Christmas lunch was necessarily a little quieter than it had been in previous years thanks to my antics at Emily’s party, but we had all the turkey and trimmings that three people could ever want, and enough left over for Kit to make delicious curries until Easter at the very least. We exchanged presents after lunch, and as I sat on the sofa with the beautiful silk scarf that Luke had brought back for me in my lap, I began to nod off. Whether it was the delicious food, or the wonderful company, or the effort my body had put into driving the hangover out through every pore of my skin – yes, hello Christmas breakout – I found it harder and harder to keep my eyes open, and I slid down the sofa cushions into Luke's shoulder while whatever film it was that was on in the background ticked by. The last thing I saw as my eyelids lowered was Luke’s tiny version of ‘our’ pendant, glittering on its chain beneath the collar of his shirt in the flickering light of the TV screen.
I savoured the little time I had left with Luke. Two days after Christmas Day he would be shipping back out to what was effectively still a war zone to help train Afghani medics, and I would go back to worrying constantly about him, that gnawing panic munching away at my mind, sometimes fading quietly and other times rearing its head up to prompt a full-blown panic. Not much longer though, I thought as I nuzzled into his shoulder, he's nearing the end of his tour. Then he’ll become a paramedic here in the UK, I thought, swelling with sleepy pride at the talents of my twin.
By Boxing Day morning, my complexion and I had recovered enough to be willing to show my face at Caleb's, so I shuffled round there after a light lunch, wearing a pair of skin-tight black leggings, big fluffy Ugg boots, and a loose, forget-me-not-blue tunic top that set my red hair off beautifully. I still found it strange dressing up for a man who would never see me, but I felt like I owed it to him to keep making the effort.
Amy answered my knock at the door, and to my surprise, threw her arms around my waist the instant she saw me. "Yay!" the little girl cried. "Happy Christmas!"
"Happy Christmas to you too, Amy," I said, still feeling a bit delicate.
"Let the poor girl in," Jean chided gently from behind her. "Before she turns into an icicle out there."
"Thank you," I breathed, my teeth chattering loudly. I knew I should have put a bigger coat on.
"Can I get you anything?" Jean asked, stepping aside as Amy tore away into the living room and yelled at her brother that I was here. "There's everything from tea to whisky..."
"Bit early for whisky," I grimaced, trying not to let my stomach know I'd even entertained the idea of more alcohol. "But a cup of tea would be wonderful, thank you."
She turned back towards the kitchen with a smile and then stopped, remembering something. She leaned in close to me, a soft, soapy, clean smell emanating from her in the way that reminded me suddenly of my own grandparents, though now long dead. Speaking softly, Jean said, "Caleb's not having a wonderful day today..."
There was an alarming degree of worry and sadness in Jean’s voice, and I felt my green eyes widen. "Oh?" I asked, heart thudding, feeling concern flash through my chest. "What do you mean? What's wrong?"
"His speech is frankly awful," she admitted. "He fell last night. Bumped himself pretty badly: landed nastily on his hip, and whacked his head pretty good..."
"Is he ok?" I whispered.
"He will be. He's a bit shaken, very sore, and... probably self-conscious..."
"Thanks for the heads-up," I whispered, leaving her and moving quietly into the living room, apprehensive as to what I might find. Only one standard lamp was on, and in the dark winter day, the room was full of shadow, ominously like a sick room, I thought. There I saw Caleb sitting in his chair with Amy perched on the softly-cushioned arm, handing him a glass of water to help him wash down a startlingly large handful of pills. I thought he looked awful at a distance, but when he turned his head at the sound of my approach, I saw the full extent of the bruising and battering, and the dark shadows beneath his eyes, and my heart went out to him.
A big red angry bruise arched up his cheekbone and over his right eye, and my eye snagged on a cut which sliced through his brow. He wasn't wearing his glasses, and had his head leant back against the armchair in what looked like sheer exhaustion, chest rising and falling evenly. Too evenly: he was controlling the pain through breathing the way I’d seen him do before when his leg had given him grief. Those subtle, pale hands were clenched in a weird rigor mortis on his thighs, neither soft nor strong but caught expressively in a limbo of pain.
I crossed the remainder of the room to him and he turned to give me a watery-looking smile. "L-L-L..." The consonant gulped stubbornly in his throat and he just backed down and stopped, letting the first sound of my name die there.
"Hey," I said softly.
Amy slithered off the chair and disappeared off into another room in the house. I took her spot on the arm of his chair and said gently, "That's one spectacular bruise you've got there..."
"And that's only the b-bits y-y-y-you c-c-c-can see..." he mumbled dejectedly. “I g-guess N-Nana told y-y-y-y…”
"Yeah,” I said softly. "She did." I smiled, taking his hand from where it sat knotted into a tight fist in his lap, and caressing his fingers gently in mine, feeling them begin to soften to my touch.
His eyes would have locked onto them if they’d had any sight but he nonetheless turned his face down to where our hands sat in his lap, interwoven like a celtic knot. "How are y-y-y..." he gave up with a soft sigh.
I smiled and he heard it in my breath, "I'm better. Thanks for the rescue on Christmas Eve… I… I haven't been quite as out of control as that for a good number of years… Probably why I got so rat-arsed if you think about it... My body wasn’t used to all that alcohol…"
He laughed a quick but genuine laugh, but said nothing.
