Amira is sitting on the edge of her divan bed, walking stick alongside her, hands palm up in her lap, an inhaler resting in the left, awaiting salvation. The raincoat she has somehow rolled on over the three or four layers of multi-coloured, knitted cardigans and jumpers strains dangerously at the buttons. Beneath the stifling layers, Amira’s legs are planted resolutely apart in brown ribbed stockings and a stiffly woven forest green skirt. Her feet are stuffed into two leather moccasins with homemade slits along the side for extra comfort, looking like two exotic fruit gone to seed. Amira tips her head from side to side, her eyes shut, wheezing out a prayer, whilst her daughter Farah, a twenty year old woman in jeans and t-shirt sets out two chairs for us to sit on the moment we enter the room.
‘Now then. What we can we do for you?’ says Frank, settling himself on the nearest chair and reaching out to feel her wrist.
‘I hurt breathe.’
Farah hovers respectfully. She translates for Frank when Amira lapses into Arabic.
I put together a nebuliser and gently ease it over Amira’s head, then sit back down with the board to write up the observations Frank calls out, along with other information I take from the numerous scripts Farah hands to me. Amira pats her daughter on the arm and speaks rapidly behind the mask.
‘Mama says she does not want to go to hospital. She has a doctor coming later this morning and wants to stay here to speak with him.’
‘Our advice is that she comes with us, of course. Tell her we’ll do a few more checks and decide what to do after that.’
‘Thank you. Thank you,’ says Amira, and reaches out to pat Frank on the cheek.
The room itself is simply furnished, a strange mixture of religious icons, cosmetics, a laptop on a pile of college books, a gilt frame of ancient photographs and a Robert Pattinson poster. Amira’s camp bed is so out of place in the middle of the room I imagine it flying in through the window and whumping down in a cloud of scented handkerchiefs onto the stripped wooden floor.
Amira tugs Farah by the t-shirt and speaks urgently to her through the mask again.
‘I’m so sorry,’ says Farah. ‘May I offer you some coffee?’
Amira nods her head emphatically, and gestures towards the little studio kitchen.
‘Well – that would be lovely,’ says Frank.
‘Where are you from?’ he asks Amira.
‘A beautiful city,’ he says. ‘Used to be.’
Amira waggles her head and tilts her palms to the ceiling.
‘Ah! Poor Baghdad. What happen is terrible, terrible. No good. P’ah.’
‘I was there in 2003,’ he says. ‘Dreadful.’
She pats his cheek again and admires him at arm’s length.
Farah comes back in carrying a silver tray with two intricately patterned china coffee cups and a couple of miniature Snickers. I clear a space on a footstool, she sets it down, then retreats back to her mother’s side.
The cardamom scented coffee lifts me out of the chair with its sweetness and strength.
‘Wow. That’s amazing.’
They both smile and nod.
Frank raises his cup to me. ‘This’ll straighten you out,’ he says. Then he knocks back the coffee, wipes his moustache, and takes hold of Amira’s hand again.
‘Habibti. Your breathing’s a little better but we’re still worried,’ he says, Farah speaking quickly and quietly over him in Arabic. ‘You’ve got high blood pressure and your temperature is up as well. When I listened to your chest just now I heard a few noises I’d like to get checked out further. I think we’d better take you to the hospital. And don’t worry about the doctor. We’ll ring to cancel.’
Amira follows each phrase carefully, animating each phrase with another turn of the hand, a tilt and shake of the head.
‘You beautiful,’ she says when he finishes. ‘Thank you. Thank you. When I better, you come Baghdad see me. I show you beautiful.’
‘One day,’ he says. ‘That’d be great. One day.’
Farah quietly collects our cups and empty wrappers onto the tray, then goes into the kitchen to make Frank another coffee. I haul our equipment back outside, stow it, prep the trolley and come back with a carry chair.
Amira greets me like a lost son.