Frost grips the edge of Conor’s window, outside glistens white and the garden spikes with overnight snow. Waking, he recoils from the crisp light bouncing off the white topped hills. Everything looks clean. With stinging eyes, he buries his head under the rumpled pillow and dreams of waking to a brand new life, the slate wiped clean; everything clean. Instead he forces himself from his bed, crawls under the hot water and down to the kitchen.
The front door slams, milky tea sloshes over the rim and would have burnt his hand if it weren’t cold. Even now, a year on, sudden noises make him jump. He listens as his mum chats with the cat and drops her keys into the bowl. She sweeps through the house, plumping cushions in the sitting room, fixing papers on the hall table and heading up the stairs, all the while humming and muttering to herself. Conor wipes the spilt tea on his jeans and looks back out the window to the garden. He notices the overgrown ivy on the back wall. In the dull light the delicate leaves curl inwards from the frigid air. With a shiver he draws away from the window into the house, with its blazing fire, cosy beds and protective walls.
His mum blusters into the kitchen; “Oh there you are. Have you had breakfast?” She glances from the cup to the clear table top, and from a cupboard lifts a bowl out, picks up the box of cornflakes and sets them on the table before continuing; “What time is your appointment? You must be looking forward to it. It’s the last one – isn’t it?” Conor frozen staring out at the ivy on the back wall. “Are you listening to me?” his mum raps the cereal spoon on the table.
The needling noise pulls him back to the kitchen. When had he sat down? His mum stands beside him, he notices the spoon, the bowl and cornflakes, she looks impatiently at him. “Mmm… what?” Conor shuffles sideways in his chair, his throat scratched by the overwhelming aggressiveness of his mum’s perfume.
“Conor, don’t give me that. I asked if you were looking forward to your appointment? This is supposed to be the last one with your cast on. After this you’ll be back to normal, yes?”
“God Mam, I don’t know. I’ll go and see what she says, after that I don’t know.”
He refuses to say anymore and turns back to the snow that has now started to fall.
“I know you don’t want to go. I also know why you don’t want to go, but I promise it is only one step. One step and then you can think about something else.”
“Jaysus Mam, what else can I think about? What? The fact that I live with you and Dad again? That I am hiding here rather than living with my husband? That I don’t have a job. No money. No friends. Nothing! What exactly am I going to think about after half two? Tell me!”
He sat at the table with his back broomstick-straight and fuzzy eyes. His grip on the cup tightened with each strangled question. His hand started to shake, the china gently drumming the wooden table top. His mum gently uncurls his fingers placing both hands face down on the table. She looked Conor straight in the eye keeping hold of his hands.
“Conor, listen to me. This is important. No, don’t start tuning me out – don’t forget I know all your tricks – look at me and listen. You are not hiding here or anywhere else. You will not go back to that house, or to your husband. If you do, it will be over my dead body. Yesterday I was listening to a woman in the shop saying that she was worried that her daughter still wasn’t married and it suddenly hit me. I did that! I remember you telling me you were getting married and I was over the moon. I was so proud, walking around the shops looking for my outfit, hat and all – showing off I suppose.”
Here she pauses and from her face Conor can see that she is deciding whether to continue or not. With a determined nod his mum continues, “It wasn’t so long ago that I thought I would never be standing at your wedding. But there I was parading around the shops. The proud mother.” Conor can hear the pitiful smile in her voice but he won’t look at her, instead he grinds his nail into the wooden tabletop.
“I still can’t believe I was one of those mother’s, but I was… I am so sorry; I never saw it. I had no idea.” He doesn’t respond so she goes on; “I can still see that copper, standing in our sitting room, in our house, telling us to come and get you. I couldn’t believe it, I was being “advised” to go and fetch my son from the hospital!”
With a shaky breath and a vice grip on his hand, his mum spoke about that day for the first time. His parents had never made any mention of it; to him at least. “You were lying in that bed, my beautiful boy. I barely recognised you! You looked so alien, everything contorted and deformed. They had you wired up to so many contraptions. I fainted. Your Dad just sat and cried. You don’t know that of course, he wouldn’t have ever told you. Then you came home. Home to us.”
After a few moments silence with Conor staring into his cup and his mum pleading with him, in silence.
“This year has been so long and hard; I watched you struggling. Struggling with your injuries and with your decision. It was awful. But, now you are nearly there. I am so proud of you now; today. Be your own person. It is over, look forward. You are free. Do whatever you want, I will back you.” But with one final grasp of her hand on his she ended with; “As long as you don’t go back.”
They both sit quietly in the kitchen. His mum’s breath is slightly ragged, as if her confession had used up all her energy. With a brief pained look at her Conor turns his attention back to the snow. His mother had regained her composure, she returned to the busy, efficient, unflappable woman he always pictured when he thought of her. She was speaking again and it took a second for Conor to catch up with her train of thought; “As for having no friends, of course you do. They all ring me – you won’t answer their calls. They only want to talk to you. They miss you. I think they’re embarrassed.”
At this Conor’s eyes snap to his mum’s; “They’re embarrassed! Why? It’s me that’s the idiot, not them.”
“Oh Conor, you aren’t listening. We never saw how wrong it all was. None of us. Even now, we still feel guilty. How is it that none of us noticed? He had us all conned, he appeared to be such a gentle soul.” Conor starts grinding his nail into the wooden table top again. A neighbour’s car engine springs to life, they both listen as it drones down the road and turns the corner at the end. The kitchen is quiet again.
