Pigeons and Doves

Picture of Philip Holden

Philip Holden

Philip Holden is a scholar, teacher, and storyteller who lives between Canada and Singapore. He’s author of the short story collection Heaven Has Eyes (2016), and one of the co-editors of Writing Singapore (2009), the most comprehensive anthology of Singapore writing in English. Having taught for many years at the National University of Singapore, he now brings a counsellor’s perspective to the intersection between writing, healing, and social change.

In London, a broken Lim Chin Siong, with the help of his therapist Eileen Tay, tries to step away from the precipice. Philip Holden’s story probes deeply and gently into what it means to “accompany others, and not to oversee them.”

The day she meets her new client, Eileen is nervous. She is still training as a psychotherapist. Her office is cold and bare, its sash window leading onto a tiny courtyard lined with sooty bricks. Pigeons’ wings flutter against glass in the leaden London air. She shrugs her shoulders. The new navy jacket weighs her down like armour. She looks at her hands, the trim nails, the little finger that she still bites hiding itself away underneath the others. When the client shuffles in she is for a moment lost for words. She must compose herself to speak. Wait for the lumps of that accent she thought she had suppressed forever to dissolve in her mouth. For that new therapist’s voice to come.

 “Mr Lim.”

 He has already taken the seat opposite her. He’s on the edge of his chair, looking at her through thick, round-framed glasses. Hunched up, as if at any time he might startle and take flight. 

 “I’m Eileen Tay. Was it difficult to make your way here?”

 He shakes his head.  He speaks slowly, with a noticeable accent. Flat, she mentally notes. Expressionless. He took the tube to Tavistock Square, and then walked. Once he found the street it was easy to count off the numbers and find his way.

 “Mr Lim, tell me why you came to us.”

 He’s silent. He meets her eyes briefly and then looks down at his feet. She snatches a glance at the clock on the wall, the red second hand moving in an arc, slowly somersaulting. Once. Twice. Breathe. Let the tightness go. You are here for the client, not for you. Do not rush to fill up silence with words.

 He looks up.

 “You’re very young.”

 Her cheeks burn. A thought like a wasp sting, pricking and leaving no trace. Don’t scratch. Don’t let it bother you. Reflect back his emotion, and the thought behind it.

“You’re skeptical,” she says, “because you think I’ve not seen enough of the world to understand you.”

 His face scrunches a little in puzzlement. Then, finally, he starts to talk.

* * *

At the end of a long day of sessions, Eileen is still rehearsing what happened when she climbs up the stairs to her flat at Lancaster Gate. The boiler’s out, and the radiators are stone cold. She lights the stove, holds her hands near the kettle for warmth. 

She sits down with her tea and begins to write up her notes. Most of the clients’ stories are simple. Depression or anxiety driven by ingrained patterns of thought. A young man feels a sense of dread when he enters the office each day, as strong as a blow to the chest. A middle-aged woman finds that anger still flares whenever she talks to her mother, although each time she resolves to be calm. An old gentleman is insufferably lonely and finds himself unable to make new friends.

Such cases, her supervisor Harry tells her, show the nature of human beings. They are like onions, taking patience and some tears to peel, layer by layer, to the core. Her clients are caught in an eternal moment: when the trigger event occurs, emotions overwhelm them. The trick is to help them notice the thoughts that flicker, that connect event to emotion, thoughts that have become so habitual that the client no longer notices them. Peel off the layers. Find that hidden thought. The young man is convinced that nothing he ever does works out right. The woman feels her mother’s judgment stab, even without words. The older man knows that he is fundamentally unlovable. Unwrap the thought. Look at it carefully. Is it really, completely true? 

This is how we progress, Harry tells her. Intellect governs emotion. We expose hidden thoughts to the clear light of day. It’s good to gain a clients’ trust, of course. To make them feel comfortable. But soon you need to discipline them. To make them, however recalcitrant, rule themselves.

