It was December, two months later, the wind whistling outside, the winter gloom broken only by the expectation of Christmas, early decorations already festooned the wards. Mark sat beside his bed, slumped exhausted in his wheelchair.
He’d tried to do his morning routine of five laps of his small room but the exercise had exhausted him. The room spun and his arms now hung aching at his sides. Slowly he could feel his energy returning though. He slept better now and the pains in his body had almost disappeared. He was fattening out as well, his muscles gaining strength as he struggled to operate the chair.
Some days he woke to panicked fear, the world and the future stretching before him too bleak and big to cope with. Then he would spend days in bed, depressed and lost in his despairing thoughts, Angela unable to say anything that could drag him out of his dark introspection, lost within himself as he thought of what had been taken from him.
But such bouts of darkness were getting shorter and easier to deal with, the spaces between them longer as his mind healed alongside his body. Slowly he was finding it easier to cope with the simple act of living, existing in the world day after day. Once it had terrified him and seemed too much. Now hours would pass when he wouldn’t even remember that he wasn’t transcended. Then he would remember what he had had, the smile would fade on his face and the TV show he was watching would dull, becoming meaningless, a babble of sound. A mindless distraction from the pain of life. But such pain could be dealt with and he was finding it easier to distract himself as the days went past.
The wheelchair had helped. He felt he had escaped from his prison of the bed, slowly he was moving on, from the bed to the wheelchair, to his legs, back to the house in Poplar Lane. And eventually, hopefully, back to his personal paradise. He felt a slow incremental lessening of helplessness as his walls expanded until they would shatter, eventually bringing freedom.
He sat every night in the chair when he could, staring out of the window, watching the sun sink below the roofs of the buildings outside, and when he was awake he would watch it rise and for a moment he would lose himself in its glory, and in the memory of it as he had once seen it. And the days would seem shorter as he wheeled the chair slowly back to the bed.
*** *** ***
The sun rose on the frosty December morning, the air tasting of ice as Sean and Angela climbed out of their car. The world was still and beautiful as the two figures paused and, entranced, took the other’s hands and gazed down the street outside their house, the empty town, seemingly frozen in this perfect moment.
The street curved down, the skyline open before them, the early sun creeping over that horizon in a blaze of light that, though failing to warm, shone like a gleaming medallion over the world. For an eternity they shared the unspoken moment. Though sleepy from the night drive, both had come wide awake as the car had pulled into the gentle urban sprawl, the sun creeping up into a blaze of red and golden light that had saturated the sky before them.
Now they felt the same emotions as they pressed against each other holding close, their breath misting before them. They sheltered softly warm in their thick coats and scarves, the sharp air on their cheeks waking their minds to the reality of morning. Together they felt that clearness of mind that comes from the day ending and beginning without the partition of sleep to separate the two, that certain surreal quality of watching light envelope the world after a long night.
And as Sean held Angela close to him they breathed in deeply as though to draw in more of the rising feelings within them. They felt content, their minds clear and the moment was all, their love, their happiness was everything.
Then the moment passed, the feelings dimming to a memory of something beautiful that they could not understand and so would forget too easily, leaving just the memory that they had felt something. Transient it passed and they were left alone, just two people standing in the cold.
Shivering they moved to the door of their house, fumbling ungracefully with the keys before forcing the right one into the lock and pushing the door open. A cup of tea would be brewed and drunk and, exhausted, they would fall asleep only half undressed.
Warmth, sustenance and rest obscured the beauty of the morning and when they woke after lunch the sky would be overcast, the day gloomy, the house freezing and needing to be heated, the fridge empty and needing to be restocked, bowels to be emptied, bellies to be filled, the endless needs to be obeyed only for them to cry out in need again. Life distracting them from truly living. That was reality.
Yet such moments existed despite it being only momentary. And that was enough. Enough to give reason for the daily tasks, to excuse the survivalist orders of the flesh. Existence brought such moments and if the drudgery of life was necessary to bring such moments even occasionally to a wondering soul then such was worthwhile. And the feeling itself remained, cognitively forgotten, non-understood, but there nevertheless. As well as this the happiness of their present love lent a continuous joy to the couple.
