‘I have a very woolly head,’ I tell Sean, wishing I hadn’t downed that last tequila shot in the early hours of this morning. It seemed such a good idea at the time to have just one more.
Sean wraps an arm around my waist, our bodies warm in bed. ‘Well, Miss Brooks, I happen to know a great cure for woolly heads.’
‘You do? Don’t say raw eggs.’
‘Yep, sex.’ Sean strokes his chin and adopts a serious expression. ‘And plenty of it. In fact, I’m going to write you out a prescription right now.’
‘That’s so very kind of you, Doctor Irwin.’
He pretends to write on my bare stomach, his fingers light against my skin.
‘Sex at least three times a day.’
‘Missionary in the morning, doggy style in the afternoon, and . . .’ He pauses as he surveys me.
I roll on to my side, prop myself up with the pillows. ‘Please don’t stop, Doctor Irwin.’
‘Let’s have you in your tartan mini skirt and stilettos up against the wall in the evening.’ He’s signing the pretend prescription now, and handing it to me. ‘And the sooner you start, the better.’
‘Great. I’ll give Johnny Depp a call.’
‘Busy. Only works if you do it with someone called Sean. I hear he’s amazing in bed too.’
I raise an eyebrow. ‘That’s not what I’ve heard.’
Next, he’s on top of me, we’re both laughing as I wrestle to push him away, we roll over in bed, almost fall on to the floor, we kiss, Sean runs a hand down my bare back . . . pulls me close . . . until I have to wriggle out from underneath him. ‘Sorry, need a pee.’ I hear a loud sigh as I leave the room.
‘Don’t be long,’ he calls out.
I look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Um. Not a pretty sight. Black eye-makeup is smudged; hair could do with a wash. I gulp down some water with a couple of headache tablets and brush my teeth. Sean shouts for some water too. ‘Your woolly head is catching!’
Sean and I are both studying medicine at King’s College, London. We’re in our fourth year and I have just returned from a four-week placement in Paediatrics in the King’s College Hospital. Next term we’ll be doing three-week rotations in A&E, Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Anaesthetics. Sean and I joke about how we’re giddy from information overload. We wake up and forget which end of the body we’re working on.
We’re alone in the flat today. Our other housemate, Sarah, has already returned home for Christmas. She’s also reading medicine. I’m heading to my parents’ this afternoon. I dread the holidays. A weekend is fine, but Mum and I together for any longer than that is asking for trouble. After five minutes we bicker. ‘You should be reading law, not medicine, Cassandra,’ she says. ‘You’re so good at arguing.’ Then there’s my brother, Jamie. He’s nineteen, four years younger than me, and similar to my dad in temperament: soft, loveable, kind and impossible to be cross with. On a camping holiday in France, he stole money from my purse so he could go and buy me a present. He’s in Madrid at the moment, teaching English as a foreign language. He doesn’t want to go to university. He’s not sure what he wants to do. That’s where I’m lucky. All I’ve ever wanted is to be a doctor. My parents never had to nag me to do my biology homework. When I was a child I had a fascination with first-aid boxes, and always gave my toys injuries that I could cure with medicine or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Dad used to wonder where this passion came from, since no one in our family likes to go anywhere near a needle. Jamie faints at the sight of blood.
‘Hurry up, Cass! I’m dying of thirst in here.’
Back in my bedroom, I hand him a glass of water. ‘Lazy sod. What’s wrong with your legs?’
‘Nothing . . . but yours work so much better than mine.’
I throw on a pair of skinny jeans, ankle boots and one of Sean’s navy jumpers, aware he’s watching me. I scoop my long dark blonde hair into a ponytail.
‘Sean Irwin, what do you want?’
‘Nothing. Well, some hot sex?’
I smile, wondering what’s got into him this morning.
‘Where you going? Remember that prescription! Come back to bed,’ he groans, stretching his arms.
