That had to have been a dream, he thought, a broad grin washed across his tired face. That cannot really have just happened. The streets were dotted here and there with staggering summer revellers, and he felt like a ghost as his body swung almost soundlessly down narrow, dark passageways and out once more into the glaring orange streetlights again. Flashes of the evening, mostly of Sam's beautiful shy face, kept flitting across his mind, swift and fleeting as silver-winged bats in a night sky. For the whole of his solitary journey back, his mind was completely occupied by thoughts of her, and when he reached the apartment, he found Will hovering in a state somewhere just shy of 'fairly worried'.
“Alex!” His choked bellow as Alex opened the door sounding a bit like a farm animal with a thermometer stuck up its backside. Alex tried not to snigger at the thought as he crutched through the front door. “What took you so long? Why didn’t you answer my texts? I had started to think...” Will broke off. “Ach, it doesn’t matter.” His brother seemed to deflate in front of him, his worry withering into the calmer spectre of relief. Suddenly, without that cloak of imagined worries, Will looked shrunken somehow, and rather tired.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said with a gentle laugh. “I know this kind of thing doesn’t exactly happen all that often, but there was no need to call the police or anything! We went for a drink after the film. I... I didn’t think to check my phone. I’m sorry.” He fought back the urge to make a ‘child-minder’ comment, as Will hadn’t completely come off the boil yet. Somehow he’d just never grown out of ‘protective older brother’, which was ironic, as before the accident, it was the bulkier younger brother who did most of the protecting.
Will shook his head, and said, “I just...”
Alex crutched over to him, and put a calloused hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I know. I’m sorry. Thank you.” He looked straight into those bright blue eyes of his, and saw a fading thunderstorm in them.
Will sighed. “You had a good time, I take it,” he said kindly, backing onto the sofa and flopping down like an old rag doll.
He felt the smile erupt like a volcano from the pit of his stomach, and it burst onto his face, stretching the scar like an old seam. “Oh, God,” he breathed. “She’s incredible. And after the film, we went to The Lazy Scholar for a drink -” he held up a hand before Will’s face could even begin to show signs of worry again, “- I only had half a pint, and I’ve not had anything today that could interfere with it.”
Will laughed heartily and said, “You’re very long-suffering with me, you know that.”
“I know, I’m a hero. What can I say?” Alex said, shuffling his weight on his crutches, looking around for his chair.
“I had to move your chair back to your room for you after you left; I broke a glass and had to get the hoover out. I did the whole living room while I was at it. Sorry," Will said, standing up to go and get it.
Alex held out a hand. “Christ, don’t worry, I’ll get it,” he swore with another fond laugh.
He came out in ten minutes’ time, braces off, pushing the wheels of his chair with confident strokes. As he moved towards him, Will said, “Sorry, you were telling me about your evening before my inner nursemaid went completely ape-shit on you.”
A peal of laughter tumbled from Alex’s throat, sounding rich and full-bodied even to his own ears. Will looked equally pleased to hear it. “Yeah, we were just chatting at the pub, and I could see she was kind of itching to ask me something. Oh I should probably add -” he said, remembering the fat man on the stairs, “- Some dick in the cinema couldn’t wait two seconds for me to let the rest of my row out... I needed somewhere to wait while the staircase emptied of all the jostling people...” Will nodded, knowing how slowly and carefully Alex had to attempt stairs on his crutches. It had taken him years to master the necessary strength and balance. “Anyway, he couldn’t wait, was a complete twat about it, and barged right into me. He would have knocked me down the stairs like a bowling ball, if Sam hadn’t stood in front of me and let me grab onto her.” Will’s mouth had set into an angry, thin line. “So when we got to the pub, my disability still clearly on her mind, and I noticed her looking at my scar, and I just flat-out asked her if this bothered her – ” he indicated his cheek and his slightly withered legs, feet stowed neatly beneath him on the footplate in just his soft white socks. “I probably shouldn't have, but it just came out. I just couldn’t believe that she’s ok with this. Anyway, she essentially said I shouldn’t have to put up with gits like him, and was sorry that I did. I could tell she still wanted to ask about my chair and my scar, but she just didn’t know how to.”
Will made a side-to-side movement of his head which clearly said, don’t they all want to ask? He smiled at Alex’s happy babbling.
“And of all the things she could have asked,” Alex said with a big smile on his tired face, “She just asked why I was in a chair sometimes and not at others.”
Will smiled too. “At least she didn’t just blurt out ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or something!”
The two brothers shared a laugh, and the same set of memories probably flashed through both their minds at the same time. Alex voiced one of their varied repertoire aloud: “You remember the time at Helen’s 60th birthday when that kid asked if it he’d catch wheelchair disease if he sat next to me?” and they fell into a string of similar memories, laughing and joking until Alex finally decided that he was exhausted, and headed to bed.
