Read an extract from A Snow Garden and Other Stories, a collection of six Christmas stories from Rachel Joyce, the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
'This is the annexe. It used to be stables, but we realized it would suit Will rather better than the house as it's all on one floor. This is the spare room so that Nathan can stay over if necessary. We needed someone quite often in the early days.'
Mrs Traynor walked briskly down the corridor, gesturing from one doorway to the other, without looking back, her high heels clacking on the flagstones. There seemed to be an expectation that I would keep up.
'The keys to the car are here. I've put you on our insurance. I'm trusting the details you gave me were correct. Nathan should be able to show you how the ramp works. All you have to do is help Will position properly and the vehicle will do the rest. Although . . . he's not desperately keen to go anywhere at the moment.'
'It is a bit chilly out,' I said.
Mrs Traynor didn't seem to hear me.
'You can make yourself tea and coffee in the kitchen. I keep the cupboards stocked. The bathroom is through here –'
She opened the door and I stared at the white metal and plastic hoist that crouched over the bath. There was an open wet area under the shower, with a folded wheel- chair beside it. In the corner a glass-fronted cabinet revealed neat stacks of shrink-wrapped bales. I couldn't see what they were from here, but it all gave off a faint scent of disinfectant.
Mrs Traynor closed the door, and turned briefly to face me. 'I should reiterate, it is very important that Will has someone with him all the time. A previous carer disappeared for several hours once to get her car fixed, and Will . . . injured himself in her absence.' She swallowed, as if still traumatized by the memory.
'I won’t go anywhere.'
'Of course you will need . . . comfort breaks. I just want to make it clear that he can't be left for periods longer than, say, ten or fifteen minutes. If something unavoidable comes up either ring the intercom, as my husband, Steven, may be home, or call my mobile number. If you do need to take any time off, I would appreciate as much notice as possible. It is not always easy finding cover.'
Mrs Traynor opened the hall cupboard. She spoke like someone reciting a well-rehearsed speech.
I wondered briefly how many carers there had been before me.
'If Will is occupied, then it would be helpful if you could do some basic housekeeping. Wash bedding, run a vacuum cleaner around, that sort of thing. The cleaning equipment is under the sink. He may not want you around him all the time. You and he will have to work out your level of interaction for yourselves.'
Mrs Traynor looked at my clothes, as if for the first time. I was wearing the very shaggy waistcoat thing that Dad says makes me look like an emu. I tried to smile. It seemed like an effort.
'Obviously I would hope that you could . . . get on with each other. It would be nice if he could think of you as a friend rather than a paid professional.'
'Right. What does he . . . um . . . like to do?'
'He watches films. Sometimes he listens to the radio, or to music. He has one of those digital things. If you position it near his hand, he can usually manipulate it himself. He has some movement in his fingers, although he finds it hard to grip.'
I felt myself brightening. If he liked music and films, surely we could find some common ground? I had a sudden picture of myself and this man laughing at some Hollywood comedy, me running the Hoover around the bedroom while he listened to his music. Perhaps this was going to be okay. Perhaps we might end up as friends. I had never had a disabled friend before – only Treen's friend David, who was deaf, but would put you in a head- lock if you suggested that meant disabled.
Do you have any questions?'
'Then let’s go and introduce you.' She glanced at her watch. 'Nathan should have finished dressing him now.' We hesitated outside the door and Mrs Traynor knocked. 'Are you in there? I have Miss Clark to meet you, Will.'
There was no answer.
A broad New Zealand accent. 'He's decent, Mrs T.' She pushed open the door. The annexe’s living room was deceptively large, and one wall consisted entirely of glass doors that looked out over open countryside. A wood burner glowed quietly in the corner, and a low beige sofa faced a huge flat-screen television, its seats covered by a wool throw. The mood of the room was tasteful, and peaceful – a Scandinavian bachelor pad.
In the centre of the room stood a black wheelchair, its seat and back cushioned by sheepskin. A solidly built man in white collarless scrubs was crouching down, adjusting a man’s feet on the footrests of the wheelchair. As we stepped into the room, the man in the wheelchair looked up from under shaggy, unkempt hair. His eyes met mine and after a pause, he let out a bloodcurdling groan. Then his mouth twisted, and he let out another unearthly cry.
I felt his mother stiffen.
'Will, stop it!'
He didn't even glance towards her. Another prehistoric sound emerged from somewhere near his chest. It was a terrible, agonizing noise. I tried not to flinch. The man was grimacing, his head tilted and sunk into his shoulders as he stared at me through contorted features. He looked grotesque, and vaguely angry. I realized that where I held my bag, my knuckles had turned white.
'Will! Please.' There was a faint note of hysteria in his mother's voice. 'Please, don't do this.'
Oh God, I thought. I’m not up to this. I swallowed, hard. The man was still staring at me. He seemed to be waiting for me to do something.
