This chapter and next week's were originally one long post, but I decided it was far too long, so I'm afraid you'll have to wait a little while for their date...
Chapter Five – Connection Interrupted
When the door to the apartment opened, and Alex wheeled through, Will looked up from the large, dark wood dining table near the window and smiled.
“I thought you’d be at the department by now,” Alex said as he closed the door behind him and pushed over to his brother.
“Decided to work from home. There’s nothing I needed at the faculty this morning and my supervisor is away at a conference til next week.”
“A conference of mathematicians; now there’s a scary thought,” Alex joked, moving away again and to get a glass from a low cupboard in the kitchen. All of the living area was open-plan, with a kitchen counter jabbing out from the wall between two of the large windows to separate the cooking area from the living area. The dining table, where Will had set up camp for the day, sat on the huge, Persian rug which had caused Alex the trouble the other day. Despite being a bit of a booby-trap, Alex had always loved it, and as he rolled over it this time, he welcomed the feeling of strain in his shoulders at its friction on the wheels. He remembered arguing fiercely with his occupational therapist about it, and he heard her sharp voice in his mind “Alex, you will find it really difficult to push over this rug. I suggest you don’t have it down, and just use these wonderful wooden floorboards,” she had indicated the smooth sea of hardwood flooring, but Alex had shaken his head, stubborn as ever. “Mum loved that rug. I don’t care if it takes me a week to get over it, it’s not going.” And that had been that. Alex smiled at the memory as he poured himself a glass of water, downing it in a few huge gulps.
When he glanced back at Will, he could see a smile on his face too, and his brother said, “You’re in a good mood. I take it your date went well then?”
Alex shook his head, a disbelieving smile emblazoned across it.
“No?” Will seemed to be finding him unusually difficult to read. “What happened?”
Alex laughed briefly and said, “What happened?” he repeated, “She’s only bloody perfect!”
Confusion knotted Will’s blond brows into a pinched peak and he simply said, “Huh?”
Again, laughter fluttered from Alex’s lips and he said, “You were right. This -” he gestured to his chair “- didn’t seem to put her off, and she was considerate enough to pick the table that was the easiest to get to; she drew back a chair for me without my having to ask, and she likes Ghost in the Shell. We talked non-stop for nearly three hours,” he babbled happily, looking at his watch, and realising he should cath. That brought him down from his high, but he had the memory of the date to buoy him up again, regardless.
“Marry her,” Will said in mock seriousness.
The briefest flash of a thought flared in his mind. “Oh yeah and she asked me on a date,” he added.
“What?” Will laughed, sounding pleased and slightly surprised. “She asked you? When are you going? You did say yes, didn’t you?”
Alex’s smile stayed in his eyes as he said, “We’re going to see Superman at some point, probably on Sunday.” And with that he swivelled around and headed from room.
Will called over his shoulder to him, “What are your plans for the rest of today?”
From the doorway, Alex said, “I was going to try and get Bob to email me a PDF of that paper so I don’t have to schlep all the way over to the faculty to get it, and then I was going to curl up on the sofa and try and unpick it. You?”
“I...” he paused, scratching the top of his head with his hand, “I might head to the faculty later this afternoon. Sylvia said she’d be in after lunch, and I want to catch her before she goes back to Oxford.”
“She’s the one who’s co-authoring that paper with you, right?” Alex asked, placing his hands on the doorframe and tipping back casually into a wheelie. He relished the look of fear that sprang to Will’s face every time he did it.
”Yeah,” Will said tensely. “I just have one last thing I want to tidy up before we submit. To be honest I can’t wait to be rid of her. She’s so irritating.”
Alex, still leaning back like a teenager on a chair at school, flashed him a grin, before finally lowering his casters to the floor again and wheeling to his room to fire up his laptop. It was a battered, blocky, ancient thing, which had been revived and reworked by his skilled, delicate, loving fingers several times. He had no real idea why he was so attached to it. Perhaps because he’d had it with him in hospital, and he’d done some of his best coding with it in relaxation time at rehab, once the densest clouds of medical fog had evaporated.
When he saw that his supervisor had already emailed a copy of the paper to him, he relaxed a bit. Meeting Sam had been incredible, but as he sat there in the stillness of his room, he felt the sudden weight of tiredness settle around his shoulders. After a pit-stop at the bathroom, he swung the laptop from his bed to his lap and he carefully placed the laptop on his unusually well-behaved right leg, and wheeled slowly back to the sofa in the living room.