Later, as he pushed himself slowly from the bathroom and gently transferred to the bed, his mind was full of Sam’s soft lips on his scar, the scent of her hair as it fell around their kiss, and the really adorable way she’d had to stand on tip toes to reach him. He glanced down as he slid fresh boxers up his legs. His cock lay limply against his thigh, though with the thoughts he was having, he knew what it should have been doing. As the boxers covered it, he closed his eyes, wondering how much sensation he did actually have there; it had been so long since he'd even bothered to think about keeping Little Alex happy, he'd almost forgotten what it felt like to get hard, or even half-hard. He transferred from the chair, lifting his inert legs up after him and shuffling backwards with familiar ease, legs trailing behind. He cast the voluminous duvet over himself and had a new thought.
Lying back into the pillows, checking to see if his door was closed, he slid his hand down his boxers, feeling oddly like a young teenager again, and tried to get himself as hard as he could. His wrist ached long before he was even half way there, but after a while it stood like a drunken soldier slouching pretty much to attention. Eventually after a bit more encouragement, he found his right thigh muscle racing his breathing to mild fever pitch. Then the sensation reached a disappointing kind of peak, before ebbing away.
He knew he should be grateful. He was one of the lucky ones, a rarer kind of SCI with feeling below the injury, but still, he couldn't come, and probably never would, and he certainly wouldn't get hard enough on his own to slip inside someone. Someone like Sam.
As Sam walked away from the pub where she’d left Alex, she felt she could have skipped. Not wanting to make a spectacle of herself for a second time that night, she kept to a steady walk, also careful not to power away from him with all the insensitivity of a boy racer in a Subaru. She wanted to run, to put those crazy-high endorphins to good use. Tomorrow, she thought. Go for a run tomorrow. She glanced over her shoulder - did she deliberately swing her hair around? - to see Alex still standing there, staring after her, crutches braced against his weight, his shoulders high and his arms delightfully strong and bare. She waved, instantly regretted waving in case she looked like a school girl with a crush, laughed, and then carried on walking. Alex had raised his hand too, crutch hanging limply from his arm.
As she walked the streets at a brisk pace to her shared student house, she looked up and saw a few stars twinkling through the orange city haze, and she could imagine that her grandmother would be peering down through that smog, squinting in much the same way as she had when peering at the morning papers. Sam knew she would have been smiling down on her at that moment. The grandmother she was imagining was not the stroke-ravaged old lady she had been for the past year and a half, but the quick-minded, lively old woman with the wicked sense of humour and all the kindness and sensitivity of a family matriarch. She could almost hear her raspy voice saying, “That is a nice young man you’ve found there,” and the thought drew a sad smile from her lips. “Yes, grandma,” she said aloud as her shoes fell softly on the tarmac of the deserted road, “I think so too.”
She couldn’t help but giggle to herself as she recalled Alex's face after she’d put the drunk creep in a wrist lock. She got that a lot from guys - the unwanted attention and also the surprise that she could actually take care of herself, now at least. Even her friends seemed to think that because she was small, it was ok to pick her up and toss her around like a doll. With her red belt grading coming up over the summer, she had been practising furiously around revising for finals, and there was no way that she was going to let anyone give her shit and get away with it ever again.
Finally she trotted up the three steps to her dark blue front door, and as her key slid into the lock, a bike whizzed past, startling her out of her memories. She stepped quickly inside the cool, dark hallway and closed the door behind her.
Ruth’s voice echoed from the sitting room. “Sam?”
The patter of two sets of bare feet down the corridor announced Ruth and Ollie’s curious arrival. “So,” Ollie said slowly and deliberately. “How’d it go...? Did you have a filthy evening in the back corner of the cinema?!”
“Ollie!” she shrieked in mock-indignation. “What kind of girl do you think I am? And what kind of man do you think I’m interested in!” They all chuckled, and she continued in a normal tone, hoping she was keeping back at least some of the effervescent happiness from the surface of her words. “He was a perfect gentleman all evening. We went for a drink after the film, which he paid for, and then when we parted, I kissed him.”
Ollie looked first pleased and then wary. “You kissed him...?” he asked.
Sam rolled her eyes. “Yes, I kissed him. This isn't Downton Abbey, Ollie; there’s no scandal. I could see he wanted to, but given that I’d just put some perve in an arm lock, I could see he was a little... er… reticent.”
“And no bloody wonder,” Ollie said, flapping a hand at her, “Sam, I love you dearly, but sometimes, you are just too butch. I had thought that living with you, we might be able to learn a bit from each other, so that after a year we’d end up as two individuals with perfectly balanced qi, but clearly, that’s not how this whole thing works. I’m still girly-gay, and you’re still -”
“-Kicking ass,” Ruth interjected diplomatically. “And there’s nothing wrong with the way either of you are. Can we focus please? Sam kissed her date! Priorities...!” Instead of acting like the young adults they were, all three of them reverted instantly to behaving like bubbly young teenagers discussing the outcome of a school dance or something.
Sam blushed, and said nothing.
Ruth looked at her and asked if there would be a second date.
“Yes, and he said he’d have to think of something when I told him I wasn’t the fluffy romantic type.”
“Oh God, Sam,” Ollie exclaimed, “You’re really showing all your colours early on with this one, aren’t you? You’re not making it easy for the poor guy. Tell me what he’s like.”