'I – I'm Lou.' My voice, uncharacteristically tremulous, broke into the silence. I wondered, briefly, whether to hold out a hand and then, remembering that he wouldn't be able to take it, gave a feeble wave instead. 'Short for Louisa.'
Then to my astonishment his features cleared, and his head straightened on his shoulders.
Will Traynor gazed at me steadily, the faintest of smiles flickering across his face. 'Good morning, Miss Clark,' he said. 'I hear you’re my latest minder.'
Nathan had finished adjusting the footrests. He shook his head as he stood up. 'You are a bad man, Mr T. Very bad.' He grinned, and held out a broad hand, which I shook limply. Nathan exuded an air of unflappability. 'I'm afraid you just got Will's best Christy Brown impression. You'll get used to him. His bark is worse than his bite.'
Mrs Traynor was holding the cross at her neck with slim white fingers. She moved it backwards and forwards along its thin gold chain, a nervous habit. Her face was rigid. 'I'll leave you all to get on. You can call through using the intercom if you need any help. Nathan will talk you through Will's routines, and his equipment.'
'I'm here, mother. You don't have to talk across me. My brain isn't paralysed. Yet.'
'Yes, well, if you’re going to be foul, Will, I think it’s best if Miss Clark does talk directly to Nathan.' His mother wouldn’t look at him as she spoke, I noticed. She kept her gaze about ten feet away on the floor. 'I'm working from home today. So I'll pop in at lunchtime, Miss Clark.'
'Okay.' My voice emerged as a squawk.
Mrs Traynor disappeared. We were silent while we listened to her clipped footsteps disappearing down the hall towards the main house.
Then Nathan broke the silence. 'You mind if I go and talk Miss Clark through your meds, Will? You want the television? Some music?'
'Radio Four please, Nathan.'
We walked through to the kitchen.
'You not had much experience with quadriplegics, Mrs T says?' 'No.'
'Okay. I'll keep it fairly simple for today. There's a folder here that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Will's routines, and all his emergency numbers. I'd advise you to read it, if you get a spare moment. I'm guessing you'll have a few.'
Nathan took a key from his belt and opened a locked cabinet, which was packed full of boxes and small plastic canisters of medication. 'Right. This lot is mostly my bag, but you do need to know where everything is in case of emergencies. There's a timetable there on the wall so you can see what he has when on a daily basis. Any extras you give him you mark in there –' he pointed '– but you’re best to clear anything through Mrs T, at least at this stage.'
'I didn’t realize I was going to have to handle drugs.'
'It’s not hard. He mostly knows what he needs. But he might need a little help getting them down. We tend to use this beaker here. Or you can crush them with this pestle and mortar and put them in a drink.'
I picked up one of the labels. I wasn't sure I had ever seen so many drugs outside a pharmacy.
'Okay. So he has two meds for blood pressure, this to lower it at bedtime, this one to raise it when he gets out of bed. These he needs fairly often to control his muscular spasms – you will need to give him one mid-morning, and again at mid-afternoon. He doesn’t find those too hard to swallow, because they're the little coated ones. These are for bladder spasms, and these here are for acid reflux. He sometimes needs these after eating if he gets uncomfortable. This is his antihistamine for the morning, and these are his nasal sprays, but I mostly do those last thing before I leave, so you shouldn’t have to worry. He can have paracetamol if he’s in pain, and he does have the odd sleeping pill, but these tend to make him more irritable in the daytime, so we try to restrict them.
'These –' he held up another bottle '– are the antibiotics he has every two weeks for his catheter change. I do those unless I'm away, in which case I'll leave clear instructions. They're pretty strong. There are the boxes of rubber gloves, if you need to clean him up at all. There's also cream there if he gets sore, but he's been pretty good since we got the air mattress.'
As I stood there, he reached into his pocket and handed another key to me. 'This is the spare,' he said. 'Not to be given to anyone else. Not even Will, okay? Guard it with your life.'
'It's a lot to remember.' I swallowed.
'It’s all written down. All you need to remember for today are his anti-spasm meds. Those ones. There's my mobile number if you need to call me. I'm studying when I’m not here, so I’d rather not be called too often but feel free till you feel confident.'
I stared at the folder in front of me. It felt like I was about to sit an exam I hadn't prepared for. 'What if he needs . . . to go to the loo?' I thought of the hoist. 'I'm not sure I could, you know, lift him.' I tried not to let my face betray my panic.
Nathan shook his head. 'You don't need to do any of that. His catheter takes care of that. I’ll be in at lunchtime to change it all. You’re not here for the physical stuff.'
'What am I here for?'
Nathan studied the floor before he looked at me. 'Try to cheer him up a little? He's . . . he's a little cranky. Understandable, given . . . the circumstances. But you're going to have to have a fairly thick skin. That little skit this morning is his way of getting you off balance.'
'Is this why the pay is so good?'
'Oh yes. No such thing as a free lunch, eh?' Nathan clapped me on the shoulder. I felt my body reverberate with it. 'Ah, he's all right. You don’t have to pussyfoot around him.' He hesitated. 'I like him.'
