Saturday dawned clear and cool, and Sam walked briskly through the market place, stepping around the touts offering guided tours, and the tourists stopping every two steps to take photos. The most popular site was the four red telephone boxes lined up outside Great St. Mary’s church. As she passed a knotted gaggle of French tourists posing inside the boxes. “So British,” one of them said with evident delight. Sam smiled and continued, her heart pumping excitement around her body like nitrous into an engine.
She was a few minutes early to meet Alex outside King’s College, and as she crossed the street, she caught sight of a flash of sunlight on metal. Alex was popping down a low step from a smart looking house onto King’s Parade. His black hair gleamed in the bright light, and his hands gently guided his wheels down the bump and she paused to watch him skilfully manoeuvre his chair. She jogged over to him instead of waiting outside the college. “Hey,” she called, and he looked up, smiling when he recognised her. “Do you live here?” she asked, gesturing up at the nineteenth century house behind them.
Something faltered in his expression, but it evaporated in a heartbeat, and he smiled again. “My family have owned it for ages,” he said, jerking his head to indicate which way they were going. Se flashed him a quizzical frown and followed him as he carried on. “They bought it from King’s College, who own most of the buildings on King’s Parade, and it passed to Will and me six years ago. We share it to save money on rent elsewhere. Things can get a bit fractious at times, but…” he trailed off with a shrug, shoulders rolling as he broke his steady pushing rhythm for a moment.
“That’s the case with living with anyone though,” she said, thinking that the last argument she and Ollie had had was over something washing up or something stupid. “So,” she added brightly, “Where are we headed?”
He flashed her a cheeky grin over his shoulder and her own internal rhythm faltered. He crossed the road and drew up beside a parked car, offering her no response to his question.
“This yours?” she said, impressed.
The sleek, black, BMW M3 sat on the tarmac, looking somehow smug, she thought, and as she glanced up at Alex’s face, she smiled again. He looked a little smug as well, and certainly very handsome in his black t-shirt and softly crumpled jeans. “Yup, she’s my baby,” he said. His confidence seemed to spike and then diminish, flickering slightly. Then he asked, “You couldn’t do me a favour could you?”
“Sure,” she said, wondering what he was going to get her to do. Her excitement quickly curdled into nervousness. Would she have to help him get in? What if she dropped him? She didn’t know what to do or anything about moving disabled people… Was this all going to be too much for her?
Alex smiled sadly, sensing her unease. “Relax, I just need you to put my chair in the boot. I’ll give it to you in bits so it’ll fit.” He cleared his throat, and she knew he was nervous too. She heard him say, “When I’m on my own, I put it on the passenger seat, but, well…”
Her adrenaline-soaked relief mingled with her chagrin and she hoped her expression wasn’t as turbulent as she felt inside. She hung back and watched him, trying not to stare, as he manoeuvred his chair closer, aligning it with the car. He set his brakes, lifted his legs carefully off the footplate before setting his non-descript, black shoes down on the tarmac. Each time as the sole touched the ground and his hands released his thighs, his legs bounced like a rubber ball for a few seconds before losing momentum and falling quiet, allowing him to reach across and swing his body into the driver’s seat. Alex seemed acutely aware of her eyes on him as he stowed his left leg under the steering wheel and left his right leg draped out, apparently for a sense of stability. She wanted to look away, but felt that would be ruder.
Instead of giving her all of the chair in one go, Alex ripped the seat cushion out and slid it behind the back of the driver's seat, before unlocking the brakes and inching the chair closer to him. The wheels slid off with almost unnerving ease, and he gave them to Sam one at a time, a pink flush in his cheeks. She stashed them safely in the boot and by the time she had returned for the frame, he had lifted his still and limp left leg in. The frame was propped up against the open door of the car, and as she took it in her small hands she found it was surprisingly light. She felt a slight rush of something as she looked down at it, which she took to be adrenaline or nerves. Whatever it was, it made her heart flutter. She glanced in the back window on her way past and saw his crutches lying quietly across the back seat like a faithful Labrador or something, and she wondered whether he’d wheel or crutch later when they got wherever they were going.
“All stowed away?” he called from the open door.
“Yes,” she said, closing the boot carefully in case she’d left anything sticking out. Getting him into the car had taken longer than she'd thought it would, but when she thought about it for more than half a second, she realised how efficient he had actually been with all his movements and manoeuvres. When she slid into the passenger seat, she looked at him, pulling the door closed, and said, “Now will you tell me where we’re going?”
