“Yes,” she squeaked nervously, palms sweating as she
straightened and got to her feet a little shakily. She cleared her throat and
repeated in a more composed tone, “Yes, yes that’s me.”
“This way please.”
The woman led the way down a corridor with a nasty coloured
carpet towards the hotel’s conference room. Sam was certain her heartbeat
clanged off the walls like an old dinner gong, but she muffled it with a raspy
inhale. Inside the room, sitting on a dark wooden table was a laptop, with a
Skype session open. The hotel receptionist smiled, said, “I’ll leave you here,”
and backed quietly from the room closing the door behind her.
Sam recognised her boss from the V&A sitting at the long
table in the middle of the room, wearing a lilac blouse and with her hair wound
tightly up and clipped on the back of her head. Linda looked around from her
chair as the door opened and said, “Ahh, Sam. Come in. Don’t be nervous. The
link’s all set up, and Dr. Giles will be here to start the interview any
moment. This is his secretary, Anya.” She gestured at the laptop, and Sam saw a
blonde woman in a white blouse on the other end.
“Don’t worry,” Anya said. “Try not to think of it as an
interview; it’s more of a meeting, just a conversation really.” Her Canadian
accent was strange to Sam’s ears, and her kindly words did nothing to assuage
Forcing a smile, and making herself relax, she smoothed down
her skirt – not a garment she was particularly at ease in anyway – and sat in
the chair Linda had drawn out for her. And then in a matter of minutes the
Dr. Giles was a man in his mid-fifties, with grey, thinning
hair, dagger-sharp blue eyes set like jewels into his learned face, and the air
of a paternal figure who was not to be trifled with.
“So your background is in Anglo-Saxon archaeology,” he
began, and Sam couldn’t tell if he was being derisive or intrigued. Settling
for the latter, she launched into a little pre-prepared ‘nugget’ about her
undergraduate education. She prayed she’d cloaked the paragraph in enough
layers of pretend spontaneity to fool him, and it seemed to work, as he made in
impressed kind of face and returned academic fire with another question.
By the end of the session, Sam had managed to get in some
references to the reading and research she’d done, and as with all interviews,
there was inevitably plenty that she would regret later not bringing up, but
overall she’d felt it went pretty well. When Dr. Giles had finally said, “Well,
I suppose we’d better finish there, hadn’t we?” she smiled, blew out a load of
tension she’d not realised she was carrying in her shoulders, and replied that
he was probably right. He laughed, and said, “Don’t look so worried, Sam. I’ve
very much enjoyed our chat, and I hope we get to have more in the future.”
“I’d love that…” she said, trying to keep an excessive
amount of keenness restrained behind a wall of politeness; she knew exactly
what he was implying with that silently arched academic’s eyebrow.
He chuckled again and said, “Officially, you’ll hear from us
in writing within a fortnight,” he smiled. “But I’d say you can afford to be… quietly
confident…” he waved a hand, “But that’s all I’m going to say now.”
“Thank you very much for your time,” she said, astonished
and desperately wanting to shriek and yell and throw her hands in the air.
Demurely she managed to end the call when Anya reappeared, as Dr. Giles seemed
incapable of working the strange, new-fangled technology. Finally, she stepped
outside the conference room and breathed a sigh of relief, leaning up against
the walls of the corridor. The room spun. She had passed the most difficult
stage of the steps to Canada, and he had seemed to like her. Would she be
flying across the Atlantic for a eight months of Canadian cold in September? Pushing
those racing thoughts to one side for a moment, she set off to find Linda in
the hotel lobby.
“How’d it go? Dr. Giles is nice, isn’t he?” she said as she
stood up, leaving a half-drunk cappuccino on the coffee table beside her brown
fake suede sofa.
Shaking, Sam nodded mutely. She suddenly hoped that the damp
patches beneath her arms weren’t visible in the dark top which she’d
deliberately picked for just such interview-related-sweat-patch concealment. ‘Quietly
confident’ – did that mean she had a place? Or just that he was confident
she would get one after some further reviewing? What did it mean? Stop it.
“Are you ok?” Linda took a maternal step towards her, a
strand or two of her grey hair unravelling from its twisted clip; the effect
made her look rather dishevelled and tired, and Sam remembered about her
“Just a bit drained,” she grinned. “It was kind of intense…”
“I’m glad you had a lot to talk about,” she said kindly,
making her way back inside the conference room to shut down the laptop. “Are
you going to go home and relax now? I’m sure you earned a rest.”
“Certainly feels like it...” she said with a smile, fingers
fiddling with the fraying end of her thick plait.
