Book Extract: Trauma by Patrick McGrath

In McGrath's novel a New York psychiatrist is drawn towards a damaged femme fatale
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She was wearing a short black jacket over a man's white shirt unbuttoned to her breasts, and a short black skirt. Her hair was slicked back with some sort of gel, and she wore glasses with heavy black frames. Bare legs, black shoes with low heels. I told her later that she looked like a librarian with a secret. Later still I told her she was wanton. But first we had to get through dinner. When she first came into the restaurant I'd watched with quickened heartbeat as she spoke to the waiter, who'd turned to point at where I was waiting with my arm uplifted in the shadows at the back of the room. As I rose with stiffening penis to greet her, she paused, then kissed me lightly on the lips. She was fragrant.

"I couldn't see you," she said. "It's like a crypt in here,"

"Are you all right?" I said.

She'd sat down and was dealing with her bag, frowning, sighing, but at this question she grew still and gazed at me. I was saying, Do you regret last night? The sex had been, for me, at least, deeply interesting. She was a restrained lover, almost to the point of passivity: a small, pale, fleshy, pliant doll of a woman in bed, but she talked throughout, which I liked, husky, dirty talk. She had excited a strange fierceness in me that I didn't trouble to analyze. Sex is sex, after all; there are few rules. Do no harm.

"I'm fine, Charlie. How are you?"

I told her I was all right too. We sat in silence until the waiter arrived, drinks were ordered, menus scrutinized.

"I'm starving," she said.

I thought at first she was just going through the motions, having dinner with me to he polite. And that that would be the end of it. She was behaving not like the vampy creature who'd flirted with me at Walt's, then spent the night in my bed; rather, she was the demure woman I'd seen that evening in Sulfur. But after several glasses of wine she began to warm up. She was with me because she wanted to be, and remembering how we were then, when it was all promise, with nothing to ruin it but folly, or fear, I see us as though from a camera attached to a track on the ceiling: a lean, lanky man with his hair cut short, en brosse, in a creased linen suit with one elbow propped on the candlelit table, his chin cupped in his fingers, the other arm thrown over the back of his chair, listening with a smile to this peachy woman gesticulating and smoking on the other side of the table. She ate only a little of her pasta and barely touched her steak. She drank several carafes of white wine, I didn't count, while I nursed a glass of red. She must have smoked seven cigarettes over the course of the meal, but a number of them she crushed out after only one or two drags. I idly wondered why some cigarettes got smoked right down to the filter and others were crushed out at birth.

I paid the check and we emerged into the night. We were a couple of blocks west of Seventh Avenue. She took my hand. We stepped away from the restaurant, and there were flowers for sale in the deli on the corner. I asked her if she'd like some.

"No, Charlie," she said. "Let's just go home."

Home. My apartment, she meant. Which no woman had entered for many months, excepting Agnes, of course. In which I had become accustomed to retire from the world at the end of the day and there indulge the stark pleasures of my solitude. I experienced a flicker of misgiving at the prospect of relinquishing that solitude, but it was only a flicker. For a woman to refer to a man's apartment as home is of some importance, for it suggests trust; and this had come from a woman I'd known barely 24 hours. One of the rewards of maturity, I told myself, in a rare burst of complacency, is the ability to make a rapid decision on a matter of profound emotional significance and have confidence in its soundness. The folly in this line of thinking didn't become apparent until later, though even then I was aware, somewhere in the engine room at the back of my mind, of a needle flickering across a gauge and entering the red zone, signalling danger.

Had I guessed it already, had I glimpsed again the eternal inexorable truth that it is always the sick ones who seek out the healers? The lost ones who hunt down the fathers?

There was a slight tremor, this I do remember, for I had barely touched my wine, I was clearheaded; or no, not a tremor, a sensation of blur, the lover blurring into the shrink. This I ignored, and instead I exulted. Home, such as it was.

© Patrick McGrath 2008

'Trauma' by Patrick McGrath (Bloomsbury £15.99) is published on 7 July

About the author

Patrick McGrath was born in London in 1950 and is the author of six previous novels, including 'Spider' . He lives in London and New York and is married to the actress Maria Aitken.