And their lives shone with such inner happiness. Although such happiness came created from mere transient, fleeting emotions it came from such a wellspring of them that for now, to Angela and Sean, happiness seemed continuous. For how could something so beautiful die?
Angela glowed. Pregnancy lent her a joy that she’d never felt before and the creation of life, of an autonomous human child growing within her filled her with a deep warmth that lit her soul. She was in the twenty-second week of her pregnancy and the swell of her belly was prominent.
Sean was working overtime every night now and they had already started procedures to sell her flat. He kept pressing her to take early maternity leave but she was determined to work for as long as she could, unwilling to sit idly while she could be contributing to the health of her patients. She had been placed on lighter work but still she felt useful and keeping busy made her happy. Her morning sickness, acute in the first trimester, now seemed a distant memory.
The wedding had been set for February and the two spent their evenings and weekends organising everything. Angela couldn’t wait to get married, her future life looking so bright, a life of love and happiness spread out before her. Angela had put her small flat on the market and had already moved in with Sean. The transition had been so easy, feeling somehow so right.
Angela had no family of her own after her father had died, her parents being only-children like her and her grandparents also having died before she was born. Sean’s sister had died in a car crash and his ailing mother was the last relative he had alive. They were travelling up every Sunday now to the hospital at Hinton to see the old women. Though ill she remained cheerful and the visits were happy occasions, Angela getting on well with her future mother-in-law.
The church she had booked though would be filled with her friends from the hospital. Angela was an easy-going person and everyone in the hospital liked her and had promised to come to the wedding. Christmas was coming first though and the decorations she had helped put up around the wards just served to give another focus to her happiness.
Mark also seemed to have been cheered by the season, the holiday seeming to have lifted him out of the depression he had been in throughout the autumn. He had frightened her slightly when she had seen him lying there. He had looked so terrible, the expression on his face one of hollowness and emptiness. He hadn’t spoken much or continued with his small exercises. Before he had seemed to be struggling to get well as quickly as possible but then he had slumped dejectedly into unresponsive depression.
The wheelchair had cheered him up though; the morning after he’d got it they had found him in the morning still sitting staring out at the sun rising over the rooftops with a pale smile on his face. He was getting stronger.
Angela was suspicious of Mark still. She could tell he knew something about his past but for some reason he was pretending not to. She had learned not to press the issue though, his empty answers suddenly flaring into anger when she did.
*** *** ***
A room with a wall of mirrors. Beams at waist height running parallel down one side, mats and machines. A padded table and towels provided. But Mark noticed these things as impressions only. All he saw truly as he was wheeled into the hospital’s physiotherapy ward was Jane Killick.
She rose as he entered and smiled warmly as he was brought before her. The orderly withdrew and she reached out a slender hand to clasp his own, even thinner hand, in hers and lightly shake it in greeting. She sat again, her hair bouncing softly, light auburn, shoulder length framing a pretty youthful face of a woman in her mid-twenties. She was slender and warm, her eyes like brown water and he found a smile gathering to his drawn muscles in response to her welcoming smile.
“Good Morning Mark.” She started in a voice startling in its normalcy. The voice itself was soft and lilting yet it wasn’t the voice that was startling to Mark but the way she spoke to him. Even Angela had a touch of something in her voice. Though genuine there was sometimes pity, sometimes a touch of horror. Never revulsion but still an underlying distaste at the horrors of human vileness brought on by Mark’s symptoms of such. Jane spoke to him like she would to a friend and Mark, who literally couldn’t remember the last time he had been spoken to in such a way, found himself responding in expression as well as word.
“I’m Jane and I’m a physiotherapist, someone to help you get back on your legs again ok.”
He smiled at her, a thin, delicate smile; the first blossom after a too-long winter, pale and wan yet beautiful by the fact of its existence. It was a smile of pleasure, inner warmth brought from human contact. Long forgotten flesh reacted instinctively to the light scent of her perfume, thoughts long unused, emotions neglected even during the wonder that was transcension.
Yet all was still small, unnoticed by Mark. All he knew was that he liked her, that he felt safe in her presence, that even before her quick and skilful hands touched his thin muscles he felt his body healing. The blood flowed quicker, moisture in his mouth, the brightness and space of the room.
“How are you feeling today?” he heard her ask.