She smiles and sips her tea. With Mr Lim, then, she surely shouldn’t worry that in that first session she’s simply let him talk and reflected back his feelings. She can introduce the process of change, the thought record, in the next session. She has saved his case notes for last. These should be clinical, Harry has told her. Factual. But she finds she remembers fragments of their conversation where words flew up beyond the grid of behaviour, emotion, and thought.

A great wave broke and left me on the shore.

Islands are never apart from each other.

 I see pigeons all around me, but I dream of doves.

She writes these words down and then crosses them out.

* * *

She does not think Mr Lim would return for the second session. And yet he is sitting there, in the waiting room, when she comes to look for him. He carries a bag of apples that he wants to give to her, and she says, gently, no, we are not allowed to take gifts.

She asks him, when he has settled in his chair, how his last week has been, and he tells her that there has been little change. He falls asleep easily, in the double bed he shares with his wife, but two or three hours later he is wide awake again. His boys sleep blissfully through the night. So does his wife. And yet when he wakes up, sleep refuses to come again. Thoughts race through his head.

He goes back over those things that happened, those stories that he has begun to share with her. Could he have acted differently? In agreeing to come here, in leaving Singapore, in writing that letter resigning from the party, did he betray his friends? Then there are the sounds of the street at night, even in the quiet of South London suburbia. Footsteps on paving stones, growing louder. The hiss of car tires on wet tarmac. Once, a police siren, in the distance, coming closer. He broke into a sweat. He was sure that it was coming for him. Despite the stuffiness, you keep the windows closed. You lie and wait for the knock on the door, the voices outside. 

“What do you do if you still can’t sleep?”

He gets up. There is a small desk and an uncomfortable chair in the living room where he can sit and read. Books and magazines bought from Gwanghwa in Soho. Sometimes this works. After two or three hours he can return to bed, doze, only to be awakened again by the light leaking in round the curtains, the new day slapping his face.

Mornings are the worst, he tells her. He rises, and together they get the boys ready for the day. He prepares for work. He feels deeply tired, as if all the air has been sucked out of the world and replaced by thick treacle, clogging any movement he makes. This feeling persists until lunchtime, when the clouds suddenly lift. Weight vanishes from his temples and his shoulders. He sits on a bench in the park with a sandwich, dropping crumbs and watching a flock of pigeons peck and then rise up into the air. They are like a kettle boiling. There is the memory of the arms of his youngest boy, soft and warm with sleep, wrapping around the pillar of his leg. At times he smiles at this. At others he cries and the darkness returns.

“Let’s slow down,” she says. “You’re there, in the park.”

He nods, gazes at the floor, and breathes.

“You’re sitting there, on the bench.”

“It’s cold,” he says. “I’m alone. And then I think of the boy. He reaches out to me.”

“What does he say to you?”

He looks up at her, takes off his glasses, and wipes the corner of his eyes.

爸爸.” Father.

“Can you stay there? In that moment.”

He sighs, and then nods.

“It’s very cold. And then I feel the warmth of my son’s arms.”

“What’s the feeling that comes?”

Silence again. His lips begin to move, but no words come. For a moment, she thinks she should back off. Like a record player, Harry has told her. Lower the needle very carefully into the groove, so you don’t scratch. And then raise it again with equal care.

“Sickness.” He is trying out words, almost as if reading them from a hidden dictionary. “Fear. Disgust.”

“What’s the thought that goes through your head?”

“I’m not a good father. I let you down. The world is not right. I am powerless to change it.”

“What is the deepest thought?”

“I let you down.”


“I let you down.”

“I let you down.”

She lifts the needle. She asks him how what has happened felt for him. They catch their breath. Then she asks him to find another moment at which he was most distressed. First the situation. Then the feeling. And finally, the buried thought.

At the end of the session, she gives him the Thought Record, a foolscap page with columns and pink, mimeographed headings. Homework. Just fill out the first three columns, she tells him.  The situation when depression comes. The emotions. And then the buried thought.

