‘You heard ‘im, you’re delusional.’ Tania moved from her bed to sit in front of the dressing table mirror on the other side of the small dorm room.
‘We. We’re delusional,’ I corrected from my perch on the windowsill.
‘Same difference,’ she said, running a brush down the length of her long blonde hair. ‘You still don’t exist.’
I could see her looking at me through the mirror, waiting for a reaction as she spread bright pink lip gloss across her mocking grin.
‘He didn’t say that,’ I said, turning back to the window. It was getting dark outside but a pair of defiant swallows continued to swim swiftly through the sky, casting their silhouettes against a wave of scarlet storm clouds, set ablaze by the sinking sun.
‘He didn’t have to’, she laughed. ‘You know it.’
‘Don’t tell me what I know.’ I jumped down from the window and grabbed my black cotton hijab from the bedside table, tucking and clipping it at the bottom as I headed for the door. ‘And don’t act like you know me.’
‘Know you? I am you. You can hide behind that bloody veil all you want but I’ll always know what’s underneath.’
As I entered the rec’ room, one of the nurses called for the other patients to finish their visits and say goodbye to their families. I evaded everyone’s attention and trickled my way into one of the cold leather armchairs that surrounded a coffee table in the near corner. There was another cluster of these at the far end of the room alongside two sofas and a perpetually muted flat screen television. One or two patients had been sitting there and, along with half a dozen more who had been at the large circular table in the middle of the room, they stood up with their families to say their goodbyes.
One couple didn’t have a patient with them and had been sitting on their own. The nurse stopped them as they reached the door.
‘I’m sorry about this,’ she said. ‘We did try to get her down. Maybe if you try again next week?’
Tania’s Mum and Dad. I thought. Allah have mercy.
They looked middle aged and middle class, dressed modestly like a typical couple on their way to church. I’d seen them a few times and hadn’t realised who they were at first. But Tania tended to avoid the rec’ room during visiting time. It left me feeling sorry for them, but at least it gave me a place to escape from Tania for a while each day.
The next morning, Tania and I had a session scheduled with Doctor O’Brian.
‘Good morning,’ he said as Tania and I took a seat on his couch.
‘Alright?’ replied Tania.
‘Good morning,’ I said, reaching for the leaves of the tall artificial plant that stood beside the arm of the sofa. Its small rubbery leaves, smooth on one side and deeply veined on the other, flicked across the pad of my thumb as I rubbed them. It was a strangely comforting sensation and had quickly become a habit.
‘How are you feeling today?’ he asked.
‘Shit,’ said Tania.
‘I’m alright, Doctor,’ I interjected. ‘I’ve just been feeling really trapped here you know?’
‘Have you been thinking about what we spoke about last session at all?’
‘About Anita being all in my ‘ead?’ Tania smiled provocatively but she couldn’t bring herself to face me and receive the look I was giving her.
‘About delusional thinking?‘ I corrected.
‘Do you know what I mean by the word “hallucination”?’
Tania and I both nodded.
‘Well, in psychological terms, we would say that you are suffering from what we call, complex hallucinations. That’s hallucinations which are more than just seeing something or hearing something which isn’t really there. Instead you hear it, see it, smell it, feel it, and you fully experience it. The only way you can tell that it is a hallucination is because other people can’t see or hear, or experience it. Does that make sense?’
Tania stayed silent but kept her grin.
‘I’m sorry, Doctor,’ I said, sitting forward and releasing my grip on the plastic plant. ‘It’s just a lot to process, you know?’
‘Take your time.’
‘She knows what you are saying,’ said Tania after a moment. ‘She just can’t acc-‘
The Doctor cut her off. ‘How about a drink of water?’
I shook my head and remained silent.
‘Tania thinks you mean I don’t exist at all,’ I said at last. ‘She said I’m just a figment of her imagination.’
‘Anita’s my invisible friend, Doctor.’
‘Is that what you think?’
‘I don’t even know what to think. I have memories, a family, a life. That can’t all be imaginary, can it?
‘We’ve both got memories and a family,’ said Tania.
‘Hallucinations can often be deceptive. Your imagination can overlap into your memories until one feels like the other.’
