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‘You’re only as sick as your secrets’ – Read an excerpt from Sweet Paradise by Joanne Hichens

 
Sweet ParadiseJacana Media has shared an excerpt from Sweet Paradise by Joanne Hichens.

Sweet Paradise tells the story of Rae Valentine, the most compassionate but gullible PI in the business, who’s on a mission to find a missing teenager.

Rae’s investigation brings her to the Paradise Place Clinic, where no-one is who they appear to be and everyone has their secrets.

In Part One, we meet Vincent Saldana – Rae’s PI partner – and his fellow residents at Paradise Place during a group meeting. How did Vincent end up in Paradise Place and will he be able to convince Rae to spring him loose?

Read the excerpt:
 

* * * * *

 

PART ONE
You’re only as sick as your secrets

 

MONDAY: THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS

 
A day in Paradise

Vincent Saldana bitterly regretted scrubbing his tongue with aftershave to get rid of the smell of booze. His throat burnt like hellfire. Hotter than the stagnant air building up in the room and the sweltering heat
outside in the Garden of Paradise.

     His head felt as if it had been hit by a brick.

     He sat in a circle with his new pals all rocking and fidgeting in their plastic chairs, each waiting their turn to spill their guts onto the beetleeroded pine floor, wanting recognition for their efforts.

     He raised his head and assessed the motley bunch: Sybilla from the US of A, a regte vet vreetertjie, glowering from the corner. Skinny expart-time-model Joleen, eye-candy if you were into stick insects. Paul the Polyphobic terrified of every damn thing. Jamiro the compulsive sex addict and pseudo airline pilot. The school principal who insisted on being addressed as Sir. A Sidney Poitier lookalike, he was dubbed Sir-with-Love, and most of that love came from Jamiro. Sir’s head was tightly bandaged today, Betadine and blood seeping through from the cut on his forehead.

     The morning’s excitement hadn’t helped Vincent’s hangover one jot.

     Sybilla farting at the breakfast table, then pulling the puke-pink Whoopee cushion out from under her fat arse. Jamiro spitting his doctored coffee over the table: ‘Who put salt in the sugar bowl!’ Followed by a burst of light and smoke. Sir held the jagged remnants of the rigged jar, blood streaming from his lacerated forehead, as clumps of strawberry jam dripped from the high ceiling. His howling had hardly diminished as Nina led him from the table.

     Vince was sick and tired of the practical jokes, but mostly he was sick and tired of shooting the breeze with addicts of every kind, of sex, food, pills, you name it, all lumped together like a packet of fruit mix.

     He wished bloody group was done.

     How’d he stuck it out so long in this bloody madhouse?
 
***
 
Doctor Max Kramer had fine-tuned the art of following the gist of the same-old same-old. He knew how to manipulate the sluice gates with his occasional ‘Mmhmm’ interspersed at proper intervals, his sotto voce teasing out the details of his patients’ miserable lives. His head settled at just the right angle, his ear perfectly cocked as if he was truly listening, he reminded himself of the goal: remain outwardly appreciative of the sharing, show concern at the right time… Yes, Joleen, I know how difficult it is to consume three jujubes, I know insects freak you out, Paul… As Sybilla’s lank hair fell across her forehead, as her triple chins quivered… As Jamiro stretched a toothy smile and spread his wings… As the Principal sat upright and uptight in his pinstripe pants and his lace-up brogues, blood stains still damp on the collar of his white buttondown shirt…

     ‘Let’s get to the matter at hand, shall we? Three days ago, it was plastic cockroaches in the dinner and red dye in the grape juice’ — the whole lot gagging at mealtime, and pissing “blood” afterwards — ‘since then there’s been itching powder sprinkled on mattresses,’ — Jamiro writhing in group, as if in the throes of continuous orgasm —‘cling film on toilets,’ — floors awash with urine — ‘now this. I’ve turned a blind eye to atrociously juvenile behaviour. This time, however, whoever is showing a penchant for destruction has gone too far.’

     Blank stares meant he’d get no satisfaction. He’d been down this route too many times. The lot remained the passive picture of innocence.

     He breathed deeply, an exemplar of patience. The fingernails of his left hand dug into the linked fingers of his right. He waited in vain for one of them to own up, even as Sir, fingering the edge of the bandage unravelling at his ear, blurted, ‘Someone will pay.’