I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to take him upstairs, lie him down on his bed, put an ice pack on that colossal bruise, and put my arm over his beautiful chest and hold him. He looked as fragile as when I had first found him, his stutter taking over, his pain written plainly in every feature. Sometimes his eyes rolled open like he couldn't even keep control over them, their milky surfaces glistening dimly in the winter light of the sitting room. "How was your Christmas Day?” I asked, adding, “Injuries not withstanding…”
Caleb smiled softly, eyes flickering again. He nodded, telling me silently that it was good. “W-we had fun,” he whispered. “Until I c-c-caused a scene by f-falling over…” He moved our hands slowly back and forth, fingers still interlocked, and rubbed the back of my hand down his misshapen quad. I smiled as he used me to massage his leg, but said nothing. He didn’t elaborate on how he’d hurt himself quite so badly, and I didn’t push it.
“Listen,” I said, “I brought your present with me, in case you wanted to exchange gifts today, but maybe we should save them for when we go away?"
He turned his head slightly towards me again, and I thought I saw a little frown pinch his eyebrows. "Away?" he mumbled.
"For New Year?" I said gently.
His tired face broke into a soft smile and he slurred, "Oh yeah. Of c-course. I'm sorry."
I smiled, and put my hand on his left cheek, the one without the huge red and purple stain. "We should just curl up quietly today," I said. "You look beat..." That was an understatement. He looked utterly drained.
"Beaten up, more l-like," he whispered with a smile, the breath hissing behind his teeth.
"Still got your sense of humour though, so I'm not worried," I giggled, just as his nana came into the room with a cup of tea for me.
"Amy said she wanted to watch a film," Jean said as she set my steaming mug of Earl Grey down on a nearby coffee table. I smiled my thanks and left it there to cool down enough to be able to drink. “Is that something you two kids would like to join us for?” and I liked the way she called us kids. A warmth flared inside my lungs at the total acceptance that this family had given me so quickly.
The little girl bounced back into the room at that moment, with a ridiculously huge pair of fluffy, white slippers on her feet that made her look like Bugs Bunny, practically shouting in her enthusiasm. "Yeah, let's watch a film! Let's watch a film!"
The affectionate eye-roll that Jean gave was magical, and she said, "Well, I leave the choice of film up to you lot. I've got some jobs to do in the kitchen, so I'll be in an out a bit."
"You need any help?" I asked.
The old lady smirked and said, "Oh don't think you're getting out of watching Frozen that easily...!" She paused and added, "But thank you."
Caleb moaned beside me and I thought the pain must be getting worse, but then he managed to articulate the source of his pain, "Pl-please Amy, n-not Fr-Fr-Frozen again... That song... I c-c-can't..."
I laughed. I laughed so hard I nearly fell off the chair, but Caleb’s arm was around my back, and the strength in his bicep reminded me that he was tougher than he looked.
“C-careful, y-you,” he whispered. “And I’ve c-come across torture m-methods that are l-l-less effective at m-making people talk than hearing that song on r-r-r-repeat…”
The darkness behind his joke made me realise that Caleb wasn’t just a disabled thirty year old man, he was a combat veteran, and, among other things, a trained killer. The realisation of the dichotomy of deep empathy and ruthless efficiency needed to be who he had been suddenly made me stop and stare at him.
“S-something I said?” he hissed up at me while Amy busied herself by getting all the DVDs out that they owned and spreading them on the floor.
Deciding to be honest, and trying not to shy away from it given how well that had worked out for me last time, with the whole ‘guide dog/nurse’ comment, I said, “Sometimes I forget what you did before you got hurt…”
“What,” he whispered dryly, “K-killed people…?” I noted how he was careful not to let Amy hear him talking like that.
My stomach lurched. “You make it sound like you were an assassin… I just meant I forget the origin of the particular strength of yours that I see every time I’m with you.”
His brows stayed stern, but at least his lips smiled. “Thanks,” he said, his head rolling back into the soft cushion behind him. “I think…”
“You’re welcome,” I said, leaning down and kissing the top of his head. “It was meant as a compliment… I think…”
Again, he half smiled, but said nothing.
Amy decided on a DVD she’d got for Christmas, the first of the Hobbit films, and, bless her, she insisted that Caleb and I snuggle up together on the sofa, and she have his chair. He complained at first, grumbling that he was perfectly comfortable and didn’t want to risk moving, but when little Amy said I looked heartbroken that he didn’t want to sit next to me – a wildly exaggerated lie, I protested vehemently, though inside I felt it was probably true – he smiled and shunted painfully towards the front of the armchair.
“L-L-L-Lyss,” he grunted. “I’m g-gonna need a hand…”
“Just tell me what you need,” I said, standing in front of the chair, ready to help him to his feet.
He had a couple of goes at pushing himself out of the chair, but it put too much strain on his leg and hips, so he puffed the air from his cheeks and held out his hands to me. “Pull me up?” he asked, adding as I took his hands in mine, “Slowly…”
Without a word, I curled my fingers around his, and asked, “Ready?”
He nodded mutely.
“Weigh anchor,” I said, and he chuckled. Whether it was the laughter or the ease with which I hauled him gently to his feet, he suddenly seemed to let go of his inhibitions or nerves about using me to walk, and began to lean a lot of his weight on me. Luckily I too am tougher than I look. His walk was as painful as I had expected it to be, with a nasty, lurching hobble each time he had to use his right leg, and though the sofa wasn’t far, by the time he’d gone five steps, he was wincing every time his foot hit the carpet.
