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By Eric le Sange
Jen Cord had not known that she possessed the gift. It made itself known to her on a day that was indistinguishable from any other in the working week. She had entered the ophthalmic operating theatre early, as was her habit, to prepare to receive her staff rather than arrive after them. Jen was aware of role modelling. She was also anxious not to take anything for granted in her work. Human error lurked in everyone.
Despite being an attractive woman in her early thirties she had not married nor it seems did she have a partner in tow of either sex. In the flesh, blood and disease intimacy of surgical theatres someone as beguiling as she was singularly odd, enduring, as the male doctors saw it, the privations of a solitary life. There were many who would have liked to put an end to her solitude for though assiduously non tactile, she was warm, engaging, amusing, alluring and unconsciously seductive. During the time that she had worked in the hospital men from various strata of the institution drifted towards her hopefully only to find themselves gently repelled by some force within her, as though her magnetic core was designed for that sole purpose.
She never discussed her private life with anyone, having chosen this job among the many offered her because it was as far from family and friends as it was possible to imagine on this overcrowded island. Her mother had died giving birth to her. Her father had then filled the gap of her absent mother, offering her limitless love and forbearance, sacrificing a social life to attend to her growing up. Then, one day, the purity of their relationship, the unequivocal bond, was snapped by an event that, whenever she thought of it, coiled in her stomach, turning her intestines into snakes. The pain of discovering what she had been too blind to see led her to return to medical school within an hour of its revelation. She did not answer his calls or emails or texts, eventually changing her numbers and addresses to emphasise her desire for an irrevocable break. Even then he found her easily since she was on the national register of ophthalmic surgeons. Now and then she received a long, laboured, handwritten letter in his awkward, spiky script. The length of their separation eventually stretched to a whole decade, yet, despite her anger and sense of betrayal, there was not one day when she did not think about him.
There is a special preternatural calm about a silent operating chamber. The battles for vision, the pain necessarily inflicted, the concentrated minds of staff, the electronic bleeps and liquid gushes of the glittering machinery, are temporarily banished. It is as though the theatre has become a sleeping beast in the waiting darkness. She switched on a beam above her head and looked down the list. It was short, in inverse proportion to the complexity of the cases. Each would take at least two hours. She had arranged it some days before with the managers, as best she could, to allow some variety, knowing her predictions of what might constitute severity would probably be proven wrong.
Settled in what she termed her â€˜driving seatâ€™, she studied her notes. Her attention was caught and held by the first name on the list, Sandhi Dalah. It broke a dream that she had had the night before. She remembered that she was walking on a thin peninsula of land on the Mediterranean coast, towards the sea. A man with his back to her was painting a canvass on a full easel. Her foot caught a loose pebble sending it skittering into the water. He turned violently, his face angry, his long waxed moustaches erect at their ends.
â€œWho dares interrupt the work of Dali?â€ he growled.
â€œI am an eye surgeon,â€ she replied firmly as though that was reason enough. His face instantly changed to subservience. â€œAh,â€ he said plaintively, â€œThere is no resisting a witch such as you. You open and shut the windows to the soul.â€ He closed his eyes as if to demonstrate. But the lids had slits in them which opened, regardless, to reveal dark holes. As she watched the holes merged and became the growing mouth of a long tunnel, swallowing Daliâ€™s face, then his entire body and then the easel. The darkness gave way to light at its far end where the oceanâ€™s small waves could be seen rolling over one another. She approached the water and found steps leading below the surface. Descending them she discovered herself in a vast cave. Artefacts floated in tidy rows everywhere, from the every day to the exotic, from the recognisable to the surreal. Each was inscribed with Daliâ€™s famous signature. She reached out to touch a painting. It was of a giant eye, large, singular and forlorn, drooping shapelessly over the edge of a shelf. As her fingers brushed it she was pulled backwards by a sudden force, back from the chamber, back up the steps, back through the tunnel and back into herself.
