friday night, if you’re amenable.”
“And if I’m not?”
“Well then, I tell him that, incident closed.”
“I thought you said you weren’t into matchmaking.”
“Like I also said, it happens sometimes.”
“And technically it’s only matchmaking if I know him too.”
“He asked particularly that it be a blind date.”
“It doesn’t seem like I have any of the advantages here.”
“If that’s how you feel, of course, I’ll let him know.”
She paused, looking at me thoughtfully. “You might do with giving it a shot, though.”
“Going on the date with him, you mean?”
“Dating in general. You look like the kind of person who’d do well on love.”
She was the only other person I knew who used ‘on’ rather than ‘in’, and I instantly liked her the better for it. Love wasn’t something you sunk into, it was a high you opted for. I’d been on love before, and in the end it had proved little better than being on a drug – satisfaction for a while, getting broken afterwards and then being at risk again, this time even more because chances were the cracks still existed from the last time you broke. I made towards the door and then turned back as a thought struck me.
“Did he happen to say why he picked me?”
She shrugged. “He said it was that electric blue jacket of yours.”
I had a sudden vision of an elderly man (somehow I couldn’t see him as other than elderly) with a line-up of electric blue jackets before him and picking through each as he might inspect fruit at a farmers’ market. What had clicked for him, I couldn’t help but wonder, what had set me and mine apart from the rest of the jackets and made him go “That one”? Was it the jacket itself, an impulse buy prompted by a semi-irrational whim to look good, or was it the figure I had cut in the jacket on the day of the so-called writing class? And it occurred to me, not unpleasantly, that this might be the man’s version of a coping mechanism, and I smiled.
“I suppose I should tell him you refused, then?” the woman at the reception was saying.
“Tell him I think he’s too good for me.”
The next time she called me over she was surer of herself. She said it had come to her attention that I was trying to start writing therapy at the Happy Place and would I please stop.
“Nonsense,” said the Parker Pyne girl when I told her about it. “All you did was ask them to write about what unhappiness meant to them.”
“Well, someone found it close enough to therapy to talk.”
“Which means the club finds the writing a threat – or anything that could make people feel better.”
“Because if people felt better they wouldn’t come here anymore.”
“Which means the Happy Place really wants people to be unhappy.”
“Which means the whole thing is a fraud.”
“Which means I was right all along.”
We scanned the people in the room.
“I’d say that grey-haired woman,” she concluded, “she seems proactive enough.”
“I don’t know, she didn’t seem to mind the class.”
“Well, she only wrote three words. Maybe that was her way of saying she didn’t want to.”
“The woman with the birthmark on her face certainly didn’t want to,” I remembered. “She told me afterwards my way of teaching was execrable.”
“Or that man in the plaid shirt who never came back afterwards. I thought there was something strange about him.”
I coloured slightly as I realised she was talking of Jason, and then it struck me that she might be right. Was this all some elaborate plot by my employers? The pointlessness of it nearly made me curse out loud and I was forced to think of something noncommittal to say.
“Well, there’s no way of knowing, really. I mean,” I shrugged, “it could just as well have been you.”
She gave me a withering glance and gestured towards the coffee table. “They finally put out a new table runner, did you notice?”
There were three weeks to go until my membership ended, and I had the option of renewing it at the promised 10% discount and claiming it under expenses from the company. By then the other high-ups had chosen to take an interest in my assignment, although they had told me one and all that they were not impressed with my reports. “What you’re describing is a lounge room,” said the chief editor. “Or a Drones Club sort of thing. A Wodehouse reference,” he added for my benefit. Even without the insult I was losing interest. Lemon loaf at a hundred fifty a month seemed extravagant, and Griselda had taken to scratching the whitewash in my absence. Whether or not the Happy Place was host to anything shady I couldn’t tell, but the members kept coming back and looked none the worse for doing so and in all honesty the place was doing a public service by allowing unhappy people to simply be. It was time, I told myself, to bow out and be done with it.