He chuckled, checked his mirrors and pulled out. “I took a bit of a gamble with this one…”
She flashed him a frown but kept quiet.
“Well,” he continued, looking nervous again, despite his bravado grin. “A National Trust house isn’t your standard location for a date, but…” he snuck a sheepish, sideways glance at her. “I figured you liked history and culture, and beautiful things, so… have you ever been to Anglesey Abbey?”
She’d heard of it, but had never been to the historic house and its beautiful grounds. “No, I haven’t,” she said. “I’ve wanted to explore some of the big places around Cambridge for a while now. I’m actually a member of the National Trust, so I get their magazine, and I’ve got my card with me in my wallet…”
He grinned again. “That’s great, me too.”
As he navigated around a panicky herd of young cyclists, she settled back down into the comfy seat. “It’s been ages since I’ve been out of the city,” she mused aloud. “It’ll be nice to see a bit of the countryside.”
“I’ve lived here since I was fifteen,” he said, as they headed out of the city centre and joined a shuffling queue of cars. “We found all the nice little places to go when you need a break from the city and the tourists… Of course, Cambridgeshire isn’t exactly Scotland or anything, but it’s got its own beauty in a way I guess…”
She looked at him sitting in the driver’s seat, his black eyes darting around taking everything in and making judgements, reacting, talking and driving with a sexy confidence that she found intoxicating. His comments about Scotland made her think of the first time she went to Scotland. “I loved the Highlands when I first went,” she said. “I was about sixteen, and we went hiking on the Knoydart Peninsula. I remember the wind in the heather and the crash of the sea… I even got a photo of a golden eagle.” She stopped suddenly, wondering if she’d just been extremely insensitive. Alex couldn’t have done any Highland hiking lately... He didn’t seem to mind the hiking reference though. She sighed. This was going to be a steep learning curve for her.
“You’re into photography?” he asked, returning those quick, dark eyes to the road.
“Mmhmm,” she mumbled, remembering how she first started photography, and how it made her feel like she was looking at the world through someone else’s eyes when she put her eye to the viewfinder, changed the settings to adjust the exposure, and then captured it.
“You ever shown any of your work? Professionally, I mean?”
She scoffed. “Oh it’s not that good!” she said. “I’ve entered a few college-based competitions, but that’s all.”
“Maybe I’ll get to see some of it at some point. You didn’t bring your camera today?”
She shook her head. “You wouldn’t tell me where you were going, so I didn’t know to bring it!”
He barked a short laugh and said, “Fair enough.”
“It’s probably for the best,” she returned. “I usually end up stopping every three seconds to snap something; it annoys my mum no end when we’re out together and I start doing it.”
His smile was broad and genuine. Damn, you’re handsome, she thought suddenly. He didn’t look at all disabled as he sat behind the wheel - true, the hand controls were a bit of a giveaway, but he was as confident and able as anyone else. In the easy silence that hung between them for a moment, she found herself wondering whether his disability would affect her in any way. She’d never been with anyone who had any kind of physical issues, she reflected, plenty of mental issues, but that’s a different ball-game, and she had no idea what it would entail. She let her eyes slide down to his legs. They seemed perfectly still today, probably encased in the braces which she now knew he wore, so they didn’t look particularly skinny, not like Jake Sully’s skin-and-bone legs in Avatar. That was the closest she’d come to seeing someone in a wheelchair, and given that Avatar is set on a fictional planet with nine foot tall blue people, she didn’t think it was necessarily the most realistic introduction to Alex’s world... Look past that, she told herself. Get to know him first, and then decide if you can deal with the disability, or if you even need to ‘deal’ with it at all.
Almost before she’d realised it, Alex was talking again, and she forced herself back to the moment. “Urgh,” he was growling softly, “Cambridge is a bloody nightmare at the moment. They seem to be digging the entire city up for maintenance!”
She refocused her eyes, taking them off those strangely still and calm legs, and gazing at the rows of ‘diversion’, ‘road closed’, ‘caution’ signs. “It’s ridiculous,” she agreed, “You’d think they’d coordinate at least a little bit, so that the diversion for the water-mains works didn’t become the diversion for the gas-mains works...”
He laughed his low, chocolatey laugh and she found herself smiling too, inside and out.
