‛Yalda, female thirteen year old. In February last year she was found in a street trying to sort out bits of bodies after a bomb blast.’ Andrula lays a thin set of notes on my desk. Her head goes to one side, straightened hair following gravity, a pearl earring swaying. ‛Can you imagine trying to reassemble your mother and siblings?’ She sits on a spare chair, stares at the wall and chews a knuckle. ‛It’s what you’d do, isn’t it? You’d have nothing else to do.’ Her eyes meet mine. At nearly sixty, she’s seen so many cases of post traumatic stress, helped so many people and seen way too much emptiness and howling grief.
Andrula scrambles my brain, contrasting with the calm musty office overlooking the perfectly tended garden in this section of Trinity College. Whereas the history of this place suffuses me with a tranquil detachment Andrula is very much here, now and intense. I’m twenty six, masters degree tucked away and working through my PhD. I hope when I reach Andrula’s age I don’t have the same torment in my expression – or is that her secret? Is it that she’s let the thirteen year old in her empathise with Yalda and will let her experience and wisdom help the girl cope? find a way out of whatever torment she’s in? Maybe that’s how she can work so well with clients.
My supervisor said I would be working with a genius. I agree but it’s a little like handling explosives and having no protection. Andrula lives on the incandescent edge of burnout. Do I have to do the same to achieve as much good as her? She’s a role model, sure, but do I want to roll my soul in fire? Another problem is her OCD way of looking into my research and rooting out anything she thinks is not absolute scientific rigour – even though my work has little to do with her.
She snaps me out of my thoughts. ‛The girl’s foster father is waiting. Shall I send him in?’
I look at the notes but leave them untouched. ‛Yes. I want to hear it all first hand.’
Andrula pats my hand, rises and says, ‛Best of luck.’
I’ve hardly time to collect my thoughts when a man bursts into the room, slams the door and marches to a seat. ‛I am so sorry, so sorry we are late. There is only one road to Cambridge, the M11, and we were delayed. We only arrived twenty minutes…’
‛Take a seat and relax, Mr Kabbani. You’ve had a long journey.’
He sits and raises his hands. ‛It is not the journey, not the journey. Yalda exhausts us, torments us. It is … how do you say it?’ He pauses, hands still raised, ‛I don’t know what you say but it goes on and on. She behaves … all the time. Out of control. Talks about people who aren’t there.’
I say, ‛My colleague told me about Yalda’s chaotic sleep pattern, lack of self esteem, occasional obsessive compulsive behaviour … but my work is in atypical epilepsy. This has been going on since last February?’
He leaps from his seat. ‛No, no! She is … she sees…’ He waves then wrings his hands. ‛Is … er … sees the dead, sees spirits.’
My face must have hardened at that point because he wrings his hands again and says, ‛Really, really you must believe. You must help us. We cannot cope. She scares people and brings humiliation and embarrassment on us.’
So, lots of plates spinning in my head even from his first sentences. Yalda may be psychotic. She may have found a weakness she can use to pass some of her pain onto her foster parents or … Yalda is drawing them into her psychosis either to help her out of it or to confirm her delusions are real. There’s a tiny niggle that Yalda may be a sociopath and manipulating gullible people for some other reason.
I say, ‛Sit down, Mr Kabbani. Tell me about how she scares people.’
‛All the time. In Homs she sees torture and rape and slaughter. It all happened so long ago. She sees history.’
‘Can you describe a typical seizure for me?’
‘She screams at people we can’t see. Runs around even among traffic. Then it’s over. She can’t see or talk. We have to carry her home. When we were in a cafe she saw her grandmother’s best friend shot.’ His hands go up again. ‘That had happened two months before. Yalda wasn’t there to see it but described everything perfectly.’
I let that pass. ‘And after she’d seen the event?’
‘She curled up in a ball as usual. Not seeing us, not speaking.’
‘Is she tense or relaxed at these times?’ It all falls together. I love it when that happens. So, some brain damage during an explosion caused epilepsy. Simple. It’s the nature of the fits that interests me.
