The meal was beautiful. I loved the way Caleb ate, his movements calculated and careful, while his laughter was anything but. I swear the couple in the corner gave us the dirtiest look when they headed out of the dining room at around ten o’clock.
We stayed longer than that, and after a painfully slow crawl up the stairs for Caleb, his hip clearly grinding in the socket, all the effort of travelling having taken a lot of the starch out of him, we stepped back into our glacially white room and I flicked on a light.
A little while later, I thought how the splash of running water, muted to my ears by the thick bathroom door, mingled with the rain on the window and made the whole world seem awash. I hoped it wouldn't dissolve away outside while we slept. As I passed the ornate mirror standing on the tall dresser, I caught a glimpse of the smile that had been on my face since the moment we got to the B&B, and it only strengthened as I was reminded of Caleb’s response to my present when I saw the cheeky little cufflinks in their box on the dresser below the mirror.
I sniffed, hoping I wasn’t getting a cold, and moved across the room to his bedside table where there was a box of floral scented tissues. I wondered if he'd noticed them, or would mind their slightly obnoxious presence. His phone buzzed on the table as I drew a sheet of tissue free, and my eye was drawn to the screen as it lit up in the low light of the room. The message fitted perfectly onto the large screen of his smartphone, and my eyes bulged and my heart lurched as I read it. I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help it.
Darling! Fucking miss you! Happy New Year! So good to see you on xmas eve. I'm free next week, so what do you say we pick up where we left off on that hot, dusty afternoon at that FOB near Sangin? Lots of love, Millie xoxo
I didn't think anyone wrote 'xoxo' any more.
Wait, darling? What the hell? Who was this woman? How much did she mean to him if she was calling him darling? I didn't call him anything other than 'Caleb' so what right had she been given to call him 'darling'? And just what exactly was she hoping to pick up again after that 'hot dusty afternoon'?
The language of her text had a decidedly military flavour. ‘FOB’ was a ‘forward operating base’, and Sangin was a district in Helmand Province that had seen some really heavy fighting. I knew as much from Luke, but I didn’t remember meeting any girls when I’d been introduced to his unit. I sank onto the bed. And then as a few early fireworks began to pop in the distance, it came to me.
I vaguely remembered Banjo that had called some girl ‘fucking mint’ when they’d been talking about an army medic they’d had with their unit for a while. Was this the same girl? My stomach sank as I imagined some svelte, athletic, Amazon warrior. I could be described as striking, with my green eyes and my red hair, but I was not beautiful, and I was certainly not some spectacular, life-saving, G.I. Jane. I’d not been to the gym in ages, and my jeans were starting to get tighter with all Kit’s wonderful culinary creations, and suddenly self-doubt washed over me in a horrible wave. What if Caleb was just with me because he was lonely, the way people settle for one thing when something better seems impossible? What if he and this Millie girl had been closer than we were now, and he really just wanted her? What if –
I undressed and sat on the bed, my mind racing with quiet and largely unfounded jealousy, for the remainder of Caleb's time in the bathroom. He seemed to be taking longer than usual, but that might have been more of a reflection of my state of mind than of his capabilities.
When he emerged he looked an absolute picture; wet hair all tousled and sexy, glasses off, his eyes closed, flicking slowly back and forth beneath. Little droplets of water ran down his temples and cheeks from his hair, and his torso gleamed naked in the half light, with a white towel wrapped around his narrow hips, showing his lean, taught, tall body off in a way that pushed Millie out of my buzzing mind for a good long second or two. Using his black cane but without the brace, he limped more painfully, his right hip dipping more sharply with each step, his gait even more rolling and lilting than usual. I couldn't take my eyes from him.
"You still here?" he asked, smiling softly, speaking only half in jest, holding his hand out uncertainly before him as he approached the bed, still not 100% certain of everything's position in relation to the rest of the room.
“Yeah,” I said dejectedly, my voice giving him a radar ping and bringing him closer to me.
“You ok?” he asked immediately, perceptive and sharp as ever. “Wh-what’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” I said. It really could be nothing; just an overly-friendly text from a flirty girl. We all know girls like that, right? Emily's one of them for heaven's sake. “It’s late, and I’m just tired. Been a long day…”
“But a g-good one,” he added, fumbling slightly as he searched for me in his world of darkness. Butterflies stirred in me as they always did. He located my shoulder and brought his palm to my cheek and running the soft padding of his thumb over my face.
