It was cold, the kind of cold that stings like alcohol and aches like regret. Audible clouds of frost swirled from Freya’s gasping, blue lips.
‘We can sit … we should sit for a while’, her husband said as he steered her stiffened limbs towards a café. She faltered. ‘Taxi, taxi’, he called, forcibly morphing his panic into polite concern.
Vienna is beautiful in the winter, it is beautiful any time of year, except when your wife is dying and the grey season is mirrored in her complexion. Charles rubbed her hands between his in the back of the cab, feeling the long, thin bones of her fingers. As her illness had progressed she had become increasingly brittle, both in body and mind. She reminded him of the Japanese Maple in the blue pot on their balcony. Sometimes he would absentmindedly snap off the wiry branches. For years he had nurtured the plant, but to no avail, instead of producing a copper shower of foliage in the autumn, the leaves would wither, die and crumble to black dust. Trying to maintain this fragile creature of nature repeatedly defeated him, and so it was with his wife.
Asami lay on the floor. The concrete comforted her. Stone cold reality permits no illusions, but still she dreamed.
Wuhan ran between the houses, chasing the small girl who rode the small, red bicycle. He was laughing, fat mouthed and round cheeked. She could see his dimplish knees and knuckles. ‘Mama’, he called in a squeal of excitement and she smiled at him as she hung the washing out to dry.
The scrape of metal against metal dragged her out of sunshine play and back into her grey cell. A small bowl of food was thrust at her. She turned her head away. Thick fingers reached into her hair and forced her to face the prospect of breakfast and the start of another day. She could smell the nicotine on the guard’s breath as he shouted that she ‘Must eat’.
Boris was their pride and joy. A reserved child, but perhaps that was because his mother was always ill. He liked to sit on a footstool at Freya’s side and listen while she read. More recently she had been experiencing difficulty with this. Her shortness of breath meant that stories were often rasped. Boris would flinch. Her words sounded like metal planing stubborn wood.
Charles was supportive, spending more time at home than he did at the office. He cursed himself that this had not always been the case, but at the age of thirty five he had not known that the hourglass contained so little sand.
He accompanied Freya on all her hospital visits, and there were many. She was not a brave woman. Various treatments had taken their toll, yet in front of Boris she took care to smile without sadness. Charles admired her for this. He liked to see her smile, even when it was only with her mouth and not her eyes.
The examinations were a routine part of existence. Asami had become accustomed to the procedures. She no longer hid her nakedness or attempted resistance.
The medical personnel were abrupt. Questions were asked and answers were given. Occasionally, someone would look at her eye to eye, and once a nurse had even patted her hand as blood was taken from her tourniquetted vein. This simple act of kindness became a cruelty later, when Asami was sitting in her cell, curved against the cold, hard wall. It is perhaps easier to withstand inhumanity if it has no face or touch.
Her hand fell against her leg. She felt the warmth of her own body and remembered how Suko’s hands would massage her feet. At night they would sit outside their small home on rush matting and he would oil her skin. He stroked away the day and she was supple with him. In the mornings they kissed. Wuhan chuckled with delight. Children shine when they are surrounded by love. The last time she had seen Suko he had stretched his face and stuck out his tongue at their laughing child, before kissing her softly on the cheek and pulling his cloth bag onto his shoulder.
The word ‘cancer’ was a diamond cut to Charles’ glass heart. Freya, being slightly vain, could not see into his soul. She was not a visionary. Her gaze was always obscured by her own mirror reflection. In many ways she was happy to die, it was as if a tragic passing would beatify her. Cancer was her salvation, her sacrifice, it would wash her clean and its horror would absolve her from any sin.
Charles, on the other hand, did not wish to let go so easily. It was his duty as a husband and a father to provide for his wife, the mother of his child. He had money. He could pay for the best medical care. And so it was, one day, that the issue of ‘a transplant’ arose. Of course, it was a difficult procedure, and there was no guarantee of success, but there were no secondary sites of cancer and it would, perhaps, be possible to arrange a lung transplant as a matter of expediency. Charles would handle the details, all Freya had to do was rest and regain as much strength as possible.
