It was a rainy day in the city and I was sitting within the psychiatric hospital walls, smiling self-consciously. My wheelchair and I were parked at one of the dining-room tables. Connie was there. In my hand I held an open book, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and my fingers were playing absently with the book-mark which said: "North East Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team WITH COMPLIMENTS." A minute ago I had been reading the book, but now I was smiling and avoiding Connie's gaze. I didn't like Connie, but I was smiling nevertheless.
"Stephen", she said, "I can't see anything even remotely funny about this."
Her voice was harsher and more nasal than any of the nurses that had stopped to speak with me in the dining room over the past few weeks. She was not an old nurse, nor a particularly ugly one, but I could sense the bitterness inside. She despised me. She had made that clear a long time ago. I tried not to smile, but it had been ages since anyone paid me any attention and I couldn't help reveling in it.
"How much longer is this going to go on.?", she asked. "I know that all the staff an this ward are getting sick of it."
"Well you're the only one who seems to be getting sick of it", I said, toning down the smile.
"Maybe because I'm the only honest one."
The drink-vending machine rumbled steadily, drowning out the rain.
"Why are you doing it?", she demanded. "I don't think you've given me a single good reason yet."
"I told you – it's easier and I get treated better as a disabled person than I did as a normal person."
"Well that better treatment is going to end pretty soon – as soon as the doctors send you home and take away your wheelchair. You'll be forced to get of your rear-end and walk."
I shook my head. "They're not going to take it away."
"Yes they will. I'll make sure of it. I'll be there when they make the decision."
I shook my head again, yearning to tell her about the gun but held back by my promise to Doctor Cantaro. "No they won't. They can't, because they know I'm not going to walk even if the wheelchair gets taken away."
Connie put her hands on the table behind her and leaned back, staring at me all the while. "You know what that is?", she said. "It's a cop out. You're using this disability thing as crutch because you're afraid to make it in the real world."
"I'm not afraid of anything", I said, stretching the truth.
"Then why don't you go out there and be your best?"
"Because this is better."
Connie was silent for a second and then laughed scornfully. "Oh – that is such a cop out. You're not going to dodge responsibility that easily – we're not going to play along. Everyone knows you're just doing it to get attention."
Suddenly I was hurt by her comment. Not because it was true, or even because it was false, but because it lay in that area between true and false that I couldn't respond to. I retreated into my usual silence.
"You are!", she continued. "We're taking care of some truly sick people at this hospital; this ward has no vacancies. But there's nothing wrong with you. Why should we waste our time on a malingerer?"
"I'm not a malingerer!", I said, showing signs of anger for the first time.
"Do you even know what a malingerer is?"
"Yes! It's a person who pretends to be ill."
"That's right. To escape work. That's you."
"No it isn't! I'm not pretending anything." But even as I said the words, I knew they weren't true – I was pretending that I didn't have a gun.
"Yes you are. There's nothing wrong with you."
"There is something wrong with me! My feet!"
"You're faking it."
I frowned at her and felt my lower jaw tense up. There was an impatient twitch running up and down my hand. For a moment I thought it was going to happen involuntarily, but the hand stayed put. "You'd better just watch what you say", I murmured.
Connie seemed amused. "Oh yeah? Why? What are you gonna do?"
I hesitated and thought it over. Dead end. "Nothing", I said. "Forget it. Just get out of here."
"You're not keeping that wheelchair."
"Get out of here. I'm sick of the sound of your voice."
I picked up my book and said, "I'm just going to ignore you."
Connie stayed put and I knew without looking up that her cold iron façade remained the same. After a few seconds she said, "You're not keeping that wheelchair."
I said nothing. Outside the rain pattered down and a car pulled up in the driveway. The sound of its motor cutting out drifted through the window. My eyes drifted over the words of "Treasure Island" without any comprehension.
"You'll be leaving here on your feet", she said. "Limping or otherwise. Not rolling. Get that into your head." She shifted the weight onto her feet and walked out of the dining room, looking back at me as she did so. When she was gone, I took my eyes off the book and stared blankly at the whiteness of the table. Deep inside, my heart was beating faster than a bullet factory and I could feel my tongue tensing up angrily behind gritted teeth. Mentally, I was in another world – a world where I could blow a hole in Connie's stomach mid-argument without worrying about the consequences. The Connie-hatred seemed to weigh heavily on my right arm; I let the book fall closed and massaged my gun hand, letting it twist and deform randomly under the table. Some day, I thought, Some day I'm going to take out my gun and blow that nurse away. If anyone deserves a magic bullet, it's her.
I heard the sound of a car door slamming and turned my head automatically to look out the window at the source of the sound. A teenage girl had just stepped out of the car into the rain – she had very short auburn hair and was carrying a large bag. As I watched, a member of the North Eastern CAT team got out of the driver's side door and started walking with her to the ward's entrance. I was too angry to wonder about the girl; I was making kill-Connie plans.
Next time she comes up to me, that's when I'll do it. Next time she tries to start an argument. That will be the start of my reign of terror.