“Better…stronger…in my arms at least.” He stammered. He didn’t know if that was entirely true but he felt he wanted to say something, to give her something positive.
“Good.” She replied warmly. “I think it would be a good idea to start with some simple leg exercises. To see how they’re doing.”
Mark nodded. The exercises consisted of raising his foot, or attempting to, and turning his ankle in circular motions. He found it surprising how hard such a simple movement was to perform. Yet Jane showed no sign of impatience, she gave gentle encouragement as he exhausted himself raising his foot a few inches from the footrest.
Mark collapsed back in his chair, his head lolling to the side as he did so and his eyes locked on the reflection staring back at him. For the first time he saw his reflection since his return to the world. Staring back at him was a thin, scrawny stranger with a haggard face and limbs still little more than twigs. His clothes hung off him, his hidden body seeming insignificant in the voluminous folds of his hospital clothes. The skin was still pale on his face, drawn tight across his sharp cheekbones. Slumped like an old man’s corpse in the too-big wheelchair he looked helpless and deathly pale.
It wasn’t him. It wasn’t who he was; it was someone else, someone imprisoning him, his captor and his curse. And yet at the same time it was him, it was who he’d become. Despite how unreal it felt this was who he was now and he hated it.
He felt the familiar tendrils of despair stealing over his shoulder and he pulled his head away from his profiled reflection. His eyes fell on Jane though and as she smiled he felt the tendrils shrink and the warmth rise again. “Well done,” she told him, “you did very well.”
Mark smiled back again, the expression stronger this time. And in the light of her compassion and in her sight he saw himself as he knew himself to be, strong, beautiful, content. And slowly, yet eager to do it, to respond to Jane’s encouragement, to get better, in hope for future happiness, he raised his other foot, grunting with the effort.
*** *** ***
Firelight and twilight. Fairy lights twinkling beside candle flames dancing and the soft caress of carol melody cascading at the back of the room. The happy chatter of a festive time and the warmth of wine in the throat and belly.
Sean sipped red wine from a crystal glass and laughed at Martin’s joke. The doorbell rang and a blaze of greetings, clasped hands and cheek-kissed embraces entered the room, children giggling as they ran underfoot and tried to catch another or escape the pretended claws of their chaser.
The kitchen sang to the smells of food as roasted meat swam under the noses of the house and beside the stove bowls were filled with good things. Plates were laid in the dining room under the watchful eye of a medley of glass and glinting cutlery. Red and white wine opened on the sideboard to breathe and the fridge stocked to overflowing with bowls of trifle, chocolate, cream, fruit and meringue. Sweet and cold, steaming and succulent; presents still under the tree for the afternoon gathering, free flowing liquor and loosened belts, paper hats and happy faces to greet the gifts given in love and friendship.
And so for Sean and Angela, thus their first Christmas together was to be spent. Past, alone, before even meeting the other, maybe such a time had not been so happy and joyfully content, the firelight dimmed by antagonism or the food made bitter by acrimony. Maybe the presents felt unworthy, both those given and received. Maybe it had not seemed such a time of merry joy and gathered love. But here, now, all Christmas was this ideal. All times, all relationships unmarred, unblemished by the imperfections caused by the imperfect world. Now the smells and sounds, the sights and heart-thought of such a day as this were good, so good.
And Sean’s arm caressed his fiancée’s waist, feeling her softness and delighting in the tenderness of her body, her smile, her voice as it rose in delighted laughter at the tale of jest just told. The short swell of her belly under her dress telling of his child growing in love’s secure care. This new life reaching towards future living lending added emotion to this occasion. To this celebration of love and the new life of salvation’s child, born so long ago.
For Sean this Christmas was far different from others he had spent. His childhood had been lonely outside his home yet Christmas, for all the scarcity of food and tinsel, had been a loving time. He had been close to his mother, especially since his father had died and the meal with his mother and her old mother had been nice. The old woman had sat in her chair with a warm smile on her face, silent and immovable yet just happy to be there, out of the retirement home, sitting in the house of the remnants of her relations, the last survivors of her sparse yet loving family.
