The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley



While he was waiting outside the consultant’s office, a man lent him a copy of Le Monde and claimed to control the weather. Joe sat holding the paper, looking at the words and the typeface, and trying to trace why it was all wrong. It didn’t say anything extraordinary. There was the weather in one column – it didn’t match what the man predicted – an advert for silk shirts, one for a M. d’Leuve’s brand-new invention, an electric corset which was apparently very good for feminine discomforts. He wondered at that, because Madeline had never seemed so uncomfortable that she would need electrifying. He frowned at his knees when he realised he had remembered a name, and her face; a small woman with dark hair, who suited dark green. He couldn’t think of a last name, or if she was a sister or a wife, or neither.

The doctor’s office was airy, with a bleak, beautiful view over the hospital’s frosty lawns. On the wall was a certificate from an academy in Paris. The desk had bite marks on one leg, near the top. Joe looked round for the dog that must have done that but couldn’t see one, which was a lot more disconcerting than it should have been. All the details landed in his mind like bright pins, sharp and pricking and very unpleasant.

The doctor explained that he would be there for a week, on the understanding that the accommodation fees would be waived. ‘Now, you’ve been referred from the Colonial Free, I see. I can tell you now exactly what you’re suffering from. It’s a seizure; a form of epilepsy. With any luck, it will go off soon.’

‘A seizure?’

The doctor set the notes down and smiled. He was young and smartly turned out, Parisian; on colonial placement, probably, to rack up experience before returning to France. Joe felt hopeless. The more he thought about it, the more he realised he knew general things, but nothing specific.

‘Yes,’ the doctor said. ‘I’m personally very interested in this particular epilepsy type, so I’ve been asking for cases, hence your referral. It’s what we’re calling silent epilepsy; it doesn’t come with convulsions, only the symptoms we would usually associate with an epileptic aura – amnesia, paramnesia, visions. Had anything of the latter two?’

‘What does paramnesia mean?’ Joe asked. The doctor’s voice was so posh that he could feel himself furling up inside with the urge to keep his answers short, and not to ask questions or to waste time.

‘The blurring of something imaginary and something real. Most commonly, déjà vu; the sense you’ve seen something new before. And its opposite, jamais vu, which is when something that should be familiar feels wholly alien.’

‘Yes!’ Joe said fast, and felt his eyes burn, desperately grateful to hear someone name the feeling. ‘Yes, that second one, ever since that man found me at the station! I didn’t think the Gare du Roi was in London, all the streets looked wrong, the – newspapers look wrong …’

‘Textbook,’ the doctor said gently. ‘Absolutely. Now, I can promise you that you do know Londres, because you’ve got a very strong Clerkenwell accent.’ He smiled again. ‘Let’s see what happens if we keep you here in the quiet for a few days. I’m putting you down as a curable,’ he added, motioning at the form in front of him.

‘What if it doesn’t go away?’ Joe said. He was having to speak carefully. It felt like he hadn’t spoken for a long, long time, which was absurd, because he had spoken before, at the other hospital, and the train station. But the order of words felt wrong. French, they were speaking French of course, and the man at the station had spoken English; maybe it was just the switchover.

‘Well, let’s talk about that in the—’

‘No, let’s talk about it now, please.’

‘There’s no need to be aggressive,’ the doctor said, sharp. He drew back in his chair a few inches, as though he thought Joe might punch him.

Joe frowned. ‘I’m not being aggressive, I’m really scared.’

The honesty seemed to take the doctor by surprise. He had the grace to look awkward. ‘You understand my caution. Your notes say you arrived at the Colonial Free speaking English, and that coat you’re wearing now has a tartan lining. The train you were on came from Glasgow.’ His tone turned from questioning to accusatory by the end.

‘Sorry?’ said Joe, lost.

‘If I say the Saints to you, does that ring a bell?’

Joe searched for it, but got nothing. ‘Is that a church?’