A Net to Catch the Wind (David’s Story)
The small pains bother me the most now. It wasn’t that way at first. In the beginning, I didn’t even notice them.
In hospital they treated the broken bones, the torn muscles, the damaged tissues, from the accident and dealt with my recovery from the surgeries. The pain was so bad that my mind couldn’t trace its many sources. I couldn’t tell where it started. It was just there. It absorbed me into its world. And it wasn’t just my body that hurt. That pain radiated out beyond me and beyond the bed to fill that room, the hospital, the entire city. For an infinity, I knew nothing but that pain.
Pain. There is no word for it other than ‘pain’. There are no synonyms. “Ache’ is trivial, and the medical terms—the ‘blunt-force traumata’ and ‘hyperalgesia’—offer only the false comforts of science and its labels. They are masks and lies that do not touch the truth.
Pain like that is a solipsism. It has no parts, no degrees, no nuances. It is beyond metaphor, beyond language itself. There are no figures of speech, no words, no signs, that can encompass it and tame it into the speakable. It is a island of the mute. That pain speaks in gestures and movements—the eyes closing tightly to shut it out, the sudden shocked intake of breath escaping the polite composure of our public faces, the hand trying to claw comfort from the air. Its lexicon is restricted, its dictionaries brief, its grammar simple. It is a foreign tongue quickly learned. The scream, the groan, are its only vocabulary. Pain like that is a knife in the mind beyond the ability of actors to mimic.
Occasionally those pains return, searing phantasms delivered to my present reality by the triggering of a stray synapse in my brain. The wanton fires of memory offer my flesh again and again to the insatiable gods that starve on our endless burnt offerings, gods whose hunger we cannot sate. The world lurches. Someone will rush to my side and shout that I am having one of my ‘spells’. The suddenness of the attacks makes them feel so helpless. The palliatives they offer are comical in comparison to the cause. Even the most imperturbable of my friends and associates are reduced to babbling by the spasms that roil my face. “Water, someone bring David a glass of water,” they call out to the unresponsive air. Or “Do you need a pillow?” they ask me.
Richard told me later that I gave no sign of being aware of my surroundings for eight days. I’m not sure when I again became conscious of something apart from the pain. It was a slow awakening, that I remember. Eventually I realised where I was and was told the reason I was there. I think I knew that I was lying in a hospital bed long before it occurred to me that I did know. There were flowers, a gigantic vase full of bronze and russet and yellow chrysanthemums. They were so big and heavy that their stems curved and the flowers hung downwards. The individual petals on each of those overwrought blooms were so clear and distinct. And I was thinking, that’s the sort of flowers you send to someone who’s sick, and then it came to me that I was in hospital and that the flowers were for me.
Of the accident itself, I have no memory. I don’t even remember what I was doing before it happened. Amnesia is a common effect of traumatic brain injury. The shock of the moment erases the recent past. Others have supplied my memories, and I have made them into a movie. One of those starkly lit black-and-white movies from the 1930s and 1940s in which the contrasts in night-time images are so strong. My own film noir. Late at night after a performance, an actor hurries across a rain-slicked street. The reflections of the lights waver in the puddles as the wind ripples the water and drives gusts of rain across the road. His hat is pulled low over his face to keep the rain off, and he grasps its brim with one hand to keep it from blowing away. His shoulders are hunched forward in his coat in that futile gesture we all use in an attempt to make ourselves a smaller target for the raindrops. A car charges around the corner, its headlights briefly illuminating the actor. In a moment of indecision he half-turns toward the sound, and then his body lurches through the air to land with his torso on the pavement and his calves folded back beneath his thighs on the street. He becomes a crumpled pile of alien refuse, unhuman, beastlike, strangely silent for someone so torn. Shocked passers-by stop in mid-step, in mid-word, immobilised for a brief moment.
Then the frantic activity. The flashing lights of the police cars, the ambulance siren approaching from the distance, and the efficient removal of the body.
“Who was it? Did you recognise him?”
“It was that actor. You know—the short black-haired one who played Caliban, what’s his name? Richard Somerset’s ‘friend’. David Scott-something?”
I was leaving the theatre after a performance. Alexis says that we sat for a while on the stage after we had removed the makeup and changed into our street clothes, sharing a drink and gossip with the stagehands and stage manager. She and I stopped on the pavement outside and talked for a few minutes more. Then we said good night. I started across the street. She hailed a cab and got in. As it was driving off, she heard the squeal of brakes and the thud of the impact and then the empty silence. I don’t remember. We were in a production of Autumn Garden. I’m told it was a success. The production had already run for seven months. I can’t recall a single line from the play, although I must have given almost two hundred performances of it by that night.
Richard was filming outside Cardiff. Alexis rang him immediately on her mobile, awakening him. He drove back that night and waited outside the surgical theatre throughout the day. Luckily enough of the sisters and doctors read the tabloids and listened to television gossip shows to know that we were more than just friends, and they allowed him into my room as I was recovering. Richard stayed beside my bed for the first week, leaving only for an hour or two each day to change his clothes and wash up.
When I eventually became conscious of him, he was haggard, his face grey with exhaustion and his shoulders slumped. He tried to hide it from me, but he was furious, furious at the driver who had hit me, furious at the delays in getting me into surgery, furious at the doctors because he thought my recovery too slow, furious at the nurses doing the necessary tasks, furious at every medical indignity visited upon my unresisting body, furious at me and my carelessness for making it necessary for him to be furious.
But fury is an inadequate word to describe his feelings when Doctor Kellner broke the news that the nerves leading to my legs were too damaged to recover and that I would never walk again. It was the day before my scheduled release. Richard assured me that he had made all the arrangements the hospital had specified before they would allow me to return to our flat. When I asked what they were, he smiled and said he wanted them to be a surprise.
By then I could sit in a wheelchair for a while before I became too tired to hold myself erect. When Kellner entered my room, Richard was seated by my side and holding my hand. He did that often in those days. I needed him to hold me, and I think he needed to touch me. We gave each other the reassurance of the flesh. The first day I could sit in the wheelchair, he had pushed me up and down the corridors. But both of us found that dismal. It was late winter by that point and still cold. The weather was very wet, and the sisters wouldn’t allow him to take me outside. The corridors of the hospital were filled with other patients and their visitors. Richard’s face is too well known to escape notice and comment, and we had no privacy. After a few ventures outside my room, we settled on sitting by the window and holding hands. It was all we could do.
I have forgotten the technical name for Doctor Kellner’s specialty. He oversees the rebuilding and rehabilitation of damaged bodies. Occasionally he has to admit the status quo ante cannot be restored, is not even imaginable. That day, he carried a metal clipboard. Rather than look at me, he focused on the pages in front of him, occasionally riffling through them in an apparent attempt to locate a particular fact as if the data on those sheets of paper verified the reality of my problems. He was overacting, like a bad mime clinging to a prop to lend his charade authority. His customary ability to explain the complex in simple language was replaced by a barrage of unfamiliar scientific terminology that he made no effort to clarify. Perhaps he finds it hard to deliver bad news and was hiding his discomfiture in scientific vocabulary.
Richard realised before I did the import of his explanation. “Are you saying that David will never walk again?”
Richard is a very good actor. He never rants, never emotes. He is inward and intense. He never plays to the audience. His gaze and his energies are directed against the person to whom he is speaking, yet every member of the audience believes that Richard is addressing him or her alone. He can whisper, and every ear in the theatre feels caressed. When Doctor Kellner came into my room, Richard stood up and looked out the window with his back to us. He waited through the doctor’s tortuous explanation of the damage to my body and the hopelessness of my condition. Richard’s question may have been phrased like an innocuous request for information, but it was spoken with such quiet anger that it cut through the doctor’s circumlocutions.
“We can’t be certain that Mr Scotthorn will never walk again, but for the foreseeable future, he will have to continue to use the wheelchair. It is unlikely that he will ever recover the full use of his legs. The damage to the sciatic nerve was severe, and there is no detectable reaction below the pelvic bone and the hip joint. In cases such as this, only limited mobility . . .”
“Get out.” Richard wheeled around. In two steps he brought himself right into Doctor Kellner’s face. His arms were rigid at his sides, and his hands were bunched into fists. The doctor instinctively raised the clipboard to guard himself. Richard batted at it with the back of a hand and shoved the doctor back a step. He was so angry that the words sputtered out. “If you can’t help David, then get out.” I thought he was going to hit Kellner.
“Richard, don’t.” I rolled the chair forward and tugged at his sleeve. “Please don’t.” Richard looked at me and then back at the doctor. He glared at Kellner ferociously and then softened his posture. Every muscle of his face was telegraphing that he was labouring to bring his emotions under control. He was letting us know that he was doing so only because I had intervened. He grasped the handles on the back of the chair and jerked me away from the doctor, as if the doctor were himself the danger to me and the source of my problems.
Richard placed an open hand on the back of my neck. That was one of his gestures of affection. I would be sitting in a chair, and he would walk up behind me and cup the back of my neck in his hand. There would be a slight pressure as his fingers and palm closed around my neck and then he would rub my neck with his thumb for a second before relaxing his grasp. He seldom said anything at those moments. I saw his parents do the same thing many times. He had learned it from them. I don’t suppose he thought about what he was doing or its meaning for him. It was just part of his repertoire, one of the ways he told me that he was there and that he wanted to be there.
The doctor grabbed a tissue from the box and wiped his face. His eyeglasses were speckled with fine droplets of Richard’s spit. He started to speak, but I interrupted and asked him to leave us alone for a few minutes. Kellner nodded and almost ran from the room.
“Richard, we have to face . . .”
“David, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s just a staff doctor in a city hospital. He probably can’t get a job anywhere else. I shouldn’t have left you here. This isn’t a proper hospital. It’s a warehouse. You should have had private care from the beginning. There are other doctors to consult—specialists. They’ll know how to fix this. We’ll find someone. I’ll ask. Marta’s husband is a doctor. He’ll know someone. We’re going to beat this, David. Everything will be like before. We’re going to . . .” He knelt on the floor in front of my chair and grasped my hands in his. He went on and on reassuring himself that all would be well if he could only find the right person to put me back together again. He made it sound as if a bit of wiring had come loose inside me, and all would be made right in the end when an electrician who knew his job stepped forward. Richard was so forceful that I almost believed it myself. I wanted so much for that to be true.