But all of a sudden it seems a bit silly. What would killing Connie achieve? It would get her off my back, sure, but it would make everyone else hate me. There is nothing more hated in society than a man who kills a woman; they wouldn't even see the justification for it because they didn't witness her despicable riling process. And now I'm back in the intensive care unit, staring up at the ceiling once again. Connie is gone, she's far, far away – possibly nowhere. She's something out of another life. No point in making plans to kill her now.
What was it that broke the spell? What cleared my head up so that I could see things as they are? I know I've been confusing reality with fantasy lately, but –
That teenage girl. The red-head; she must have been Tora. That was Tora's entrance. As soon as I saw her, things began to clear up. Whatever happened to my plan to kill the nurse? Did I ever actually go through with it? I don't think so. Killing a nurse would be a major event – I'd remember a thing like that, wouldn't I? So apparently my anger towards Connie must have fizzled away and faded into insignificance. I'm only just now seeing a correlation between that and Tora's entrance.
"So, how old are you?", asked Tora.
"I'm seventeen. I'll be eighteen in June."
Tora is the youngest patient in the psychiatric ward. Everyone loves Tora.
"I just had a
Tora had an embarrassing experience while she was here. She met this guy who seemed really nice and she made friends with him. She tried to be more than friends with him, but then she found out he was a nurse.
"I think it's great that you're
There was another guy, too, an Asian guy with glasses – he was coming on to Tora pretty strong, or so she claimed. Everyone loves Tora. And then there was Fred. And then there was –
"You know Bea? Beatrice? She's a lesbian. She's been making advances to me … I'm not sure what to
Everyone loves Tora. I watched her from my bedroom window the night before she left – she was hanging out with all the friends she had made during her four-day stay at the psychiatric hospital, and they were having a chat and a smoke, but there was an unseen air of sadness hanging over them, because they knew Tora would be leaving in the morning and the ward would be a worse place without her. I saw one young woman named Mary take her aside and kiss her on the cheek several times – the two of them were out of the circle of light but I could see them 'cause they were closer to my window – and they couldn't see me 'cause my bedroom light was off and I was keeping perfectly still –
"You're a pretty quiet person, aren't you Stephen?"
"I wish I could be quiet like you. I'm always talking on and on. I just can't keep quiet for a second."
But Tora wasn't a lesbian, and neither was Mary, in fact Mary went on to have some similar trouble with the lesbian Beatrice because the latter was making unwanted advances towards her and she complained openly about it. I think it was slightly ironic –
"Yes", I replied to Dad. "If I had to have a career, it would be in the arts field or the music field."
"Any particular part of the arts field you'd want to get into?"
"Maybe graphic design. I'd like to be one of those guys who designs ads. Or maybe – one of those guys who makes animations. Especially computer animations."
"Yeah? Well that's something you could do. I don't know what sort of training you'd need to get into a position like that, but it wouldn't be hard to find out. I think you'd be good at that."
"Mmm." Dad was standing beside my wheelchair in the foyer of the psychiatric ward – it was Saturday afternoon. He'd come in to bring me some plastic bags and some coat-hangers. I don't I don't know what just happened – some sort of confused uprising of positive thoughts. Where did all the hope come from? Maybe the authorities had got to my Dad. One of the doctors, perhaps, had had a word with him and injected some artificial positive vibes into his mind. In any case, the conversation we were presently having was about my future.
"What about the music field? Are you hoping to become a professional musician with your keyboard skills?"
"No, I was more thinking of becoming a sound technician – the guy who works the mixing desk. Or whatever. I don't know much about that field."
"Well you could learn. I mean those little tunes you enter into the computer at home are a good start. And you've always been into mucking around with audio equipment at home – I remember some of the weird experimental stuff you used to produce on your tapes when you were younger. Which do you think you'd prefer? The music field or the graphic design field?"
"I don't know. It depends on a lot of things. It depends on the qualifications I'd need for each one. I mean, I heard that you can't study music at university unless you learn a musical instrument up to grade 7 level. And for the graphic-design, well I don't know but it may be a bit hard to get into a course seeing as how I didn't do graphics at school, in the V.C.E."
"Yeah." Dad looked into the wall for a few seconds, and I could see in his face that he was not the least bit discouraged by what I'd said. "You know what you should do? You should talk to them about this. You should tell them you'd like to get some information about art courses and music courses – even if they don't have the information, they could put you onto someone who does. I think they'd be happy to help you – that's what they're here for. Don't you think?
I shifted uncomfortably in my wheelchair, suddenly aware of the back pain it was causing me. My father's words were well intentioned but I knew I could never talk to the doctors and nurses about my future. For one thing I was afraid of being sucked into that world of tertiary education which was somewhat incompatible with sitting in a wheelchair. Yes, sure enough it was possible, in theory, for a wheelchair-bound person to attend university. But it was a challenge I was not ready to face – all those buildings with stairs – all those doors to pass through – all those cramped classrooms where I'd be bumping into people whenever I reverse out from a table – all those steep inclines – would I be able to get an electric wheelchair, or not? Probably not. And what about the toilet? No, it seemed to me that I would have to make a choice between the wheelchair and the education. The education, if it happened, would be welcomed by my parents and doctors alike, especially if it meant leaving the wheelchair behind. But I was still regarding the psychiatric profession as the enemy – I didn't want to let them in on my plans. I wanted them to think I would always be in a wheelchair, and that I was happy to be disabled.