I had never considered that you might miss a job the way you miss a limb – a constant, reflexive thing. I hadn’t thought that as well as the obvious fears about money, and your future, losing your job would make you feel inadequate, and a bit useless.
I am 26 years old and I wasn’t really sure what I was. Up until I lost my job I hadn’t even given it any thought…Apart from an exotic taste in clothes, and the fact that I’m a bit short, there’s not a lot separating me from anyone you might pass in the street. You probably wouldn’t look at me twice. An ordinary girl, leading an ordinary life.
“You were just looking at my photographs. Wondering how awful it must be to live like that and then turn into a cripple.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, after a pause. “But I did try. I really tried. For months. And he just pushed me away… You know, you can only actually help someone who wants to be helped,” she said.
I could well imagine Will pushing her away. But surely if you loved someone it was your job to stick with him? To help him through the depression? In sickness and in health, and all that?
Treena was the reader. It was almost as if by picking up a book I felt like I was invading her patch. I thought about her and Thomas disappearing to the university and realized I still didn’t know whether it made me feel happy or sad – or something a bit complicated in between.
“I have never found a pair of tights I loved like that again. They don’t do them anymore. Or if they do, they don’t make them for grown women.”
“Oh, you can mock. Didn’t you ever love anything that much?”
Patrick had never minded the fact that I dressed “inventively,” as he put it. But what if he hadn’t been entirely truthful? Patrick’s job, his whole social life, now revolved around the control of flesh – taming it, reducing it, honing it. What if, faced with those tight little track-suited bottoms, my own suddenly seems wanting? What if my curves, which I had always thought of as pleasantly voluptuous, now seemed doughy to his exacting eyes?
“You’re twenty-six years old, Clark. You should be out there, claiming the world as your own, getting in trouble in bars, showing off your strange wardrobe to dodgy men…”
“I’m happy here,” I said.
“Well, you shouldn’t be.”
“If you’d bothered to ask me, Clark, if you’d bothered to consult me just once about this so-called fun outing of ours, I could have told you. I hate horses, and horse racing. Always have. But you didn’t bother to ask me. You decided what you thought you’d like me to do, and you went ahead and did it. You did what everyone else does. You decided for me.”
“I just… want to be a man who has been to a concert with a girl in a red dress. Just a few minutes more.” …
I closed my eyes and lay my head against the headrest, and we sat there together for a while longer, two people lost in remembered music, half hidden in the shadow of a castle on a moonlit hill.
…Granddad was picking at his plate with greedy delight, letting out what we called his “food noises” – little grunts and murmurs of pleasure.
“Delicious salmon,” Will said to my mother. “Really lovely flavor.”
I ran out of the room and pulled on a pair in the hallway. I pointed a toe, admiring the silliness of them. I don’t think a present had ever made me so happy in my life.
I walked back in. Will let out a small cheer. Granddad banged his hands on the table. Mum and Dad burst out laughing. Patrick just stared.
Now he was just Will – maddening, mercurial, clever, funny Will – who patronized me and liked to play Professor Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle. His body was just a part of the whole package, a thing to be dealt with, at intervals, before we got back to the talking. It had become, I supposed, the least interesting part of him.
It had become a kind of specter for me, the airless little room with no windows. The thought of sleeping in there again made my chest feel tight. I was twenty-seven years old. I was the main earner of the family. I could not sleep in what was essentially a cupboard.
I thought of my parents, my sister with her big new life. Mine was to be the small life, my ambitions the petty ones. I glanced over at the maze, at its dark, dense box hedging. I was being ridiculous. Perhaps I had been behaving ridiculously for years. It was all over, after all. And I was moving on.
“Ultimately, they want to look on the bright side. They need me to look on the bright side… You, Clark,” he looked down at his hands, “are the only person I have felt able to talk to since I ended up in this bloody thing.”
“Some mistakes… just have greater consequences than others. But you don’t have to let that night be the thing that defines you.”
I felt his head still pressed against mine.
“You, Clark, have the choice not to let that happen.”
I wanted to tell him that he was too good for that silly caramel woman, no matter what appearances might suggest, and that… I didn’t know what else I wanted to say. I just wanted to make it better. “You okay?” I said, as I caught up. The bottom line was, it should have been him.
“Louisa is one of the smartest people I know, but I can’t make her see her own possibilities.”
Mary Rawlinson gave him a sharp look. “Don’t patronize her, dear. She’s quite capable of answering for herself.” I blinked. “I rather think that you of all people should know that,” she added.
“Well, this is actual life or death, after all, and you’re locked into this man’s life every day, locked into his weird secret. That’s got to create a kind of false intimacy. Either that or you’re getting some weird Florence Nightingale complex.”
“It feels like I might be running, but I feel like I’m permanently just a little bit behind the rest of the field. I feel like…” He took a deep breath, as if he were trying to compose himself. “I feel like there’s something bad around the bend, and everyone else seems to know what it is except me.”
I knew it, and Camilla knew it. Even if neither of us would admit it to ourselves. Only on my son’s death would I be free to live the life of my choosing.
I know this isn’t a conventional love story. I know there are all sorts of reasons I shouldn’t even be saying what I am. But I love you. I do. I knew it even when I left Patrick. And I think you might even love me a little bit.
“Well, you don’t have to let that… that chair define you.”
“But it does define me, Clark. You don’t know me, not really. You never saw me before this thing. I loved my life, Clark. Really loved it… I led a big life.” His voice had lifted now. “I am not designed to exist in this thing – and yet for all intents and purposes it is now the thing that defines me.”
I couldn’t imagine crying over anyone I’d been with. The only equivalent was if I thought about Thomas waiting to die in some strange country, and as soon as that thought came to mind it made something inside me actually flip over, it was so hideous. So I stuck that in the back of my mental filing cabinet too, under the drawer labeled: unthinkable.
Mum? I owe Will. I owe it to him to go. Who do you think got me to apply to college? Who do you think encouraged me to make something of myself, to travel places, to have ambitions? Who changed the way I think about everything? About myself even? Will did. I’ve done more, lived more, in the last six months than in the last twenty-seven years of my life.
It’s not my choice. It’s not the choice of most of us on this board. I love my life, even if I wish it was different…If he is determined, if he really can’t see a way of things being better for him, then I guess the best thing you can do is just be there. You don’t have to think he’s right. But you do have to be there.
Push yourself. Don’t settle. Wear those stripey legs with pride… you are scored on my heart, Clark. You were from the first day you walked in, with your ridiculous clothes and your bad jokes and your complete inability to ever hide a single thing you felt… Don’t think of me too often. I don’t want to think of you getting all maudlin. Just live well. Just live.