As they sped out through the countryside surrounding Cambridge, she found herself looking at his hand controls. There was a lever that he pushed forward for the break and backwards toward him to accelerate, keeping his left thumb hooked over the rim of the steering wheel. The car was an automatic, and the way he drove kind of made it look like he was piloting a fighter jet, not a car. The deep rumble of the engine certainly added to the F22 fantasy. Sam’s eyes lingered for a luxurious minute on his hands. She loved his hands already: they were big, strong, and quite rough, with short nails and squared off tips. They were the kind of hands a stone mason would have, or a carpenter; skilled, dextrous, and swift, with a number of little nicks and scars tucked away over in the contours of their surface.
The big BMW’s tyres crunched on the gravel of the car park as they drew up to the historic house after . A modern building had been erected near the entrance to the gardens, and as they drew into a disabled parking bay, right outside she glimpsed the shop, the ticket office and the obligatory tea rooms that these places always had for their two largest percentiles of visitors – the pensioners and the families with young children.
“Prime parking when you hitch a lift with a cripple,” he said, turning the key and killing the engine. Her eyes darted fretfully to his face. She didn’t know if she was supposed to laugh, but she did find his self-effacing humour a little funny and offered a smile. “Sorry,” he said, apparently catching the uncertainty in her eyes. “I should probably hold back on the crip jokes until you’re a bit more used to seeing it...” he smiled sadly. His tone became a little brighter and more pragmatic as he said, “On a similar note though, the gardens are pretty flat, so I could wheel, but the house does have a staircase; I have done it on crutches before without too much trouble.” She could tell there was a question brewing, and she waited silently for him to ask whatever it was. “If you don’t mind going a bit slower, and maybe stopping every now and again, I’m good to crutch it... but…” he looked at her, his eyes wide and apparently hopeful.
“Why would you even ask me?” she blurted, the question tumbling off her tongue in astonished surprise and relief before she could stop it. “I mean, as long as I get to go with you, I don’t mind whether you’re sitting or standing. Do whatever works for you.”
The broadest, whitest, happiest grin suddenly split across his handsome face, scar dragging his eyelid down at the corner in a very ‘Mr. Rochester’ fashion, and he shook his head slightly. When he spoke, his tone was utter disbelief. “I...” he stammered, still smiling, “You know,” he said, looking up to meet her wide eyes, “I can’t quite believe you sometimes.”
She was taken aback, slightly hurt. “You think I’m making it up?”
“No!” he exclaimed, even holding up a hand, “That’s not what I meant, I just... I just meant I can’t believe how accepting you’ve been about all...” he looked down at his legs, “All this.” He shrugged, “I’m not used to it. Not used to it at all.”
She smiled, pleased not to have put her foot in it. Having the feeling that she was about to put that same trainered foot into her stammering mouth though, she felt compelled to say, somewhat falteringly, “Listen, if...” She shook her head and started again, “I... I don’t know anything about...-” she couldn’t bring herself to say the word. It stuck in her head, her brain grinding like a car revved in neutral.
He dipped his head, his dark eyes full and searching. “Disability?” His voice was low, and gentle, but there was an undertone of something in there, like a hidden, secret note in an old ale recipe.
Her cheeks burned that he’d had to say it for her, and she rolled her eyes in frustration at her own god-darned awkwardness. “Yeah,” she said. She ploughed on in a rush, the words tumbling awkwardly from her lips, “So... what I’m trying to say is... is that it’s not a problem at all that you’re… that you use a wheelchair, but, quite clearly, I don’t know the first thing about any of it, so if I do or say anything...” She could tell by the prickling in her cheeks just how red she’d gone, but his smile reassured her.
He gazed at her and said, “Look, at some point, if this does go any further, we probably will have to talk about it a bit more, but... for now... just the fact that ‘me’, and all that ‘me’ entails, doesn’t seem to put you off coming on a second date is a miracle.” He held up a hand as she opened her mouth to say something, and he said, “I promise I’ll put you right if you do anything... I’m reluctant to say ‘wrong’, but you know what I mean. Don’t be afraid to ask me, you know, anything you like.” He waited half a second for his words to sink in, and then puffed the tension out from his cheeks and gave her a smile.
Sam was almost trembling she was so relieved now. She smiled weakly and said, “Thanks.” She got out, leaving the awkward tension behind, and said, “So... um… did you want me to get your chair, or...?”
He nibbled his lip pensively, which turned his face into an expression that was so attractive it nearly floored her; he had suddenly become really, really adorable. Concentrate, girl, she scolded herself.
He glanced over his left shoulder at the crutches and said with a grin, “Since you’re being so accommodating and all,” he flashed her a pointed look, “I think I’ll stay on my feet today.” Then he added, looking cheekier by the second, “And if I get tired, I can just send you back to the car to get the chair...”