He said it like he might be the only person who did.
I followed him back into the living room. Will Traynor's chair had moved to the window, and he had his back to us and was staring out, listening to something on the radio.
'That’s me done, Will. You want anything before I go?' 'No. Thank you, Nathan.'
'I’ll leave you in Miss Clark's capable hands, then. See you lunchtime, mate.'
I watched the affable helper putting on his jacket with a rising sense of panic.
'Have fun, you guys.' Nathan winked at me, and then he was gone.
I stood in the middle of the room, hands thrust in my pockets, unsure what to do. Will Traynor continued to stare out of the window as if I weren’t there.
'Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?' I said, finally, when the silence became unbearable.
'Ah. Yes. The girl who makes tea for a living. I wondered how long it would be before you wanted to show off your skills. No. No, thank you.'
'No hot beverages for me, just now, Miss Clark.'
'You can call me Lou.'
'Will it help?'
I blinked, my mouth opening briefly. I closed it. Dad always said it made me look more stupid than I actually was. 'Well . . . can I get you anything?'
He turned to look at me. His jaw was covered in several weeks of stubble, and his eyes were unreadable. He turned away.
'I’ll –' I cast around the room. 'I'll see if there's any washing, then.'
I walked out of the room, my heart thumping. From the safety of the kitchen I pulled out my mobile phone and thumped out a message to my sister.
This is awful. He hates me.
The reply came back within seconds.
You have only been there an hour, you wuss! M & D really worried about money. Just get a grip & think of hourly rate. X
I snapped my mobile phone shut, and blew out my cheeks. I went through the laundry basket in the bathroom, managing to raise a paltry quarter load of washing, and spent some minutes checking the instructions to the machine. I didn't want to mis-programme it or do anything which might prompt Will or Mrs Traynor to look at me like I was stupid again. I started the washing machine and stood there, trying to work out what else I could legitimately do. I pulled the vacuum cleaner from the hall cupboard and ran it up and down the corridor and into the two bedrooms, thinking all the while that if my parents could see me they would have insisted on taking a commemorative photograph. The spare bedroom was almost empty, like a hotel room. I suspected Nathan did not stay over often. I thought I probably couldn't blame him.
I hesitated outside Will Traynor's bedroom, then reasoned that it needed vacuuming just like anywhere else. There was a built-in shelf unit along one side, upon which sat around twenty framed photographs.
As I vacuumed around the bed, I allowed myself a quick peek at them. There was a man bungee jumping from a cliff, his arms outstretched like a statue of Christ. There was a man who might have been Will in what looked like jungle, and him again in the midst of a group of drunken friends. The men wore bow ties and dinner jackets and had their arms around each other's shoulders.
There he was on a ski slope, beside a girl with dark glasses and long blonde hair. I stooped, to get a better view of him in his ski goggles. He was clean-shaven in the photograph, and even in the bright light his face had that expensive sheen to it that moneyed people get through going on holiday three times a year. He had broad, muscular shoulders visible even through his ski jacket. I put the photograph carefully back on the table and continued to vacuum around the back of the bed. Finally, I turned the vacuum cleaner off, and began to wind the cord up. As I reached down to unplug it, I caught a movement in the corner of my eye and jumped, letting out a small shriek. Will Traynor was in the doorway, watching me.
'Courchevel. Two and a half years ago.'
I blushed. 'I'm sorry. I was just –'
'You were just looking at my photographs. Wondering how awful it must be to live like that and then turn into a cripple.'
'No.' I blushed even more furiously.
'The rest of my photographs are in the bottom drawer if you find yourself overcome with curiosity again,' he said.
And then with a low hum the wheelchair turned to the right, and he disappeared.
Seven stories to span the Christmas holidays:
A Faraway Smell of Lemon: The School Term has ended. It is almost Christmas but Binny, out last-minute shopping couldn't feel less like wishing glad tidings to all men. Ducking out of the rain she finds herself in the sort of shop she would never normally visit.
The Marriage Manual: Christmas Eve. Two parents endeavour to construct their son’s Christmas present from a DIY kit and in the process find themselves deconstructing their marriage.
Christmas at the Airport: A glitch in the system, travellers stranded and all sorts of lives colliding in the face of a sudden birth...
The Boxing Day Ball: Maureen has never been out with the local girls before. Who knew that a disco in the Village Hall could be life-changing?
A Snow Garden: Two little boys, dumped with their divorced father for his share of the Christmas holidays and none of them with a clue how to enjoy it.
I'll Be Home for Christmas The most famous boy in the world comes home hoping to escape the madness with a normal family Christmas.
Trees: As if Christmas wasn't wearing enough, now his elderly parent is asking for a hole in the ground … Father and son break old habits and plant a tree to mark the start of the new year.
Six stories as funny, joyous, poignant and memorable as Christmas should be.