‘She’s tense, shaking. Sometimes her eyes are open, sometimes closed.’
‘Does anything precipitate these seizures? Do you get any warning?’
‘No, but it’s about places and people. If her grandmother hadn’t been with us at the cafe she wouldn’t have seen the shooting in her mind. You see it’s because her grandmother was there. Yesterday it was the Tower of London.’ He looks away still wringing his hands. ‘We shouldn’t have gone. But it’s what you do when you visit this country … no?’
‘How often are the seizures happening?’
He shrugs, ‘You can’t tell. Not for weeks sometimes. Sometimes three in one day.’
‘Can I speak to her?’
He rises. ‘They, Yalda and my wife, are settling into their rooms. I will go and get them.’ He almost runs to the door.
‘Thank you, Mr Kabbani. Please don’t rush.’ He leaves and I flick through the notes. No record of birth or any resulting trauma. Some possibility of febrile convulsions related to streptococcal infection early in her life… Hmm, maybe that was epilepsy misdiagnosed.
The brain scan is clear but that’s so often the case.
The office is getting too hot. I fight the leaded light windows open and a blast of early summer brings with it the smells of cut grass and baking earth.
The lawn is virtually empty of people and there’s no trace of undergrads. It’s the summer break and the colleges can get on with their real work.
‘Come in,’ I call in response to a tap on the door. A woman dressed in far too many clothes for this weather and with only her eyes visible, and a girl in jeans, T-shirt and red scarf enter. Two different cultures perhaps.
I say, ‘Mrs Kabbani, Yalda, nice to meet you. Thanks for coming all this way.’ I point to the seats. ‘Make yourselves comfortable and don’t be formal; you can call me Laurie.’
Mrs Kabbani looks as agitated as her husband had. She says, ‘Will you be able to do anything for Yalda?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say sitting and unscrewing my pen. ‘Let’s find out.’
Yalda glares. ‘I’m not having any more bloody poking and machines so you can forget that.’
‘Yalda!’ Mrs Kabbani says and puts a hand on the girl’s arm.
Yalda snatches it away. ‘No, I’m sick of it. It’s always men and they always want to touch you.’
I try to diffuse it all. ‘I trust you are comfortable in your rooms?’
‘Yes … thank you,’ says Mrs Kabbani still looking at Yalda.
I say to the girl, ‘Yalda, I can assure you there will be no poking or machines. Tell me about yesterday. You were at the Tower of London?’
She looks down. ‘Oh that… I don’t want to talk about it. This is about fits. That’s all I’m going to talk about.’
Her foster mother says, ‘She saw people from a long time ago. She passed out shouting at them. She…’
I raise my hand, ‘Please go on, Yalda. I need to know everything. Can you tell me all that happened from how you were feeling before you saw these things right through to afterwards when you felt better?’
‘There was a man,’ she stands, her hands behind her back. ‘They tied him like this and lowered him from the walls on a rope round his wrists. He was moaning with the pain. If he went quiet, they yanked the rope until he screamed…’ She sits again, eyes closed, wiping a tear squeezing from her eyelids.
‘Did you feel unusual in any way? Any unusual smells or other physical sensations?’
She jerks, fists clenched and staring at the ceiling. ‘It’s not about that. A boy, a boy my age, shot him with a bow and arrow. He wasn’t a very good shot and it took him three tries before he ran away. The guards started chasing him.’ She hunches and looks at me. ‘It was his son… The son knew his father would die in agony. He killed his own father…’
There’s something in her glare, something important. Is this her trigger? Extreme emotion following some sort of psychotic episode? If so this is all going to be useful material. There’s so little research regarding this. I ask, ‘What happened next?’
She looks away, stares out the window. ‘I don’t know.’
Mrs Kabbani says, ‘She lay on the ground. We had to get a taxi and lift her in.’
‘How long did that…?’
