*Quick note – “Natisci” is short-hand in Cambridge for the Natural Sciences course. “Mathmo” is the term for someone who studies mathematics. And finally, “Caius” is short for “Gonville and Caius”, one of the really pretty old colleges in town, and is pronounced “Keys”. And we try to pretend that Cambridge isn’t like Hogwarts... Enjoy
Chapter Four – Surprise Encounter
A movement in the William Morris curtain of willows to her left caught her eye, and she froze suddenly just as Dan made a dive for her. There, sitting in a wheelchair and looking straight at her, was that cute guy who’d asked her for coffee. He’s in a wheelchair? But he was using crutches… he was walking, she thought, her mind racing.
Dan collided with her, hardly expecting to have found her immovable as a monolithic column. He looked around, up to the canal above, but saw nothing at all that could have made her freeze like that. “Sam?” he asked. “What is it?”
She turned away, remembering herself and feeling a hot, stinging rush of embarrassment at having been caught gawping at Alex like a moron. “I… that guy from the UL… he’s there, only…”
“What?” Dan asked, turning back to her. “What’s the matter?”
“He’s…” she faltered again, “He’s just…” she risked a glance back and saw that he was still where he had been, but he seemed to have immersed himself in patting the head of a cheery, liver and white springer spaniel, which looked as though it was in danger of wagging its tail right off. Its doggy grin was writ large on its happy, patchy face, and she thought Alex was smiling too but it was hard to tell from that distance. He’s no less handsome for being in a wheelchair, she thought suddenly. “It’s nothing,” she said to Dan, gathering courage. “Be right back,” and then she found her feet running across the deep, springy grass, her legs acting like pistons as she powered up the slope to where the concrete walls of the broad, canal-like stretch of the river held back its sluggish weight like a belt on a saggy midriff.
As she crested the incline, the dog looked up, padded over and greeted her enthusiastically, smearing slobber on her leggings as she crouched to fuss it. “Gross!” she laughed, tickling the dog behind its silky ears before looking up at Alex. “He’s adorable – yours?”
Alex looked like he was experiencing several reactions simultaneously, and remained mute.
Sam glanced up at the slender blond man standing behind him. They looked nothing alike, and she wondered who he was. He spoke falteringly for Alex, seeming a little confused at his silence. “No, he’s not… Alex always wanted a dog when we were kids, but I’m pretty allergic sadly…” He trailed off awkwardly and seemed to be resisting the urge to cuff Alex around the back of the head to get a response from him.
She crinkled her nose in commiserative understanding, and said, “We couldn’t have one either because my mum’s allergic.” They're brothers? she mused, startled by the difference in their appearances.
The spaniel took himself off at that point, bumbling away after new scents, without the faintest hint of a goodbye, and left Sam, the tall blond boy and the silent form of Alex all looking at each other somewhat awkwardly on the towpath.
Finally Alex’s voicebox lurched into life, and he croaked, “How was your last exam?”
She moved her head from side to side and said, “Not too bad – could have been better, could have been worse. Anyway, it’s all done now!”
“It’s a good feeling,” he said knowingly, beginning to relax a bit she thought. His shoulders weren't hunched quite as self-consciously any more. “You should be able to have fun tonight.”
“I plan to,” she said with an exuberant smile, turning to go back down the hill as Dan yelled her name. “This was a nice surprise – I didn’t think I’d be seeing you til tomorrow.”
Alex seemed unexpectedly buoyed up by her genuine comment, and his next words seemed to tumble from his mouth before he could catch them. “You’re still coming then?” he said incredulously as she neared the bottom of the incline.
“Of course!” she said, looking back over her shoulder with an innocently confused smile. “See you!” and she walked backwards for a couple of paces, smiling at them both, before jogging back over to Dan and her knot of friends, where she was pounced upon by her curious companions, all of them asking who that had been.
“My coffee date for tomorrow,” she said proudly. Dan made a comment about not believing that it had taken Sam nearly a three years of being at Cambridge to get a date, and she shoved him hard on the shoulder so that he staggered sideways, a slightly surprised look on his boyish face.
Disbelief buzzed in his ears as he watched her return to her friends, and he felt like he had after the very first time he’d asked a girl out, aged about fourteen. The same worry kindled in his stomach now as he saw her talking in a conspiratorial huddle with her friends. He saw Dan’s reaction – his reaction to me? – but when he saw her response to Dan’s comment, whatever it had been about, and then her peel of laughter, head tossed backwards and hands on hips, he felt slightly reassured. Maybe she was defending his honour?
