I lift one of his arms. Another. I weigh them carefully on my palms and notice the muscles of his upper body have begun to atrophy. His skin puckered, greying in my grip. I remember it differently. Taut. As he moves fungal puffs of air rise from beneath the wadding.
‘Easy.’ He says it rasping through gritted teeth. ‘That hurts.’
‘Sorry.’ I mean it. I’m so sorry. This shouldn’t have happened, he shouldn’t have to go through this. I prepare to push his arms through the sleeves of his cardigan. My old two-tone blue cardigan: he has nothing so sensible in his wardrobe. It hangs on his body like a curse. I take hold of his still discoloured fingers and feed them into the sleeves slowly, like rethreading a drawstring, rucking the fabric as I go. When it is done I zip up the front. His chest says ‘OK’ and in a way, he is. He leans back into the seat and exhales.
I wanted to kiss him on the head, on the hair, like I would have done until a few years ago. I hover in front of him uncertain, half bent at the hips. Rocking. In moments like this I am aware that I am becoming increasingly mawkish, a stupid old man, balanced uncertainly in the umbra of changes wrought by his mighty and fickle adolescence. He looks up at me, twists his head, blows his lopsided fringe out of his eyes.
‘Really, it’s nothing.’
How can I tell him that this youth, this vitality, is everything? That right now it is the closest thing he has to escape velocity. In contrast my life, my work, has made me into the threadbare rabbit before him, hunched on life’s roadside, watching for mercy.
I strap his arms over his chest like I have every day since the call. Three weeks, a month almost. I had been at work and unwilling to leave my report. It’s about Benedict, they said. An accident. I stood up at my desk, clenching and unclenching my fingers. Ben? Oh god.
I choose to ruffle instead of kiss his hair, only slightly more acceptable to a fifteen year old. It’s OK. He was OK. This fact alone has the power to bring me to my knees in private moments. He flinches. I have my hand on his head still.
‘Sorry.’ I turn away and gather my things. I clean up then, washing my hands in the sink. While my back is turned I can hear him struggling to get up. I don’t turn, knowing that this routine humiliation is carving deep lines. Indelible lines. Barriers that threaten to separate permanently. My own struggle is to make space for him. To risk it all. I have to allow him to define where the lines fall. He has to do things for himself; redemptive things. My eyes are shut tight, willing him upright. I hear myself intoning a story from the morning news. I open my eyes. In the mirror, in my peripheral vision, I see him place his face against the tiles and use his bony shoulder and forehead to lever himself like a caterpillar off of the toilet and walk himself tall. His trousers, his shorts, with elasticated waistbands that he has taught himself to roughly position without the use of his arms have today succumbed to gravity and are pooled around his feet. He looks at them and squints. I see his strong footballer’s quadriceps tighten. His knees bending slightly. I can hear the voice in his head screaming at his unresponsive clothing to arise.
As usual he doesn’t know whether to turn his back or front from me. He turns sideways at an angle. His eyes staring, his head no longer hanging. I take this as a good sign. But it could just as well be bad. I wonder what is happening to us. This intimacy, though domestic and complicit, is imposed. It can’t last. Five more weeks and the casts will be removed. He has multiple fractures in the radii and ulnae, and in the humeri of his arms from the force of the impact. If all goes well he should be able to use them as normal. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t offer to help. I didn’t want to. But he is fifteen – an awkward age – and didn’t want his mother to see him naked. If I am truthful I was afraid. Still talking, I stoop and pick up his shorts tugging them upwards into place a little too quickly. Then his trousers. I can’t, won’t, do the minor adjustments. It’s a question of comfort. It would be too uncomfortable for us both. He looks at the ceiling. His jaw is clenched, lips pursed. His nostrils flare in anger. He is angry at himself, or at the situation. I don’t notice for both of us. I open the door and hang back so he can leave without me. I hear him pad down the corridor to his room. I hear the creak of his bed as he sits on the edge, the rapid hollow thuds as he kicks the stuffing from his relocated punchbag. I go the other way, to the kitchen, and knock up some sandwiches. I eat alone. When he’s ready, he joins me. His insteps, I see, are reddened. I look up from my paperwork, he has something to say.
I take off my bifocal glasses and sweep them in front of me. ‘You’ll do it for me when I’m a stinking cripple?’ He smirks at that, then meets my eye for the first time in three weeks. In his eyes I recognise a flurry of fearful knowledge that suggests a first acceptance of mortality. Perhaps he understands too, if only dimly, that we only ever escape life’s pull through other people.
‘Sure,’ he says. ‘I will.’