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Westlake put his arm around Emily’s shoulders as they stepped out of the hospital, momentarily confused by the swift onset of winter darkness. Already his wife was slipping into that strange semi-conscious dream state that had made their weekly visits a necessity. He steadied her as they negotiated the steps and stood on the pavement, waiting for a cab.
By the time they had reached the underpass at the junction of Tottenham Court Road she was dozing peacefully on his shoulder, her breath soft against his skin. He stared out of the window trying to remember a time when his thoughts and concerns weren’t inseparably tied up with the state of his wife’s health, when her eyes could still look into his and recognise him.
At first, Dr.Carrington, the consultant at The Hospital for Tropical Diseases, who was supervising Emily’s condition, had suspected it may have been kala-azar, the oriental sleeping sickness – a form of trypanosomiasis transmitted by the bite of flies – but when the blood samples were analysed, the protazoa he discovered were unlike any he had ever seen before, a parasitic infestation previously unknown to science.
Although the medication Carrington had prescribed had been beneficial for a while, Emily’s condition over the last four years had gradually worsened, until now, in the next few moments when she wasn’t in deep slumber, she seemed to exist in some nether world of her own, the pupils of her eyes – while still half-open – moving rapidly from side to side.
Westlake rested his head against hers, stroking the strands of her long red hair. Every morning, after he had bathed and dressed her, he dabbed a little of her favourite perfume behind her ears and brushed her hair in front of the mirror, watching for some sign of recognition. Now, with his ears rubbing against hers, enveloped in the warm cocktail of scents that rose from her skin, he stole what moments of closeness he could.
He remembered the first night they had slept together. He could still savour the eagerness with which she had put on one of his old sweatshirts and climbed into bed. They were so similar in so many ways the attraction between them had been instant. At times, lying down together, they had imagined they were tapping into each other’s dreams, eavesdropping on the silent images that flickered inside their heads.
As they sped up the Marylebone flyover and onto the Westway, he lay back, his arm around her shoulders, his thoughts still reaching out to coincide with hers. Beneath them, preparing for the night, the inner suburbs spread out like a dark quilt. He knew that the constant strain of nursing his invalid wife had eaten away a part of him, as if he too, by some strange process of pathological osmosis, had contracted a form of the disease and was now living in a dark somnolent dream-world from which it was impossible to awaken. Despite his constant exhaustion he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in months. A kind of sleep-deprived insomnia had reduced him to a state of perpetual anxiety, punctuated only by those invading moments of nocturnal terror.
Lying back in the cab, he felt as if they were flying above the city, entombed in a kind of large double casket, lifting above the rooftops towards some final resting place. At last, he could feel himself drifting off. He sank down into the warm brown upholstery, his mind once more reaching out to hers. Through half-closed eyes he could see the square-shouldered shape of the taxi driver – for once mercifully silent – as they sped along the flyover. He looked across at the meter, the constant flickering subverting its glowing numerals to a reassuring zero.
He was gliding towards a large dark hole, like a cave, and found himself standing at the entrance, torch aloft, as if checking the address on the cave-wall. For some reason he couldn’t quite read it. Away in the distance, down a long dark corridor – a kind of tunnel or vault – he could just make out her recumbent outline. She was lying on some type of bier or altar, surrounded by flowers; old dried flowers; lilies, poppies and purple nightshade. They lay strewn around the dusty stone slab on which she lay, like discarded gifts from an old admirer or the bedside bouquets of well-wishers and friends. Another arrangement had been placed at her feet, an offering from an unknown devotee of her hidden beauty.
He became aware of the rattling hum of the engine. He opened his eyes, surprised to see they were still on the Westway, as if they hadn’t moved at all, caught on some strange treadmill example of motorway engineering.
Emily lay beside him, slumped across the upholstery in a contorted posture of repose, as if perfecting a new complex yoga of her own devising. Already she had slipped beyond the realm of dreams, down into that deep troubled slumber that had become her home.
Emily’s syndrome, Dr.Carrington had rather ungallantly called it, thrusting the newly-written paper into his hand. It was all there: the periods of deep untroubled sleep, the reoccurring nightmares, the amnesia, the somnambulatory wanders, the obsession with blood and saliva, the almost animal-like fierceness when approached; all her symptoms were described and analysed in methodical detail. But Carrington only knew the clinical observations: the tests, the attempts to reach her by advanced hypnosis, the hours of videotape and drug trials. His actual day-to-day experience was limited; he knew nothing of the wild destructive trance that could erupt at a moment’s notice, the thrashing screaming fits that characterised the small hours of morning.
* * *
John Edmiston's short story collection, Emily's Syndrome will be published on
13 November 2011
Here at Waitapu
And on Amazon here
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