Cooper sat nervous and alone on the vinyl bench seating in his therapist’s waiting room. On the other side of the bland, white walled room the afro-carribean receptionist sat reading The Enquirer at a battered Ikea oak-imitation desk. She never raised her eyes to make contact with his, or offered Cooper any other communication than the curt “Take a seat” that had greeted his arrival fifteen minutes earlier.
Behind his seat an ancient, skeletal cast iron radiator gave off an infernal heat despite the fact that it was 2pm in late June in New York and the outside temperature was 34 degrees. He had begun to perspire and dark stains were now clearly visible on the oversized royal blue t-shirt he wore, radiating out from his armpits and down the centre of his back, adding self-consciousness at his presentation to the apprehension he always felt before these meetings.
Cooper stood suddenly and strode over to the water chiller, pulled a plastic cup from the dispenser and thrust it under the spout. He pulled the blue leaver and waited for the water to flow – but nothing came out. Without lifting her head the receptionist raised her eyes to observe Cooper’s actions and smiled knowingly to herself before returning her gaze to the Enquirer. Cooper tapped the upside down bottle on the top of the cooler and cursed to himself as the plastic sounded emptily. He screwed up the cup and tossed it into the overflowing waste basket next to the cooler and returned to his seat.
On the receptionist’s desk a red light extinguished and a green one came on. “Dr Droom will see you now.” She recited in a practised tone. Cooper stood, and headed for the door marked:
Dr Elsa Droom
He paused for a second with his hand on the handle, turned to the receptionist and mumbled a barely audible “Thanks,” then went in.
Elsa Droom was a small, slim but athletic fifty-something woman. Her thick, shoulder length bob of brown hair was shot through with grey streaks that Cooper suspected (correctly) were the work of some upmarket Manhattan salon.
Everything about the way she looked spoke of an expensive but carefully understated sense of taste. Had her Puce suit been grey, she might easily have been a lawyer, an appearance that would have done little to put at ease her troubled clientele, yet in these small details Elsa Droom made all the right decisions.
Never so flash as to make her clients feel inadequate, Droom dressed well enough to leave them in no doubt as to who was in charge. Cooper thought she could do with spending a little more of the cream on her waiting room, but he would never dare to tell her.
“Hello Cooper, how have you been?” she beamed at him, taking his outstretched hand and cupping it between her own tiny hands, and he was under her spell.
“Great, thanks… And you?” He began awkwardly.
“Very well, would you like a coffee? I have some Columbian freshly brewed as I am sure you can smell.”
He smiled and nodded, feeling a little easier. She poured them both a mug full and she gestured to the three chairs arranged around the cast iron Victorian fireplace she had had installed to create a relaxed atmosphere for her therapy sessions.
The chairs were all different, but all comfortable. He habitually chose a worn, green Parker Knole recliner that reminded him of his grandfathers chair back in Seattle when he was small. He settled in and pushed back a notch holding the mug with both hands on top of his tummy.
Droom took the chair next to his on his right, the middle chair; never the opposite chair, too confrontational. Droom was an ally, a confidante, and her posture confirmed this. It was a red leather button-back with low arms and no head or neck support. Cooper was smart enough to know that probably none of her clients would pick that one as you couldn’t sink into it, you rode on top of it, and it offered nowhere to hide when the going got tough, as it sometimes would with Dr Doom, as Cooper secretly called her to his friends.
She slid off her brogues and curled her feet under her legs with her knees pointing towards him. She locked her fingers together and placed her hands palms up on her lap with the tips of her thumbs meeting in a move that he knew was designed to make him feel comfortable and that her attention was focused on him.
She sat smiling at him for a minute, and then took the lead. “Last time you were here you spoke about your trouble sleeping, how are you getting on with that?”
The first few questions were always easy ones, designed to get him talking, the appetizer before the main course. It was a ritual he knew well and was comfortable with. Cooper liked ritual. Ritual and order helped him maintain his sometimes feeble grasp on daily life. They had seen him through the dark days when his parents had died, and they had been his crutches ever since.
She took an eclectic approach, sometimes saying nothing, patient as a spider, leaving him space to pursue his own processes. Other times she would berate him, cajole him and interrupt him. Sometimes he felt bullied and defensive and resented her when she didn’t support his view of things. Other times he felt hurt by her comments, cut to the quick by her brutal sword of truth.
Some days she would reduce him to a heaving, sobbing wreck, before building him back up with tender words of hope and encouragement. He would feed greedily on her praise for the progress he had already made, and she would send him forth renewed, eager to please her, with new targets to be achieved for when next they met.
But now her innocuous question had brought him straight to the point of the visit. There would be no gradual warm-up today; no exchange of banalities. Cooper was obliged to get to the heart of his trouble within five minutes of taking the hot seat.
