17 December 2018

Sophie

I know instantly. At the first tug of consciousness, long before I open my eyes. Before I tune into the sound of traffic on the road outside, or register the cool air that’s wafting through the open window on to my face, I know that it’s going to be a bad day. The pain circles my half-asleep body, its menace penetrating the warm duvet and the last shreds of sleepiness.

‘Sophie?’

Of course Aidan is already awake. Rising early has been drilled into him. Courage, initiative, respect, teamwork: the official army values. Rising early is intrinsic, as is routine. They’re like robots, programmed to execute the same tasks at the same times each and every day: rise by the crack of dawn; arrive at the barracks clean-shaven and wearing general duty dress ironed free of wrinkles; eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the required times; undertake boot polishing, hair combing, nail clipping and other fastidious grooming routines; aim for maximum physical activity, minimum alcohol consumption and going to sleep at a sensible hour.

Aidan once told me that there are even stipulations about underwear. Apparently it must be plain and of a similar colour to the uniform. Seriously! I remember laughing at the idea, and asking to inspect his briefs to make sure they fitted the guidelines. Now, having had more exposure to the army way of life, I don’t know how he can stand it. The rules, the rigidity, the stark lack of individualism and flexibility. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to a certain amount of rigour. Methodical, logical, systematic: that’s me to a tee. I’m just saying that the army takes things too far.

Quotation Mark

Don’t, I tell myself. Don’t start feeling like this. It only brings on the pain.

'Sophie?’ Aidan tries again, before deciding that I’m still asleep and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. It’s only when I hear the sound of the shower that I open my eyes. The pain immediately becomes real. It settles into my chest, my neck, my back. It’s not intense, not yet, but it holds the threat of becoming so. From experience, I know I’ll get nothing more than a couple of functional hours. Then I’ll have to give in to it. Lie down. Take more painkillers. This is why I ignore Aidan when he calls my name. I need to be alone when I wake up. So I can gauge the pain, have the chance to rally myself for the day ahead. Aidan peering at me anxiously doesn't help. If only it did.

He’s singing in the shower. The hiss of the water mingles with his baritone and I can’t decipher the tune. Probably some song that’s popular now but will soon be forgotten. Aidan has a strangely unsophisticated taste in music. This surprised me when I first got to know him: his taste in music seemed out of sync with the rest of him. A pop-loving army captain . . . seriously? I used to find this anomaly in his personality rather cute. No, I still find it cute. I’m erring on the side of irritable this morning, that’s all.

My eyes veer to his side of the bed, to the digital clock, angled so we can both see it: 6.05 a.m., 22°C, Tuesday, 27 February.

Two hundred and eighty-five days. Nine months. Three quarters of a year. How can it still hurt so much? Will it ever stop? I’m beginning to think it won’t. That the pain will go on and on and on. That this is it, my life, and I’ll simply have to get used to waking up feeling as though someone is sitting astride my chest, pinning me down while stabbing needles into my neck. That I’ll eventually forget what it felt like not to be this way.

The shower turns off. Aidan is economical with water; it’s a valuable resource, and resources must not be wasted. He’ll be drying himself now, briskly rubbing a towel over his lean body, not a single gram of extra fat on him. Physical training is part of his job, and he’s extremely controlled about what he eats. Balanced, nutritional meals. No snacking. Definitely no binge-eating. In the meantime, my own weight has been creeping up. Another thing that’s just not fair. Going for a jog, working out at the gym, swimming ‒ most forms of exercise are out of the question. Food is one of the few things in life that gives me pure pleasure. I was never like that before.

I should get up. Go to the kitchen and make him a cup of tea. Have a chat with him before he leaves for work.

The en suite door whips open before I can motivate myself to move.

‘Hey, you’re awake,’ he states. He’s naked, and totally at ease with the fact. I still feel a jolt of surprise when I see him like this, that he’s here in my house, that we’re together, despite what everyone’s said about us.

‘Yes,’ I answer, averting my eyes only because I feel so awful.

‘How did you sleep?’ ‘Not great.’

The wardrobe door squeaks as he slides it open, the metal hangers clanging as he selects his clothes. Through slitted eyes, I watch him. Camouflage trousers, brown vest, his shirt, which takes a few moments to button up. He looks good in uniform. His hair and skin are dark enough to carry all the browns and greens. Men with paler skin or hair tend to look washed out in it.