     Max cared that Paradise should not explode in his face like the rigged jar. He felt his palms break out in sweat.

     ‘There’s nothing, per se, dangerous or illegal about humour, harmless pranks as a way of coping with the situation and with each other’ — his voice rose — ‘but pranks that lead to anger, bitterness, total humiliation or heightened paranoia, I won’t have it.’ He wanted to spit out Who’s the fucking joker in the pack?

     Could be any of them. Or a staff member, a cleaner, the gardener, the physiotherapist, any one of the freelance staff for all he knew. He unlaced his hands, stroked his fingertips down tracks of corduroy, his fabric of choice.

     ‘Pranks resulting in physical injury,’ he emphasised, ‘are a no-no. Whoever painted the jar with nitrogen triiodide had to know that when it dries you don’t move, you don’t even breathe for fear of the coated article exploding.’

     Blank stares.

     ‘It’s a hostile impulse, a comic façade belying more serious anger, the sort generally taboo.’

     He’d get no admission of guilt.

     ‘We’ll get on with other things, then, shall we? Let’s start with you. How’re we feeling today, Vincent?’

     ‘Top of the world,’ he played along.
 
***
 
Doc Max bobbed, a regular Noddy. Vince caught a glimpse of his bald patch every time he dipped his head. ‘I couldn’t be better,’ Vince lied. He hated most the carping on about feelings. How much longer could he put up with this bullshit? Couldn’t stand being kept under thumb: do this, do that, be here, be there, at group, at one-on-one. Every single moment planned. Eat this, swallow that. He took the mood enhancers and anti-depressants when he felt like it, but refused ever to stomach the platitudes, promises and the belief in a Higher Power supposedly there to help him. Too many steps, too much talk. All a bloody waste of time. He wanted to yell, wanted to break the news to every patient, to Mr Sexy, to Skinny Joleen, to Sir, to Paul the Petrified, he wanted to tell motor-mouth Sybilla with her grating American drawl picked up from the Bold and the Beautiful (he’d placed his bets she was no genuine American, that the closest she’d ever been to the USA was the TV soapies), he wanted to tell them all in no uncertain terms that rehab was as much good as his mom lighting a joss stick and praying for good fortune to the effigies laid out at her front doorstep.

     It was on the tip of his tongue to vent What the hell difference does any of this make? He blurted instead, ‘Just get me a sponsor so I can walk out of here.’ Yeah, the sponsor would carp on about Let Go and Let God, and he’d keep thinking what a load of bloody bullshit.

     ‘After only two weeks, perhaps you’re not quite yet ready for that,’ persisted Doc Max. ‘So share with us, Vincent, the jokes, have they affected you? How do you feel about what’s going on?’

     Vince knew the taste of the barrel of a gun, had cell memory of his tongue probing cold steel, tasting the black hole… suicidal ideation Max called it… South African cops were trigger happy. When they couldn’t handle crime any longer, or life, they turned too easily to find salvation in a blessed bullet… they took their families with them… the ultimate joke, the ultimate ‘fuck you’ to a fucked-up society.

     ‘How d’you think I feel?’ Vince hissed. ‘Everyone in this place would benefit from a fucking lobotomy!’ He pushed up from the plastic chair, sent it flying behind him. Enjoying the look of fear flitting across Max’s face, and letting go the red-hot fuck-you feeling, he shouted, ‘Fuck the practical jokes. Fuck therapy, fuck the Twelve Steps, and if God exists, I’ll bet he’s crying his fucking eyes out, poor God, the misery and the distress of this world would break his fucking heart!’

     Eyes stared wide with shock.

     He strode across the room. He let fly a volley of punches, every knuckle meeting its mark; he relished the beating he dished out to George. ‘Vincie!’ Admiration glinted in Jamiro’s eyes, the quick seductive lick of glossed lips not lost on the group. ‘Us pilots see that kind of boozeinduced aggro all the time.’

     Vince growled, ‘What’re you insinuating?’ He retrieved his chair and sat down. ‘If you don’t watch it, Jamiro,’ spat Vince, ‘you’ll be next in line.’