With the dying noise his mum announces, with a smile; “It’s the New Year in a few weeks.” Conor doesn’t react, she continues “I, well your Dad and I, have a surprise for you. An early Christmas present.” He gives her a sideways glance; her curly hair is bouncing in time to her giddy rocking.
“Your Dad and I have talked and we have booked a Christmas break. We leave the 23rd December ‘til the 2nd. It’s this gorgeous boutique hotel in the south of Italy. You can get the summer tan that you missed out on, eat all the Tiramisu you want, and I will even hook you up to an espresso IV drip if you’d like.” Conor smirks at the image and tilts his head, her voice has lost a little of the excitement but she rushes on. He wonders if she is nervous.
“The only thing is that we can’t fly, if you’ve still got the cast on. I have spoken with your physio and she says it’s ready to come off. You’ll probably need a stick when you get tired, but other than that you are good to go.” She pauses and waits for him to say something, nothing. “So, what do you think? Will you come? We both so want you to come? Please?”
A shrill ring pierces the kitchen. Conor starts as he recognises the ringtone. The first few notes of his wedding song plays. His eyes search for the phone, locating it at the end of the table. He knows that Kristian’s handsome face will be flashing up with each thrill of the ring. He freezes, sucks his breath through his teeth and holds it. His mum’s face has paled and with each ring the tension inches ever higher.
The kitchen feels small and claustrophobic. He had begun to believe that Kristian was going to leave him alone. That maybe he had finally given him up. How stupid could he have been? He should have known better. Kristian always said that he was thick and that was why he couldn’t hold onto his job, after all, “the world had enough better and more qualified teachers.” Of course he hadn’t given up, he was only waiting. Waiting for him to breath again. Waiting to start play again.
With each flash of the phone light his mind warps back to his, their, old life. He can hear Kristian’s voice in his head, can feel him entwining his fingers in his, can picture him twinkling at him from the other side of the staff room. He rolls snap-shots of their life through his mind. It was heady love, shredded by bleakness. He had spent years loving Kristian but all he did in thanks was rip his body apart and buy him expensive trinkets. His fingers, instinctively, reach for his necklace. Kristian always liked to see him with the finer, more feminine, things in life. One of the star’s sharp points pricks his finger. He looks to his mum and before she can mask it, Conor sees the look of despair wash over her face.
Virtually falling from his chair Conor reaches out, grabs the phone and without looking at his husband’s face rejects the call. He switches the ringer to silent and puts the phone back on the table, face down. He expels his stuffy breath and his shoulders slump but he doesn’t look at the phone again. Instead he pushes the untouched breakfast bowl away and stands. He pulls his back up straight, presses his shoulders back, lifts his eyes and pulls his head up. Staring ahead he says; “I have to go to the hospital now Mam. Can we talk about this later?”
The drifting snow causes chaos on the roads. They left the hospital nearly an hour ago but have only travelled a mile or so since. His mum coughs from deep down in her chest. The long dismal winter months are beginning to take their toll. The car stands in the snaking queue, waiting. Conor wriggles his foot amazed that he can actually see his skin, not some hardened white cage. The cast was removed with minimal fuss, with a simple zzzimp of the cast saw it was gone. The nurse unconsciously stepped back when the smell was fully realised. Thankfully, she had brought a wash basin and sponge and with great care gently removed the first few layers of dead skin. His leg reminds him of an alabaster statute, one attacked by a delinquent with a black marker and a likening of straight short lines. His hair was much coarser and darker than he had expected.
He could walk. Walk on his own. He didn’t need help to get around anymore. Free to walk about as a normal whole person. He could take up rollerblading if he wanted. He’s free! A small smile tiptoes along his lips until he can’t hold it back any longer. The muscles feel strange around his cheeks and eyes.
In the open space of the park Conor sees that all the mucky waterlogged grounds have been covered by a blanket of gleaming clean white snow. Grabbing the door handle he pushes open the door and spills out onto the path. Before his mum can react he slams the door and stumbles through the crunching snow. The dying sun catches the powdery snow top, triggering a miniature light show of dancing beams. He is in a field of diamonds.
Stopping in what feels to be the middle, Conor hunts under his scarf, stalking his necklace. With a hooked finger, he pulls down on the chain with all his strength. The clasp cracks. The necklace falls, like a metal ribbon in slow motion. “So simple.” The pendent falls into his palm, he watches the diamond sparkling. His eyes mesmerised by the light slicing out in all the directions, twinkling so, catching his heart in its pure beauty. A frozen, perfect beauty.
He can only hear the low hum of his rushing blood in his ears. He is on his own. There is only him.
With a gulp of clean air, Conor starts to slowly turn. Turning. Spinning. Speeding up. Twirling. He pulls his hand back. Dizzy. Stumbling. Using every ounce of strength, he throws his hand forward and he releases the twinkling star. He watches it soar, flying. With an almighty roar that arcs upwards and downwards in time with the trajectory Conor sees it land.
He turns back, the family’s little blue car hasn’t moved an inch. He looks at his mum, sitting at the wheel, watching and tense. It strikes him that she appears smaller than she used to.
“Everything can be clean and new.” he says aloud.
At the car Conor dives back into its warmth.
“So Mam, this gorgeous hotel, it had better have a pool! We can bring in the New Year sipping Bellini’s on the sun loungers at midnight. What do you say?”