This was my first short story to be published, and appeared in Structo Magazine No.3.
The perspiration prickles the back of my neck as I painfully stretch out a single digit. With inexorable slowness, my head tilted at a bizarre angle so I have to madly roll my right eye to see the toy keyboard, I stab at a white key. The note rolls out and is sustained until Sharon, irritated by the noise, flicks the off button. Silence abruptly falls.
I press another key, even though I know it won’t make a sound. This action is important to me; the single moment of choice and power in a day where I am otherwise wheeled about like a piece of luggage or manhandled like unwieldy baggage. Today is a bad day though. Sometimes I can play three or four keys in a minute, listening to their various pitches with the satisfaction of an artist viewing a completed work. A Michealangelo surveying his finished Sistine Chapel maybe, but this morning I am exhausted after those two notes. My head decides it will flop to the left so that I cannot see the keyboard at all anyway.
Sharon was talking again. The rubbish falls out of her mouth like a garbage truck dumping its contents. Incessant, patronising mediocrity directed around me, as she carefully explains how we will travel to the doctors. Again. Nurses, doctors, social workers, occupational therapists, I seem to be a one man job market industry so the educated middle classes can draw their not inconsiderable pay packet from. They tut and examine me with furrowed brows, concern tinged with a soupcon of disgust and talk and do nothing, and then go back to their detached houses in neat suburbia which I indirectly provide for them. I, indirectly of course, am responsible for the employment of over two dozen people. It is a weighty responsibility.
Sharon is waving a picture of myself. I hate every photo of myself but I despise this one the most. My vacuous look is pronounced here, so I look like some kind of imbecile. She thrusts it into my face and talks slowly and loudly as if I am deaf. I want to talk back to her in the same manner, but today my voice isn’t working at all and not even my usual strangled squeak escapes me. Then a photo of the people carrier, as if I don’t know what one of those is, and finally a photo of the doctor’s. As if I hadn’t been there a dozen times for each of the (so far) twenty three years of my life sentence. Imprisoned not in a cell, but in this useless body.
Sharon’s phone rings as she replaces the photos in the folder that hang from my wheelchair. She fumbles in the black hole of her handbag, cluttered with ointments, pills and potions and pulls the phone out as its final trill dies away. She looks at the number and a look of uncertainty and temptation crosses her face. I have seen this same look a dozen times in the past week and I am intrigued.
Sharon talks incessantly. I suspect that she would talk even if she was alone. She is thirty-six years of brassy, big hearted, big-breasted blond, and I am fascinated by her vitality, her energy that contrasts so sharply with my own stillness. Married and childless, I have met her husband once. A tall, stooped, thin man who rarely speaks. Whether Sharon talks so much because he is so quiet, or whether he is so quiet because Sharon talks so much, I do not know. What I do know is that he is a shadow, a vague form that leaves no impression, no memory. Instantly forgettable, he fades into the background whilst Sharon dominates the foreground. He does not bother me; there is no passion in that relationship to arouse any form of envy. I can disregard him in the long, silent nights when I dream of her. The dreams were the escape from my reality, my grinding, grudging monotony, my sole pleasure in life, until he arrived.
Because she talks so much I have become the guardian of her closest secrets. I would esteem it an honour of some sort if I didn’t know it was because she regards me as she would the kitchen table; always there but solid, silent, safe. No, that may be a little harsh if I’m honest. Maybe she thinks of me in the same way as that pug nosed pooch Reg that she sometimes brings in to my house, and which she feeds with titbits from my cupboard when she thinks nobody is looking. Except me of course. But then it doesn’t matter if I am looking or not when she steals from me, whether I am listening when she is talking on the phone to that same number that she is studying so closely now.
The wind is cold as we wait by the doctor’s. A man with an unshaven chin and long ringlets of black hair approaches us. He reminds me of the Turkish waiter in the curry house I like to go to, with hands full of rings and a gold chain around his neck He looks at me with disdain, and then chooses to ignore me. I suspect I do not make the best first impression; I can feel that my head is tilted backwards against the cushion of my wheelchair and my eyes are rolled back into my head. Sharon has been too pre-occupied waiting for him to notice the saliva dribbling down my chin. If I could look back with equal disdain and disgust I would, but have to settle for a violent jerking of my limbs to convey my feelings. Sharon’s hand automatically strokes my arm but her eyes are fixed on this man. Jealousy and impotence mix in equal amounts to create a bitter brew, the taste of which I am only so familiar with.