I sat there, with my hands clasped in his, pretending to share his optimism. I tried very hard to be what he wanted. I was never the actor he is, but I gave a great performance as the courageous cripple that day. For an audience of one, my lion, my wonderful ferocious lion. But he wanted to believe. Suspension of belief has always been easy for Richard. Perhaps that’s why he so convincing on stage or before the camera.
By the next morning, he had organised everything. He swept into my hospital room and soon had the sisters running about packing up my things. He listened carefully to their explanations of what medicines I was supposed to take and when. He had even brought a memo pad with him and took notes. While this was going on, a young man waited patiently in the door to the corridor. I thought he was one of the porters at the hospital come to escort me out. There were several men to do the heavy work about the place, and the young man in the doorway was cut from the same mould. He wasn’t dressed in the usual hospital clothes, but he looked competent and was clearly there to help us.
When we were ready to leave, Richard handed my belongings and the bag with the medicines to the young man and said to me, “This is Paul Norman. He’s a registered home-care health assistant. He’ll be coming in during the day for a few weeks to help out. Just until you get back on your feet again.” Paul smiled at me and shook my hand. He murmured that he was pleased to meet me and that he wished we were meeting under better circumstances and then in a louder voice told Richard that he would run downstairs and bring the van around.
When we got to the entrance, Paul jumped out of a wheelchair van and operated the lift. He quickly had the chair locked in place and me secured in it. Richard never told me how he had found Paul. Later I asked Paul directly and learned that Richard had conducted interviews several weeks ahead of my discharge from hospital, and that Paul had been on retainer to begin his employment as soon as I was allowed to come home. He had agreed to stay until I could manage for myself. The van was similarly being rented from month to month, another temporary arrangement, Richard stressed.
It wasn’t the only surprise that awaited me. Richard had had most of the doors inside our flat removed to accommodate the wheelchair. “They’re all stowed in the basement, and we can put them back up after you get out of that chair.” Safety bars had been installed around the bathtub and the toilet I was to use. Richard informed me that the builders had assured him they could be removed later and the tiles replaced so that “no one would ever know they had been there.” A hospital bed had replaced the fold-out couch in the guest room. It was, Richard told me, rented and would be returned when we no longer needed it. The damage to the flat and my injuries evidently had the same status in his mind—both would disappear and leave no trace.
* * *
“Richard, this is shit.” I held up the script his agent had sent over earlier in the day. Richard had been out. For want of anything better to do, I had picked it up and began reading it. “Why is Nicole sending you junk like this?” I flipped it open at a random: “ ‘Stella, think of our unborn child. Does she mean nothing to you?’ This is a soap opera. A few parts like this and your reputation will be history.”
Richard snatched the script out of my hands and closed it. He set it on a high shelf of a bookcase beyond my reach from the wheelchair. “It’s a romantic comedy. A parody.” Even Richard didn’t believe that. “And it’s not for you to decide what roles I take. At least this will allow me to stay in London with you. I’m doing it for you.”
“Since when is taking an interest in your career out of bounds?” I grew livid over the sacrifices he was forcing on me, the charity he was trying to impose on me. “And when are you going back to Wales to finish filming? Nicole asked me yesterday when she stopped by if I knew what your plans were. The producers are calling her every day.”
“That bitch. She has no right to bother you about these things. I’m taking care of it. I’m making arrangements to finish the film here in London.” Richard grabbed a magazine off the table and rolled it into a tight cylinder. He began beating the open palm of his left hand with it. He latched onto Nicole as a welcome target for his anger, a substitute, I think, for me. “If Nicole were doing her job, she would be helping me make the arrangements instead of worrying you.”
Richard seldom told me what he was doing anymore. He was often gone most of the day. In the morning, once Paul had arrived and Richard knew that I wouldn’t be alone, he would hurriedly bend over my chair, push my hair away so that he could kiss my forehead, and say, “I have things to attend to. I’ll be back later.” Then he would rush off without looking back. Since he usually said nothing about how he had spent his day when he returned, I sometimes wondered if he just wanted to be anywhere but the flat with its reminders of my problems. Before the accident, he had delighted in telling me in great detail what he had done while we had been apart. He had loved sharing his day with me, making sure that even though we were apart, we were together. And that’s what I wanted again—the gift of normality, not constant reminders of his awareness of my immobility and enforced inactivity.
My stupid, heedless arrogance in thinking that I led such a charmed life that I could dash across a busy road without risk was having consequences far beyond the injuries to my body. The damage to both our individual lives and our life together wasn’t confined to my medical problems. I had disrupted Richard’s career as well as mine and created an incurable problem, a problem simultaneously physical, mental, emotional, financial, professional. And the last thing I wanted was to be burdened by Richard’s guilt about being whole while I was crippled. My own load of remorse and shame was already a heavy weight.
“Richard, why are you doing this? You’re ruining your career.”
“It’s my career.” He turned away from me and looked out the window, his posture truculent. He, too, was seething with anger and barely controlling it.
“Richard, you don’t have to destroy your life to care for me.”
“I’ll do what I want. I can’t leave you when you’re like this.” He whirled around and faced me, shouting, daring me to argue with him. “You’ve never been able to accept my love. You’re always pushing me away when I try to do things for you. You’ve always held part of yourself back. You’ve never been willing to let me love you. To let me show you that I love you. I’m not like that. I can’t desert you when you need me. I’m just trying to find a job that will allow me to stay in London and work from home. So it’s a soap opera. They tape it two days every week. I won’t have to spend more than a few hours at the studio every week to say my lines.”
Richard’s rage at my condition was getting more and more intense. He hated every reminder of the restraints on my movement, and he took it out on everything that made it possible for me to get through the day. He either ignored the wheelchair and pretended that it didn’t exist or shoved it around violently, as if he loathed being in contact with it more than a moment.
Paul came in for constant carping and criticism. Any perceived delay on Paul’s part to answer a summons would be met with bellows from Richard and sotto voce comments about Paul’s slowness. Richard seemed to resent Paul’s care, especially anything that involved physical contact. He came home one day to find Paul bathing me. Both Paul and I are Chelsea fans, and we were discussing their recent games with such enthusiasm that neither of us heard Richard opening the door to the flat. As Paul often does when bathing me, he had stripped down to his underpants to keep his clothes from getting wet. Richard appeared in the door suddenly, surprising us both in mid-laughter.
My smiles may have misled Richard. I greeted him with delight. “Paul says that he thinks we can take the wheelchair into the Bridge. He’s going to check on it.” Paul was kneeling on the bathmat and leaning over the tub holding the shower hose and rinsing my hair off. He half-turned his head to acknowledge Richard’s arrival.
Richard shoved Paul aside and grabbed for the shower attachment. In the scuffle, he managed to spray more water over his clothes than me. “Are you out of your mind? Taking David to a football game. What if the louts decide to have a riot because their precious Blues lose again? Who’s going to protect David then?” Both Paul and I were stunned by the violence of his outburst. Richard had ended up in possession of the shower hose and water was flying all over the bathroom as he gestured wildly.
Neither Paul nor I said anything. Paul was kneeling on the floor, water dripping down his face and body. Richard looked at the two of us and then at the shower head and his wet clothes. He dropped the hose into the bathtub and growled at Paul, “Clean up this mess.” Then he rushed out. The hose had landed face up so that the water was jetting upward all over me and Paul and the walls. Paul and I didn’t move for a few seconds. We could hear Richard yanking drawers open in his bedroom, all the while muttering, “Idiot. A total fucking idiot.” I don’t know which of us he meant. After a moment, Paul turned off the water. He reached for the towel and began drying me off.
Paul has been with me for over five years now, first as an attendant and now as my indispensable assistant. I try not to think about my feelings for him, that odd mix of love and gratitude and affection and a rather paternalistic pride in his accomplishments. I can’t do anything to satisfy my feelings, and Paul is happily involved with another young man. My feelings are a complication he must never have to deal with. In fairness to Paul, he has never given Richard cause for jealousy. But I probably have. Richard may have sensed my growing attachment to Paul and my regard for him. Richard long ago learned to read me and the direction of my interests. If Paul and I had met under different circumstances, I might have come to love him, perhaps even more than I do Richard.
Richard has never shared my interest in football. He regards it as one of my lower-class enthusiasms, another remnant of my wayward upbringing. It must have hurt him to find that Paul and I had found a bond that excluded him.
“I’m sorry,” I mouthed. “It’s not you he’s mad at.”
Paul shrugged and whispered. “It’s hard on him to see you like this. He cares about you so much.”
“Yes, he does.” And that was true, is true. Richard has always loved me, passionately, devotedly. And there have been times that his love was a burden. Our relationship might have been smoother had he loved me less. Sometimes I have found his love a demanding gift.
And yet Richard could be unbelievably patient with me. The second week I was home from hospital, he came into my bedroom to make sure that I had taken my pills and to ask if I needed anything before he turned in for the night. He had just showered and he had a towel wrapped around his waist. The room filled instantly with the soapy smell of his warm body. He was pummelling his head with another towel to dry his hair. The moisture had made his curls even tighter than usual. He was, is, beautiful.
“Just you,” I replied in answer to his question. I pushed the covers back. “If you’ll help me move over, there will be room for both of us. I just want you to . . .” I couldn’t finish the sentence. I wanted him so much. I wanted him to do so many things that night. Just to hold me for a while, to feel his body stretched out beside mine. I wanted to touch him and pull him close to me. To be warmed by his heat to the marrow of my being. To feel his hair against my face again, his lips kissing my neck again, that sensitive spot he had found beneath my ears where the neck meets the shoulders, the spot where his kisses generated waves of pleasure that paralysed me with desire. I wanted us to become entangled in each other’s flesh. I wanted to be normal again. I wanted an illusion that would sweep everything away and make me whole, if only for a few moments. I wanted reassurance that something once so familiar had not changed and evaporated.
“It’s too soon. What if I hurt you?”
“Richard, I want to make love to you. I don’t know if I can anymore, or what I can do. But I want to try.”
He stood there looking at me for a long minute. He is so rarely indecisive that I thought he was trying to find words to tell me gently that he wouldn’t. Finally, he smiled hesitantly and said, “Let me hang the towels up and turn out the hall lights.” Even those innocuous remarks reminded me of the distance between us now, of Richard’s reluctance to confront my damaged body. There was a time when the towels would have been tossed immediately onto the floor and still held the dampness within their folds when we picked them up the next morning.
