Spaces in Between
Sam's first weekend in Cambridge with Alex had gone past in a flash, the result of which was that the following week in London seemed all the more dreary. A real low feeling had pounced on her when she had walked back through the door to her empty, bland room, and had dumped her bag on the floor by her bed on Sunday night, and it bred in the darker corners of her mind on Monday, coming to full fruition on Tuesday, when she'd got a text at work from Doyle asking her to lunch. She hadn't really been able to think of a decent excuse, and had ended up having lunch with him the next day.
"Don't get me wrong," she told Bella on Thursday while they sat at in a corner of The Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street. "I like this guy, and I think he's essentially nice, and lunch was fine - we chatted the whole time – but… it just feels a bit weird meeting up with him on my own when I'm going out with Alex."
"You had fun then. So I’m guessing it feels like you're cheating?" she asked piercingly, sipping her fizzing gin and tonic.
Her stomach lurched at the word. "No, well yes, it does I suppose. I know I'm not, but I can't help getting that nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I'm doing something wrong."
"Maybe it's because you know he'd leap at the chance to get with you..." Bella said, her pretty blue eyes flashing earnestly. "I mean, you did say he asked you out like a million times already. Maybe..." she tailed off, letting the rest of her sentence fall silent and tumble into the bubbles in her glass as she raised it to her lips.
"Maybe what?" Sam quizzed, her own pint of dark ale reminding her of that trip to The Eagle with Alex - does everything make me think of him? she thought suddenly with a little smile. If this is what being in love is like, it's exhausting.
Bella set her glass down and said, "It might be best if you just cut off your ties with Doyle. Trust me, Sammy, you can't be 'just friends' with a guy that's thinking about what you'd look like naked every five seconds..."
"Bella!" Sam nearly shrieked it at top volume, but managed to cap it at a solid six.
"You know I'm right," she said coolly with an arching eyebrow as she sipped her G&T again. She seemed to soften when she saw Sam's indecision. "Look," she added. "You know both guys - I don't - but I'm just saying that if it feels wrong, then it probably isn't right. If not from a moral point of view, then just from a practical one..."
"Yeah," she agreed glumly. "It just feels a bit harsh. It's not his fault, but I'm still going to ditch him as a friend, you know?"
"Of course it's his fault! Anyway, send him my way - I'll give him something to distract him..."
"Spoken like a true minx," Sam laughed.
Her friend shrugged, her floaty, gossamer blouse wafting gently with the movement, "It's certainly not your fault that he can't handle the fact that you've made your choice, and that it's not him..."
Sam had suspected the same thing a while ago. What would he say if he knew that the guy she'd chosen happened to be in a wheelchair, and how much of a hit that would be to his varsity-grade ego? Somehow the thought made a grin twist up out of her stomach and onto her face. However it wasn't until the events which occurred at the end of her working day on Friday that she knew for certain she would probably have to take her friend's advice and stop meeting up with him altogether before things got out of hand. He had texted her, asking, ‘You still at work, D x’ and she’d replied with something simple and noncommittal like, ‘Just about to leave.’
Leaving the museum to head back to her temporary lodgings, she put her phone in her bag, wished her boss, Linda, a good weekend, which was doubtful as she was going through a bitterly contested divorce, and headed out along her daily exit route through the main sculpture gallery. She paused for a quiet moment to gaze appreciatively at the piece she'd chosen as her 'statue of the week' - an exquisitely pure marble carving of Eve which stood with serene grace on a high plinth - and then headed towards the main exit, passing under the strange glass sculpture which hung in the main hall like a wrack of luridly coloured, drying seaweed. Sam was not a fan of that.
To her great surprise, and mild irritation, she found Doyle actually waiting outside on the steps, wearing a suit that wouldn't have looked out of place on an Armani model. He had spent most of their lunch the other day telling her about the work he was doing at his father's law firm now that his masters was over, and as she eyed the expensive cut, she thought, must pay pretty damned well.
"Hey there," he called with a friendly but decidedly macho wave as she came down the steps towards him, her grey cotton dress swishing around her knees. "I just finished work and thought I'd try and catch you; see if you wanted a celebratory 'end-of-week' drink." His tone was so open and jovial that it was hard to be annoyed with him for ambushing her.
He was so tall that ordinarily she had to crane her neck up uncomfortably to look at him, so she hung back a step or two above him to give herself a bit of height against his six foot eight frame. "Oh Doyle, I can't," she said. "I've got to get going because I'm heading to Cambridge tonight, and I haven't packed yet."
