They met in the bar after attending the first day of a government sponsored conference on trauma and domestic abuse.

Unfortunately, the day had not lived up to expectations.  The hotel conference room, designed to double up as a banqueting hall or ballroom, had magnificent chandeliers, but no windows.  The glorious autumn day, trees ablaze with leaves on the turn, had passed by unseen by the delegates.  Lunch had been too rushed and the buffet had run out of salad.  Coffee and tea breaks had been chaos, with insufficient staff serving and long queues forming.

The speakers, mostly men despite an overwhelming majority of the 230 delegates being women, had inflicted too many Power Points on a passive audience.  Timekeeping had been poor, with presentations often overrunning their allotted time slots and Q&A sessions, either severely truncated, or axed. Questions from the floor were often inaudible, delegates either failing to wait for the roving mike to reach them or, when it did, not speaking into it clearly.  In their confusion, some people even switched the microphone off, convinced they were switching it on.

When the day’s proceedings eventually drew to a close, Reginald retreated to his room on the fifth floor and took a lengthy shower with the water going full pelt. Feeling refreshed, he dutifully phoned home and, having learnt that all was well, went for a walk along the canal towpath before dinner.

As he walked in the twilight, relishing the fresh air and reflecting on what he’d gleaned from the day’s sessions, he passed a woman who looked vaguely familiar.  Half a mile later he recalled  where he’d seen her before: at the conference, during the morning break whilst he stood in the coffee queue struggling to open a stubborn packet of ginger biscuits.  He remembered she had been standing alone, engrossed in sending text messages on her smart phone.

He thought no more about her until he entered the bar after dinner.  There she was again, sitting by herself at a small table with what looked like a brandy.  She was still sending text messages and he admired the way her thumbs flicked, apparently effortlessly, over the keys.  She was the only person sitting alone.  All the other tables were taken by delegates from the conference reminiscing about the day’s proceedings, the hubbub of voices occasionally punctuated by explosions of laughter.  Reginald ordered a drink from the bar but hesitated to join the woman and interrupt her texting.  While he dithered about where to sit, she looked up and smiled.

‘Do join me,’ she said, indicating a nearby chair.

‘You look busy, I didn’t like to interrupt,’ said Reginald.

‘Oh, I’ll be glad of the distraction.  I’m a life coach and I’ve got clients who’ve been pestering me all day.’

‘Pestering you?  I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Yes, one has been traumatised since she saw a mouse in her kitchen. It’s pathetic, the silly cow seems to have spent most of the day standing on a chair.  Another has had a row with her partner and he’s gone off to the pub. She knows he’ll be violent when he gets back.  I’ve told her to pack a case and bugger off.  And now I keep getting texts from a woman who is threatening to kill herself. I’ve told her not to be so silly.  My name’s Harriet by the way, Harriet Robinson.’  She thrust out her hand and Reginald took it compliantly.

‘How do you do.  I’m Reginald Bucknall.  I take it that you didn’t tell your clients you were going to be away for a couple of days?’

‘They know they can contact me anytime, day or night, wherever I am. All part of the service I’m afraid.  No peace for the wicked.’

‘Hmm, that wouldn’t suit me,’ said Reginald.  ‘We don’t offer an emergency service and we aren’t allowed to give clients our contact details.  If they want to get in touch they have to make an appointment via the office.’

‘Sounds very bureaucratic.  What charity is that?’

‘Relate,’ said Reginald uneasily, feeling he was being drawn into betraying a confidence.

‘Well,’ Harriet snapped, ‘you should thank your lucky stars that you don’t have clients like mine: dependent wimps!’  She glanced momentarily down at her phone then looked up and asked, ‘Tell me, what did you make of today’s proceedings?’

‘A bit like the curate’s egg I suppose,’ said Reginald warily, ‘good in parts.’

Harriet pulled a face. ‘An utter shambles!  And far too much emphasis on all that namby-pamby person centred stuff for my liking.  I skipped most of the afternoon.’

Harriet was a heavy, rather blowsy woman in her late fifties. Her hair was dyed blonde and she had a tight mouth with a protruding jaw.  Without being asked, she told Reginald that she had set up as an independent coach five years ago when her career in social services had been cut short after an enquiry had found her negligent in a case of child abuse.

‘Not my fault,’ Harriet insisted. ‘The child’s mother was a manipulative bitch.  She concealed the fact that she’d taken in a new partner who was an alcoholic with anger management problems.  No one knew.’

‘How distressing,’ said Reginald. ‘What happened to the child?’

‘Died of a brain haemorrhage a few days after being admitted to hospital with head injuries and numerous broken bones.  The enquiry criticised the lack of ‘joined up thinking’ between the support services but, as the lead social worker, I got blamed.  I was the bloody scapegoat.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Reginald empathetically.  ‘A real setback.’