‘We need some milk and bread and stuff. I thought I could make us some brunch, you know, before we head home.’ My parents live in Dorset, close to Dorchester. Sean’s family live in Dublin. It was Sean’s Irish accent that attracted me at once, when he chatted me up in the student union bar – he could have spouted out the telephone directory and I’d still have been entranced. His accent, coupled with a sharp sense of humour that shone from his pale blue eyes, and I was hooked. I grab my wallet, collecting a few bits of loose change on my dressing table. ‘How about a big fat bacon butty? I need grease. Sean?’ I wave a hand in front of him.
‘I love you, Cass.’
‘What?’ I mutter, too shocked to say anything else. We’ve been going out for a year, and many times Sean has said, ‘I love going out with you’ or ‘I love the way you make me feel’ and when he says, ‘I love doing it with you,’ I tease him, saying he’s such an old romantic.
‘I love you,’ he repeats.
I kick my boots off and fall back into bed, Sean pulling my jeans off as quickly as I’d put them on.
Outside, the sunlight blinds my eyes. It’s freezing cold. Our flat in Pimlico is on a main road, but I’ve become used to the traffic and the noise; it’s almost comforting, like a friend that’s always there.
I want to sing and dance and tell the whole world I’m in love.
In a daze I head towards the traffic lights and zebra crossing, which feel too far away today. The road is clear. If I’m quick I could make a run for it now, the idea of bacon and coffee and being in bed again with Sean too tempting to waste time.
‘Cass!’ I hear him shout.
I turn round, look up to our flat on the third floor and see a bare-chested Sean leaning out of the window, waving my wallet. I’m such an idiot.
‘Chuck it down!’
A car races past, and I have to manoeuvre myself out of the way of a couple of joggers on the pavement.
He holds on to the wallet. ‘We need sugar too. And fags.’
He hesitates. ‘I’ll come down.’
‘Don’t. Get on with your packing!’ Sean’s flight is this afternoon. I jog up and down on the spot. ‘Just throw it!’
Sean hurls my wallet towards me. I jump to catch it. It hits the side of my hand and flies over my shoulder and on to the road.
Without thinking I run towards it.
‘Careful!’ he shouts. I stop. I hear him screaming now.
A car horn blasting.
I don’t remember what happens next.
Five months later
I hear her coming upstairs. The jangling of her gold bracelets gives her away.
I sense her hovering outside my bedroom door, summoning the strength to enter. The handle moves and in she comes, in a bright red sundress, her vanilla scent overpowering.
‘Morning!’ She strides across my room in her high heels. I don’t think Mum has ever worn a pair of flats. ‘The God of height wasn’t on my side,’ she’d once said.
‘What a lovely day!’ she says with gusto, opening the curtains to allow the sunshine to stream in. ‘I thought we could go out for lunch, just to the pub opposite?’ Clocking my hesitancy, she says, ‘Or how about a nice drive?’
She picks my tracksuit trousers off the floor, hangs them on the back of my chair. ‘Or we could go for a walk . . . maybe see a film?’
I don’t move. ‘I’m fine, Mum. But you go.’
‘Oh, Cass, it’s been weeks!’ she says, raising her voice for the first time since I returned home from Stoke Mandeville Hospital at the end of April. ‘You can’t fester inside, day after day.’ The telephone rings. ‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ she warns me.
I’m testing her patience, but I don’t feel ready to face the world yet. Minutes later she returns, notepad in hand this time. ‘That was Sarah,’ she says, sitting on the end of my bed. ‘I told her you’d call back.’
Sarah’s the one Sean and I shared a flat with at King’s. She was my clinical partner, which basically means we did everything together. In our third year, when we were pushed out of our safe lecture-room environment and thrown into the world of real-life patients, Sarah and I clung on to one another in fear, scared they might bite. I see us turning up on our first day at hospital, dressed in long pleated skirts, white shirts and navy cardigans. We looked as if we were in school uniform. When I was asked to clerk a patient Sarah came with me, and as we walked down the long airy corridor we were too nervous to talk; all we did was make sure our stethoscopes were placed squarely round our necks. Sarah is in her final term of year four. She told me she was planning to go to Gibraltar during the summer break. At the end of year four we had to organise a two-month placement abroad. I was planning to go to a bush hospital in Africa.
