"Sam," her name tumbled from him instinctively as they sat on that bench, with one of her tiny hands grasping both his crutches while the other held him with equal tenderness and fervour. When their moment had passed, she handed him his sticks in a natural movement, and stood gracefully. He marvelled at the way her limbs moved as she rose and waited for him to hoist his creaking limbs to verticality. Very rarely did he feel quite as awkward and quite as disabled as he did in that moment. Sam was as sinewy as the curtains of willows behind them, as strong and light as the skimming boats of the rowers, and she knocked the breath from him every time she swayed those hips or moved her beautiful neck in the sunlight, hair brushing against the delicate, swanlike curve. Could she see his creeping embarrassment, or sense the sudden welling of pain in his chest? He couldn't be sure. Whatever expression had flitted over her face, like a reflection in the river, it had gone, and he tried his best to keep his feelings from her after all she had just shared with him.
"Let's get back then," he said, setting his crutch tips down and swinging his dead legs forward, encased in the braces which supposedly gave him freedom.
A mental black cloud gathered steadily over him, though the sky above was the clear deep blue of a cut sapphire. He tried to conjure a breeze to blow the familiar blackness away, but it refused to budge. He chided himself for being so self-pitying; think about what Sam has just told you. Stop thinking about yourself. But his palms throbbed and his shoulders burned as they neared town, snaking along the river towards the buildings which nestled on the outer rings of the city.
By the time they reached the centre of town, he could hardly bring himself to speak he was feeling so tired. Sam slowed her pace as he did, but she didn't reach out to touch him as she had done in the past. Isolated and sore, he swung his legs over the uneven paving slabs of King's Parade. Tourists parted for him, making him feel like he was some kind of rotting corpse who was not to be touched; he knew that was just the black cloud talking though, altering his thoughts like a prism. One of the milling figures however, a tall, thick-set rowing type, didn't get out of Alex's way in time, and just clipped his left shoulder. It was enough to set him staggering sideways off balance. Sam's hand flew out to steady him from where she stood on his right, inadvertently adding to his frustration. He shot a crutch tip out and steadied himself, and her fingers loosened, but she did not release her hold on him completely. He pressed his eyelids shut for a brief moment, and breathed, "I'm sorry," down at her.
As his eyes retreated from their moment of sheltered darkness, Alex realised that the man who had barrelled into him had stopped, and had spoken Sam's name incredulously. His voice was deep, booming, and he had the incisive twist of a Northern Irish accent. "Sam? Hey! I didn't know you were still up in Cambridge."
She looked mildly uncomfortable for a few seconds, and he wondered if it was his imagination or whether her fingers did really dig into his forearm in a reactive twitch. "Hi Doyle, I'm here til graduation," she said, her voice even, calm and somehow laced with a kind of forced patience. She nodded her head at Alex, and said, "This is Alex."
"Hey, man, good to meet you," he said, holding out his solid, rower's hand that was almost as calloused as Alex's.
Alex shuffled his crutches, and he’d almost forgotten that Sam had been holding him with those strong, lithe little hands of hers, and as she let go to allow him to shake hands with this behemoth of a man, it felt as though he'd been leaning on a wall that had unexpectedly crumbled away. It was the same sense of unexpected space opening up when an underground train draws out from the station to leave the gaping tracks behind. Setting the left crutch tip down a little wider, letting it carry his weight and buttress him up, Alex shook his hand and said, "You too."
Doyle's eye took inventory of the scar down his face, and the posh, permanent-looking crutches, and something flashed in his eyes - confusion? He turned back to Sam, to the safety of the familiar. He asked her, "When's graduation then?"
"What are you doing after that?" he asked, his questions short. “We should have drinks sometime.”
The nerve of this guy, Alex thought, Is he really asking her out right in front of me? Or is it really so inconceivable that I could actually be her boyfriend that the thought doesn’t even occur to him? He sighed.
Sam shuffled her feet. "I'm planning on going straight home that day. I've got an internship starting in London at the beginning of July, and it’s been a while since I’ve spent time with my family." The former was news to Alex, but he kept it from his face, not wanting for some reason to give Doyle the satisfaction of being a comrade in surprise. “Anyway,” Sam was saying politely, “We’d better get going, but I’ll probably see you around at some point. Maybe when I’m in London?” she gave Alex’s arm another squeeze. Pleading?