“Yeah,” I said. “You must be tired too,” I added.
He nodded, scratching the back of his head absentmindedly with the hand that had just been on my cheek. “Yup. Travelling always t-takes it out of me. M-must be nearly midnight...”
I toyed with the idea of telling him he’d got a text, but left it for now, and ducked into the bathroom, all my insecurities swirling around me like the hot steam in the air. Apart from puddles of water and the odd patch of soapy foam, he'd left the room impeccably neat, his leather washbag pressed against the wall, zip closed, toothbrush in the glass beside it, all easily locatable.
Millie. The name bothered me more than I would have expected it to. I had never been treated particularly awfully by a guy, but I had been cheated on. Though most people have been cheated on at some point, haven’t they? My hands braced my weight on the bathroom sink, and I stared at my reflection in the cloudy mirror, long hair falling around my pale face, turning me into a pre-Raphaelite damsel in distress. My sighed breath frosted the glass completely, and hid my face from view.
Caleb had never seen me. He’d seen Millie though. Would he compare us in his mind? What if he found me lacking?
But he’s a sweetheart, you said so yourself, I chided myself, splashing cold water on my face. Let it play out. “Give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s not done anything to make you doubt him so far, has he?” I told my vague reflection in a stern whisper. He’d apparently been open, and trusting, funny and sweet…
There was a knock at the door. “L-L-Lyss?”
“Yeah?” I said, turning quickly, startled by the interruption, worried he’d heard me.
“D-Did I l-l-leave a r-r-r-rectangular box of pills in there?”
I cast my eyes around and on the end of the unit saw a box with seven vertical compartments, each column divided up into four sections, a Braille tab stuck onto each section. “You mean a ‘Monday-to-Friday’ kind of dispenser box?”
“Yeah, it’s here. You can come in.”
The door opened slowly and he limped in a pace. He didn’t have either a cane or a brace to support him, and it was the most ‘helpless’ I’d ever seen him. His gait was truly awful without them. He hung onto the doorframe and smiled at me. “K-Kind of wobbly,” he chuckled, clearly embarrassed.
I tucked the box into his hand without saying anything.
He frowned, and lingered. “Y-you sure y-y-you’re ok?” he stammered. “Y-you’ve g-g-g… y-y-you've g-g-gone all qu-quiet on me…”
I looked at him and wondered if he could really be as good as he seemed. The old ‘too good to be true’ phrase kept flashing across my mind. I crossed the room and put my arms around his torso, his skin bare and smooth and cool as a Renaissance marble, burying my cheek against his chest. “I’m good,” I said. “I’m just quiet.”
“Ok,” he said, holding me back with a warmth in his gesture that reassured me. “Y-you had me w-w-worried for a second there…”
I pulled away and scrutinised his face. Stop it, I chided myself again. I leaned in and kissed him gently. STOP IT. You are not starting the new year like this.
“W-would y-you g-give me a hand g-getting back?” he asked, jerking his chin over his shoulder. “I thought my l-leg was feeling stronger than it is, and I’m not absolutely certain I’m not g-g-going to w-walk into something in this room…”
I wasn’t sure if he was asking for my help to make me feel better or not, but I gave him my shoulder and went with him til we were beside the table where his phone sat. His grip on my arm was painful, but it was the kind of pain that felt good, like pressing a bruise too hard.
“Thank you,” he muttered, his voice dark and quiet as he fumbled on the table for his phone before collapsing down onto the bed with a grunt and a gasp.
I couldn’t resist the temptation any longer. “Any messages?” I asked as I walked away toward the bathroom again. Glancing back I saw him fitting an earbud, fiddling slightly with it to make it sit comfortably.
“N-nothing from Nana or Amy,” he said after a few moments as I hung back in the doorway, “But... a couple from people in my old unit.”
“Yeah?” I asked, trying not to sound overly interested. I’d never been much of an actor, so, doubting my abilities, I kept my sentences short. “That’s nice. Anyone you’re particularly close to?”
