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A car alarm squeals through the quiet 7.30am air, shattering any hope of further sleep. Eyes wide awake, the sun streaming down through the windows. Nothing but the screaming alarm can be heard throughout the street. What happens next. Does anyone own that vehicle? Lying motionless in bed and thinking ... Dressed in black, balaclavar, sub-machine gun, soft slippery shoes. A whole round of bullets into the arrogantly steel grey shiny Mercedes. Serve you right. Out of your front door, have a happy smily day in the office … oh dear, whatever’s happened to the car? Really. The neighbour’s deteriorating.
Grey clouds speckled the bright blue sky and a breeze flew down and tangled itself in the trees and round ankles. The neighbour came out of her house dressed in a deep blue summer dress, accentuating her recently gained suntan. She smiled as she looked at the car riddled with holes. Having enjoyed a whole morning of peace from the constant hammering of its alarm she felt at peace. Meandering slowly down the street, in the opposite direction, she planned her shopping trip, brief but to the point, and then imagined the lunch she would enjoy with her secret lover.
Lunch was not the glamorous affair she’d expected, no discrete corner table at a fancy restaurant but a shared avacado and prawn in a bap with a choice of sparkling or still mineral water to drink. There was a rush job at work. Couldn’t even manage a full hour. At least they could sit under a tree in the park and pretend they were someplace else. Oh but he was gorgeous with his wicked blue eyes and mischevious grin. How was a woman to stay mad for long when he smiled and stroked the back of her neck like that?
She watched him stride purposefully away towards his office sensing his thoughts turning back to the rush job at work and sighed. He didn’t turn back to smile or wave and she didn’t expect him to. Sighing again she lay down fully on the grass and looked up at the explosion of leaves on the tree. Dark shiny green wavering in the gentle breeze. The movement produced little holes between them and she couldn’t help but smile and think of the car. What are you playing at Charlie Brown she whispered planning her activities for the rest of the day.
Charlie Brown, sans Snoopy, was a striking woman; tall, curvaceous with rich chestnut hair which swooped and curled round her neck. With deep blue eyes and a naughty twinkling smile nobody could pass her by without a second glance. Her confidence commanded she be looked at, admired, remembered. Knowing this was not enough somehow, she needed to be mischevious. To convince herself of something? Idling lazily by the river, she thought about the task she had to do today. She didn’t want to go home yet. Buying an ice cream Charlie put the task to one side in her mind.
A police car screamed past gathering more attention than anything else. A few tourists pointed their camcorders in its direction for a nice action shot. Charlie smiled. The ice cream was delicious and slid down her warm throat. There was something about the first ice cream of summer that surpassed all other tastes. The fragrance of vanilla, the smooth meltiness that gave itself totally to the devourer. This wasn’t going to solve the problem of Lloyd though, was it? Charlie thought irritably. Oh that man. So demanding, in his need to know where, why, with who, when. Time to return.
The journey home was a sweaty rattle in the underground. At least it was half empty even if littered with debris like so many snake skins. Crumpled newspapers, sticky pastry bags, plastic water bottles. Charlie imagined thousands of homes around London whose living room carpets were treated with the same indifference. Where little cockroaches clickety clicked over a playground of rotting goo. Not like her living room. Prissy in its glossy cleanliness; magazines and papers in the rack, cushions plump, carpets dust free, surfaces wiped clean of fingerprints. Lloyd would insist on shoes off at the front door, please. Pleeease.
Shoes off at the front door, put them in the shoe rack under the stairs. Keys on the wooden key hook hanging next to the front door. Don’t put your handbag down in the hallway someone will trip over it. Who will trip over it? Only you and I live here and I can see where I’ve put my bag and you’re in a wheelchair. If I left the bag in the middle of the area you’re run it over and break things. Exactly. This way nothing will get broken. I had a nice day, Lloyd, thank you for asking.
Well you’ve certainly been spending. What did you buy? Sigh, here we go again. A new dress, two pairs of shoes, some underwear. Underwear? Will I ever get to see it? Yes. Oh don’t say it like that, at least try to show some enthusiasm. It’s very difficult, Lloyd, when you make such hard work of everything. If I don’t ask you, you won’t tell me. I will, I do, but give me a chance to get in. I've been here, on my own all day, is it so surprising that I should show interest in what my wife’s been doing?
Without saying another word Charlie went upstairs and, the carrier bags crunching with every movement, she tried to stay calm, tried to understand, but this was just like being a child again. The where have you been? Who have you been with? What did you do? Is that all? Are you sure you didn’t drink alcohol … were there boys there? A euphemism if ever there was one. The real question was ‘and what did you do with all those hormonal boys, knowing that nice girls don’t. They save themselves.' Save themselves for …? Sniffy looks. Clean girls. Nice girls.
Nice married women don’t have lunch with married men. Everyone knows what that means. Just good friends eh? Hello euphemism. Charlie sat down on the double bed and caught her reflection in the dressing table mirror. She looked drawn. Listening to Lloyd downstairs, in the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, she wondered how they’d come to this. After the accident Charlie had given up her job to stay at home with him, help him to adapt, help to adapt the house. They’d been married two years and had been planning on starting a family. A joyous couple, a joyous future.
