Chapter Three – Cramps and Champagne
Pain seared up Alex’s leg like a distress flair that vanishes into a velvet sky. It had careered from the arch of his foot, taking a diversion around his knee, drifting like a boy-racer round a roundabout, before heading up his thigh and hip where it revelled peevishly in his pelvis and lower back before evaporating in a quivering wake. He gasped quietly, clutching a trembling hand to his right thigh, rubbing it between the struts of his KAFO’s. Well this is going to be damned attractive, he thought bitterly, trying to keep the pain from his face, and from Sam, who sat like some kind of goddess across the table from him.
It suddenly dawned on him that he’d not cathed for over four and a half hours, and it was high time he got back to the apartment which he shared with Will, before a nearly full bladder provoked spasms which would definitely prevent him from ever getting home from the library. Slight panic began to rise in his chest as he thought how helpless he’d be without his chair if his legs began to spasm badly half way home. Reminding himself of the concerned look that his older brother had given him that morning in the living room before he’d left for the maths department, despite not even knowing Alex was planning a hike to the library on his crutches, put Alex in an even fouler mood, and it festered with the hovering fear that he wouldn’t make it home. Time to leave.
He could see, even with his one blind eye and without looking directly at her, that Sam was watching him subtly. She’d find out about this sooner or later anyway, he sighed inwardly. Might as well let her see now and give her the choice to back out. Two days should give her plenty of time to come up with an inventive excuse to bail from a date with a crip.
Getting out was painful and awkward in more ways than one, but once he had hobbled free of the tangle of chairs, he risked a glance back at Sam, masochistic as he had ever been, expecting to see horror or revulsion on her face. When he saw the smile that she offered him, like he was a life-long friend and not some crippled stranger who’d just asked her out for coffee, his hopes rose, billowing upwards and forming themselves into a phoenix of confidence, for a few moments at least. “See you,” he said, that new hope suffusing his words. Please don’t trip, please don’t fall, please don’t slip, he thought as he swung mechanically over the shiny lino floor towards the doors, his feet dragging slightly in a way that clearly betrayed his lack of movement.
What on earth possessed this girl to accept my offer? he thought, full of wonder. He wasn’t about to question it too deeply though; he was thrilled.
It was a long crutch back to the apartment on King’s Parade. His family had owned it for generations, Cambridge academics the lot of them, and it had passed to Will and Alex on the death of their mother six years earlier. It overlooked the wedding-cake screen of King’s College, with the great hulking chapel just a stone’s throw from their windows.
As Alex slid the key into the lock, his palms were throbbing, his shoulders were burning, and his legs were really beginning to complain. He knew he shouldn’t have been on his crutches for almost an entire week now, and he thought crossly as he ditched his rucksack by the door that he’d probably have to take a few days in his chair to recover. He balked at the idea of turning up for his coffee date in the chair, but at this rate it was looking more and more likely.
Then, as he crutched slowly across the room towards his chair, he caught the tip of his toe on a beautiful Persian rug, and he went sprawling, flying through the air towards a coffee table which seemed to come careering up to meet him. Pain seared in his elbow as he collided with the corner of the table, and he couldn’t untangle himself from his crutches in time to break his fall properly. “Shit!” he swore as he landed on top of the crutches like a set of pick-up sticks. The impact of the fall set his legs spasming within their cage-like braces. He rolled himself round and reached his strong fingers down his leg in an attempt to release the KAFO’s, and, after the fourth or fifth try, he managed to unlock them so that he could at least ease the tug-of-war going on between his legs and the braces. He sat there for a good five minutes, nursing the cramping, burning muscles, willing them to relax, until he finally felt a slight letting up in intensity. His compact, rigid-frame chair was a foot or two out of reach from where he had fallen; it was sleeping quietly and politely at the far end of the sofa, too far away even to hook it with a crutch. He’d come crashing down between a heavy coffee table and the sofa, and couldn’t manoeuvre or shuffle along the ground to it either. If I can get onto the sofa, I can get into my chair.
He was so acutely aware of the need to cath that he was too hasty in arranging his legs so that he could heave his backside up onto the sofa. Each time he got his feet together and his knees bent, his right leg would spasm and send it slithering out in front of him.
