Colin frowned at her laptop and bit the inside of her cheek as her train moved along the East Coast Line. Having never been much bothered by overheard conversations, traffic or building sounds, she was alarmed to find her focus prey to a new kind of disturbance: the noise emanating from others’ devices. Her online output as an art critic had, over the past two years, gained her sudden and unexpected success in the academic discipline of Area Studies (her PhD subject had been Creative and Life Writing), which meant that her time on trains, once for catching up on the latest fiction and work-unrelated articles, was now consistently given to last-minute preparation for the conferences and seminars to which she was perpetually travelling. In contrast with other kinds of ambient noise, there was something unignorable about the distinctive, tinny sounds of cartoons, YouTube videos and sports broadcasts. But their intrusiveness, observed Colin, also had something to do with the perpetrators’ intent: she couldn’t fathom the way in which she was effectively being asked to either shut herself out of shared reality by denying her senses, or to partake in something she had not consented to and felt too subjugated, in most instances, to challenge—for which one was it? She had no one to put this question to.
* * *
At home, a few days later, unable to relax into the relative quiet of her flat, Colin decided to Google her current symptoms. She restricted her search, on this occasion, to her ‘physical’ symptoms, as opposed to the ‘mental’ ones, which were in fact more concerning, including long, fugue-like periods of disassociation and intensely lucid dreams (weren’t these ‘physical’ too?).
pain in thoracic region of spine chronic tinnitus pain in base of head sensitivity to light visual disturbances She typed the words all at once into the browser’s address bar and tapped the return key. She took a second to uncross her legs and shift into a supine position on the sofa, bringing the laptop closer to her face as the screen changed. The top result was for a site titled The Visual Snow Foundation. Colin clicked on the link, which took her directly to a page titled ‘Core Symptoms’. Clicking on each of the individual symptoms revealed a drop-down containing three or four further sub-symptoms. Colin clicked on a word she’d never read before: ‘Palinopsia’. The sub-symptoms characterising Palinopsia were ‘Afterimages’ and ‘Trailing’. Each sub-symptom was accompanied by a small image or gif by way of explication. One of the images of Trailing showed a young ballet dancer, her transition into a new position rendered incrementally, in separate frames, in order to illustrate a visual lag. It reminded Colin of a painting by the Glaswegian artist Lucy Mackenzie of a blonde gymnast in mid-flight.
‘Additional Symptoms’, at the bottom of the page, were separated into two categories: ‘Visual’ and ‘Non-visual’. Colin found the coinages under the ‘Visual’ category compelling—‘Halos’, ‘Starbursts’ and ‘Ghosting’ were a few. She made a note of these, thinking that they might provide an apt starting point for a future essay or review. ‘Tinnitus’ was one of the ‘Non-visual symptoms’, as well as ‘Depersonalisation’, which corresponded more with Colin’s category of ‘mental’ symptoms. Nonetheless, she read ahead: ‘Depersonalisation causes you to feel detached from yourself. You observe yourself and your feelings and thoughts as if they belong to someone else, like you were watching your own life like a movie. Depersonalisation may have various effects, such as causing out-of-body experiences and rendering you unable to recognise yourself in a mirror.’ Immediately beneath this was ‘Derealisation’. Unlike ‘Depersonalisation’, Colin wasn’t sure she knew what this meant. The accompanying text read, ‘Derealisation causes you to feel disconnected from the world around you. Patients may see other people and the environment around them as dreamlike and unreal. Objects appear to change in shape, size or colour. Typical symptoms include feeling like a normal environment is unfamiliar or that people you know are strangers.’ Colin read this last sentence twice before going back to the initial search results and clicking almost at random on the third or fourth link down, a page on another medical website titled ‘Chiari malformation’.
A few minutes later, Colin closed the browser window and looked at a bare space on the wall opposite. The afterimage of a brain and spinal chord was still visible, dark blue and nebulous against the pale wall. Colin watched it change slowly into a palette and paintbrush.
She couldn’t deny her increasing urge to engage with a discourse beyond the page. She had a desire—once latent, now very much present—to take up a non-verbal practice, something that would allow her to make sense, in a tangible and thus potentially radical way, of the multiple levels of reality she was constantly experiencing. But the effort required to engage with an entirely new discipline, such as painting, at this stage in life, seemed unfeasible, especially in the face of the stress-induced fatigue that she was so often subject to—as now. Colin readjusted her position on the sofa, making sure her laptop was safely balanced and wouldn’t slide off her body once she became unconscious. She closed her eyes.
She was soon back in her favourite place, a blameless dimension with possibilities. Don’t clap too hard it’s a very old building instructed a reassuring male voice as Colin felt herself lowered down onto a cold stone floor by a white-gloved hand.
Walnuts and pears you plant for your heirs, Stephanie Hier, David Dale Gallery, Glasgow, 16 June – 21 July
Sophie Collins grew up in Bergen, North Holland, and now lives in Edinburgh. small white monkeys, a text on self-expression, self-help and shame, was published by Book Works in 2017 as part of a commissioned residency at Glasgow Women’s Library. Her first poetry collection,Who Is Mary Sue?, was published by Faber & Faber in February 2018, when it was named the Poetry Book Society’s Spring Choice. She is currently translating a full-length poetry collection and a novel (provisionally titled, in English, The Opposite of a Person) from the Dutch of Lieke Marsman.