I feel a prod. ‘Cass?’ Mum says.
‘Oh, Cassandra, you haven’t heard a word I’ve said.’ Impatiently, Mum flicks open her notepad. ‘I was saying you have a baseline.’ She draws a thick horizontal line across the paper. ‘The fact of the matter is –’ she takes in a deep breath, as if she’s about to plunge herself into ice-cold water – ‘this is how it’s going to be for the rest of your life. We can’t change that, but what we can do –’ she sketches neat arrows going upwards from this baseline – ‘is change how we manage it.’
I raise an eyebrow. ‘Will you be doing a PowerPoint presentation next?’
She puts the pen down. ‘You need to think about your future.’
‘What future?’ I burst out. Why doesn’t she understand? ‘Everything I loved . . . everyone I loved . . .’ I trail off.
‘I’ve damaged my spinal cord,’ I’d said to Sean when he’d visited me in hospital for the first time since the accident. I saw the colour literally drain from his face; he knew exactly what that meant. ‘I’m paralysed, Sean, from the waist down.’
Ironically one of his favourite subjects was neurology and spinal cord injury. Sean didn’t shed a tear. He looked as if he wanted to punch the living daylights out of the next person who came into the ward. I searched his face, looking for signs that he was going to stick around, but all I could see was anger and helplessness in his eyes. Part of me wanted to ease his pain, tell him he was free to go. I didn’t want him to stay with me out of pity.
The other half wanted him to get off that chair and give me a hug, and tell me everything was going to be all right, and that he still loved me.
As I looked at him, all I could think was how could life change so quickly? Only days ago we were dancing, fooling around in bed and making plans for the New Year. He had invited me to Dublin. I was going to meet his parents for the first time.
He stood up, turned his back to me. ‘This is my fault.’
Tears came to my eyes. ‘No. Don’t blame yourself.’
‘Visiting hours are over,’ said an abrupt Georgina, my assigned nurse, examining my medical notes on her clipboard. ‘Off you go, now. She needs her rest. You can see her tomorrow.’
Sean gathered his coat and scarf. He hesitated before kissing my cheek and touching my hand. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. As he reached the door, he looked over his shoulder. ‘Will you come tomorrow?’ I called out, my voice as fragile as my broken body.
I was in hospital for four months. Sean did visit again, ten days later. He left a letter on my bedside table, telling me not to open it until he’d gone—
I shudder when I feel another prod on my shoulder. ‘I give up,’ she says with resignation. ‘What can I do?’
‘Why don’t you go back to work?’ I suggest. Mum runs a successful property-letting company. She founded the business in London, where we’d lived until I was sixteen. Mum agreed to Dad’s demands to move out of the city, to Dorset, on the proviso that she could expand her company to the West Country. Her company now deals with properties in the southwest region, covering Somerset, Dorset and Devon.
She looks indignant. ‘I am working.’
‘I mean full-time, in your office?’ Mum has an office in Dorchester.
‘Not yet. A, I can work from home and B, if I wasn’t here, I’d come home in the evening and find you still in bed.’ She looks at me, concerned. ‘Would you like me to arrange some counselling for you?’
‘No! I’m fine, I promise.’ I say, praying to be left alone.
‘I want you up. Five minutes.’ She grabs my dressing gown from the back of the door and throws it at me.
I push the gown away from my face. ‘I feel sick, Mum.’
Dad walks in now.
‘She won’t get up, Michael.’
‘Cass can stay in bed a bit longer, can’t she?’ Dad reasons.