The arrest had been swift. One moment Asami had been holding Wuhan and the next she found herself inside a windowless police van. The uniformed officers were unpleasant, brandishing their long, straight truncheons, they had forced her to comply. Hearing her screams neighbours had rushed into the street, only to find themselves held back by instinctive terror.
The van smelled of fish, it was rancid and hot. Asami cooked inside the metal coffin on wheels as she listened to Wuhan’s frantic cries. She made no noise. There had been a mistake. Suko would go to the local official and she would be home in time to prepare supper. She had planned noodles.
But the local official, stiff in his capacity, sat and stared at Suko, who was loose in his supplication. The matter was out of his hands. He could not petition a higher authority. Of course he knew Asami to be a good wife, mother and worker, but there was evidence, mumbled accusations … she was to be held in a detention centre until her trial.
Freya sat propped on bone white sheets. A small television played a harmony of wildlife. The wolves, in pack formation, surrounded their prey. Freya watched the stalking, crouching, springing and snarling as she filed her nails.
Her hospital room was full of flowers. She liked lilies, with their succulent stems and thick waxy petals, their heads bowed so gracefully, spilling golden pollen. The instant any bloom threatened death they were removed. Charles wanted to ensure that Freya only saw life in its full burst of glory. He arrived with fresh flowers every day, which he bought off the woman in the square who always wore a red headscarf knotted tightly around her head.
At first Asami was unaware that she had been convicted. She repeatedly asked to go home, to see her husband, to speak to a representative, but all she received by way of response were the dismissive grunts of the guards and endless medical examinations by mute doctors.
The prisoners were held in separate cells, just wide enough and long enough to accommodate the mattresses that they rolled out every evening and up again in the morning. Clean bedding was provided, along with a uniform of white, cotton pyjamas and daily washing facilities. There was no association permitted between the prisoners. Talking was strictly forbidden and they only came into contact with each other in the showers or exercise yard.
Asami swallowed her fear, along with her rice. Many years of subsistence had taught her that the luxury of emotion had no place in the business of survival. She had heard stories of people disappearing, but she had been loathe to believe them, simply because such matters were outside her realm of enquiry. Each day specific tasks had to be undertaken, caring for her child, her home, working skilfully and to the best of her ability, she had no need for questions, her life was mapped and planned according to a greater scheme. In many ways she admired the beauty of abdication.
Although weak, Freya could still apply her own lipstick. Her sister had lovingly brushed her thin hair and pinned it into a pleat. With a little attention and some experience it was possible to produce the romantic image that Freya sought to convey.
Charles smiled as he greeted his wife. She gracefully held out her hand so that he could help her to rise from the bed. She was dressed entirely in white, which lifted her colour and reflected light into her pale, blue, aqueous eyes.
Dr Gilbert would be accompanying them on the journey, and he stood politely holding the door. Charles and Freya were some of his most valuable clients. Only this morning he had banked a cheque for twenty thousand Euros. His wife had talked of perhaps buying a holiday home in Bratislava, it was only forty minutes away by car, and so much quieter than Vienna.
At the airport Dr Gilbert checked in the luggage. The Stewardess seemed genuinely delighted to provide him with the boarding cards. Her uniformed smile was impeccably accommodating. His appreciation was impeccably correct. Any surface tension that existed between them was a prerequisite to civilised society and interaction. ‘Like flies we walk on water, but we are human, and this capacity almost raises us to the status of Jesus. You ask me if I have a God complex?’
Freya and Charles sat in the First Class lounge, holding hands as a signal of their public commitment.
It was the practise not to tell the prisoners where they were going until they got there, this ensured that order was kept in the detention centre. Asami had heard of women being ‘ghosted away’ in the night, but it was assumed that they were merely taken to another facility, perhaps one that allowed visits and access to the outdoors.
She sat in the back of the small vehicle. For many weeks she had not felt the comfort of upholstery and now it seemed scratchy and oblique. Her bones and muscles had become accustomed to hard wood or hard concrete or hard labour. She furtively hoped that this comfort might indicate a release, but every time she asked the guards she was told to remain silent.