He stands beside me, kisses my forehead. ‘I’ll get your tea, madam.’

‘Thanks.’

Once he’s gone, I move myself up in the bed. Slowly, slowly. That’s it. Careful movements. I’m so very gentle with myself. No whipping around, or kicking out, or bounding up stairs, or suddenness of any description. The gentleness seems to combat the violence of what has been done to me. Maybe, one day, when the gentleness outweighs the violence, my body will finally recover.

‘Tea service.’

Aidan is back, holding a steaming mug of tea. He puts it down on the bedside table next to me.

He imparts another kiss, this time on my lips. He tastes of sugar – his one dietary weakness – and toast.

‘You’re leaving already?’

‘Yeah,’ he answers, halfway out of the room. ‘The bus was early yesterday. I nearly missed it.’

My tea is exactly how I like it: strong, dash of milk, no sugar. Funny how I crave sugar in everything but my tea and Aidan is the opposite. I can hear him moving about, getting his boots from where he keeps them at the back door. A few moments’ silence while he laces them up. Then the jangle of his house keys.

‘See ya,’ he calls, before the front door opens and bangs shut again.

Alone. A whole day to fill. Again. Despair weighs me down in the bed.

Get up. Come on. For fuck’s sake, Sophie. Move yourself. Bathroom first, the mirror still steamed up after Aidan’s shower. I shuffle like an old lady, using the towel rail to steady myself.

Then clothes. Old jeans, tank top, light cardigan: aeons away from the crisp business suits that still hang in my wardrobe.

Breakfast. Eggs and toast, the assembling and cooking of which can be broken down into hundreds of tiny movements. Even the way I eat has changed. Each bite slow and considered, chewed to death.

Time for my faithful laptop. Quick scan through my emails, mostly junk. A flick through Facebook, glimpses of other people’s full and pain-free lives. Now, the spreadsheet: at last, a flash of something other than despair.

I wish I had thought of tracking everything while I was in hospital, but in the first few months I trusted in the doctors and in my recovery; I assumed I would get better.

Four times a day (morning, noon, afternoon and last thing at night), I input data, a rating on a scale of one to ten. One means I’m feeling good, strong. Ten means I’ve had to call the doctor or go to hospital. Complex formulas convert the raw data into averages and means, and spit out professional-looking graphs in bright primary colours. This morning is an overall eight. No, I’m being too negative. Seven point five. That’s fairer. Now, a more detailed rating for my chest, my back and my neck. There. That’s about right. Refresh.

The screen blanks for a second, and for a few moments I have that faint sense of anticipation. That today will be the day I’ll crack the pattern, the underlying logic, the day that I’ll pinpoint a slight but definitive long-term improvement in my mornings, or my nights, or my afternoons, or – a miracle – my whole day. That my chest is still stuffed but, look, there is statistical evidence that proves my back has been giving me a little less trouble.

The screen fills with the updated graphs and I lean closer to study them. It doesn’t matter how hard I stare, there is no pattern to be found, no improvement at all; categorically, no end in sight.

Use your superior mathematical ability to solve real problems. I can still remember the catchphrase from that brochure, the one I happened across at careers week at school. Solve real problems. Become an actuary. I’ve always liked solving things, ever since I was a little girl. There was a stage when I was obsessed with jigsaw puzzles, content for hours with my latest thousand-piece endeavour. Later on, I channelled those skills into black-belt sudoku, cryptic crosswords and accelerated maths. Standing in the school hall with the actuarial-studies brochure in my hand, I knew I had found the right career for me.

Now, you could say I have a ‘real problem’ of my own. A problem I didn’t see coming. A problem that is not my fault. A problem that impacts on me in every way imaginable. I have measured this problem, analysed it, written mathematical equations and thrown all my intelligence at it. And the fact that I am no closer to solving it is almost as debilitating as the pain itself.

Don’t, I tell myself. Don’t start feeling like this. It only brings on the pain. Don’t start feeling sorry for yourself. Don’t start feeling depressed at the thought of today, and tomorrow, and every other day that will start like this. Don’t start getting angry with Aidan for being the cause of all this.

Just don’t.

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