Hypnagogia: Chapters 1-3

by | Jan 28, 2021 | Book, Hypnagogia | 0 comments

Fires raged everywhere as every piece of flammable material succumbed to the inferno.

Chapter 1. The Siege of Carthage

There is a brief transitional state spanning wakefulness and sleep when one has a foothold in both worlds, the sensation of which has been described as comparable to that of a near death experience. This state is known as hypnagogia. Suspended between a world where anything is possible yet somehow tethered to the gatepost of terrestrial existence, this condition surpasses any drug enhanced encounter, albeit transiently. Heedlessly, we all experience this phenomenon, but for most, its duration is minuscule to the tune of fractions of a second. For a minority, however and I consider myself in this category, the sensation can linger with fascinating consequences. Yet, what had become a regular but minor occurrence, would lead to the manifestation of a stranger phenomenon.

For most of my adult life I had been troubled by a niggle in the back of my mind. Something that would materialise from time to time infrequently but consistently over period of roughly forty years. When I say something, I mean someone, as this phenomenon took the human form. I used to imagine it as a shadow in the dark doorway of a disused shop seen out of the corner of one’s eye. I could make out that it was female, young and I often had glimpses of features of a pretty face. These features were disjointed such that I could never make up an identity for the girl. The features never grew older with time unlike mine and those of the people around me, victims of the ravages of modern life straddling the twentieth and twenty first centuries. That was until one day, or should I say one night, the shadowy figure stepped out of the doorway into full view, an event which would change my life for good.

Having previously existed in this other dimension, where together we fought villains and defeated demons or just walked and talked, hand in hand, on a foreign beach; she was suddenly palpable. Our conversations were stimulating and satisfying, each giving way to the other with perfect timing. I was mesmerised by her distinctive intonation which made what she had to say all the more interesting. Her attentive listening and abundant empathy always extracted the best out of what I had to say. Never judgemental, she always had a comforting solution to a problem. While she was talking I would be enthralled by her idiosyncratic features, to the point where I would sometimes get lost in their quirkiness and miss the thread of the conversation. She always knew this was happening though and would bring me back with a tiny hand on my knee or forearm. Her touch was as delicate as gossamer but sent electric shocks through my body.

Once I was in my deep sleep, she would appear wearing faded jeans and a navy wool jumper that had seen better days. The tiny floral collar of a blouse peeking through the neck of her jumper, the only admission of femininity. Her natural beauty floored me every time as if each meeting was the very first. My favourite was her greeting, where she would stroll up to me no matter where my dream took us and she would fling her arms around my neck. Then, at 5 feet two inches and seven stone wet through, she’d proceed to give me the deadliest bear hug, squeezing out every last ounce of my breath . During this time, I would revel in the closeness of her tiny body, conscious of her small hard breasts pressing just below my ribs. I would reciprocate by wrapping my arms around her, almost twice, lifting her off the ground with virtually no effort. At this point our heads would be level and I’d push my face into her thick black hair, the colour of a raven’s wing and find her small ear to whisper how much I had missed her. We would then pull away and at arms length I would drink in the beauty of that distinctive face, the one I could never recall on waking, revelling in the warmth of her eyes like an old man embracing a winter fire.

The night that my companion revealed herself was a particularly difficult one. I strongly believe that the trauma of that period brought about the extended state of hypnagogia that enabled her to stay in my mind after waking the next morning. I had retired that day after a particularly exhausting twenty four hours. My wife was in the later stages of cancer and the end was imminent. Sleep came almost immediately as I clung on to the warm soft duvet and my head sunk into the pillow. Suddenly the softness was gone, replaced by scorching sandstone both in my hands and against my cheek. The cool spring air had gone too, replaced by smoke punctuated by glistening embers and black ash. Dancing shadows of red and amber reflected from the yellow walls surrounding me. Fires raged everywhere as every piece of flammable material succumbed to the inferno. The heat was unbearable scorching my lungs as I gasped for the oxygen that fed the flames. The blocks of stone that made up the battlements were almost glowing with the heat and my hands recoiled as I touched them to lean over the wall in search of richer, cooler air. At that moment she appeared, as she always did, this time standing in the flaming door frame, what was left of the door, on the flagstones in front of her, a pile of black smouldering ash.