“One from Banjo, which my phone is having tr-trouble r-reading out to me. I assume it’s because he’s so dr-drunk that he c-c-couldn’t type…” He laughed, and then turned a little sad.
There was a pause while he got the phone to read the next one, and I watched his face freeze, then fall. He was inscrutable as he put on a new expression and began to speak again, and I was not reassured in the slightest.
“The other is fr-from someone I u-used to be very cl-close to. Ex-g-girlfriend, actually.” My stomach flipped horribly, though I tried to take his immediate honesty as a good sign. “She was at that party I went to on Chr-Chr-Christmas Eve… Not sp-spoken much since we parted ways in Afghanistan, but she w-was there and we talked for a while.”
“Was it weird, her being there?” I asked, feeling adrenaline surging through my system. My inferiority complex was rearing its ugly head again. He’d been nothing but sweet to me, but I could see in his expression how much he cared for, or at least had cared for, this girl. Did he know he was showing me so much emotion? Had he shown her how much he cared for her at the Christmas Eve party? Stop it.
He paused, rubbing his beautifully clean-shaven chin. “Yeah. Yeah it was.”
“You go out with her for very long?” I asked numbly.
He didn’t answer right away. “She was w-w-with the unit for six months. W-we w-weren’t supposed to g-g-get involved w-with each other, l-let alone with superior officers.”
“She was your superior?” I gawped.
“No, I was hers. She was a medic, assigned to our unit after her predecessor got bl-blown up by a mine trying to save Mickey’s l-life.”
His bluntness shocked me. I was chilly, wearing only the white towelling dressing gown that had been hanging on the back of the door, and I shivered, goosebumps running up my arms and down my legs. I crossed the room and climbed onto the other side of the bed to listen to him.
His head moved slightly as my weight dipped the bed, his ear listening to the duvet crinkle. “We had chemistry immediately,” he sighed. “I tried to ignore it, but… when someone saves your life… it’s hard not to fall for them a bit…”
“She saved you?” Again, my heart lurched and then sank. As if I needed to hear how much more perfect this girl was.
He ran his hand absentmindedly down his left thigh to where a small knot of scar tissue was visible at the end of his tight boxers. “Bullet through the femoral artery…” he mumbled. He turned his face a little more to me and grinned cheekily, adding, “When a girl sits with her hands in your cr-crotch for half an hour waiting for an evac helicopter, swearing at you and telling you you’re not allowed to die, it’s hard not to form an attachment…”
I had to laugh, if only a little.
“After that, we both had some l-leave at the same time, c-came back to England for some R&R, and… c-came back a c-couple. We didn’t l-let it interfere with our duties, it was all very below the radar, and it w-was all fine…”
I could tell there was the mother of all ‘buts’ waiting at the end of that sentence, and kept quiet.
“We were really cl-close. I mean… I even l-looked for engagement r-r-rings and everything…”
I fought off tears. “What happened?” I managed to ask without sounding like I was going to choke or burst into tears. I think he detected my emotions but didn’t comment.
“She… she turned out not to be maybe qu-quite wh-what I thought she was.”
“In what way?”
“W-with me, she w-was always sincere. Fun and giggly and vivacious, but always sincere, and I l-loved her, but I overheard her talking one day and she just didn’t sound l-like the girl I knew. I w-wondered who it w-was I w-w-w-was asking to marry me: the sweet medic, or the fl-flipapnt party girl. I r-realised had no real idea…” He stretched, rubbing his right knee with his hand. “I n-never asked her in the end. She finished her tour and l-left the army, and I w-went back for another r-round. Had barely been back a w-w-w-week wh-wh-when I g-g-got myself bl-blown up and bl-blinded…”
I crawled over the bed to where he sat with his bare feet resting on the carpet, and looped my arms around his shoulders, tense and high, leaning into him, pressing my naked body against his bare, scarred back as the dressing gown curled open with my movement. His head rolled back and he came to rest against me.
“Are you ok?” I asked, feeling a maelstrom of emotions coursing inside me, from jealousy to sympathy and everything in between.