‘Not really. As things have turned out it was the best thing that could have happened,’ Harriet chuckled to herself. ‘If I hadn’t got the push, I’d still be an underpaid social worker with an impossible case load.’

Reginald, taken aback at Harriet’s lack of contrition, didn’t like to probe any further. He just nodded and said, ‘Funny you should say that. Over the years I’ve known a number of people who were made redundant and, even though it seemed a disaster at the time, bounced back by getting a better job or starting up on their own.’

‘Yes, I’ve no regrets. Have a look at my website and read the testimonials.’ Harriet, with a flourish, produced her business card and pushed it across the table towards Reginald.  ‘What about you?  Has your path run smooth?’

‘Yes, I’ve been lucky.  I was a teacher, deputy head of a comprehensive, but I took early retirement at sixty and did voluntary work as a Samaritan for a couple of years and then I trained as a marriage guidance counsellor.  Keeps me out of mischief.’

‘Can’t say I envy you,’ said Harriet. ‘I could never be a Samaritan, don’t hold with all that listening stuff.  My clients pay me good money to tell them things they don’t want to hear.  I  give them no nonsense advice.’

Reginald was nonplussed.  ‘That’s interesting.  I take it you’re not a fan of the non-directive approach?’

‘Fuck no, forgive my French.  I don’t hold with all that wishy-washy, client-centred stuff.’  Harriet sat back as if to say ‘so there!’ and sipped her brandy.

Reginald, astonished by Harriet’s forthrightness, kept his calm. ‘Well, in that case I’m not surprised you skipped the afternoon.  One of the more interesting sessions gave recent research findings showing that clients were far more forthcoming when the counsellor employed active listening.  Apparently, on average, it encouraged clients to say twice as much.’

‘Oh, for god’s sake!  Who the hell wants clients to do more talking?

Reginald, wishing he’d chosen to sit somewhere else, persisted gently. ‘As I understand it, the whole point of encouraging clients to talk is to help them  put things into perspective and work towards finding their own solution.’

Harriet shook her head in disbelief. ‘Utter clap trap!  Giving people a shoulder to cry on may make them feel better in the short term but it doesn’t solve anything.  My clients want some  tough love, to be challenged.  They need to see how their self-defeating beliefs are the root of all their problems.’

Reginald’s heart sank.  He had come into the bar for a quiet nightcap before retiring and felt irritated now that he found himself caught up in conversation with this aggressive woman.  He had always dreaded confrontation and had spent his life leaning over backwards to avoid it.  As a deputy head he’d often had to deal with angry parents complaining about this and that. He’d always  found it best to listen patiently to their gripes until they ran out of steam.

‘Well,’ said Reginald noncommittally, ‘each to his own I suppose.’  He looked at his watch. ‘Goodness, is that the time?  I must turn in.  An early start tomorrow.’

He started to get to his feet but it wasn’t easy, his chair was low and the cushion squishy.

Harriet put out a restraining arm. ‘Hang on a mo!  You can’t duck out leaving things up in the air like that.’  She leant forward, looking straight into Reginald’s eyes. ‘Where does marriage guidance stand?  Do you use behaviour therapy?’

Reginald, desperate to leave but feeling he should attempt to defend Relate, sank back into his seat.  ‘We used to concentrate on marriage but our work is broader now and covers all sorts of relationships.  We try to provide a safe space for people to talk through their difficulties……’  Reginald’s voice trailed off.  He felt utterly inadequate under Harriet’s unflinching gaze.

‘Ah ha,’ said Harriet gleefully, ‘I suspected as much!  You stay on the fence, offering no guidance, no actual advice.’

‘Hang on,’ Reginald spluttered. ‘I’m not sure that’s quite fair. We believe in empowering people to work towards their own solution.’

Harriet sat back triumphantly.  ‘Just as I thought, more of that crappy non-judgemental stuff!’

Reginald – he wasn’t a large man – managed to stagger to his feet.

Harriet remained seated. ‘I bet,’ she snorted, ‘you go in for all that mindfulness mumbo jumbo too.’

A wave of anger spread through Reginald’s body, like pressure building in a volcano that had been inactive for years: an alien feeling he hadn’t experienced since, as a school boy, he’d lashed out at someone who teased him for coming last in a cross-country race.

Before he knew what he was doing, Reginald bent down until his face drew level with Harriet’s and he shrieked, ‘You piss me off!’ and marched out of the room.  Conversations in the bar stopped abruptly and heads turned to see who was doing the shouting.

The next morning Reginald rose early, packed and, without having breakfast, left for home. Safely on the train, he gazed out of the window and succumbed to an uncontrollable fit of giggles. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he reflected on the irony of him, of all people, giving someone a blast of judgemental feedback.

He had to admit, it felt good. Very good.

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