The short story that was a novel, part 201

After what seems like years, but has really only been weeks, of editing my head off, I find myself with a jewel of a day (today) when the paid editing has gone away, at least for a day, and so, after the beginning I wrote here I wrote this:

But I know I heard someone playing the piano in the studio last night, I wasn’t drifting then. I was lying in bed and the sound woke me up. I lay there staring at the ceiling and I heard … and I heard … there is a great deal of sheet music in the piano stool but whoever was playing chose the one piece that I find so poignant, so … that piece is the reason I have banned music from the house. I cannot bear to hear music that reminds me that once I danced, that once this body was that body, that once these feet – which are now hidden in ugly red orthopaedic boots – wore red pointe shoes.

I expect you’ll think me hideously self-pitying, but try putting yourself in my shoes … in my boots. The only thing I can do for myself is wield a fork or a spoon, and I often fail even at that. Everything else has to be done for me. I can’t even read because the ocular muscles go into spasm and the words jump about. And, as if all that isn’t enough, my conversation is limited to exchanges with morons.

This morning I asked Andrea to go to the studio to see if it had been broken in to, to see if the cover had been taken off the piano. I could see from my window that the door was not properly closed but she said, ‘There there Mrs Williams. Eat your porridge.’

Where do these people come from? Who decides that they’re fit to look after people like me? I’d like to tie their limbs with rope and give them cottonwool for a brain, then they’d understand what it’s like and then they’d give me the time of day when I ask a sensible question because, for a blessed interlude, the cottonwool has receded and I am making sense.

Oh, they make me so angry. They are so patronising.

But when I shouted at Andrea over my porridge I found that my voice had lost its volume and I mumbled – another curse of this bloody disease – and she said, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Williams,’ as she swept towards me – has she any idea how irritating that is? Can’t she just walk normally? – ‘what did you say?’

But the moment was lost, and the only satisfaction I had was determinedly refusing to look at her while she picked up that ugly beaker thing she insists on calling a cup and turned the straw towards my mouth so that I could drink. I longed to blow a stream of hot tea all over her hand, but it would only end in a hopeless dribble all over mine. I know, I’ve tried it before.

I have been staring through the window at the studio ever since then. The river glints in the pale autumn sunlight beyond the fence and the pond looks sorry for itself, full as it is of straw-coloured reeds and brown weed, but the spindle burns beside it as if it were on fire and the ash leaves make soft claret-coloured balls that shiver in the breeze, and then there is a movement by the ford.

A well-dressed man walks out from behind the alder by the river, as if it was the most natural thing to do, and takes off his fedora and bows to me. I bow back. I know who he is. He puts his hat back on his head and raises his arm and waves. I wave back and as I do I hear the music I heard last night, again. That music. And I am glad that it is Gregory who stands by the alder, I am so glad that he is here. I want him to see me, I want him to know that I have seen him, so I press the button on the electric control for the chair so that it will lift and stand me up.

And I am on stage, dancing to that music, the music that Gregory composed after the company fled the bombs at Arnhem, the music that I made the steps for when we were safely back on these shores, the music for the ballet we called See You Soon. I wore a red and blue flowered summer dress. I put elastic and extra material from the hem at the waist and in the back so that it would stretch with my movements, and I perched a little red hat of my mother’s on the side of my head. I left my hair loose and I died a pair of my precious, rationed, pointe shoes red.

It was easy to find the right steps to Gregory’s music. It was as if it had been made for me, for my body. I bourréed along the imaginary platform twisting my upper body this way and that as I looked for my soldier and watched the imaginary train pull out. I danced little jumps in second position that got higher and higher as I mimed trying to see over the heads of the other women on the platform. I danced a joyful lyrical waltz with an imaginary partner as I spotted my soldier waving from the train window, as I caught his kiss, and then I sank into a desolate, slowly spinning series of arabesques that rose and fell and when I could no longer see my soldier I sank to my heels and leaned against the barrier (a portable barre that we took with us on that tour).

And then I let my feet dance on their own as I made myself put on a brave face, the face that so many women wore then, and then I danced a series of clipped, steely steps as I went to work, sat on a chair behind the barre and mimed typing. In that section of the ballet, even though I was sitting down, I let my feet keep dancing. I took them through all the barre positions but I made them staccato, for the danger of those times. But I let my head and my upper body show how my heart felt as I swayed away from my imagined typewriter, to show how I dreamed of my beloved returning safe from the front.

The side of my face burns; it seems to be pushed down into something harsh. And then I realise that I am on the floor. I cannot think how I got here but I know that it will be some time before Andrea deigns to interrupt her morning’s reading to come up and check on me. I can see one of my red boots with its steel support. I wonder what angle it is at, and then I hear the stairs creaking under the weight of feet and I prepare myself for the onslaught.

‘When will you learn, Mrs Williams?’ says Andrea. ‘You cannot walk. Why do you do this?’

There are many reasons, but all would be lost on her.

‘I’ll get the hoist,’ she says and I watch her feet walk away in their silly white shoes. Then they obviously remember something and stop and turn. When they are a few inches from my face they stop and then they raise themselves up on their balls as their owner checks my body all over for breaks. Finding none, the feet resume their hurried pursuit of the hoist and when I am back in my chair, with a reluctant dab of arnica on my forehead and too many pillows behind me, Andrea straightens my right leg along the leg rest.

To frighten her I let out a groan. And then again, when she does the same to my left leg.