"How come you're going back to Cambridge?" he asked, leading her down the steps by walking away slowly. "What's a little city like that got that the bright lights of London hasn't?"
"It doesn't have the bright lights, for one," she said with pointed coolness, "And secondly it's got my boyfriend."
Doyle turned his mousy-haired head and looked down at her with hazel eyes. "How come he isn't coming up to see you this time - surely it's only fair?"
She thought about how inaccessible The Underground would be by wheelchair, and how much extra faff getting on and off trains would involve, and she replied, "Because I'd rather get out of the city and go and see him, I guess."
"Fair enough," he said, his dark Northern Irish accent swallowing and melting the words so that his response sounded like 'fernuff'.
Remembering something else, she added, "I've also got my red belt grading this weekend," and a mushroom cloud of adrenaline billowed up in her chest at the thought.
He suddenly looked a little wary, enough to make her think he didn't like the idea of a dangerous woman, and said, "Red belt eh? That's pretty cool... Good luck." Still walking at a relaxed pace, he asked, "Was that your man I met when we ran into each other on King's Parade that time?" he asked, stopping and turning abruptly so that she nearly walked straight into the sheer cliff of his suit-jacketed torso and added an illustrated action sequence to his last sentence.
Luckily her reflexes kicked in and she stopped before she folded into his chest. "Yeah, that was him." She smiled at the memory of that day, of being so close to Alex as they lay in the grass together as they'd told each other a bit more about themselves.
"Right," Doyle said, with a kind of polite incomprehension in his eyes.
She could practically see the next thought going across his mind. The one on the crutches… what happened?
"How long have you two been together?" he asked instead.
"Just over a month now, I suppose," she said, running the days and weeks in her head.
"How's it going?"
She felt her brows twitch in an annoyed frown. Resisting the urge to tell him to bugger off because it was none of his business, she smiled sweetly and let all the happiness, which bubbled up whenever she thought of Alex, show in her face, and said, "It's great."
"Really?" he asked, not incredulously, but with enough of an edge to be annoying, "I'm glad," he added, almost patronisingly, a heartbeat later.
"Anyway, I'd better get going," she said. "Lots to do before I get my train."
"It was nice seeing you," he said, moving in to give her a friendly hug. "Maybe we can get a drink sometime next week."
Engaging in the briefest and most chaste hug she could muster, she smiled, but said nothing in response to that, before turning and offering a quick, "Bye," as she left.
When she had dodged the odd mixture of taxis, busses and really expensive cars bombing along Cromwell Road, and had gained the safety of the other side, Sam muttered, "Bella was right," to herself. "This feels weird."
It took Alex four attempts to call Rachel. On the first two tries he had just put the phone down on the kitchen counter before even dialling, and had gone off and done something else instead; on the third go he had punched in the number and then hung up before calling; but the final time, he forced himself not to be a child, pressed 'call', and waited to hear her voice on the other end. As she answered, he noticed that the hand that held the scrap of paper with her number on was shaking.
"Hello? Rachel Whitacre," came her confident, honey-sweet voice.
"Hi, Rachel. It's Alex," he said, feeling oddly like an awkward teenage boy again, and both his knees were bobbing.
She was silent for a dreadful heartbeat, and then there was the rumble of breath over the microphone as she breathed out, and she said, "I'm so glad you called. When I told James what an ass I'd made of myself, he said he'd give you my number, but I wasn't sure you'd phone after my 'performance' at the gym. I'm so sorry about that."
"Don't worry about it," he said, trying to sound relaxed.
She snorted. "That's very magnanimous of you, given that I basically pounced on you there. I was... well... I..." she faltered and he felt sorry for her.
"Yeah, I was a bit overwhelmed too," he ventured.
Rachel gave a soft laugh, which he returned when he heard her say, "You still read me so well." After another pause she said, "Listen, do you want to meet somewhere and catch up a bit? I don't want to push in or anything; I just thought it'd be nice to have a chat in person, and hear what you've been up to since we last saw each other. It must be, what, four years or so now?"
His throat felt a little dry as he said, "Something like that. Yeah, sure, ok. Let's meet for lunch next week some time. I'm not free this weekend."
"Great," she said, and she sounded like she really meant it, which made him a bit nervous, and that surprised him. "How about The Belfry? Are you free at, say, one o'clock on Tuesday?"
"Yes, that sounds good," he croaked. "Looking forward to it," he said, knowing suddenly that he really meant it, which made him more nervous. "See you then."