When he returned, he was naked. He switched off the lights and then got into bed. He lay down beside me and eased an arm under my neck and shoulders. I could feel his body down the length of my torso to about the area of the hipbones. Richard bent his uppermost leg at the knee and carefully lowered it across my thighs and began kissing me. I couldn’t feel anything in my legs. I knew his leg was there but I couldn’t feel it.
“You know, when I would wake up in the middle of the night in hospital, I would pretend that you were there in bed with me. It was the only way I could get back to sleep. With you holding me like this.”
He was very careful that night. Richard liked to make me feel good. He enjoyed the pleasure his lovemaking gave me. He always drew excitement from my excitement. I sometimes thought that he found in his skills at arousing me a confirmation of his own desirability. For someone with so forceful a personality, he can be very insecure. In the reflection of my desire for him, he found reassurance. Applause and good reviews and recognition—we’re both actors. I wanted them as much as he.
He did all the things he knew I like. As long as he touched me above the waist, I could feel his hands and his lips. Below that the sensations quickly faded away, the lower he moved. I was genuinely aroused by his love for me, and I wasn’t faking my moans of pleasure and the wildness he was creating in me. Physically I may not have been able to feel his touch, but mentally I could. And that was more than enough.
When Richard came, I started laughing for joy. I’ve seldom felt as close to him as I did that night and never as grateful. He buried his face in my shoulder as his body buckled in one final spasm. When he had recovered, he kissed my neck and moaned with contentment. “You’re still a sex maniac,” he said. “Thank god.”
“Were you worried?”
“A bit.” He kissed me again and then stroked my stomach. “What about you? If I’m careful, I can suck you off without putting any weight on you.” He reached down and took my cock in his hand. It was flaccid and unresponsive. I couldn’t feel much, not enough in any case.
“I don’t appear to be up for it, pun intended.” Richard shot me a cautiously bemused grimace. “It must be one of those painkillers I’m taking. I’ve read that they have this effect. In any case, I think you came enough for the two of us.”
Richard nodded. He was happy to accept the excuse I offered him. He quickly adopted it as the official explanation. He eased himself off me and stood up. “I’ll get a wet flannel. I’ll be right back. Just stay there. Don’t get up.”
He spoke without irony. It was one of those insignificant utterances that have almost no meaning. As soon as Richard started away from the bed, the literal meaning of his words came home to him. He whirled about, a stricken look on his face. He raised a hand cupped into a fist and covered his mouth. He didn’t know what to say to make up for his remarks.
“Whatever gave you the idea that I wanted to run away from you?” I had to offer him something, if only a joke.
“David, I’m so sorry. I spoke without . . .”
“Don’t. Don’t apologise for caring for me. It’s my fault that you have to do these things.”
“No. It’s that stupid driv . . .”
“Richard, you had better get that flannel and sponge me off. It will take you all night to get all this off if it dries.” I drew upon my memory of a role I had once played and beamed at him in amusement. He took the offered pretext and fled from the room.
As he was cleaning us up, I said, “Will you stay with me tonight? I’ve missed you. I hate sleeping alone. It’s worse when I know you’re just down the hall.”
“The bed’s too narrow. I’ll injure you if I stay.”
“We could go back to our bed. I don’t need this hospital bed now. You can call the rental place tomorrow and have them take it away.”
“I haven’t been sleeping at all well. I’ll keep you up, and you need your sleep.”
“The pills will make me sleep. Please, Richard.”
He touched my face. “I love you.” He looked so sad, as if the words had been stripped of their usual meaning and love were an admission of hopelessness.
“I know. What do you think has kept me going?” Sometimes I manipulated him so. There were times I used his guilt and his pity to get what I want.
He turned away and bent over and picked my pyjamas up from where he had tossed them on the floor earlier. I had begun wearing pyjamas in hospital and continued to do so after I came home. “Will you need these?”
I shook my head no. He dropped them onto a chair and then reached under me with both arms and carried me down the hall to our bed. He folded back the blankets and then laid my body on the bed. He straightened my legs out and then covered me up. A few seconds later he slid into bed beside me. “We’re going to make it, Davey.” His hand covered mine and squeezed it briefly. He didn’t say anything after that. Nor did he move any closer. He was still lying there separated from me by as much distance as the bed allowed and rigidly awake when my pills kicked in and I fell asleep puzzling over ‘Davey’. He had never called me by that diminutive before.
Richard was right in saying that I pushed him away sometimes. Not always, but often enough. Most people looked at us, and they saw Richard the successful and popular actor and they saw me, a supporting actor more popular with the critics than with the public, and they concluded that Richard played the leading role in our domestic drama. It’s not that simple. Love isn’t ever that simple. Ours was a balance of giving and receiving, an economy in which tokens circulated. Sometimes they would be returned with interest, sometimes they came back with their worth deflated. Sometimes the loan on offer had unacceptable conditions attached to it. Sometimes one sacrificed present gain for future benefits.
Fear has always kept me from giving myself to Richard completely. The first time we went to bed together, I was having sex. He was making love. The sudden realisation that Richard loved me, truly loved me, engulfed me in an ecstatic joy, and I felt myself dissolving, as if the boundaries between the two of us were evaporating. And I shouted “no” as the terror of ceasing to be myself overwhelmed me. A flash of ego stopped me before the David that I was sublimed into thin air and joined with Richard into another being. I was never willing to become that being. I settled for becoming the recipient of Richard’s love.
* * *
“So there’s no need for weekly appointments in the future. I’ll want to see you every two months or so, and of course you should keep up the physical therapy and exercise. It will help keep some muscle tone in the legs.”
“They are getting so thin.” My reactions to my injuries puzzled me at times. I had come to terms with losing the use of my legs. I didn’t like it, but I realised that I would never walk again. What I did mind was the loss of substance in my legs. They had always been one of my good points physically. I had strong, muscular legs. I looked good in tights in period dramas and even in loose-fitting trousers. And now they were shrinking. My thighs were becoming toothpicks that ended in bony knobs at the knees—at least they seemed that way to me. The muscle that did remain was getting soft and flabby. I had begun obsessively checking the size of my legs every morning to see if more of my flesh had disappeared over night. I had even had Paul consult some of his colleagues to see if there were exercises I could do to build them up. I suppose it was easier to worry about a trifle than to confront the main issue.
On the other hand, the exercises I was doing were building up my upper chest and arms. I was beginning to look like a tube of toothpaste that had been squeezed flat on the bottom forcing the top of the tube to swell out.
Doctor Allston didn’t reply to my comment. She was a kind doctor. Of all the specialists Richard had insisted I consult, she was the only one I liked. I think Richard trusted her more than he had the others. “You’re alone today.” It was phrased as a statement, but I understood what she was asking.
“Richard had to film on location in Southend today. He left early this morning. He allowed Paul to bring me but only after lecturing him for half an hour on what he should do.” We exchanged wry smiles.
She pulled a pad over and began writing on it. “I’m giving you the name of therapist. He’s very good at helping people deal with conditions like yours.” Even the doctors rarely referred to my paralysis to my face in any but the most general of benign terms. She could have been talking about a bad case of acne.
“I’ve been attending a group session for people who’ve . . .” I didn’t finish the sentence. I just gestured at my legs.
“No, this is for Mr Somerset. This man helps family members, spouses—” She lifted an eyebrow to query if the use of the term applied. When I nodded, she continued, “He’s very good at helping spouses cope with their partner’s loss of mobility.”
“Richard would get very angry if I even brought the subject up.”
“Yes, I have been on the receiving end of his anger.” She smiled. “His response is not unusual. He needs to find a way of dealing with that anger and overcoming it. He’s not helping you or himself.”
“I know. But his way of dealing with it is to insist that everything will be the way it was before the accident. He becomes furious if anyone even hints that I might not walk again. He has to believe that the paralysis is only temporary.”
“I do not claim to know Mr Somerset well, but anyone who sees the two of you together quickly realises how much he loves you, even if he does sometimes express it in unusual ways. Try to persuade him to consult Dr Evans. He can help Mr Somerset find a truth he can accept.” She held out the piece of paper to me. I folded it and stuck it in my shirt pocket. I knew that Richard would not agree to see him, but I thought that I might consult the man to see if he had any ideas on how to approach Richard. I didn’t have much hope, however.
Richard was becoming worse, not better. It had been almost eleven months since the accident. It was apparent to everyone else that I would never walk again. I think even Richard knew. But he refused to admit that fact, even to himself. At times it was almost as if he didn’t see the wheelchair or acknowledge Paul or the van or the hundred other contrivances that get me through another day.
A few days before my appointment with Dr Allston, he had come home to find me reading a script. He thought I was preparing to read for a part, and he was so elated at this sign of my ‘recovery’ that he began planning a celebration. In his excitement he couldn’t sit down. He rushed about the room, picking up objects only to set them on the next open surface he encountered. He was so happy I hated to interrupt him.
“It’s not for a part. Jeremy found me a job as a director.”
“A director?” He halted in mid-stride, his hand clutching a book I had been reading. “I don’t understand.”
“You know I’ve always planned on becoming a director. My youthful charms, such as they were, are already fading. I can’t count on my looks to carry me.” I deliberately failed to mention the more obvious incapacity. “I talked it over with Jeremy and he’s almost finished making the arrangements. I’m to direct the three plays that the Silvan Repertory plans to tour with in the spring. They rehearse in Camden. I’ll work with them for two months. They will have three weeks of performances here and then they start touring. This year they’re doing As You Like It, The School for Scandal, and this—they do one new play each year. It’s interesting. It’s a dark comedy.” The more I talked, the more excited I became about the prospect of directing. “I think it’s a wonderful play. It’s about a man who escapes into this imaginary life because his own life is so dull. It’s a showcase for the leading actor because he has to play so many different characters. Do you know Eoghan Macquerie? He’s taking the role. He’ll be perfect in the part. I’m looking forward to working with him.”
I held the script up. Richard snatched it out of my hands, let it fall open to a random page, read for a second, and then tossed it on a high shelf. That had become a habit of his. He may not have wanted to admit that I was in a wheelchair, but when he wanted to place things where I couldn’t get to them, he knew the exact limits of my reach. I had protested several times, but Richard persisted in the practice. In the beginning, I had asked Richard to hand me what I needed and couldn’t reach, but he did so with such obvious ill-humour that I gave up. Now I waited until he left and then had Paul retrieve things for me.
His words came rushing out, a stew of grievances, accompanied by furious pacing up and down the room.
—“Why is this the first I have heard of this?
—“You’ve been sneaking around behind my back. How can you do that to me after all I’ve done for you?