That evening as he sat slightly slumped on the sofa, his eyes were not really taking in the BBC Horizon programme on fracking. They were seeing that meadow again. Annoyingly, his right leg had begun to spasm gently, jumping up and down in the same way that the limb of a caffeine addict might bounce constantly.
Will noticed as he stood to take their curry plates to the kitchen, and said quietly, pausing to look back at him, “Did you take your baclofen when we got in?”
Alex sighed, knowing he wasn’t deliberately fussing like a nursemaid, but still, when it happened frequently enough, it always started to feel that way. Swallowing down the irritation, he said glumly, “Yes.” He paused, and then added gently, “You know, if we weren’t trying to save money by living together while we do our PhD’s, I would actually remember all this stuff without you…” His comments were not maliciously given, but he saw more hurt in his brother’s eyes than he’d expected. Will shrugged a smile at him, and placed the dishes in the sink.
Alex so desperately wanted to crutch to the café the following morning, but he knew he couldn’t if his legs were still playing up; it would only make matters worse, and he knew he needed a few days in the chair after a run of days on his crutches. Perhaps he’d already done the hardest bit though, he mused – she now knew he used a wheelchair, and maybe that was enough of a heads up. She’ll be ok now, surely, he thought, desperately trying to inject his thoughts with some sense of optimism.
When Will returned from the kitchen and plonked himself down in an armchair, both of Alex's legs were jittering up and down under very mild spasms, and Alex’s big hands were resting on his knees. “Hurting?” Will asked.
Alex's phone buzzed on the table, and he saw Sam’s name on the screen, still seeming unfamiliar to his eyes. He leaned forward to scoop the phone up, and the movement made his right leg twitch harder.
“No, just spazzing…” he murmured, trying to be good-natured in response to Will's question and cautious gaze from the armchair. Clutching his fingers around the phone he forced himself upright out of the lean with a deft pump of his bicep.
Sam’s words seemed bubbly and lively as her speech had been earlier, and he could almost hear her voice as he read the text. “Hey, great running into you today. Sorry I was a bit of a state, but you know how it is after finals. What time are we meeting at The Meadows tomorrow? S.”
A grin split across Alex’s face, making the scar at the edge of his eyelid drag down a little, and the upper corner of his lip refuse lopsidedly to match the height of the left hand side, giving him a cheeky half-smile.
Will’s face was no longer concerned. He was once again the annoying older brother that any younger sibling would recognise, “Is that your date tomorrow?” he asked provocatively, and he barked a laugh when he got a mute eye roll in return.
“11am ok? A” Alex texted back.
“Great, see you then. S.”
“Looking forward to it. A”
He slept fitfully that night, waking with a start in the early hours, a jolt of gleeful pain in his sciatic nerve sending violent spasms down his right leg. “Damn,” he gasped, fingers reaching down to work the brief pooling pain from the muscle. “Please,” he begged aloud in a throaty whisper, “Please stop it…”
After ten minutes or so of kneading the muscle of his thigh like a sculptor shaping a stubborn clay sculpture, the thrumming pain had dissipated. The spasms didn’t stop immediately, however. I really have overdone it lately, he thought sadly, and it wasn’t the first time he’d spent too long on his feet. He was an old hand at being a paraplegic now, and should have been well adjusted, physically at least, to the demands he could make of his new body. Every now and again he would get cocky and would push himself too far. It had also been a while since he’d been distracted enough to muck up his own regimented routine, and he thought back to their encounter in the tea rooms. He'd been so flustered at asking her out, and at the first signs of spasms, that he'd just bolted for home, straight past the toilets. Scolding himself for his utter stupidity, he decided that lying on his stomach would ease his muscles. He could use his body weight to open out his tight hips and thighs, using the pressure on his feet to stretch out his knees, and he forced his body to roll over, his fairly immobile legs tangled momentarily in the duvet before he finally flopped onto his chest. He slid one strong arm under the cool pillow, and lay with his head facing the wall to his left, his scar and blind eye pressed into the soft cotton weave of the pillowcase. There he waited for sleep to catch him and bear him away to a gentler world without the irritation and inconvenience of spasms.