The crimson and purple silk of her robe stuck to her sweat covered olive skin. Backlit by the yellow flames behind her, she looked naked, her silks resembling flames dancing around her tiny frame. As I stood up she ran towards me leaping off the ground whilst still two metres away. The leap projected her onto my chest where she promptly wrapped her limbs around my body like a human vine. I pulled her weightless form to me feeling every flesh starved bone in her body. Her soft warm lips caressed my ear as she rasped, “It’s over, they’ve won” For once, her voice had lost its unique intonation, taken by the smoke, flames and months of siege. I shifted my weight and swung her emaciated body onto my back like a minute silken rucksack so that we could observe the developing scene below. 

There was an unusual calmness to proceedings eighty feet below, bearing in mind the pandemonium in Carthage’s Eshmun Temple and the surrounding Byrsa Citadel. The huge golden courtyard between the temple and the citadel was pock marked with flaming pyramids. Bonfires constructed by the defenders of the temple to halt the progress of the Roman legions. In front of the sacked citadel the Latin cohorts formed an immaculate red and gold line measuring a half mile in each direction. Heading the line was the massive figure of the Consul, Scipio Aemilianus, a giant of a man belying his young age. Unlike his soldiers who were all clean shaven Scipio sported a black beard that framed his angular features along with his General’s helmet. The helmet was topped with a magnificent white plume of white ostrich feathers which were spattered with blood. His crimson cloak, which was wrapped around his broad chest was peppered with burn holes, some still smouldering.

Beneath us at the great door to the Temple and by contrast, was the ramshackle rabble of Roman deserters and Carthagenian fighters. The ragged group parted revealing the forlorn form of General Hasdrubal the Boetharch. Fresh blood seeped from several wounds in his exposed body, the accoutrements of battle having been shed. The General cut a lonely figure as he began to walk towards the forbidding line of rectangular shields. As the girl leaned to get a closer look, her bones digging into my back, I noticed the absence of her small firm breasts from the hugs of countless previous encounters. How long had she been starving in this hellhole? Her warm, moist mouth brushed my ear and the pain faded as she began to hoarsely whisper a commentary of the events below.

The solitary figure of the erstwhile saviour of Carthage removed his battered helmet, the remaining symbol of war, and raised his bloody head. His booming voice rasping with the smoke and fatigue of battle, filled the clearing and silence fell, save for the crackling of flames.

“He’s surrendering, begging for mercy” she groaned, her head pushing into the nape of my neck. I detected the heave of a sob as she said the words. The response from the young Roman was as clear as the air was bleak and translated immediately by my consort. “He’s telling His Excellency to speak in the tongue of the Empire or else his ears are deaf to the pleas.” she continued. The forlorn General then addressed his adversary in the latin tongue punctuated with long pauses as he struggled to translate his request.

Suddenly, without warning, a young woman of about thirty burst through the throng of defeated fighters. She was carrying a child under each arm, a boy and a girl of between three and four, although they could have been older as they too, were emaciated from the famine of siege. Deliberately placing the infants on the ground in front of her, she uttered a few words to the General. The broken man turned to his wife but before he could reply, she produced a bejewelled, curved knife from her silks and in one quick flash of the gold blade, slit the throats of the two babies. Her actions were so swift  that neither child witnessed the fate of the other. The General looked on in horror as his two heirs simultaneously fell to their knees, plumes of scarlet bursting from their wounds.

At that moment a huge cheer emanated from the Roman Legions accompanied by the drumming of short sword on shield. The General brought his hands to his face and collapsed to his knees, realising the consequences of his actions. As he screamed with grief, the lady took up the children before they could slump to the ground, lifeless. She then calmly walked into the nearest, largest bonfire as if walking through an open door. The sad trio were absorbed into the flames with little result save a plume of steam which sent an apologetic white puff into the darkened air. This staggering event was met with increased vigour by the enemy lines who took it as a signal to move slowly forward.