“Yeah, sure, see you,” he said, giving Alex another odd look before continuing down the street away from them.
Alex looked down at Sam, whose face was surprisingly hard and grim. “So that was Doyle, huh?” he actually felt a bit better for seeing her squirm.
She made an indistinct noise and walked away from him.
“Sam,” he called to her as she moved off. “Wait for me.”
She turned and looked over her shoulder, the strangest expression on her face. It was at once soft and yet also unfathomably hard.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he drew level with her, shuffling his feet over the pavement, right foot dragging helplessly. At least the left was responding a little better, but he was dog-tired from crutching so far so frequently over the last few days. “I didn't know I'd touched a nerve."
Her face continued to soften and she smiled slightly. "You didn't really," she said. They were nearly at the door to the apartment. "I like Doyle, I do, but he just... after what I've just told you, he's not the kind of guy I want to stop and chat with. Something about him makes me think a bit of... of..." she trailed off, seeming to want to say his name, but apparently as reluctant to do so as Alex was to say his mother's name. Then it came out in a rush, like a stutterer breaking through a block, and Alex finally had a name to put to the monster who'd hurt his girl. "Laurence."
She suddenly looked frail and small as a tiny child. He put a hand on her shoulder as they got to the door of the apartment. Her emotions – raw and suddenly near the surface again – shook him out of his wallowing bubble of self-directed impatience. "Come on," he said gently. "Come up and have a drink before you go back to Dan’s?" He didn't want to leave her in his doorway like this.
"I really do need to make sure I've got everything ready for tomorrow," she said, dancing her weight slowly, pendulously, between soles of her feet.
"You didn't tell me you were heading home tomorrow," he said, trying only a little to keep the hurt from his voice.
As though she was worried there was going to be a scene, she nodded her head at the door, saying wordlessly, 'Ok, I'll come up', and he slid the key into the lock and gave it a push. He went carefully in, closely followed by Sam, his little Ariel - her name was 'Fey' after all - and like a fairy, her tread was silent behind him.
He was pleased to note that now she didn’t even seem to notice that he used the stairlift to get to the flat, and she continued as though theirs were a normal conversation, taking place between two normal people, going upstairs, normally. Alex blessed her silently for that. She even ignored the spasm that shivered down his right leg as he landed. Her reply to his comment about home put him at ease a little too. "I told him I was going home immediately afterwards so he wouldn't ask me to the Boat Club's annual piss-up on the river, which is also tomorrow, and which usually makes the national papers, or at least The Daily Mail anyway. I went once and it was awful - I've never seen so many drunk people in my life, and the stuff they get up to is frankly embarrassing. I've turned him down every year since, and I just don't want to make any more excuses. Easier if he thinks I can't go."
"So when are you going home?" Alex pressed as they reached the top of the stairs. His heart ached at the thought of not seeing her, not having her around to hold and force the rising darkness back just with her presence. Not that she was going to know any of that. At the top he levered himself back to his feet, a little unsteadily as his right leg pulsed again, and waited for her answer as he freed his hand from the cuffs to slide the keys into the lock.
Her voice was small and muted and she looked at the ground with her eyes dark and sullen. "Day after tomorrow."
Alex's hand reached out to the doorframe. That felt like far too soon. His hips felt like jelly and he wasn't sure he could even swing his legs forward.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner," she muttered. "I didn't want to say it out loud."
"And then you'll be in London?" he asked, finding his body able to move forward again, the momentary panic passing as swiftly as it had come.
"Mmhmm," she confirmed sadly, following him inside. "But not too far on the train at weekends..."