Linda turned and looked at her with a gentle expression on
her face, makeup caking the creases around her lips and making her look older
than she really was. “I’m sure you did,” she smiled. “I’ll see you at work on
Monday.” With all the panic about the interview, Sam had almost forgotten that
it was Friday, and that she and Alex were driving down to see her parents that
As she raced back across London to get to her rooms and
collect the bag she’d packed that morning, Sam tried not to replay the
interview in her mind over and over, but she couldn’t shake Dr. Giles’ kind,
bookish face from her inner slide projector. Fortunately, by the time she
reached South Ken tube station, she had invented all sorts of new panics about
the coming weekend with her parents and Alex, which put a stop to all her
post-interview dissection. They had been ok with him at graduation, but how
would they be with him under their roof? How would he manage? Her house had
wide doorways, but her bedroom was upstairs, and despite his assurances that he
would be quite happy to haul his ass all the way up Mount Everest if it meant
spending the night with her, she couldn’t help but be nervous. She prayed her
mother wouldn’t embarrass any of them. Paul seemed to have accepted that Alex
used a chair and had moved on, but her mum was the real wild card, and Sam
wouldn’t put it past Helen to put her foot in her mouth. Please, God, let it all go ok, she prayed as she swiped her Oyster
Card against the electronic reader.
Turning on her phone on as she came up from the Underground,
blinking like a mole emerging from a tunnel, she saw two messages from Alex.
His behaviour had felt a little off somehow after his phone calls and drunken
message, and it had stressed her out so much that she’d asked Dan for his take
on it, but he’d told her to stop worrying about it. Alex was very much a guy,
and was probably embarrassed at showing that much emotion in such a short space
of calls and messages. Even so, she was, even days later, almost nervous about
opening the new messages up. “Stop it,” she snarled to herself.
The first wished her well in the interview, and was
time-stamped before the Skype session, and the second was keen to know how it
went. She replied that it had gone ok, and that she was getting on the first
train down to Cambridge, adding that she couldn’t wait to see him.
As the train pulled in, she slid her ticket out of her
pocket and hoisted her small rucksack onto her shoulder. Stepping off the
train, she scurried towards the exits, and there he was, sitting in his chair
for a change, in the ticket hall, his dark eyes scanning the faces of the
travellers, searching for hers. It struck her as a relief to see him using the
chair, which surprised her, and she only had a few seconds before she would
draw level with him to figure out why. He was sitting there without his armour
on. There was no mechanised façade of bravery or extra effort; it was just
Alex, the man she was in love with.
“Alex,” she smiled, grinning and rushing forward. It felt so
good to throw her arms around him, and she didn’t even care that people were
staring. Why should they stare? she thought, knowing that no one would
bat an eyelid at a ‘normal’ couple reuniting at the station. She was too
full of joy to let anything sting her through her happiness though.
“I missed you,” he breathed, holding her tightly, his strong
arms around her while she bent down to hug him. “You ok? You must be tired.”
“Nothing a glass of wine and a cuddle on the sofa when we
eventually get home won’t cure,” she grinned, releasing him and turning to walk
towards the sliding doors. “Speaking of home, how you feeling about this
“Can I answer that on Monday?” he asked, pushing the rims of
his chair forward sharply, and she sensed he was only half joking.
She slugged him playfully on the top of the arm with a loose
fist, and said, “It’ll be fine. Come on.”
That became her mantra as they plugged down the M25 towards
the coast that evening, and she repeated it over and over while Alex's BMW
cruised smoothly down the motorways for three hours. Sometimes they talked,
sometimes Alex growled curses at the stupidity of some of the drivers sharing
the road, and sometimes Sam just sat quietly while the countryside sped past. Occasionally
though, she would allow her eyes to draw the contours of his profile, his dark
eyes concentrating on the road, his face set, stern, chiselled, like a
Eventually they reached the leafy, suburban street which led
to her parents’ house. Alex drew up outside and she couldn’t help noticing
tension pooling at the edge of his strong, dark eyebrows. “You good?” she
He took a moment to compose himself, and then said, “Yeah.”
He shuffled his weight like he did in the chair. “Yeah. I guess your parents
just freak me out almost as much as I freak them out…” He grinned to show her
he was joking. Half joking, at least.
While he fished for his crutches from the boot of the car, she
stepped out and headed around the body of the black BMW, trying not to watch
too closely as Alex levered himself out of the car on his sticks, locked the
doors, and began to swing up the path beside her. To her surprise, he seemed to
want to leave his chair in the car. She wanted to say something to him, but it
was his call, so she let it lie.
Her mother opened the door with a slightly demonic ‘Martha
Stewart’ kind of grin on her face. The effect was not helped by the fact that a
pink and white striped apron – a garment reserved for the rare occasion when
she played hostess – was wrapped around her torso, making her look like some
kind of possessed French fancy cake. “Hi honey,” she grinned. “Come on in. And
you too, Alex,” she added. “Will you be ok with these steps? Do you need a
hand? I can get Paul if you need help.”
“No, I’ll be fine, thank you, Mrs. Fey,” he said evenly as
Sam followed him up the shallow steps.