When she passes the paper to him, she thinks she sees the ghost of a smile on his face.

* * *

Winter deepens. In late November, a sudden cold arrives. Ice on the footpaths and the roads. At Lancaster Gate, Eileen totters to the Tube on unsteady feet: she exits at Holborn to the first flakes of snow. She calls her parents up North. It’s much worse here, they tell her, voices crackling with static. When she puts the phone down, she glances at the mantelpiece. Their wedding photograph. 

Father was caught in London, during the War. He thought he would go back to Malaya, to help make this new world out of the chaos. And then he met Mother. This slip of a Geordie girl who haunted the meetings of the Left Book Club. After the War he did not take the passage back; he followed her North. He was marooned. He learned to fit in. Even the way he talked, he told her, changed. 

They had both wanted their only child, Eileen, this pale serious girl, to keep something of him. Something more than her name, an infinite loop of translation: Eileen Ai Ling 愛玲. The long hours with Mrs Chiu on Saturday, when all her classmates played happily outside. Writing Chinese characters until her hand ached. Dictation. One day she had suddenly refused to go. Quite out of character: she was normally so compliant. She had cried: they had cajoled her, then bribed her, but she still refused. 

Now much later, she regretted her wilfulness. She tried to pick up the language again, attended evening classes after she came down to London to study. But it would not stick: words would perch on her lips only to fly away when she opened her mouth.

In London now, the deep freeze persists until January. Football matches are cancelled at the New Year: the Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane pitches resemble Siberian permafrost. On Hampstead Heath, three men fall through ice into the ponds, and drown. Prime Minister Callaghan suns himself in the Caribbean. Crisis? What Crisis? he says at Heathrow Airport on his return. The train drivers strike, then the lorry drivers, and the bin men. Rubbish piles up. Ambulance drivers refuse to drive. In the North, even the gravediggers down tools. 

In all this chaos, Eileen senses the sweet taste of success. Winter is the worst time for depression, Harry warns her. Less light, and less time outside. And yet her clients continue to come each week. The young man has bought a new pair of boots to make his way through the snow. He does not fall. Nothing I try ever works becomes If I put my mind to it, I can do it. The middle-aged woman no longer tries to read her mother’s mind. I count to ten, she tells Eileen. I know it isn’t me that’s her target. In the depths of winter, the older man says, neighbours have rallied round. I’m not unworthy of love, but I am shy. If I reach out others will care for me.

Only Mr Lim, or George as she now calls him, doesn’t respond. He comes every week with his thought record in a leather satchel. Each week, he tells her, he finds those moments of sadness, when the clouds descend and will not lift. He writes them down as she has instructed him. First the moment, then the emotion, and then the fleeting thought, caught in her purple net of lines and words. So far so good. 

But then something happens. Thoughts lead to memories. A speech at a rally, when his words caught fire, so that he became part of something much bigger than himself. The first years in prison, waiting for a freedom that would not just be his but also a nation’s, and then release, the prison gates opening, and the assembled crowd. He and his comrades were carried on the shoulders of others. He remembers the garlands of scented flowers heavy round his neck, white doves rising like ashes into the sky. And then the second detention, the arrest in the night, the same prison as before, some of the same jailers, but under the new regime that had replaced the colonial order. Solitary confinement. Then optimism, and the solidarity of comrades imprisoned with him. 

Over the years, gnawing despair. To be released he had been forced to write two letters. The first to the Prime Minister, his erstwhile comrade who had now imprisoned him. The second to the Chairman of his Party, resigning from politics. The flight to England. The reply from the Party. Do not think you have quit politics. What you have quit is anti-imperialist politics. You have become a willing and subservient tool

* * *

The other clients, she tells Harry, are shallow. History does not weigh them down. But for George there is no bottom to memory, no return from layers on layers of words. 

Harry wipes a tiny speck of dust off the desk in front of him with a monogrammed handkerchief. 