The following morning, Will was standing by the kettle as it gurgled happily towards boiling point. Alex knew he would be watching the first few tourists – the ones that were really keen to get going, and the Japanese coach parties in particular. In a few hours, hoards of them would be swarming along King’s Parade, taking photographs of absolutely everything from absolutely every angle. Will sighed. Alex’s sharp ears picked up the sound, and his eyes darted to his brother’s face. “What is it?” he asked cereal bowl balanced on his lap, his knees mercifully still and compliant after his night stretched out on his front.
“Something’s bugging me with my paper, that’s all.”
“You want to brainstorm later?” Alex asked, finishing up his cereal in a few gulps and wheeling over to the counter to put it in the dishwasher. They’d ‘brainstormed’ and wrestled with ideas together since they were old enough to use words to communicate. Will was only a year older than Alex, and though neither of them voiced it out loud very often, each brother was incalculably dear to the other, and with good reason.
Will smiled warmly and nodded. “Thanks. If I’ve not got it by then, I’d appreciate it.” He sipped the tea he’d just poured, and suddenly his blue eyes flashed bright, exclaiming gleefully, “Mmm, what time’s your date?”
Adrenaline mushroomed in Alex’s chest, exploding upwards from the pit of his stomach and filling his torso with a sickly cloud of worry and nerves. “Eleven.” His voice sounded quavering even to his ears.
The soft laugh that fluttered over from the kettle made Alex frown with annoyance, but Will said, kindly, “Will you relax? You’ve got this!”
Sucking a great breath in and out, Alex said nothing and looked at his watch. He still had a couple of hours. “Help me do my range of motion?” he asked, not meeting Will’s eye.
Tired and achy, Alex lay on the floor on a yoga mat as Will finished manipulating and flexing his legs for him; he may be incomplete, but thigh abduction and flexion was still weak, and he couldn’t really manage it too happily on his own. Now that they were finished, he pushed himself up on his elbows and glanced down at his lower body, glimpsing the way his feet dropped sadly towards the floor. They looked ugly and dead to his eyes, but he was pleased to see that they weren’t juddering around like they frequently did after his ROM exercises.
Will brought his chair back over from where he’d put it out of the way while they did the exercises. Alex folded his thin legs gingerly at the knee and waved his brother away like a summer wasp. As Alex let go of it to bat his brother off, his right leg flopped outwards to the side like a felled tree. He yanked it back upright, still keeping it bent at the knee. With his bare feet close together, he reached up and placed his hand on the vertical bar which descended to the footplate. He pushed himself up with his free arm, arse in the air. As he neared the landing pad of the soft cushion, he grazed his backside on the strong, rigid side-guards of the chair, and felt a brief stab of pain. Will’s blue eyes were stern but resolutely silent.
“Not my first rodeo,” Alex snarled as his right leg lurched suddenly and shook violently. Six years of bloody hauling my arse around in this chair, and I still fuck it up, he chided himself. Mercifully, the spasm was just a reaction to landing on the side-guard, and stopped in a matter of minutes.
Showered and dressed, save for his socks and shoes, just over an hour later, Alex was ready to leave. As he deliberated whether to crutch or wheel, he rubbed the seam of his jeans between his fingers.
“You off then?” Will asked, resting his lanky frame against the kitchen counter, nursing his third mug of tea in his slender-fingered hands.
Alex glanced down at his now inert legs, and then across the room to where his black crutches stood against the wall, weirdly mimicking the way was Will leaning on the opposite side of the apartment. “I ought to use my chair,” he began. “Only, I don’t want her to… I don’t want her to treat me any differently. And people always do. Even when I’m on crutches, I don’t get treated as ‘disabled’ as much as I do in the chair.” He sighed.
Will licked his lips nervously and said, “You’re not going to like me for saying this, but you probably should use the chair.”
Alex’s breath came out in a deep rush and he nodded slowly.
“She’s already seen you in the chair though,” Will added. “I mean, she’s had time to get used to that fact. Perhaps it won’t be that big an issue…”
“Yeah,” he said, not sounding convinced. As if to confirm his thoughts, the arch of his foot yanked itself up into a spasm, hooking his toes back up like the claws of an angry cat. He stared down at them for a moment, feeling oddly disconnected, knowing they were his feet, and not really feeling them. Sensation was patchy down his legs, and he had very little feeling in his feet. “Great,” he said as he tried to put his sock on. It was like trying to force a weasel into a small bag.
When he was eventually ready, it was quarter to eleven. With one last longing look at his crutches, he headed for the door, transferred deftly to the stair-lift and rode it down towards the front door, a feeling of dread mingling with his excitement.
