One step too far

We’re not together anymore. Skin ripped, bones fractured. I never thought I’d hate him. It was beyond his control. I never thought he’d resent me for doing what they told me was right. I didn’t do it for gratitude: he thanked me and everything changed. How do you live with someone who’s seen you in pieces? We’re better off apart, rather than living with the echoes of words we can’t unsay. My studio flat is quiet, nine floors above the city. I watch the headlights stream past, red gold blurs in the evening rain, and I think of him, thousands of miles away in the sun.

.

It’s funny, isn’t it? I work at the hospital, and when I take a day off, where do you find me? It’s ironic, I mean, not humorous. Nothing is humorous right now. I’m twenty six, for fuck’s sake. I’m not meant to be sitting by a hospital bed, cheering up someone who has no reason to be cheerful.

“You’ll be out of here soon,” I say. He can’t answer, and my words mean nothing anyway. “It’ll be okay.” “You’ll be fine.” ‘It’s a little better all the time (It can’t get no worse)’ runs through my head, accompanied by siren echoes. Words spill to fill not just the silence but his fear, and mine, that he won’t be fine, and out of here is not the place we used to live. Untested limbs in uncompromising environments, a world that we’re going to have to force to adapt while wishing we didn’t have to join this fight. We, together, in my mind. Who knows what he’s thinking, because he’s not talking. I look through the glass at the streetlights below and know that I can’t understand.

.

And anyway what happens when he is home?

.

It was easy when they brought him back. I didn’t think so at the time, but the ambulance men knew what they were doing. Now I have to do it myself. There’s a step. I’ve come into the house across that step without a thought. I forgot my keys, I’ll pop back in. Easy. I didn’t even look at it when I found the flat.

Now, we plan every trip. He’s six foot, broad, he used to play rugby. Used to. He’s put on weight: the only exercise he does is physiotherapy. So can we manage it? How much pain is he in? Is it worth the effort?

I’ve just got back from work but he’s inside all day and he’d be climbing the walls if he could. We decide we’ll try, but he’s not up to walking, not today. The NHS wheelchair flexes and twists as I heave it over the step, and he can’t help and I can tell how much it hurts as it bounces. He just jokes about whose turn it is to get the first beer. So we sit in the pub and I buy. We pretend things are like they were and all I can think about is how we’ll get him back over the step.

.

It’s not going to be better, is it? Being home, I mean. At least now I see him every day. But what do I really see? He doesn’t let me in, not far, because if we connect it makes it real and we’re trying to pretend that real is normal, and normal is how we were, and neither of us want now when reality is shaped by ketamine and a morphine pump.

.

His room reeks of disinfectant.

“Go away,” he says.

“But …”

“I said, go away.”

I go. I’ve got forty minutes so I sit in the corridor, and listen to the nurses talk, and wonder what’s so bad that he can’t have me in there.

That night I ask, “What happened this lunchtime?”

He doesn’t explain at first, then, “Fucking humiliating.”

I wait.

“I couldn’t go, all the painkillers they said, so they gave me something. It didn’t work at first.”

A sudden burst of laughter.

“Then there was shit everywhere. Fuck, I’ve never done that much. Two weeks’ worth all at once.”

“That’s why you didn’t want me to stay?”

“It might have happened again. I couldn’t … not in front of you.”

“Shit happens.”

And he winces as we’re both laughing for the first time in two weeks.

.

He’s never on his own in here. A battalion of brothers in injury comes through the rehab unit, bonding over drugs and ops and mutual hate of therapists. I see him at the start of the day, and if I get a break and in the evening too, but all we say is, “How’s it going?” and, “Much the same,” and of course it’s the same, and the physio prescribes the same, and people come and then they go and he’s still here and we wait for a change. I’d say breakthrough, but that’s not the right word now.

“How’s the pain?” the consultant asks.

Which pain? The pain from the accident, the pain from the repairs, the pain of all the things he can’t do, may never do.

“I did the Nevis bungy. Can’t believe you didn’t do it too then. You still could, though. I could watch.”

And we remember the break in the rain, the wide blue sky, and the bumpy dirt road up to the cable car, and the long drive down from Christchurch, and the hours on a plane, and right now he couldn’t even get to the airport. I put my hand on his. He pulls away and says, “Fuck it. I’ll do it again. I will.”

.

His mates come in. The nurse welcomes them at first. They bring beer and pizza, but they’re too many and too big and too noisy and quickly they’re hushed.

“One at a time.”

“Keep it down!”

“Right, that’s it!”

“Other patients have been disturbed, would you move down to the day room, please?” It’s a laugh, a riot, just like old times, like we’re at the pub, the club, like any other night out with your mates. Apart from the fluorescent lights, and the plastic chairs and the piles of tatty magazines and the stink of clean that’s everywhere. We all pretend as hard as we can, and no-one will look me in the eye.

Then Jamie spills a can of lager, piss-blond spreading across the tiles, and there’s pizza on the pale green upholstery (and it never comes out), and they all have to go on for another few pints. They say, “Why don’t you come, we could push you?” but we all know it isn’t really a question. There’s steps to the club, and he needs his meds, and when have the words, “Is there wheelchair access?” ever added anything to a night out?