“I had a strange experience last night.” He said with difficulty. Droom regarded him silently; the slightest of smiles played at the edges of her mouth and her eyes were large and earnest, waiting.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy…” he stumbled, staring into his coffee mug, unable to meet her gaze.
When Cooper couldn’t continue Droom intervened to keep things moving. “There is no judgement of you here Cooper. This is your space and your time to use as you will. Gather your thoughts and let’s see where things take us.”
Cooper cleared his throat. “I had a visitor last night, when I was in bed.” He took a swig from his mug and continued “I woke up around 3am, I could hear something in the bedroom with me. I was scared and just kept still. It had this horrible gravelly breathing, it really creeped me out.”
Droom was a statue, totally focused on him. “ I couldn’t have moved if I’d wanted to,” he continued “ I was petrified. Every night I lock my place up really well. You know what happened to my parents…” he paused for a moment turning to stare into the imitation flames as they danced and skipped hypnotically behind the glass front of the fireplace. “It was completely secure. Nothing could have got in without making a great deal of noise breaking stuff.” He shivered. “It climbed up on the bed, really slow. And then I saw it…” Cooper covered his eyes with one hand as if to prevent himself from seeing the memory of the interloper.
In the silence that followed Cooper became aware of the distant sounds of traffic from the street below then Droom leaned forward and spoke again. “What did you see Cooper?, describe your experience for me in as much detail as you can.”
Cooper shivered. “It was hideous, really old, a woman I think. Greenish, grey skin, dirty grey hair, long and all messed up. She had loads of wrinkles and a big mouth with pointy teeth. She had rags on, not really clothes. And her hands… long dirty fingers and filthy black nails. Her eyes were mad, all bloodshot and staring, and she smelled like compost.” He swallowed another mouthful of coffee and continued. “She kept coming, closer and closer and I couldn’t move or cry out. She climbed on top off me. I couldn’t even lift my arms. And then she started to strangle me, and I… I lost consciousness.
“When I woke up it was 11am and I was all alone, but my throat was sore. I checked the apartment and it was just as I had left it when I went to bed – totally secure.”
He looked directly into her eyes now, challenging her to respond to his revelations. He had delivered, the next move was hers.
“Firstly Cooper, I want you to know that I completely believe what you have just told me,” she began. “That is to say, that I am sure that what you have told me is a truthful recollection of what you believe took place in your apartment last night.”
Cooper studied her face, waiting. “The events that you have described are not unheard of,” she continued, “and have in fact been documented in many different cultures around the world. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as The Hag.”
Cooper felt the hairs rise on the nape of his neck, and a growing sense of excitement that what he had experienced was something shared by others and had actually been written about in textbooks, something true – something real.
“The Hag visits her victim in the night and they awake to feel a crushing weight on their chest, and a feeling of paralysis. Many people recount seeing a withered old crone sitting on their chest, and some report strangulation followed by a loss of consciousness. The symptoms of chest pain and paralysis almost always disappear upon waking, in very rare circumstances there are reports of it persisting, sometimes for days.”
Droom smiled at Cooper who appeared as though a weight had been lifted from him. “That is the anecdotal presentation of the symptoms Cooper. There are, as always factors at play that account for these types of experiences. What you have described is termed ‘Sleep Paralysis’ and can be experienced with or without the hallucinations.
“Sleep Paralysis is a condition where the mind experiences a measure of consciousness while the normal motor functions of the body remain shut down to prevent the body from acting out dreams during the REM stage of sleep.
“My concern here is that there are underlying issues for you that may have provided the trigger for this episode. For our next scheduled session I want you to think about whether there are any issues in your life that you feel powerless to affect. I would also like an open and frank discussion with you about any drugs that you are taking at this time Cooper, prescription or non-prescription.” She smiled and stood up, signalling that the emergency appointment was at an end.
Cooper stood up to go. He felt much better now about the night visit. He wasn’t mad after all, and thankfully the Hag wasn’t real either. He had an uncomfortable session ahead of him with Droom on Thursday afternoon, but that was nothing he couldn’t handle.
He thanked the Therapist and made his exit the same way he came in. As he passed the receptionist in the waiting area he didn’t even notice that she never looked at him.
In the consulting room Elsa Droom poured away her cold coffee and made herself a fresh one. She sat down again in the button back chair and sat thoughtfully for a few minutes before picking up the phone and dialling. The receiver sounded the long continuous tones of an international call for around thirty seconds before it was answered by a man with an English accent.
“Good morning Jason” she said with as much control as she could muster. “I hope you still have a crew in our area because I have some good news for you.” She paused to enjoy her moment the more. “She’s here… in New York, and I have a candidate for you.” And with that last teasing statement she closed the call.
She sat back in her chair and smiled to herself, sipping her Columbian coffee while the telephone rang and rang.