     ‘Oooh Vincie, I’d love a good going over…’
 
***
 
Max cleared his throat. ‘Negative transference is directed to where it can do the least damage. Anyone else with issues? You’re welcome to discharge any aggression at George.’ Indeed, the anger-management puppet was worked out regularly by Vincent Saldana, the problem patient, the cop with anger issues. ‘No-one else interested? Then we’re done,’ concluded Max. ‘But after this morning’s commotion and your emotional rendition of Nietzsche, Vincent, we’re certainly in need of a’ — Vince registered the dreaded words — ‘group hug.’

     Vince shuddered. Fun fun. This he hated.

     Sybilla’s bosoms quivered with anticipation in her floral XXXL T- shirt. Joleen froze, a bokkie caught in headlights. Paul the Polyphobic, terrified of death, of bugs, of different food groups touching on his plate, frightened of his own shadow, sat rigid and squeaked, ‘Don’t any of you dare touch me!’

     ‘How about on your studio,’ quipped Jamiro.

     Vince warned, ‘Get your hand off my arse.’ Group grope was the pits.

     ‘Don’t dare paw me.’

     ‘You’d give anything for the hair of the dog right now,’ Jamiro pressed his erection against his quarry’s thigh and licked Vince’s ear.

     ‘You sure smell like a distillery, Vince,’ drawled Sybilla, ‘no amount of aftershave will disguise the ooze from your pores.’

     ‘Ever noticed,’ smirked Vince, ‘how smug sober people are?’

     ‘The booze holds you hostage, Vincie,’ winked Jamiro.

     ‘The booze sets me free.’

     Vince pushed away the freaks. ‘I’m done, I’m packing my bags. I’m outta here.’ He looked at Max. ‘Your nurses, dieticians, psychologists with your blue uniforms and white coats and stripes and fob watches and answers for every fucking thing will no doubt have a field-day chit-chat about my borderline personality disorder, my self-destructive behaviour, my anger that forgot where it came from… To hell with the pranks and the petty squabbles. I’m turning my back on the loser-bin.’ He slammed the door.

     Doc Max sighed, ‘Vincent, you’re going nowhere.’ He turned to Tariq.

     ‘Go after him.’

     Max stared at the others. He was no closer to uncovering the truth.
 
***
 
     Vince complained: ‘Why can’t I just discharge myself?’

     ‘You signed on the dotted line,’ said Tariq. ‘You lose your PI licence if you don’t finish the programme.’ He squeezed Vincent’s arm as he escorted him up the main staircase to his room, handed him over to Nurse Nina.

     Vince said, ‘I’m happy to see you, darling.’

     ‘Bed rest for you, naughty boy,’ she settled him, plumped his pillows, ‘getting all riled like that, shame on you. Now settle down.’ She offered him a straw with his vodka in a geriatric’s spill-free cup. She patted his cheek. ‘Vincie,’ she whispered, ‘why on earth would you want to leave us when we treat you so well?’

     ‘Rehab’s too much like hard work.’

     ‘You won’t run away, now will you, Vincie? Stay put for the afternoon.’

     He missed the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke. Bar smell. Nothing quite like it. For now this would do. He pulled the duvet under his chin, sucked on the straw. He’d tried, he’d really tried. Had kept up with the steps. Had done whatever they’d asked him to. None of it had shifted his bleak outlook. He’d written the letters to his dead wife, to his mother, to his remaining PI partner…

     Dear Amber
I’m so sorry for every time I worked late, for every time I lied to you to you.
I loved you. I love you. You wanted me to come home early. We fought.
You said you’d follow my example, take yourself off for a drink. I’m sorry
I wasn’t there for you.

     Hey Ma
I’m sorry I didn’t amount to the son you wanted. I never learned Mandarin. I’m not interested in taking over the restaurant. Sorry for all the times I came home drunk and you cleaned up after me.
Sorry I don’t call you every day. I know you’ll say there’s nothing to forgive, but I need your forgiveness. I love you, Ma.

Hey Rae
I’ve let you down.
I’m sorry.

     I’m sorry sorry sorry, so fucking sorry…

     With Freaky-Deaky out the room he pulled his cell phone from under the mattress. He sucked at the booze for Dutch courage. He had to get out. Rae was no pushover. She’d be difficult to convince.

 
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