At this rate, he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t take his braces off, and he couldn’t get to his chair. Without being in that chair, he would never make it to the bathroom where his small pharmacy of medicines were arranged in a neat order in a cabinet without dislodging the contents of his bladder everywhere. He snatched a glance at the Mondaine, Swiss station clock, which proclaimed the time in its efficiently stylish way, sitting on a blank buttress of wall between two groaning, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Will should be home soon. Please God, let him come home soon, he thought pleadingly.
By the time the frazzled-looking young man with straw-coloured blond hair and piercing blue eyes practically fell through the door twenty minutes later, Alex’s pain had increased, and both his legs were still spasming riotously, the pain growing to more acidic levels as the pressure built up in his bladder.
Will took one look at his brother’s ashen, slightly sweat-sheened face, and dropped his laptop bag on the threshold, exclaiming, “Alex!” darting forward. “Holy shit, what happened?”
Alex’s dark eyes looked imploringly up at him, somewhat vague and unfocused. “Spasms,” he croaked.
“How long have you been like this?” Will asked, “Did you take your meds?” He was frantic; he was a mathematician, not a doctor, and seeing his little brother like this again, in this much distress, was a thing of the past he’d thought. Alex mutely shook his head. “Why the hell not?” Will snapped, looking down at his brother’s jittering legs.
“I… I tripped,” he said hoarsely, his face suddenly flushing despite the pain. “Didn’t have time to cath before –” a single, sharp jerk tore quickly at the bone and muscle of his thigh and he gulped down a gasp laced with bile.
“You should have called me,” Will said gently.
Alex nodded at his rucksack and uttered gruffly, “Phone’s over there, and I’ve not been back that long.”
The calm in his voice was deceptive, and the frustration had been building in him until it had almost reached fever-pitch. Will dashed for the bathroom, and he rifled manically through the various tubs of pills, searching for the one that would ease those spasms. While Will was gone, Alex bent forward again, hand on his thigh trying once more to make his right leg stop quivering by stretching out his hamstring, and he felt a creeping dampness in his jeans and smelled ammonia. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” he fumed as his eyes rolled shut in shame.
When he brought the meds to his brother, who’s dark eyes were brimming with emotion, Will noted the discolouration around the top of Alex’s jeans, and the slight smell. Alex followed his gaze and rolled his eyes feverishly. They were so full of shame that Will’s heart went out to him. “Here,” he said, shuddering slightly as Alex dry-swallowed the pills.
With the meds in his system, the spasms quickly began to recede, leaving behind joints and muscles which cringed like they’d been soaked in a strong caustic. White and still shaking, he reached an unsteady hand out in the vague direction of his chair, his heart plunging like a lead rocket to the pit of his stomach. It galled him to need his brother to fetch it from where it sat, only a step or two from the end of sofa, and set it up for him to do a transfer.
From where he had slumped on the floor, he put his hand around the cold metal of the vertical bar of his chair, gripped it grimly and prepared to lift his body into seat of his chair. He had raised himself from the ground no problem, but suddenly the elbow which he’d bashed as he’d fallen began to stab and shake, and his arms folded in surprise beneath his weight. He collapsed, slithering towards the floor, bashing his backside on the footplate. Will found his feet lurching forward, darting to clutch Alex under the arms, hauling him upwards like a sack of coal.
Alex’s shame only deepened. It reminded him of the first time he’d attempted a transfer in rehab. He gritted his teeth in resignation. I’m sitting in a puddle of my own urine, wiped out, and only twenty four years old. Not quite what I’d seen for myself six years ago…
Will didn’t need to ask him if he wanted help changing. He knew his brother well enough to spare him that. He just wheeled him to his room, and when Alex had undone the button of his jeans, Will mechanically slid his trousers off over his brother’s legs which were still dancing around uncooperatively, before gently undoing the straps of his KAFO’s, which mercifully weren’t too damp, and removing his soaked boxers while Alex pushed himself up on his hands to help, finally sliding a towel beneath Alex’s cold buttocks before he set himself down again.
Lifting his weight up a bit to help Will, Alex had cringed as he’d caught the acrid smell, and, for the first time in months, cursed his injury bitterly. His brother pushed him silently to the bathroom, using the low bar along the back of his chair, and aligned him for a transfer to the shower bench which straddled the bath, before locking the break and hooking an arm under Alex’s own muscled arms, and seeing him safely into place. Once there, he left him to it. At the doorway, Will called over his shoulder, “Call if you need anything.”