He wasn’t really concentrating as he popped down the tiny step from the threshold, and he nearly crashed into a man walking quickly along the pavement, forcing him to leap aside, cursing. When he saw Alex in the chair, he muttered, “Fucking benefits scrounger,” and slouched off into the sunny day. The weather could not possibly have been more opposite to Alex’s mood as he set off in the direction of the weir, calloused hands angrily shoving his wheels forward over the uneven pavement.
Sam had chosen a table in the dappled shade and had just turned her head up to look at the bright, stained-glass canopy of leaves above her, when she caught a different kind of movement out of the corner of her eye. She had wondered whether he would be upright or wheeling today, and when the dark form of a young man in a wheelchair glided into her field of vision, she had her answer.
He looked a little drawn around the eyes, she thought, tense, as his dark irises scanned the faces of the café patrons looking for hers. She raised her hand a little and waved, smiling broadly, and wondered what the fleeting emotion was that she saw on his handsome features. He came over to her and she watched his hands deftly guiding the push rims of his chair like a potter shaping clay on a wheel. “Hi,” he said, his voice dark and even. “Good choice of table, thanks,” he mumbled as he wheeled along the edge of the wooden decking. She got to her feet and dragged a chair back so that he could tuck into the void it left behind, and she wondered with a rush of adrenaline if she should have asked first. Again, he smiled gratefully, putting her mind at ease, and neither of them made a big deal out of it; he only paused to murmur a quick, “Thanks,” again.
A waitress floated over and handed Sam a menu. When she spotted Alex’s chair, her hazel eyes widened and she said slowly, as if he were five years old, “Here you are, that’s your menu.”
He closed his eyes, looking mortified for just a second, before turning to her and saying, in a clipped but polite and velvety voice, “Thank you so much.”
When the waitress had taken their orders, Alex turned to Sam with a searching and intense look on his face, his dark eyes piercing, and she suddenly felt like she was back being interviewed for her place at Cambridge. “I have to ask you something, here and now,” he said, his voice suddenly sharp as a cleaver.
“Ok,” she said, looking warily at him, heart beginning to thud in her chest.
His question was not at all what she had expected for a coffee-date first question. “When we were talking in the library on Wednesday, and you saw this –” he jabbed a hand up at his scarred cheek, “– and you saw the way I walk, or… not –” this time he flung the back of his hands against his thighs with a soft flap sound, “Did you… I mean… what did you think?”
She was shocked at the directness of his question, and flustered silently for a moment. Then, thinking carefully about her words, she spoke. “First thought?” she asked, her eyebrows raised. He nodded. “Honestly, my first thought was ‘wow’.”
He frowned. “Good ‘wow’ or that’s-an-ugly-scar ‘wow’?”
She chuckled and it was his turn to look cautious. “Good wow,” she said with a smile. “Truth be told, scars are kind of hot.” She shrugged. “You’re gorgeous anyway, and trust me, the scar doesn’t detract from that.” Was she being deliberately bold to match him? It wasn’t like her at all, she mused.
Alex clearly didn’t believe her, and waded on with his interrogation. “But this? Does this detract?” he asked doggedly.
“No not at all,” she said honestly. “I mean, I was a bit surprised when I saw you yesterday, as I think you figured, but that was only because I’d seen you walking the day before, that’s all.”
His doubt faded a little and he looked shy, but pleased. He sucked air into his cheeks and blew it out in a rush. “Not often I hear that it doesn’t matter from a girl. Normally it’s just a pitying look and a ‘you’re not really my type’…”
“I’m frequently told by my friends that I’m not normal…” she reassured him, looking at him from under her lashes.
The waitress brought their drinks, and set them down in front of her. She then looked at Alex and said slowly, “You want me to pour your tea for you?”
Sam thought he looked for a second as if he might hit her, or run her over, but he tilted his face up to her and said coldly, “No thanks; I’m halfway through a PhD in geophysics, I think I can manage a cup of tea.” The waitress blanched, muttered something, and walked away. When she disappeared, Alex rolled his eyes at Sam. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know that was rude, but I just… urgh,” he made a face and poured his tea, letting his cloudy silence finish the sentence for him.
Hoping this coffee date was not about to take a nose-dive from ‘surprisingly-forward-first-question’ to ‘awkward-silence’, she asked, “Do you get that a lot?”
