Thursday, August 15, 2013

Cambridge Connections - Chapter Twenty Four

A Trip Home


“Miss Fey?”

“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 her nerves.

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 interview began.

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 divorce.

“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 evening.

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 weekend?”

“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 Classical statue.

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 asked.

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 dinner…”

“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 white fog.

“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 again. “What?”

“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, sparkling eyes.

“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 their sofa.

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 you.”

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 sentence.

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 this.”

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 pounding heart.

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 sobbed. "Sam..."

"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. "Sam!"

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 up."

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 hair.

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 flattered."

He managed a smile. "Silver linings," he muttered, the air hissing through his teeth as he breathed in and out in long, shallow, raspy breaths.

"Exactly."

"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 beyond.


***


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 own.

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 morning properly.”

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 her shoulder

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 promenade?”

“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 grips.

“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 outside.

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 that…”

“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 for you.”

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 seat.

“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 her horizon.  

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 gallop.

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 out…”

“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 and SCI.

“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.”




To be continued....

7 comments:

  1. I can't even tell you how much I love this story, and how excited I was to see an update this morning when I had a bit of free time to kill.

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  2. Dear Rose, I feel as if you're doubtful about how many people are regularly reading your novel. I am one of them but not daring enough to comment on it (i did it once, maybe). If asked, I would say that this is one of the most beautiful romance novels I've ever read, and they're 5 at the most. It touches me with its pureness and warmth without loosing any sense of reality. It is skillfully and beautifully written with wittiness that sometimes truly amazes me. Thank you so much, and please, do not stop writing.
    Andrea

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    1. I can't tell you how happy your comment just made me when I read it. It's always so nice to get feedback, but when it's as heartwarming as that, well... thank you! I won't stop writing this story, don't worry. It's all written now, so there'll be about 5 more chapters.

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  3. Yikes! This is too good to ever end. Thank you so much.

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  4. Lovely scenery -- and great dialogue, as usual -- always giving us a fascinating glimpse into something new.

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  5. Great chapter again. Rich vocabulary, perfect descriptions of the sceneries. The pure feelings and honesty of Sam and Alexe's state of mind truly contribute to a moving story full of emotion and realism. Can't wait till next week.

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  6. Thank you so much for your continuing support on this story! So much appreciated. I'm not going anywhere, I've got this story pretty much all done, and I've got a couple more short stories in the pipeline... I'll repost this comment on my next post, just so readers know I'm really grateful for your comments and support!

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