‘Oh my goodness, does that hurt?’ she says, worried. ‘I’ll ring the doctor, straight away.’ And then, surprisingly, she says, ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t come up sooner. I was dealing with the tramp.’

‘The tramp?’

‘Yes. I think he must have slept in the barn, I mean the studio, again last night. He came to the kitchen window and said he wanted to see you. I told him to go away and I made a song and dance about ringing the council. People like him spread disease.’

And then, after a pause, ‘You don’t know him, do you Mrs Williams?’

‘No, Andrea,’ I say, ‘I don’t know any tramps,’ but she is already ringing the doctor from the telephone beside my bed and I don’t suppose she heard me.

Dr Fishwick is a remarkable doctor. In all the time I have known him, in all the years I have had this blasted disease, he has been patient and kind and, above all, he has been honest.

He is holding my head at the moment and it is the greatest comfort. He has told me that nothing is broken – as I knew it wasn’t – but that I have sprained my ankle. He says it is nothing to worry about, it will mend soon, and I wish that the rest of me would mend soon. My limbs shake in varying degrees almost all the time, but when my head behaves like a balloon caught in unpredictable gusts of wind my neck aches and feels, sometimes, as if it will break. But with Doctor Fishwick standing behind my chair and holding my head firmly between his hands I feel … well I feel safe. Often he smells of something citrussy, one of those modern eau de colognes no doubt, but today the smell that he brings with him is of apples and I realise that I am looking at him in an apple store.

I watch him pick the apples up from their slatted wooden shelves. I watch him put them to his nose, one by one, and then he turns and smiles at me. He says, turning an apple in his hand, ‘I wish there was something else that we could do for you, Mrs Williams, but the combination of drugs you are on is the best there is. Although I know the side effects can be troubling.’

I smile at him in his apple store and I say, ‘I have always had hallucinations, Dr Fishwick. I’ve had them since I was a child and they don’t trouble me at all. It’s the symptoms that get me down. The immobility. The memory sliding. And this interminable shaking. I don’t know how much more I can take.’

As I say this his apple store darkens and his voice comes from behind me once more. ‘I know,’ he says. ‘I know.’ And his voice comforts me because I believe he really does know. He wouldn’t hold my head like that if he didn’t really know, and it comforts me more than I can say. I wish, selfishly, that he lived here, that I was his only patient, and as I think that I feel a lump in my throat and tears on my cheeks and when he walks round the chair and sits opposite me and looks at me, I cannot hide them from him. And his face wears a look of such kindness that I cry all the more.

Dr Fishwick puts his large gentle hand on mine and he says, ‘When I arrived a friend of yours was sitting on the wall under the eucalyptus tree. He asked me if I thought you would like to see him, and I said I would ask you. What would you like me to say to him?’

‘Is it Gregory?’ I ask.

‘He didn’t tell me his name,’ says the doctor. ‘He just said he was an old friend. I’ll go and ask, if you like.’

‘There’s no need,’ I say. ‘I think it is him.’ And then, as he gently wipes the tears from my cheeks wit a kleenex, I say, ‘Andrea thinks he’s a tramp. Don’t let her send him away.’

A flicker of surprise crosses the doctor’s face. ‘I won’t,’ he says as he stands up. I notice how strong his thighs are, how well they support him, and as I turn away my left leg begins to shake uncontrollably.

‘I will call in tomorrow,’ says the good doctor, and then I hear him walking down the stairs. I feel desolate when he goes. It always happens. But today the desolation is worse than ever.

I hear his voice and I hope that perhaps he will come back for a few more minutes. He says, ‘Her room is at the top of the stairs,’ and I realise he must be speaking to Gregory. I wish I had asked for a mirror. I must look dreadful. I’ve just been crying and my face must be bruised.

And then I forget all about what I look like as the sound of whistling surrounds me. I put my hands over my ears to block it out, but it will not be blocked out. It is inside my own head. Giselle’s love theme whistles inside my head and I find myself on a riverbank watching a young girl picking daisies. She hears what I can hear and she stops and looks up. She stares across the river, astonished, at the boy on the other side of the river who is whistling the love theme from her favourite ballet and she begins to dance. But she slips and she slides on the wet grass and she falls … into the river.

If you have read this far, thank you. And if you felt like commenting, that would be lovely. (This is, I think, about a third of the way through the story. Maybe a quarter.)

About Angela

I write fiction about the difficulty we have when we try to say what's in our hearts.
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4 Responses to The short story that was a novel, part 201

  1. Act on Reader says:

    I think it’s very good indeed. Looking forward to reading more.

  2. Kaitlyn says:

    Oh, I really, REALLY like this. Especially the fragmentation, because life- memories and conversation- really are like that. You start out thinking or speaking about one thing, and that leads on to another and quite often you never get back to what you were originally thinking/discussing. Sometimes really important things can be missed because of that, and other times it really doesn’t matter, particularly if you’re having a conversation/sharing an experience with someone who you know well, because the other person will eventually get the drift. I look forward to reading more in the future! 🙂

  3. Angela Young says:

    Thank you so much, Kaitlyn and Act On reader.

    The beginning of this story, in fact the whole thing, has changed again – as they always do – but I can’t post it on the blog because I’m sending it to a competition which requires that it hasn’t been published anywhere, even on a blog. If it doesn’t make it in the competition, I will post it next year!

  4. Kaitlyn says:

    All the best with the competition 🙂