With a sigh, he said, “Yup.”
A thousand questions burned in her mind. How long have you been in a wheelchair? Why are you in a wheelchair? What’s wrong with you? Will it get better or worse or neither?
Something of her blizzard of questions must have showed in her face, as Alex gave a soft laugh and said, “You want to ask me, don’t you?”
Sheepishly, she smiled, settling for honesty, and said, “Only if you want to talk. You’d be perfectly within your rights to call me a nosy bugger and then we could move on to other questions like what college you’re at and all the other standard Cambridge topics… You know, the usual coffee date questions…” She hoped she hadn’t come across as rude, but she desperately didn’t want him to think that all she wanted to know about him was why he was in a wheelchair.
She was relieved beyond all measure when he threw back his head and laughed a deep, throaty laugh. “You know, your friends are right. You aren’t normal.” And he continued to chuckle as she feigned a stab in the heart. “I was hurt in a car accident six years ago,” he said, “So I’ve had plenty of time to learn to deal with people like her,” he jabbed a hand behind him, “Not that I’m always successful though…” he added with a wry smile. “In answer to your other questions, I was at Sidney as an undergrad because Blundell Court has something like a hundred accessible rooms to choose from…” he trailed off, looking embarrassed. “I mean, most of the other colleges only have one accessible room, or adapted room…”
She smiled, imagining that his inner monologue read something like “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck,” at that moment. “It must be tricky,” she offered, feeling rather lame.
He grimaced and said, “Meh, it’s not awful. A lot of colleges, especially the more modern ones, are pretty good. It’s just the older ones – the ones you’d actually want to apply to – are all winding staircases and narrow doorways…” He rubbed his chin and she saw how rough his palm looked. She surprised herself by wondering what those callouses would feel like against her skin. He was carrying on and she forced herself to pay attention to his words and not his hands. “…my PhD I decided to try Caius. It’s not been bad, and I rarely have to go into college anyway; my brother and I share our own apartment in Cambridge, and I do most of my research at the department or at the company that’s sponsoring my PhD.”
“Do you do any supervising?” she asked, recalling some of the PhD students who’d inflicted a painfully awkward hour of one-to-one tutorials on her.
Alex’s smile widened and he said, “Yeah, I do a bit. I supervise maths for the natsci students.”
She had a sudden vision of what Alex would be like as a supervisor and smiled. “I hope you’re not too mean… I’ve had some horrible PhD students supervise me…” She was so glad he was now beginning to laugh more. The more he laughed, and the further they moved off the topic of his disability, the more those tired lines around his eyes seemed to fade.
“I’m only horrible if my supervisees can’t be bothered,” he said evenly. “And they were probably horrible to you because PhD supervisors don’t tend to prepare all that well for the supervision; he wouldn’t want to look like a fool in front of you.”
Was that a line? Did he just use a line on me? She smiled coyly, thinking, about time too.
He was speaking again, but she thought she saw the faintest hint of a blush gilding those chiselled cheekbones of his. “Well, you don’t have to put up with PhD students bluffing their way through supervisions now that you’ve finished. Which college were you at?” he asked and there was a playful gleam lingering in his dark eyes.
“Emma,” she replied, smiling fondly at the memory of the warm, golden columns and sweeping gardens of Emmanuel College. “It’s beautiful,” she added. Thinking of her college with Alex sitting there made her realise that there were steps into the porters’ lodge, steps up to most of the rooms, steps on the underpass under Emmanuel Road, steps up into the chapel...
Alex’s answer stopped her before she could add any more stairs to her collection. “I’ve not really been there much,” he said quietly.
Sam smiled and said pointedly, “It’s not exactly the most accessible of colleges, I’d imagine.” Oh fuck. It was her turn to hear those words in her head, and she instantly regretted ever having let them slip from her tongue. She was struck by the expression which settled on his intriguing face, and she couldn’t place it: he seemed caught between admiration and mild embarrassment. Whether both sentiments were directed at her, she couldn’t be sure.
He nodded slowly. “When a few of us from natsci wanted to get together and watch a film or something they often came to Sidney, or to a good friend of mine’s room at Robinson, which, by the way,” he added with a self-effacing yet cheerful tone, “Is wonderfully accessible.” Her laugh seemed to kindle the smile in his eyes and he whickered a laugh of his own.
“Long way to go though,” she said, “I can’t remember going to Robinson more than once in my whole undergrad - I hope the film was worth it!”
“Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is always worth it!” he said in a bit of a rush.
Suddenly he blanched a bit, and she thought he must have sounded like a total dork to himself, so she gave a cheeky smile and said, “Got to love a bit of Kusanagi fan service...”
The expression on his face was so exquisite that she wished she’d had a camera. His lips parted in astonishment, his breath caught in his throat, and he said, “I’m astonished! You know what I’m talking about?!”
“I’m a huge geek really,” she babbled. “I may have studied archaeology, but my friends are, almost without exception, all scientists or mathmos. I hardly ever see the mathematicians though, they don’t socialise much, so I can’t vouch for their taste in TV shows, but thanks to the others - natscis in particular actually - I quickly developed an appetite for things like Ghost in the Shell and…” she then pulled open her unbuttoned, dark cardigan and glanced pointedly down at the faded black t-shirt underneath, which was emblazoned with a great orange octopus above the word ‘misbehave’. If she hadn’t known better, she might have thought Alex had fallen in love with her in that instant.
His eyes glittered and widened even further in disbelief, the scar stretching slightly over his right eyelid. “She likes Firefly,” he said in a mock-dreamy accent that was only half-joking, and her bright bark of laughter made several pensioners glance round at them scornfully. She didn’t care. She had just fallen a little bit in love with the dark eyed semi-stranger sitting opposite her, and looking at her as if she were an example of a rare type of artefact that no one ever finds in-tact. She turned her gaze on him and the message in her eyes was clear. Kiss me.
He bumped down a curb and crossed the road, which made his left leg ripple into a quick bounce, but by the time he’d reached the other pavement and tipped the casters up the curb, bumping the main wheels up afterwards, both his legs sat inert and well behaved.
What the hell am I doing? he asked himself as he turned down the narrow street that would bring him out at The Meadows cafe - a tiny tea room run from what looked like a shed mounted on a trailer. It was pulled in every Thursday and Friday, like some kind of tinker’s cart, to a grassy spot in the crook of the river-bend by a farmer’s wife in her battered and rusty red Toyota Hilux. Decking which fitted together like the world’s easiest jigsaw puzzle was laid out on the flat bit of grass, and a roll of wooden boards spread from the towpath down the slight incline to where the cafe sat like a small hive, dispensing homemade cakes and hot tea to enchanted tourists in the field below the river. God knows how she got a permit to do it, but the fortunate patrons of the little cafe did not question their luck, simply accepting the sweet libations gratefully; pilgrims receiving alms at a monastery door. He had been a regular in his second year of undergrad, but hadn’t been much since. The two most loyal customers were still there, he observed with a smile, but the other faces had changed. The only other face which would be familiar to him, those indescribably strong and beautiful cheekbones and eyes, would be that of Sam. He hoped she’d show. He leaned back slightly as he rolled gently down the hill, his rough palms braking on the slick rims as he balanced his weight in the chair with expert familiarity.
Would that exquisite face of hers even be here? he wondered, and a kind of choking, desperate fear rose in his throat as he scanned the faces before him on that patio. It vanished in a puff of cartoon smoke when, after a wild few seconds, he saw her, sitting right on the edge, reclining in a chair with her chin raised slightly to the dappled sky above her. The table she’d picked was at the end of a runway of decking wide enough to launch a 747 from. It was the first time he’d seen her hair loose and unrestrained by the thick rope of her Dutch braid, and now it tumbled down her back in gorgeously sensuous waves. He felt an urge to run his fingers through it. Instead, he set his hands to his push rims and wheeled along to the table she had chosen. Had she deliberately picked this easy-to-get-to spot? He became convinced of it when she stood gracefully and moved a chair out of his way so he could slide in opposite her.
Alex could not get one nagging question out of his mind, and it suddenly burst from him, about fifty questions sooner than he’d intended. “When we were talking in the library on Wednesday, and you saw this –” he indicated the scar, trying not to be too savage about it, “– and you saw the way I walk, or… not… Did you… I mean… what did you think?” Nice one, Norwood, he thought, fire a question at her straight away about whether being a crip is an issue… He waited nervously for her response. Fuck it. I can always bail, and I never have to see her again.
It was obvious that he’d but the fox in the henhouse with his stupidly brazen question, but on reflection, he was glad he’d got it out of the way. They moved on, almost naturally, to college life, leaving the spectre of his wheelchair behind, for the most part.
