Authors: Lucy Wadham
For my sisters Louise, Catherine,
Amynta and Rosie and my brother Tom
Part of this story takes place in the Basque Country (Euskal Herria), on both the French and Spanish sides of the border but mostly in the province of Gipuzkoa, around San Sebastian. Anyone familiar with this troubled region will know that it is difficult to consider the place without considering the violence therein and the role of the armed group, ETA. It will become clear, however, that the story is not about ETA, nor indeed about Basque politics. It does not attempt to shed any light on ETA's present formation. Certain characters in the story are linked to a now extinct movement known as ETA-PM (a schism of ETA-M, which survives today). After Franco's death the âPoli-Milis', as they were called, abandoned the armed struggle in favour of political action. To this extent the story examines the effects of long-term violence on those who are looking for a way out.
Euzkadi, Euskadi: the Basque Country
Donostia: San Sebastian
ETA: Euskadi ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom)
In Basque the letters âTx' are pronounced âCh', so the name
âTxema' is pronounced âChÃ©-ma', âItxua' is âItch-ua'.
My thanks to Sarah Ferguson for all her support and encouragement; to Dr Sophie Cohen for answering all my questions; to Dr Jorge Cardozo for letting me watch him work; to Gerard Toupier at the Pasteur Institute; and in loving memory of Professor Jean Julvez, without whom this story would never have been invented.
On the morning of Mikel’s release Astrid expected to have another episode. She dressed slowly, carefully stepping into her clothes, as though afraid that any sudden movement might act as a trigger, making her mind short circuit.
the neurologist had told her.
Of course he had not addressed the fear. Fear brought its own symptoms and as Astrid well knew, it was not the thing itself so much as the fear of it that was dominating her life. The symptoms that assailed her now, as she stepped out of her building into the Paris dawn; the palpitations, sweaty palms, dry mouth and the sensory distortion, were the products of an over-active adrenal gland: knowing this did not help. She stood on the kerb, the object world swimming before her, stiff with terror.
Behind her, the heavy glass door slammed shut, sending an unpleasant ricochet of sound waves through the spaces in her body. She took deep breaths, focusing on the horse chestnuts that grew out of the pavement on the other side of the cobbled road. The dark bitumen, buckling from the roots growing beneath, looked soft and foamy. She closed her eyes. The air was too thick, the birdsong too slow.
The vision of Lola dancing around her flat in her shell-pink nightie helped Astrid step off the kerb onto the cobbles. As she walked down the hill she began to hum ‘Gracias la Vida’, their favourite song. Sticking to her part, the alto, she imagined Lola’s fine voice singing out the soprano harmony she had invented to go with it.
Up the hill towards her came a youth astride a square, fluorescent green motorcycle, trailing behind him the piercing sound of the vacuum sucking up dog shit from the pavement. Astrid
walked steadily towards the man and the machine. As they passed her she did not flinch but gave a victorious smile. The youth was busy with his next target and did not see what she suddenly realised was closer to a grimace.
While she waited for her bus, Astrid noted the slow return to normal of her metabolic function. She breathed deeply as she studied an advertisement for a vitamin supplement on the side of the shelter. A middle-aged woman with a youthful smile, aided by an invisible trampoline, had been caught in mid-air, just at that moment before her skirt flew up and gravity pulled her back. Astrid stared at the ecstatic smile and wondered at the circumstances that had brought the woman to such indignity.
She looked down at the water running in the gutter at her feet. This habit they had of flushing the gutters with clear water every morning was one of the things she liked about Paris. They would never dream of doing something so munificent in a Spanish city, or an English one.
The bus hummed as it approached. The doors hissed open and shut behind her. She validated her ticket in the machine beside the driver, waiting for the sound that always reminded her of her stepfather Josu’s abattoir gun. Then she made her way to an empty seat at the back of the bus and sat down.
She looked out of the window at the dawn sky, the electric-blue and pink tinted purple by the brown glass. Her first malaise had been brought on by a conversation with Lola. She had been standing in her lab, watching the new machine that had been hooked up to a baboon’s liver. Lola had called to tell her the news of Mikel’s release. When Astrid picked up the phone Lola was already crying.
Lola had started laughing through her tears.
Astrid had not been able to reply. This time it was not guilt that had prevented her from speaking, but a sense of loss that took her breath away. She had stood there watching the baboon’s blood in the tubes, gripping the phone until she could feel nothing but her tight fist around the phone and herself trickling like sand through the fist, onto the floor. She had intended to go for a walk and had called out to Vincent, the lab technician, to watch the baboon,
then she had passed out where she stood. When she woke, her head was in Vincent’s lap and he was stroking her hair ineptly.
Now, as usual, nausea followed the other symptoms, and a numbing in the upper body, but as the bus crossed Paris from north to south Astrid noted an improvement in her state. By the time they crossed the Seine at Austerlitz she was feeling better.
She entered the hospital compound. The doorman in his glass box beneath the porch looked up from his paper and nodded. She noticed that today he had white tape on the arm of his spectacles. She made her way along the narrow concrete path towards the lab, breathing in the smell of dew on grass, her senses tethered again.