"Is this the internship that you were telling me about the other day? The one at the V&A?" he asked as he chucked the keys into the wooden bowl by the door. He made a beeline for the sofa, being extra careful of that Persian rug this time. His chair sat waiting beside it, like some kind of skeletal, futuristic hound waiting for the return of its Odysseus, but he opted for the soft arms of the sofa instead. He collapsed in slow motion, and as he made contact with the cushions, his right leg decided it was going to make itself stick out painfully in front of him and shake softly so that his foot dangled awkwardly at the end. "Oh for fuck's sake," he hissed digging his fingers into his leg as his hip flexor shot into a brief cramp as well. Within moments however, the leg relaxed to a mere bouncing shudder, the knee bent and the foot back on the floor. The muscles still pulsed rapidly, and he could still feel the stinging blush in his cheeks and the adrenaline which clenched at his lungs like fists around a paper bag. This was not what he wanted her to see when she looked at him. He wanted to be strong and protective, whole and open, especially now that he knew the truth of what happened to her.
Sam's eyes were not on his leg though. They were on his face, and her eyes were glistering with unshed tears. "Yeah," she croaked. "It's the three month one. I turned the one month, unpaid internship at The National Gallery down in favour of this one because there's a small salary and accommodation is provided. That was before I'd met you though, otherwise..."
"Don't say that," he said, holding a hand up to stop that thought in its tracks. "You mustn't ever pass up an opportunity to build your career in favour of being with me. I'll be here no matter what you decide to do." His words prized open the crack in the dam at her eyes, and two fat tears rolled slowly down her cheeks. "Come here," he said, aching to hold her. He would have risen if he could have done, but it would have taken too long to reach her, and he didn't want to make a spectacle of himself just then.
Silently she crossed the room to him, and climbed right onto his lap, her weight blissfully crushing the dying spasms in his thigh down into the cushions. Surprisingly , she seemed to like it too, as she did a very slow and very slight figure of eight with her hips, almost as though she were trying to get comfortable, but the fire burning behind the tears in her eyes gave her away. Sam leaned forwards, looping her arms around his neck and burying her face in his shoulder. "I don't want to leave," she whispered.
"You can always come and visit," he said. "Like I said, I'll be right here."
"It's just so soon – I’m having so much fun, and I've barely got to know you."
"You've done better than most," he confessed, cradling her head in his hand as she pressed her cheek into his body. "Trust me. And we've got time for that. I'll wait for you if you wait for me?" he smiled, hoping she'd pick up on his ulterior and much less metaphorical meaning. He received a mute nuzzle in reply and chuckled. "What time are you graduating tomorrow. Do you want me to come?” She was silent, and he added, “Obviously I can't come to the main ceremony because I don't have a ticket, but I could come and meet you afterwards if you'd like?" An further thought suddenly occurred to him and he asked, rather more sharply than he'd meant to, "You have told your parents about me, haven't you?"
She swallowed, and she did not look up. "They know I'm seeing someone, but I didn't want to tell them too much. Mum would only worry."
"What, that you're dating a cripple?"
Her head shot off his shoulder and her face was fierce as she glared at him. "No! That I'm dating at all. You remember how well her last endorsement ended? I'd be surprised if she ever let me near a man again without insisting on a full background check and personality screening!"
She tightened her hold on his neck, and her bare thighs squeezed his hips like a piece of metal in a workshop clamp. It was not the first time that day that he was glad his reactions were somewhat slower.
Sam was quieter as she added, "I’m sorry. I know you're not like him. I know you won't do that to me, but she doesn't."
"So you'd rather I didn't come tomorrow?" he asked gently, trying hard now to keep the ringing disappointment from his tone.
She lowered her eyes so that her gaze rested unseeingly between them, somewhere above Alex's belly button. "Do you mind very much?" But before he could give her his answer, she said in a great rush, her eyes flitting back to his face, "Actually no, wait, let me phone them tonight and talk to them a bit. I'll see. Can I let you know? Or would that be too last minute?"
He had to laugh; she looked so worried about hurting his feelings. "Not at all, that's fine. I'm easy about it either way," he said. "I just seem to remember it's nice to have an extra pair of hands on busy days like graduation. Don't feel like you have to tell your parents about me if you don't feel ready, or whatever. But I will say that it's usually easier if people know I'm in a chair before they meet me. It makes it less awkward for everyone concerned."
Sam's smile was a little watery, but definitely genuine, as she said, "I'm sorry. If my parents weren't coming, I'd say yes in a heartbeat. They're just... protective... of their little girl, that's all." She sighed. "I don't want there to be an atmosphere tomorrow." And then she was slithering off him, leaving a salty kiss on his left cheek, and standing up, smoothing down her black sleeveless top, her small breasts looking perfect from his low angle on the sofa. "I'd better get going," she said.