Once inside, Alex was the perfect houseguest: he helped cook
dinner with her mum, leaning his weight against their high kitchen counters as
he chopped and diced the chicken; he made her father laugh with all sorts of
stories about his Cornish grandfather while they ate at the dining room table;
and good-naturedly watched the awful film that her parents had decided they
could all watch after dinner. As the old TV cast dancing light around the room,
Sam tucked herself up under Alex’s strong arm, holding his other hand in hers
and absentmindedly stroking his fingers.
In the brief silence after the movie was over, while her
father nipped out to the kitchen, Alex asked, “Sam, will you please tell
me how the interview went? I’m dying to know, and you didn’t bring it up at
“I told you in my text,” she began.
“Yes, but I think we’d all like to know a bit more than just
a ‘yeah it didn’t go too badly’…”
“Absolutely, sweetie,” her mother chimed in from her
armchair across the room. “We didn’t ask before because you didn’t mention it
at all, and we didn’t want to upset you if it gone badly. We would like
to know what you thought of him, and how it all went.”
She smiled, lying back against Alex’s solid chest, his knees
quiet, his crutches on the floor, tucked along the line of the sofa at their
feet. “I’m sorry. Yes, it went ok, um… yeah…” She found herself reluctant to
tell them about Dr. Giles’ parting comment about quiet confidence, and because
of that, the rest of the interview faded into vagueness like a landscape into
“Sam…” he growled affectionately. “This is important.”
“Ha,” she laughed, “I know, I’m just trying to remember. It
was all a bit of a blur…” She liked the way his gentle baritone had rumbled in
his chest against her back. “Um… He asked me a load of questions about my
research as an undergrad, about my dissertation, about the old excavations at
Yeavering, about the recent excavations at Hamwic in Southampton, to what
degree the archaeological record reflects the literature and how that affects
the way we read the texts...” she paused as she realised he was chuckling
“I give in,” he laughed, catching her mother’s eye with a
conspiratorial glance. “We surrender. You win. I won’t ask you any more
questions about it, just stop with the nerding…”
“What? I’m too geeky for you now?” she looked up at his
face, sitting on his left and knowing he had a clear view of her mischievous,
“You’ve always been adorkable,” he grinned, squeezing her
affectionately with a bicep.
“Coming from you, I’ll take that as a compliment,” she
countered, and the smile that broke on his lips lit up the room in a way that
no number of lamps would have done.
Her father came back in from the kitchen, carrying a glass
of whisky, and said, “Was that the interview you were talking about? When do
you expect to hear then?” he asked, remaining on his feet just to the right of
Sam sucked her bottom lip, and decided to go with the
official version. “They’ll write to me in a couple of weeks.”
“Will that be to here?” her mother asked.
“Yes,” she smiled. “They’re not going to write to me in
London,” she said. “The university halls are too temporary.”
“Well, fingers crossed, eh?” Paul turned to Alex and raised
his glass, asking, “You want a whisky?”
Alex seemed to blanch a little, and said, “Ordinarily I’d
accept in a heartbeat, but I think I ought to let my stomach recover after
travelling down and then having all that delicious food.” He smiled and said,
“Which one is that?”
“Fair enough,” Paul said understandingly. “It’s from Skye.
It’s called Talisker Storm. Helen bought it for me for my birthday; she knows I
prefer the Island whiskies over the others.”
“Even over the Highland ones?” Alex asked.
Sam yawned. The stress of the interview and all the
travelling had worn her out, and she felt the weight of sleep settling around her
shoulders. While the men began to discuss the ins and outs of peaty, smoky
whiskies and their places of origin, she extracted herself from Alex’s arms,
kissed her mother goodnight, blew one to her father, and turned back to Alex.
“I’m wiped out, so I’m going to head up and have a shower. My room is the first
on the right at the top of the stairs.”
He smiled and said, “I probably won’t be much far behind
For the first time in her life, she counted those stairs.
Fifteen. And they were steep too. Worst
comes to the worst, he uses those biceps and pushes himself up backwards on his
arse, she thought, her stomach twisting with guilt. He was making so much
effort for her, and what could she do for him in return? Seemingly nothing.
Her stomach continued to churn while she showered, and as
she entered her room, hanging her dressing gown behind the door, she realised
that she’d forgotten to bring any pyjamas home. She rummaged through the chest
of drawers beneath the window and discovered a pair of light blue, ancient
pyjama bottoms with teddy bears on. It was probably warm enough to sleep naked,
but she wasn’t quite ready for that yet.
With a sigh, she slid them on, feeling like she was about
eight years old again, and then stuffed her head into a plain white t-shirt and
wondered how long Alex would be. After half an hour or so, when she’d brushed
her teeth and made herself as presentable as she could be whilst wearing
pyjamas she’d not worn for over ten years, and without any makeup, she heard
Alex’s slow crutching steps on the staircase. She lay in the dark and counted the steps. His rhythm was steady, but
it slowed as he reached the top, like a train running out of momentum, and she
hoped her steep staircase wasn’t giving him too much grief.