"I'm so glad you called," she said again before she hung up, and Alex wasn't sure if the buzzing was in his head or on the phone as he scribbled the details down on the scrap of paper, and put it back on the counter just as Will came in.
"I couldn't help hearing that that was Rachel," he said apologetically. "I was just about to make myself some tea when I heard who you were calling. I didn't want to intrude. I didn't eavesdrop on the rest though."
Alex laughed and shook the tension from his shoulders before resting his palms on his jumping quads. "Stop being a girl. It's ok, I don't mind. We're going to meet for lunch next week and just catch up. I think it'll be nice to see her again."
"That's a bit of a U-Turn," Will said, nonchalantly ignoring Alex's digging remark about his inner teenage girl, filling the kettle and setting it to boil.
"If truth be told," Alex continued, "It'll be nice to reconnect. It's not that I can't be myself with Sam - I can - it's more that I'm... I'm trying at the moment only to show her my best side... if you know what I mean. And that's tiring, and if I'm honest, the whole thing is all a bit scary." He looked up at his brother who looked unusually grave. "What?" he asked, suddenly worried.
"Nothing," Will reassured him.
Alex frowned. "What was that look for?"
"No look," he said. "I was just thinking."
"Don't strain yourself," Alex joked darkly. "That looked like hard work..."
Will smirked. "You try deciphering Professor Wilson's latest paper and working out how its conclusion affects your whole PhD and then talk to me about hard work..." he grinned.
"Yuck, no thanks," Alex said, relocating his hands to his push rims and popping a wheelie. "I'll stick to my source inversions, thank you very much."
"When's Sam getting here? You picking her up again?" he asked as the kettle boiled and he poured his tea.
He glanced at the Swiss clock and smiled. "She'll be here about seven, and she said she'd get the bus this time." His lopsided grin widened as he recalled her text about sparing him the 'hoards of crazies' this week.
"And dinner?" Will asked.
Alex's eyes darted instinctively to the fridge and he said, "I thought I'd do that shitake mushroom risotto mum used to do. It's easy and fairly quick. You want to join us this time?"
"Love to. If you’ve got room for a stray, that is?" Will joked.
"Of course," Alex said.
He ran his hands over the bumps of his KAFO straps, and Will picked up on the gesture. "How have they been?" he asked, knowing Alex had had some mid-week problems with cramps.
"Quiet since yesterday," he said, pushing his right hand into his right knee to stop it bobbing. "Bit spasmy today, but yeah, mostly quiet." In a rare moment of cooperation, his leg decided to fall silent at that moment, and stopped twitching.
"Good," Will smiled, excusing himself shortly afterwards to return to his complex paper, leaving Alex in the kitchen with his thoughts of Rachel and Sam, the two girls who had meant most to him, ignoring Olivia who had left him after his injury. No, because of it.
Sam's train was delayed by an hour, and when she finally reached the apartment, she looked so stressed and tired, but still so beautiful.
"Come in," he said as she reached the top of the stairs. She looked unusually smart, and he guessed that the grey dress she was wearing was a work outfit. Good job I don't work with you, he thought with a secret smile, I’d never be able to concentrate with you in that... It pinched inwards a little at the waist, giving her already curving body that extra outline that just made him want to reach out and run his hands around her form and never stop. He probably would have done if he hadn't needed to keep his hands on his crutches.
Her rucksack fell to the floor from her hand with a soft 'flump' as she stepped inside the door and she turned on the spot to face him. She sighed a tired but ultimately happy smile, and then stepped in for a hug, weaving her arms under his and snaking around his torso in a firm but gentle embrace. Risking his weight on her still felt a bit daunting, but he wanted to hold her even more than he wanted to keep his pride, so he raised his crutches and drew her close to his chest with his arms. "We're almost matching," he chuckled.
"Huh?" she asked, pulling back rather more suddenly than he'd expected.
As he steadied himself with a crutch tip, he glanced down at the grey sweater which fitted snugly over his torso in a way that made him rather proud of his shoulders and chest, and then he looked at her dress.
"Oh," she said, her hand moving to the hem of the skirt. "I guess we are." She smiled. "I was hoping just to climb into some leggings and slouch off into a corner, but since you're looking so devastatingly handsome, I might have to continue making an effort..."
That caught him off guard. He blustered for a moment and then said, "You wear what you like. I'd rather have you be comfortable, and you'd look beautiful in anything."