But other forces were afoot already. I had noticed the Parker Pyne girl narrow her eyes at me once or twice, and when I spoke to her she was more distant than before. A week later I came back in after stepping out to take a call from my semi-chief editor when she confronted me.
“You,” she said redundantly, “you’re a fake.”
With difficulty and some reluctance, I convinced her of my unhappiness and told her what I had been assigned to do.
“But why do they care what happens here?” she wanted to know.
“They think it could be a front for something illegal.”
“Well, I’ve been saying that all along,” she said pointedly, “but much as I hate to admit it, I’m starting to think there isn’t anything. I’ve been coming here for a year now and I’ve never seen anything untoward. No one forms confidences or passes things to one another here. People don’t even shake hands that much.”
“You’ve been coming for a year?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“I can’t process my emotions where I live and my doctor says I’m dead if I start drinking again. Go figure.”
“Funny,” I couldn’t resist saying, “wouldn’t have taken you for a drinker.”
“There you go again judging people by how they look.”
“You’re the one going around trying to make deductions from a Parker Pyne book.”
“And you’re the one pretending to know nothing about writing.”
“It’s true, I don’t.”
“Admit it,” she said pointedly, “you’re unhappy because of something to do with your writing.”
“That’s neither here nor there.” Which was perfectly true.
She shrugged. “You may not realise it,” she said, “but you’re less put-together than you make yourself out to be.”
Which was also perfectly true, as was the fact that the patch of lipstick on her chin looked suddenly and inexplicably pretty, and it was several seconds before I caught myself staring and withdrew to cut myself a larger slice of loaf than usual.
On my last day I entered with a feeling of importance. Tonight I would be renewing my membership out of my own pocket. It was the right thing to do, I had concluded, both for myself and for the sake of the club. I had come to like the place on its own merit –clubs where one could legitimately do nothing were few and far between – and if my employers were that keen on sniffing out anything behind the scenes, I’d rather it be a sympathiser who fronted the sniffing. That the Parker Pyne girl played any role in my decision to stay I would not admit – I was doing it for a good cause and that was that. I was at the coffee table feeling especially righteous when someone came in and slammed the door behind them. It was the woman with the birthmark on her face.
No one else had looked up. I returned my gaze to the coffee, swirling the cream in with careful anticlockwise rotations of my spoon. She was standing beside me soon enough, and then her mouth was at my ear asking if we could speak somewhere by ourselves.
“He left me,” she began without preamble when we had moved to an empty corner. “Someone got him onto – video games,” she pronounced with some effort, “and he started playing all the time. It was like I wasn’t there. He said it made him feel like a real man, having an avatar that fought witches and dragons and whatnot. Finally, he asked me to move out. Said he’d found his happiness and it couldn’t involve other people.”
She looked much the same as the last time I had seen her. There was a half-healed cut on her good hand – an accident, or self-imposed? I refrained from saying that she could have introduced him to multiplayer games and asked instead how she was doing.
“Don’t you remember what I told you?” she said with a sad smile. “Things like this are what life is about. People don’t matter, pain does. That’s what it means to be human. That’s life. We were born to feel pain.”
She left soon after, and it was only as I watched her retreating form that I realised how much weight she had lost beneath the lime-green kaftan she was wearing, how long the nails were on her undamaged hand. Suddenly I no longer wanted my coffee. I put the cup down and stepped outside before anyone else could approach me. The Parker Pyne girl and the woman at the reception were talking.
“Of course, we’ll have to put a detail on her at once,” the latter was saying.
“Naturally, we can’t have returns showing up. We’ll have to figure out how much she knows.”
“What about that man she was involved with?”
“Oh, he’s a convert. Pays well for it too.”
“That’s all right, then. Who else? Did she talk to anyone inside?”
“Only the writer, as far as I could see.”