He nodded. “I’m tired,” he said. “Just need to sl-sleep next to you for a night or two…”
“I’m going to finish up in the bathroom, and then I’ll be right out.” I left him with a kiss and a rustle of the gown, the duvet crackling as I crawled back over it, and his ear quietly tracked my movement out of the room.
The face that stared back at me on my return to the bathroom was ashen, whether from the shock of his story, or finding out that Millie had been a real love of his for a time, or worrying about what reconnecting with her would mean for him, I wasn’t sure, but I did look awful.
When I came back into the room, Caleb was lying on his back, exquisitely shirtless, left arm thrown up over his head in his usual habit, right arm lying, palm down, on the bed, beside him. When he heard me close the bathroom door, he patted the sheet with that palm and smiled.
"Is this door ok closed?" I asked.
He nodded. "Now that I know it is, yeah," he grinned.
I slid in beside him, careful not to knock his leg, and clicked off the light.
As I lay with my cheek pressed into his shoulder, tracing the topography of the scars on his body, hearing him breathe slowly in and out, he suddenly spoke. "Does it bother you, hearing me talk about my l-life before?"
"Before I got blown up."
I was quiet for a few intakes of breath. "You know I don't love you despite your disabilities, don't you?" I said softly.
"You love me?" he asked, his voice husky.
Was that really the first time I'd said it? "Yes," I said calmly. "I love you."
"I'm sorry I brought her up then."
"What do you mean? Why?"
"The last thing you want to hear when you're falling in l-love with someone is how much they l-loved their exes. I'm sorry."
I laughed, feeling the knot of tension in my stomach suddenly uncurl, slithering apart like a living snake. "I can't be jealous of your past," I said. "I have no right to it." But like a greedy child, I wanted to claim it nonetheless.
His head moved suddenly closer to mine, and I felt the tip of his nose nudging against me, searching for a better picture of my face. "C-c-come here," he stuttered softly, his rib cage jerking with the unclean sound. "I need to k-kiss you for that."
I laughed softly, returning his kiss shyly as his lips found mine. He brought his other hand, the one that had been flung up over his head, down to my hips and he began to pull me into his body, gently, politely at first, and then with an urgency that set my skin on fire, fingers raking and almost clawing at me, desperate to feel more of me against him. I felt him growing hard against me. I bashed his knee as my own body woke up to what his wanted, and he broke the kiss with a hoarse grunt.
"I'm sorry," I gasped.
"Come back," he hissed, grabbing the back of my head and practically shoving me back into his kiss, crushing his lips into mine. "Come back."
Then there was a loud crack outside and I felt his whole body jolt and then freeze in terror. "Fireworks," I said softly, stroking his hair, watching the panic rise, unable to stop it. "Fireworks, Caleb. It's midnight."
His breathing had changed, from sexual breathlessness to frightened breathlessness, and I could feel his body begin to shake. His grip was so tight on me that pain shot along my nerves and I almost cried out.
"Come here, come to me," I said, pulling him close to my body with as soft and soothing a touch as I could manage through the pain of his hold on me.
"I hate fireworks," he moaned, sounding to my ears like a small boy. His hands clawed at my back, tugging his own body closer and closer to mine, his breath hitting my chest in a rush of heat and condensation. "They sound like SA80A2s..."
I didn't know how to make the panic stop, so I cradled him against me, stroking his hair, his head on my chest while his body shook and he whimpered helplessly, breathing sharp, rapid and rasping. I tried to comfort him, talking to him, telling him where we were, and what we were going to do the next day, but I didn't know how much difference it made.
Eventually, after a long ten minute display, the fireworks stopped, but the shaking didn't for a good five minutes after that. Sweat slickened his skin and his bad leg was spasming insistently against mine.
I swept his damp, dark hair back for the umpteenth time, my fingers running along furrows I'd ploughed over and over, but as I did, he moved his hand to catch mine, taking it and pressing it against his cheek. Then, like a gentleman in an old fashioned movie, he took my fingers and brought them to his lips, kissing them softly one by one. He ran his fingertips over some old workshop scars on my fingers, and kissed them over and over. Then, without a word, he reached behind my head and drew my forehead down, leaving a single kiss there.
"I love you," he whispered after another few minutes of quiet in the darkness. "I love you, I love you, I love you."
"You back with me?" I asked.