She barked a laugh as she picked up her bag again and headed towards his room, saying, "Ha, I'll bear that in mind. - I'll be ok just wearing a black bin bag next time we go out then..."
He followed her across the room, feet not dragging too badly he noted, and repeated earnestly, "You wear what you like."
When she turned, the expression on her face was difficult to read. Then she smiled, brushing it all aside and saying, "I didn't have time to shower and change before I left - ok to use your bathroom?"
He knew she was really asking if anything he might be shy about was stashed away. Way ahead of you, Sammy, he thought, having tidied up in there with the focus and intent of a criminal erasing evidence from a crime scene. "Yeah, go ahead," he said casually. "Shall I make a start on dinner? It'll probably be ready in about forty minutes or so... Does that give you long enough?"
Sam's little giggle was surprisingly girly and she said delightedly, "I think that ought to be long enough to re-humanise me."
You're always my little fairy though, he thought as he nodded silently and turned his attention to preparing the food.
It was as he was adding another ladle of stock to the rice that he felt her return. He couldn't see her because she'd appeared on his right hand side, but he just knew she was there. "Hello," he said quietly, and as she got closer, he smelled something flowery and inviting. He turned, couldn't see far enough, turned a bit more, and looked down to see her long hair dripping around her shoulders, over a dark blue t-shirt with 'Cambridge University Taekwondo' on. "All ready for tomorrow I see," he said, nodding at the white script over her chest.
"Every little helps, I guess," she said, nibbling her lower lip in a way that betrayed her anxiety.
"You'll do fine," he said. As Sam ran her hands around the contours of his lower back, he closed his eyes and exhaled in sudden and unexpected pleasure. Because she was so much shorter than him, her hands naturally came to rest only a little way above the line of his break, just above his hips. When he was standing, the waistband of his jeans masked where his belly went a bit soft towards the bottom of his torso. He wasn't particularly self-conscious about what lay above it but as her hands snuck under the fabric of his t-shirt, he hoped all the same that she wouldn't go too far south. He used his right hand to grip the counter for balance and leaned further forward, coming to rest against it, which had both protective and practical benefits. If the front of his pelvis was on the counter, she couldn't put her hands too far down, and it left his right hand free to reach around and bring her from behind him to nestle up beside him. She was still in his blind patch, but at least he could reciprocate her affection by hooking his arm around her shoulders. "You just relax tonight, and you'll be fine tomorrow."
She breathed out what he took to be a contented sigh, and then asked, "I should be fine, but, um... could I practise some of the self defence on you?"
That made him nervous. "Er, ok..." he said, twisting to look down at her. "You know I'm not very stable though..." He indicated the braces with a pointed nod.
She laughed kindly at that and said, "Don't worry, I won't take your head off! It's just some of the locks and releases." She held one wrist out and grabbed it with her opposite hand to show him what she meant. "We could probably do it both sitting down."
"You had me worried for a second there, Sam," he smiled.
"I won’t hurt you," she said, and he knew she meant more than being careful with a taekwondo technique.
In that time of the night between early and late, Sam woke in the dark on her left side with Alex's body wrapped around hers like a protective shell, his heavy arm draped over her waist, and he was breathing softly and slowly. She couldn't see him, but she knew his lips must be slightly parted because there was a gentle whistle to the sound. It only took her a couple of seconds to work out what had woken her; his bare right leg was spasming hard against hers. Her immediate instinct was to pull away, to give it space to do its strange dance, but she resisted and stayed where she was, feeling it jump rapidly against the back of her leg. Was this normal or was there something wrong? She was surprised by the strength of it, given that he could barely lift it himself, and she couldn't help thinking how unfair it was that there was movement in his leg, but that it was beyond his control. Suddenly the left leg joined in with a single, more violent jerk which twisted his torso too, and he woke with a small, wordless cry, his right hand dashing from where it had lain over her down to his hip as he let out the grunt.
He hissed a curse and she felt him move and shuffle beside her. She didn't know what the time was. He sat up slowly, carefully, and with a little difficulty, and she was torn between pretending to be asleep to give him some privacy and letting him know she was awake so he didn't have to make so much effort not to disturb her. Settling for honesty, she rolled quietly onto her back and he saw that she was awake. She also got a look at the clock and saw from its bright diodes that it was 5:13am.
"I'm sorry," he said, as the duvet twitched and moved in the semi-dark as if it were alive. He seemed to be having a hard time staying upright as he added apologetically, "I didn't mean to wake you."
"It's ok," she muttered sleepily. "You alright?"