—“You’re not ready to go out by yourself yet. And who’s going to watch out for you?
—“And I won’t be able to go with you and help you out. I’ve got my own show to rehearse. You can’t think just of yourself all the time.”
Richard’s tone veered from angry to concerned to annoyed. Mostly he was cross with me, however. The explosion was just beneath the surface and building.
“Richard, I just wanted to make sure that everything had been settled before I told you. I didn’t want to give you false hopes.”
“You just wanted to make sure that you couldn’t back out. When were you planning to tell me? The day the rehearsals started?”
“I can’t sit here doing nothing the rest of my life. This chair is enough of a prison. I’m not going to let you make this flat the limits of my life. It’s not up to you to make every decision for me just because I can’t walk. You’re acting like a petulant child who isn’t getting his way. You should be happy for me that I’m finally working again.” I was already a director giving Richard the right reading for his lines.
He made a gesture of disgust with his hand, waving the air and me away from himself.
“Sit down and listen to me. I can’t talk to you when you’re rushing about like that.” He threw himself into a chair on the far side of the room, one that left him facing partially away from me. I wheeled my chair over to his side and took his hand between both of mine. He didn’t pull it away, but he let it rest lifelessly between my palms.
“Richard, I know this has been hard on you.” He turned his face away from me, his mouth set in a grimace of distaste. “But I’ve got to get out of the flat and start living again. I can’t sit here day after day. It’s making me insane. And I’ve got to start earning money again. My savings are almost gone.”
“I make enough for the two of us. But I can’t do that if I have to drive you all over and watch over you.”
“Paul will drive me to the rehearsals and help me when I need it.”
“You shouldn’t be troubling Paul.”
“That’s what he paid for.”
“I suppose he already knows. You’ve already talked with him about it, haven’t you?”
“He drove me over to look at the theatre and checked to make sure that it was accessible.”
“So I’m the last person to find out.”
“No, you’re the first person who matters to me that I’ve told.”
“Don’t. Don’t you dare try to flatter me.” He finally turned to look at me, his face filled more with disappointment at my attempt to placate him than with anger.
“Richard, I can’t do this alone. I need you to face facts.”
“I am facing facts, as you put it. If you settle for being a cripple in a wheelchair, that’s all you’re ever going to be. You’ve just got to try harder. That’s all it takes. You’ve just to decide that you’re going to walk again.”
“All the doctors have said that the nerve is severed and won’t heal. Richard, I’m never going to walk again.”
“You won’t if you have that attitude.”
The hopelessness of the situation overcame me. I bent forward and raised his hand to my forehead. It felt so cool. My head was so feverish. It hurt from all the arguments and the burden of his hopes for me. “I’m never going to be whole again. You mustn’t want that so much.”
“I’ll love you as much as I damn well please.”
I thought at first that he had misheard me but then I realised he hadn’t. What he was talking about was love. He wanted so many things for me, of me, from me, not least that I be the other half of the couple that he had always wished us to be.
He pushed me away and then stood up. “I just want things to be better.”
“I know, Richard, I know. I would like that to be possible. I won’t make plans without discussing them with you first. I promise. But I need your support, Richard, not your permission, but your support. I can’t go on without knowing that you’re behind me.”
“I’ll see.” He stood up and reached down the script I had been reading and handed it to me. “But you’re not giving up on walking again. I won’t let you.” He left without looking back. A moment later the front door of the flat opened and closed.
Paul had overheard the argument. He didn’t say anything, but he stayed with me after dinner instead of going off as he usually did. He made some excuse about wanting my opinion of an old movie on the telly. We watched the show until it finished at 9:30. When Richard had not returned by 10:00, I had Paul help me into bed and then told him to leave. He positioned the wheelchair next to my bed and locked the brakes. He lowered the bar that I used to lift my body out of the bed and into the chair so that I could reach it if I needed to get up. He turned out all the lights except the nightlight in the toilet.
I slept fitfully. It was after 1:00 when I heard the key turn in the lock. I pretended to be asleep. I wasn’t about to give Richard the satisfaction of knowing that he had kept me awake. I could feel him standing in the door to my bedroom. It’s strange but I often sense him as a physical presence even when I’m not facing him. He can walk past a room where I am sitting with my back to the door and pause to look in at me, and I know that he’s there.
That night, he stood for several minutes in the doorway and then he walked quietly over to my bedside and sat down in the wheelchair. The leather on the seat and back creaked as it stretched beneath his weight. I heard the snap of the brake lever. He manoeuvred the chair back a few feet and then rolled it forward again. He sat there for half an hour, the occasional metallic clicks of the chair as he shifted his body the only audible signs that he was there. Finally, he eased himself quietly out of the chair and walked out.
I don’t know what he was thinking. I lay there trying to breathe evenly and quietly, playing the role of a sleeping man. Once I had failed to acknowledge his return, I could hardly pretend that I wasn’t asleep. In any case, I wasn’t happy to see him, and I didn’t have the energy for another attempt to get him to address my problems realistically.
Dr Allston was right. Richard needed to learn to cope with what had happened. And I needed to learn to manage my resentment at being forced to deal with Richard. Richard didn’t have a monopoly on anger in our household. I hate being dependent on him or anyone else. At the same time, I fear being left alone. I can’t manage on my own. I need others to help me, and that makes me resent them. I hate having to say “thank you” dozens of times every day for the services I have to have supplied to me, things that whole people do for themselves without thought. I hate the constant reminders of things that I will never be able to do again. People talk about road rage. Well, there is wheelchair rage as well. The anger you feel when a jogger lopes nonchalantly by you, the anger that you feel when an impatient queue quickly forms behind you as you try to ease the chair through the doorway into a shop or restaurant, the anger you feel at the well-meant assistance that imposes the necessity of gratitude. Anger made worse because one has to hide it. Too much depends on the ‘kindness of strangers’.
The worst are those who think one disability begets another. The people who shout at me because they think I must be deaf too. Or those who treat me as though the loss of mobility made me simple-minded as well, as if I were no longer capable of making a decision. But the thing I mind most is having to be the good cripple, that brave upbeat soul who doesn’t let his problems get him down, who is ‘an example to the rest of us’, who smiles through adversity, who never ever reminds anyone of the feast of horror that capricious fate has booked for each of us.
* * *
The day of my appointment with Dr Allston, Richard returned about 9:00 in the evening from Southend. Paul had fed me dinner and then left. I had spent a couple of hours reviewing the script for the new play I was to direct and making notes.
Richard found me in his bedroom, seated in my wheelchair in front of the full-length mirrors we had installed in that room. It was always my habit when preparing a part to work in front of a mirror. The new play had no history, and I couldn’t call on any memories to populate it. I hit upon the scheme of inhabiting the various characters using the mirror to gauge facial expressions and, as much as was possible for me in the chair, physical postures. After a while, however, I found it hard to focus on the characters’ images instead of my own. I had started taking inventory. My body was acquiring a definite list to the right. My feet were starting to droop. The plastic surgeon had repaired most of the damage to my face. But if you looked closely, you could see that many of the lines that crossed my face weren’t natural. The set of my jaw wasn’t symmetrical, and my left eyelid sagged.
He leaned over me and kissed me. “What are you doing?” He was calmer than he had been for several weeks.
“I was working on the new play, trying out gestures and expressions. But then I began thinking that if I were cast as Caliban now, I wouldn’t need any makeup or appliances. I could play the beast as is.”
“You were wonderful in that role. You were so full of rage at Prospero and what he had done to you and what he had made you be and for making you hide your feelings under all that fearful obsequiousness. You hated what he was and yet you were jealous of him at the same time.”
“I won’t be modest. I was terrific. But Henry was great as Prospero. We played off each other.”
“No, he was great only when he was on stage with you.”
“You’re not being fair to him.”
Richard shrugged. He wasn’t interested in being just to the actor who had played Prospero opposite my Caliban. He pulled over a chair and sat beside me. He appeared next to me in the mirror and spoke to my reflection. “Some day I want to play Prospero.”
“Why wait? Any director would be glad to get you for that role.”
“I’m not ready for it. You were Caliban right away, but I couldn’t be Prospero yet. But you, you’re Caliban.”
“Cal, the mooncalf, a freckled hag-born whelp.”
“Cal. I like that name. It suits you.” His hand came to rest on the back of my neck and he rubbed the ball of his thumb against it in a circular motion.
“Then call me Cal. The cosmic director has cast me in that role, and the play promises to have a long run. I shall never have to audition for another part.”
“You mustn’t joke, Davey.”
“Jokes are what remains. They’re one way of dealing with this.” I pointed at my legs.
“We’re not a joke.”
“No. That would be a lie.”
Richard sat absolutely still, his eyes locked on his own face in the mirror. “How would you cast the other roles?” His face was expressionless and he spoke without emotion. Neither of us addressed the other directly. It was easier to talk to the images in the mirror.
“You will be Prospero, of course.”
“Fair enough, but you’ll have to help me learn the role. Who will be Miranda?”
“Alexis. She does naïveté so well.”
One by one we cast the play with our friends and acquaintances. It was a game. We argued, with pleasure for once, defending our choices for the minor roles with mock vigour, adducing a score of reasons why X would make a perfect Gonzalo and why he wouldn’t.
I thought we had finally cast all the roles, but after a pause Richard tapped me on the arm and asked, “What do they call all the spirits in that mummery toward the end?”
“The Assorted Nymphs and Reapers?”
“Yes, that’s it. Rob shall be the Assorted Nymphs and Reapers.”
“He won’t like that.”
“No, he won’t. I shall take great pleasure when he melts into air and leaves not a rack behind.” We both laughed at the thought of Rob’s reaction if he were to learn that he had been cast in such a minor role. That was the first time we had shared a spontaneous laugh since the accident. A man both of us detested brought us together for a moment.
“Do the speech.” I was suddenly filled with a longing to hear Richard act in a great role. Richard the actor was preferable to Richard the accident victim.
“How does it start? I don’t remember. Give me the cue.”
“ ‘You do look, my son, in a movèd sort, as if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, Sir.’ ”
“Ah yes.” He dipped his chin briefly and lowered his gaze as he composed himself into the part. When he raised his face and looked at me in the mirror again, he was Prospero. “ ‘Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air . . .’ ”
For the time it took Richard to say the lines, that room became an island in the Mediterranean, and Richard its ruler. It was one of those moments cut magically out of time’s fabric that exists for itself alone. For the two of us alone. He created a place for us. His gift to me was a place for us. That has always been his gift to me.