Alex’s transfer was a little wobbly as his shoulders complained, but once he was nestled into the sofa cushions, the tremor in his leg eased, and he opened up the laptop to begin work.
They passed an hour in easy silence, each brother cocooned in his little academic bubble, until Will sighed and stretched, reaching his bare forearms up above his head and intertwining his fingers and wrists with a groan. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and he had a slightly cross-eyed expression. Alex broke off from reading in mid-paragraph and said with a chuckle, “You know, you never look more like a Cambridge academic than when you’ve been crunching problems and you’ve got your sleeves rolled up like that.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said, rubbing his slightly pink eyes. “This stuff is eye-wateringly complex though.”
“Take a break?” Alex suggested, shuffling his weight slightly, lifting his body up with his arms to ease the tension that was stacking up in his lower spine.
Will sighed. “Yeah, I’ll head off to the department. Not sure when I’ll be back.”
“Stay as long as you like,” Alex said. “I’m all set here.”
With a nod, Will stood and got ready to cycle to the maths faculty.
In the still wake left behind, Alex looked about him for his phone, which was nearly always about his person somewhere, but with a sigh he remembered it was in his room. Extracting himself from the tangle of cable, laptop and cushion, he slid gingerly to the chair and rolled to his room to text Sam. He contemplated a witty text about knights, phones, damsels and rescuing, but decided against it. Cheese was never attractive. “Hey,” he began, “is Sunday still good for Superman? A”. He wondered idly if it was too soon to put a kiss. He decided it was and returned to the living room.
The phone sat on the table as inert and lifeless as his legs for a full twenty minutes and he had forgotten all about it when it beeped self-importantly, announcing the arrival of a text. His heart leapt in surprise from the depths of the paper he was reading, and he grabbed the phone. Text message: Sam Faye. He unlocked the screen by tracing his thumb over a series of dots like a child’s idle attempt at a dot-to-dot drawing, and turned it onto silent before the next text frightened the life out of him as well. Then he read her text. ”Something’s come up, and I’m not going to be free this weekend. Another time? S.” He started to get that plunging feeling inside. She’s backing off, he thought.
He texted back, saying, “Sure, whenever. A.”
To his surprise, he got a reply within minutes, saying, “Thanks. Really wanted it to be this weekend, but I’ve got to go home. See you some time towards the end of next week, either for coffee or Superman? S x”
There it was. Sitting there at the end of the text. An innocent little “x”. Stop being such a girl, Norwood, he scolded himself. “I hope everything’s ok. Let me know when you want to go - I’m free any night for a film, and I’m pretty flexible about times for coffee. A” his finger hovered over ‘send’. Then, in a big rush, he added an ‘x’, deleted it, added again, and then sent the message. “You are such a girl,” he said aloud, shaking his head and putting his phone next to him on the sofa. He didn’t feel it buzz against his leg, and after writing a particularly elegant chunk of code, he stopped and checked it for bugs. Finding none, he smiled, and glanced down at his phone: two messages. The first was from Will: “Flat tyre. Home later as taking it to shop. His texts always read like telegrams or WWI messages from the front, and Alex smiled. The second was from Sam, and his heart went out to her as he read: “My grandma’s had a second stroke. Funeral’s on Monday. I’ll look at times for a film, maybe Wednesday? S x.”
“I’m so sorry about your grandma. Wednesday is great, just let me know on the day if you still want to go. Take care, A x” He wondered if the two had been close, and he thought of his grandfather who, aged 82, was still building boats in his back yard. The memory of wood shavings and oil made Alex yearn to go home to him and sit in his little workshop by the sea in Cornwall. His was a tiny, quaint little village nestled around a harbour, with a sturdy medieval church tower watching like a patron saint over the comings and goings of the picturesque village. Moved, he opened an email to his dear, white-haired grandfather and began to tell him a bit of his news, including his date with Sam. Alex had always told him everything. His brother had not been quite so close, keeping his thoughts locked away from all but Alex in that great clever head of his.
He decided he needed to use the two extra monitors in the bedroom, requiring two screens for the next bit of code. He transferred smoothly to the his chair yet again and hoisted the laptop onto his knees, carefully this time. The small desk in the corner of his bedroom was covered in text books and pieces of paper, and was the only thing in his room that betrayed his inherent messiness. In order to get from one side of his room to the other he had to keep clothes off the floor and belongings stowed away neatly in cupboards, but at his desk his mind was king, not his body, and this dictator didn’t care two hoots about tidiness. Like some kind of insane librarian’s catalogue, however, there was a system to the mess, the key to which Alex kept in his brain. He pushed up to the desk, locked his brakes and fired everything up and focussed his thoughts. In next to no time, his fingers were transliterating the lines of code he saw in his mind, like a composer seeing the score and hearing the symphony before setting pen to paper.