The image receded and she was staring at the name Sandhi Dalah again. She knew enough about Freudâ€™s work to recognise that there was sufficient similarity in the sound of the name to that of Salvador Daliâ€™s, to have precipitated her dream. She studied his notes. 46. Anglo-Indian. Samanera. Member of a western Buddhist sect which had set up a community on an island in Scotland. As coincidence would have it she had intended to visit it a couple of years back when on a touring holiday but the weather was atrocious and the narrow channel of sea, spitting enormous white topped waves, precluded any crossing. Dalah was suffering from a sudden loss of sight in his right eye. The optometrist who had sent him to her had found a strange patina on the surface of the retina, like a scattering of a single layer of cells, pale and a touch opaque. She cast her mind back but could not remember her first consultation with him. The waiting rooms were overcrowded these days and patients were pushed through the investigatory processes in industrial numbers. He seemed not to be British or of British extraction. His name suggested Tibet but it might be an erroneous connection. She had a sudden image of unnaturally green eyes. Were they his?
Her thoughts were arrested by the arrival of the first of her nursing team. She gave instructions regarding what would be needed. Within five minutes the entire team was assembled, the technology was blinking and piping high notes and then the patient was led in. She was troubled that she hadnâ€™t been able to remember him. In fact she now had misgivings as to her state of mind at their first meeting, so idiosyncratic was he. Something must have interceded between her visual appraisal and her memory store for there to have been such a blanking out. Yes he had green eyes but he also had olive skin and luxuriant black hair scraped back and tied in a long, intricately woven ponytail. His features were hawkish like a Parseeâ€™s and those green irises burned with a feverish intensity.
â€œPlease sit,â€ she motioned at the waiting chair. â€œWe are going to make a couple of pinpricks to numb the eye and make it immobile. Then Iâ€™ll put a protective shield over your face, exposing it for surgery.â€
â€œHow long will this last? he asked, evenly in a slightly accented voice.
â€œIt might be brief. It might take an hour or two.â€
â€œAnd I will be fully conscious throughout?â€
â€œIndeed. Rest your head back. Good.â€ The mask was put in position and the injections administered. â€œYou can talk at any time, if you want to. Tell me to stop if the going gets hard.â€
â€œYou are a samanera it says here, from that Buddhist island in Scotland? What does that mean? â€
â€œYou asked me that last time. A novice.â€ This further unsettled her. She had great pride in her memory of useful, associated facts regarding her patients. She stayed silent so as not to expose her failed faculty any further. Once he was settled and the eye perfectly still and levered slightly from its socket for her to begin work, she began a preliminary examination through the enlarged pupil. She focused the magnifying lens into the dark centre of the emerald halo and turned up the light. A moment later she recoiled slightly in disbelief but forced herself to bend forward again as her incredulity gave way to unprofessional curiosity. Instead of the cavern whose walls should have been covered by the rods and cones of the retina and substratum of blood vessels, her beam was lighting up a photographic album. It was as though her light was exciting memories in the retinal cells and they were conspiring to project images from Dalahâ€™s life. It was mesmerising as snapshots flashed, one after another; meteorological, topographical, urban, wild, nocturnal and diurnal, flames and water, people and houses, jostling together as though competing to be the one, final and most memorable, single image. The cascade suddenly ceased and there, before her was a vast Buddha, carved into an immense rock face. Half of it was lit by golden rays and the other half remained in a dark shroud.
The Buddha spoke in a deep, sonorous tone, â€œTo love with only half your being is not to love at all. Ambition is unworthy of a samanera.â€
Upon these words the Buddha disappeared and her view of the faintly white retinal surface returned. She quivered from the unworldly experience but covered her reaction with her normal, cool expertise and set to, probing the vitreous chamber with her instrumentation. It did not take her long. Needles removed and stitches inserted, she settled back.
â€œRelax,â€ she said. A nurse slowly raised his chair. She pushed away the gantry above them so they could sit face to face.
â€œWhat was it? he asked, â€œThe gauzy stuff on the retina?â€
â€œThere was something and nothing,â€ she said. â€œIt may be real and may be an illusion.â€
He looked at her, his face expressionless, â€œThen what must I do?â€
She turned to her team and said, â€œGive me five minutes with the patient, will you?â€ They looked a little bemused but left quickly. She turned back to him. â€œI do not know how to tell you this.â€
â€œI can take whatever it is. WI have been trained.â€ He looked at her calmly.