Catching his joking tone, Sam held up a hand and said, “Now hang on just a second...” They shared a laugh, shedding the last of the tension together.
“Come on,” he said, and he lifted his bent legs out of the car, planting them carefully in turn on the uneven gravel. Then he heaved himself to his feet, leaning very heavily on the body and the door of the car, did that flick of the knees again, and he proceeded to walk very cautiously and slowly along the chassis of the car, raising first one hip and then the other to move each leg, each foot scraping laboriously along the gravel, until he got to the back door, and was able to reach in for his crutches. Once they were in his hands, the transformation was astonishing. It was as though he’d been an old mechanical toy before, seized up and unsteady, but with the crutches and the wide space of the disabled parking bay, he moved almost as fluidly and confidently as a ballet dancer.
Their membership cards were scanned, and as they stepped out into the gardens beyond the modern building, Sam inhaled the fresh, green smell in the air, filling her lungs to full capacity and letting her breath go in a rush. Alex looked at her, a shadow of concern in his dark eyes. “You ok?” he asked, the steady rhythm of his crutching stalling for a moment.
“Yeah,” she said. They took a right, heading up a narrow gravel path, bordered with thick shrubbery in a multitude of different colours. “Just thinking, that’s all.” She offered him a smile, but didn’t feel like sharing the sad thoughts of her grandmother that had flitted into her brain like a bird diving down from a fencepost into a garden.
The way he was propelling himself along, great biceps and shoulders moving like the pistons of a steam engine, carrying his strangely straight legs along, was utterly mesmerising. She found it hard not to stare at him in fascination and appreciation, and actively had to concentrate on looking at the colours and beauty elsewhere around her. The path they were on was fairly smooth and even, but his toes still managed to catch the odd bump and crease in the path. He would hitch his hips a little higher and swing his six foot frame forward once more. She couldn’t help but admire his determination and strength.
After about three hundred and fifty yards they rounded a corner and a glade of silver birch trees opened up before them. Their ghostly pale trunks were like the bones of fingers sticking out of the dark earth, reaching for the green canopy above which gave the light a mysterious, fairytale quality. “Oh wow,” she breathed, eyes wheeling through the strong vertical lines of the canvas in front of her. She realised was lining it all up as though she were about to take a photo of it, even though she didn’t have her camera with her. She huffed a laugh at the thought.
“I thought you’d like this.” He had stopped beside her, and as she glanced over at him, she saw he was rubbing the heel of each palm with the fingers of the same hand, as though he had something sticky on them, or they were tingling. He was holding himself upright by resting the backs of his hands on the handles of the crutches, but he didn't look nearly as stable as he had done a few seconds earlier. Sam fought the rising urge to reach out and steady him somehow, knowing that first of all he didn't need it, and secondly it would be patronising in the extreme. She also realised in that moment that he could not stand without the crutches. They were like the buttresses of an elegant medieval building; the only things keeping him upright. It gave her a strange buzz and made her think of them in a new light.
She noticed a bench lurking in the depths of the little copse, and she nodded her head at it, asking, “Bench?”
He took a breath, apparently thinking through the route ahead, and said, “No, I’ll be fine,” offering her a firm but gently reassuring smile. “Thanks.”
She decided that she was not going to keep asking him if he was ok. He'd have to tell her if he wasn't.
Without another word, they made their way through the some of the most beautiful gardens she’d ever seen, until they came to an old, but still functioning, water mill, looking as though it had grown up organically in its setting, like a mushroom, out of the deep black water of the pond beside it. Her eyes lit up when she saw it, and she felt the rope of curiosity drawing her inside the door of the huge, grinding building. The whole edifice was a machine, almost every plank and beam taking part in the making of the flour.
As Alex hoisted his hips up the small step into the mill, it was very obvious that he had almost no use of his legs, and a National Trust attendant caught sight of him, stared wide-eyed at his legs and his crutches, and then said, “I’m very sorry sir, but the floors above aren’t accessible to the disabled...”
Sam thought he might snap at the older man the way he had snapped at the waitress on their coffee date, but he smiled, held up a hand and said good-naturedly, “Don’t worry, I have absolutely no intention of attempting to drag myself up that ladder!”
The volunteer steward laughed nervously and said, “Oh right...” Looking as horrendously awkward as Sam had in the car, he added, “Would you like some information about the mill? I could tell you while your sister goes up and has a look.”
Nothing could seem to dampen Alex’s mood that day, and in fact he seemed to take a certain delight in politely putting the man right for a second time, and he said cheerfully, “That’s a very good idea. Why don’t you tell me about it, while my girlfriend goes upstairs and has a look while we talk.”