“Tall – exactly six foot, he tells me – with dark hair cropped just right - not too long and floppy, not a buzz-cut. His cheekbones are deliciously high and sharp, and he’s got a strong, angular, masculine jaw..." that’s just asking for you to run your finger along it... she thought. fuck, cool it, Sam. Ollie’s eyes widened dramatically and she thought he probably knew what she'd been thinking. She ploughed on loudly, hoping they’d not call her out on it. "And he’s got these big dark eyes, and a scar that runs through his eyebrow, down his cheek and over his lips a bit...” she traced the line of the pale gash with her finger over her own cheek.
“Oooh, scars are hot,” Ollie said dramatically.
Yeah, just wait, Sam thought with some trepidation. “And...” she paused, unsure how to phrase it in such a way that they wouldn’t balk. “I guess he was more seriously injured in the same accident that gave him the scar, because he... he needs to use crutches to walk.”
That threw them a bit. “Oh? Was it a recent accident then?” Ruth asked, looking uncertain.
“I don’t think so,” Sam said, trying to show them it didn’t matter anyway. “Anyway, I’m pretty tired, so I’m going to grab a shower and head to bed. 'Night!” she said, abruptly ending their inquisition and walking away up the stairs. On the landing, she glanced back and saw the look that Ollie and Ruth were exchanging. Oh fuck off, she thought sourly. I’m entitled to fancy whomever I like. She took herself off to her room, showered, and climbed into bed thinking of him.
Hands were pressing down on her chest as she lay asleep. Strong fingers began to choke her throat, crushing her windpipe, clamping around her skin like skeletal vices. She felt the weight on top of her, his crushing weight, his terrifyingly gentle voice, whispering terrifyingly gentle words while he held her down and hurt her over and over again.
Sam woke some time after midnight with a cry and a start, sweat forming a thin film across her forehead, her heart pumping wildly, blood rushing in her ears, breath coming fast and shallow. She’d not had that dream in a long time, and it took her a few minutes to realise where she was and that years had passed since that chapter of her life. She put her trembling hands to her face to mop the sweat from her brow while her heartbeat hammered in her temples. Her hands were shaking off the Richter scale as she brought the water glass to her lips, and it nearly slithered to the floor when she raised her arm. “Get it together, Sam,” she scolded herself in a fierce whisper. “That’s all way behind you now.”
Breakfast the next morning was a quiet affair for Sam. She’d slept in late, and couldn’t have felt less like going for a run now. Nursing a mug of tea in her cupped fingers, she stood in the kitchen, resting her body against the cheap, plastic-covered countertop of the student house. It felt to her now as though yesterday had been composed of two dreams: the glorious one with Alex; and the horrendous nightmare afterwards. She could almost imagine that the date had never happened, and it had just been an invention of her grieving mind. Clouds of familiar depression began to billow around the edge of her thoughts, and she didn’t even bother to shoo them away, letting herself fall into the seductive embrace of sadness.
There was a cheap radio playing BBC Radio 1 in a decrepit kind of way from the corner, and it was hissing and crackling so badly that she moved to shut it up. As she crossed the room, the static cleared a bit, and a song she’d never heard before came buzzing through the still air of the kitchen. It had a folky, indie beat, and an accordion tripped out a lively rhythm above a low, twangy bass. When the hoarse voices of the vocalists joined in, along with a dancing, heartbeat drum, she found that her foot was tapping and she felt her torso begin to move to the insistent beat. The lyrics began to mean more than she’d thought they would: “Afraid to lose control, caught up in this world, I’ve wasted time, I’ve wasted breath, I think I thought myself to death... I need to move I need to fight...” When it was over, the presenter announced it was “Come With Me Now” by the Kongos, a band she’d never heard of. In a way that she had thought only happened in movies, she had felt herself stirred into action during the song, and the weight of undefined sadness lifted a little. The catalyst to the complete transformation came in the form of a text.
She had forgotten her phone and she jumped when it buzzed harshly on the counter. It was from Alex. Thank you, she smiled, as if the fates were proving that one aspect of the previous night had not been all a dream.
“I’ve got a plan for this Saturday if you’re free then? A xxx”
“Perfect. Dad’s coming up on Sunday to take my stuff home so I can move out and save rent before graduation (broke and crashing at friend’s house til then!). Can you give me any clues about Saturday?” Graduation was a few weeks after the end of term, once the exam results had come out, and she had decided at the start of the year that she was going to save money by not paying rent for those extra few weeks. Dan’s parents lived just outside Cambridge, and he’d offered her somewhere to stay.
“Nope, no clues. My lips are sealed.”
“Ok... how shall I dress then? Ball gown or cargo pants?”
“Comfortable and scruffy. It’ll be outdoors.”
“Will do. Can’t wait - so curious. Xxx”
The U-turn that her emotions had done in such a short breath of time astonished her. She set her mug down in the sink, still half full of cooling tea, and turned her steps towards her room, vaguely thinking how she did actually fancy a run after all, and it would probably make her feel a bit more normal again.