“Nearly there, how do you want to deal with landing?” I asked, concentrating on keeping my arms and hands steady and clear for him. I had the huge responsibility of being his eyes, and I was damned if I was going to fuck it up for him.
“T-turn me r-r-round so my back is to the sofa,” he said, “And I’ll put a hand on the arm and y-y-you c-c-c-can l-l-lower me down.”
“Roger that,” I smiled, and got an answering one from him, though Caleb’s was slightly tempered by a fresh wave of pain that made his eyes roll and the lids dance.
It all went exactly as he had described, but the sharp yell as I let go of his hand and he connected with the sofa cushion caught me off guard. His hand flew from mine and began to nurse his hip while he attempted to regain control of his breathing. I think Amy caught his curse, but she didn’t react. She’s probably heard worse from him, I thought. Last night in particular, I imagine.
I slid into the space next to him, leaving him just enough room to coax the pain from his bones. I didn’t touch him, and I didn’t speak, I just kept my green eyes boring into his body, willing the pain to stop for him.
Amy began to get the DVD ready, and while she was busy bustling around, clattering the box, dropping the remote, tripping over her huge fluffy slippers, I caught Caleb’s eyes rolling upwards in their sockets as he let his head fall back against the sofa cushion with a sigh. Then, turning his ear towards me, he released his hip from the iron vice of his fingers, and slid his palm over the sofa towards me, searching for me in the perpetual gloom of his vision.
“Where are you?” he whispered, finding my hand sitting quietly on the cushion. “C-come back…”
Wordlessly, I nuzzled up to him as he put his arm around my shoulder. After a while, I could feel the heat from his body seeping through my tunic dress, and while he ran his fingers playfully, nonchalantly, through my long hair, I looked up at his sharp jawline and noticed a scar there that I’d not noticed before. It was an old one, white and tough looking, and not very long. I wondered where he’d got it. It looked like one of the many that Luke had, and I assumed it was Army-related. “You’re always so warm,” I smiled, and he huffed a short laugh. “It’s so useful. I’m always freezing.”
“Happy to be of service,” he said, without ‘looking’ down at me.
“Caleb,” Amy called, “You want audio-description on or not?”
He shook his head. “Not today, thank you.”
“You sure?” she asked.
He nodded, and then whispered into my hair, “She hates having it on, and without it, it means I c-can j-just switch off…”
I moved my hand to his thigh, his bad thigh as it happened, and gently pressed my fingers into the weave of his jeans. “You’re sweet,” I smiled.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he laughed.
“Tell anyone what?” Amy asked loudly as she scampered to her armchair, brandishing the remote over her shoulder like a Harry Potter wand at the screen to choose ‘start’.
“That your brother is actually a sweetheart and a complete softie…” I said.
Our green eyes met with a flash of fun and we both nodded. “Alright,” Amy said sincerely.
“Can’t have the boys from your old unit thinking you’re a genuine softie now, can we?” I said, tucking a strand of his dark hair behind his ear, making him shiver visibly with pleasure.
“I’m tr-tr-trusting you two. And y-you’d better not r-r-ruin my r-r-reputation with them, y-young l-l-l-lady,” he said, his stammer running some serious interference, clearly frustrating him back into silence.
The opening credits started and we all fell silent.
I’d seen the film already – Kit had rented it when it had first come out – so out of curiosity, I closed my eyes to find out what Caleb might make of it. I soon found my imagination taking over as I heard the sounds of a match striking, the patter of feet down a corridor, the rustle of parchments and papers, the clink and scratch of a pen, and the gravelly voice of Ian Holm and soaring strings with the heartbeat of drums beneath… I was surprised, when I opened my eyes, to find that the soundtrack echoed the sense of the visuals on the screen. It would have been hard to describe, but the clear, open sound of French horns and deep droning base notes were the monumental cliffs and masonry of the dwarven city, and the clinking of the myriad pickaxes was mirrored by a thousand vertically-strung lights, like dusk dewdrops on spider thread. Caleb might have missed some of the soundless moments, but by thinking myself blind, I realised how much of films we internalise anyway without realising it, and how much like reading a book it can be if you give imagination the reins.
Like me the previous day, Caleb didn’t make it to the end of the film. Slumped into the cushions, his eyes rolled constantly back and forth, and his body twitched ceaselessly, at times jerking so sharply that I thought he’d wake, but he didn’t.
With the closing credits over, Amy looked over at us and smiled at her brother. “He barely got any sleep last night,” she said in a stage whisper that would have filled the Albert Hall in London.
“Let’s leave him be then,” I replied in a softer voice.
Jean came back in and saw him, smiling fondly before speaking to me. “Caleb tells me you two are going away for New Year’s.”
I nodded. “To the Cotswolds. My parents used to take me there when I was a child. I just thought I’d be nice to spend some time with each other somewhere new.”
She smiled in agreement. “I think it’s wonderful. How are you getting there?”
“Train,” I mumbled, blushing furiously. I’d never learned to drive, which for some reason I found hideously embarrassing at the age of twenty seven, and I was forced to rely on the kindness of friends, and the so-called reliability of public transport. Only one of those two was a constant. “I don’t drive, and Caleb said he likes using the train, so it seems perfect. We’ll get a taxi to the B&B from the station.”