Yalda leaps from her chair and runs to the window. ‘A butterfly and another: lots of them!’
I rise. ‘Yalda, would you like to go for a walk in the grounds while we talk? It’s lovely out there and stuffy in here.’
She turns, ‘Yeah, it’s boring in here.’ She scans the bookshelves, ‘Really crap.’
While her foster mother remonstrates and straightens her clothes, I hold the door open and say, ‘How about we get cakes and go to Christ’s Pieces? There’re butterflies, birds and all sorts there.’ People skills … cream cakes in the sun. Maybe Yalda will relax.
In the quadrangle she stops by a fence, tilts her head to one side and grabs her foster mother’s hand. ‘What’s he…? That man…’ She giggles. ‘He’s tripped over his own bike.’
Mrs Kabbani says, ‘I can’t see anything, baby. Do you think you should lie down?’ and puts a hand on each of Yalda’s shoulders.
Yalda jerks away. ‘No… He’s up to something, looking round.’
Mrs Kabbani flicks a worried glance at me and shrugs.
I’m studying Yalda, she’s happy, slightly excited, seeing something that doesn’t exist.
She claps her hands and whispers to Mrs Kabbani. ‘It’s so sweet. He’s pretending to fix his bike. He must have know she was coming to put a chain on hers. Hey, cool T-shirt. Mum, can I have flowers in my hair and a leopard skin print T-shirt like hers?’ She looks at me, ‘Can you get them here?’
I say, ‘Sometimes, at the market. Haven’t seen one for a while.’
She giggles into her fingertips, ‘He kissed her hand… Come on, where are we going now?’
The porter nods us through the ancient doors from Whewell’s Court that open into the junction where Bridge Street, Sidney Street and Jesus Lane come together. Yalda’s hardly down the two steps when she looks up, shielding her eyes from the light. ‘What’s that? So bloody loud,’ she cries and runs forward, scattering swearing cyclists. Metal screeches on metal. Bikes clatter to the ground; the contents of wicker baskets roll among the shouts and curses.
Yalda jerks, arms stiff, fingers splayed and cowers, arms across her face. ‘No! Stop! there’s a little boy … stop, stop, don’t do this,’ her words turn to a piercing screech of terror.
Fallen cyclists rise and stare at her. Mrs Kabbani weaves among the spinning wheels and shopping bags. ‘It’s all right, Yalda…’
Yalda screams, ‘Stop shooting!’ she points across the road, ‘He’s over there. Oh … oh … yes, stop him running … yes… He’s all right.’
She rises, turns to her left and waves a fist at the sky, ‘You total wanker. What the fuck was that about? Piss off and don’t come back.’
Andrula intones in a low growl, ‘We are gathered here today…’
I shrug, smirk and turn to Lois. ‘Well, what do you think?’
Lois pulls the zip of her waterproof right up. ‘I think you’re mad. We could have looked at this in the afternoon when the showers have stopped. Instead, you pull me out of my nice little … dry … office to look at holes in a wall that I’ve passed nearly every day for thirteen years and never even noticed.’ She looks up. ‘The official records say that this is bomb damage from around 1940. The official records say that Cambridge was never bombed. That’s historians for you.’
I say, ‘Well, what do you reckon?’ People passing, huddled from the rain and occasional hail stone, stare as Lois climbs a ladder while a porter steadies it for her.
I offered to hold it but the porter said, ‘Health and safety.’ Apparently, you need a degree in ladder holding before insurance companies will cover you.
Lois says, ‘If it was a bomb … it must have exploded above.’
The porter says, ‘Nah, not a bomb. None of the other buildings were touched.’
Lois looks round. ‘You have a point, mister.’
He goes on, ‘Look, there’re two types of holes, big shallow ones and small deep ones. The small ones all have a smooth bit just lower than centre, usually a triangle…’
Lois looks down. ‘You’ve looked at these? You actually noticed they’re here?’