The first thing she noticed on entering the new facility was the sparkling, white cleanliness. The corridors were bathed in luminescent flourescence. Everywhere she looked sanitised sterility stared back at her. An army of cleaners worked about the floor and woodwork. As she passed one such auxiliary their eyes met and the woman smiled in a way that injected sadness into Asami’s very soul. It was if all the light of the surroundings had swallowed her, dazzled her out of existence, burnt reality’s retinas.
Asami was shown to a bright room, with a real bed. She ran her hands across the starched, pressed sheets. She was ordered to undress, shower and don the hospital gown that hung on the back of the door.
The doctor was prompt in his attention. He carried several pieces of paper attached to a clipboard. He was perfunctory in his questions. An X-ray was ordered and Asami found herself surrounded by a dazzling array of technology. She turned this way and that, as requested. She was told that a recent outbreak of tuberculosis in the prison threatened to kill many of the women. An anomaly had shown during her previous examinations. She was pleased that the authorities were caring for her health. She had always had faith in her country and those who ran it. Her grandfather had been on The Long March. As a girl she had learned Mao Tse Tung’s ’Red Treasured Book’. Her favourite quote was:
‘The differences between friends cannot but reinforce their friendship.’
They laughed in the Forbidden City, when they saw Starbucks and McDonalds. Freya had romanticised China. She had imagined bicycles and small yellow people in coolie hats. When Charles saw her teeth, curtained by her lips, he knew that she was coping. As wan and weak as she was, she was standing and talking, she was present. He could not even begin to consider the nightmare of her being ’past’.
They checked into the hospital at 4.30. Both husband and wife were impressed. Dr Gilbert had promised Western efficiency, but still they were surprised by the starched white uniforms and ready respect – perhaps they had been expecting bamboo rice steamers and paddy fields in the gardens.
Freya was shown to her room, complete with internet access and cable TV. In the bathroom white, cotton wool towels hung on polished, chrome rails. Charles unpacked her bag for her, hanging her silken gowns in the wardrobe and placing her slippers at the bottom of the bed. Soon she could revert to her heeled mules, with feathered decoration and diamante accessory.
The doctor talked in perfect American English to Dr Gilbert. The men were not old friends as such, but they had had much professional contact in the recent past. The donor was ready. A healthy woman of twenty five. All the usual checks had been run, but on Dr Gilbert’s request a few additional investigations had been undertaken. The operation was scheduled for Saturday 6th May. Neither doctor foresaw any complications.
Exhausted from her flight and the excitement of the day, Freya slid into bed. Charles relaxed in the chair next to her and pulled out a copy of The New York Times from his flight bag. Freya listened to some light opera on her personal stereo as her eyes drifted shut and her body became slack.
Hunger rattled Asami’s belly. She went to the door, hearing and smelling the food carts pass her room. The handle was brushed steel, cold to the touch but shaped for invitation. She took it in her small hand. It fitted her palm despite being oversized. She pressed down and pulled. She pressed down and pushed. She realised she was locked in her room and assumed it was part of the quarantine requirements.
Two hours later she knocked on the door and asked for food. No-one came. Three hours after that she hammered the heel of her palm against the door and shouted. No-one came. An hour later she fell asleep on her bed.
The next morning a doctor arrived. He took her hand in his and started tapping at her veins. He pulled a tight black strap around her shrunken bicep. He explained that he needed to insert a needle, a candula, so that she could receive intravenous medication. She complied quietly. She watched the blood backflow into the syringe, the colour of her mother’s deep, dark red roses. The doctor fussed at his papers before connecting another syringe. Asami felt a darkness descending, as if an internal blindfold had been placed inside her skull. A brick formed at the front of her brain, making her head heavy and solid in its sleepiness. She drifted into unconsciousness without a murmur.
Freya lay rigid on her bed. Charles gripped her skeletal hand and stared into her blue eyes, which were wide with panic. He pressed a small, red button. A nurse appeared in the doorway. She moved to the side of Freya’s bed noiselessly, her black, soft shoes making no sound of impact. Charles smiled with the tight lipped gratitude of the tortuously worried. He had never imagined that angels would manifest in American tan tights and paper hats.
The nurse checked Freya’s chart. Dr Gilbert entered the room. Charles rose to shake his hand. Charles’ grip was strong, but Dr Gilbert’s was sure.