It was all Sam could do not to burst out laughing. Biting the inside of her cheeks to stop that from happening, she let her eyes bore holes in the flour-spattered floor, and then into the attendant’s shoes, letting them stare at anything but at Alex’s perfectly calm and dead-pan face. The attendant’s cheeks however were turning a violent shade of raspberry, and he stammered something about coming over and watching the grain trickle into the millstone. Alex turned to Sam and said, hidden laughter ringing in the depths of his quiet voice, “Tell me what’s up there...”
“See you in a moment,” she snorted and scurried up the very steep ladder to the floor above. There was no one waiting to come down and she stopped at the top and glanced down the hatch to see Alex standing, leaning heavily on his right crutch, feigning a deep interest in the history of the mill, sparing the poor guy at least some of his embarrassment.
The oak planks on the floor creaked beneath her sturdy black Vans and she breathed in the citrus smell of the wood. The gardens outside were dotted with summer visitors, but there was no one up in the loft of the mill, and it had the feeling of a forgotten attic room. She half expected to find a doorway to another world and let her imagination run riot for a few minutes, recalling a C. S. Lewis story.
Shortly another thought drifted like a mirage into her mind: Alex had surely said ‘girlfriend’ just for extra emphasis, for dramatic effect? He couldn’t mean it yet in earnest? More to the point, would she let him mean it in earnest if it got to that?
After a few minutes poking around and exploring the crevices and corners of the upstairs, reading a few information signs, she decided to head back down the ladder. Alex was still standing talking to the steward and she decided to play his game. Going up beside him during a lull in their conversation, she looped her arm around his waist, making him jump slightly at the initial contact, and then she looked up at him and said, “It’s pretty cool up there. I’m done - you ready to go? I’m sure you can tell me all about what I’ve just seen.”
He looked suddenly inordinately pleased, and hooked his arm around her hips, saying, “Yup, let’s head off.” He turned cordially to the attendant in the green, National Trust fleece, and said politely, “Thank you so much. That was all very informative.”
He released Sam, his eyes glittering playfully as he slid his hand back around the handle of his crutch, and began to swing slowly towards the door, hitching his pelvis up and over the threshold, landing softly and deftly on the gravel path outside the mill. Once they were out of earshot of the doorway, Sam’s laughter, which had been building in her like a shaken bottle of fizzy drink, burst from her in a loud peal. Alex snorted and then his rolling, chocolatey laugh tumbled out on the summer air.
When they had both stopped chuckling long enough to speak, she said, “Oh dear! You were so funny back there...”
Still grinning like a loon, Alex said, “I have three ways to deal with people who are unfamiliar with disability. I think you’ve now experienced all of them: the first was derision with that waitress, which I’m not particularly proud of, but anyway; the second was with wary patience, which I have to admit was what I used with you initially, as I wasn’t sure...” he coughed lightly, “And the third is, I’m almost ashamed to say, to be as patronising as I can.” He finished with a quick shrug.
“I couldn’t believe he thought I was your sister!” she exclaimed.
Alex made a face that was something between exasperation and amusement, and said, “If I’d been in my chair, his first thought would probably have been ‘carer’, but since I’m upright, he settled for ‘sister’. Happens more than you’d think.”
Does that mean he’s often going places with girls? she wondered, the mirth dissolving rapidly.
He had evidently picked up on her change of mood as he said, ”I hope you didn’t think me forward, or presumptuous, when I said you were my girlfriend. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for us to get there, in time, but I just wanted to correct him with a bit of force...”
He stopped. His dark eyes were now searching every inch of her face, and she felt very scrutinised as he looked down from his six foot height. “No, I... I don’t mind... I...” she faltered. “I’d like that too, just... I know I kissed you when we parted on Wednesday, but I would like to move slowly - I think I need for us to move slowly...”
His lips twitched into a half smile that knocked the breath out of her, and his softly-given response drew tears to her eyes. “So do I.”
Alex saw her eyes sparkle with emotion as he spoke, and he decided to crank his body back into motion before it all got a bit heavy again. He indicated the direction with a nod of his head, and they set off again, Sam keeping pace quietly beside him. It was as though he had one of the three Graces with him as an escort for the day.
In the silence he recalled coming round these grounds with Will and his mum when he’d been about sixteen. Will and he had gone charging off down the lawn that he and Sam were about to come to, racing each other, Alex easily out-striding Will in seconds. He felt his scarred lips lurch into a smile at the memory.