He nodded. "Yes, I'm am. I'm sorry. I... I just..."
"You don't need to explain it," I said gently. "Luke's the same with his triggers. I know what a deep and immediate thing it is." What I didn't say is that Luke rarely had panic attacks these days. His terrors came to him in his dreams instead. The thought of Luke, and of assault rifle sounds, made the bile rise in my throat, but I forced myself to concentrate on Caleb.
He just held me, breathing settling, sweat evaporating slowly, one hand resting on my hip, the other lost somewhere beneath his own body. I listened to that breathing even out until Caleb had fallen asleep in my arms. "Happy New Year," I whispered into his hair, leaving the softest kiss I could manage.
I woke to a slight change in the light, to the dawn creeping in, at around half seven, and saw that he had hardly moved all night. His head was still slightly off my pillow, and he was occupying a good two thirds of the bed. The need to fidget suddenly swept over me in an uncontrollable wave, and feeling like an otter on a riverbank, I wiggled and shuffled over onto my other side, praying I wouldn't wake him. He surfaced a little, but didn't wake fully, and as I settled and became 'little spoon', he reached sleepily out for me and pulled me closer to him, and I slid down into a doze, waking over an hour later to find him snoring sweetly in my ear.
He was subdued as we stirred and got ready, and I noticed how careful and measured his movements were around the room, even after he’d put his brace on. I’d watched him, fascinated, as he slid the long, protective sock over the strangely shaped muscles of his leg, and had then clamped the familiar clutches of his brace around him. Loose jeans slid over the top, and, torso naked, he went over to his rucksack and fished out a t-shirt from it. Undoing a safety pin from the label, he said, "This one ok?"
"Charcoal grey," I smiled as he found the sleeves and stuffed it over his head. "Suits you."
"Is there somewhere safe I c-c-c-can leave this tag?" he asked.
“Here,” I said, going over and touching the back of my hand against his, silently asking him to give it to me rather than taking it off him. “I’ll put it in the empty ash tray in front of the mirror on the dresser. Is that ok?”
“Thank you. Don’t l-l-l-let me forget it…”
“I can pin it to my bag if you’d rather…?”
“Wh-whatever,” he said flippantly, “As l-long as it doesn’t g-g-g-g…” he broke off, his chest spasming violently as the stammer stuck the word to the back of his throat, head nodding as the gulping refused to come out or to stop. I thought his glasses might slide off his nose with the force of the movement. “Excuse me, g-g-get l-left behind.” With a casual scrape of his hands thorough his gorgeously tousled hair, he added, “R-R-Ready to head downstairs?” He paused where he stood at the end of the bed, close to it, the folded back duvet gently resting against his leg to locate him in the room.
“Yup,” I chirped, pulling my wet hair back off my face. “I just want to plait my hair up. Give me a minute or two…”
He shuffled closer, dark cane tapping dully on the spongy carpet, shoe sole hissing on the pale fibres as his right foot dragged worse than normal. He was listening to the rustle of my heavy, wet hair slithering between my strong, jeweller’s fingers and of the fabric of my shirt as I moved my arms. He came slowly closer and closer to me, until he limped to a stop at my elbow, which drove softly into his sternum like a buffer stopping a halting train at a station. His free left hand fumbled quietly in the air until he found my waist and ran his fingers gently around my body, pulling me against him so that we now stood like big spoon, little spoon.
“You’re not helping, you know?” I smiled coyly, looking over my shoulder at him while trying to contain my hair into a three-strand braid.
“I know,” he grinned quietly.
My green eyes flashed back at me, reflected in the lenses of his glasses.
“I didn’t c-c-come over here to help you…” he added, sliding his fingers cheekily beneath the inside of the waistband of my jeans, just enough to stir a tingle in me, but not quite enough to make me pounce on him. He played my body like a guitar, I noted as he snuck up under my shirt and traced the soft contours of my stomach and then my back and up my spine.
