Doesn't Everyone Have a SecretPenny Littleton left her flat; she closed the shiny red front door behind her, tapped the brass door-knocker three times and skipped down the small stone steps, counting ‘one, two, three’ as she descended. This was the routine that she’d done every morning for about the last two years, ever since the day that she’d tripped on the top step and fallen. The routine had developed and now she felt immensely uncomfortable if she tried to leave without doing it.

‘Morning. It’s a lovely day,’ she called to the postman.

He was used to this behaviour, so without so much as a raised eyebrow he waved and responded with, ‘Yeah. I think it’s going be a warm one.’

Penny was a PA to a businessman; he was in the public eye a lot, which unfortunately meant that so was she. She felt embarrassed whenever people saw her odd behaviour, even though the postman was kind enough not to comment. She was going to have to do something about her habits.

Tapping the roof of her car three times before getting in and driving to work, Penny realised that she couldn’t even remember why that routine had started.

Bustling in to the office, she immediately telephoned her boss. ‘Mr Clarke, hi, it’s Penny. I’m calling to remind you that you’re doing another motivational speech at the Golf Club today. They were really pleased with the one last year. They were … well … umm … motivated!’

‘Yes, yes, I know Penny, you texted me last night before you went to sleep at about midnight!’

‘Did I? Yes I think I did. I know I did. But then it’s better to be safe than sorry.’ Penny tried a nervous laugh.

‘There’s safe, there’s really extra safe and then, unfortunately, there is you. Penny, I’m really sorry but I am going to have to say something to you which I’ve been meaning to say for a while; if you can’t curb the amount of times you remind me about things, and the number of times you check that inanimate objects haven’t sprouted legs and toddled off, and the number of times you insist on touching my bald head for luck, I’m going to have to let you go!’

‘Yes, Mr Clarke, you are absolutely right and no one could blame you for … do I really touch your head, Mr Clarke?’

Mr Clarke roared down the telephone, ‘Yes, Penny, you do; once in front of a TV camera and once when we met the bloody Prime Minister.’ Taking a breath he tried to calm down because he did feel great affection for Penny despite the fact that she’d never lived up to the efficiency her CV had promised. In a softer voice he added, ‘You’ve holiday due to you, Penny. It would be a good time for you to take it now, things are quiet. Take a couple of weeks off, I’m quite able to control my own diary for a while. If it all gets too much for me, I’ll ask my sister to help out. Get some help for your er … erm … ticks and come back refreshed. You could see a therapist or something, there’s no shame in it. I’ll even foot the bill … OK, Penny?’

‘If you insist, Mr. Clarke. Sorry erm … I could do with a bit of a break actually. I am owed holiday, yes, sorry.’ Whilst talking, Penny had tidied up all the paperclips and was silently counting them. She found it very comforting to count objects. Next she counted the spotlights in the ceiling, even though she knew off by heart how many there were. Twelve, a comforting number, because it was divisible by three.

Tuning back in to the telephone call, she added, ‘Now don’t forget you have the Golf Club today and it’s your sister’s birthday next week and …’

With a sigh and almost in defeat, Mr Clarke declared, ‘I can manage, Penny, honestly.’ If he was honest, sometimes it was easier when she wasn’t there but he would feel awful if he had to let her go.

Penny didn’t want to say it, but the need was so strong. It was like a tight ball in her ribcage, she knew she couldn’t hang up without asking, ‘Sorry ‒ one last thing, Mr Clarke?’

Mr Clarke answered almost in despair. ‘OK, anything, any one thing, as long as it really is the last thing.’

‘Can you check that your gas rings are off, please? I didn’t check them when I left your house after going through the mail with you last night. You know I always like to check them just in case I might’ve bumped into them and switched them on by accident.’

‘If they weren’t turned off, Penny, I would be lying on the floor gasping my last breath.’

‘Yes I know that, Mr Clarke, and I really do wish that was enough for me, sorry, but could you just check again please, for me?’

There was the sound of Mr Clarke making his way into the kitchen, a sigh as he bent down and then he finished the telephone call with, ‘They’re off, Penny, and so are you. Go get some help, take a break and call me in a couple of weeks to let me know how you’re doing.’

Penny hung up and sat staring in to space with a confused look on her face. Eventually she made her way to the office door and a brief twenty minutes and several rituals later the office was safely locked up and she was back in her car and on her way home.

Deciding that she would get on and tackle this immediately, Penny Googled therapists in her area. Staring aimlessly at the array of names and telephone numbers it seemed that one name stood out ‒ Dr P Frank B.Sc., Ph. D, Behavioural Therapist. Strangely, she felt that he was the one for her.

***

Penny phoned the number but was told in no uncertain terms that, ‘Appointments for Dr Frank are booked weeks in advance. However, I’m happy to make a note of your details.’ It therefore came as a huge surprise when thirty minutes later this same officious secretary called back and declared that, amazingly, a regular patient had cancelled his appointment for later that day.

Penny found it very refreshing to be able to talk about all her odd habits with a stranger. For so long she’d tried to hide them from her family and friends, and now it all seemed to be flooding out.

Dr Frank looked down at the notes he’d made so far. ‘So would you say that there appears to be a reason for most of these things then, Miss Littleton?’

Penny stopped counting the certificates on the wall and leant forward. ‘Well sometimes I do wonder if … no … I’m sure it’s not that. Sorry, it’s just hard to talk about.’ This doctor was a lovely man and Penny wanted to be totally honest with him but there were some things she didn’t discuss, not with anyone. She figured it was far better to stick to her more acceptable theories. ‘There is a bit of a theme actually, there’s counting, repetition, especially the number three. I think that goes back to the fact that I was the third child.’ Speaking rapidly, she struggled to catch her breath. ‘My parents had two boys first; then, quite some time later, very unexpectedly, along came me. Sadly, my dad died when I was young. I do wonder, you know, if it’s kind of like, I always felt that as I was born third in the family, I should do everything three times. The problem is, it began as an occasional thing and now I find that I really do have to do everything three times, which of course is far too time-consuming and I can quiet see why Mr Clarke finds me so …’

‘Right, OK, Miss Littleton.’ Dr Frank was kind but firm. Watching this curly-haired young woman with hands that never kept still and rather sad grey eyes he felt sure there was so much more to her situation but decided against pushing her for information at this point. He interrupted her gabbling to say, ‘Well what we need to do is to start gradually weaning you off these habits. We’re going to have to push the boundaries a bit I’m afraid. We’ll be using CBT, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.’

‘That’s OK, I’ll do anything. I really want this to work. Mr Clarke always says “If you want something bad enough you can make it happen”. That’s how he got to be such an important man you know.’ Penny was beaming at Dr Frank, so pleased to be talking about her favourite subject. ‘Did I mention what he does?’

‘No, I don’t think you did. Don’t worry about that now though. Listen, Miss Littleton …’ Dr Frank rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Tapping his pen on his pad he asked, ‘Tell me, this Mr Clarke, your boss, who’s confirmed he will kindly be paying my bill, could he possibly mean a bit more to you?’

Penny immediately flushed red. ‘Well that would be quite inappropriate behaviour, Dr Frank, I really don’t think … and anyway he would never be interested in me. He hates it when I dither, and apparently he especially hates it when I touch his bald head. It’s so soft you know, like a peach, bald heads are really under-rated.’

Spotting the familiar male pattern baldness on Dr Frank’s head she smiled, shrugged her shoulders and declared, ‘You see, I’m hopeless. No, Dr Frank, I have no aspirations regarding Mr Clarke, sorry, but I know my place.’

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