He pushed her door open and slowly swung over the threshold,
halting in the darkness. He was breathing hard. “Sam?” he asked, almost
nervously, as he entered in the wake of the wide-swinging door. “You in here?”
his voice raspy and uncertain.
With only a tiny, dim light in the hallway behind, and with
him being blind in one eye, he clearly couldn’t tell if she was there, or if
this was even the right room. She moved, rustling the duvet as she turned on
the bedside lamp, and said, “I’m here. Sleepy, but here. You finished
discussing the finer points of distilling whisky with my dad?”
He grunted and shuffled forwards towards the bed. “The man
certainly knows his whisky,” he chuckled. He parked himself on the bed,
sloughing off the black rucksack he’d brought with him and dumping it at his
feet, moving a hand to his braces to free them at the knee. His right leg
shivered for a moment and then fell quiet. “You must be exhausted,” he murmured
fondly, looking over at her where she lay all tucked up in the sheets and
freeing his arm and hand from his right crutch. He extended his hand over the
surface of the duvet and stroked her hair back from her face with a tenderness
that still surprised her, even now.
“Mmhmm,” she smiled sleepily. “All that’s missing is you.”
“I’ll be a while, but I’ll be as quick as I can.”
“As long as you end up here, I don’t care how long you
take,” she smiled, feeling the call of sleep before she’d even finished her
Sam heard him say something in reply, heard the rustle of
his rucksack and then she drifted seamlessly into sleep. The next thing she
knew, he was sliding under the duvet beneath her, and she had absolutely no
idea how long he’d been. He curled his body around her, manhandling his legs
into place, clamping them down as they clenched into a reactionary spasm, and
then, when they’d quietened, he rested his lips on the back of her neck, leaving
several lingering, tender kisses there.
“Hi,” she murmured softly, rolling over and wrapping an arm
over him and snuggling into his enormous, perfect chest, which made him flop
over onto his back.
“You know,” he said, shuffling a little so that his legs
weren’t tangled with each other and his pelvis could lie flat on the bed, “Canada
is a long way away, and if you did get it, I need you to know that I’d be here
for you when you got back, no matter how long you were away.” In the darkness,
she heard him sigh, like an audible smile. “I’m so proud of you for going for
Her heartbeat lurched and leapt delightedly at his words,
despite her drowsiness. With her arm draped over his torso, she began to trace
a serpentine line down his taught chest, over his slate grey t-shirt, towards
his legs. He caught her hand just before she reached his injury line, trapping
it like a stray spider.
“I know you’ll wait,” she said quietly. “But thank you for
saying it though.”
In the black air of the room, she felt him smile again, felt the way it changed his breath, and
held him all the tighter for it.
His response was a simple kiss on her forehead.
“I love you, Alex,” she said, the words tumbling from her
lips before she had had time to vet them. Shit,
is it too soon for that?
His breath stalled in his lungs, and then, very, very
quietly, he leaned forward to her ear and said, with his lips brushing the soft
curves of her ear, “I love you.”
With those words drifting around her mind in a constant loop
adding to her quiet backdrop of happiness, she fell asleep laid her head down
on his shoulder, feeling the solid bone and muscle of the joint, as though it
were her safe mooring point in a storm.
Sam woke with the dawn at half five the next morning, the
palest light just creeping in around her thin, old curtains, and she found Alex
sleeping soundly. Apparently, though she had rolled off him at some point, he
hadn’t moved at all, and his breathing was soft and even as he lay on his back,
his hair spilling out on the pillow around his ears. His eyes though were
roving wildly beneath the surfaces as though he were dreaming wild dreams. She
rolled over and lay for a moment with her eyes open, watching his peaceful
face, before she closed them again and thought about snatching another few
hours of sleep.
Suddenly, maybe ten minutes or so later, he started to moan,
and then his head twitched, making his shoulder lurch, and she leapt out of her
doze with a start. He mumbled something, and she looked up to see his handsome
face racked with pain and horror. Alex was locked in a nightmare.
In his dream, the lorry was still bombing along the wet
road, the same as it had every time this dream had played out like an old video
tape in his mind. This time, however, someone had switched his old VHS for a
new DVD, with a new scene, a new character, a new horror.
Where his mother had been sitting, Sam now sat, laughing,
wearing her blue cotton dress with the flowers, shaking her hair down her back.
Alex slammed on the brakes with his right foot as the lights of the lorry
leered and loomed, tyres screeching and howling like all the souls in hell.
With a bright, sickening crunch, the car was folded in on
itself, and Sam just disappeared into the white lamps of the incoming vehicle.
Alex's body met the of the door to his right and the car encased him in
crumpled metal. The next thing he knew was blackness, and the harsh beep of a
hospital monitor. But it was not for him. It's even rhythm did not match his
He turned his head, blinking in the bright hospital ward,
and recognised it as the ICU at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. And there, there
surrounded by monitors, hissing machines and blinking lights, was his Sam.