The perfectly straight line moved across the courtyard with slow precision and the rabble of defeated defenders suddenly sprang to life. As the girl clung to my back ever tighter, I expected them to put up a fight. However they split into three groups, one of which did as I anticipated. A hundred or so ran towards the juggernaut and were promptly overcome with swift stabbing motions of the close combat short sword. It was like an ancient version of corn under a combine. The second group slowly spread out and with their leader, fell to their knees, heads bowed. They too were dispatched with true Roman efficiency. That left the third and final band which, with total reverence and homage to their Queen, calmly gave themselves to the flames of the pyres a scene that sent my young companion into waves of heaving sobs. At last there was an eerie silence as even the invaders halted in their tracks at the mass sacrifice. Again, only the snap of burning wood could be heard as the legionnaires changed formation to four abreast and filed through the undefended gates of the Temple.

“We have to leave now,” she whispered, “It’s over here, unless you want to suffer the fate of those below” In contrast to the peace outside, the scene in the Temple was chaotic. Women and children were throwing themselves onto the courtyard below. Fathers dispensed with their loved ones before taking their own lives. No one ran except us. She led me to the only wooden  doors to remain intact being the rear secret entrance to the Temple. It faced south west with nothing but desert between us and Numidia. We slammed the doors and brought down the huge wooden bar onto its hasp.

The scene became hazy as my hypnagogic state took over. A combination of loud roars in a strange language and heavy impact of wood on wood filled the stale black air. My back was being pounded by huge impacts which punctuated the continuous thumping. The thick heavy wooden bar that kept the roughly made doors in place was splintering like the opening fingers of locked hands, the grain straining to remain intact. The efforts of myself and my tiny companion were futile against the massive onslaught. As the bar gave way with a sad creaking explosion my consort screamed, “Run!” I caught the minute form of the Arab girl disappearing along a narrow sandstone passage. 

At that moment, I was whisked away from the scene, just as the torrent of identical, swarthy soldiers burst through the ragged opening. My aspect changed to that of an observer as the transitional state took control. The banging was replaced with equally intense boom of heavy feet as the Roman soldiers poured through the door in a river of red, white and glistening short sword. My petite accomplice headed this wave of hate like a surfer chasing the crest. Just as the deadly pack were within striking distance, she darted right through a tiny aperture in the stone wall as a snake would take refuge in the grass. She was gone and the angry cohort of combatants collided in a mass of arms legs and sharpened steel. The musty splinter filled air was replaced with the warm feeling of duvet and pillow as the familiar end to my sleep came. However the racket continued with added insistence and I was dragged into consciousness as the sound transformed into reality. In a breath, I realised that it was the consequence of turning off the doorbell and unplugging the phone that had created this din. Leaping out of bed and pulling on my joggers whilst hopping like a demented kangaroo, I raced to the front door. There, standing with a face flushed with the efforts of trying to rouse me stood the diminutive figure of my sister in law. “Come now, she’s dying. We have to be quick. What on earth have you been doing?”

Chapter 2. The Dog and Rabbit

I walked into our local micro pub, The Dog and Rabbit to partake of some tasty craft bee

I had been so exhausted with looking after my terminally ill wife that weekend that, when reluctantly we agreed to let them take her back, I switched off from the world. I just wanted one night where I did’t have to witness her suffering and stand helplessly by as she faded by the hour. Turning off the doorbell and unplugging the telephone, I had planned to sleep for a couple of hours. My sleep craved body had embraced unconsciousness like a long lost friend, transporting me to Carthage in the second century BC in the process. Eight hours later I was brought back to reality.

The recollection of the drive to the Palliative Care Unit does not exist in my memory. My mind was split between the impending tragedy, my terrifying dream and the young Arab girl whom I could still picture. The latter had never occurred before as she had always slipped back into that dark doorway on my awakening. As we stepped from the tiny lift onto the first floor, my first impression was that of the small silver plaque on the wall opposite.

North Tyneside Palliative Care Unit Opened 12th September 2011 by Alan Shearer OBE

We hurried down the corridor which was cluttered with the paraphernalia of end-of-life care. The normally chirpy staff averted their gazes one by one as we passed. Only the Filipino sister let her face linger in my direction, mouthing the silent word,”sorry”. She may as well have used a megaphone, the effect those five letters had on me as I reeled at her gesture. I was met by the plain white door bearing the solitary number 7, its unfamiliar closed position stopped me in my tracks. Examining every inch of its cheap beading and false brass handle, I was rooted  to the spot, the ability to fulfill the every day task of opening a door having deserted me. Unceremoniously my wife’s sister pushed me aside and entered revealing the tragic scene it had hidden from the world. I was too late.