Once her she’d pulled the shorts up and donned her taekwondo club t-shirt, she headed out into the warming day. She pounded away from town, running smoothly out with a regular rhythm towards the slightly wilder meadows to the north east of Cambridge where the canal boats float lazily like ducks on a hot day, and where the college rowing crews pound their way through the water. She glimpsed a couple kayaking, paddles whirling determinedly through the still water. The hum of other people’s lives soon faded into the gentle rustle of tall, dry grasses and the soft lowing of the dark, russet cattle. Their slow chewing, their steady dark eyes, their great, weighty presence seemed to centre her and she found herself thinking once again of Alex.
She couldn’t keep from wondering what had happened to him to make his legs so unresponsive and his cheek scarred, and she wondered too whether the sight was at all compromised in his right eye. She thought again of Ruth and Ollie’s shared look the previous night, and she wondered whether they were right to worry about her. Alex was first guy she’d been remotely interested in for the three years she’d been at university, and he was disabled. Had her experiences made her seek out someone who might potentially be weaker than herself, however subconsciously? She was horrified at the thought – not least because it was so patronising to him – but there was no denying the safety she felt around Alex. There was no trace of the rising bile and panic when she imagined his touch on her skin, except when she recalled his painfully strong grip during the fall in the theatre, but that doesn’t count, she decided.
She hopped over a big stick that looked like it had been abandoned by a tired dog, and let her thoughts keep pace with her feet. They quickly turned to the kiss, and her insides immediately mirrored two twirling butterflies that she’d just disturbed, sending them spiralling up into the hot blue sky as she thundered by.
At the end of her 10k run, she was truly tired. Normally a 10k wouldn’t have killed her - three years ago the thought alone might have done - but after her grandmother’s passing, and what with the dream the night before, she just wasn’t herself, and her muscles screamed at her, begging her to stop. “Alright,” she puffed aloud, permitting herself to slow as she left the green blanket of the city park behind her and turned up the street which led to her house. Sweat made her t-shirt stick to her chest and back, and her ponytail was plastered unattractively to her neck, with several stray strands sealing themselves onto her forehead and cheek.
Making her way through the back gate into the tiny garden, she encouraged her tired muscles to stretch out by doing some yoga on the prickly little lawn. It was hardly bigger than a postage stamp, but it left her enough room to do downward dog, thrusting her backside to the sun in the privacy of the garden, feeling the glorious pull in her calves and hamstrings. After another fifteen minutes of stretching, she passed into the cool kitchen praying no one would be in there to witness her disgusting sweaty appearance, and ducking into the shower.
As searing hot fingers crawled through her hair, she let the water run down her face, and she began to smile. Alex would be a new start, and perhaps something completely different was exactly what she needed. Who cares if he uses a wheelchair? she thought, scrubbing her scalp vigorously, working the shampoo up into a thick foam. She found herself relishing the thought of finding out what things he had to do differently, and wondered why it was attractive to her. Her mind was drawn back to their first meeting in the UL café, to the way his right foot had dragged along the floor when he’d swung his hips forward to meet his crutches, to the slight clink of the crutch-tip, or maybe of the braces, as he reached forward with those biceps and placed the crutches down on the hard floor, and to that strange, almost lilting gait of his. His scarred smile was flashing before her, the smile he’d given as he’d looked back over his shoulder at her on the escalator, and then the smile he’d given her as he’d put his rough and calloused palm delicately over hers in the chilly air of the cinema. His sandalwood scent almost rose in her nostrils too.
Almost before she’d realised it, she had pressed her fingertip to her throbbing centre, and let out a soft moan. It had been so long since she’d even felt the inclination to touch herself, and even longer since she felt the touch of another there, that it almost sent her into a fit of collapsing shudders there and then. Snapping herself out of it, she turned the shower onto its iciest setting, and nearly let out a shriek. Nothing like cold water to get your mind off sex, she thought with a wry, snorting smile. She finished washing her tired and now shivering body off before stepping out and wrapping a huge, fluffy towel around her.
When she returned to her room, she saw that she had another message, and was surprised at her disappointment when she saw it was from Dan.
“A few friends from college – who I think you know – and I are having an impromptu picnic on Queens’ Backs, you fancy coming along?”
It had been a while since she’d seen Dan’s friends, and since her mood was so good she quite fancied the idea of a picnic on the broad field at the rear of Queens’ College, so she replied, “Love to, you want me to pick anything up from Sainsbury’s as I pass?”
“Dunno, more drink? We’ve run out of beer, but just bring your lovely self :)”
“Haha, I’ll see what I can find...” she said, rummaging around for her wallet.
The refrigerators in the little supermarket were humming raucously, and the chill was a bit of a shock after the warmth of the street outside. She had grabbed the nearest t-shirt she could find, never having been much of a one to agonise over wardrobe decisions. It happened to be a different coloured taekwondo club top, and her denim shorts, unlike most of the examples of their kind being worn by girls at the moment, came half way down her toned thighs, ending in a cute little turn up. Her arm strained as she heaved a six pack of beer into the basket, and added some cocktail sausages and sausage rolls to the groaning load. With earphones in her ears, she waltzed round the shop in record time, and came careering round a corner and nearly found herself in the lap of someone in a wheelchair. Her heart gave a leap as she saw the dark wheels and black frame, but her disappointment was almost crushing as it turned out to be an old lady being pushed by a stern looking carer in a blue uniform. “Watch where you’re going, young lady!” the old woman barked tremulously from her wheeled throne.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, stepping back and letting them pass. “I was miles away.”