Charlie’s sister, Sophie, had a dinner party. A frosty early February night and having lost the coin toss, Lloyd drove. Getting there was easy. Getting back was easy. Unfortunately, getting back involved coming into contact with a drunk driver. Naturally, the DD walked – no, staggered – away with superficial cuts and bruises. Lloyd had to be cut free from the car, his lower spine mangled. Charlie couldn’t remember the first few weeks, didn’t start to notice the world again until late March when Lloyd was well enough, thanks to intensive physio, to go home with his motorised wheelchair. Home by Easter.
Home by Easter said the smiley nurse, aren’t we lucky? Oh yes, muttered Lloyd to the retreating figure in crisply laundered uniform. How lucky! Time for the Easter egg hunt waiting for the Easter bunny to appear. Woooh, well, roll out the red carpet Charlie, we’re going home for Easter. The bitterness was to be expected, an active man taken permanently off his feet, Charlie wished that he wouldn’t aim it at her. She hadn’t wanted this or caused this. A tiny little fissure appeared between them. She didn’t want a confrontation, she didn’t know how to cope with disability.
Doctors gave her leaflets. Nurses gave her leaflets, with extra advice. Physiotherapists offered practical advice, with leaflets. The psychologist who continued to see Lloyd once a week smiled benignly and advised books that might help her understand. Nobody hugged her. Nobody said ‘it’s ok to feel crappy, to feel guilty for surviving the accident’. Nobody wanted to see the tears or hear how difficult it was coping, learning to cope, with a man in a wheelchair. Family shrugged and said ‘keep calm, don’t lose your temper’. So she hadn’t. She had become a model carer with a simpering bedside manner.
She had smiled and listened to Lloyd’s anger and bitterness, and the system forgot to tell her that her simpering bedside manner was making him worse. He had lost the use of his legs, not his mind. And because of the accident, Lloyd felt that he had lost his wife because she wouldn’t shout back at him. She wouldn’t tell him how bad she felt, the professionals all advised against that, and he knew that beneath that surface she raged blindly. The first time Lloyd suspected Charlie of having an affair, he stopped shouting. They were locked in lonely animosity.
Charlie remembered when Lloyd stopped shouting and the relief she felt. The leaflets all told her this meant that ‘the patient was beginning to accept his/her situation’. Charlie thought that after a couple of weeks of sullen silence – bouncing from extremes was likely to end in a return to complete equilibrium, the physio said gaily one day – that perhaps they could start talking again. Laughing might take longer, Lloyd still refused to watch any sport on TV, a physical reminder of what someone else’s piss up had taken from him, but talking again would be a good place to start.
The talking was more akin to grunts and veiled accusations – having lunch with Tony again? That’s three times this week. HoHoHo. Nice married women don’t have lunch with married men. Charlie’s mother gave Lloyd the cooing sympathy she felt the poor man deserved. She even suggested Charlie consider herself lucky! In the space of a crash, faced with an altered future, nobody considered that Charlie too might have a lot to get used to. The possibility of no children and no career. But she was supposed to be the strong one who could make everything ok again. Only she couldn’t.
Charlie came back to the present on hearing the clunk of the stairlift. She jumped up in panic, a post-crash habit, but then breathed deeply and sat back down on the bed. No. This could not go on. They had to talk, Lloyd and herself. Had to try and figure out why they were living together but separated by a thin veil of – dread anticipation? They’d had a good marriage, loved each other deeply. Charlie heard Lloyd grunt as he lifted himself out of the stairlift into the wheelchair waiting at the top of the stairs. Now was the time.
The motor on Lloyd’s wheelchair purred and the wheels swished over the carpet. He appeared at the door of the bedroom and for a few seconds Charlie and Lloyd sat looking at each other. “Aren’t you going to hide the packages, tell me that you’ve got to cook dinner, phone your mother?” Charlie shook her head. “No.” she said simply. “I think it’s time we had a talk. Don’t you?” Lloyd seem perplexed, then softened visibly. “Yes, I’d like that.” “Then it’s probably best I start by telling you that I gunned that bloody car this morning.” Silence. Then laughter.
Charlie laughed so hard she fell back on the bed and was holding her stomach. Lloyd’s head went backwards and he roared. “Hell, Charlie,” as the laughter subsided. “What on earth possessed you?” “Oh. I’d arranged to meet what’s-his-face for lunch and I suddenly realised how sick and tired I was of my life. Of the dodging between us, the stupid men I’ve been seeing, the ghastly façade of health professionals and leaflets. What do they know about what we’re going through? The dry theories, the bland advice, the smiley-happy face that just does not work. I want us back.”