It was in this position that Will found him when he returned that evening. He smiled as he saw his little brother through the open bedroom door. The low backrest of his chair was sticking up, stark against the pale walls, and Alex was leaning forward, resting on his forearms as he typed with the rapidity of a machine gun. He was so completely consumed by his project that he didn’t hear Will close the door or call out softly to him. “I’ll leave you to it,” Will murmured fondly, heading to the kitchen to boil the kettle for a much needed cup of tea.
Sam’s heart crumbled as the phone call ended. By some miracle she’d held it together while she listened to her mother’s quavering voice telling her what had happened, but at the slight click at the other end, and the harsh beep of her own phone, she burst into shuddering tears, sliding down the wall and crouching, huddled like a tiny child, on the floor. This was how her housemate, Ruth, had found her, half an hour later. “God, Sam, what’s happened?” she asked, dashing to her friend’s side and kneeling down.
Sam looked up, her eyes red and puffy and prickling. “It’s my gran,” she said. “She had another stroke and...” unable to finish, fresh sobs welled up her throat, choking the words.
“Come here,” Ruth said, taking her friend in her arms and holding her close. Sam had no idea how long they stayed like that, locked in each other’s embrace, but she clung to her as though Ruth would disappear too if Sam let go.
Eventually, she had no more tears left to cry, and she was exhausted.
“You want something to eat or drink,” Ruth asked gently as Sam finally let go of her.
Sam blinked, returning to her senses only gradually, and the part of her brain that processed questions wasn’t back yet.
“Sam?” Ruth prompted.
“Huh?” She heard Ruth’s words, but her brain seemed to have decided they were a foreign language.
Ruth looked really worried. “Do you want anything to eat or drink?” she asked again, slower this time, her silver-grey eyes wide and warm as though Sam were a toddler. “Come on,” she said kindly, standing up and holding her hand out to Sam. “Let’s get you up at least.”
Sam took the hand that seemed to be suspended, disembodied, in the blank air around her, and she felt slightly less lightheaded and distant as she gripped it. She looked around her at the room, which until that point had looked like a Berthe Morisot interior. Now it sharpened, leaving the Impressionists and coming back to a more modern 1080p. “Yes,” she said, her voice hoarse and sore. “A drink would be good.”
As Ruth ran the water to dilute the elderflower cordial, Sam felt her phone buzz in her hand, and she nearly dropped it in horror, thinking wildly that it was her mother calling to tell her the same news all over again. Seeing that it was a text from Alex was like being thrown a silver safety line in a pitch dark sea. The words, however – the bare, simple words – seemed stripped for some reason of emotion, and to her blurred eyes they looked stark, even coldly demanding, and it was suddenly all too much for her and her tears began to flow again. She knew he wasn’t being pushy – he just wanted to check whether Sunday was still ok – but it felt like he wanted more from her than she had the strength to give at that point in time. It was a long while before her eyes had drained of vision-blurring tears and she could begin to write a reply. His subsequent extension of kindness towards her, his gentle expression of support, was like an arm around her shoulders, and she even managed a watery smile. She was so relieved to feel some break in the clouds of grief that she automatically added a kiss, as she always did to her friends, to the bottom of her text. The horror when she pressed ‘send’ and realised what she’d done sank through her chest like a pebble in a glass of clear water. So much for not being too forward with a guy you like, she thought as she stared at the phone, as if locking her eyes onto it would drag the text message from his brain, bypassing his fingers, and bring it to her all the quicker. Relief and strange pleasure flooded into her, washing the acid grief away for a few moments, when she saw his reply.
Later, she packed her weekend bag in a numbly detached and calm state. Within three hours, her father had arrived in the car to take her home, his face slightly grey. “Hi there Sammy,” he said as he climbed out and took her rucksack from her, loading it into the boot before sweeping his daughter up in his big arms.
“How’s mum?” she croaked, breathing in the comforting smell her father’s woollen jumpers always had.
He looked down at her, as if gauging her own mood before telling her about her mother’s. “She’s very upset,” he said simply. “Come on, let’s get going.”