"Oh God, Sam, not you. Not you. Not you," he
whimpered, racing across the room for her bed. He wasn't even surprised that he
was running in his dream. He clutched her hand, carefully avoiding the various
tubes and monitors that surrounded and encased her like briars around a
fairytale princess. He saw the brace tight around her neck, the puffy purple
bruises and cuts around her face, the tubes feeding oxygen, medicine
and god knows what else in and out of her broken battered body. Suddenly
all the strength in his spine evaporated in a rush, and he slumped forward onto
her bed, crashing down painfully on his knees. There was a whiteboard above her
bed but he couldn’t decode the medical script. He knew what had happened to her
though. Her spine was snapped. "I can't... not you... not this... not this..."
He felt a hand on his shoulder.
It was a white-coated doctor with a stern face and deep
shadows under his eyes. "Who are you?" he asked coolly. "You're
not allowed here. You have to go."
"I can't leave her, I won't, not like this," he
"There's nothing you can do for her. Best you move on
and forget you ever knew her."
"No! I won't leave her," he shouted.
The doctor put his hand on his shoulder again, and began
shaking him. Alex thought he heard Sam speak, but when he looked at her, she
was still the same. "Alex," came her voice. "Alex, wake
His eyes flew open with a wordless shout and he sat up
suddenly to find Sam with her hand on his shoulder, kneeling up in the bed
beside him with the soft bedside light on. "Sam," he panted
breathlessly, embarrassed to find he was almost in tears. Sweat had stuck his
t-shirt to his body and his legs were going wild beneath the covers. It was an
effort to keep himself upright, and he let her buttress him up for a
moment or two with her strong arms. "You... you were... Oh
God..." he found his breath leaving his lungs in desperate little gasps.
"Shh," she said, moving her free hand to the side
of his head, right by his ear, stroking his hair back, and added, "Shh,
just a dream. I'm here."
Forgetting the disgusting state of his shirt, he reached for
her with one arm and clutched her to him.
"I'm here," she repeated, holding him in an
answering embrace, kissing his damp shirt, his tense neck, and stroking his sweaty
Fear clenched again around his heart as images from the
nightmare flashed back in rapid frame. "You... the accident... the
car... you were... oh God, you were in the hospital... in that bed, with...
with the machines and the -"
"Stop it," she said raising her head from his
chest, clearly seeing the beginnings of some kind of panic attack. "Stop
it. It didn't happen that way. I'm here, look at me." And she pushed him
back away from her and made his eyes meet hers. "See? I'm alright."
His eyes rolled slightly upwards as he felt his spine begin
to give way, just as it had in the dream, so before he crumpled backwards into
the pillows he shot out an arm and lowered himself rapidly down again. His
landing still sent shivering spasms along his legs again.
"I'll get you some water," she said, making to
slide off the bed.
"No," he whimpered, his hand searching over the
covers for her body. "Don't go. Please..."
She smiled. "Alright." And she nuzzled up against
him, disregarding the sweat-soaked shirt. "I'll stay."
He let her hold him until his panic had subsided into
mingled misery and shame. "I'm sorry," he said, feeling almost
tearful again. "I'm so sorry."
Sam looked up at his face, and he found himself glad that
she was looking at his left cheek, and not his right. At least, with the duvet
over his still-twitching legs, and his scar hidden from view, there was the
illusion of normality.
"You don't have to be sorry," she said quietly.
"You don't have to tell me the details, but I know what you’ve been through.
Alex said nothing, only holding her hand in his with a
resounding yet unspoken ‘thank you’.
"You know," she added with a grin, "If you're
dreaming about me like that, it means you really do love me. I should be
He managed a smile. "Silver linings," he muttered,
the air hissing through his teeth as he breathed in and out in long, shallow,
"Of course I care about you. And I'm sorry I woke
you," he added. "I hope... I hope I wasn't too..." he paused,
"I hope I didn't embarrass myself too much..."
To his surprise, she whickered a low chuckle, and said,
"You did shout my name a couple of times."
He regretted that she'd left the light on; he knew she
would see the rising blush in his cheeks. He nodded down at his legs,
"And them?" he whispered.
She ran her foot gently up and down his left leg, which made
the fluttering spasms intensify briefly as her touch moved over it. "Yeah,
they were shouting too," she said.
His heart sank, but he said nothing, smiling sadly at her
sense of humour. "Try and get back to sleep," he said after a while.
He still had his hand clamped around hers, and she twitched
her fingers, saying, "Permission to go and get some water?"
"You don't need to," he said. She was not his nurse.
"I'm not allowed to get myself a glass of water after
being so rudely awakened in the small hours of the morning?" she asked,
her eyes wide with apparent offence.
He released her immediately. "Of course, I'm sorry. I
thought you were just going for me."