Sean had continued going home for Christmas, after nanna had passed away the meal had been even smaller and then came the year he had picked his own mother up from the retirement home and taken her to eat at his own home. He had had friends then, professionals, but they had been more colleagues than friends and however much time he spent with them he never felt deep concern for them, never knew another human to the same degree as he had known his mother, the only person he had ever truly cared for.
He had maintained his protective detachment and the emotional barriers grew strong through long use, only being dropped now a few times a year since he had moved away from home. Lately even those times had felt cooler and he had sensed a distance grow even between himself and his mother, finding it hard to open up with such little practice in daily life. Christmas was spent in small talk with his mother for his conversation was of medicine and the hospital and his mother had nothing to talk about but the past and her ills.
Maybe, if Sean had never met Angela this distance would have grown until it became too late and, unable to relate, having forgotten to a large enough degree to fear such unknowns, a relationship would have proved impossible. He would have grown old and died, alone, no woman loved, no child born, no mark left on humanity any deeper than a stitched wound and a kind word to those whose lives he passed through as an impersonal force in a white coat. He would not have been unhappy for he would not have known or noticed, but it would have been a tragedy nevertheless.
But he had met Angela, and his heart was opened up again, and in new ways. His heart now drawing deeper than he could have imagined from the well of feeling that was his soul, which is that which made him man.
Angela felt herself sing. A song rising inside her of warm blood and dancing feeling, emotion rich and too complex to disassemble. This too was part of that which was her soul, that which made her woman, human, alive in a way she could not physically comprehend, only sense and delight in.
Christmas was a time of large parties, wine, food and laughter for her. Without family she nevertheless had always had many friends and always had had a place to spend the Christmas meal. Martin and Lucille were old and good friends and she had spent many happy Christmas’ in their house. They had done well for themselves and their home was large and spacious and today, as at every Christmas, a large gathering of family and friends filled it with their love and their joy. The gathering was made up of humans though and the idealised Christmas was never true reality, though in this house such imperfection ran imperceptibly under the surface of glitter and lights. Worries, tensions, unhappiness, animosity all ran repressed if only for a day, spilling over occasionally in a flare of argument or a spiked comment, sometimes felt as a weight over the table or noticed in the way two people never met the other’s eye. Angela never ran in such underwater currents and rarely if ever allowed them to catch her notice. She loved the day, the easy laughter and the idea of festivity in the winter celebration. She made herself the life of the party, the head of the games, revelling in the friendships, the friendships that defined her.
Yet today, contentment overrode her usual breathless excitement. She sat back and let others take control of the conversation, letting the occasion wash over her, letting Sean hold her in his arms, feeling his arms around her and the love in the touch of their bodies. She had no need to excel in the sociability of her own self and her friends for all was already hers. She had come to land and made her nest, settling down. She lay back against the arm of the man she loved and let herself feel the deeper feelings that ran softly beneath sensation. She had never been happier.
The turkey lay, a ravaged husk, on its platter, scraps of roasted flesh scattered across the carcass. Bowls lay emptied of their burdens and plates, clean but for the vestiges of the rich onion gravy and the sauces, were piled and carried to the kitchen. The table uprooted as the occupants cleared the main course away, the vessels of the meal removed as the food had already been.
Bellies were full, stomachs stretching to accommodate the well-cooked food that had been amply provided and enthusiastically enjoyed. Glasses with dregs of wine, bottles with little remaining. Crackers had been pulled and their jokes read with groans and laughter at their inanity. Papers hats festooned the heads of many still, the novelty remaining as it would for some even until the end of the festivities.
The children used the occasion to escape the restrictions of the table and used the exotic space under the blanketing tablecloth, hidden from parents’ eyes, to playfight and grab the legs of mums and dads who mocked pain and laughed at the antics of their young.
And Angela looked on and felt the stirrings of her motherhood in her heart and dreamed of the following years when her own child would run and fight and laugh with those who now filled the house with their playful innocence. And Sean sat back in his chair after carrying the plates to the kitchen and awaited the pudding with a rising warmth in his chest, supremely proud to be included among these lively and friendly people that Angela called friends. He had been introduced and welcomed with open arms. His natural reticence had melted under their smiles and friendship. Still he knew them little but he felt the ease of human relations that he had not felt ever before. His social flower bloomed and as he answered their questions and drank their wine he felt what little nerves he had disappear and he heard his voice, strong and interesting, the sentences, the quips tripping off his tongue like he had never believed he could be capable of doing. He found himself telling a joke, something he was always scared of doing, afraid he would forget or misstime the punchline, ruin the joke with an inflexion in the wrong place or a stammer. Now it came easily and the table exploded with laughter, so easy, so simple, what had he ever been afraid of?