Somehow I finished my plait and flipped it over my shoulder so it hung down my back like a ship’s rope. The tip brushed his hand and he caught it, playing with it like a kitten with yarn, then began tracing the ridges and twisting folds of the hair, and I heard him utter a soft moan as he worked up the braid. His hand reached the nape of my neck and he gave a playful, slowly-pressured tug, yanking me back in slow motion so that I tipped backwards into his body, the two of us buttressed up by the brace, and by the cane in his right hand. He dipped his lips close to my ear, his nose again searching along the contours of my cheek to tell him the topography, and he found my neck, and kissed me. His lips moved over my neck and up to my ear, and he began to nibble at my earlobe while his hand continued to run over those parts of my body that he had access to.
“Caleb, we’re… we’re going to be… we’re going to miss… breakfast if…” I said, finding speech almost as difficult as he did.
“I’d better st-st-stop then,” he stammered deliciously from somewhere behind my ear.
I reached my hands back behind me and found his lower back and tight cheeks through his jeans.
“Y-Y-You do that, and I might n-n-not be able to st-stop…”
“Alright then,” I sighed dramatically. “One of us will have to be the grown up and act, otherwise we won’t eat.” I turned around in the circle of his arms and kissed him squarely on the lips, feeling his smile growing beneath it. “And I get really cranky if I don’t get breakfast,” I added.
His glasses were on, and I was seized by a sudden impulse. I reached my hands up and lifted the glasses free of his face for a moment. I think it was the first time I’d been quite so forward about an aspect of his disability, and I was chastised for my impudence by seeing the lids scrunch protectively for a moment, eyes beneath rolling rapidly and relentlessly, causing the lashes to flicker up and reveal the milky surface beneath.
“L-L-Lyss,” he croaked, self-consciousness flooding in to wash out all the want and desire from his body. “L-Lyss, it’s n-not a g-g-good day for m-my eyes, I…” he took a step back.
“Don’t,” I whispered, laying a soft finger lightly on his lips. “Trust me… please, trust me…”
“I do,” he gasped nervous and uncertain again as the first time we’d kissed, and I could see his tension knotting, but not tightening. “I’m just…”
I leaned close to him. “I know. But I love you…” and I laid a kiss right on the corner of his left eye, on the orbital bone near his temple. “And I love these too.”
He let out the breath I hadn’t realised he’d been holding.
“You forgot that, didn’t you?” I laughed, stepping back half a pace to give him a molecule or two of air.
Caleb’s smile, I thought, was ordinarily the most beautiful thing in the world, but that one of astonished relief made my heartbeat jump strangely. “Yeah,” he breathed. “I did. C-Come on. L-L-Let’s g-get g-g-going before there’s no food l-l-left and this nice Al-l-lyssa becomes a c-cranky one… eh?”
“Ok,” I chuckled, leaving one last kiss on his soft cheek and turning away.
To my surprise, even shock, his hand flew to my wrist and he grabbed me hard, and said sternly, “L-Lyss…”
“What?” I asked, confused by the change in his tone.
“I’ll have those back now, if y-you don’t mind…”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “I’m sorry!” And I slid the glasses into his open palm feeling like an inadvertent shoplifter.
He took my arm with tenderness after that and I guided him down to the airy dining room for breakfast.
As he tucked into a slice of beautifully buttered toast, I thought about what he must have been like before the incident in Afghanistan. Before me sat a tall-ish man with dark brown hair, back ramrod straight, shoulders high, and hands quiet and investigative, calculating and exploratory. Dark glasses masked his eyes from the world’s gaze. I then wondered if Millie had sat opposite the old Caleb and had looked into his blue eyes and fallen in love with a different man.
“N-not having second thoughts, are you?”
“Huh?” I asked, nearly dropping the delicate china teacup I had cradled between my hands. My elbows nearly shot off the table. “What? No, why would you ask that?”
“That w-was the mother of all sighs y-you just g-gave…”
His face was calm, expressionless, his body tense, straight, rigid, formal almost. “Wh-what’s on your mind?”
“Nothing,” I said gently, hoping the smile carried into my voice.
Breakfast passed quietly, with occasional sentences passing between us, nothing awkward, nothing deep.
“Wh-what’s the w-weather l-like out there?” he asked as we finished up. “I c-can’t hear the wind today.”
I stared out of the window beside our table and then back to him. He couldn’t tell that bright winter sunlight was flooding in and bathing him in a glorious, cold, almost silver glow? “It’s gorgeous out there. You fancy a walk along the river?”