"Heaven forbid I should think of you too while I’m gone..."
she grinned, slithering out and disappearing into the darkness of the hall
Alex had clearly decided not to bring his chair in from the
car at all, a move that Sam had found equally brave and stupid, and so at seven
o’clock, he shut his alarm off, shuffled to the edge of the bed and began to
put his braces on around his legs that were still and innocent now, as though
nothing had happened. She rolled onto her side so that she could watch him move
through the crack between her two sets of long lashes. There was something
really nice about seeing someone else’s morning routine intertwine with her
Within forty minutes, he was back. She smiled and sat up as
he crutched slowly through the door.
“You’re awake,” he murmured with his gravelly morning voice.
“Hope I didn’t wake you... again…”
“Not sure if it was you or the light,” she smiled, sitting
up and resting on her elbows. She gestured at the bed beside her, “You coming
back in, or am I getting up to join you?”
He looked taken aback, his crutching rhythm stalling. “Er,
I… hadn’t thought.”
“I’ll get up,” she smiled. “It’ll stop me snoozing the day
away anyway.” She pushed herself up onto her hands and crawled to the end of
the bed and knelt there, saying, “Come here though. I want to kiss you good
He grinned and crutched over. She noticed how badly his feet
were dragging on the carpet of her bedroom floor as he moved, but said nothing.
Instead, she rose up, her quads feeling the delicious stretch as she pushed her
body upwards, and she grabbed him behind his head and pulled him very gently
into her kiss. He lost his balance and had to grab her shoulder to keep himself
from toppling over. He rested his entire bodyweight on her.
He pulled his head back an inch or two. “You like having me
like that, don’t you?” he grinned, kissing her again, squeezing the muscles of
When they broke their kiss, she grinned in answer, and said,
“I was thinking of going to the beach today. You up for a stroll along the
“Is it smooth enough for my chair?” he said, straightening
up and resting his weight on his hands. "I don't think I can crutch too
far today. Sorry," he added bashfully, his fingers fidgeting on the black
“Definitely,” she smiled, sliding off the bed. “It’s all
smooth tarmac, so you’d be fine tall or short.”
His smile again warmed her like the dawning summer’s day
When she was dressed as well, she went with him while he
made his way cautiously down the stairs, Sam a step of two in front of him in
case he needed something to steady himself on, and, without stopping, Alex
crutched out along the path towards the car, leaving Sam to tell her parents
where they were headed. She found them in the kitchen, apparently in the middle
of a discussion that bordered on heated. She hung back in the doorway, ear
straining to catch every word, every intonation.
“Are you sure though?” her mother hissed. “I mean… what kind
of relationship can they really have?
What kind of future?”
“I wouldn’t presume to guess,” her father replied.
“Paul, the boy is clearly very nice, but what is this going
to mean long-term? Is he really suitable? I want her to have the very best,
especially after all she’s been through, and I don’t want her settling for
someone who… well… someone who is clearly very damaged.”
Sam stepped into the kitchen with a face of thunder.
“Would you feel that way about me if I’d been in a car
accident? If I needed to use a wheelchair and someone fell in love with me?
Mum? Dad?” she snarled, trying to keep her voice down.
“No, sweetie, of course not,” her mother said, a violent
blush creeping over her cheeks. “It’s just that you haven’t had a boyfriend in
years, not since…” she gulped, blinked, looked awkward, and said, “Well, since
“Laurence,” she said flatly. “You can say his name, mum. I’m
not going to fall to pieces any more. I’m tougher than I was then, and besides,
I have Alex now.”
Her father looked at her seriously. “We’re only concerned
because you’ve not had anyone in your life for four years, and the first person
that you’ve felt… any different about, is, well… he’s in a wheelchair…”
“So?” she fired back. “What’s your problem with the
wheelchair? I don’t even see it anymore.”
“He’s disabled, Samantha. He’s going to need you to care for
him, and that’s not something I’m comfortable with. You need to be free to live
your own life, and not be a carer for someone else at the age of twenty two!”
Sam gasped in absolute shock. “What? You think I’m caring for
him on the weekends like some kind of nurse? I’m his girlfriend,
not his carer! He doesn’t even need a carer!” She took an
angry step towards the door, hand raised in a gesture of defiance.
“Sweetie,” her mother began, but Sam cut her off.
“No, don’t sweetie me, please…” she said,
rounding on her like a snapping dog.
“Samantha,” her father said sternly. “We just want the best
for you, and we want to make sure that the choices you make are the right ones
It finally twigged. “You think I chose him because he’s disabled, don’t you?”
They exchanged a lightening-quick glance but said nothing.
“Oh my god, you do! I didn’t even know he was in any
way disabled the first time I met him. He was just this cute,
handsome, nerdy physicist sitting opposite me in the UL tea room with a NASA t-shirt
on and a look in his eyes that was so unlike anything I’d ever seen in
Laurence’s eyes. I liked him so much that by the time I saw the crutches and
even the chair I realised that they were just things, you know,
like…” she paused, eyes darting round the room as she thought of an example,
“Like your glasses, dad – things that are a part of us, but aren’t everything!”