“Sounds perfect,” the old lady said. “I hope you have fun. Now, dinner is almost ready, if you wanted to come and give me a hand dishing up. Amy, you wake Caleb up in a few minutes and tell him we’re about 10 minutes away.” She turned a critical eye to the spilled hoard of DVD cases on the floor. “And get that lot up out of the way.” The rest of her sentence was left unspoken, but each of us heard “before he falls over them.”
Caleb and I had agreed to meet at his house on New Year’s Eve, to take a taxi to the station. I had a large rucksack for our two night break, which I dumped in the slush on their doorstep when he opened the front door. I flung my arms around his neck and giggled as his laughing breath tickled my ear. His bruises had nearly gone, and he was full of life and happiness again. His hands traced the contours of my body, seeing without sight what lay hidden beneath the thick coat, and as he reached the small of my back, he tugged me closer, off balance, leaving one hand on the back of my head. “L-let’s go,” he said shortly, picking up his own small bag and practically pushing me out in the chilly air along the path towards the sound of the idling taxi.
“Don’t you want to say goodbye?” I asked, peeking over his shoulder and seeing Jean and Amy in the hallway.
“I already did,” he grinned. I saw that he had his cane folded up in his wax jacket pocket, and I smiled as he automatically ran his hand down my arm to my elbow, preparing to let me guide him to the car.
“Well, excuse me for a second,” I said, “But I think I ought at least to say hello before I whisk you off away from them!”
Laughing, he stepped aside and let me go over to where the two of them stood. “I have something for you,” I said to Jean, and handed her a wrapped present. “I didn’t give it to you on Boxing Day because Caleb and I are waiting for New Year’s to give our presents to each other,” I explained, praying she’d like the silver napkin ring I’d spent the greater part of three hours making for her. She seemed like a napkin ring kind of lady.
I grinned internally as I saw Amy’s eyes widen covetously, her features filling with hope as her nana received a present. I turned to the small child and said, “And of course, I made you something too. I hope you like it.”
“Can I open it now?” the little girl squealed as she took the small box from me.
I looked at Jean and shrugged. “It’s up to you.” I turned over my shoulder, looking past Caleb who, incidentally, looked like a vogue model in the winter light, his sharply chiselled cheekbones and strong jaw snaring my gaze as I had tried to look at the taxi behind him. “We should probably get going though, because the taxi’s waiting.”
“Go on,” Jean smiled. “We’ll open these with a cup of tea in a bit. You go and have a wonderful couple of days together. And let us know when you get there, won’t you?” She spoke past me to her grandson. “You may be thirty, Caleb, but family is family, and we will always worry.”
“That’s only too true,” I said, with perhaps a little too much feeling, as I thought of Luke’s recent message from Afghanistan.
“See you soon,” Caleb said, sticking his elbow out like a gentleman offering a lady his arm. “C-Come on, you.”
I looped my arm playfully through his, and we got to the taxi without incident. I placed his hand on the door handle, and he slid inside while I gave the bags to the driver to put in the boot. As I slid in next to Caleb, he asked me, “Speaking of w-w-worry, have you heard from L-L-L… from y-your brother?”
I’d never admit it to Caleb, but I liked the swift word-substitutions which his stutter often forced on him. “Yeah,” I said heavily. “He’s back with his boys and girls, training up medics out in Afghan. He loves it, so I try not to worry. It’s not as dangerous as what he has been doing, but it’s still risky…”
Caleb’s hand found mine, and he gripped it tightly as the taxi pulled away.
Adrenaline flooded through me at the responsibility of helping Caleb, and of knowing when not to help him. I still felt so raw and new to all this. I had no idea what he’d need me for, what he was capable of, and it was beginning to make me jumpy and paranoid. After making it without error through the ticket barriers at the station, Caleb turned to me on the platform and said, “Y-You’re doing fine. Relax.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling my shoulders slump.
He laughed. “L-like I said, you’re fine.”
“I just don’t want to be overbearing,” I admitted. “But I’m probably doing that anyway…”
His fingers worked down my arm, over my cuff, and he caught my hand, squeezing me tightly. “You’re not,” he said firmly. “And I pr-promise to ask if I need help…”
“Ok,” I mumbled, and got a kiss on the side of my head for my efforts. In truth, I was terrified about how I was going to get him on the train.
The huge engine rolled in fifteen minutes later, obliterating all other sounds, and I noticed how tightly he gripped my arm. “Slowly,” he cautioned as we moved towards the train. I caught the eye of an attendant guard, who smiled but didn’t offer to interfere. At least the train isn’t going to pull away without us, I thought, which relaxed me somewhat.
In fact, the carriage doors closest to us were double doors, so we had room to play with. “You want to go it alone or with me?” I asked as we approached the opening.
“No, y-you c-can g-get me up there,” he said, in much the same tone as a maths teacher to a pupil with a new problem.
Trying not to feel like I was the one being patronised, I stepped up first, waiting for him to get his left leg up the shallow step and then haul his stiff, braced right leg up afterwards. I’d been so worried that we’d not fit through the door together, that it’d only be a single doorway and not a double, that I’d forgotten how easy it would be otherwise. “There’s a spare set of four seats in the middle of the carriage. That sound ok?”
“Sure,” he smiled, the expression hiding a wince pretty well.