Will would have been lying if he had said he wasn’t straining his ears for any abnormal sounds. He knew the kind of noises which jarred against the background tapestry of sound from the shower: a bottle dropping; the soft flump of a body sliding from the shower stool; the skitter of limbs on a tiled floor… He’d not had to listen for them in years, and the thought made him uneasy now.
He pretended to sort the contents of his bag out, absentmindedly drawing his phone out and checking his emails before making a cup of tea and hovering aimlessly around the small kitchen area. Once, he did catch the sound of a plastic bottle crashing to the floor and had almost darted through the doorway, but he hung back and chided himself when he glimpsed Alex leaning forward, with resignation writ large on his stern face, his great toned biceps in stark contrast to the slightly withered and atrophied legs as he picked up the shampoo bottle from where it lay in the bath by his soft, and unmoving feet.
Still hanging around in the kitchen, Will heard Alex transfer from the shower, heard the gasp of pain and the grunt of resignation, and a moment later, his blue eyes were drawn to the door where his little brother was slowly pushing the rims of his chair over the hardwood floor to his bedroom. Without a word or a glance to Will, Alex disappeared into his room, closing the door behind him with a flick of his left hand.
Alone in the immaculately tidy room, summer rays gilding the white architrave, Alex sighed. He’d not had spasticity this bad in years. He looked down at his legs; to his eyes they seemed thin, but not horribly emaciated. They did look weak and pale to him as they lay there, inert, deceptively still and quiet within the frame of the dark chair. He ran a hand over his thigh, testing the sensation, knowing where it faded like a landscape into the fog and where it remerged, even more sensitive than it had been before the accident. Had he simply over-done lately and just forgotten to cath today or was he due for his second ever major infection? He remembered the first time he’d got an infection, probably from not cleaning the cath out properly or something – he’d been delirious and ended up in hospital for a week. Not this time, he thought, please, not this time. Let it just be the fact that I’ve overdone it.
Trying to take his mind off his physical misery, he thought of Sam, and wondered if she’d show. She probably thought he was only on crutches; a temporary injury maybe. Tip of the iceberg, he thought sourly, hoping this whole situation wasn’t about to do a Titanic on him. He also wondered how quickly she’d bail if he turned up in a chair, and endeavoured not to picture her face as he arrived on wheels at The Meadows, guiding the chair between the gingham table cloths towards where she sat, eyes wide, teacup forgotten half way between saucer and lips, mouth hanging slightly open as she spluttered and forced her reeling brain to conjure wild excuses to leave… Stop it. Just deal with that when you come to it, he scolded himself. You never know, she might not be like Olivia. As he sullenly pulled his t-shirt over his dripping, black hair, he snarled aloud, “Who are you kidding, Alex Norwood? She’ll be just like all the others.”
Cold, sticky liquid exploded in her face. She tried to scream, but it bubbled down her throat and made her cough and splutter. Dan yelled something, but she couldn’t hear because she now had Sainsbury’s cava pouring down her ear canal too. “I hate this stupid tradition!” she finally yelled, ducking out of the way as Dan shook the bottle and a fresh wave of cheap, imitation champagne flung itself recklessly at her long plait.
Sam and the other archaeologists, as well as a few students taking some other completely different paper like computer science, were causing quite a spectacle for the summer tourists as they left their last exam. Finally, when the whole display was over and she thought there could be no more cava, she flung her arms around Dan’s tall, lanky frame and squealed, “I’ve finished! I’ve finished my degree!” over and over in his ear until he had to peel her off him in order to give her a reply.
Re-inflating his lungs after her vice-like grasp, he spluttered, “Yes! Let’s go and get drunk!”
Her smile flickered and faded. “How about we just hang out instead?”
Annie, the girl who had sat next to her in lectures all year, and who fairly worshipped her, came up behind them and squeaked, “Yes, let’s go and get drunk! We’ve finished our degrees!” before she’d registered Sam’s response.
Unaware that she was being watched by dark eyes from a distance, Sam backed away, preparing to spring like a gazelle down the tarmac surface of King’s Parade. As Dan launched a second attack with the dregs of the cava, seconded by Annie and a small knot of friends, she kicked her powerful legs into action. That day those legs were hugged by close-fitting black leggings, and she sprinted away in the opposite direction from the stern-looking Senate House like an athlete on a track.