‘I work here. As I was saying. Only some of the bigger ones have triangles and the like. If this happened in 1940,’ he nods at me, ‘As you said, Laurie, then that would be a BF 109, or 110. They had two 12.5 millimetre machine guns and one 20 millimetre cannon. I reckon the big holes are from cannon. They had soft shells that exploded easily. Good for damaging delicate aircraft like spitfires and hurricanes.’
Lois leans forward and presses her forehead against the top rung of the ladder. ‘Why did I bother to get a doctorate in history, when I’m outclassed and upstaged by a porter? You should be on television, young man.’
‘Andy … and I was on TV. Just back from the kite surfing championships in Chile.’
‘How exciting. How did you get on?’
‘I didn’t; my girlfriend did.’
‘OK, Doctor Andy. Tell me more about your deductions here.’
He shrugs. ‘I dunno but shrapnel from a bomb would be all shapes not the same sized triangle most of the time. If it was a Messerschmitt I reckon that it was a 109 as there are twice as many bullet holes than cannon. A 110 had more cannon. Either way it would have dived from the south east. The spread is about fourteen metres wide but goes all the way to the top of the tower. I’d say a burst of around one to two seconds. Waste of ammo if you ask me. There can’t have been that much action that day. Can’t see why he picked on this building except it stands out. Maybe he didn’t get a place at Cambridge and was pissed off.’
I look back up at Lois. ‘What do you think?’
She climbs down. ‘Don’t ask me, ask Andy. He’s got it covered. Can I go back to my office now?’
I shiver, should’ve brought a jacket. ‘Let’s get out of this. We bustle into the dry of the gatehouse.
Andrula makes way for Andy carrying the ladder. A set of keys dangles from his mouth. He makes a grunting noise and waggles them at me.
I take them and lock the door as Andrula says, ‘Well, out with it…’
‘Yeah, go for it,’ says Lois.
‘Wait!’ Andy shouts. I wanna hear too.’
I say, ‘It’s confidential.’
He slams the ladder against the wall. ‘So am I.’
I say, ‘OK, people. I’ve been working with a subject on and off for two weeks. All this time she’s been seeing what should be put down to hallucinations, but…’ This is where I’m about to put my scientific foot right in it.
‘Go on,’ says Andrula.
I point to railings inside the court. Steam rises from them now the sun’s come out again. ‘The subject stopped there. She said she saw a man tripping over his bike. He pretended to fix something on it. A woman with flowers in her hair and wearing a leopard print T-shirt arrived to put a new chain on her bike. He offered to help and kissed her hand.’ I pause.
Andrula says, ‘Go on…’
‘In my first year as an undergrad I saw Inga buying a new bike chain in Kings Street. I raced back to my room, grabbed my tools and cycled here. I did trip over my bike as I hurried to find Inga’s. I got there in the nick of time to make my presence seem accidental. She had a daisy chain in her hair that I’d given her the day before. She must have kept it in water. She wore a leopard print T-shirt. I kissed her hand as a joke … you know.’
Oops, I’m blushing. Time to change the subject. ‘When we went through that door, Yalda screamed and passed out. Later she said a plane had dived from the sky and fired on the tower. A little boy panicked and his grandfather chased after him and lay over him to protect him with his body.’
Andrula’s glowering at me. I put my hands up. ‘I know … none of this happened. I’m only researching epilepsy.’
She growls, ‘Make sure you keep it that way.’
Lois throws her head back her hood rustling and shedding water. She pulls it down. ‘Lol, science buries it’s head in the ground once again.’ Turning to me she asks, ‘Can any more of these visions be verified?’
‘I have no idea. That’s your department.’
‘I can hardly wait. When do I get to see this subject of yours? We arts aren’t scaredy cats like you lot.’
‘I’m supposed to be meeting her and the foster parents at the entrance to Emmanuel in a few minutes. Cream cakes by the pond and all that.’