She pursed her lips and started, â€œIn your eye I saw somethingâ€¦I think it must have come from your frontal cortex â€¦ an image … I saw a huge Buddha, carved in a stone cliff. One half of him was lit and the other dark. He said, â€œTo love with only half your being is not to love at all. Ambition is unworthy of the samanera.â€ Sandhi Dalahâ€™s face crumpled and he began to sob silently, his entire body shaking. She took his hands in hers until he subsided. When the nurses knocked and entered quietly they found them like this in a silent tableau.
She told no-one her experience, continuing her work as if nothing had happened but her mind revisiting the event, every time she looked at a patient list. A few weeks later she received a letter from the leader of the Buddhist island community. It thanked her for her expertise, not surgical but spiritual. Sandhi Dalah was a changed man. He had recognised that he was not ready for the contemplative life and must find the half of his being that was not yet at-one and so he had set off on a journey to find that which he did not know. The letter brought back the vividness of her vision from inside the manâ€™s eye and in all likelihood precipitated her next surreal adventure. Once again a dream precipitated a novel reality which she only recalled when she saw her list. The name that arrested her attention was Helena Trott and the consequent dream had some similarities to her encounter with Dali. A woman was standing by an ocean in a long flowing robe with a golden hem. She held an ornate eyepiece to her face of a kind Jen Cord had never seen. Sails of innumerable ships were creeping over the horizon towards her. Again, something she did, some clumsy act that communicated itself to the woman, made her turn in fury.
â€œWhere are my guards? No-one can approach a queen in this vulgar, unsolicited manner.â€
â€œI am a doctor of eyes,â€ she replied.
The queen took a step back. â€œI fear all physicians. They are little more than legalised murderers. Many suffer intolerable pain or die from supposedly efficacious potions dropped into their eyes. Where once there was clarity, the disease of the white curtain is pulled across vision, denying the soulâ€™s view of the living world. If it cannot see, we have no evidence of our purity.â€
â€œWhat of those born blind?â€
â€œDamned to helplessness. Victims of the sins of their parents.â€
That was all she could remember of her dream. She looked at her notes of her first meeting with the patient. Helena Trott, aged 90. Living in a small hamlet close to the city. Frequent retinal tears over the last decade. Regular laser treatment. Like the samanera she had had a sudden onset of blindness in her right eye. A scan had revealed the same faint smattering of a white deposit on the retinal surface, like a carpet of cobwebs on the lawn that you sometimes find on an autumn morning. An amusing vignette came to her mind in which she turned the dried old husk of Miss Trott upside down and shook her so that the white dust floated everywhere as in a childâ€™s glass snow scene.
With a heightened sense of anticipation she had her team prepare equipment for possible surgery on the old ladyâ€™s eye. Trott was helped to the patientâ€™s chair. They shook hands; the elastic fleshed, pink-nailed firmness of one, encasing the fleshless, hard-boned, mottled skin of the other.
â€œHow are you?â€ she asked.
â€œNot so well,â€ said Helena Trott. â€œThe last ten years have dawdled along and then this sudden blindness arrived to shake me up.â€ Her voice was firm and a little self-deprecating.
Once the eye was immobilised she shone her magnifying light into the wide pupil. The ageing cells and filigree nature of the retina with its dusting of powder gave way to a cliff top cemetery, eroded through time so that only one stone had not yet fallen into the sea. On it was inscribed:
Home at last where she is truly loved
As with Sandhi Dalah, there was no instrument fine enough to scrape away the single cell layer of film from the retina, whether a trick of the ancient eye or real. She finished her probing, in case there was something she had not itemised and put away her instruments. Then, with a mounting sense of entering a disturbing new pattern to her life, she asked her team to leave her alone with the old woman. After explaining that she could do nothing for the eye for the condition had not been encountered before by the medical profession and would need much research to ascertain its pathology, she told her haltingly about the vision she had seen. Helena Trott smiled in sudden rapture, nodding her head repeatedly and placed her old fingers on the surgeonâ€™s wrist.