As the train lurched off, he jabbed his walking cane into the carpet to steady himself, his fingers closing painfully around my upper arm. “Sorry,” he muttered, drawing himself closer to me as we shuffled along the narrow gangway of the carriage. “I g-guess I’m especially nervous of falling over…”
“It’s ok,” I said. “There’s a seat here,” and I lowered my arm to the headrest of the seat. “You want me to put your bag on the seat.”
“No, I got it, thanks,” he said, slinging the bag roughly into the empty air. It bounced off the train wall and landed squarely in the seat. “See?” he grinned, cheeky as a playground schoolboy covered in mud.
“Show off,” I laughed and let go of him so that he could sink down into his seat.
Then, a nanosecond before he collided with it, I saw him approaching the hard arm of the seat at speed and gasped, “Oh my gosh, mind the –” but it was too late and he went crunching down on it, driving the solid white shape right into his hip bone. He blanched horribly and held his breath captive.
Kudos to him, he bit down the sudden ballooning pain, shoved the arm into the upright position, and sat down before he swore.
“I’m so sorry,” I gabbled, hands flapping. “I’m so, so sorry, I just didn’t see it…”
“Well, that m-makes two of us,” he grimaced, pressing his body into the backrest of the seat, his right hand kneading the place where the armrest had jabbed into him.
“Yeah, but you have a valid excuse,” I said sullenly, sliding into the seat opposite him, dumping my rucksack in the spare seat beside me.
“How l-long does it take to Oxford?” he asked, feeling reflexively, nervously, for his bag with his right hand for a moment before returning it to his hip.
“It’s about twenty minutes,” I said. “Then when we change at Oxford, it’s about an hour to Moreton, which is where we get off. It’s the closest we can get to where we’re going by train.”
“Ok,” he smiled.
There seemed to be more to his question than simple fact-gathering. “What?”
“I w-want to give you the first of y-your presents. The other one will have to w-wait til w-we g-g-get back. It’s a bit too big to bring,” was all he said, before he leaned back into the seat, took his glasses off, put them on the table in front of us, and seemed, to all intents and purposes, to drift off to sleep with a deep sigh.
Being blind must be exhausting, I thought to myself, watching him sink further into the scratchy upholstery of the train seat. The concentration it took just to get through the world sapped the energy from him and he slid seamlessly into sleep. He had one hand on his bag and the other on the arm of the chair, which he had lowered again after getting over the shock of driving it into his backside, and his right leg was stretched out straight – he hadn’t even released the knee of his brace. It rocked gently, listlessly, against my leg as the train rattled and rumbled along the tracks, and its presence sent a thrill of… something, through me, though I couldn’t identify it. I was touched that he was now relaxed enough around me to show me all, or most, of what he called his weaknesses, and I think it was that above all that moved me. Maybe it was something more, but I couldn’t be sure.
The sight of that quiet hand on his bag brought me back to his last comment on gift-giving. The first present? He’s got me more than one present? I hoped it wouldn’t be anything too expensive – I got embarrassed very easily with gifts. I had no idea what he’d get me – I’d not asked for anything in particular, and he knew I didn’t wear much jewellery, which was a standard ‘male-to-female’ gift, so I hadn’t a clue what he’d come up with. I hoped he’d like mine. I wondered if I’d been a bit too bold, a bit too whacky, with my present, and of course, there was always the ‘spelling issues’ worry for me, but I’d have to wait to find out if I’d got it right.
I touched his arm to bring him out of his doze as we neared Oxford, and we headed out into the worsening weather to catch the next train. The boy wouldn’t yield to further questioning about his gift, so I let it rest, and then when we were on the train, he fished and fumbled in his bag, searching eagerly as a kid in a Christmas stocking. “Here!” he exclaimed at last, drawing out an envelope, with a braille tag in one corner.
“What does it say?” I asked him, running my hands over the mystery dots.
He smiled that heart-stopping smile, and said, “Well, that was m-more for me, so I didn’t g-give you the receipt for the B&B deposit instead…”
I laughed and tore open the envelope. Inside were two tickets. Two opera tickets for a couple of months’ time. “I’ve never been to the opera,” I said, stunned.
“I know,” he grinned. “You said. So I thought I’d take you.”
“Thank you!” I exclaimed, standing up and moving round to hug him. “Thank you.”
“Opera isn’t for everyone,” he said, half smothered by my long, loose red hair, “But La Bohème is a pr-pr-pretty safe one.”
“I’m going to love it,” I said, “Because it’s you sharing something you love with me. Thank you!”
“The boys in my unit u-used to m-mock me mercilessly for it…” he grinned. And he couldn’t wipe that grin off his face for the rest of the journey. “Wh-when do I g-get mine then?” he asked, listening to me folding over the top of the envelope and sliding it into my bag.
“Tonight at dinner,” I said quickly across the table. Being put on the spot had suddenly made me decisive. He looked nervous, so I added, “Don’t worry, it’s really small and compact… You can easily dispose of it in a bowl of soup if you don’t like it…”
That made him laugh, and with a shake of his head, he asked me silently to put my hand in his.
After a pause, he brought his other hand up to the glass of the window, fumbling beautifully over the edge of the frame, and then circling his fingertips over the cold glass. “Wh-what’s it l-like out there?” he asked.
“Honestly?” I said, “The weather is turning foul. You can probably hear the rain on the roof…?”
“That’s rain?” he asked, astonished. “I thought it was something mechanical it’s so loud…”
“Yeah. The wind is howling through the huge trees, making them sway like little tiny plants, and the rain is lashing the countryside and the poor cows in the fields like they’ve not been washed for months.” I sighed. “Not sure what happened to that lovely white winter we had, but it’s all washed away now.”