With a little smile, he said that he did, and I wondered whether the pain in his leg would hinder us and make everything harder for him. Was he doing this for me?”
Stepping out into the biting air, both duffled up in jackets and jumpers and scarves, I felt him inhale deeply, pausing a moment on the gravel outside the house. I wanted to wait for him as long as he wanted to stop, and as I slid an arm into his, though I had intended for it only to be temporary, he folded up his white cane and then coiled his fingers around my upper arm without saying a word.
Caleb’s head moved like a weathervane as we walked, drawn and tugged by sounds, smells and sensations, and we were quiet as we made our slow progress through the quaint houses and golden-coloured stone walls of gardens bare and brown from winter’s chill.
Ahead of us was the broad, shallow river, peppered with weathered glacial boulders breaking the motion of the water as it coursed along, foaming and frothing in places and clear as blown glass in others. As it ran, it chuckled to itself, sweeping towards us and whistling away into the distance behind us, loud in my ears, even across the country lane that separated us from it as we made our way towards the rolling tarmac path that curved away beside it.
Waiting for a car to pass, I teasingly explored his fingers and wrist while he held me as we waited on the cold pavement. He smiled, and I took the chance to kiss him.
A flash of pain seemed to whistle across his face as we set off again, Caleb lurching harder down the curb than perhaps he’d intended, but like a bird wheeling through the sky, it was gone in a matter of seconds.
“Small flight of steps coming up,” I said softly as we neared it. “Down three, and then it’s flat for as long as we want to go for.”
After dragging his foot clumsily up the curb on the other side of the road, he said, surprisingly breathless, “C-C-Can we pause a moment?”
“Sure, what is it?”
He let go of my arm and pulled out the white cane from his pocket and began to unfurl it. “Y-Y-You g-g-g-go down first, and I’ll follow.”
“Ok,” I said quietly.
“Hey,” he called me back, his voice harder. “It’s not that I don’t w-want you; it’s easier for me this way.” Rookie had a lot to learn still it seemed.
He swept the cane in a wide, exploratory arc in front of him and located the edge of the top step, tapping the first tread below to gauge the depth.
His hip was clearly grinding and I heard the breath catch in his throat as he hit the bottom step. I appeared to get lost behind the babble of the river and the occasional passing vehicle on the road, and his ear searched for my footsteps, raking the scene for a familiar sound.
I touched his elbow but didn’t invite him to take my arm again, and we moved along the river together.
After perhaps five hundred yards walking, or syncopated rocking in Caleb’s case, he paused and turned to his left, towards the river a little more, using the cane to tell him what lay before his feet. I stayed near, hovering, but not speaking, wondering what he was up to. His cane tip found the grass verge of the river bank, and then clanged on a metal railing which separated the path from the river. I continued to watch as he brought his hand round in an arc while keeping the cane tip in one place at the foot of the railings, and he reached out for the cold metal with his hand. He lowered his head, turning his ear completely to face me. He was looking directly at me in his own way. “C-Come here,” he said softly, raising the hand that held his walking cane up to draw me into his side while still holding the railing with his other hand.
I stepped into his embrace and he slid me in front of him so that I was right against the railings, his warm body close behind me, and the cool river in front of me.
“Cl-Close your eyes,” he murmured in my ear. I did, and after a short pause, he said, “I don’t w-want this to be cheesy, but just l-let me show you w-what I see…”
“Ok,” I said, nervous, excited, happy that he was showing me his world, or at least, his point of view, or point of non-view.
“Tell me what y-you see…”
I thought, and then I spoke. “Well, first of all, I can literally see the sunlight making colours through my eyelids…” I felt foolish.
“So can I,” he said reassuringly. He didn’t touch me other than to press his body against mine, and he kept one hand on the handle of his walking cane, the other on the railings, the cord of his white cane looped around his wrist. He let me go on without speaking again.
“Uh… I can hear the river…”
“What about it?” he asked.
“The water?” I asked dumbly, opening my eyes and feeling like a fraud.