Stop him, he tells her. Remember that we govern ourselves. It’s difficult, of course, to whip flabby emotions into shape. But it becomes easier with practice. It’s like making love: it’s much easier the second time.


“No buts. Do not indulge him, Eileen.”

She covers her confusion and mounting anger by scribbling away in her notebook, eyes down.

“And the disputation?” He asks her. “How has that been going?”

Her face flushes, and she feels beads of sweat start on her temples. The emotion is panic. The fleeting thought is, “you’ve found me out.”

“It’s also been difficult,” she says.

“The proof of a therapist, Miss Tay, is how you handle the most difficult clients. I’ve seen so many of you fall at the last fence.”

He resumes wiping imaginary dust off the white surface of the desk.

* * *

This is what disputation looks like. You’ve worked with the thought record to identify those buried thoughts. You’ve brought them out into the clear light of day. You’ve used the first three columns—the incident, the feeling, the thought—to haul in your catch. Now the clients must do a different kind of work, must practice logic. They must dispute the thought, see how at the very most it is only a fraction of the truth. The young man, we’ve seen, realises that he does not always fail; often if he tries, he will succeed. It’s hard, but I can do it. The middle-aged woman comes to understand that her mother’s rage is not directed at her. I am not the cause of her anger. The older man comes to see that rejection is not automatic. If I reach out, some people will respond.

There’s a trick to disputation, though. The buried thought is persistent. You’ve brought it to the surface, but you haven’t pulled up all its roots. Hack at it now and cover it over and then it’ll grow again in the darkness. So you lure it out a little further. Imagine, you tell the client, that you’re in a Law Court. The case is to prove that the thought is untrue. But let’s allow the defence to speak first. List as many reasons you can think of why the thought is reasonable. Only when you’ve exhausted this will we turn to the prosecution, to list all the reasons why the thought may not totally be true. And then we’ll have our trial. 

With George, there’s first the barrier of a word.

“What kind of court?” he asks her.

A bubble of irritation swells within her. She presses her index fingers together, a gesture she has taught herself for times like these. Acknowledge what’s happening. Let the bubble grow and then pop and dissipate. Observe. He’s put on weight. His shoulders are stiff. Even after several sessions working together, he’s often still on his guard.

“Any kind of court.” 

He’s silent again. She waits. His hands move, as if trying to sculpt words. 

“What about a court that meets in secret, to which the defence has no access? Where the accused cannot speak? Or a court without a jury, in a country where juries have been abolished?”

“An ideal court. It’s just a metaphor.”

Justice, he tells her, is not a metaphor. Even though you cannot always find it in the world.

* * *

Spring still hesitates to come. Her parents talk of how communities in the North are still cut off by snow. The strikers return to work, but something in the air has changed. An election approaches. She walks to the tube past Conservative advertisements on hoardings, showing long lines of the unemployed. Labour isn’t Working. On television, Mrs Thatcher rails against the current order. We have become a flabby country. Like guppies in a fishbowl. Every human being is an island. Society does not exist. Competition will drive us forward. 

Each weekend Eileen calls her parents, falling into that rich language of her childhood. We’ll vote for Thatcher, her father says. She asks him, what about those stories you told me about 1945? That vision of a just society for everyone? How you both voted Mr Churchill out, how one of the new Labour MPs in government said in Parliament, “We are the masters now?” It was a dream, he tells her. This is their reality now. The way the world works.

* * *

In session, they put the court metaphor aside, but run into a further difficulty. George can effortlessly list all the reasons why those buried thoughts are reasonable. Yet he can find very few arguments against them. What she still calls the defence—although not to him, now, not aloud—speaks confidently, fluently. Switch to the prosecution and silence descends.

They have worked through the thought record once more. They have excavated a thought. The world is not right. 