She hadn’t realised how loudly she’d been talking until her
father’s calm reply sounded almost like a whisper by comparison. “You really
like this boy, don’t you?”
She really hoped Alex was sitting in the car, oblivious to
all of this nonsense. “Yes,” she fired, lowering her voice and her eyes.
Her mother sighed. “Let me tell you something then,” she
said, gathering her daughter’s gaze into her own by dipping her head. “He
really likes you too.”
Sam’s head jerked up. “What makes you say that?”
She laughed. “From the way he looks at you,” she said. “It’s
like the way your father looked at me when we were first together.”
Sam’s eyes were wide and quiet.
Her father smiled, kissing his wife affectionately on the
forehead before turning back to Sam. “I can’t deny that I have my doubts about
you and this boy,” he said, holding up his hand as she started to interrupt
him. “There are things you won’t be able to do together that are important to
you, like hiking and running,” he said pointedly, “And I don’t want to see you
sacrifice the things you love for the sake of some boy. However, I
haven’t seen you this happy in years, and I know that this boy is the reason. I
have him to thank for bringing my daughter back.”
“Alex,” Sam said with a smile. “His name is Alex.” She
sighed. “Well, I’m glad we’ve cleared the air on that front,” she said
patiently, trying to bring her blood pressure down again. “We’re off for a walk
along the seafront. I’m not sure when we’ll be back, but we need to leave for
Cambridge about twelve so we miss all the traffic on the motorway.” She turned
on her heel and left the kitchen, her ears ringing with her mother’s worries
and her father’s well-intentioned concern.
She paused in the downstairs bathroom for a moment and stood
in front of the mirror. Her heart was pounding in her chest. She’d had to
defend her choice, and not for the first time, and she was absolutely drained. She
had fallen so quickly and so hard for Alex, and she hoped that when the first
excited flush of a new relationship had simmered down, that she would still
feel as confident about being with someone as she did now. She sighed and
stepped out into the sunshine, leaving the front door and her parents’
judgement behind her.
“Everything ok?” Alex asked as she slid into the passenger
“Yeah, let’s go,” she said with a smile.
He clearly didn’t believe her, but she was grateful that he
didn’t pry. Only fifteen minutes away from her house, he drew up in a disabled
bay right on the seafront. He asked Sam to bring him the parts of his chair and
she waited while he assembled it. The air was fresh, clear and full of the heat
of early summer. The roar of the sea filled her ears and made her heart swell
with the same excitement she'd felt as a child by the sea, driving the
confrontation with her parents away until it was nothing more than a speck on
It was obvious that he knew something was up, but he never
brought it up. Alex’s strong shoulders propelled him up the sloping ramp to the
promenade and he hung back at the top, letting her pick the direction. There
were a fair few people already, though it was still early in the day, but as
they moved along the path, they were able to maintain a steady course; everyone
seemed to step around him like he was some kind of leaper. She didn’t mind
though; it was just her and him in her little bubble of happiness.
Side by side as they neared the old Victorian pier a good
while later, he swivelled his chair a little, adjusting the direction with all
the caution and skill of an F1 driver, and, without a word to her, changed
their course, guiding her with the broadside of his wheel, and set off curiously
towards the gigantic old structure. It jutted out into the calm sea, like an
old man bathing his aching feet in the lapping waves.
Sam looked askance at him and felt a tingle between her
thighs when she saw how effortless his movements were in the chair, and how the
muscles in his shoulders and arms rippled visibly under his black t-shirt as he
propelled himself forward. He pushed once and then guided the push rims through
his hands like a potter shaping clay on a wheel. Alex turned his head back over
his shoulder at her as they reached the point where the tarmac promenade met
the wooden slats of the pier, and a simultaneously mischievous and puzzled
expression on his handsome face. His dark brows gave a questioning twitch and
she answered with shy smile.
Turning her searching eyes away from his gorgeous body
before she tripped over her own feet and fell into the sea like a wave-tossed
crab, she moved her attention to gaze down the pier, where three teenage boys
on BMX bikes were whirling up and down, and a young couple was out for a walk
with a screaming infant in a pram and a sulking toddler bringing up the rear.
“Come on. Race you!” Alex said, tugging playfully on her
wrist and then wheeling away, his biceps pumping like the pistons of a steam
engine. She was mesmerised by him, and he got a head start, replaying their
race at the nature reserve from a few weeks earlier.
Sam sprinted to catch up with him as he disappeared along
the boardwalk of the pier, barrelling towards the end. “You’re so quick!” she laughed as he sped further away from her.
The chair really was a part of him, she observed from behind, as the low, dark,
sporty backrest seemed to melt imperceptibly into the black of his shirt.
Putting on a final burst of speed, she joined him as he clamped his hands to
the wheels and screeched to a halt at the end of the pier.