Languages have always been easy for me. In school, I surged ahead of all my classmates. I mastered Latin long before anyone else, and I took to French as if I had been speaking it all my life. German, Italian, Spanish—a few months of study and a couple of weeks’ residence in the country, and I acquired a working acquaintance with them. Languages are only words and rules, and words and rules have never presented difficulties for me. I am even enough of an actor that I can mimic the physical aspects of native speakers successfully.
But one language has always given me trouble. Love has always been a difficult tongue for me to voice. I care too much for myself to master a language that soars as eloquently in pensive whispers as in tempests of rage. A language whose every utterance increases it. A language whose vocabulary is immense and unending, a language whose every word escapes the limits of meaning, whose every word is freighted with the burden of its smallness and its inadequacy. A language of infinite possibility. I don’t have the range for it.
But Richard does. It’s the language he wants the two of us to speak, the language he’s been trying to teach me for years. I sat there in my chair watching him in the mirror as he remained in the character of Prospero and waited for me to catch up to him. And I understood that anger was but one of his many ways of telling me that he loved me. Prospero and Caliban are the most unwilling and yet the most intimate of Shakespeare’s lovers. Their hopes for each other are so mispaid, so out of joint, so disappointed, and their ferocity is begotten from the futile strength of their desires for what might have been.
“You are ready to be Prospero.”
“I was inspired by you, David. I’m always trying to impress you. After all, it’s your island, and I’m only an interloper. Soon to fade away.”
“No, don’t fade away. I couldn’t exist without you. I love you too much to let that happen. And if my being Caliban inspires you to be Prospero, then I will be Cal for you. You have but to take the stage and begin to explain to Miranda that her grief is misplaced. The sailors are not really drowned. That all is illusion.” I gestured at the foreground, inviting Richard to step into the role.
He looked at me in the mirror for a long moment, still without expression. Then he turned toward me and started crying. I embraced him awkwardly, the chair made it hard to wrap my arms around him. He knelt down and buried his head in my lap, sobbing as I stroked his head.
And that’s how I became Cal, a reluctant player in a drama that has no end. Richard could accept me, however unenthusiastically, as an actor inhabiting a role, my infirmities part of the character I was playing, imposed on me by the author and director. I would like to think that I accepted my role out of love, and not out of convenience, not because it allows both of us some modicum of peace. But sometimes I have the heretical thought that I am Prospero, that devious manipulative magician. And Richard is Ariel, trapped into one more day of service by the promise of what he wants most.
The Time Skater (Richard’s Story)
The man in the hospital bed was so crumpled. His skull had been shaved so that a drain could be inserted to draw off fluid and relieve the pressure on his brain. Only an inky stain on his scalp was left to attest to what once had been a dense thicket of black hair. Most of his body was covered with bandages or encased in casts. The half of his face that was visible was swollen and black with bruises. A line of tiny stitches crossed one cheek. He was connected to several machines, and the monitors blinked and hissed and beeped constantly. He didn’t look as if he were breathing. The track on the heart monitor was more alive than he was. The machines must have been connected to someone else. No one could survive that much damage. They were showing me a corpse.
When the critical care ward sister approached me and asked if I wanted to see David, I leaped to my feet. I had to restrain myself from hugging and kissing her in gratitude. More than a day had passed since the accident, and I had spent most of that time waiting at St Brendan’s for that moment. She held up a hand to stop me for a second. “You can’t stay long,” she cautioned. “Just a few minutes.”
I was so happy. I dogged her heels and practically pushed her down the hall. I thought she meant that David was conscious again, and I could say something to him, reassure myself that he was all right. When she pulled aside the curtains and I saw the creature in the bed, I thought she had shown me the wrong person. “This isn’t David,” I almost said. “You’ve made a mistake. I’m here to see David Scotthorn. Take me to see David. Please.”
She patted the bed and made some minute adjustment to one of the machines. “You mustn’t stay long, Mr Somerset. And please don’t touch him. He’s very fragile at the moment.” She stood there like a clever sixth-form college student demonstrating her science project, a man reconstructed from an inept drawing.
I didn’t know what to do or say. No one had written lines for me to speak or told me how to play the role. I stood there frozen, fearful to move lest something else break.
* * *
Alexis called me on her mobile within minutes of the accident. She kept interrupting her conversation with me to talk to someone on the street. I could hear her giving David’s and my names to someone and explaining that she was talking with David’s partner. I think it must have been a policeman because she insisted emphatically that we were civil partners and that I was legally David’s next-of-kin. In the background ambulance sirens grew louder and louder. There was a confusion of people shouting “stand back”, “let us through”, doors opening, and then Alexis calling out “Where are you taking him? Where are they taking him?” And someone saying “St Brendan’s”. And then doors slamming and the sound of the siren starting up and more confused talk.
I was asleep when Alexis called. I was in Cardiff filming a movie. I had a makeup and wardrobe call for 5:00 the following morning. We were scheduled for an outdoor scene, next to the harbour, and the director wanted to start shooting as the sun was rising. I thought I was dreaming at first. When I finally realised the phone was really ringing, it took me several seconds to find the light switch and then recall where I had left my mobile in the hotel room. By that time the message recorder had come on, and Alexis had hung up. The phone started ringing again within seconds.
I was irritated at being awakened from a sound sleep when I had to get up early the next morning. I let my anger show when I answered, but Alexis ignored that. A deluge of words came over the phone. I couldn’t make any sense of what she was saying, just that something terrible had happened. I wasn’t fully awake and I was annoyed, and she was distraught and alarmed. And when she finally made me realise that something had happened to David, I became equally distraught and alarmed.
“They’re taking David to St Brendan’s. I’ll go there. You have to come right away, Richard. He’s so broken. He was lying on the ground, only his body was wrong. It was all twisted about.” She was crying.
It took me an hour to get away. I had to wake the director and explain why I was leaving. He wouldn’t let me drive. That was for the best. I would have been stopped for speeding and reckless driving within a few miles. He pulled on the first clothes he could find and drove me to London. I was frantic by the time we left. The traffic was light on the M4 until just outside Reading when we ran into the lorry traffic taking the day’s load of goods into London. We were in Hounslow within three hours of Alexis’s call. Neither of us knew how to get from there to St Brendan’s. We had to stop at a police station and ask directions. By the time we arrived at the hospital, it was five in the morning.
No one would tell me anything. Just that David was being prepped for surgery. I couldn’t find Alexis. My mobile wasn’t working. The person at the counter at the main entrance finally sent me to the waiting room outside the surgical theatres. I checked with the attendants at the desk there every few minutes, until one of them took pity on me and went through the doors marked “No Admittance Hospital Staff Only” to find information. She returned with the news that it would be several more hours before David was out of surgery and then several more hours before I could see him. She told me to go home and come back that evening or the next morning. But I couldn’t do that. I found a seat in a corner and gingerly lowered my body into it. The world had become fragile, and I felt that I had been compressed into a heavier form of being and that the chair would collapse under my weight. I didn’t move for hours. I feared that if I left, even for a minute to run to the toilet, a nurse delivering a message would think I had abandoned David and gone home.
Peter once told me a proverb he learned from his Russian grandmother, the Slavic equivalent of ‘Hope springs eternal’: ‘In the Kingdom of Hope, it is never winter.’ I think that proverb originated in an era before hospitals. Over the next few weeks, I spent many hours in waiting rooms, and I became familiar with winter.
The committee that chose the furniture for the waiting rooms at St Brendan’s must have thought that bright and cheerful furnishings would lighten the burden of those waiting. A different committee chose the colours for the walls and the paintings that hung on them; it opted for soothing and bland. The results hurt the eyes. Both committees agreed that everything had to be easy to clean. The moulded plastic chairs may have been red and yellow and blue, but they were hard and uncomfortable. The paintings—reproductions of famous French impressionist works—were encased behind hard plastic covers that mercilessly reflected the light. I doubt that many people studied the décor, however.
So many people wandered in and out of those waiting rooms. The traffic never ceased. Most people spoke softly, but so many people were talking that there was a constant drone of conversation. The staff were always chatting among themselves, but they seldom spoke of their work. For the most part, they discussed their life outside hospital. Whenever I approached the nurses’ station to ask a question, there would be a group of four or five people talking. When they noticed me, one of them would break away and say brightly, “Yes, Mr Somerset? Is there something?”
There were others who talked so loudly—not the staff, but visitors. In the relative silence of the hospital, they seemed to shout. Everything they said was audible throughout the waiting room. They rarely mentioned their reason for being there—they had tacitly agreed to avoid that topic, as if ignoring the sickness and injuries around them would make them disappear. Mostly they gossiped or chattered on about television shows. They always seemed to be eating crisps and biscuits or drinking endless cups of coffee and tea. They brought the food with them in large carrier bags. There was always a motherly figure who doled it out. Sometimes I sat there and let myself become absorbed in their speculations about the identity of the father of Ruby’s latest child or their complaints about the local council and the bin collections. I revelled in their normalcy. When they did speak of the person they were visiting, it was always with loud protestations of hope. Stridency itself apparently guaranteed fulfilment of their wishes.
There were many people like me who were there alone and had no one to speak to. We stared at the air, we checked our watches against the clock on the wall every few minutes, our eyes followed every nurse and porter who walked past, hoping that they were coming for us. We paced. We constantly shifted in our chairs, trying to find some comfort. We read or, rather, we pretended to read. I know I had a novel with me. I could not now tell you its title or what it was about. I could not remember what was happening from one sentence to the next.
Many who were there with others said nothing. There was one elderly woman and a younger women, her daughter I think. I saw them several times over the course of the first two weeks. The daughter could never sit for more than a moment. She would wander off and return shortly with a Styrofoam cup of tea, the label of the tea bag fluttering in the air or stuck wetly to the side of the cup. She would hand the cup to her mother. The mother would look at it without recognition, as if she had no idea how she came to be holding the cup or what she was supposed to do with it. She might take a sip, but then she would set the cup on the table beside her. The two of them would sit there for an hour waiting to be called back to the bedside of the person—husband, father, son, I never knew—they were visiting. When they left, the table held six or seven cups of cold tea.
Even in my memories, I focus on the waiting room, not that other room, the room down the hall, the room with David in it. I studied my fellow sufferers. I mined them as ore for future roles. This is how a hand gestures grief. This is how the tilt of the neck and the set of the shoulders convey despair. This is how one wears the mask of hope.