Sam had, unconsciously yet annoyingly, chosen to walk on his right side now, his blind side, so he couldn’t sneak a look down at her without being really obvious about it.
There was a big, bushy, beech hedge which bordered the smoothly mown lawn, snuggling protectively around the edges, and when they emerged from the shadow of it and came out onto the lawn, he realised how tricky it was going to be to crutch across the grass, even if it had been mown almost down to its roots. Bugger, you idiot, he thought, don’t you ever think? He was really forced to engage his biceps now, having to lift his dragging feet clear of the grass with every swing. There was easily three hundred metres of lawn, and he knew he couldn’t easily make that on his crutches without emerging at the other end a shaking, sweating wreck. It tore at his insides to think of the last time he’d sped down there, leaping out of the way of Will’s hand as he tried to catch him. The hazy memory of an opening in the hedge snagged in his mind, and he looked hopefully at the junction of a different, taller, circular hedge with the cosy beech border. “I think there’s a way out over there,” he mumbled vaguely.
Sam looked up at him, clearly puzzled, and he tried to keep the struggle from his face. It was a warm day and he was already beginning to perspire; he could feel it dampening his brow at the hairline. Bugger, he swore again.
His black t-shirt began to feel very hot and heavy, and he was so very conscious of how much he’d been forced to slow down. A spasm pulsed threateningly in his right thigh, and he prayed it was only a tremor, a warning shot across the bows. He knew she probably thought he was being rude, not talking, but he was just focussing on moving from the lawn towards that exit, knowing there was a bench nearby where he could take the weight off his hands for a bit. So stupid, he chastised himself. You know you can’t manage grass on your feet for very long, so why the fuck did you try? They squeezed through the gap in the hedges and he turned left, swinging his body forward, eagerly trying to get to the wooden benches. He felt his pelvis wobble every time he lifted the crutches up to place in front of him, he felt his hips tilting forward and his back caving in a little as he removed the support for a second. God, what an idiot, he scolded himself.
In the circular ring created by the taller hedge, set into the larger lawn, was a strange space with tall, white, Renaissance-style statues of women with fluttering drapery; it was like a stage, where the audience sat between the actors. It reminded him of Shakespeare’s ‘wooden O’. He made a beeline for the nearest bench and, standing in front of it with his back to it, he took his left arm out the cuffs of the crutch and reached his hand back to break the force of the downwards motion a little. Without looking at Sam, but feeling the burning embarrassment he always felt when he was self-conscious about the mechanics of his disability, he reached down his thigh and released the KAFO’s, letting his knees bend, lifting them up and placing his feet down a little nearer to the bench so he looked like he was sitting normally, not like some layabout with his legs stretched leisurely ahead of him. His right leg began bobbing slightly in a kind of irritated fashion, and he clamped his hand to it.
Terror that things were about to get awkward seemed to creep in around the edges of his mind, and he desperately tried to think of something to say. Sam had come to his rescue though, almost before he’d registered it. “That lawn looked good for a gallop...” she said absentmindedly.
“You ride?” he asked, his voice croaking slightly. He coughed. His right leg gave one little final twitch, as though admonishing him for his stupidity in attempting the grass, and then fell quiet again, apparently satisfied that he’d realised his error.
She shrugged and said, “Not seriously. My mum used to take me to the local stables every couple of weeks, and we’d go on hacks out into the countryside together, but I never did anything awful like Pony Club...” She flashed him a grin and mimicked the voices of the spoiled little rich girls who formed 90% of the Pony Club membership, “You know the, Mummy, buy me another pony, types were never really my kind of girls...”
“Can’t think why,” he returned with a grin, and they both laughed.
Sam leaned her back against the bench, sighed and looked straight up at the azure sky. Alex’s hand was still on his thigh, despite his leg being now still, and, without taking her eyes from the single fluffy cloud above them, Sam reached out, her hand searching for his, finding it quickly and surely. As her fingers slid beneath his sandpaper palm, between his hand and his leg, the muscle of his thigh gave a rapid-fire pulse, and she pressed her fingers lightly into it. Like a naughty child brought up short before a tantrum, the tremor stopped, and he turned his head all the way around as she was still sitting on his right. It was only then that he could see her clearly, his reclining Grace. Her head rolled gently towards her left shoulder as she turned her gaze from the sky and he found it resting on his right eye and the scar. Sam stayed with her eyes locked on his face for a good few minutes, a gentle smile on her beautiful, soft lips. He wanted so badly to kiss her in that moment, but he couldn't find the confidence in him to do it.