He moved his chair round to face her, a wild, fierce joy
ringing in his laughter. “God,” he exclaimed, “It feels so good to go that
fast. I'm glad the old girl can still move the way she used to!” He said,
patting the rims of his chair like a rider slaps a horse's withers after a good
They were at the very end of the pier, and the soft whisper
of the waves seemed to be telling her something, but she wasn't sure what.
“Have you always had the same chair?” she asked, leaning on
the chilly metal barrier, the only thing which separated her from a fifteen
foot plunge into the green waves below.
He nodded, fingering the wheels thoughtfully. “Yeah, she was
custom made for me, and fine-tuned to the dimensions I needed. I started off
with a folding chair, but it was hopelessly heavy, so I got a rigid one. A
chair that doesn’t fit you, is like a shoe that doesn’t fit. It rubs, it hurts,
it doesn’t do its job, and you start to hate it. The thing about a shoe is that
you can chuck it when it hurts you. If you’re paralysed, you can’t chuck your
chair… When you find one that fits, it’s a real incentive not to stop working
“Mmm, that’s something I like the thought of,” she grinned
cheekily at him, secretly glad he was opening up about the mechanics of having
“Oh yeah?” he asked, his eyebrow slanting attractively.
He was doing a wheelie and she watched him for a second
before turning away, that goofy smile still plastered across her face. “Yeah.”
She breathed in the sea air, letting the lilting swish of the waves fill her
ears. “It's beautiful here,” she said, staring wistfully at the far horizon, “I
missed this so much when I was away at uni.”
He looked up at her, setting his casters down again, his
dark eyes, serious once more as they tracked her gaze, “I know what you mean.”
His voice carried a lot of emotion. “I used to go down to the beach all the
time when I was a kid where my granddad lives by the sea. It’s harder now, of
course. The little Cornish beach isn’t accessible, and I don’t have a beach
chair.” He looked almost sad, until he added wistfully, “Grandpa’s building
another boat. I helped him build the last one…” he trailed off with a
thoughtful smile. "Called it the Anna Marie."
"Unusual name..." she ventured.
"My mum," was all he said in reply, his dark eyes
tracing lines along the horizon.
She didn't know what to say to that, so remained quiet for a
while. Eventually, she said, “Whenever I came home in my first year at uni, the
first thing I'd do was bolt for the sea." She let her eyes roam over the
rolling surf, giving him some privacy as she rambled on. “I'd bring my camera,
and I'd record a video of the waves, no matter what the weather, so that next
time I went back, I’d have something to bring me back home, as it were. Once,”
she added with a smile as the memory surfaced, “The weather was so bad - I
mean, raging storm, whipping waves, driving rain - and I came down here without
telling mum. She was out and when she got home, she assumed I'd gone over to my
friend Charlotte’s, so when she phoned Charlotte’s mum to ask when I’d be back,
and I wasn't there… well… hysterics ensued…” Her eyes glazed over for an
instant, but then she remembered herself and said, “Anyway, the long and the
short of it was that mum came racing down here and found me standing on the end
of that water pipe -” she indicated a huge rainwater runoff pipe that was about
a metre and a half in diameter, jutting out into the frothing sea.
Alex reached out and held her hand in his, his thumb running
slow, silent circles around her knuckles.
She was silent for a further heartbeat and then said,
“That’s my favourite video I think. It’s so wild.” There was another pause and
she added, “I’ve drifted out of contact with Charlotte. It used to be me,
Charlotte and Dan: the terrible trio… I think she finished her degree up in
Leeds and is now in London doing something in PR, but I’m not sure.”
A cloud seemed to have passed suddenly over Alex’s face and
he became quiet. He let go of her hand and lifted himself up in his chair,
shuffling his weight a little. “So you’ve known Dan a long time?” There was an
odd note to his voice, like a hiss on an old record.
“Er, yeah, I guess… I
mean, we pretty much grew up together,” she said. She shivered suddenly, the
chilly ocean breeze rushing over her skin. “We went to school together, and, as
you know, he’s been with me through some really tough times.”
“But you’ve never… you know…”
Catching his meaning suddenly, she snorted with laughter.
“God no!” she tucked a flapping bit of hair behind her ear. “I mean, he’s
lovely, and I guess, objectively he’s handsome, but I just don’t feel anything
for him. Not like I do for you. He's like my brother. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” he said evasively, his eyes on the green water
below. “Just curious.” Then, as a thoroughly mischievous grin cracked his
impenetrable mask, he reached up for her hips and pulled her down into his lap.
She landed with a squeak and looked up at his face, reading
a whole library of expressions there. “I love you, Alex Norwood. As you are.
You know that, don’t you?”
He took a frighteningly long time to respond, and when he
did, his words were hardly comforting. He looked intensely at her, the sunlight
catching the scar on his face, and for the first time, she could see
that he was blind in his right eye. It had a dead quality to it; glazed, ever so
slightly milky as the sun shone directly into it. It seemed to keep something
back from her by not focusing on her eyes. He sighed. “I hear you,” he said. “I
just can't quite understand why.”