I followed her into room desperate to see my wife but all that was left of a life of 59 years and a marriage of 34 years was a hospital bed in that dimly lit room. My Mother in Law was slumped over the bed on which lay a corpse, white as the bed linen, hair combed back, mouth open eyes closed save for one eyelid revealing the trace of a misty eye. Arms by her side, fingers in a light fist, the only glint of colour in this monochrome scene, the small gold ring on the third finger of her left hand. The ring I had put there all those years ago burning like a tiny ember in the fire grate. I sat down beside her and took her thin arm in both hands. Cold but not cold, more lack of warmth, I could see the veins with the still blood in them like a stagnant pond.

“No, it’s not happening, this is not true, she can’t be”, I cried, lifting her lifeless arm to my face. The first thing I had to do was tell the children, Jesus, the children! Another wave of shock hit me as I pictured the three of them individually and tried to put their reaction to the news of their mother’s demise out of my head. However, all of this was taken out of my hands by my sister in law who dealt with them in a matter of fact way that left me stunned and full of admiration for her sheer guts.

That was one month ago and now that all of the formalities were over, I was trying to make sense of my new life of solitude. The only escape from crushing grief was the girl in my Carthage dream and I became increasingly obsessed and intrigued with her, especially now that I had an image to focus on. She was only ever in my head though until the day she appeared again. This time, however it was not in a dream but into reality that she walked.

To say she walked into my life wasn’t strictly true. I walked into our local micro pub, The Dog and Rabbit to partake of some tasty craft beer and a few paragraphs of my favourite author, Haruki Murakami. I headed straight for the bar, not looking to see who was in, giving a passing glance to my regular corner seat by the window. To my relief it was empty. Homing in on the pump clips, I decided on two thirds of a local IPA that I had enjoyed previously. I watched Tony, the barman and owner of this little oasis of calm, carefully nurse the lively brew into the stocky glass. Two thirds of a pint had become my measure of choice being , in my opinion, the perfect volume of, what is, a stronger beer than the average fare.

After paying and indulging in a little beer related chat with Tony, I engaged with Johnny and John the two resident rock stars, bar flies and guitarists of the first order. They were a common fixture making this a haven of culture being seldom short of anecdotes involving legends of the 70’s music scene. I then turned to my other regular drinking buddy Anastasios or Tasos for short. This giant of a Greek Cypriot was a retired psychology professor who had specialised, of all things, sleep. “I need a word with you my friend. Book me in for a consultation”. I whispered cautiously in his ear. I left it at that as he was engrossed in the Telegraph crossword and it was more than my life’s worth to compete with that daily ritual.

I then strolled over to my seat and took out my current read, Kafka on the Shore. As I settled in to alternate nips of delicious beverage and Japanese literature, my eyes quickly scanned the sparsely populated room for familiar faces. Other than the aforementioned, old Bill who tottered on a stool at the end of the bar sipping his shandy and Simon, the most Yorkshire of Yorkshiremen; the remainder of customers were strangers. As I opened the book and slid out my bookmark, however, I experienced a strange sensation and the unconscious desire to have another glimpse at my all too familiar surroundings. Resisting the urge, my eyes began to follow the words on the page and instantly I was transported to the magical realism of 1990’s Takamatsu. After a further minute or two the feeling returned so I picked up my beer and brought it to my lips. As the delicate floral taste of hops delighted my tongue, I allowed my eyes to make a more leisurely study of the faces of my fellow drinkers. It was at this point that an imaginary hand thrust up through my gut and deep into my rib-cage, robbing me of breath.

There, sitting at the table opposite were a young couple in their late twenties, each nursing a half of amber liquid. He was a good looking fella with perfect designer stubble and immaculately groomed hair. The type of guy you would see in a 90’s boy band or on an TV reality show. However, my eyes were drawn to his diminutive female companion over whom he towered even whilst sitting. She wore small rectangular frameless glasses but the eyes were unmistakable, the smile, precious. My encounter with this apparition of my slumber was seismic, ripping my eyes out of their sockets and placing them on a plate before me. All meaning flooded into an empty existence like water rushing through a breached dam. I struggled to take a breath as my diaphragm froze, paralysis spreading through my body like a deadly virus. The two separate worlds of fantasy and reality collided like two oncoming trains sharing the same track. The impact was devastating such that the straight glass, wet from condensation, slid from my hand as my fingers relaxed, sending it crashing to the table top. The lively libation exploded in a fountain of froth and liquid, covering the table and my precious Murakami.