“Clearly!” the old lady trumpeted as she disappeared, and Sam let out a surreptitious snort of amusement.
Lounging in a huddle near a large and voluptuously leafy tree was a small knot of familiar faces, and in the centre a portable barbecue smoking away with a few blackened bits of stuff that looked like they might have begun life as burgers.
“Hey!” she called out as she got nearer, waving a hand. They all looked up and smiled or waved or called out to her. It felt good to be welcomed into the group of semi-strangers, and she recognised Doyle from her department. He was doing his Masters in Old English, comparing descriptions of treasure with the actual archaeology, and he was frequently popping in to use their library. At six foot eight, Doyle was enormous, and with a jaw like an anvil and muscles of pure steel, it came as no surprise to her to learn that he was on the university rowing team. It did however come as a surprise to find him flirting with her in the common room one day. That had been months ago, and she prayed he would have moved on.
Dan stood and came loping over, his long legs all gangly in the loose linen shorts he wore. “Hey,” he returned, giving her a big hug. When he saw the heavy bags she carried, he took one off her, peering into it like a curious kid at Christmas. “Ooh!” he exclaimed. “Yummy! Sam, you didn’t have to...”
Dan turned to the others, who had broken off their conversations and were smiling up at her. “Sammy’s brought more food!” he said, waving the bags as though they were war-booty. “And beer.”
“Our hero!” Rob chimed, from where he stretched his long legs out, black, steel-capped boots covering his feet winter and summer. He had a massive black beard and his shiny black hair poured like an oil slick in its ponytail down his back. Beetle-black eyes gleamed a warm welcome as she planted herself beside him. “Tash managed to burn the burgers…”
“Hey!” a small girl with dyed dark red hair exclaimed indignantly, “Not really my fault.” There was the slightest hint of a slur in her voice and four empty beer bottles rolled on the grass near where she sat.
“So what are you chalking it up to?” Rob asked with a cheeky grin, sipping his own beer.
“Very hot coals and the distracting power of good conversation,” she said.
Sam laughed. “Nice,” she said.
Doyle leaned over and commandeered the conversation, booming, “Sam, it’s been bloody ages! How are you? How’d all the exams go?”
Sam took the top off her beer with the opener on her keyring, and drew deeply on the bottle. “Not too badly, I hope. Results don’t come out for a while though, so I won’t know til then… Nice to be finished now though.”
“What are you doing with yourself now that you have all this free time?” he asked, reaching for a beer of his own.
Going on dates with a random stranger from the UL… she thought. “Relaxing, I want to fit in more training, but somehow that doesn’t seem to be happening!”
“Oh yes,” he said, his eyebrows bucking upwards, impressed, “I forgot you’re a ninja in your spare time…” and he made the karate chop movements and ‘heeyaa’ sounds that little children do when you mention Jackie Chan.
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’ve got my red belt grading coming up, so I really should be practising as much as possible.”
“You been up to the new sports centre yet?” he asked.
“No, what’s it like?”
He snorted. “This university is eight hundred years old, and until last year didn’t have a sports centre. They had the chance to do something really new and exciting – so what have they done? They’ve just churned out another centre that looks like it was designed by someone with no imagination and no soul.”
“You don’t like it then,” she laughed.
He shook his head. “It’s fine, but it’s just so boring. Will you train up there for taekwondo?”
“Yeah, they had their first class there last night, but I was out…” having the time of my life. “I went to see the new Avengers movie.”
Someone suggested chucking a Frisbee around for a bit, and they all scattered and began launching themselves into the air after the little orange disc. Sam couldn’t help but get the impression that Doyle was showing off as he attempted ever more elaborate catches, throws and dives. Tash and Ellie were the only other girls there apart from Sam, and they both had long term boyfriends. Eventually they were all too hot and tired to play Frisbee any more, and they slouched back to their tree. Sam was careful to sit down next to Dan and well away from Doyle just in case.
The afternoon drew on, and the lazy heat, the food, and the barbecue smoke made them all a bit sleepy, and Sam reclined peacefully, leaning against Dan. He was the brother she had never had, and she smiled as she thought how he’d always been there, right through the toughest times and through the best times too.
Finally, when she began to think about heading home, she checked her phone. There was a message from Alex which had been waiting patiently for her for over two hours. “Don’t suppose you fancy a walk along the river?”
She sat bolt upright, which startled Dan so that he nearly spilled his beer all over them both. “What is it?” he spluttered.
“Nothing,” she said hastily, like Wordsworth's 'guilty thing surprised'.
A little too hastily. Dan’s interest was piqued, and he tried to look at the name on her screen, but she moved her ancient phone away from him with a protective and comic glare. “Who is it?” he asked, only half jokingly.
She paused, wanting this moment to herself, and not to share it with Dan. “Just... um that guy who I went for coffee with the other day.”
“The one in the wheelchair?” he asked, provoking a sting of irritation in Sam. “What about him? Is he bothering you?”
“What? No, Dan,” she said, positively flinging the words at him. “That’s not it at all.”