Lois slips her arm into mine. ‘The cakes are on me and don’t let the big bully Andrula scare you. She went to Magdalene and they end up all anal and hoity-toity. You want to set up a faculty of the paranormal with me? I’d do it just to freak her and bring shame on the whole university.’
I unlock the door again and throw the keys to Andy. ‘See you later, people.’
Lois and I stand in the sun and look at the wall. I say, ‘Lois…’ and shake my head.
‘What?’ she pulls me across the road to the patisserie.
‘Lois, she didn’t see the holes. She ran straight out with her back to them … and that thing about the bike was all too convincing.’
‘What sort of cakes?’
‘Just a range, five altogether.’ She goes in and I lean on a pillar and stare at the wall. Yes, scientists can’t cope with anything that can ruin their reputation. Little green men won’t exist until they pop out of nowhere and shout BOO! Still, Yalda fascinates me.
Lois emerges with a box. ‘Let’s go. On the way, you can tell me everything.’
‘I expect you can guess pretty much all of it.’
She yanks me back onto the kerb. Cyclists can be fast and silent. ‘If you get killed between here and Emmanuel, I get your cake, OK?’
‘You are so mean. Can’t I be buried with it?’
‘Well, half then. You were saying?’
‘They’ve been here two weeks. Yalda has almost constant hallucinations, many more than she had before but refuses any psychiatric treatment. The foster parents are very supportive of that. They think they are visions and not an illness. Other than that it’s all tragic…’
‘When they came they told me individually, when she wasn’t there, that they couldn’t cope. Despite the foster mother being her aunt they’re thinking of sending her to someone else.’
‘Yalda was scratchy and foul mouthed and pulled back from her aunt as if she hated any physical contact. Mind you, she’d been though hell in her own country. None of them are in a hurry to return.’
Halfway to Emmanuel I get a text from Mr. Kabbani, “Waiting in the Paddock.”
Lois asks, ‘So what about her epilepsy?’
‘I’m struggling there. A 24 hour EEG showed abnormal activity. Nothing like epileptiform brain activity as I know it. I’m not sure what’s going on.’
Lois quickens her pace. ‘I want to meet this girl.’
‘Don’t be too hasty. Their permit expires in two days. They’ll be going back to Syria.’
‘What? Don’t you dare. Did you sign it or Andrula?’
‘I signed it but the cost of accommodation comes out of her budget.’
‘Extend it. I mean it. You said you didn’t understand what was going on. You want more time too?’
‘Well, yes but I can’t justify it really.’
Lois tosses her leonine locks. ‘I’ll work on Andrula. You extend the permit.’
That wasn’t a request. She may be arts but she’s still university and juniors like me aren’t in a position to make enemies. Sadly, if it’s a choice between Andrula’s wrath or Lois’s, Lois is going to lose.
We enter Emmanuel, march through the Front Court and the sound of traffic dies. Entering the Paddock reveals Mr. and Mrs. Kabbani sitting on a bench way past the library and looking towards the pond.
Yalda comes into view, sees us and runs towards me. ‘Quick. Come with me!’ She grabs my hand and I break into a jog to keep up with her. She points ahead to the edge of the water. ‘Look, chicks. Look at their feet. Their feet are so big. Why do they have such big feet?’ She releases my hand, leans forward, hands on knees, and giggles. ‘They look so funny.’
Introductions and cream cakes. Yalda wants to feed the chicks. She and her foster parents have changed. Mystified, I ask Mr Kabbani how he and his wife are coping.
As Lois and Yalda go back to the pond, ostensibly to feed the moorhen chicks so their bodies can catch up with their feet, it’s Mrs Kabbani that answers, ‘Yesterday, she hugged me and told me she loved me. That changes everything. Now I will cope with whatever life throws at us.’ She points to Yalda. ‘Did you see? She took your hand. I didn’t expect to see that. You are doing her good, Mr. Kingston.’
‘Laurie, please. Mrs Kabbani, I haven’t done a thing. Whatever’s happening is down to you two and her.’