The whole bar turned to look at my mishap, leaving their conversations, books and newspapers to rubberneck at my embarrassment. All, that is, except the young lady opposite who slowly looked up at me, slightly broadening her smile. She didn’t even react to the subtle elbow from her partner who was, with the other customers, revelling in my calamity. Her slight frame jerked slightly to the side on the impact of his muscular limb while her serene expression remained fixed. I was the brunt of the usual witty quips from the two J’s compounding my derision while Tony’s reaction was instant, rushing to my aid with the obligatory roll of blue paper. He efficiently mopped up the precious liquid from my table and book whilst, before I could thank him, the glass was reinstated with a fully charged replacement. Looking up to the bar, I saw Tasos raise his glass and with a knowing wink nodded in the direction of the young couple. I, in turn, lifted my newly filled vessel in gratitude to him.

As I recovered my composure, the small seated crowd returned to their activities with the rustling of paper and clinking of glass. Hushed conversation resumed punctuated by the odd amused glance in my direction. However the young female continued with her knowing gaze for just a few seconds longer than was appropriate. Seconds later her disarming stare thankfully ended as she smiled up at Tasos then turned her attention to the drink in front of her. The tiny hand grasped the half glass immediately transforming it into the relative size of a pint in her minuscule grip. As she lifted the vessel to her exquisite lips, she raised it; briefly, in a mocking salute. Any semblance of composure I did have dispersed like the bubbles in her glass of cider.

Cider the chosen drink of my nightly companion! In many a dream, even though we’d attempt and succeed in the impossible, I had tried to turn her, from the apple to the hop, without success. It was a recurring theme of my recurring dream of the girl of my dreams. Quickly finishing my replacement beer, I debated whether to remain for a second or bid a hasty retreat. Again, some mysterious force compelled me to stay and I approached the bar for a refill. As I stood beside Tasos, he uncharacteristically dragged himself from the word puzzle and breathed in my ear, subtly nodding towards the couple, “we do need to talk my friend. You see, I know”.

These words in his rich Mediterranean accent hit me like an oncoming bus. I hung onto the brass bar rail and momentarily swayed. My order consisted of a brief nod to Tony which, thankfully, he understood. As I paid for my drink, the girl’s partner passed me on the way to the toilet, shooting me a grin that was all stubble and teeth. As his hulk disappeared around the corner, Tasos nudged me and nodded over my shoulder hissing, “this is it boy”. Leaving my glass on the counter, I turned just in time to face the beautiful girl who had stealthily left her seat, standing inches from my face. Inhaling her familiar fragrance, I was temporarily paralysed like a fly in a web and was powerless to resist her next move. She threw her arms around my neck in a sequence so familiar in my slumber. Subconsciously, I reciprocated as I had done so many times, revelling in her intimate closeness. Then, as quick as it had happened, it was over as the girl returned to her seat, just in time to see her bloke emerge from the washroom. His intended repeat of the previous grin did not materialise as the whole bar turned towards him in unified mockery. He briefly checked the flies of his jeans before returning to his seat with a puzzled shake of the head. I on the other hand was the subject of much furtive conversation and rustling of newspaper as I returned to my seat in a pointless attempt at resuming my soggy book.

It would be almost a month before our paths would cross, in reality, again although we continued to put the world to rights in my slumber. That encounter would include our first conversation.

Chapter 3. The mall

As the dream took over the bright lights of the Park View Centre burst into my subconsciousness.

As I stretched out in the tiny single bed and torpor overcame me, I turned onto my left side blocking my left ear and therefore, all sound. My right ear was useless following an episode of meningitis ten years previously. The warm cosy silence was soon replaced by the echo of a hard open space, absent of soft materials to absorb the sound. My shoes made a self conscious squeak on the shiny surface with every step. In hypnagogic mode, I immediately recognised the familiar sounds that accompanied a visit to our local mall. My body tensed in its transitional state, with anticipation. As the dream took over the bright lights of the Park View Centre burst into my subconsciousness. To say that it was a mall would be like comparing the neighbourhood cat to a lioness on the Serengeti. After all it was a single “L” shaped covered walkway linking the two main roads of our small town.