The population of the room changed constantly. I can still call to mind so many of the people who sat there. I was so irritated with all of them and with the hospital. Until I saw David. When I had to confront what now bore David’s name, I wished I were still in the waiting room, on the M4 mired in traffic, in Cardiff, on a plane headed across the Atlantic, anywhere but that room and the loud silence on the bed.
* * *
I sat in David’s room for all but a few hours each day for the next several weeks. In the beginning, I had to force myself to enter it. When they let me see him after the initial round of surgeries, I hadn’t known what to expect. The next visit I knew what awaited me behind the curtains, and that step through the curtains into the area that held the bed was the only act of true courage I have ever performed. I was almost physically sick. I felt terrified and alone. Luckily they kept David heavily sedated for the first few days, and he hardly moved. I wouldn’t have survived evidence that he might be alive and in pain under all that machinery.
I was the only visitor allowed to see David at first. If either of his parents had been willing to see David again, I suppose I would have been supplanted during their visit. On the second day, I rang his parents to tell them what had happened. David’s father answered and, when he understood it was me, told me to bugger off. “David isn’t our son. Not since he took up with your lot.”
Our friends and colleagues came by in a continuous stream. After three days, David had been moved to a room in the casualty ward. I had to leave David’s room each time someone arrived and speak with them in the hallway. Alexis saw that I was not up to dealing with their condolences and sympathy. She organised them and restricted visitors to a few each day. She took my mobile so that I didn’t have to answer all the calls from people who had that number and brought me another. She dealt with the media and kept them from hounding me for information. In some ways her efforts were a great help. In others, they meant that I had to spend more time sitting beside David’s bed, watching him be nothing.
Each morning they wheeled him away on a gurney. He would be gone for several hours. Usually some bit of medical jargon would be thrown at me in explanation as he was taken out. ‘Procedure’—every day another ‘procedure’. Couldn’t they have found a less pretentious term to describe their barbarities? Every time they brought him back, I would be told that David was “improving”. If I pushed them for more information, they would say “Mr Scotthorn is doing as well as can be expected.” Then they would point at him as if that explained everything.
They treated him like an object, moving him about, prodding him, talking over his body as if he weren’t there. Every doctor who came into the room lifted his unbandaged eyelid and shone a penlight into it. Every nurse took his pulse, even though the heart monitor flashed the current rate with each beat. Three or four times an hour someone walked in and disturbed him. Then they would make a mark on his chart, nod at me, and walk out.
They told me repeatedly not to touch him. Finally one night I couldn’t hold back. His left hand and forearm were unbandaged. The arm was arranged atop the sheet so that the nurses could attach the saline and glucose drips to the shunt in the arm. I stepped up to the bed. They had shaved the arm, I suppose to make it easy to keep it sterile. It looked so naked and so small and so pale without the familiar mat of black hair extending from just beneath the elbow to his wrist.
I never told David, at least not in words—I suppose I feared that he would think that I was silly—but I loved stroking that hair. It was so silky, and beneath it were the firm flesh and the blood vessels beating with his life. All the contradictions that I loved in him were there—the tenderness and the warmth, the strength and the ferocity, the melancholy and the joy. I guess they’re not really contradictions, are they?
On the underside of the wrist about an inch from the palm, he had a tender spot. A little gasp of pleasure escaped his lips when I touched him there, and his hand jerked involuntarily. Sometimes he held his arm up for me so that I could caress it. I would let my hands glide over his forearm, barely touching him. Soft rumblings would come from his throat, and he would move closer to me, angling his head to fit against my shoulder. The pleasures of a Sunday morning, the curtains pulled back and the sun shining across the bed, laughter and conversation from people on the street far below us coming through the open window and playing around us. And the two of us anticipating the joys that were to come, but not rushing them.
“Whispering,” that’s what David called it. I was stroking his arm once, and he said, “Your fingers are whispering to me.”
His hand lay palm up on the bed. I reached out with a fingertip and stroked the pad of his index finger and then traced a line along the outside of the finger and then the outside of his thumb and down to his wrist. His fingertips trembled and contracted inward a bit. Perhaps I just imagined that. I wanted a sign, some sign he knew that, of all the people who touched him, there was one special one.
I wanted him to open his good eye and wink at me and say, “I hope this is done soon so that I can get out of this costume and take this makeup off. Let’s have takeaway tonight. Just the two of us. I don’t want anyone else around. I’m tired of all these people. I want to be alone with you.” And the director would ask me to step back, out of the shot, and the camera and lighting crews would move in to finish filming the scene, this medical drama in which he had a starring role.
His hand was so cold. So alien. His skin was rubbery and too soft, like a balloon that isn’t fully inflated. I shrunk away from him. I wanted so much for all this to be undone, for it never to have happened. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be the watcher who had to sit there because someone has to sit and watch, if only so that someone will sit and watch for us when our time comes. I couldn’t leave David alone, to die alone. He deserved my presence. After all he had done for me and meant to me, I had to stay there, with him. My mate, friend, counsellor, companion, mentor, coach, fellow prankster, co-conspirator. My ferocious foe and ardent defender. My lover.
If he survived, the days would lengthen with his care. His body might be beyond his control, his mind perhaps gone. No one would commit to a prognosis. There was one doctor who was more forthcoming than the others. He spoke of injuries to the brain, the ruptured spleen, the damage to the ‘soft tissues’, by which he meant the liver and kidneys, the lack of response in David’s legs. He never said that full recovery wasn’t impossible, but he was trying to prepare me for the worst. When you expect the worst, anything even minimally better is a victory.
If David couldn’t recover fully, then I hoped he would die. I didn’t want him to live if he were less than himself. And I didn’t want to live with him if he were less than himself. I hated myself when I realised that. I wanted him to be well, but only if he were totally himself again. I knew I was being selfish and thinking only of myself. I tried to persuade myself that that was what he would have wanted as well.
I didn’t understand why his body clung so to life. He was so heavily sedated that I knew it wasn’t a conscious decision. It could only have been some primitive part of the brain—the ghosts in the machine, I read that somewhere. The primitive layers of the brain kept sending out the signals that made his heart beat and the blood circulate and the organs function, however feebly. It is still a mystery. He was broken, held together by wires and stitches, his body oozing fluids, connected to machines that forced air into his lungs and fed him and cleaned his blood. Had he not been drugged, he would have been in enormous pain. Perhaps he still was inside. Perhaps the painkillers merely kept the pain from showing and distressing those of us who had to watch. His mind had been unplugged from his body, except for that one small part that held fast to living.
I sat in a corner, on an uncomfortable chair, alone in a darkened hospital room with machines beeping, the respirator pump gasping and clicking, the sounds of conversations in the corridor muted by a closed door, a lifeless body on the bed. The perfect ingredients for prompting thought. I had no one else. I didn’t have to pose for anyone. There was no one I had to impress, no one I loved whom I had to protect from the truth about myself. I could confront myself without artifice. And the truth was that if I had been lying in that bed, he would have battled for me. If I were never to recover and had to spend the rest of my life lying in a coma, he would have battled for me. I didn’t have that sort of strength within myself. I was always on the verge of tears, but I couldn’t let myself cry. The only person who could have comforted me lay a few feet away. If I started crying, I had no one who could help me stop, no one to hold me and to crush the sorrow within me with his living warmth.
I compulsively revisited every scene of our lives together—well, not every scene. Just the good ones. I was like a figure skater, drunk on the joy of overcoming gravity and whirling in the air, unmindful for that moment aloft of the bone-jarring contact with the hard dark ice at the end of the leap. I glided across our time together.
“Should we practice the kiss?” David wore his most solemn look, the true professional interested only in his craft. He was helping me rehearse a scene—I was the male lead in a student production, and the scene we were working on ended with a kiss between my character and the female lead.
We were sitting on the couch that doubled as his bed in that awful room he rented above a stationer’s store when we were students. The room was barely big enough to contain the couch and a wardrobe. It smelled of dust and mould. The one window was so dirty that it admitted only a diffuse grey light.
When I spoke the final line in the scene, I lowered my copy of the script and closed it. David looked up from his copy. “Should we practice the kiss?” He looked so serious. But his Adam’s apple gave him away. He gulped, and it bobbed up and down. Until then, I hadn’t been sure if he was attracted to me. I was certainly attracted to him. I had been chasing him for weeks, forcing my presence on him at first until he accepted me. It had taken me days to persuade him to allow me to visit him at his digs. He kept insisting that there wasn’t room enough for two people. He was right about that, but I shamelessly manoeuvred him into an invite.
I shrugged. “I was thinking it would be better not to do one of those stage kisses. You know, the kind where the lips meet tentatively and then the kiss grows more ardent as the two people realise they really are attracted to each other. I thought it would be better to do something more like this.” I demonstrated what I had in mind.
“Hmm, that might work. But what about something like this?” He placed a hand behind my head, slid down a bit, and then pulled me down. His arms grasped me tight. I could feel the heat rising from his body into mine.
There was no subtlety in our first encounter. We were attracted to each other, horny, lustful, hormone-programmed. We learned to be lovers later, to experience each other with joy, to approach the act of love with kindness aforethought. But all that came later.
The first time we spent the night together, I woke up in bed next to David. The window in his room had no curtain. The light coming in from the street was almost blue. It fell on David’s glossy black hair. It was as if silver dust had settled on his hair. And I knew that I wanted to spend my life waking up beside him and watching the light in his hair.
That’s what I remembered as I sat waiting for him to die.
But, of course, David didn’t die. At least the body to which his name was attached didn’t die. But much of the David that I had known, and loved, died in that accident.
The changes in his condition were gradual. The bruises on his face started to fade. The black gave way to green and then yellow and finally a pallid white. The drain was removed from his scalp. Some of the bandages weren’t replaced. He began breathing on his own, and the respirator was disconnected. The nurses began opening the curtains again to let in natural light.
One day as I was sitting there watching him, I realised that his good eye was open. He appeared to be looking at something on the table beside his bed. It held a vase of flowers, several brightly coloured get-well cards, a box of tissues, and a clutter of hospital odds and ends. I stood up and said his name. His eye moved toward the sound of my voice but didn’t focus on me. Then it closed again. I said his name again, but there was no response. I didn’t tell anyone. It was my sign. I didn’t want to share it with anyone. But I pulled the chair closer to his bed and sat there very still, concentrating on his face and watching for any movement.