“Oh,” Dan said, rather flatly, absentmindedly running his hand around the lip of his bottle.
“He sent me a text a couple of hours ago asking if I wanted to go for a walk along the river.”
“A walk?” Dan seemed puzzled.
She rolled her eyes, “Oh come on, Dan,” she said, frustrated. “Use your imagination! Just because he uses a wheelchair, doesn’t mean he doesn’t go for walks. He also walks using crutches, by the way,” she added testily.
Dan backed off visibly, “Sorry, I had no idea... I...” he blustered.
She sighed, the irritation draining from her. “No, I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just that I really like him, and I want my friends to give him a chance, if... if this goes anywhere. That’s all.” Dan’s eyebrows floated skywards, probably in amazement. She said, “And he’ll think I’ve ignored him.”
Dan laughed and she frowned. “He’s a guy, Sam. He won’t think you’ve ignored him; he’ll think you’re busy. Guys don’t look for meaning in text messages the way you girls do…”
She grinned in agreement and turned her attention to her little phone. “Sorry I only just picked this up. I’ve been having a bbq on Queens’ Backs. If you’re still up for a walk, I’m free. If not, see you this weekend. xxx”
She hung around for another half an hour, hoping Alex would get back to her, but her phone remained stubbornly silent. Eventually, she turned to Dan and said, “I’m going to head back home now I think. I want to start packing up my room as I’ve only got tomorrow to do it.”
“I thought your dad was coming on Sunday?” Dan asked, looking perplexed.
“He is.” She could see him running the calculations and delighted in the fact that nothing seemed to be adding up. Eventually she released him from his confusion. “I’ve got a date on Saturday.”
“With wheel-” Dan’s thought processes had been dulled by much beer, and stopped himself, but not in time.
Sam turned on him, conscious of some of the others’ eyes on her too, boring into her back. “Were you seriously just about to say ‘wheelchair guy’?” she fumed, outraged. “God, Dan, I can’t believe you!”
She stood, leaving the carrier bags she’d brought with her for the others to throw away, taking only her phone and wallet.
“Sam wait, come on,” he said, clambering clumsily to his feet, the beer apparently replacing the blood in his head, and going after her.
She turned, her mouth set and her eyes flashing dangerously.
He knew that mood, and he’d have to tread carefully. “I’m just looking out for you. I don’t want to see you get hurt, that’s all,” he said gently. “I mean, how much do you know about this guy, really?”
“Not much,” she fired back. “That’s why I’m going on another date with him, to get to know him better.”
“No, Dan,” she said, brandishing her phone almost like a weapon in his face, “I’ve finally found someone I click with, I’ve finally found someone I think I can open up to, and you’re trying to take that away?”
His eyes widened and he looked really hurt. “No, Sam, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m sorry. I just want you to be careful. I’m sorry.” He took a defeated step backwards and dropped his gaze to the short grass beneath their feet.
Sam softened slightly and said, “Ok, but you have to see it from my point of view...” She raised an eyebrow as an extra hammer-blow to knock that nail into his head. “Anyway, I’m off now, but I’ll see you soon.”
“Sure,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
She smiled in forgiveness, and turned away, heading for King’s Parade and then on to her house. She’d spent so much energy defending her choice that she felt actually a little bit drained. If I do stay with him, will it always be like that? she wondered. Will I always have to defend my choice like that? And defending him? The thought troubled her like a wasp at a summer picnic all the way along Silver Street towards Corpus Christi College and its strange golden clock on the corner of King’s Parade.
Writing code and plotting graphs was not thrilling. He knew he had to concentrate, but how could he when Sam kept flashing before his eyes like the result of a witch’s spell? Forcing himself back to the lines of neat and complex code on the screen, he worked for another hour before breaking off and leaning back, rubbing his eyes, running his hands through his hair as if to shake out the mental dust. I wonder... he mused, reaching for his phone.
When he had received no reply from his text for an hour, he decided to hit the gym. It had been a while since he’d done any proper, targetted exercise.
Gripping the front vertical bar of his chair, leaning right forward, sliding his bulging, bare arm between his slender legs, he wrenched the weight cord down, feeling the pull right through his back and shoulder, down his arm. After a few reps he relaxed his burning muscles and moved on to the next bit of apparatus. Alex lined the chair up right in front of a tall bit of equipment, and shuffled his butt to the front of his chair. The horizontal bars which stuck out for tricep dips were just the right height for him to reach out and push and pull himself up into a standing position, held up only by the strength of his arms. With his legs stacked correctly but dangling limply and unsupported beneath him, he reached up with his left hand for the higher bars above his head. From there he was able to heave his body up and down in a series of fluid chin-ups, hips and legs swinging unresponsively beneath him. When the burning in his arms told him he had done enough, he lowered himself carefully to the tricep dip bars again, clinging rather keenly to the apparatus so that he didn’t slither to the floor in between the equipment and his chair, and he eased himself down into the seat. Both his legs began to bob as he landed, but he moved on to the next part of the gym floor without paying them much heed, and like a toddler having a tantrum, they stopped when ignored.