He looked embarrassed and resigned at the same time, and said, "I'll have to go and sort this out in a minute if it doesn’t stop," he said in a rasping whisper, nodding sharply at his legs which were shaking violently. "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologise," she mumbled with a smile. "I'll still be here when you get back..."
These spasms in his legs were more forceful than any she'd yet seen. Despite some initial difficulty, he managed to lean over and kiss her once on the side of her head, almost proudly. Then he tugged himself upright with a grunt and leaned his back against the headboard while his legs leapt and shivered. She saw him bring his palms to his quads and begin to knead the muscles through the weave of his loose pyjama shorts, first gently and then savagely. After a while they relaxed just enough for him to lean forward and reach for the seat of his wheelchair.
She didn't watch as he transferred to his chair, but rolled back over and felt sleep tugging at her again. It took him quite a long time to make it from bed to chair but after a couple of tries, and a number of unpleasant but whispered words, he extracted his shaking legs from the duvet, rolled towards the bathroom.
Sam didn't know how long he was in there, because the next time she woke it was after eight o'clock. As she rolled over, she discovered that Alex was lying on his back, one arm tossed back casually over his head, his fingers curled gently inwards over the callouses on his palm, as if to shelter them. He was so gorgeous, she remarked as she let her eyes drink in the sharp, sculpted lines of his peaceful face, his smooth skin, his strong dark brows and thick wavy hair. She slipped her hand into his palm where it rested above his head on the pillow, sliding in beneath his fingers so that his whole hand encased hers like it had been made to hold hers.
His regular breathing pattern broke and he inhaled deeply as he woke. He didn't open his eyes, but when he found her hand in his, he squeezed it gently, grinding the sandpapery callouses against her skin for a moment. She continued to roll over so that she was lying on her right side, and her head nestled in the nook of his shoulder.
"Mmmm," he moaned sleepily.
His legs were now still, innocent and quiet she noted, and she wondered how much muscle relaxant it'd taken to shut them up. Enough to floor a small rhino probably.
"I didn't disturb you too much earlier did I?" he asked, his voice all gravelly with sleep, his eyes still closed.
"Not at all," she said. "I have no idea how long you were gone - I went back to sleep almost immediately."
He huffed a single, breathy laugh and said, "I was gone a good thirty minutes, maybe longer." He seemed to be debating with himself about something until he said, "You know, that... um... that wasn't entirely unusual for me..."
"Waking in the night and having to sort my legs out. Like I said before, I spasm quite a lot despite the Baclofen, and sometimes I have to go and take something and stretch out. I'm still pretty tight, but at least they've stopped."
"Can I do anything to help?" she asked, wondering if a massage would ease the tension in his muscles. He inhaled, tensing up a bit as he worked out what she was thinking, but she didn't shy away from him. If they were going to be together, he'd have to start learning to open up to her a bit about his disability .
"No, there's nothing you can do," he murmured. "Thanks." After a pause where he seemed to be deliberating with himself, he added with a smile, his eyes flashing open, "Well, maybe there is one thing."
"What?" she asked, still a bit bleary.
He sat up suddenly and she slithered off him with a surprised little squeak onto her back with the movement. He rolled his chest over towards her with his right hand landing beside her shoulder and bracing his weight so that he was hovering right over her in a kind of half-collapsed press-up, bare legs tumbling over onto hers in the wake of his movement. Before she had time to do anything other than smile, he had kissed her, planting his lips down over hers and pressing her gently into the gesture. "You can let me kiss you," he said as he pulled back a fraction. His right leg had fallen down between hers and it lay along her shin, surprisingly cool against her skin.
She laughed and reached her arms up, pulling him right down close so that he was on top of her and returned her lips to his before saying with a grin, "Mmm, that's no trouble."
Alex seemed to like the feeling of being on top of her, though she noted that he was careful to rest his weight on his elbows so he didn't flatten her entirely.
"If I go and get up now -" he said and she interrupted him before he could complete his question.
"- I will be very unhappy," she smiled.
"Oh," he laughed. "Well I was going to say, if I go and get up now, would you like some breakfast?"
"Five more minutes?" she asked, tugging him back down so that he flopped right down on to her chest and crushed the air from her lungs with his weight.
He rolled politely off her and said, a cheeky smile playing around his lips, "I guess I can manage that..."
"I know, it's tough: food or girlfriend..."
"That's no choice," he said, kissing her affectionately on the forehead. "No choice at all."
To be continued...