He looked away, gazing at the statues around them, looking like the frozen fantasies of a bygone era. Suddenly, he heard the slight rustle of clothing, and he discovered that she had reached her free right hand across her body and raised her finger delicately to his eyebrow. He closed his eyes, feeling adrenaline and ecstasy flooding his veins at her touch. She was drawing her fingertip down his face, across his eyelid and down the channel of the scar, finishing with the lightest touch on his lips. “Can you see in that eye?” she asked, her voice barely audible above the rustling beech leaves of the hedge surrounding their little bower.
He shook his head slowly. “Not really.” He opened just the right eye and tried to peer through the murky gloom, searching against the white of the statue beside the bench for her dark form in silhouette against it. “I know where you are,” he said, “But I can’t really make much out, and I only have sight in the very bottom of my field of vision anyway.” He tilted his chin up, raising the tiny, clearer patch of sight upwards as he sought her form. He took his right hand off hers and, knowing it was a bit cliché, but that it was also a good way to prove a point, he raised it into the empty space between them, fumbling in the air to find her cheek. When he couldn’t find it easily, he cheated, opening his left eye and turning his face back to look directly at her. Before she worried about his ability to drive her home safely, he raised a hand to his left eye and said, “Perfect vision in this one though; cleared by the doctor to drive...” He brought his searching hand to her face, and his rough palm connected with her cheek for the first time.
Now her eyes closed, and he thought he caught her wince slightly, but it was gone before he could be truly certain.
“Sorry,” he said, removing his hand. “A wheeler’s hands are rough.” That rough hand hovered uncertainly in space, shaking slightly like a leaf in a summer breeze.
To his surprise, her eyes flashed open and she fairly grabbed the hand he’d just withdrawn, holding it with astonishingly strong fingers considering they were so small, and she brought it down to rest on her thigh. She kneaded the most calloused area of his palm just once, saying, “They’re beautiful. I love your hands.”
“What?” he snorted. “But they’re like sandpaper...”
She smiled, digging her thumbs into it again. “They’re so strong but... you’re so gentle.” She shook her head. “It’s... I’m not used to it, put it that way.”
Someone did hurt you, didn’t they? he wanted to ask. What did they do to you, beautiful? I’ll only ever be gentle with you. Hoping his eyes conveyed his thoughts, he squeezed his fingers around her tiny hand, enveloping her in his big grip.
He wasn’t about to interrupt as she opened her mouth again, and he hoped she’d give him something about herself. “Look,” she said, dark eyes fixed on their hands. “I... I wasn’t looking for... for any of this. I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but I gave up on relationships a long time ago after...” Yes, tell me, he pleaded silently, not daring to give voice to his thoughts. She carried on. “I’ve taken some shit from guys, and, after something that happened when I was seventeen, and after that I... I don’t know... But something made me take a chance on you. You seemed different, fundamentally different... I can’t put my finger on it.”
He moved their hands a few inches back and forth along his thigh, their hands grinding into the slender straps of his KAFO’s, and said, “Could this be it?” with a smile.
She shook her head. “Before I knew about that,” she said, and his heart turned over in pure delight, “There was something... ach,” she made a sound and shook that pretty head of hers again. “It’s only going to come out corny, but I think you know what I mean.”
“I do,” he said. “Like I said to you in the UL, I don’t just ask out any girl who happens to be sitting opposite me -”
“- good,” she interrupted with a cheeky grin, “Because I wasn’t quite opposite you - that was the prudish old scholar of feminist literature...”
He marvelled at her ability to make light of things, and continued, “Ok, I don’t just ask random girls out. There was something different in you too. I figured the worst you could do was shoot me down for asking.” He rubbed his chin with his left hand and began to laugh. “Actually, I fully expected you to, and I was so surprised when you said yes that I bolted for the door instead of staying and talking to you! What a chicken!” He also thought of the spasms he'd provoked by not stopping to cath before he left the library, which brought him back to the lawn incident a few minutes earlier, and how this girl made him do crazy silly things. Knowing he needed to keep his schedule and activities pretty much the same, no matter whether he was with the girl of his dreams or not, he focused his eyes back on her beautiful, smiling face.
She chuckled. “It was kind of cute.”
“Damn, and here I was, going for rugged, handsome and manly, with my scar and my war wounds...” he joked, making light of his disability as a kind of reflex.
“That too,” she said earnestly.