I knew he wasn’t asleep. He never slept during those first weeks. I’ve watched him sleep. His face is alive then, the eyes rolling the lids, his mouth twitching slightly. Dozens of little movements. But in hospital his face was always slack. That’s how I first knew that he was coming back—when I saw his face move. As I watched, his lips pursed slightly, and his eyelid quivered. His face was alive again, if only for a moment. But those moments became more and more frequent.
And one day he looked at me and said “Ri–” and “Wh–?” He tried to shift his body on the bed and then groaned in pain. His eye began searching for me, and I moved into his field of vision and touched his hand. His fingers clutched at mine spasmodically, as if he had forgotten how to move them.
Every day after that, there was another sign of improvement. The day the final cast came off, the day the shunt was removed from his arm, the first day he could sit in a wheelchair—sometimes I became frustrated and impatient at the slowness of his recovery, but there was always some new evidence of his return.
The doctors wanted to send him to a long-term care facility. When I protested, they told me that he would require too much help, that it would be months, if ever, before he could manage by himself. I badgered them, and they finally gave me a long list of adjustments I had to make to our flat before it would be safe for David to inhabit. I also had to hire an attendant. I surprised them with the speed with which I got it all ready.
The best thing was seeing how happy David became when he started improving rapidly. He was so chuffed at the prospect of leaving the hospital. His progress was so rapid. He was allowed to have more visitors, and I came in on him one day to find him entertaining several members of the cast of the play he had been in when the accident occurred. He was joking with the man who had taken over his part that he needn’t worry about David returning to play the role.
“I can’t remember the lines. Not a one. That car knocked them out of my head. So you’re safe for the run of the play. I don’t even remember what the play’s about. Alexis told me it’s called Autumn Garden. So I suppose it’s about fallen leaves decaying in the cold rain. Terribly sad. Yet the promise of spring is there too.” He mugged sadness and then followed it with a look of bedazzled hope with his tongue lolling out. Everyone laughed, he loudest of all.
He chatted on, making light of what had happened to him and dismissing the remaining physical problems as only temporary. He would, he told them, return to work as soon as he could walk again. He even called his agent in to begin planning what roles he might play.
His optimism grew boundless. He insisted that I arrange for physical therapy at a place near us so that he could walk and eventually jog there and build up his legs faster. He had me buy several new pairs of trainers for him. When one of the doctors suggested he buy a motorised wheelchair with more controls, he vetoed that. “There’s no need to spend the money. Just rent one that will get me about for the first few weeks.”
As soon as he could spend most of the day sitting up, he wanted to be in his wheelchair as much as possible. Just being mobile and able to leave his room meant so much to him. Every time I came to visit, I had to enlist the help of the hospital staff to find him. He took to roaming the halls and visiting with the other patients. I would often come upon him in earnest discussion with someone. People opened up to him so much. They told him their life stories, they introduced him to their families, they turned to him for comfort. When the two of us were alone together, he would tell me about them. He obviously felt that they deserved more pity and sympathy than he himself did. In his own mind, he was healthy and whole again, his current infirmities but minor, temporary problems.
One day he was in the children’s wing when I arrived. He was acting a panto version of Aladdin’s Lamp. Somehow he had co-opted the ward sister into taking the part of the lamp. The children and their parents and the other nurses erupted into laughter every time he rubbed her stomach and commanded the genii to come forth. He was surrounded by smiles, the centre of a circle of onlookers, as he hammed his way through the various parts, his voice changing effortlessly as he moved from character to character. They were entranced by the story he was telling them. For a few moments, all of them were in some other place.
That was the day I dared begin to allow myself to hope for a complete recovery. Our lives had been on pause for so long. We hadn’t dared make plans because we didn’t know if we had a future. Now we could press the button again and start the tape running again.
The day before his scheduled release, I was with him in his room when the doctor in charge of his treatment came in to talk to him. I stood up and walked to the window and looked out with my back to them. I wanted to give David some privacy but be near enough to hear any special instructions. David sometimes had lapses in his memory. He could be like an old person who forgets something seconds after he is told it.
The doctor had the results of the final series of tests that had been administered to David over the preceding week. In the most technical language he could muster, without any attempt to soften his message, the doctor bluntly told David that he would never walk again. He didn’t apologize, he didn’t express regret.
For weeks everyone in that hospital had held out the hope to David that he would recover fully. They could have told me and let me break the news to David gradually. I think that doctor enjoyed telling David he would never walk again. He was so smug and self-satisfied, as if this were a punishment David deserved.
David didn’t understand as quickly as I did the import of what the doctor was telling him. But when he did, he moaned. That’s all, just one soft moan as all hope drained from him. Even then, the doctor droned on. David slumped in the wheelchair. All emotion had disappeared from his face. He had fled from his body again. I lost my temper and shouted at the doctor to get out. That at least brought David back to reality. He looked at me and held out a hand to me. When I grasped it, he broke down in tears. Great ugly gasps tore through his chest as he struggled to breathe. He was trying to say something, but all that came out were whimpers. He shook his head from side to side in denial, each swing more violent than the last. He was fighting to stand up, to prove the doctor wrong, to show himself that he could walk.
I wrapped his head in my arms and hugged him tightly against my chest. I didn’t know what to say. I babbled on, trying to comfort him. We would consult other specialists. We would find someone. We would hire a physical therapist. I had to give him hope.
That became my principal role in the weeks that followed—giving him hope. Well, not so much giving him hope as seconding his frantic insistence that he would recover. He scorned any suggestion that he might not recover fully. Even a warning that he should take it easy and not overextend himself too quickly provoked assertions that caution would only delay his recovery and the day when he would regain full use of his legs.
He tried so hard. He saw the physical therapist three times a week for an hour-long session each time. Those were the one appointments David never missed. Paul Norman—the home healthcare aide we hired—had some training in physical therapy, and David forced Paul to devise ever more intensive routines. He and Paul spent hours exercising each day on the equipment David rented and had installed in our flat.
Before the accident, David had always kept himself in good shape. He jogged and worked out daily, but he had never been a fanatic about exercising. During the stay in hospital, his muscles had atrophied. His upper body and arms responded quickly to the hours of exercising, but his legs remained stubbornly unaffected.
I came home one day to find him sitting in his wheelchair in front of a mirror. He was wearing only shorts. He had just finished exercising, and I could hear Paul in the bathroom preparing to bathe him. David’s body was glistening with sweat. I walked up behind him and leaned over to kiss his neck. His skin was still damp and felt cold. I met his eyes in the mirror and realised that he was struggling not to cry. He tried to smile at me and say something, but his mouth was distended by a rictus he apparently could not control. He began compulsively pounding his thighs with his fists as if he could beat life back into them.
I grabbed at his wrists to try to stop him and he turned on me. Despite my greater size, his exercising had made his arms strong and he shoved me away. “Get the fuck out of here. Leave me alone. You’re always pushing at me, trying to help. I don’t need your help. I will do this myself.” He wheeled around violently and drove at my legs with the chair. In an effort to get out of his way, I lost my balance and tumbled to the floor. Paul rushed into the room and helped me to my feet.
David backed away and began struggling to lift himself out of the wheelchair. His upper body had become so powerful that he was able to raise himself out of the chair and put his feet on the floor. But he had forgot to set the brake on the chair, and his attempt to stand up made the chair roll backward and out from beneath him. He fell to the floor, striking his back on the chair. He cried out in pain. His legs were bent back beneath his torso, and his arms became tangled with the chair as he fought his body to right himself.
Both Paul and I rushed to him and tried to help him back into the chair. His clumsiness and helplessness made him furious. “I told you to get the fuck out of here.” His shout was directed at me. He clung to Paul. I think if he had had the use of his legs, he would have kicked me away.
Paul turned to me and whispered. “Let me deal with this.” He pushed me out the door and closed it behind me. I could hear David saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck” over and over and then Paul’s voice murmuring. I stood there with my forehead pressed against the door trying to hear and guess what was going on. Eventually David stopped speaking and then I could hear Paul bathing him.
As the weeks passed and his legs failed to respond, anger replaced hope. Paul alone could handle him—I think because David was Paul’s employer and that made David feel as if he were in charge. Paul was the only person David ever thanked. Anyone else who attempted to help him was greeted with irritation and impatience at best. The more frequent response was rage.
One day I found the sitting room floor littered with the torn remnants of a script that David had been reading. David and Paul were absent. Paul told me later that Jeremy Castle, David’s agent, had dropped by. David had pushed him to secure David a role in the play he was reading, and it fell to Jeremy to explain that the role was physically beyond him. David had become enraged and shredded the script and then attacked Jeremy. Jeremy had fled, and Paul had taken David out to allow him to calm down.
My feelings towards Paul were—are—complex. On one hand, I was grateful that he was there to deal with David for most of the day. I couldn’t have left David alone, couldn’t have escaped the emotional miasma of our flat, if Paul hadn’t been there to care for him. And I needed to escape that poisoned atmosphere if only for a few hours a day. On the other hand, I was jealous of David’s growing attachment to him. Paul and David are cut from similar patterns and have similar backgrounds. They often speak a language that I do not understand. Paul is so intimate with David that I suspect them of having secrets, even though I know David’s new body is incapable of physical intimacy. Yet the two of them have developed a mental shorthand that allows them to communicate with the merest of gestures. Paul understands the new David better than I do, perhaps because it’s the only David he’s ever known, perhaps because he wants to.
There were so many levels on which David and I had to re-establish our relationship. One night, about two months after his return, I went into David’s bedroom to check on him before I went to sleep and make sure that everything he might need was in reach. He had raised the top half of the bed so that he could sit up and read. I asked him if he wanted anything. He pushed back the covers a bit and said, “Just you.”
We hadn’t shared a bed in months. He was still recuperating. He often felt cold at night and had taken to wearing the top from a set of flannel pyjamas. In the V-shaped opening at his throat, I could see the beginning of the scar line where the doctors had stapled his chest together after the operation to close the puncture wounds in his lungs and rejoin the broken ribs. The scar itself was stark white, and the flesh puckered around it was red. He hadn’t been outside in the sun for months, and the tan he always achieved so easily had faded. His chest was smoother than I had ever known it. The hair hadn’t grown back as it was before. There were small patches of thick hair surrounded by hairless areas. Much of his skin was scarlet, as if it had been burned. Some of that was due to the medication he was taking.
He lay there with his glasses on, his bad eye drifting to the left. “It’s too soon,” I protested. “I might hurt you.”
“No, you wouldn’t do that. I just want . . .” He looked so forlorn, so devoid of hope. I think it would have killed him if I had said no.