There was good news. The medical team were very pleased with Freya’s progress. Tomorrow she would be moved into the low dependency unit. Her pain medication would be reduced and her recovery would become more obvious. Charles was, of course, delighted.
Suko let the small slip of thin paper fall from his hand. his face slackened as his eyes began to leak. Wuhan was dancing in front of him, turning pretty circles and singing a baby song, his limb movements still to be co-ordinated by age and development.
No apology was contained within the communiqué. Asami had been executed, as per the sentence handed down by the trial judges. She had been found guilty of treason and sedition. Suko could not understand how this had happened. She was a good citizen. Surely he would have known if his own wife had been insurgent in some way.
He stood and picked up Wuhan. The child instinctively wrapped his legs around his father’s hips. Suko leant into the child, feeling his soft cheek skin and smelling the warmth of baby essence.
He picked up his cloth bag and slung it over his shoulder. As he left the house he took one final look around the home he had shared with Asami. Wuhan patted him on the side of his face with a fat padded palm. Suko shut the door behind him.
Boris bounced in the arms of his nanny. The flight had experienced a slight delay and he had become bored in the arrivals lounge. The recently disembarked passengers flowed into the open airport. Waiting relatives and friends illuminated as they spotted their loved ones. Business men scanned the assembled audience for drivers holding cardboard name signs.
‘Mama, Mama’, Boris squealed excitedly, wriggling to free himself from his nanny’s grip. Freya, seated in a wheelchair pushed by Dr Gilbert, fist waved and then held her arms open. Boris, having now disentangled himself from the constraining hands of his nanny, hurtled towards his mother, his little, fat legs reverberating with every running stride he took. Charles intercepted his son, whipping him off the floor and high into the air, before holding him horizontal to receive his mother’s kiss.
Freya frowned. She had missed Boris terribly, yet now there was an emptiness in the reunion. She drew back from his gurgling, dribbling lips and his clawing, desperate hands. Seeing his wife’s discomfort, Charles lifted Boris onto his shoulders.
Charles and Dr Gilbert said goodbye at the automatic exit. The nanny confirmed that the nurse had established herself at home, making ready Freya’s room. Dr Gilbert would visit later that evening to check that Freya had settled. In any event, Charles had his mobile number should he require immediate contact for any reason.
An old family friend, Gerald, had kindly offered to drive the entourage from the airport. A large Mercedes people carrier was waiting at the pick up point. Charles lifted Freya into the seat. She was as light as bamboo, sill hollow, it would be some months before she regained any substantial presence. In the meantime, Charles would be delighted to attend to her every need with his deft strength. Indeed, as Freya’s hand brushed lightly against him, he felt a timorous nudge. The nanny would have to go.
Time passed, as time does. Freya improved little by little every day. Her first victories were simply brushing her teeth and managing her bathroom visits unaided. Modest by nature, and slightly disgusted by her own functions, she was relieved to find this aspect of capability returning. She was less anxious, however, to undertake the more mundane tasks, such as clearing her bedside table or folding the newspapers correctly. She was grateful for the care of her nurse in these matters.
Dr Gilbert was a frequent visitor at the house. He would sit at Freya’s side and pat her ivory hand. She was his ‘Favourite patient and a very brave girl’. ‘Of course the scars would fade’, he reassured her one day as he ran his fingers over the purple ridges. It was purely an accident that his palm came into contact with her left breast. She shriveled under his touch.
The departing nanny had screamed some obscenities at Charles, which Freya had overheard but chosen to ignore. It was perfectly natural for a man to take a mistress if his wife was indisposed, much better that he should find a willing participant than force himself onto an enfeebled woman. None of this was Freya’s concern. She could not fault Charles’ consideration, not did she wish to. The fact that some young slut was attempting to take advantage of an opportunity really did not cause Freya any anxiety. Charles remained the devoted husband, worshipping Freya in her illness and worshipping the illness in Freya.
Summer was in full force. On some afternoons it beat the Viennese people with a bludgeon of burning heat. They surrendered, limply, wilting under such ferocious attack, seeking dark corners, where they stayed until the sun receded into evening balm.