The summer night sky was cloudy and very dark by the time they got home. She walked through the front door, the light from the hallway forming a golden carpet on the red tiled steps of the generic 1930’s-built house. Her mother was in the living room to their left, sitting in a big armchair, with a large book cradled in her lap. As she got nearer, her mother looked up and Sam could see it was a photo album. Baby photos of Sam holding her grandmother’s hand swam before her eyes, but she refused to set her mother off crying; she looked like she’d only just turned the taps off. “Oh sweetie,” her mother exhaled in a rush, putting the album down on a nearby footstool with the reverence of a monk with a bible, before she stood up and flung her arms around her child, holding her close to her body, caressing her head with a hand.
Then it was too much for both of them, and together they dissolved into tears. Her father warily gave the women a wide berth, and headed for the kitchen, the fridge, and a beer.
The days passed in a blur of black clothes and tears for Sam. The Monday morning funeral was short and mercifully unsentimental. The perfunctory speeches and ceremony were soon over and Sam began to feel a degree of closure. She said goodbye to the woman who had been a chest in which she securely locked all her secret worries as a young teenager, who had been a safe island after the traumatic year she turned seventeen, and who had been a sister, a second mother, and the perfect grandmother to Sam, an only child. Her mother had wanted her to stay at home for longer, but Sam needed the vigour and bustle of Cambridge, the support of her friends, and most of all she needed to be somewhere that was not a constant reminder of the matriarch they had all just lost.
Ruth welcomed her back on Tuesday night with an open and caring smile. Sam detected a calculating wariness in her voice as she spoke, gauging her grief and monitoring her feelings. “I’m ok,” she said softly. “I’m sad, obviously I am, but we’d already lost a part of her with the first stroke. I was just shocked. I’m glad she’s not suffering any more.” She thought back to visits to the nursing home, to the crumpled shell of the fine lady that Nell had once been. From the way she complained savagely about the food and the nurses, no one would ever have guessed that she’d been bombed out of her home in the Blitz four times, got married in the rubble of a church, and lost her husband a month later to death from the skies; as a child Nell had been so poor that she would receive a walnut and an orange as a Christmas present, and would have been genuinely thrilled... She had been one tough woman. Eventually Sam was forced to stop pacing the dusty floorboards of her own recollections, and return to the present.
“Come on,” Ruth offered. “Ollie and I have been cooking pasta. Are you hungry?”
Her stomach growled after the long car journey and she smiled weakly. “I guess so.”
She knew that Ruth and Ollie were just doing their housemate duty in ensuring that she was alright, but she would much rather be alone with a book, trying not to remember not to think about her grandma...
Sam hadn’t heard from Alex since his last text where he’d told her to take care. Whether it was the lingering pain of grief, or the strange need to reach out to someone new in the void left behind by her death, Sam felt compelled to text him. “Hey, I’m back in Cambridge now, and I’m definitely still up for Superman tomorrow. S x” It was late, and she didn’t know if he’d still be up. She wondered if he got tired easily being in a wheelchair, and, not for the first time, she wondered how long he’d been in it, whether he had any movement or feeling - he must do, she mused, if he used crutches - and if so, whether he had any pain. Would he ever recover? She shrugged, deciding that it didn’t really matter; she liked him anyway, as he was.
His reply was swift. I like a man that doesn’t keep me waiting, she thought, surprised that her wit was returning so soon. She wondered if this was normal, or whether she was just cold inside and numb to painful things now, as she had been for the past four years. Maybe that was also why she kept turning perfectly nice people down, as Dan was so frequently pointing out. She hadn’t wanted to connect with anyone in a deeper level than mere friendship for four years, so why now? Why Alex? She sighed, and turned her attention to his text. “I’m glad you’re back. I hope you’re ok and, not to sound pushy, if you want someone to listen who knows a bit about what you’re going through, I’m here. I think there’s a showing at 7.20pm tomorrow, is that any good?”
“Sounds perfect, meet you at the ticket office? I’m doing ok at the moment, but if that changes, I’ll know who to call, thank you. x” She had dithered over the last bit. She wasn’t ok, but not for the reasons he might think she’d be upset; she was worried at not feeling sad any more, and at feeling instead a sense of relief, and whether that made her a monster. She sat down heavily on the sofa in the living room of the pokey little student house and tucked her knees up to her chin, raising and lowering her toes absentmindedly while the television filled the room with slowly strobing light, but she wasn’t really aware of it. Soft summer rain fell outside, and, as with all appropriately-timed pathetic fallacy, she mused, it seemed to be crying for her. Thanking the weather for feeling in her stead, she picked up her copy of Feast for Crows, and immersed herself in the hot sands of Volantis, where vipers ruled kingdoms and soft blood-oranges quenched the thirst of dry-throated old men.