Alex remembered every overheard syllable of Sam’s conversation with her friend Dan in the tea rooms the previous day, so he knew that at half past four that day, that enchanting and intriguing girl would be leaving the exam hall to face a soaking in cheap cava by a loitering squad of friends. He smiled as the first few people came out, hanging back like wildebeest at the edge of a surging river, no one wanting to be the first to exit the perimeter of the Senate House fencing.
He was still feeling weak from the previous day’s spasms, and because of the lingering fire in the joints of his legs he was sitting in his sporty, black chair beside the large sash-windows of the Georgian apartment. He’d been juggling the activities of reading a physics paper with people-watching from the high apartment windows for an hour or so, letting the sunlight wash over him, and almost imagining he was a plant that could be revived with a bit of gentle light. His legs ached, and every now and again his right leg would give a threatening pulse, like thunder running before rain. He prayed there would be no storm.
Then there she was, walking confidently through the milling people outside the big classical building, heading for the black gates which guarded the perfect, emerald green Senate House lawn, and kept back the throng of waiting friends, all armed with their beverages of choice. My God! he thought as he saw the long, comfortable looking, pale blue shirt she wore, belted casually at the waist, and the dark leggings. She looked like Superwoman on her day off, dressed as her alter-ego who had just stepped from her boyfriend’s apartment, wearing his shirt in the morning. Minus the boyfriend, it was a perfect image.
He couldn’t keep the smirk from his lips at the scene which then unfolded: her shock at the faceful of high-pressured liquid; her laughter; her outcry; her joyous, crazy-fast sprint down the street, dodging cyclists and tourists with all the agility of a cheetah. “How can this girl be interested in me?” he wondered aloud, muttering under his breath.
“What?” Will’s voice disturbed his thoughts and Alex jumped, forgetting that his brother had decided to work from home that day as ‘he didn’t need to go into the department’, apparently. Alex knew why he’d stayed, and the happy balloon inside his chest deflated a little. Nevertheless, he was as grateful as he was horrified to know that if those spasms should flare up again, Will would be there.
He’d always been there, Alex mused, looking at his bookish brother sitting cross-legged on the sofa with a coffee table pulled right up to the cushions’ edge, with pieces of white A4 paper spilling around him so that he looked like a frog on a lily flower, the blue sofa becoming the surface of a still pond. Thought processes rippled across Will’s face from time to time, and spilled out over the paper surrounding him, leaving a wave of scribbled symbols and letters behind it on their surfaces. For the past four hours, he had hardly moved, except for the biro which had squiggled away furiously. Alex’s eyesight wasn’t good enough to see what he was working on, but he knew that few people had the brainpower to appreciate the pure, poetic, elegant beauty of Will’s PhD thesis.
Then from seemingly nowhere, Alex was suddenly gripped with a wild and masochistic urge to go outside and wheel around, perhaps to go and find Sam, wherever she’d got to, and maybe let her see him from a distance in his chair. He turned back to the window, trying to spot her, almost pressing his scarred cheek against the cold glass. The sensation grew in him until he could bear it no longer, and he said, “I’m heading out. You want anything from town?”
“What?” Will repeated the same sound to a different stimulus from his brother, returning only slowly to the normal plain of existence. “You’re going out?”
“That’s what I said,” Alex said, just the hint of a snarl tickling his white teeth.
Will’s frown was fleeting, but unconcealed. “Where are you going?”
Dark locks of hair shuddered as Alex made a side-to-side movement with his head. “Not sure. Might go down to the weir.”
“The river?” Will’s interest was piqued. “You want to be alone?” He knew his brother’s moods, but he couldn’t seem to make this one out.
Alex’s face was pensive for a moment, and then he said, “No, I guess not. You want to come too?” Will was not the typically ‘outdoors’ type, and his interest in a walk puzzled him. He hoped Will wasn’t feeling the need to play nursemaid.
Will nodded and said, “Give me a couple of minutes to extract myself from this mess,” he waved a vague hand at the reams of paper which hemmed him in. “I think my brain could use a change, and a breath of oxygen.”
Alex barked a laugh and turned his eyes back to the street, but Sam was nowhere to be seen. The larger girl who had trailed them out from the exam hall was just disappearing out of sight past a dirty little alleyway between King’s and St. Catharine’s, which was known locally, charmingly, as ‘Piss Alley’. They were heading for the river.