‘But you said that the only way to tell the difference is because other people can’t experience the same things. So how does everyone else see and hear me if I’m not really here?’
‘It’s a good question, Doc,’ Tania said. ‘How do you talk to both of us?’
‘They don’t. It only seems like they do. In reality, I can only interact with the person sitting in front of me. Does that make sense?’
‘Alright,’ I snapped, looking up at him sharply. ‘Be straight with me then, which one of us are you working with?’
‘Go on,’ Tania goaded eagerly. ‘Tell her.’
‘I’m sorry?’ said the Doctor, flicking through the pages of his notebook in a fluster.
‘Which one of us is real?!’ we said in unison.
‘I can’t tell you that,’ he replied. ‘You have to work through your experiences until you can tell the differences between reality and your hallucinations. My job is to help you to reach that point for yourself.’
‘Oh, forget it,’ I said, sitting back and reaching for my leaves once more.
‘You mentioned family before. You don’t speak about them much. Tell me about them.’
‘My family or Tania’s?’ I asked.
The doctor didn’t reply and the silence hung in the air.
‘I don’t have any kids,’ said Tania. ‘I had a boyfriend before I came in ‘ere but I haven’t heard from the shit since. It’s just me and my parents now. Unless you count Anita.’ She chuckled without commitment.
The doctor kept his eyes on his notepad as he scribbled his notes.
‘I’ve got two children, twins, a boy and a girl. They’re four now. Jamal and Amirah we called them. And my husband’s name is Faisel. We’ve been married since I was seventeen.’
‘Do they visit you here?’
I tried to hold it back but I couldn’t. A tear rolled across my cheek, soaking into my hijab where it was clipped under my chin. In seconds one tear became two and then I was sobbing intently.
‘Can you tell me what you’re thinking about?’ asked the doctor.
‘Tania’s parents have been here,’ I said. ‘I’ve seen them. I’ve seen the nurses talking to them. That means they must exist, right? Memory. My family haven’t been here. No-ones seen my children.’
Tania’s concern faded within hours. My depression lasted weeks. Even Doctor O’Brian seemed to be getting fed up with talking about the same thing over and again. I think that they expected that I would just disappear and Tania’s hallucinations would end as soon as I realised and accepted the truth. But my grief kept me alive.
‘You need to get over it,’ Tania said, as we sat in the rec’ room eating lunch.
The rec’ room was crowded but everyone was used to Tania talking to herself and they just left her to it.
‘Allah have mercy,’ I thought.
‘No, really. It’s not like you really lost anything if it wasn’t there to begin with.’
‘I had the best husband I could hope for, two beautiful children, and a warm home that I couldn’t wait to get back to. Imagine you had lost all that. Wouldn’t you grieve too?’
‘You can’t grieve for something you never had.’
‘But I did have it. Perception is reality. Don’t you understand that?’
She looked at me blankly, chewing gum like an overfed cow.
‘Forget it,’ I said, putting my knife and fork side by side on my half empty plate and standing to leave the table. ‘They’re here now anyway, shouldn’t you run away and hide?’
‘You’re parents,’ I said, nodding towards the window.
In the middle of a long queue of visitors, filing past the window to come in, stood the couple I had seen before. Their faces looked grey, as if all hope had drained from them and they were now just going through the motions.
‘You should see them,’ I said. ‘You’ll miss them when they’re gone.’
‘They’re not my parents,’ Tania said, screwing her face up and shovelling another forkful of yellow mashed potato into her mouth.
At that moment the door swung open and in crept two small children. They were dressed smartly. The little boy, with his dark curly hair, wore an orange shirt and black trousers with freshly polished shoes. The girl wore a white cotton dress printed with pink flowers. In her long brown hair she had a pink ribbon with a clip on flower to match.
As soon as they saw me looking at them they stopped, hesitated for a moment, and then simultaneously, they broke into a run.
‘Mummy!’ they shouted loudly, throwing their arms around my legs like snakes trying to climb a tree.
I looked down at them, blinking back the tears, and then at Tania, who just smiled, still chewing.
‘They’ve missed you,’ said Faisel from the door. ‘We all did.’