Mr Kabbani slaps his thighs. ‘I think it is this city. It is a city of healing.’
‘Any more incidents?’
‘Yes a big one this morning. A fight. People with swords. She didn’t pass out afterwards though.’
I tap his shoulder. ‘Hang on there. Do you mind if I speak to Yalda and Lois about this?’
‘Go ahead, go ahead. She probably won’t tell you that she ran out in front of a van during it. We try to hold her hands all the time but she gets away sometimes.’
Lois squats beside Yalda. Five chicks walk in jerks in front of them, while disapproving mother hens look on.
I squat too. ‘Hey, Yalda, what happened this morning? A fight with swords?’
Yalda pauses minutely while aiming a crumb but she throws anyway and still looks calm and happy. ‘A man and his wife or girlfriend. Five men ran at them from the darkness. The man drew his sword but was beaten down. His wife took the sword and went mental. She attacked the muggers but they were only laughing until she hit one in the neck. Two men came out of a house, saw what was going on and attacked. They killed two and the other two ran away.’
Lois looks up, ‘What happened to the fifth?’
‘He was dying from the wound on his neck.’
Lois is really fired up, wide pupils… ‘Where was this?’
‘By the market.’
‘And it happened at night?’
‘Yes but I saw it this morning. Mum says I nearly ran in front of a van.’
Lois tips her head to one side. ‘What were they wearing?’
‘I couldn’t see that much. She had a long dress on. She kept tripping on it. The men were all in tights and cloaks and funny little shoes.’
‘Thank you, Yalda. I want to make a phone call; won’t be long.’
She goes away. I take Yalda’s hand and drop a few crumbs into it. ‘Well, you seem much, much more happy. It’s lovely. Something must have changed.’
She shrugs, ‘Maybe, I dunno.’
‘Tell me. What’s changed?’
‘I don’t have to hide any more.’
‘You know, seize up, roll into a ball and shut it all out.’
‘You did that on purpose?’
‘No it just happened. I couldn’t stop it.’
‘But this morning it didn’t.’
She throws the last crumb and looks down. ‘I dunno what to say. It’s like … all I saw was cruelty and violence. But if you don’t look at that you see the bravery and love instead. People helping each other, people putting their lives at stake … a boy killing his father to stop the torture.’ She chokes, sniffs and puts her arms round me, burying her face in my shoulder. I hug her back, trying not to cry too.
Yalda walks in the middle holding her foster parents’ hands. Lois is doing my head in. ‘Laurie, you must extend that permit.’
‘Lois, not now. I just spoke to Yalda. I’m pretty sure those so-called seizures were a hysterical reaction. I’ve no reason to spend Andrula’s money. Have you a budget for this?’
‘Don’t be daft. I’m arts remember.’ Her phone goes and we walk together in silence. She slips her phone back into a pocket. ‘About that attack. 1671 two men charged with stabbing people in the back in Market Warde, now Peas hill. Several men attacked a man for meeting one of their sisters after dark. Two men came to assist. They were acquitted.’
‘Lois, you know as well as I do that doesn’t amount to anything. Going on men wearing tights you’ve probably three centuries to draw from.’ I squeeze her arm. ‘They’re here for two more days.’
‘Like that would be enough time. Bloody scientists,’ she hisses.
Yalda and foster parents wait for us at the gate and Andy lets us in. He says to me, ‘How’s it goin?’
To my surprise Yalda answers. ‘Goin good. Moorhen chicks have had their first chocolate, shoe pastry and cream.’ She looks at his face, and frowns. She starts to talk but the words die.
‘What’s up?’ says Andy.
‘You had keys in your mouth…’ she turns to me, ‘no, you took them … and locked it…’ she looks back at the door, then at the keys on Andy’s belt. ‘Uh…? She shakes her head. ‘Weird, what was that about?’
My composure nearly cracks. Fine… I give in and say, ‘Andy, meet Yalda. She’s going to be around for a few weeks.’
©Gary Bonn 2013