Finishing his session in the weights section, ignoring the grunting, red-faced, weight-lifting men eyeing him with cold derision as he wheeled over, he picked up a mid-weight dumbbell and placed it on his now quiet thighs while he wheeled to a nearby mat. Setting the dumbbell down first, he then pivoted out of his chair, transferring in a smooth swing to the floor. It had been ages since he’d worked the muscles of his torso, and he sat upright on the mat with his back collapsing in a fairly pitiful curve. He could sit upright in his chair with the support of the backrest, but on the ground with his legs stretching out in front of him, his trunk muscles really had their work cut out for them, and after a rather wobbly start, he began to move the dumbbell from side to side. He tipped over like a nursery toy a few times, but he picked himself up and started again until he managed it as cleanly as he ever could. Sweat coated his torso in a thin sheen, and he wiped his forehead with a towel when he was done. He slung the towel over the back of his chair, set himself up for a transfer, and heaved his arse back up into the chair, collecting the dumbbell as he straightened up. Alex puffed the air from his lungs, tired but happy, and decided to call it a day.
He crossed the gym but before he returned the dumbbell, he did a few bicep curls. As he finally set the weights down, feeling the good, post-workout kind of shaking in his muscles, a voice with a very familiar Aussie accent called out his name. It was a voice that didn’t belong in the gym though, and he couldn’t place it. He turned his head just as he was replacing the dumbbell back on the rack to see a short, stocky personal trainer coming across the gym floor towards him, an enormous white grin flashing on his face. “Alex! I thought that was you! How are you, mate?”
“James?” Alex exclaimed in sudden recognition as he straightened up. “I didn’t know you worked here!”
The newcomer laughed and held out his hand. Alex shook it, and James slapped him on the shoulder with the flat of his other hand. “Neither did I, mate, not til yesterday anyway,” he joked. “Only just started.”
“You’re not an OT anymore then?” Alex asked, leaning his elbows on his knees while James sat on a nearby bench to talk to him.
“Yeah, but only a couple of days a week. I still work at the rehab centre Mondays and Tuesdays. Felt like it was time to move on to different things, you know, big fish, little pond.” He flashed a white-toothed grin and added, “Hey, actually, now that I think of it, we had Rachel back come in and do a session the other week. She asked after you. I was surprised you two aren’t in touch anymore.”
Alex’s stomach lurched wildly at the mention of her name, and he thought the edges of his vision darkened a little in surprise. “I...” he faltered. “We... we just drifted out of contact, you know?”
James shrugged. “I’ve got her number if you want me to put you back in touch.”
Alex shook his head, and, with a smile to hide the sadness, said, “No, that’s ok. It’s been... it’s been a long time.”
“Fair enough,” James said, confusion pinching his eyebrows a little. “You look good though,” he said, “In real good shape...”
“... for a wheeler,” Alex finished with a half-smile.
James looked both stern and smiling at the same time. “That’s not how I meant it, and you know it,” he said.
Another personal trainer called James’ name and he excused himself to answer her. As he turned to go, James said, “Good to see you, mate. I’ll see you around, yeah? We should grab a beer sometime.”
Alex’s only response was a warm smile and a nod. His mind was spinning quietly.
Rachel, he thought, his smile saddening a little. Perhaps it was a shame they’d not kept in touch, especially after how close they’d been at rehab. Maybe I should have taken him up on his offer, he thought, wheeling away in a bit of a daze towards the lift that would bear him downstairs to the changing rooms. He thought of Sam, and how many hurdles they’d still have to jump, or barrel through in his case, if whatever they had at the moment was to go any further, and he was tempted by the knowledge that Rachel knew everything already. She’d met him at his worst, at his most painful, at his most angry, at his most hurt, and she’d not given up on him then.
The thoughts battled themselves in the hot steam of the shower while he sat on the hard shower bench, his chair waiting out of reach of the spray, and he stared at its black form. It looked somehow unexpectedly sinister to him all of a sudden, in the bright, white bathroom, and he resisted the urge to fling his flannel at it. All you’ll end up with is a wet arse afterwards, he thought sourly. He returned to soaping his slender legs, his large hands almost able to close around the circumference of the white flesh and muscle underneath. The hairs on his legs were soft and surprisingly pale considering how dark the rest of his hair was. He caught a patch of skin with sensation and inhaled suddenly, still finding it weird that when he touched his skin in one place, it felt like he was touching it in a different place. Brushing aside his bizarre, teleporting sensation, he turned the shower off, shook his head like a soaked dog, and dried himself off before transferring to his chair, lowering himself gingerly onto the folded towels on the seat and draped over the back.
Some time later, his car drew up outside the non-descript building only a few hundred yards from the house, and he growled slightly to himself as a traffic warden immediately scrutinised his disabled badge. Even when Alex pulled out the chair and began to assemble the various components from the driver’s seat, the traffic warden looked sceptical. Seriously? Alex thought sourly, screwing the wheel on. He leaned out, transferred deftly, though his arms still felt a little shaky after all the weights, and he grabbed his gym bag from the back, resting it on his lap as he locked the car.