“W-will we still be able to g-g-g-g…” he ground to a halt, head bobbing with the stammer, removing his hand from mine as though the contact was too intense, “Excuse me, still be able to… to explore?” he finished, settling for a sentence that hadn’t been his original one with a sigh.
“I have waterproofs,” I said tentatively, but I wondered how getting cold and soaked would affect his bad joints.
“Me too,” he smiled, and then sighed again.
“What is it?” I asked. I felt so far away from him, with the great reach of the table spread between us, and with his bag occupying the seat next to him, I didn’t feel I could just dump it on the floor and assume its place.
He brought his hand back up to the table, catching it slightly on the top, perhaps thinking it was further away than it was. Opening his hand, he invited me to put mine in his again. “Nothing,” he said, closing himself off from me in the same gesture.
“Can I come and sit next to you?” I asked.
“Of course,” he smiled, lifting the bag and beginning to move it down to the floor.
I noticed the top was open, and I could see his wallet sticking out. “That’s still open,” I commented. “You want to close it first?”
“Mmm,” he offered his thanks, and I watched as his fingers deftly pulled the toggle and located the clips on the rucksack before stowing it away beside his feet. It never left contact with him, even when it was on the floor.
With the rest of the journey ahead of us, we talked, and I described a lot of the landscape as it flashed by: rolling hills, little copses, busy streams, traffic jams with red lights smeared by the weather, rain tracks on the window, quaint villages, and all the while I did, he held my hand and tilted his head back, eyes closed, glasses on, a smile playing ever at his lips.
We had no problems finding a taxi, despite the unwritten rule that says when it’s raining you’ll never get one, and when you don’t need one there’ll be hundreds, and as we drew up at the cottage B&B, my breath caught in my chest. It was perfect.
“I take it that’s pl-leasure not shock,” Caleb said as the taxi pulled away and we hurried awkwardly up to the front door over the sodden gravel.
“Step,” I said, “Couple of inches high,” and we passed inside through a white square-paned door. “It’s gorgeous!” I whispered. “Warm, crumbly, rough-cut sandstone, white window frames, big stone tiles on the roof…”
“G-g-good ch-choice,” he stuttered, staying very close to me in the unfamiliar surroundings. I wondered, not for the first time, how he’d managed his Edinburgh trip solo, but Amy had said there’d been guides there to help him, but surely not with everything, not with finding his way round a hotel room…
My thoughts were interrupted as a stout looking lady in a fuchsia pink, pearl-buttoned cardigan came fussing out of a doorway to our right, a huge cloud of sweet perfume billowing out around her in a toxic aura. “Hello,” she said, her voice a cheery soprano.
“Hi,” I said, stepping forward with Caleb to greet her. Caleb coughed something but articulated no words. “We’re booked in for tonight and tomorrow – Alyssa Bowmore and Caleb Starling.”
“Ah yes,” she said, apparently unable to stop staring at Caleb. I liked to think it was because he was so devilishly handsome, but I knew it was because of his canes. “I’m Vivian, and I’m in charge of all the front of house things.” Her rings clacked together as she fiddled nervously with her hands. “You come from far?”
“Couple of hours by train,” I said. “We were hoping the weather would be a bit better, but never mind.”
“I know,” Vivian sympathised, walking over the hardwood floors, her heels clacking raucously. I noted how Caleb’s ear followed her progress. “Well, you’re welcome to use the lounge in the day if you don’t feel like going out. We don’t normally like guests to stay in all day as we are a bed and breakfast, not a hotel, but we couldn’t turn you out in this weather like a couple of strays!” We both smiled. “Just a couple of things,” she added, turning more formal. “If you could fill in this breakfast order and leave it on the desk here tonight, then that’ll help us in the morning. Talking of food, you and… you and your…” she seemed to be struggling to find the right descriptive noun for Caleb.
I prayed she wouldn’t say ‘brother’, despite knowing our different surnames, and supplied, “Boyfriend,” for her.
“And your boyfriend, have booked supper here with us tonight, so I’ll ask you to choose your food and pop the menu back down here shortly so we can make sure it’s all ready for you tonight.”
“Sure, thank you,” I said, taking the menu from her.
“And…” she moved behind the small reception desk which jutted out into the hallway a little, “Finally, I’ll just need you to sign here,” she said, fishing behind the little reception desk and brandishing a piece of paper at me. “Just one signature will be fine,” she said nervously, gawping at Caleb. I put my scrawl where she had indicated, and she handed us the keys. “Your room is on the first floor, on your right once you’re up the stairs,” she said.
“Thank you,” Caleb and I said together, Caleb apparently shocking her by his ability to speak.
“Me or banister?” I asked him subtly as the lady disappeared as quickly as she had arrived.
“How far is it?” he asked, looping the other arm of his rucksack over his shoulder so that it sat properly on his back.
I counted the stairs. “Fifteen steps. They’re quite steep too…”
“Banister then,” he said, adding with a smile, “I w-won’t feel so bad about hauling my whole body w-w-weight on that. I w-w-would if it were you…”
“Alright,” I said, and made my way up, glancing back only once to make sure I’d set the pace right.
As usual, Caleb was out of breath at the top of the flight, which surprised me, given that I knew he was a regular gym goer, but perhaps the effort of dragging his own bodyweight was more than I’d realised.
