By Nexis Pas
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. 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 an 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 raw and rude, 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 knew. 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. 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 walks 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-motion, 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. 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 let him sit in my room. 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 saw him, he was haggard, his faced 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. Whenever I asked what they were, he would smile and say he wanted them to be a surprise.
By then I could sit in a wheelchair for an hour or so 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, that it 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. He was usually so good at explaining the complex in simple language, but that day he overwhelmed us with medical terminology. 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 feels 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 telegraphed that he was labouring to bring his emotions under control. 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 part of his repertoire, one of his ways of telling me 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. 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. 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 it 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—for my lion, my wonderful ferocious lion. And he wanted to believe. Suspension of belief has always been easy for Richard. Perhaps that’s why he’s so convincing on stage or before the camera.
By 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. Throughout the commotion a young man waited patiently in the door to the corridor. I thought he was one of the hospital porters come to escort me out. The hospital had several strongly built men to do the heavy work 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, ‘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. I learned from Paul later that Richard had conducted interviews weeks ahead of my discharge and had hired him on retainer to begin as soon as I was allowed home. He would stay until I could manage for myself. The van was similarly being rented from month to month—another temporary arrangement, Richard stressed.
Paul 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’re out of that chair.’ Safety bars had been installed around the bathtub and on the walls of the toilet I was to use. 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.’ Richard had removed the fold-out couch from the guest room and rented a hospital bed, to be returned, he stressed, 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 begun reading it. ‘Why is Nicole sending you junk like this?’ I flipped it open at a random page. ‘ “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 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. He had no right to impose his charity 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 now. 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 forced inactivity.
I saw my thinking that I led such a charmed life that I could dash across a busy road without risk as stupid, heedless arrogance. The consequences went 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 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 were loath to be in contact with it more than a moment.
Paul came in for constant carping and criticism. Any perceived delay to answer a summons would be met with bellows from Richard and sotto voce comments about his slowness. Richard seemed to resent Paul’s care, especially anything that involved physical contact. He came home one day to find Paul bathing me. 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. Paul 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 to rinse my hair off with the shower hose. 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 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 eased the door closed and then 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. My feelings for Paul are a complication he must never have to deal with. In fairness, 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 learned to read me long ago. If Paul and I had met under different circumstances, things might be different.
Or it may be that Richard has never shared my interest in football. He regards it as a lower-class enthusiasm, another remnant of my wayward upbringing. It must have hurt him to find that Paul and I have found a bond that excludes 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 when his love was a burden. Our relationship might have been smoother if he loved me less. Sometimes I have found his love a costly gift.
And yet Richard could also 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 went to bed. 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 vigorously rubbing 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 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 wrap our legs around each other. 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 of Richard’s reluctance to confront my damaged body. There was a time when the towels would have been tossed 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 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’d always drawn 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 liked. As long as he touched me above the waist, I could feel his hands and his lips. Below that the sensations quickly faded, the lower he moved. I was genuinely aroused by his love for me; 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. 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.’
As soon as he 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. ‘Now get that flannel and sponge me off. It will take you all night to get all this off if it dries.’
As he was cleaning us up, I said, ‘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 your bed—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. 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 manipulate him so. There are times I use 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 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 lay there separated from me by as much distance as the bed allowed and was rigidly awake when my pills kicked in and I fell asleep puzzling over ‘Davey’. He had never called me by that diminutive before. That would be the last time we slept together for several months.
Richard was right in saying that I pushed him away sometimes. Not always, but often enough. Most people looked at us and saw Richard the successful popular actor and me, a supporting actor more popular with the critics than with the public, and concluded that Richard played the leading role in our domestic drama. It wasn’t that simple. Love isn’t ever that simple. Ours was a balance of giving and receiving, an economy in which tokens circulated, sometimes returned with interest, sometimes coming back with their worth deflated. Sometimes the loan on offer had unacceptable conditions attached to it, and 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 had evaporated. 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’d 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 did 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 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 a 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 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, 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 sometimes expresses it in unusual ways. Try to persuade him to consult Doctor 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 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.
The week 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. 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 start touring. They’re doing As You Like It, The School for Scandal, and this—they do one new play each year. It’s interesting. 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 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’s 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—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 my bathroom.
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 to manage on my own. I can’t do that. 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 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 it weren’t natural, the set of my jaw wasn’t symmetrical, and my left eyelid drooped.
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 fair 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 mine 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 image.
‘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. It 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 his 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 go misrewarded. They are 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 or 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.
© 2009 by the author. Nexis Pas asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.