I sat down on the bed and stroked his hair. It was very stiff, more like bristles now than hair. Paul kept it cropped short because it couldn’t be coaxed into lying flat. “Let me get undressed. I’ll be back in a moment.”
When I returned, he had manoeuvred the top half of his body nearer to one side of the bed. He hadn’t been able to move his legs, and they still lay in the centre of the bed. I pulled the covers back and helped him out of his pyjama top. I couldn’t bear to look at his flesh closely. I turned the lamp to the lowest setting. I eased myself onto the open side of the bed. I lay on my side facing him and gently lowered my topmost leg onto his legs.
David slipped his arm under my neck and around my shoulders so that my head was resting on his shoulder with my face pressed against his neck. He kissed me on the forehead, very lightly, and then said, “I’ve missed you.”
I knew he wasn’t referring to the two of us being together. He meant that he missed us being intimate. It wasn’t until I was in bed with him, with my head resting on his shoulder and his arm around me pulling me into him, that I realised how much I had missed being intimate with him.
I began kissing his neck and stroking his chest. His flesh felt so alien. In many places it was devoid of texture. It was too smooth. His body was corroded with scars. Everywhere on his chest was evidence of what he had been through. Beneath my fingertips, the scars felt larger than they were. His body was so cold. It was repulsive.
“I love you.” That’s all he said.
It was enough. I had never before felt his love as a burden, but that moment the weight of my responsibilities toward him almost crushed me. My guilt smothered me. And I grew angry, angry at myself for feeling guilty, angry at him for making me guilty, angry at the world for dealing me this hand. And the worst was I couldn’t show it. I had to fake pleasure, for him, so that I wouldn’t disappoint him again.
We would not repeat the experiment for many months. It did, however, have a result. I became even more reluctant to be with David. I took to leaving early and returning shortly before I knew that David would become tired and go to bed. I arranged for Paul to work longer hours on the excuse that my involvement with a new television series was requiring more of my time. Rather than confront what David had become, I spent hours sitting in cinemas or in pubs. I paid no attention to the movie on the screen. I hardly tasted the drinks I ordered. They was simply excuses for not being with David.
There is no excuse for what I did next. I rehearsed the pretexts for my behaviour many times, trying to justify what I did. I had been celibate for the months since David’s accident. I told myself that as long as I didn’t care for the person, it would be a meaningless transaction. It wouldn’t harm my and David’s relationship. I needed the comfort of another body, if only for an hour. There was an actor on the television series. He had a minor role, but he appeared in most episodes. He was young, good-looking in a conventional way. More important, he was nothing like David. He had hinted that he would be interested, and one day I took advantage of his interest and his availability.
He was kind about what happened. But at the end, he asked me if I had ever had sex with a man before. What could I tell him? That he wasn’t David, and that he didn’t know how to be David. That guilt is not an aphrodisiac. That he couldn’t be a substitute for what to me was the only real thing.
The problem was that the real thing no longer existed. Someone had snuck into our lives and substituted a changeling for David, and I wanted him to go away and for David, my David, to return. I was an actor, alone on an empty stage, facing a vacant theatre, without lines to speak or stage directions to follow.
All the guides to relationships tell you to talk out such problems with your partner. And in the past David had been the person who had helped me through every problem. He listened. He talked. He could be more angry and indignant on my behalf than I was myself, he could be infuriatingly impartial and objective when he thought I needed to see myself in perspective, he could make me laugh at myself. Somehow he always knew the way to help me find the solution to my problems. We would be talking and suddenly I would know what I had to do.
But how could I tell David that I couldn’t deal with him as he was now? That I was so shallow that his mangled body revolted me? That the very memory of the love and passion we had shared had become a torment because it was impossible to restore what had existed before?
That night I waited until late to come back. I checked the windows of our flat to make sure that all the lights were out and David safely asleep before I went in. I didn’t want to face him. He would have known instantly what I had done. As always, I checked on him before going to bed. He had pulled the blanket up to his chin and only his head was visible. In the dim glow of the night light in the hallway, he looked like the old David. “With the right lighting, I can create any illusion,” a stage director once told me. I watched David for a few minutes and then continued down the hallway to our bed, my bed now.
As I tried to find a way back to the relationship we had once had, I realised that now I had no one to talk to—that was the worst injury we had sustained. Our friends were no help. They were sympathetic at first, but as the months passed, many of them began avoiding us. I don’t blame them—I would have liked to have been able to avoid the situation as well. Others cheerfully pretended that all was well now and were thus able to ignore our problems.
David is an actor, a good actor, and for our casual acquaintances and friends he could sustain a plucky façade, the courageous cripple who has overcome his handicaps and never burdens others with his problems. And they were happy to accept him in that role.
What David was learning, what he was making me learn, was a foreign language for our friends. None of them could comprehend the daily frustrations of his life—the embarrassment he felt when his wheelchair caught in a doorway, his silent rage at others’ good intentions, his despair when he realised that he would never work as an actor again. Outsiders just did not want to see what he was really going through. I don’t flatter myself that I fully understood either. I, too, didn’t want to see what he was really going through.
And it could be hard, bloody hard, to deal with him. I tried to remain calm when he provoked me. I knew that he was taking his frustrations out on me because he had no one else, because he thought that I was his safe haven, the one person he could shout at whom he could depend on to understand, who would love him no matter what he said.
There were days when I couldn’t stand it, when he pushed me too far, and we had some blazing rows. The neighbours must have wondered if their lives would ever be calm again. I had to learn to be strong in a way that was new for me. David had always been the strong one in our relationship. I had to keep his hopes up, force him to continue his exercises once he realised that he would not walk again, force him to contemplate the future optimistically in terms of what he could do rather than what he wanted to do.
It was difficult for me to keep him focused on the future when we both wanted the same thing—a restoration of the past. I often felt as if I were a robot programmed to perform the motions of daily life, to pretend that all was normal and that nothing important had really changed, that a wheelchair was nothing more than a piece of furniture, that a husk was the same person that I had loved for a decade.
David must have sensed my feelings of estrangement from him and my reluctance to confront fully what he had become. He grew secretive and uncommunicative. In some ways, that suited me. I didn’t have to deal with things I knew nothing of. There were days when we were nothing more than casual flatmates, two individuals whose lives intersected only at breakfast over hurried cups of coffee.
I didn’t, for example, learn until several weeks had passed that he had begun attending a group therapy session for adults like himself who had become crippled. I think that helped him a lot—he could talk frankly with people whose experiences were similar to his own. And I didn’t know until the arrangements were complete that Jeremy had found him a job as a director for a repertory company.
That job more than anything saved David. Both Jeremy and David claimed that David had always planned on becoming a director, but it was something he kept putting off to the distant future. I had never heard of this before, but it is now firmly part of David’s history of himself. The credit really goes to Jeremy, I think. He somehow persuaded David to try directing. And David loved it. He was back in the theatre, perhaps not as he had planned, but still he was working, and he had a talent for it. It was wonderful to see him find himself in this new role. He was so excited about it. Jeremy—and work—saved David.
Our flat quickly became littered with scripts and set designs and costume sketches. I would return home to find David conferring with one or more members of the repertory company. He would greet me with the briefest of nods and then resume his discussion with the others. I was a supernumerary in this new production, far less important than Paul, who was co-opted into a new role as David’s assistant director, a role he handled with his usual efficiency. When David began working, it was like one of those old movies in which someone exclaims brightly, “Let’s put on a play,” and suddenly all problems dissolve.
Yet, he still missed being an actor, I think. I came home very late one night to find him in our bedroom, sitting in his wheelchair, a script in hand, examining himself in the full-length mirrors that line one wall.
“I was just acting out some of the roles in this new play, trying to figure them out. We begin rehearsals tomorrow.” He lifted his head for me to kiss.
“How’s it coming along?”
“The play? A few problems to iron out, but we’ll be ready. If you were asking about me, then I still have a few problems to iron out as well.”
I sat down on the bed behind him and looked at him in the mirror.
“If I were to play Caliban now, I wouldn’t need any makeup or a costume.” That was the first time I heard him refer to his damaged body so casually and frankly. He spoke softly, his gaze fixed on his image in the mirror. He seemed to be inventorying it, and his attitude towards it was strangely objective.
“You were great in that role.”
“Yes, I was. I won’t be modest about that. But that’s behind me, now that I’m tout court so to speak. Now I couldn’t manage all of Caliban. I maybe have enough for ‘Cal’. I could just about play that part.”
“Don’t talk like that. You’ll live to play Prospero some day.”
“No, not Prospero. Prospero’s your role. You could be a great Prospero—with my help, of course. I’ve always been better with Shakespeare than you.” He turned half way round and smiled at me.
“You’re enjoying directing, aren’t you?”
“And why not? It would be fun to boss you around. You’ve always been a lazy actor, never lived up to your potential, always opting for the easy way out, the safe roles.” He was teasing me, but there was a hardness beneath his comments. He was pushing at me, trying to make me see something.
I didn’t say anything. I was worn out from the months of tension and disappointment. I couldn’t take another argument. I was tired of struggling.
David wheeled his chair around to face me and took my hand in his. He began quoting Prospero’s final speech. “Now my charms are all o’erthrown and what strength I have’s mine own, which is most faint.” For the time it takes to speak those lines, he was Prospero begging his audience to free him from the stage on which he stands and the role he is playing. “But release me from my bonds with the help of your good hands. Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails, which was to please.”
When he finished, I began crying. He tried to embrace me, but the chair was in the way. I knelt beside him and put my head on his lap. David stroked the back of my head as I gave way to great racking sobs. “We’ll be all right, Richard. We’re going to make it.” He kept saying that over and over until I calmed down.
We remained in that clumsy embrace for several minutes. After a time, I resumed my seat on the bed. I went through a box of tissues. It was as if the dam inside me holding back months of emotions had given way, and I was free to stop playing a role beyond my abilities. My eyes were red and my face was blotchy. We sat there holding hands for close to an hour, eventually joking and laughing about inconsequential things, having a gossip for the first time in months. It wasn’t so much what we were talking about as the fact that we were talking that was important.
It grew very late and when both of us began yawning, he asked, “Will you help me get into bed, Richard? It’s easier when I have help.” That was no longer true, but we needed things to do together that night.
I suddenly felt like a schoolboy, wanting to suggest to a date that we sleep together but uncertain of how the remark would be received. “I, uh, . . . could you, I mean . . . .” I gestured feebly toward the bed we hadn’t shared in months.
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