â€œThank you,â€ she said. â€œThank you.â€
The inevitable letter arrived several weeks later. It bore a foreign stamp. The address was typed using an old typewriter so that letters were not perfectly spaced nor in a neat line. It read:
Dear Doctor Cord
You have wrought a miracle. Miss Trott, our beloved benefactress, returned to her estate here in Kerala after fifty years absence. She spent a last blissfully wondrous week of her life on the bougainvillea covered veranda of her old home, submerged in beauty, eyes drinking in the ocean, waiting, if I may be overly poetic, for a barque to carry her to that shore to which we all must one day sail. Here she wrote a final will, sound of mind I can assure you, leaving this estate to myself and my family forthwith for which we are eternally in your debt, for it was your gift to see inside the dark well of our desires that determined her homecoming.
Your humble servant and grateful friend, always,
Estate Manager (Grandson of First Estate Manager)
The English Villa
By the end of the year she had had a dozen encounters of this extraordinary kind, always presaged by dreams involving well known figures from history or characters from classical fiction. The names, as in classical psychoanalysis, related to those of particular individuals on her lists, sometimes in a crudely obvious fashion and sometimes requiring a more labyrinthine interpretation. They all suffered from sudden blindness in their right eyes with a seemingly related fine carpet of something alien on their retinas. It was almost comical the way her mind functioned at this Freudian level of correspondence and symbolism. The pageant of famous personages that passed by her inner eye was often little more than a cluster of tiny sketches held together by some well known anecdote or singular characteristic, mental figments from her early school days. She wrote out the list of her patientsâ€™ names in one column and beside it in another, the dream inhabitants.
Helen of Troy
Elisabeth the First
In every case a letter had followed her entry into the mind of her subject extolling her for her miraculous gift of prescience and her ability to use it to change the life of a sufferer or a victim. It was occult how these lives had been transformed in profound ways owing to her intercessions. As she stared at the list, wondering if there might be a deeper significance holding these names together, there was a knock at the door and the registrar stuck his head inside her office.
â€œCoffee Jen?â€ he asked.
â€œNo thanks,â€ she replied without really seeing him. But what had caught her gaze and kept it fixed there was her nameplate on the office door above his head. Jennifer Cord. He looked at her and then up at the plate before shaking his head and shutting the door.
Meanwhile, with gathering emotion, Jen Cord allowed the dream that had just burst into her consciousness, to run across the inside of her eyes like an old scratchy film. In it she was walking in the garden of her childhood in a winterâ€™s early snowfall. Her father was burning leaves and the dead heads of roses and twigs. He stood silhouetted against the flames and the white landscape and then turned to face her. He had grown a moustache and wore a strange red uniform. He smiled wolfishly at her, baring his teeth and then, with a crooked forefinger, he directed her gaze to the blaze. She looked past him and saw a stake at its centre and a woman tied to it, naked, skin blistering, bubbling and falling from her. The rapid dissolution of her flesh left her a skeleton except for her two eyes, piercing and urgent in their bony sockets. The skull spoke but she could not hear the words because of the crackling of the leaves and the explosions of the twigs.
She sat, alone in her office, a cold fear making her shiver. She added her name to the bottom of the patientsâ€™ column: Jen Cord. And then opposite it she wrote Joan of Arc.
Jen Cord, ophthalmic surgeon, finished her list at six and returned to her apartment in an elegant square in the old part of the city. It was the most minimal tribute to her history. The furnishings were sharply geometrical and toned from white, through greys, to black. Only the light beech, highly polished parquet flooring offered a contrast. It was a haven for internal dialogue, there being nothing to distract her from listening to music, reading or contemplation. Here she laid out case notes and her columns of names together with summaries of all her dreams. As she stared at them the vision in her right eye started to dim. She put a hand over her left and, as she looked on in despair, the writing first became indecipherable and then disappeared into a blackness. The last name that remained distinct in her mind was her own.