Afterwards the ward is too quiet. Headlights stream past outside, hazy streaks. Nottingham is a night time city, the hospital runs twenty-four seven, but inside second hands falter.

.

“We should talk about arrangements for discharge …”

I feel sick. I don’t know what Tom feels. The hospital doesn’t seem so bad.

.

I’m alone, at home, and I’m always alone and it’s not like home, and it’s not going to work. I’m crying, and it’s stupid, and I can’t stop. My period’s due, and once I bleed I’ll feel better, that’s all I need and it’s nothing to do with the fact that we can’t go back and if I look forward, my vision blurs.

One time, we were in Dublin. We’d gone with some mates, seen a gig, tried the Guinness, eaten boxty, toured the distillery, and I realised I was late, and he was great, like I didn’t think he would be. We hadn’t been serious, and I wasn’t pregnant, but we talked about setting a date.

And now … my dreams don’t fit, and he won’t dream, and when he does he wakes in a sweat and won’t talk until it all comes tumbling out again and again the same, and there’s no white dress, no three bed semi, just falling and noise and pain.

He’s on his own, filled up with someone else’s blood, and I’m alone, waiting, because when I bleed, even if nothing is better, it won’t seem so bleak.

.

“What are we going to do when I come home?”

“I’ve given notice on the house. I’m looking for somewhere on one level.”

“Don’t. I’ll manage.”

“Okay.”

But I do. He won’t. And when I see him every day I’m lying.

.

“I know you didn’t want me to, but I’ve found a new place.”

He turns his back, and I sit, wait, until I have to go back to work.

“You’re going to like it, it’s still in Beeston, only round the corner from where we …”

“I get it. Just don’t try to make me say I like it.”

.

“What do you think?”

“Fucking day release. It’s like being let out of jail.”

He looks better than he’s done in weeks, though, and we sit on the sofa and watch TV, and later he pokes through his stuff in a drawer and picks his copy of Redemption off the shelves. Then it’s time to go back and he says, “I could stay,” but they’re at the door.

“It won’t be long, another few weeks, I’ll be at work; you’d be on your own. I think you should go back.”  He’s still holding the book and I’m lying again as they take him away. I stand on the doorstep until the thrum of the diesel engine fades. He’s never lived here and I loathe every night. It’s getting dark, though, so I turn back to the TV and tell myself how lucky I am to work at the hospital, that I’ll see him tomorrow, and I pretend that will be enough.

.

I wasn’t surprised when it happened. There were weeks of, “Aren’t you making progress?”, or “Just roll over!” Expose your butt, one more test, wait in the corridor, “It’s not like you’ve got anywhere to be”. They were kind but who wants kindness when seventy-six days ago he could do everything himself.

Thank God the physio was Michael, or maybe that was why, maybe he wouldn’t have lashed out at a woman. And no-one was hurt, even if the therapy room took a battering. Michael laughed afterwards, said it was the longest he’d seen Tom stand unaided. We laughed with him, but laughter isn’t far from tears.

.

“If you just stick with the exercises …”

“Then what? I still won’t be able to run or climb or …”

“If you just keep going to the appointments …”

“Then what? My life will have form and meaning? I won’t waste tax payers’ money? Screw them.”

“If you’d just get up in the mornings …”

“Would I feel better when I’m up? I fucking hate this flat, hate it …”

“If I wasn’t here … would you rather I went away?”

“Fine, you go. I’ll sit and rot.”

I go outside and cry. Then because I can go and he can’t, I go back in.

.

“As soon as I’m better I’ll …”

“What?”

“Things aren’t getting better, are they?”

“What do we do?”

He shrugs, and struggles to make his way back into the lounge. “I could go home,” he says as he leaves the room.

I sit at the kitchen table and shred the menu from the Lucky Cat into tiny pieces. “You hate it at home. When you’re better, I’ll go, if you want.”

“C’m’ere.”

I toy with staying put for a second. He isn’t going to make it through to me, so I go back to him.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Me too.”

“We have to work this out.”

“Not today.”

“Not today.”

.

“You’ve been drinking.”

“Why not?”

If he starts to drink at nine or ten, what will we do at six or seven? If he’s drunk when I came home … I’m scared of seeing him fall apart some more.

I bend down and pick shards off the sticky lino. “It smells like a pub in here. Did you try to clear up?”

He won’t look at me.

“I didn’t want it once I’d opened it. What’s for dinner?”

“When I cook it you won’t want it either.” I throw the glass in a carrier bag, and my blood drips on the floor.

“You cut yourself.”

“Statement of the bleeding obvious.” And we’re both laughing, and I catch his gaze and remember.

 .

It’s another night out. We’ve won the match, we’re on the town, we’ve drunk too much, and we’ve started a fight. We get kicked out so we’re walking to the club, the lads in front as usual, pissing about, and the rain won’t stop us. Someone has a bottle of vodka and we’re passing it round, because drinks in the club are a rip-off. The traffic streams past, a taxi honks its horn, and the headlights make gold lines. Why wait for red? We’re young and fit and fast. We’re invincible.

He takes one step too far, too fast. The van slams into him, with a smack of metal on fabric, on skin, on bone. He rolls up and over, and over, then smashes down, and there’s blood on the road.

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