Sarah put the flowers to one side of the bed. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘It isn’t painful,’ Anne touched the padding with one finger, ‘except when they remove the dressings.’ Her shoulders twitched dismissively. ‘What have you been up to?’
Sarah did not linger on that first occasion; she had been told ten minutes, and she surreptitiously checked her watch. She did not need to, as the nurse returned while she was taking her leave of Anne. Outside in the corridor, the nurse asked, ‘You’re old friends, aren’t you?’
“Well, yes. We hadn’t been in touch for a long time. We date back to school days. It was her daughter who contacted me about it.”
The nurse nodded. ‘I’m Margaret, just call me Margaret. You are coming back, then?’
‘Of course. Anything I can do to help, I’ll be pleased to do,’ Sarah said. Although she had questions about the injury, she did not feel able to pose them, not at the time. ‘I thought I might visit her a couple of afternoons each week, as I’m not working.’
‘Good. Try to get her to talk about it. What happened, I mean. You do know, don’t you?’ Margaret turned away with some paperwork to the nurses’ station. She looked back at Sarah’s blank face. ‘Never mind, for now. Dr Gregson is helping her. You could talk to him, perhaps, on another visit to the clinic.’ She smiled and bustled off. ‘You know your way out?’ she called back over her shoulder.
Sarah’s regular visits stretched out over several weeks and the periods spent with Anne increased in length. Sarah was encouraged by the intimacy and trust which was established step-by-step. She had been shocked and distressed by how far her old school friend had changed, and a sense of obligation had grown. In their youth, they had not been close, and she often wondered if it was Anne’s present situation of dependence which fostered the relationship now.
On one grey, wintry afternoon, Anne was ready to tell her what had happened. She sat erect in an upholstered chair by her bed, with an air of purpose, judging by her alert expression and pursed lips. She accepted a kiss on her right cheek. Her coal-black hair, which curved into her neck at chin length, had been recently washed and styled. Her changed appearance suggested that she had made a lot of progress, compared to when she had first started visiting her.
Sarah noticed that the slim, long-fingered hands which accepted her bouquet, and lifted the roses to her face to sniff their perfume, were beautifully manicured. It was another good sign; Sarah remembered how Anne had always cherished her fingernails.
A partially painted, white cane rested against the side of her chair, and Anne waved Sarah to another small, plastic seat alongside.
Anne fingered the top of the cane, tensely clasped the rounded top, then splayed her fingers wide open and rested her palm against it. ‘Problems with balance. I have to learn to walk properly again!’ Anne explained with the semblance of a laugh. The series of splaying actions by her right hand continued.
‘You know I work from home a lot? Well, used to. Marketing on the internet,’ Anne began. Sarah nodded. She knew Anne had worked in interior design for a number of years since her divorce, and that the business had prospered. ‘Well, that’s where it all started – on my laptop.’ Anne tapped the cane, as if to emphasize the point.
‘I was sitting in my study early one morning, writing an e-mail to a potential client. I had only typed two lines and turned my head to check a design printout.’ Anne drew in a noisy breath. ‘As my gaze moved back to the screen, a slowly pixelating image was forming beneath the typed words. It resolved.’ Anne licked her parched, cracked lips. ‘It formed a single, open eye.’
Anne’s head dipped. She raised herself up again and looked towards the window opposite her. ‘The large, black pupil of that eye appeared to be focussing on an object over to my left,’ she continued. ‘I have to describe it to you.’ She straightened her back because she had turned, involuntarily it seemed, to her left side.
‘The iris, deep-blue on the outer ring and mottled with feathery white lines, was rather beautiful. But from the pinkness of the lower eyelid, projected obscenely thick clumps of the embedded, brown roots of eyelashes. The eyelashes offended me, by their magnification, in some way in which the eye itself did not.’ Anne moistened her dry lips with a flick of her tongue. ‘I saw that some shadow had fallen on the top eyelid, which obscured the detail of those lashes and covered them with a matt brownness. It looked fleshy, moist and was … repellent.
‘I checked my toolbar. I could see no sign of the image being an import from another document, so I highlighted it and deleted it.
‘The following morning, the eye was there again. I tried a screen shot. Nothing!’ She paused, and Sarah noted the rising flush of colour on her cheek.
‘The image continued to appear, enlarging, like a growing cell. I was drawn to it; was it male or female, young or old? Even when I re-booted my computer, I could not remove the eye.’
The tone and speed of her speech changed to a lowered huskiness; faltering, punctuated by deep, breathy intakes of air. There were sudden breaks in the narrative, as her grip tightened on the cane until the fingers turned a bloodless white, and her head and neck visibly jerked her back again to the tale. She ignored Sarah’s suggestion that they stop now. That she could get her some tea, or a coffee.
‘Fiona, my daughter, was convinced it was some kind of cookie. I told Gerald about it. He’s a computer geek and he came to my house to look at the system. He could not find anything. He left me uncomfortably aware that he had been seeking the existence of something for which I had no real, tangible evidence!
‘I was having difficulty sleeping. My doctor gave me sleeping pills and insisted I had my eyes tested. He told me to cut down on alcohol. Maybe I had been drinking wine more regularly. I don’t remember. I bought a new computer.
‘On another difficult day, I sourced a technical engineer, who would download my precious files onto a new hard drive. My birthday passed without celebration.
‘Then my mind became fogged with phrases and expressions. I still have those words echoing around in my head. Anne chanted softly:
‘Seeing is not always believing.
The eyes are the mirror of the soul.
‘When the computer engineer left, I flinched at his parting words, “I’ve left it switched on for you.”’
‘I ran a hot bath and tried to relax. Afterwards, I sat on the bathroom chair. I creamed and pushed down my cuticles. I picked up the nail scissors and carefully trimmed some minute slivers from these finger nails.’ Anne raised one hand and splayed the fingers towards Sarah.
‘Wrapped in my towelling robe, I walked into my study, unable to delay any further.’
Sarah watched in alarm as Anne’s whole body began to shake.
‘The eye had changed!’ Anne’s words came out in a high-pitched wail. ‘It glared at me. Evil. It wished me evil. The white was black. From the tear duct I saw a trickle of rage-red daggers. It tilted, the focus moved. I felt the scissors in my hand, I mouthed the words’ – Anne’s voice cracked – ‘If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out!’ Tears now streamed down one cheek.
‘How could I do it, Sarah? The pain ….. I can still feel that pain,’ she clutched at her bandaged face. ‘Oh, help me! Help me!’ Her head fell forward and she crumpled, collapsed in the chair.
Sarah jumped up. Her own nails were digging into her closed fists and she had drawn blood. Helpless, she ran out into the corridor calling, ‘Margaret, Margaret, come quickly!’