His mood was brightened further by the mysterious light that seemed to emanate from her laughing eyes and by the way her hair shimmered in the strong, bright, English summer sun. Even the bloody patronising waitress was only a passing summer shower, thanks to Sam’s vivaciousness. She was beautiful, but not in the normal sense: she was strong, almost masculine looking, and her skin wasn’t exactly the clearest, but her beauty was the kind of rugged beauty you get in the wilds of Scotland, and it nearly overwhelmed him.
He could not have described what his heart did, when she first of all knew what Ghost in the Shell was, but then when she bared all her geekery to him, wearing the ‘misbehave’ octopus like a proud escutcheon, he couldn’t believe his luck. He had to take a mental wheel backwards for a second and take stock of what he had just discovered: a girl that seemingly wasn’t put off by his wheelchair; a girl who was into anime; a girl who not only knew what Firefly was, but had the associated clothing. This has to be too good to be true, he thought as he squirmed with mingling pleasure and apprehension. “She likes Firefly,” he found himself saying with glee.
What was that silent communication in her eyes? He’d not seen that look since, well, since Olivia, and before the accident. It couldn’t be... Suddenly the temporary dam, which her penchant for an obscure Japanese anime and American space-steampunk had created, buckled and all the tide of self doubt poured in like a river, bold and boisterous with winter swell.
Sam was speaking again and he forced himself out of his crushing whirlpool of uncertainty to listen. “Have you seen the new Avengers movie?” He shook his head mutely. “I’ve heard good things about it - you know, as a playful, trashy, hundred and thirty minutes of fun - we could go and see it some time if you like?”
At this, three thoughts crashed simultaneously through his mind like a trio of cheetahs on crack: Did she just ask me out on a date? Am I that out of practice that the girl asks me first? More to the point, she likes me enough to be that forward? ”S-sure,” he stammered in disbelief. “But you probably don’t want to go to the cinema with a cripple.”
His words clearly shocked her and she frowned. “Why not?”
He smiled sadly. “Crip seats are right at the front, so it’ll be too close and too loud...”
Sam’s sighing smile was visible, and it dragged the tension from her shoulders with it. “If that’s the price I have to pay for going with you, I’ll happily pay up.”
Alex wanted to giggle like a small toddler with a plate of chocolate biscuits. “I...” he started to say something, but then changed his mind. “That’s great. I’d love to. Do you know when it’s on?”
She shook her head and fished in her pocket. He assumed she was going to check it on a smartphone, but then she said, “I would look up the times now, but...”
She drew out a blocky, blue Nokia 3310 and he laughed at the outdated absurdity of it. Seeing she could tell it was a good-natured laugh, he said, “Christ, I didn’t think people used fossils like that any more! You should donate it to a technology museum...”
Feigning indignation, she raised a hand to her chest and said, “It works perfectly, thank you very much. It does everything I need it to.”
“Except find you film times,” he added playfully. He suddenly noticed a scar on her wrist as she waved the phone around. It was long, very thin, and mathematically straight; the type of scar he recognised all too well from the small collection on his own body. A surgery scar.
“Yeah,” she admitted, not realising where his eye had snagged momentarily. “But it means I have to rely on my sciency friends for aid, and it makes them feel useful and important, and sometimes even superior, to their poor peasant friend who will have to scratch around in the dirt for a living while they form the next Google...”
Alex snorted a laugh that burst unexpectedly from the pit of his lungs. “Maybe you’ll dig up an Anglo-Saxon Nokia,” he said and she laughed.
“It’d be a Viking one, surely,” she added, her eyes flashing playfully.
Alex snorted a laugh. “But you’re going to think I’m all haughty if I take my Android out and use it to find a film time,” he said.
Her smile was coy as she replied. “No I won’t,” she said, and he smirked lopsidedly at her playful combativeness, “Because if you don’t take it out, I can’t go and watch it with you. I’ll just have to camp out outside the cinema in the hope that you turn up for one of the showings, but that doesn’t seem like a very solid strategy for success...” She nodded once, like a small child making up its mind, and said, “No, I’ll just have to be the damsel in distress with the antiquated technology and wait for a knight to tell me what time The Avengers is on.” She finished with another nod.
Oh god, he thought, don’t fuck this one up, Norwood. He drew out his phone, tapped it a few times with his thumb, brought up cinema times for Cambridge, and said, “How about Sunday at seven?”
“Done,” she said, without hesitation. “It’s a date.”