He had changed at work as well, softly, unnoticed by himself, his colleagues commenting how he had lightened up, become less uptight. He had been to the pub with a group of them at a colleague’s request the other night. Surprised, he had enjoyed himself and in the beer and simple chatter felt a closeness, a camaraderie, an acceptance from his fellow man. He felt they could be his friends, good friends. There was nothing to be afraid of, he was safe. With Angela beside him, with her smile in his heart he was free of himself, of his worries, of his self-consciousness and introspection. He was alive in a new way, in a way he had always imagined to be the real him, always trapped under his shyness and self-consciousness. He was alive and all he knew was her love.
Sean watched the table, Martin finishing his second bowl of steaming Christmas pudding lathered in both cream and custard, his wife tutting good-naturedly at his refusal to choose one or the other. Lucille herself sat content beside him chatting to her sister beside her. They had both restricted themselves to only half a bowl of pudding while their husbands gorged themselves but neither had let their diets stop them filling their stomachs to full with Lucille and Martin’s superb cooking. Lucille’s pudding and turkey were her speciality while Martin had produced a vegetarian pie and a medley of vegetable dishes of outstanding quality.
Further along the table, among the relations Sean knew only from tonight he recognised Jane, the physiotherapist from the hospital. She was smiling as she spoke to the woman next to her but as her husband caught her arm and made some comment to her Sean noticed her smile slip and a flash of tiredness cross her face. If Sean had been in an observant mood he would have seen the tension between them. Martin and Lucille had noticed, the tension mostly always there the past few years but recently it had become more noticeable and the couple had mentioned it to each other.
Sean was in no state of mind to pick up on other’s daily tragedies though and his eyes glanced past, the information gathered lost as soon as seen. He saw others he knew from the hospital, Angela’s friends but he had met them in clubs and had been invited with Angela to their parties and dinners before. Some of them he was getting to know quite well despite the few times he had met them. They were lively, like Angela herself and he liked them, loving their differences from the detached relationships he was used to.
The dinner wound down, the champagne poured, the glasses raised and toasts drank to the host. Sean rose to his feet as the pause allowed him.
“Many of you haven’t met me before, tonight is the first time we’ve been introduced,” Sean began. “And I would like to thank you all for being so nice and welcoming me with such hospitality into your circle of friends and family.” He smiled as his new friends cried protestations that it was nothing. “No, really, you’ve all been great and I’m glad to have met you all. But that’s not why I’m standing up; I’d like to make an announcement.”
The table went silent as they waited. “As you all know, we’re getting married…” people erupted in laughter and there were mock expressions of surprise from the jokers around the table. “…well if you didn’t you do now.” Sean cried and the laughter continued, light and trilling, reverberating around the room, packed with people, the walls close to chair backs and the candles melting under their own heat.
“We’ve set a date for the wedding. It’s February 18th.” Cries and claps and noise and thick smells from the departed food. The alcohol hanging in the air, the candle-shadows dancing on the ceiling. Chaos in a small room and faces spread wide with expression, careering beneath him in a revolving circus of intoxicated warmth. An atmosphere of its own. Too thick. Too hot. Too much. And later he remembered the faces only as a blur of open mouths.
There was a sudden cry that caught at Sean’s mind. The uproar barely noticed it but to Sean it was forever recollected. Sean turned to Angela, his heart numb, his stomach skipping a beat and as he did so a thousand thoughts vanished abruptly leaving his mind blank as he saw her stumble and fall.
The scarlet on the pale flesh of her legs, crimson as it spread, darker as it filled his sight. Oppressive heat in his ears and the warmth became intolerable. The chair failed her and she crashed to the floor in a too-heavy heap, clutching herself with a rising noise of fear spreading through the room like fire. And the candle-shadows danced and the wax melted and the wine spilled red over the white tablecloth and there was too much blood.
And Sean’s world collapsed.