He sighed, drawing in a deep breath and feeling like the oxygen was pumping into every cell in his battered, broken body, fortifying him, before letting it out slowly. They sat holding each other's hands for a while until he said, “Shall we go on? We’ve got quite a lot more to see.”
“If you’re ready to, I’m good to go.”
He took up his crutches once more, feeling refreshed after a quiet few minutes and energised now that he didn’t have that daunting expanse of lawn ahead of him. Self-conscious about the way he awkwardly heaved himself upright, bearing all his weight on his arms, he locked the braces and looked down at her to see the strangest expression on her face. He thought for a split second it was desire, but it couldn’t be, for goodness’ sake - look at me.
The route that Alex chose wound through thick, dense, dripping fir trees, and the path became uneven beneath his crutch-tips. At one point, a tap where the gardeners hooked up their hoses had leaked, and the path was muddy and as slippery as an eel's back. He slowed right down, concentrating as hard as any brain surgeon on setting the tips down gently and swinging carefully over the treacherous little quagmire. He went ahead of Sam, and he couldn't even hear her light step behind him. Resisting the temptation to turn his head to check to see if his little fairy escort was still with him, he ploughed on, heading for a sunlit glade ahead, where a crossroads offered wanderers the choice of visiting the old house or exploring more gardens.
When he had traversed the mini-swamp, he swung himself around and watched her leap, doe-like and elegant, over the last patch of mud, and come trotting up beside him. "It's so beautiful here," she breathed, looking around and up to the verdant canopy above. Her eyes then flitted to his face, and her mouth twitched into a rosy smile, and she added, "Perfect second date so far..."
Elation ballooned inside him and he felt he could skip or dance or do something crazy. This girl must be due for a freakout about his disability soon...? Praying it wouldn't be the end of the line when it did inevitably come, he smiled and said, "I'm glad you're having fun too." Taking his hand out of the cuff of his crutch, leaning all his weight on his right arm and trying to be as subtle as he possibly could about it, he wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead, just above the scarred eyebrow. "The house is just up this drive," he said, indicating the sweeping gravel road that was just visible around a thick bank of shrubbery, "Or there's more garden to wander in if we go around the house. Lady's choice."
She laughed a sparkling, high laugh and said, "How about a look round the house?" and she began to walk slowly away from him in the direction he'd indicated. He felt only the slightest hint of shame as his eyes slithered down her rippling hair to her tiny, inviting waist and to those wide, sashaying hips. He felt something burning inside him, kindled by her raw sensuality and by the fact that she was completely oblivious to how beautiful she was.
Sam stopped when she realised he wasn't following, and turned on the spot like a quarter-horse at a rodeo. "Alex?" she asked, head cocked, hair falling around her face. She reminded him of a cocker spaniel in that moment, with wavy hair and great big, dark, concerned eyes.
"I'm coming," he said, blushing.
The driveway swept in a long, arching curve through open, grassy parkland. Up ahead, two great limestone pillars topped with torches whose glass 'flames' were pale and unlit on the bright summer day. Like ghosts dancing on the top of the gateposts, they welcomed visitors to the Jacobean-style house. A beautiful espalier pear tree spread itself across the entire end wall of the house, and the covered, stone porch nestled in an angular corner of the house where an extension met the original building. It yawned invitingly and they made their way up to it. Inside the porch was a stone shelf running along the sides, and Alex took a moment there to sit down and ease his burning palms. Six years of hauling myself around and it still hurts like hell, he thought as he hitched his hips up the two small steps into the cool, shadowy porch. Feeling the necessity of explaining himself to Sam, he said, "I'm just going to park myself here for a bit. Feel free to go and explore. I..." he paused, giving his stiff, tight shoulders a quick roll, "I might give the upstairs a miss this time. Do you mind?"
She smiled warmly and said, "Not at all. I'll go and explore upstairs, then you can show me the downstairs rooms when I'm done?"
He could see in her face how desperate she was not to appear patronising and he thanked her silently with a warm smile. "Sounds good." She smiled and stepped inside the huge doorway. But before her waif-like form had vanished completely into the shadowy hallway, he called out, "Sam!"
Her head popped back into view and her eyebrows asked the question, "What?"
"Take your time, won't you? I mean... don't hurry on my account..."
She chuckled and said, "Ok, I'll be as obnoxiously touristy as possible then." And with another smile that made his heartbeat lurch, she was gone, long hair swishing behind her like a darting shadow.
He wondered as he released the knees of his braces and smiled meekly at the house steward in the hallway, if it was far too soon to be thinking, I love you.