It’s easy to find support for this. The first weeks in solitary confinement in Singapore on his second arrest, in Outram Jail. An iron bed with a grass mattress, a beaker, a chamber pot, and the white, thick door. Heat and the stench of urine. Later, when they moved to Changi Prison, things got better and then worse. Liberal friends came, with kind, useless gestures: turkeys and puddings for Christmas. In the end he refused to see them. And then he had a choice: to write a letter—or, more precisely, to sign a letter already written for you—or to go mad. 

Ten long years in exile London, trying to study and failing, the drugs, treatments, the quest for work. Depression, always present, even when you turn your face away from it. A precipice next to you, a void into which you may at any time fall.

Eileen lets him talk until silence comes again. She waits for his words to settle within him, for the aftertaste that rises up.

“Do you remember what we said last time? About black-and-white thinking? Catastrophizing?”

He’s quiet again.

“Could there be anything of this in what you’ve just said?”

He pauses. His face scrunches up again in that expression of puzzlement. His hands move. It isn’t my thinking that is black-and-white, he tells her. It’s the thinking of those who imprisoned me. And it was a catastrophe. A door to a new world opened, and then it was jammed shut. We were changed in a way that we do not yet know.

* * *

In her next supervision session, when Harry seems more relaxed, she asks him whether depression might in some circumstances be logical. A natural reaction to an unjust society. The only possible response to the cruelty of a world gone wrong. 

He looks at her over the top of his reading glasses. What a strange idea. The world is not going wrong, surely. Every day we progress. Science lights up more dark corners. Development proceeds apace. Of course, there are obstacles on the road. Irrational moments. But in the end Reason will prevail.

She nods.

He moves closer.

“It’s that resistant client of yours? The one who isn’t willing to change?”

She nods again.

“Miss Tay, it’s the difficult case that makes the therapist. You’ve been too indulgent with him. Toughen up.”

She opens her mouth to continue, but he interrupts her.

“I’ll come to your session next week. And I expect to see the disputation working well.”

* * *

She’s fortunate that she sees George this week, before the session to which Harry insists on coming. She briefly contemplates begging her client to bail her out. Not to resist, as he always does, to fall away into silence in the disputation. For us not to go off from there into the world of the past. 

Their session follows the pattern they’ve settled into over the last few weeks. They go over the thought record. They find that buried thought. She holds him to the disputation, but the defence is strong, and the prosecution fails to make its case. She pushes, but he grows weary and fractious. And at these times she has learned to turn away, to work with a different part of him.

“Tell me,” she says, “a moment when you felt most joyful.”

A door opens. They enter the world of story.

At the end of the session, she summarises, as she always does, and then says casually that her supervisor will join them next time. George shouldn’t be alarmed: Harry is checking up on her, not on him. 

She is calm, but as she speaks something reaches up and catches her words. That hint of a smile on his face.

“You’re scared,” George says, “because you think he doesn’t value your work.”

* * *

For the next session, she’s aware how much is at stake. In the morning, she gets up early, just as the light comes. She reviews her notes, but she’s easily distracted into a game she plays with herself, translating sentences from her notes into hesitant Mandarin.

I see pigeons all around me, but I dream of doves.


In Chinese—in her limited Chinese at least—pigeons and doves are the same word.

When he came out of the prison, he released a dove.


That also doesn’t work. 放鸽子 should mean to “release a dove” but actually means to stand someone up. English is equally crazy. If you stand someone up, you also let them down.

Time to leave. It rains heavily, but she’s still at the clinic early. George arrives as punctually as ever and plucks the completed thought record from his satchel. Today there’s a third chair in the corner: Harry, with his clipboard. She hesitates.

“Get started. Don’t mind me.” 

She can feel her heart beating as she turns to her client. She breathes slowly, touches her fingers together again. She tries to forget she is being watched.

The first part of the session is like a dance. Eileen leads and George follows. They both know the moves. How has the last week been? Start with the weather, as the English always do. Go deeper. Hover, and then settle on a moment. Begin the thought record. First the incident.

On Thursday, George says. That’s when it happened. I was reading the newspaper and I saw his face. My former comrade, the one who imprisoned me. He’s coming here, for an official visit.

