(Act 3, Scene 1, ‘Measure for Measure’,
Sleeping Beauty woke up and rubbed her eyes but didn’t recognise where she was.
“I feel like I’ve slept for a hundred years”, she said.
“You have”, said the handsome prince who’d just kissed her on the hand. “There’s such a thing as too much kip. C’mon, kiddo. We’ve got work to do”.
And without a further word, he swept her off the bed, on to her feet and helped her skip down twenty flights of the castle’s ultra swish stairs so she could see what had happened to the people of her little kingdom while she had been snoozing.
Unlike Princess Aurora, as she was popularly known, everyone else in Kalachi, Kazakhstan was afraid to fall asleep.
Almost every fourth person in the tiny, 600-strong community – including children and some animals – had been affected by a sinister sleeping sickness.
One woman granted an audience said, “Please, forgive my impertinence Your Royal Highness but I have to say that you and I - we’re just the same”.
“I don’t think so. Who might you be, my good woman?”
“I might be dead. But thankfully I am still alive – if only just. My name is Lyubov Bilkova and like many of your other subjects I’ve suffered a mystery illness that makes people fall asleep for no reason and then remain unconscious for days.
“This has happened to me eight times. One moment I’m talking, the next I’m asleep. Also, at other times I’m still awake and – oh, dear this is so embarrassing – but people start to think I’m drunk!”
“Of course not, Your Royal Highness! I’m tee-total. I’m also a highly-skilled fine seamstress and you were warned not to enter the sewing room while I was working, But as usual, you did not listen to your dear, late mother. A typical sixteen-year-old, if I may say so”.
“No, you may not – on pain of death. Otherwise, carry on. Do!”
“So, as we all say, one moment you can be talking normally to your friends and the next - you’re asleep …”
“What else happens?”, asked Princess Aurora, now more sympathetic as she realised this had also affected her.
“Often, we feel weak, can’t talk properly or remember things well. Even when we don’t fall fully asleep, we feel sort of drowsy or even drugged.
“Sometimes I’ve slept twice round the clock and my best friend once slept for a whole week. When she did wake up, she was so confused she started seeing weird things and the doctor had to calm her down”.
“Goodness me! Anything else?” asked the princess, now genuinely agitated.
“Yes, one day several school kids in one class all drifted off together”.
“Are you sure it wasn’t simply a boring lesson?”
“No, Your Royal Highness. This is a really serious story; not a fairy tale, despite what comes next.
“In January this year, a woman claimed that her cat was struck by the disease. She said it fell into a sort of coma following a bizarre outburst of hyperactivity in the early hours of one morning that saw it attack her dog and then bite her”.
Princess Aurora was now deeply upset and consulted the most learned medical team in the land. But they were baffled. All they knew was the same as everyone else:
The disease seemed to strike in ‘waves’. It appeared more common during a thaw than when the ground froze and was apparent also when the wind blew from a particular direction.
Then one royal adviser had the temerity to express the painful truth.
When Sleeping Beauty’s mum and dad were on the throne they had traded with the kingdom next door.
Kalachi, he pointed out, lay adjacent to Krasnogorsk, an old mining town that had produced uranium ore for nuclear weapons until the late 1980s. Concentrations of radon at that particular place remained four or five times above normal. And there were still uranium ore mines nearby. Maybe,” he said, “the problem comes from there”.
Author’s Note: “Sleeping sickness traps Kazakh town in waking nightmare” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/kazakhstan/11497382/Sleeping-sickness-traps-Kazakh-town-in-waking-nightmare.html)
(© Natalie Irene Wood – 29 March 2015)