The woman at the reception snorted. “Writer. As though there weren’t enough of them crawling about already. I tell you, these martyr types…”
At that moment I coughed, or perhaps it was a gasp. They looked around at once, and on recognising me their expressions settled into a mixture of appraisal, expectation and coolness that could have meant anything. The book was under the girl’s arm, spine towards me, and through the brown paper covering I could make out gold letters that seemed to lack any Ps. Or was that the font? And come to think of it, since when had Agatha Christie books been published in those unwieldy gold-lettered editions? There was a hardness now about the girl’s mouth that hurt me, in some deep internal way, and as her lips parted I decided all at once that enough was enough.
Neither of them tried to stop me. I exited the corridor and the motorcycle garage and caught the first bus I saw, which led me to somewhere three miles north of where I lived and where I ate three helpings of pork vindaloo before I walked home, stumbling from the weight of the food and the unseasonable brightness of the Sunday evening. At the entrance to my building I ran into the woman from the next-door flat and went inside without helping her pick up her shopping. Ten floors up, five doors down the corridor on the right, one hundred and sixty footsteps in all. As I came in Griselda looked up from the scarf she had been worrying and meowed. “I know, Griselda,” I said as I threw the key onto the shoe rack, “I know.”
There followed an interesting few weeks, picking up habits that were only slightly rusted and getting back into them with the same lack of feeling I had mastered before. It was harder than it looked, and I had only myself to thank for that; there was a reason it had taken six years the first time. I had to relearn self-control, to resist the urge to vegetate on the sofa and get my daily boxing in, to not dream of the lemon loaf cake that the Happy Place had gotten me hooked onto. Of the Happy Place I wouldn’t let myself think at all. The semi-chief editor had been indifferent when I told her I had left the club for personal reasons, and I sensed that her own interest in it had run its course. Days reacquired their old pedestrian patterns of early rising and breakfast at home and regular work hours and low-carb stir-fries for dinner, and my comfort in it came back even as a new strand of emotion settled in, threading through my day, refusing somehow to be shaken. I had always been the sort to deal with things quietly and it had served me well all these years, but one day on my way back from work I glanced through the window of a jeweller’s and saw a couple looking at rings and found myself rushing into the nearest bar and breaking down. Two beers later I was half-ashamed, and another two beers later I was thinking for the first time in years about what had made me unhappy in the first place. Was it really worth it, I asked myself, all those years of recovering and making myself stronger? In the end I had still lost the one thing that had mattered more to me than anything else, strength or no strength, and that in an absolute sense made me a loser. And then there was the matter of the Happy Place, that club that wasn’t even a real club and yet had somehow wormed itself into my consciousness as a damn good thing for everyone concerned, and yet there was that woman with the birthmark whom the man with the limp had dumped for video games and she was somehow supposed to be okay with that. I had scorned for myself the notion of an obligation to be happy, but equally did it seem as though efforts to make oneself feel happy made no sense, and I couldn’t quite see how that was fair either and what was fair, really, in this load-of-crap world. The next thing I knew I was being shaken awake by the bartender and hustled firmly yet kindly into a cab that had been summoned for me. I learnt my lesson and quit drinking altogether.
The building at the corner of my street had been unoccupied for a while, but on one of my walks I noticed that it now housed an organic food shop. Inside a girl with blue-dyed hair looked up from behind a row of quinoa sacks. It was the Parker Pyne girl.
“I’d been meaning to do this for a while,” she said at once. “I figured I’d be unhappy no matter what I did, so I might as well eat better and make money off it at the same time. I’ve started a side project too – finding indirect parallels to Agatha Christie’s works in real life. Found eighty-seven in four weeks, would you believe it?”
“And are you liking it here?” I asked instead.
“I like it more than not on most days. It gives me someplace to be, and that’s always a plus when you consider my circumstances.” A faraway look came into her eyes. “Do you know, I believe I might even be less unhappy.”