Lloyd said nothing for a while. His eyes were in Charlie’s direction but he wasn’t focused on that moment in time. The dry times that had come about during the past few months had had a profound effect on Lloyd. He now worked from home, the small bedroom having been converted to an office, and he was incapable of driving. He knew that children still remained a possibility “…but everything has changed so much.” he said out loud. “So much trust and respect to rebuild.” “It won’t be easy,” Charlie said “but I can’t go on like this. Can you?”
Lloyd shook his head. No, he couldn’t go on as things stood. He knew that Charlie had affairs, but she always came home to him, so she must love him. Perhaps that was her way of dealing with what had happened. Lloyd was also terrified of initiating sexual contact, anyway. It was all very well the doctors and psychologist saying ‘of course you still can, the nerves are still attached’, but you stand on the edge of a cliff with no clothes on, the wind whipping round you icily and pushing you nearer the lashing sea over the merciless stones.
Risky? Life threatening was nearer the emotion. Far easier to keep one’s head down and hope the storm outside would pass. “No.” he said finally, “I can’t go on like this.” Lloyd gazed up and out of the bedroom window. A small pocket of azure sky appeared between the densely packed clouds, white and fluffy scudding as a group of lambs skitting across an open field. Learning how to enjoy their movements, to perfect those movements, and all the sensations allied to them. “I will never walk again, Charlie.” He spoke poignantly, imagining those lambs on their first cautious trot.
“I will always be in this wheelchair and our future doings will be dominated by that. Can we stay at the hotel we want, in the resort we want? If I want to go anywhere who will drive me? Who will be my nursemaid, Charlie, and will that person, one day, tire of so being?” Charlie learned forward and took Lloyd’s hands in hers. “I know I’ve treated you badly at times, I know that I have to change a great deal but I can’t be your nursemaid, Lloyd.” Lloyd looked up. “Can’t you see, Lloyd, that would destroy us?
“What are you saying?” his voice quavered. “I haven’t just been spending money and seeing other men, Lloyd.” Charlie replied more businesnesslike. “I’ve been finding out about working from home. I’ve thought about this. If we make the lounge and dining room into one through room, then why not convert the smaller front room into a study for me? For goodness sake,” exasperated by his puzzlement “I work for an interior design company. I’m one of their top designers. Why not set up on my own and work from home?” Pause. “We then hire professionals, nurses, whoever, to help you.”
Lloyd went silent again. He’d never noticed before, possibly because he never needed to, just how selfish Charlie could be. She wanted a delightful little world full of joy and fun but she didn’t want to lift the lid on the uglier side. Wasn’t prepared to get her hands dirty. “What do you think?” she asked. “Are you so repulsed by me?” he asked. “By my unlovely body, lost in the wastelands of permanent injury? Disgusted to think that I need more help, that I cannot be a ‘man’, but only a scarred person?” “No. I just thought that …”
The right thing, Charlie thought. Why is it that I can never say or do the right thing, that my suggestions are blown away into dust at the merest hint that they are not what Lloyd wants? “You just thought you’d say the right thing?” “Yes, damn it. But as that is obviously not going to work, let me tell you what I believe: I believe that if I end up as your nursemaid I am going to resent you. Perhaps even hate you in time. I do not have the capacity for that. I would not cope.”
“I love you, you are my husband and I want to be with you. And no, Lloyd, that does not include helping you in and out of bed, on and off the toilet, in and out of clothes! I’m sorry if that doesn’t accord with what I am supposed to feel, supposed to say I want to do even when it is clear that I do not. I would much rather stay with you, rebuild our relationship as partners and, yes, eventually my current inability to take care of you like a child may well fade.” Charlie paused, Lloyd watched.
“But if you corner me or try to make a martyr out of me, then you are married to the wrong woman!” Phew, thought Lloyd, that’s the old Charlie. “I’ve missed those passionate speeches of yours.” He said. “We’re both in the dark, Lloyd. We both have needs and expectations and we are both presently letting each other down. What kind of relationship do you want with me?” “I want my wife, my lover, my friend back. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable with you being my nursemaid. I suppose I thought that’s what I should expect of you.”
The front door bell rang, shattering through the delicate fibres of their conversation. “Damn!” said Charlie. “I’ll get rid of them.” Lloyd heard a startled “Hello” as Charlie opened the front door. “Do you bloody know what some vandals did to my car during the night?” “Ah, yes, saw it this morning. Dreadful.” “Didn’t see anything, either of you?” “Sorry, no. Heard nothing, just saw it when I went out.” “Bloody thugs, I’ll have ‘em y’know. Do you have any idea how much …” and on he droned, the cost, the loss of face. Lloyd, upstairs, listened to the tirade.
“Bye then. Hope you get it sorted.” Slam, footsteps, Charlie in the bedroom doorway. “Honestly, it’s only a bloody car.” She said as Lloyd let out stifled giggles. “If I’m honest …” pause “It’s the same kind of car that that pig drunk was driving the night he mowed into us.” She went on more quietly. “I’m furious, Lloyd. Furious that he got away with a few scratches.” Lloyd wheeled over and took her hands. “Let the fury out, Charlie. Scream and shout. Then come back to me.” She was weeping helplessly now. “But please get rid of that gun.”
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