A great tiredness then settled on Alex, starting from his shoulders and drifting down his body until his legs felt so heavy and useless that he didn't think he could possibly move them.
Clearly seeing the change in him, Sam leaned in again, pressed her lips against his own which could barely respond, and when they broke apart, she said, "Don't get up. I'll call you later after I've talked to my parents?"
He nodded. "Sure."
"And I'll probably text you on the way home too," she grinned cheekily as she slid her sandals on.
He watched her swirl from the room like a dancer playing a spirit in the ballet 'Giselle'. She paused at the door, blew him a kiss, and then closed it behind her. As ever, the flat felt horribly still in the first few moments after she'd gone, like the whole place was holding its breath, unwilling to let it out.
The weight of tiredness continued to press on him until he slithered seamlessly into a light and uneasy sleep, full of strange dreams. Deep laughter bellowed out around him as he sat in his chair in a field by the river. It was murky twilight, and the willows burned red against the ash-coloured grass. The voice seemed to come from everywhere around him, and then a high, piercing scream tore through the air. Sam. He heard her begging, pleading with somebody, but he couldn't see her and he quickly found that the grass was too long and matted for him to push his chair forward. He knew who it was though: it was Laurence. It had to be. As his biceps, back and shoulders burned, he heard another scream and a crash. Then his chair was pitched suddenly forward and he found the ground rushing up to meet him until he was swallowed up by a great gaping void. He woke from the nightmare with a start, sweating and panting, Sam's name on his lips and a ringing in his ears.
The light in the flat had shifted a bit, but it wasn't much later than when he had dozed off. He ached all over still - apparently that part of the dream was real - and he knew he needed to get himself into his chair to cath and take his afternoon meds.
Reluctantly he shuffled forwards to the front of the sofa, reaching a hand for the cushion of his chair. The front was firm which let him transfer easily, while the back was made of blissfully comfortable gel padding. It took him a couple of goes to get his backside in the right place, but once he had set himself up, he swung himself off the sofa. However, his arms buckled unexpectedly and his lower body folded awkwardly just in front of the footplate, his lower back bashing into the chair. "Oh bollocks," he swore with a resigned sigh. He didn't really have the strength or the will to push himself back onto the sofa, which was nearer, and then begin the whole process all over again, so he let his grasp slither down the chair to the vertical bar which connected to the tiny footplate. He hoped he wouldn't have to faff around trying taking his braces off now as well - he could do a floor-to-chair transfer in them when he had about four football pitches worth of room, but now, squished between the table and his chair, they might not let him do it. Taking a deep breath he decided to give it a go and he rocked his arms a little before heaving his arse skywards with a grunt. He let the breath go in relief as he landed in the chair without crashing down on either of the side-guards. Both knees were bobbing a little and he rested his forearms on them, letting his head droop forward with a short, almost sobbing exhalation.
Suddenly he felt that he knew he was right - Sam's parents would never think him a suitable boyfriend for their daughter, not like this. What could he - a half blind, scarred cripple - realistically offer her, other than a relationship marred by constant spasms, complications, risk of infections, regimented routine...? He caught sight of a magazine on the coffee table beside him and he suddenly took a vicious swipe at it, letting a short angry roar bellow from his lips as leaves of the magazine fluttered like a frightened dove across the room. "I hate this," he snarled to himself through gritted teeth as his head fell forwards into his hands. Not once in his six years post-injury had he been so conflicted, so torn, between being pleased to have found someone and yet so hateful of his condition.
The message tone of his Android pierced his murky thoughts and he forced himself to look at it. It was Sam. His heart fluttered unexpectedly as his eyes darted over the words. Her very heart and soul seemed to be in that short message and they wrapped their arms around him, drawing a smile from his lips and a very different kind of tear from his well-walled eye than the ones that had threatened to fall only a few seconds before. Her message had dispelled his desire to cover himself up in his armour again, or maybe to cover her in his armour to shield her from his broken body. He almost didn't care now. Almost.
"Bless you, Sam," he whispered. "Bless you."