She opened the lab and stepped inside and turned on the ceiling lights one by one. She took her lab coat from its hook and put it on. She thought of Lola lying awake in her dirty little flat, waiting for her lover’s call.
Astrid fetched her mobile phone from her handbag and laid it on the workbench where she could see it.
Lola would be waiting for the call in that shell-pink nightie. She had bought it in the flea market near her flat. It was made of shiny, synthetic material, cut on the bias that clung to her shape. She wore it all the time indoors. Often she wore a bedjacket over it made of Easter-yellow ostrich feathers.
Astrid took a tray of new test tubes from the supply cupboard and broke open the cellophane. She pulled a tube from its holder, setting her teeth against the squeak of the polystyrene. They needed more bleach. She made a note of this on the wipe-clean noticeboard beside the fridge. She sniffed the pleasant smell of the felt-tip pen, then replaced the lid.
She put on her gloves and fetched her utensils from the sterilising unit and laid them out on the trolley, one by one.
Lola had only ever had one persistent ambition: to be a woman. At boarding school she had drawn hair with black biro onto her bare pubis and Astrid had watched her cry as their house mother, Sister Theresa, had slapped her face. Wicked girl, she had called her. Astrid wanted to believe that she had been filled with compassion at the sight but she suspected herself of having felt a first flicker of that pleasure, so dangerous, in being the good one.
Astrid lifted the white rat from its cage. She held it expertly in
one hand, its head in a delicate clamp between her index and middle finger, and carried it to the slab. She did believe that guilt had brought on the first attack, made her mind cut out as the neurologist had put it. Thomas Meydenburger was an old friend. He told her that the EEG showed delta waves, indicating a lesion.
It’s just scarring. Probably from an old fall. Did you fall as a child?
He nodded, smiling at her with his mouth closed. His face was tanned, although it was winter and his blue eyes were pink around the rims.
Is that it? she had asked.
It’s not a very precise science, I’m afraid.
Does that bother you?
He contemplated his biro, which he turned between his well-padded finger ends.
Not really. I wasn’t cut out for science. I prefer ideas. And people.
Is that why you decided against surgery?
Surgery was for the macho, people who need action.
She raised her eyebrows.
I’m macho then.
I think you’re a woman of action. I’ve always admired that in you.
Astrid clicked her tongue, a Spanish habit, out of place here.
Will you have dinner with me? he asked.
I don’t have dinner. I’m virtually married.
How is the great man?
He’s fine. He’s seventy next year.
Thomas smiled. His lips were dry and chapped. Astrid thought it must be the air conditioning.
He looks good for seventy, he said.
They’re all like that, the great surgeons. Go on, have dinner with me. Please.
I’ll come if you can tell me what’s wrong with me.
Next week. I’ll tell you at dinner next week.
What, you’ll have made something up by then?
You’re a hard woman, Astrid. Then he must have caught her expression. I’m joking, he told her. I like it. You always reminded me of one of those Latina freedom fighters.
Astrid looked into her handbag:
You’re right, Thomas. I am hard. She looked up. How much do I owe you?
But he had refused payment and replaced the lid of his biro with a resolute click. As they stood by the door, he had put a soft, manicured hand on her cheek.
Don’t frown, he said. I didn’t mean to upset you.
And she had told him that she did not believe him about the old fall.
What can I say? he said. It’s an ictus. Transient global amnesia. The mind cuts out. No one knows the aetiology. Do you have migraines?
I did. For a while a long time ago. Bad ones. Then they went. He nodded slowly. She could see the questions crowding in his mind. They started when I was in prison, she added.
Clearly, he said, there can be psychological factors.
Clearly, she said.
He had smiled an apology and told her that there was unlikely to be a sequel and that she should try not to worry.
Should I stop operating? she had asked.
No. Listen to me. You know how you can drive somewhere for hours, thinking about things, listening to music? You may not remember a single thing about the drive itself, about how you got from A to B but that doesn’t mean you weren’t concentrating on your driving. You were just on automatic on some level. Do you see?
But I didn’t remember anything, Thomas. Not a single thing. Four whole hours completely gone. All I know is that I had a case of wine in the back of my car and when I got home it was gone.
Are you sure?
Yes. Chastel put it there.
Maybe you drank it with a group of Brazilian transsexuals in the Bois de Boulogne.
Astrid smiled distractedly.
They had said goodbye and hugged and he had not mentioned dinner again. In that moment by the door she felt him retreat from her. It was not hard to understand why. She remembered a date with him in their first year of medical school. They had been to a cramped Chinese restaurant near the faculty. She had tested
him on the endocrine system and then he had taken her back to his tiny maid’s room that smelt of stale yogurt. She remembered sitting beside him on a small, lumpy sofa and becoming aware that he was very nervous. She was deliberating as to whether or not she should kiss him and get things started when he suddenly put out his hand and gripped her breast hard and with such suddenness that she uttered a cry of alarm. The gesture had been entirely without eroticism and he had begun to apologise immediately. I’m sorry, he had said, shaking his head. I’m so sorry. She had not minded but Thomas had been mortified and never invited her back to his flat again.
She sighed at the memory, made an incision into the sedated rat’s sternum and drew the scalpel in a neat line to its pubis.