“And what about the Happy Place?” I asked with some difficulty.
“Oh, them,” she said indifferently, “they closed down a couple weeks ago. Someone found out they were running a cocaine ring on the premises. Who’d have guessed. Such quiet-looking people too.”
And when one thought about it, it made sense, the blandness of the club as a front for selling contraband. I remembered the man with the limp and his problems with drink being not the usual kind and asked myself what they had meant that day when they said he was a convert and what had really put him off the woman with the birthmark on her face, but the Parker Pyne girl was twisting a bangle on her wrist and looking like some unapproachable Egyptian queen and I felt a sudden stab of betrayal. At the same time I sensed she might talk if I went about it right. I began nonchalantly.
“Well, that’s all well and good, but I wonder who told them about that writing class of mine.”
“Oh, didn’t you guess?” she said off-handedly. “That was me. I personally liked it, though – can’t say why she took offense. The woman at the reception, I mean.”
“Seems like several things were you.”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“And the cocaine?”
“That was only on demand. A lot of them knew nothing about it. Those who did, we’d source it and hand it over.”
“But how would they know in the first place?”
“We’d tell them, of course,” she said impatiently. “At least, the woman at the reception would. She’d know whom to pick, cocaine isn’t for everyone. She asked you too, I heard.”
“No, she didn’t.”
“She didn’t tell you a certain someone was interested in having dinner with you?”
“But…” I stopped. She was looking at me pityingly.
“You didn’t really think she was liaising for a date, did you?”
I thought again about the notion of an elderly man with a romantic streak picking me out as the one in the blue jacket. Was it improbable? I’d been too long out of the dating circuit to know.
“But why cocaine?”
“Haven’t you guessed? There is no cure for unhappiness. Once you have it, you have it. There are only breaks from it, and cocaine’s the most reliable.”
“And you’d carry the cocaine around with you?”
“Secret compartment in the Parker Pyne book. I’d have thought that was obvious.”
I wanted to ask her all kinds of things – whether it had really been a Parker Pyne book, whether she took cocaine herself, whether creating a safe space for unhappy people had ever figured in her plans as a priority or even a fraction of one, whether she’d felt any compunction at any point about stringing me along. Instead, I asked her the only question I could ask without embarrassing myself.
“So why did they only have lemon loaf cake?”
And it was then that she smiled for the first time.
“You want the truth? That's the only cake we knew how to bake."
Back at the flat I set rice to cook for dinner after making sure it wasn’t organic. Griselda rubbed against my leg in an unusual display of affection, which was a salve of sorts but it wasn’t enough. I had been wrong. She hadn’t wanted to talk. She had done so because it meant nothing to her one way or the other. I meant nothing to her one way or the other. It didn’t even count as stringing along because she had done it without intent or interest. I had thought I would know how to tackle feelings like this, but at the moment I felt like nothing so much as a duck that had been told it would be made into a roast. I chopped tomatoes and herbs with more vim than necessary and then realised I wasn’t hungry. Turning the gas off I went to the living room and switched my laptop on. A new email had come in from the Happy Place.
“Dear member, thank you so much for being a part of our journey! We regret to say that we’ve been forced to close doors permanently owing to reasons beyond our control. We understand that this might cause you inconvenience, as we’ve always strived to create a space where you can feel free to be unhappy. As a token of apology, we’ll be refunding your membership fee back to your source account at no extra cost to you. Once again, we thank you for your support, and we hope you find other ways of coping. Be well!”
I logged out in silence and put the laptop away. A dull pain throbbed at my temples. I glanced at the side table where the Happy Place badge winked up at me. Beside it was the leatherbound volume of Kant that I hadn’t touched in weeks. Martyr types, the woman at the reception had said. The cover was a mottled green, strangely free of dust. Picking it up I opened a random page and read the first thing that caught my eye.
“Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.”
Sensible enough, I told myself, and kept reading.