Once the course began in earnest there wasn’t much time for socialising. Phyl was a Chemist so they didn’t coincide often in lectures; at first Anna missed her but soon she forgot. People talked about the beauty of the arts, but there was nothing to touch the power and beauty of the physical world. Anna was in her element; if there were texts they went unheeded – mobiles were not allowed, not that anybody wanted them – and for the first time in almost a decade, she was happy. The lecturers were, by and large, entirely open to being questioned over a pub lunch. ‘I love doing these courses,’ said one, ‘you guys are so much more engaged than my usual students.’ Anna reflected that if all went well they’d be joining these usual students; she wondered how that would go.
And then it happened. She’d just come out of a meeting with her tutor and been told that if all went well she’d be accepted in September to finish her degree course. ‘I’m afraid as you didn’t complete your second year you’ll have to repeat that,’ her tutor was saying, but Anna barely heard her. She was coming here in September! She was going to get her degree! Why had she ever let him interrupt it? If she hadn’t, by now she’d be –
No. She heard her mother’s voice again: ye cannae live in might ha’ been! Put yer feet on the ground! That was one of her mother’s favourite phrases; feet on the ground. Anna left her tutor’s office and ran straight into Phyl.
‘Hi! I’ve just been told -‘ she began: the expression on Phyl’s face stopped her dead.
‘Can we talk somewhere?’ Phyl looked deeply troubled.
‘Has something happened?’
‘Not here.’ Phyl looked up and down the corridor. ‘Can we go to my room?’
‘Oh! Of course.’ Anna had never been to Phyl’s room; it turned out to be in a separate block a few minutes’ walk away. As they climbed the stairs it occurred to her to wonder why they weren’t in the same building.
‘I applied late,’ Phyl said, replying to Anna’s unspoken question. ‘This was the only accommodation left.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind. I quite like it, in fact.’
Phyl’s room was bare and cold. Anna sat on a seat by the window; outside you could see only the bins and a store room. Phyl made them both some herbal tea (‘I don’t take caffeine’) and sat in a chair opposite. Then without preamble she said,
‘Have you heard of Munchausen’s by proxy?’
‘It’s a syndrome? Munchausen’s by proxy.’
‘Oh! Yes, I think so. Wasn’t there a woman in the news, a few years back?’
‘Yes. You realise what it is?’
Anna searched her memory for a few scraps of news. ‘It’s hurting others – that’s the proxy part. A compulsion to hurt others.’
Phyl nodded, like a tutor pleased with a student’s answer. ‘Well, I should warn you. I’ve got it.’