The stair-lift was a godsend. It had been expensive to install, but since the family owned the building outright, the little shop below it had given enough income from rent money to pay for it after Alex’s accident. After six years of trundling up and down, he’d become pretty efficient, and developed a knack for carrying his chair whilst riding the slow-moving lift. Reaching the bottom, and transferring neatly to the soft seat of the chair, Alex readjusted his weight, then guided the wheels down the tiny threshold step, leaning back slightly as he bumped down, the force of which made his knees knock together. Out on the busy street, he tried his best to ignore the six or seven sideways looks he immediately got, and the outright stare of several unabashed children. That’s right, stare at the cripple with the funny legs, he thought, his mood curdling a little in the warmth of the day.
Will rested a hand on the back of Alex’s shoulder in the briefest of gestures after he had pulled the door shut behind them, and the two of them set off in the direction of the river.
The waters of the River Cam, normally so still and green, gushed over the weir looking like twisted glass, tangled with strands of green weed. Mallards dabbled their yellow feet in the cool water, and a pair of swans promenaded along the towpath, giving condescending looks to humans, dogs and ducks alike as they strolled past. Alex waited while Will held open the heavy metal gate to the pasture which kept the cows in and the solo cripples out, and then cruised smoothly over the asphalt surface of the towpath, letting the roar of the water fill his ears and drown out the whispers of a group of school children who could not help themselves. He sighed as the wind rustled through the melancholic willows, testing their fingers in the water as though keen to join the ducks. Darwin College library with its wooden planks looked like a chandler’s store or a shipwright’s workshop, but its only output was graduate degrees, sailing out in a fairly steady stream, only to be lost in a vast ocean of other academics. Alex smiled as he thought of the brilliance of the mind that was next to him, strolling along with his head lost in string theory most likely.
A high shriek tore through the hazy summer air, and both brothers looked over to the low, green meadow beyond the weir. Alex recognised the blue shirt, the flailing plait, the bright laugh. What am I doing? he suddenly thought. She’ll see me and then I won’t stand a chance.
The cold hand of doubt clutched at his lungs and heart, and the steady rhythm of bicep-hand-wheel faltered, fingers slowing the wheels of his chair with their gentle friction. Will stopped a step or two ahead of him and turned, seeing Alex’s head downcast and his face wracked with some emotion. “You ok?” he asked sharply, noticing that Alex’s right knee was bobbing up and down with a kind of rude impatience.
Alex clamped a hand on it to stop it, and he said sadly, “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just…”
“What?” Will was standing square in front of him, his soft chinos and his checked shirt crumpled in a way particular to academics the world over.
Alex afforded himself a smile at the observation, despite his inner turmoil. Storm in a teacup, he tried to convince himself. “Ach,” he exclaimed, making a face. “You know I said I was going for coffee with that girl from the UL?” Will nodded slowly, glancing around, beginning to catch on. “Well… she’s over there.”
Will followed the single nod of Alex’s handsome head, and he squinted his eyes for a better look. “Wow,” he breathed, impressed.
Sam’s blue shirt – at least Alex hoped it was hers, and not that boyfriend’s which he had imagined earlier – was now clinging to her lithe body, soaked in cava. “Yeah,” he concurred. “The thing is… she doesn’t know about this.” He gestured limply to the wheels of his chair, not realising he’d just given away the fact that he’d crutched all the way back from the UL, a distance of only half a mile, but further than Alex should probably have crutched after four days of standing. Evidently so, after the spasm and cath debacle.
“You weren’t in your chair on Wednesday?” Will asked sharply. “Alex!” His tone was as admonishing and stern. “I thought… No wonder you –”
“Will, I’ve gone that long before, and besides” he said evenly, cutting through Will’s exclamation. “I need a brother right now – a wingman – not a father, ok?”
Will inhaled deeply, as though trying to crush his initial response with a ton of air. “Right. Sorry.” Then his face became as much of a question as Alex’s, both reading “what’s the next move?” in their soft, handsome yet very different features.
Alex made up his mind, set calloused palms to rims, pushed forward, and made his way along the towpath, keeping her in his sights as best he could, having to turn his head sharply towards her to allow his left eye, his good eye, to drink in the scene.
She stopped in her game, dodging Dan’s reaching hand, and coming to an abrupt halt, plait catching up with her and swinging like a leather whip. Her legs were slightly apart, braced from her sudden stop, and her hands rested in soft fists at her side. She was looking directly at him, and she knew exactly who he was.