The centre had been opened to great fanfare ten years previously, boasting some top-end retailers. Long since closed, these shops had been replaced by bargain stores and those selling everything for the mobile phone user and vaper. As I walked past the makeshift greengrocers perched in front of one of the empty units, she appeared around the mall’s only corner. My heart raced art seeing her again and this time in the contemporary attire I was used to in reality. Gone was the Arab dress of 146 BC to be replaced by cutting edge 21st century fashion. Her jeans were the perfect skinny fit with tears in the knees and her parka was buttoned up to her chin. The dazzling pink and white converse made her look like she was waking on air. Her red locks bounced as she danced up the mall towards me. Her features opened into a dazzling smile on spotting me and her dark eyes gleamed like fresh dates.

I braced myself for the inevitable as she set off up the walkway like an Olympic long jumper. As she landed on my chest I thanked God that she was a bantam weight. Any heavier and she would have had me into the fruit and veg. Having said that, I felt the extra ten kilos compared to the waif from Carthage and the pleasant fullness of her chest. Close up, her cheeks were flushed and full, the red contrasting her olive skin. “That was tough”, she whispered into my ear, “six months with a bunch of nomadic Numidians, you’ll find out soon, you were there too.” Her beautiful Franco-Arabic intonation returning in all its glory.

As she stood down and I surveyed her perfect form. The winning smile the mokka eyes, the fuchsia lips and that hair! I placed both hands on her cheeks and cupped her face, lifting it carefully so that her eyes met mine. “Don’t ever do that to me again”, I rasped, a lump rising in my throat. Her exquisite features swam in a sea of tears as I remembered the emaciated child from North Africa. “This is going to be just as tough,” she purred, “lets get a coffee. I want you to meet someone”. With that, she took my hand in her tiny paw and pulled me towards the coffee shop in the centre of the mall.

The cafe, as usual, was populated with those either waiting for God or otherwise, the Post Office to open. It was a sea of beige clothing and blue rinse hairdos with the odd flat cap thrown in. She tugged me to a table that seemed to be already taken. The occupant was single woman, in a wheel chair, of indeterminate age. The ravages of her obviously serious illness, made it difficult to estimate her years. “This is Barbara” my companion introduced, giving the woman my name in return. “She has Multiple Sclerosis” The smile she gave the stricken woman was like nothing I had ever witnessed before as she placed a tiny hand on the woman’s distorted, puffed hand. Barbara looked up sideways, her neck severely hampered by the disease. On seeing my companion, her face seemed to relax and the features lost their painful distortion. “Oh hello dear its you. Is this your fella? Would he like a coffee?” Her sentences came in short sharp breaths, her speech slurred like a drunken man. This brought stares and whispered comments from the other customers. I glared at the four octogenarian widows at the next table and they lowered their heads in unison with the synchronised clink of coffee cups.

My companion, by contrast, never took her eyes off Barbara, her smile somehow surpassing the previous one. ” That would be very nice Barbara, we’ll both have a double espresso, no sugar”, she responded immediately. Barbara deftly reversed the electric wheelchair away from the table and up to the counter, with a flick of the tiny joystick. In motion she was transformed from the twisted form in the stationary chair to a graceful dancer, negotiating the tables with deft skill. I took my chance while we were alone, “How on earth did you get out of that hell hole?”

“You know we don’t speak about previous encounters, I’ve already said enough”, she snapped, her soft features hardening.

“But that was your home, they were your people”, I struggled to get the words out as the horrific images of Carthage returned.

“It is history, it had to happen. You’ll see much worse at the hands of the Arabs and the French”, she hissed and somehow I knew she meant it. Changing the subject, her expression softened and a deep sadness overcame her exquisite features. “I am sorry to hear about your wife”, her large eyes magnified by the meniscus of tears brimming in them. She blinked and they burst from her long black lashes, running down her full flawless cheeks onto her parka. They stood on the green fabric like pearls for a second before being absorbed into the green material turning it a darker shade. I was mesmerised by their watery journey with equal sadness.