His hand moved up the railings trying to find where they ended so that he could reach over them and point. He touched my shoulder briefly and then pointed, saying, “Over there… it’s making a brighter sound… maybe it’s fl-flowing around something? A rock…”
“It is,” I said mutely, amazed that he’d picked it out. But when I listened a little closer, I too could pick out the different timbres of the river. “Ok,” I said slowly, closing my eyes again, beginning to get the hang of his game.
He clearly didn’t believe that I wouldn’t cheat, and put his palm right over my eyes with a laugh. “G-go on…”
I giggled back and said, “There’s a hedge behind us that’s rustling, and upstream I already know there’s a bridge, but now that you’ve pointed out that boulder, I can hear the difference the river makes as it flows under it, and –” I broke off as a new sound reached me. “And I think I can hear…” I didn’t really believe what my ears were telling me.
“Horses,” he said flatly. “Two of them. Big ones. The hooves are making large coconut noises, not small ones…”
I laughed at his Monty Python kind of joke, and peeled his strong hand off my eyes, the light hitting them with a sting as the blurry outlines of what looked like a Shire horse and a cob came into view, crossing the river by the old stone bridge ahead. Turning round and keeping hold of his hand, I looked up at his face. His strong chin was jutting out, his ears still listening to everything around him. “Come here,” I said. “Stop looking around and kiss me…”
He laughed, and tugged me into a kiss.
Our walk was not a long one, because we had a train to catch at two, but mainly because Caleb was clearly in a lot of pain. His limp grew more pronounced as we walked further along the tarmac path, but he never spoke out about it. The grating and tapping of his white cane tip on the surface was a constant, while the river rose and fell in our ears as the path snaked away and returned to walk beside it from time to time.
“That was really l-lovely,” he said when we were back in our room, gathering our things at lunchtime to check out. He was sitting on the bed, rubbing his leg.
“It wasn’t too far?” I asked tentatively, shoving my pyjamas into the top of my rucksack.
He made a little side to side movement of his head. “Probably was a l-little, but I enjoyed it.” As he spoke, he tossed a couple of painkillers into his mouth and dry-swallowed them, which made me retch just thinking about it.
“Will you be ok travelling back?”
He turned more towards me and said, “I don’t have m-much choice, do I?” he said with a grim smile. “G-got to g-get home – I’ve g-got w-work to do, and I’ve g-got another p-present to g-give you. Or had y-you forgotten…?”
I laughed. “I had, as it happens!” I said truthfully.
We had a few minutes before the taxi was due to turn up, so I climbed onto the bed and crawled over to him, running both my hands up his back and pinching the muscles of his shoulders between my fingers and thumbs. He let out a deep groan of pleasure and I felt tight bands of knotted tissue slip over one another. “You ever had a proper massage?” I asked. “I mean, not me just poking and pulling at you?”
“You do a better job than you think you do,” he said. “But no, I haven’t.”
“You should!” I chided. “You’re a mess!”
“So are you,” he retorted. “With your workbench at the wrong height, and all that piercing and filing work you do!”
“Fine, we should go together then…”
He laughed, and we heard a car draw up outside.
“Sounds like our ride,” I said, going to the window to confirm it. “Yup. Come on.”
We did our journey in reverse without any major hiccups, though I did almost let him fall as he stepped onto the train from Oxford. My heart lurched, but I told myself as I tried to calm my heartbeat that he had insisted on getting up the step unaided by me, so it wasn’t my fault. I’m not his nurse, I told myself sternly, or his guide dog, snorting bitterly at the recollection.
Whether it was embarrassment at his stumble, or smarting pride, or pain in his leg from our walk, Caleb had been mostly silent throughout the first journey, and the second was no different. He twitched an ear when I pointedly sighed and put my own earbuds in, and the tinny drum beat must have reached his acute ears as I turned the volume up. Unfazed, he continued to fiddle with a brass zipper on his jacket, the metal bright in the place where his thumb had worn off the shop patina. Playing with it was clearly a habit of his.
A short way from our final stop, his phone, which sat on the table though connected to him by his earbuds curving like an umbilical cord from man to machine, buzzed and lit up. The sound drew my eyes to the screen. “Anything important?” I asked.
“No,” he replied after a moment or two.
He didn’t know I’d seen the name Millie on the screen. Or the first word.
To be continued........