Mum’s temper explodes like a pressure cooker. ‘Wrapping her in cotton wool isn’t going to help anyone!’ she says, ‘least of all Cass!’ Next thing I know, Dad grabs her by the arm and pulls her out of my room.
‘I need your support!’ Mum says in protest, shaking her arm free. ‘My parents are hopeless, not one single visit. Mum can’t even be bothered to pick up the bloody phone.’
‘Look, it’s going to take time,’ Dad says in a low voice. ‘The doctors warned us Cass will be abnormally tired in the first year.’
I hear them walking away. I strain to hear what Mum’s saying now. Something about me getting out of my bed and doing my exercises. ‘She’s depressed!’ she shouts in exasperation.
I close my eyes, feeling guilty that I’m causing this grief.
Five minutes later Dad stands at my bedroom door, his face creased with anxiety. ‘Dad, I’m sorry.’ ‘Could you try and get up this morning?’ I nod, my lip quivering. Ten minutes later Mum is back with the shower chair on wheels. ‘You haven’t undressed yet.’ Slowly I unbutton my pyjama top. My hand is shaking. ‘I’m trying.’
‘Well, try harder,’ comes back the harsh reply, like the smash of a tennis ball into the body of an opponent. I can feel her stare as she waits for me to transfer myself from the edge of the bed across to the shower seat. Finally she wheels me into the bathroom.
‘Cass, I shouldn’t have snapped earlier but I hate seeing you like this. You have to stop feeling so sorry for yourself.’ She turns on the shower and tests the temperature of the water. ‘You need to make some kind of plan.’
‘I had my heart set on medicine.’
‘I know you did. You could go back to King’s. Why don’t you talk to Doctor Lewis?’ She reverses the chair into the right position before putting the brakes on.
Doctor Lewis was my clinical supervisor.
‘He’s used to dealing with all kinds of problems and I’m sure he’d want to—’
‘No,’ I cut her off. ‘I can’t.’ Sarah has also tried to convince me to return, but each time I try to imagine it, all I see is disabled accommodation and pity on people’s faces. How would I cope bumping into Sean or seeing him with someone else? It’s too raw. It’s too soon. And even if I did qualify, what would a patient think when they saw me in a wheelchair? ‘It wouldn’t be the same, Mum.’
‘No, no it wouldn’t, but you have to do something. Us Brookses, we’re fighters, we don’t give up.’
‘This didn’t happen to you.’
‘No, it didn’t. It happened to us.’ Close to tears, Mum hands me the shampoo bottle. ‘Us, Cass.’
I watch her leaving the room. I wish I could see a way forward, but I don’t know where or how to begin. ‘It’s a terrible thing to come to terms with but you are in the best possible care,’ the consultant had said to me from the foot of my bed. ‘With lots of physiotherapy we will teach you how to make the most of what you’ve been left with so you can be independent again.’
But what they can’t teach you is how to care. My heart can’t go to the gym. It’s broken.
When I’m dressed I call out for my father. Dad was the first person I saw in the ward when I’d regained consciousness.
‘How are we going to tell her?’ he’d said.
I wasn’t able to turn to see the person he was talking to because there was something hard against my back, stiff like a brace, but I was sure it was Mum by my side. ‘What’s wrong?’ I cried out. I can remember desperately trying to move my feet. ‘I can’t move!’
Mum was stroking my hair and I felt terrified by the gentleness of her touch and what it was trying to tell me.
I wheel myself to the top of the stairs where my father is waiting for me. ‘Good girl,’ he says as he bends down, a hand leaning on my armrest. ‘Are you ready?’ Carefully he lifts me out of my chair and carries me downstairs, saying, ‘It’s going to get better, Cass. I promise.’
I wish I’d died that morning.
Excerpted from By My Side by Alice Peterson. Copyright © 2012 by Alice Peterson.
First published in 2012 by Quercus Editions Ltd. This paperback edition published in 2013 by Quercus Editions Ltd. Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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