They kiss. Not an informal greeting, but a lust filled slobber. I try to look away but my neck muscles have chosen this moment to lock up, and so I have watch, disgusted. They don’t even look at me as he slips his arm around her waist and one hand strays up to her breasts. Sharon pushes it away, but with a titillating, regretful delicacy.
“People will see.”
The man shrugs. “I don’t care if they do.”
“Tony, I’m married. You know that.”
“But that can change. You want it to change, don’t you?”
Sharon looks away, and again that uncertainty. The man is annoyed by this. He pulls her roughly to her and they engage in some more tongue tonsil tennis. When Sharon finally pulls away with a little tremor of excitement I feel almost physically sick.
“You can’t waste your life with him. The man, he is …..,” The man shrugs his shoulder, as if he lacks the vocabulary to describe the shortcomings of Sharon’s husband.”
“Nice is how people describe losers they feel sorry for. You’re better than that, you’re better than him. You deserve someone with a bit of ommphh, a bit of get up and go. A character, someone with something to say.”
“Someone like you?” I sense a slight irony in Sharon’s tone, but the man seems to miss it. He smiles broadly, and squares his leather jacketed shoulders. “You’d better believe it, baby.”
“How do I know you’re serious? How do I know this isn’t just a bit of fun for you.”
“Oh, Sharon.” The man pulls back slightly and looks at her with a look of deep disappointment. I watch Sharon unconsciously move closer to him, to narrow the space between them and feel depressed at her stupidity. She looks at him again, and he gazes back with those deep brown eyes, muddy pools that you feel you could drown in. Eventually she sighs and says,
“What do you want me to do?”
“What time do you finish with this,” and he indicates me with a jerk of his thumb.
Sharon doesn’t even glance towards me. “My shift finishes at eight.”
The man smiles broadly. “I’ll ring you just before eight to tell you where to meet me. Come with a bag packed. You and me, we’re for better things than this place. I promise you that, honey.”
“If you don’t ring me this time, Tony, it’s over. You know that? You can’t keep me on this piece of string forever, you know, just reeling me in when you fancy a bit of…..” and Sharon blushes and looks away. I blush too at the mental picture that springs up in my mind, but, as usual I am just scenery and no-one notices.
“I will ring. I promise.” And with that Tony has turned and is walking back up the road. He pauses and shouts back over his shoulder. “Eight ‘o’ clock, remember.”
Sharon is in the laundry room at the other end of the house just as her phone rings. It vibrates on the table but I know she won’t hear it there. That is why I chose to soil myself twenty minutes ago, in the hope that after she had toileted and changed me, she would still be in the laundry sorting out my old clothes, and I would be back sitting at the kitchen table with my keyboard, waiting.
I let the phone ring out, and then wait for that single beep that tells me a message has been left. I wait in vain. After a minute of silence I reach out with my single index digit. I have watched Sharon often enough to know how she operates her simple budget phone. I strain my arm forward, all the while listening for Sharon’s footsteps on the lino corridor beyond the kitchen door.
I suck in my breath as the phone slips under my awkward finger and jolts a couple of inches further away. I swear, using the words I heard Sharon say sometimes, but they come out as a strangled squawk. A window has appeared in the phone’s screen. Missed Call 07854687345 My face is screwed up with pain as I again stab at the right button beneath that window.
Another excruciating stab. My breath is coming in short, shallow gasps now.
The screen slips back to the photo of Reg, all good nature and wagging tail. I slowly relax, watching my arm fold back into my chest with jerky, robotic movements.
Sharon strides back into the kitchen, straight over to her phone. She doesn’t need to look at the clock to know it a couple of minutes past eight. She picks it up, thumbs the blank display and again that look of uncertainty. She looks up at the clock now, to check the time on her phone, then down at the floor, and then straight across at me. She is still looking at me as she thumbs a number into the phone and holds it to her ear. There is the distant sound of a phone purring, and then a man’s voice answers.
“Its me. I’ll be on my way back as soon as Vicky gets here. I was thinking that maybe we could get a takeaway and a DVD, what do you think? A cosy night in, just the two of us.”
And she is still looking at me as the doorbell goes. “That’ll be Vicky, dear. I’ll be ten minutes.” She is bustling her belongings together as Vicky wanders in, all peroxide blond and hoop earrings. She kneels down beside my chair, and solicitously wipes the saliva from my chin.
“If only we knew what was going on in that head of yours.” Vicky turned to Sharon. “Do you think he’s smiling?”
Sharon glances at me as she throws her coat on. “It’s hard to say. Anyway….”And then they start to chat and I am forgotten. Maybe my small victory is Pyrrhic, but I know that my dreams tonight will once again be sweet.