The key rattled in the lock and the door swung open with a loud squeak. “Oh wow,” I breathed.
“G-good?” he asked, his hand once more at my elbow.
“Er, yeah,” I said, stunned. I’d found the place, and Caleb had paid for it like an old fashioned gentleman, so I was more than relieved that it was as perfect as it appeared to be so far.
“Show me?” he asked.
I loved the way he said ‘show me’ instead of tell me, and it wasn’t the first time he’d expressed it like that. “Come on,” I said, rocking my weight forward before taking a full step. “Big expanse of cream carpet,” I said as our feet marched over it.
“I hope we g-got all the mud off downstairs then,” he said anxiously.
I peeked back over his shoulder at the carpet, dreading a wake of mud, but it was clear. “Nope, we’re good,” I said. “The bed is here on the left,” and I extended my arm down so that he could find it.
“Mmm,” he said, smiling as his fingers slid over the loose weave of the soft, woollen blanket and then up to the pillows. I tried unsuccessfully not to think of what he might be imagining happening on that bed. He jumped at the cold touch of the brass bedstead, and then he gingerly explored the space beside the bed, perhaps looking for a bedside table. A huge lamp shade loomed into his exploratory space and he froze nervously, afraid that he was going to knock it off. “Come get me again?” he asked with a nervous smile.
I picked his left hand up and held him, leading him just as though we were a normal couple holding hands, which initially seemed to make him more nervous, but then I put his hand on the wall and anchored him, and said, “This ivory coloured wall stretches clear to the corner.”
I loved watching him explore the space. I didn’t want to make him feel helpless by leading him round every inch of it like a stupid child, so I just left him to his own devices where I could.
At the corner, he found the wooden slats on the doors of the inbuilt wardrobe, and followed the line of the room along a new wall.
“You’ll come to a high chest of drawers shortly,” I warned, walking over and picking up his contact with the back of my hand, inviting him to take my arm if he wanted. He did, and we explored the rest of the beautifully furnished room together.
We had a few hours to kill until supper, so we sat on the bed and I read the menu out to Caleb. It felt somehow like a romantic gesture, rather than a clinical necessity. We both sensed it at the same time, and he reached out into the space between us searching for the top of the menu card. He found it and tugged it down, out of the way, and then continued to reach forward for my cheek. He found my chin, and after an exploratory movement to work out which bit of me he’d got in his grasp, he drew me towards him and kissed me. I loved the uncertainty in his body as he ‘looked’ for me in the dark. I’m going to hell, I thought, as I made him work to find more of me while a heat built between my legs.
“I should probably go and give this back to Vivian,” I said, tapping the menu on the back of his hand.
“Mmmm…” he grumbled resentfully.
“I’ll be right back,” I smiled coyly, sliding out of his touch as he reached for me again and missed.
Leaving the card on the desk, I fairly skipped back up the staircase, and rattled the brass door knob, only to find that the door was a self-locking one. “Caleb…” I pleaded softly. “Let me back in?”
There was a rustle and a grunt, followed by a familiar lurching gait. The handle shook softly and the door opened to reveal Caleb, top half naked and beautiful. “I thought I’d have a hot bath,” he offered in response to my astonished silence.
I ducked back inside, and immediately the door shut I ran my hands up his torso, and we staggered back into the wall. Panic flared as we fell through empty space for an instant, but when the wall bashed him in the back, he laughed, and said with a grunt, “I should have known you w-wouldn’t let me fall…”
“You should,” I said. “Is there room for me to join you in the bath?”
“R-r-room c-c-c-can be made,” he smirked. I’d never seen him smirk quite as freely and happily as that, and I kissed it before it faded, which made the lopsided grin straighten out and become a beaming, white smile. “Better g-g-get y-you out of those cl-clothes first though,” he said.
We left a trail of destruction between the door and the en-suite bathroom, a trip hazard I’d have to clear up later, pausing for a good three quarters of an hour on the bed before we even made it to the bath. When I came, I think I nearly shook the windows with the strength of my cry, and Caleb had to put his hand over my mouth to contain it. His dark laughter in my ears made me giggle guiltily. “You,” he whispered a little while later, running his hands over my limp body.
“You,” I breathed back as he left me to begin running the water.
“Do I have to c-c-carry you to the bath?” he asked when he returned and found I hadn’t moved.
It took a good few minutes for my sight to return to me and even longer for the use of my limbs to come back, but once I did, I led Caleb to the bathroom, wearing only his brace and the underlying sock. He leaned on the cold ceramic sink while I undid the straps for him and removed the brace. “Don’t take it too far,” he said self-consciously. “I’ll need it when I g-get out…”
“It’s leaning against the cupboard under the sink,” I said.
With a final kiss on his lips, I drew him over to the bath and we climbed into the deliciously warm water together. It was a colossal bathtub, and I did wonder how Caleb was going to get out of it because it was so deep, but I figured we’d cross that bridge when we got to it. For now, he climbed in first, and when he was in, I slithered in around him, trying hard not to kick him anywhere.
“Lean back against me,” he said, telling me to turn around with a twirling motion of his hand.
I did, the water gushing and swirling, and I groaned as he began to massage my shoulders. “We don’t need to go out tomorrow,” I slurred as he dug his fingers into my muscles. “We can just stay here…”
“Fine by me,” he said, and kissed my neck.