“What did you feel when you saw the picture?”

“Tired. Frustrated.”

She waits, lets him shuffle through the feelings.

“Anger. Despair.”

In the corner of her eye, just out of her direct vision, she senses a movement from Harry. A leaning forward.

“Anger,” she repeats. “Despair. Take me further into that moment. Where were you?”

In a newsagent’s shop, he tells her. In Wimbledon. While the man at the till goes out for a smoke, he lets you browse the newspapers. So I choose one. There’s a smell of cigarette smoke from the door. The floor is wet; it’s just been mopped. If I move my feet, my shoes squeak. The newspaper is difficult to fold and unfold. I don’t want to spend so long here; I want to finish before the shopkeeper comes back. Then I see his picture. He’s older now. Puffy cheeks. Bags under his eyes.”

“How do you feel in your body?” she asks him. 

“Tight,” he says. “In my shoulders. A pain in my head. A pounding. Just like those times in prison.”

She leads him, gently, to the thoughts. Harry wriggles like a fish in her peripheral vision. An ache in her temples. This is where they always get derailed.

I hate this.

The world is not right.

The world is not fair to me.

The third thought is new. It’s individualised, not social. A gift passed to her. He makes the case for the defence, but with a little less certainty than he normally does. When the time for the prosecution comes, she is sure he winks at her, quickly, with the eye that Harry cannot see. 

Together, they dispute the thought, as easily as a knife through butter. They pare it back. They reach a final formulation: The world is not always fair, but I can make my way.

Harry beams. He’s seen enough. The triumph of the human will! He makes his excuses and leaves.

She turns to George.

“Thank you.”

* * *

When George tells her he is going back to Singapore, Eileen feels something tug and then snap inside her. Harry has summoned her and told her how impressed he is with her skills, even with the most recalcitrant of clients. She has enough client hours now to move to the examinations. And then she tells him, no. She’s abandoning her studies. Harry sputters. Now? At this late stage? But that’s irrational. She should go back home and think about it, let her passions cool.

In these last sessions, she and George no longer do the thought record. Instead, they weave past, present and future. What does he remember? What most gives him joy? What might the future hold? 

In the last few days before the vote she hopes against hope, but on election night the swingometer needle moves decisively to the right. The next day Mrs Thatcher enters Downing Street. The world has changed.

In their last session, she asks him how it has been for him. He says he is not healed. But perhaps they have moved a little further from that precipice. Far enough to wait for the next great wave to take him inland, into the interior of the island.

She drops Harry a note. Her decision is final. I want to accompany others, not to oversee them. I will search for those things that thought alone cannot govern.

He summons her to his office.

She stands him up.

* * *

Eileen has a secret. I can tell you now that Harry’s no longer around. She saw George once, in London, outside a session. In Regent’s Park, in the early spring, just when the crocuses had come. He was sitting on a bench with a woman of about his age. His wife, surely? Eileen watched from a distance, careful they did not see her. In front of them, on the grass in the thin sunlight, a small boy played, in a duffel coat so thick that he was as round as a ball. The couple watched over him. He came closer, but he was not looking at Eileen; he did not even register she was there. He was looking at the grey pigeons that hopped and pecked and cooed in the short grass by the path. He ran towards them, and then broke into a run. He flapped his arms. The birds moved away a little, just far enough, and carried on pecking. The boy ran forward again, faster, legs jerking, almost overbalancing. She smiled, thought of what George had said to her, the weight of small soft arms clutching at the pillar of his leg. And this time the boy succeeded. The pigeons took off, first one, then another, so that the air boiled with wings. The child stopped, amazed at what he had done. 

And then a young man came up to her, in a cheap new trench coat, curling up his bitten nails into the cuffs. He asked for directions to Bedford College in a voice very like her own, a voice from which those short Northern vowels had not quite vanished. He was late for his admissions interview. She pointed him the way. 

That young man was me. This is also my story.

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