Will wasn’t in when he got back, and there was a note in his chicken-scratch handwriting on the dining room table. Like his text messages, it was perfunctory at best. Gone to Waitrose to get groceries. Back about 6pm. Alex bunged his sweaty kit into the washing machine and made his way over to the sofa, transferring and tucking his legs up onto the cushion next to him, leaning his back on the high armrest so that he stretched out along the sofa’s length. The action of flicking the TV on with the remote made him think about checking his phone, and he saw Sam’s reply waiting for him. Typical, he smiled, replying, “I was at the gym when you texted back. Ah well, never mind - see you Saturday! Xxx”
There was an old episode of Family Guy on, so he let his body relax into the soft cushions of the sofa, feeling the soft weight of sleep beginning to press down on him, pushing both Sam and Rachel from his mind. The next thing he was aware of was the front door closing with a gentle snap. He opened his eyes to find that the light had changed, and Will was creeping in, rustling shopping bags and looking slightly sheepish. “Sorry to wake you,” he said.
Alex murmured wordlessly, looking down at his bent and flopping legs where they rested against the back cushions of the sofa, his bare feet looking particularly lifeless. He’d slumped down the sofa into a little heap at the bottom of the upright cushions, and he pushed himself up with a sleepy grunt. “What time is it?” he mumbled.
Will smiled at the sight of him and, “Normally you reserve the caveman routine for the morning. It’s twenty past six. How was the gym?”
He nodded. “Good. I met James. He works there a few days a week now.”
“Oh really?” Will said, putting the groceries away.
“Yeah, I guess he’s branching out from cripples now.”
Will made a face, and didn’t dignify Alex’s comment with a response.
“He said Rachel came back to take one of the sessions...” Alex said quietly after a few moments.
“Rachel?” Will straightened up, surprised. “How is she? Did he say?”
“No, but he offered to put me back in touch.”
“What did you say?”
Alex ran a hand through his short hair. “I said no. It’s been so long now... I don’t know...”
“You and she seemed pretty serious at one point,” Will said, sounding more like he was remembering things out loud than talking to Alex.
He sighed. “We were close; I wouldn’t say we were particularly serious,” he said, lifting his legs gently from the sofa with his hands and placing his feet squarely on the floor before transferring to the chair. “Anyway, I’m not really interested in rekindling that old flame. Too many associations I think,” he added once he’d settled his weight evenly in the seat.
“Fair enough,” Will said, eerily echoing James’s reaction, which made Alex question his decision a second time. Will had changed the subject though, and was asking him what he fancied for supper.
Alex grinned and said, “Honestly, a beer and a pizza. I think I earned it after my workout.”
Will seemed incapable of gaining weight, no matter what he ate, so the two of them tucked into beer, pizza and a re-run on the BBC of the film Challenger, about the failed NASA mission and the genius physicist Richard Feynman.
There was an old photograph album in one of the shallow, wheeled storage-boxes under his bed. After washing up, Alex pulled it out in the quiet of his room, rolling it on its wheels, and opened it. Drawing the album out of the box as though he were a member of a bomb-disposal squad, he placed it on the duvet and gingerly opened it up.
The first item on the very first page was a newspaper cutting, the fuzzy black and white image showing a crumpled car and the folded nose of an HGV lorry. It wasn’t the first time Alex had taken this book out and leafed through it since the accident, but every time he did, he felt the same dragging sense of guilt as he read the caption below. “The wreckage of the car which collided with the lorry at the quiet roundabout just after midnight, killing one passenger and severely injuring the driver”. His fingers scrabbled for the edge of the page and turned it. He knew the sequence of photos in the album well, and flicked past the ones of him lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, cocooned in his coma, until he found some from rehab. Usually, he found himself turning through the pages in the album when he needed reminding of how much worse things could have been, and how much worse he had once been; the reason for all this apparent morbidity was in fact his way of staying depression free. In the first year or so after the accident, he had suffered seriously from depression, but with taking a prescribed ‘blue five minutes’, as he called it, he was able to regulate his feelings, face his fears, and then close the book and move on. It was a practice with its origins in Ancient Greek theatre, where the genre of 'tragedy' cathartically removed all of the negative feelings within the controlled environment of the theatre, leaving the audience free to get on with their lives outside without being troubled by them afterwards.
Now he hardly recognised the shrunken, wraithlike form in the chunky, grey wheelchair, with great dark circles beneath his eyes and hollow-looking cheeks. The bright blonde girl next to him, however, he did recognise. In one photograph, she was standing beside him, her tall, willowy frame and height accentuated by the maxi dress. He thought how very different she looked from his deflated, seated figure, and her blonde hair was falling around her shoulders, brushing against the nape of her neck like Botticelli’s Venus. She was laughing, while he was only just managing a weak, lopsided smile, the scar burning an angry red gash across his face, bandages and dressings only recently having come off. One of her hands rested on Alex’s shoulder, the other was firmly gripped around the handle of a walking cane. He had marvelled then at how elegantly she had moved, and he’d envied her for it at first, but he’d grown to love her for it. Aside from the cane, there was no indication that she was an amputee.
Alex sighed and closed the photo album. A rather twee phrase his mother had sometimes used came back to him and he smiled. Yes, mum, he thought, what’s past should stay preterite. Anyway, he had someone else to think about filling his immediate future now; there should be no need to turn to the past or its ghosts.