Freya enjoyed walking out with Charles when he returned from work. The new, fat, nanny would cook and care for Boris as husband and wife strolled along perfectly paved avenues, perfectly shaded by the long shadows of the perfect trees. Occasionally, Charles noticed Freya’s distraction, it was only slight, but nevertheless it was like a small picket fence between them. He would study her face and try to see where in her expressions her thoughts were dancing, but she seemed inscrutable, abstracted. From time to time he would ask her ‘What’s wrong?’ and she would dismiss his enquiry with a ‘Nothing … you worry too much … don’t be silly’, but Charles could see that the sails of her mind were full of an air that was entirely foreign to him.
If Freya had been honest, she would have admitted that her days dragged like a cripple’s leg. Instead, she painted a smile onto her lips and plucked her eyebrows into a permanent arch of pleasant surprise. It was not so much that she was unhappy, rather that she felt disconnected. Her home did not smell like the place she remembered and when Boris made his childish demands she recoiled from him.
Initially, Dr Gilbert prescribed rest, the he prescribed anti depressants, and when these did not work he prescribed a therapist. Charles believed, because he chose to believe, that everything was following its natural course. Freya had been through a tremendous amount in the past year or so and it was completely understandable that it had laid her low. He did, however, regret employing a fat nanny.
The therapist was the best that money could buy. At first the sessions were filled with talking, mainly that of the therapist. Freya had become ‘Isolated during her long illness’. Although the urbane, urban women in her social network had promised support, they had become bored. The disease of weakness and vulnerability is only attractive to men. Cognitive behavioral therapy enabled Freya to ‘Gain a new perspective on her condition and position’, but it did not address the core issue.
From diagnosis to operation Freya had struggled on, albeit needy, clingy and self obsessed, but that was only to be expected. However, since the transplant she had become maudlin, morose, morbid, and she did not sleep well. Her nights were filled with frantic dreams of a distant land, populated by small people. Sometimes she would even imagine a son, dressed in jersey shorts and a t-shirt. He would cry for her, but when she approached him he would screech in fear. In the darkness she heard his screams, they penetrated her skull and circled her brain, nibbling like cerebral rats. She felt poisoned, toxic.
‘A normal reaction’, Dr Gilbert said.
‘Following extreme trauma it is unsurprising that there is evidence of post traumatic stress disorder,’ the therapist said. ‘And the condition can manifest in any number of ways as the subconscious attempts to process the reality and bridge the gap.’
Charles listened to the assessments sagely. Of course, of course, it all made sense. ‘Normalisation’, the therapist advised. ‘Do not entertain the aberrant, these are intrusive thoughts and, whilst they should not be entirely ignored, it would be better if Freya was not enabled in this disassociation’.
The nightmares continued, despite Charles’ warm kisses and comforting entreaties. Freya would drift into liminal space. Her new lungs would bud inside her body and then force burgeoning wings through the shell of her skin. Even in sleep she could feel the blood burned puncturing. She was unable to wake, instead her wings took her on fantastic flights of fancy. She flew many miles, but always landed in the same place; a small wooden shack, surrounded by paddy fields and bounded by a dirt road.
And so it was for many years. Boris grew into a tall young man, silently capable, accustomed to his mother’s constant absence. She neither touched him nor communicated with him, wrapped as she was in sleep deprivation and sedatives. Charles, being a gentleman, switched his attention from the nannies to his secretaries at work. He was mindful though. He never asked his mistresses to buy his wife’s gifts for birthdays and anniversaries.
Freya, Freya found her only relief was in meditation, mindful awareness. She found that the only way to achieve peace was through transcending consciousness. He life’s work became focused on emptiness. She strove to create the perfect gap, which was neither an abyss or a prison. She could not bear to be constrained.
At the age of fifty she went on a pilgrimage to China. She returned to the Forbidden City, which had been cauterised and emasculated by the god of profit. She met a monk, old enough to be her son and young enough to be her untainted inspiration. He told her of his motherless upbringing and his constant search for his wings. One night, when the cold stung like alcohol and ached like regret, she touched his hand and heard a symphony played on hollow bamboo.