Barbara returned to the table with a tray on her lap. She was a fiercely independent individual despite her ailments. ” Now Jasmine, did you say two espressos, no sugar? My memory isn’t what it was”, she enquired as the girl relieved her of the tray, nodding. Her name was new to me as we had never been on name terms in pre-hypnogogic dreams, another first. Barbara had pronounced it as in the English version of the white spring flower beginning with a “J” as in John. Many other new things would become apparent over the following months. Immediately aware of the puzzled look on my face, my companion leaned forward, brushing my ear with her lips, “Yasmini, pleased to meet you”, shooting me another disarming smile. The single Arabic word, spoken in the native tongue, sent shivers down the back of my neck and the bitter taste of adrenaline rose from behind my tongue. Brand new but so familiar, so right of course it was her name!

“We shall have this then make a start, OK Barbara?” the girl reassured the older woman. As we sat and sipped the bitter brew, Yasmini’s face was a picture of displeasure as the foul liquid passed her lips. Her taste in coffee was impeccable as was her understated taste in everything. She must have been struggling to down this truly horrid concoction. I was taken back to the cafes and markets of Fez and the Medina of Tunis where the coffee was thick, black and without the hint of bitterness.

Finally, as we downed the last of the vile liquid, Yasmini turned to Barbara. “Now is the time”. As the words were uttered, a strange transformation began to take place in the stricken female. Starting with her neck as it began to straighten, lifting her head perfectly level. Then her face began to change as years were taken off it like leaves from a book. The mouth, once drooping to the left and constantly dribbling saliva, turned up in a symmetrical smile. Even her eyes lost that glazed, misty look and became as clear as my beautiful companion’s. Following several energetic shakes of her head, my attention was turned to the gnarled claws that were her hands. The fingers straightened and seem to lengthen into long, delicate digits, before gripping the arms of the chair. The next action had me floored as the old lady pushed herself to a standing position, grabbed the tray and marched to the counter. “Thank you”, she said a loud and clear as the Queen on a Christmas Day. My shock was nothing compared to the crowd of ancient crones in the shop. Coffee cups and plates were sent flying as all sense of feeling left the watching hags.

My own sense of shock turned into something more sinister as an electrifying shock shot up my spine. As I began to slump forward in my chair, Yasmini and her newly revived companion caught me swiftly and moved me deftly onto the vacant wheelchair. My head was forced down by an invisible force so that my chin dug into my chest in searing agony that eclipsed the back pain. The fingers of my right hand twisted into an involuntary fist of excruciating cramp as the joints swelled up like sausages in a pan. Sight was stolen from my right eye replaced with a green mist and tunnel vision developed in the other. My view of the world resembled that through the crack in a door.

The final phenomenon, although not painful, was the worst of all as I felt the warm sensation spread down the front of my trousers and into my shoes. My surviving sense of smell became aware of the odour of fresh urine and I put two and two together with a feeling of horror. Meanwhile, the two female companions linked arms and skipped out of the cafe. My world became constricted to a terrible prison of suffering and embarrassment. Grabbing the tiny joystick in my swollen hand, I attempted to move the chair. The numbness in my fingers prevented any subtle movement and i was projected, at speed, into the table of the four old witches, sending them and their broken crockery sprawling to the floor. The next jerk sent me careering backwards into three more tables of beige clad onlookers and into the mall beyond. As I engaged my tiny crack of sight on the departing females, Yasmini turned and gave her disarming smile. I just managed to hear her above the clatter of tables, chairs and crockery, “See you in the Left Luggage Room” and with that she blew me a kiss.

The scene in the mall gradually changed so that I was viewing it from above. My crippled form below was spinning in circles in the middle of the mall, sending shoppers running for cover. Eventually the scene faded and I was sitting bolt upright in bed. The relief at the lack of pain and numbness was palpable as I stretched and turned my neck and flexed my fingers. I immediately put my hands down the front of my pyjamas, dry, thank God. My lingering hypnogogic memory was of Yasmini and her rejuvenated companion waltzing into the distance. However, I was gripped by her last words, Left Luggage Room. I had an appointment with friends there that very evening.


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