It was nearly half seven when we hauled ourselves out of the tub and thought about dressing for our New Year’s dinner. I held my dress out to him and said, “What do you think? It’s a dark, forest green.”
His fingers traced the intricate lace patterns on the dress and he smiled. “Love it. And I remember what c-c-colour that is…”
“That’s why I picked it,” I admitted. “And it sets my red hair off something wicked…”
He grinned. “Just l-let me know if y-you want a zip doing up… or undoing…”
“You’ll be my first port of call for either scenario,” I promised.
He looked gorgeously understated, in a pair of impeccably neat, dark jeans that concealed the struts of his brace, a light blue shirt and tie combination that did strange things to my insides, and a grey v-neck sweater to finish it off. “Wow,” I said when he’d finished.
“What, didn’t think I c-could tie a tie?” he quipped playfully, one hand at my elbow, his thumb gently caressing my bare skin.
“You’re a military man,” I answered as we made our way out of the room. “Of course you can tie a tie! You just took my breath away – again – for a second there.” I put his hand on the banister and left him to his own devices to get down the stairs.
He smiled. “I hope it w-was ok to l-leave my white c-c-cane behind… Y-you don’t mind do you?”
“Those are your last two steps,” I said as he neared the bottom. “And no, I love it when you choose me.”
The dining room had only one other couple in, and they were busy engaged in conversation on the other side of the room. Our table was near the window, and as I showed Caleb where the back of his seat was, the rain could be heard hammering against the old glass window pane. “Still rough outside,” he commented, resting his black cane against the table. “Is that ok there?”
“Maybe rest it against the windowsill further to your left,” I suggested, thinking it might slide off the table during dinner.
Within a few minutes, Vivian was back, with two sparkling glasses of champagne. “Complimentary, for New Year’s,” she giggled, making me think she’d had one or two of her own ‘backstage’.
Caleb frowned, not knowing what quite was on offer. I wondered how to tell him without sounding patronising. “Thank you,” I said, taking the glass she offered. “Here,” I said, hoping that Caleb would move his hand out to me, but he didn’t. I reached forward and picked up the contact with a gentle touch on the back of his hand. He opened his fingers nervously, ear turning and catching the gentle crinkling sound of the bubbles in the rim of the glass just as he took the stem from me.
“Yes, thank you,” he said, before Vivian’s noisy heels retreated. “Well, here’s to us, and our first N-N-N…” he broke off with an amused snort and tried again. “New Y-Year…”
“Indeed,” I said.
We chinked glasses – well, Caleb held his up and I gently tapped the rim of his with mine – and he added, “It seems somehow appropriate to me that N-New Y-Year should c-c-c-come so soon into our re-re-relationship… Feels l-like a new and better ch-chapter somehow…”
“I’ll drink to that,” I said, fishing his gift from my small clutch on the windowsill. “Here, it’s time you opened this.”
His ear was turning again, following the rustle of my dress, listening for the sound of the present going down on the table. Instead, I reached forward and said, “Give me your hand.”
He held out his palms and I saw that he shook slightly. Taking his hand in mine, I placed the box on the quivering surface and held my breath. I hadn't wrapped it, but I had tied a big ribbon around the box. I watched his fingers work delicately around the knot, tugging softly on the end and unravelling the bow.
He set the ribbon down, methodically returning to the box and tracing the perimeter before lifting the lid and setting that down too, beside the ribbon. I saw the contents glittering in the warm, golden light of the room, and watched with baited breath as he brought the fingertips of his right hand over the rim of the box and felt the soft fluff of the protective insulation inside. I couldn’t take my eyes off his face. He wore no glasses, so I couldn’t see my own reflection in his face like I usually could, and I smiled as he did. “There’s a note?” he asked, surprised as he came across a small piece of card inside. “Is that a note?”
“Why don’t you read it and find out?” I said playfully.
Confusion filled his features until he ran his hands over the surface of the small rectangle, and discovered the raised dots on it.
“Br-Braille?” he said, softly astonished. “How?”
“The library helpfully has a Braille printer,” I explained, desperate for him to read it. I’d checked it a million times on the internet, but still, I was nervous.
He read aloud what his fingers saw. “So you never forget what you first thought when we met…”
“You remember what you first thought? I asked you about it a while ago…”
He grinned, still confused. “I do,” he said, returning his hands to the box and delving in to pull out the contents. “They’re c-cufflinks?” he asked, picking up one of the small, cold, circular objects.
“Uh-huh,” I confirmed.
He passed a fingertip over the surface of the white gold disc and found raised dots there too. And then he laughed. He laughed and laughed, a deep, booming, musical laugh that made the couple in the corner stop their conversation and wonder what could be so funny.
“Did I spell it right?” I asked.
“You did,” he chortled. “And I l-love them. Wh-what’s the metal?”
“The base is white gold, and the Braille dots are yellow gold.”
“These are genius,” he said, removing the cufflinks he was already wearing, and replacing them with mine. “And wh-what’s best about them, aside from the fact that my talented girlfriend made them for me, is that no one will ever guess that they say anything at all.”
“Let alone the fact that they say ‘oh shit’,” I added with a laugh of my own as he took my hands and thanked me again and again, bringing my hands to his lips and kissing my fingers with a repeated urgency that melted me.
And while the rain pattered on the windows, and our first course arrived, I didn’t know if I’d be able to last til midnight to get back upstairs to our room.
To be continued (promise!).....