It was two in the morning when she arrived back at the hospital. The genial, fat uniformed man who was manning reception and acting as a guard smiled and raised a hand before returning to his television screen. She walked through the waiting room and bumped into the registrar, now on night call, going through a file of case notes. A patient sat holding his head in obvious distress. The registrar looked puzzled but did not question her presence nor did her fixed, stern expression suggest he could ask her for help.
She keyed in the code for the operating theatre and entered, closing the door firmly behind her, at the same moment switching on a low, ambient light. Then she went over to the patientsâ€™ chair and switched on a small overhead beam. She sat down and faced her invisible surgeon, imagining their conversation.
â€œAnd how are you, Miss Cord?â€
â€œA little tense. Somewhat concerned. This kind of operation is experimental â€¦ you know. â€œIt is unpredictable.â€
â€œHave no fear, Miss Cord. We know what we are doing. Now, Iâ€™m just going to put some drops in your eye to enlarge your pupils. Look up.â€ She administered the drops by pulling away the bottom lid of her right eye and dripping the chemical into the pouch she had made. While the drug began its work, she set up the ophthalmic magnifying lens with its tiny bright beam of illumination. Experimenting with the beam and lens she focused it and watched as the image from them was relayed on to a small monitor above her head. There was her brown eye steadily dilating, her untended lashes and one brow in need of a good plucking. It was a little crude but satisfactory for her purpose. With the beam turned very low she waited for the dilation to be complete and then began to increase the illumination, focusing it through her pupil and on to her retina. Perfectly healthy she thought until she saw the almost invisible flakes of white dust, like motes in sunlight, falling on its surface.
As she looked at the little screen she found herself being drawn into it and through the falling powder so that it gathered on her hair and shoulders. The vault that she had entered expanded and became a cold scene of dark sky and crisp white snow. A single house stood in front of her on a hill side. Below it, terraces caterpillared down into the valley below where there were was a small industrial town with factories and chimneys giving out black smoke. She walked towards the house, her high heels making circles in the snow, her thin red silk dress, clammily cold against her calves, her black satin shrug with its glittering fake diamond brooch pinning it at her throat and the black pillbox hat with its red feather perched jauntily on her head.
She came to the door. Everything was familiar, the hard cold iron fluting of its handle as she turned it, the hallway with its flowery Victorian tiles, the oak stairs. She climbed without hesitation. This was her home, as intimate to her as her very skin. She opened the bedroom door with an expectant smile upon her face and froze. Lying on the bed was her father, older and greyer than when she last saw him and, nestled against his naked body, was herself, Jen, his daughter.
A terrible screech startled her and she lifted her head from her fatherâ€™s shoulder to look at the doorway where she had been standing a moment before. In her place there, was her fatherâ€™s young wife, in a white nightdress. Ten years before she had been her closest friend, her confidante, like a sister so tight was the bond. As she watched, tears coursed down the young womanâ€™s cheeks, hands fluttered and her body twisted and convulsed against the door jamb. The bereft waif was keening something repeatedly, her eyes fixed upon Jen’s own, until finally Jen could just make out the words, â€œIs this what you want? Is this what you want?â€
â€œNo! No!â€ she heard herself cry as the scene dissolved.
Slumped back in the patientsâ€™ chair, Jennifer Cord lay with her eyes closed. A cavalcade of ghostly figures walked under her twitching eyelids. All of them, led by Dali and Helen of Troy, bowed to her as they passed and then vanished into the air. Last of all was Joan of Arc, now returned to flesh and blood, voluptuous, breasts bare, shining with the light of intense purpose and holding a gleaming sword above her head. As she, too, disappeared, Jen heard the door of the operating theatre open. The registrar stood there.
â€œIs that you Jen? Are you ok?â€
Her gaze took in his handsome, swarthy features and his intrigued, concerned eyes and she felt her body twist as though it had a magnetic core and the poles had just reversed. At the same moment her mind became clear and her vision lost its right sided opacity so that she saw him in almost transcendent three dimensions.
â€œA bit shaky,â€ she whispered, over-dramatically. â€œGive me a hand.â€
He stepped quickly to her side and helped her up. Self-consciously she pressed a breast against him, her head looking over his shoulder, smiling.