First Person Singular

My name is Maurice Smith and until recently I spent most of my days up here, in the fourth floor day-room. It’s not popular with the other patients. Difficult to get to, you see; several sets of swing doors to negotiate, then the lift. But I preferred to be alone in those days. The sight of others depressed me.

It used to annoy the hell out of Matron, me being up here. She’d keep coming up to check on me. “I do wish we wouldn’t wheel ourselves quite so close to the glass, Mr Smith,” she’d say. “It’s a safety hazard.” What she meant was that people might look up from the street – and they might not like what they saw.

I don’t give a toss about the squeamishness and sensitivities of the general public, but I like to watch it all the same – imagine where it’s coming from in such a hurry. Where it’s going to. What it’s got in its shopping basket. And other things, like what it feels like to wave to someone you know on the other side of the street and have them smile back at you, look you straight in the eye, not over your head.

I first noticed the girl one afternoon in May. She was pushing a child in a pushchair and she’d stopped at the crossing, waiting for the lights to change. The wind was whipping her hair about. A strand of it got caught in the corner of her mouth and she shook her head to free it. She was wearing a short skirt and a long leather jacket, the two hems almost coinciding. The almond trees were showing the whites of their leaves that day, their blossom-heavy branches jerking about in the wind.

The lights changed at last. I didn’t so much as hear her high heels tap-tap-tapping across the road as feel their rhythm in my body. They synchronised themselves with my heartbeat. After she had gone I spent hours trying to define the colour of her hair, which was neither red nor blonde but a strange peppery buttercup. I decided her name was Emmeline.

I saw her most days after that. As the weeks went by she discarded her leather jacket, exposing her bare arms; they were white, with freckles, gradually turning brown as the summer moved on. I could have counted the freckles individually, just as I could have recited car number-plates a mile or so off, for I have unnaturally sharp vision. I suppose it’s a kind of compensation.

I invented backgrounds for her. It helped to pass the time. She’d been a nurse, I decided. She’d fallen in love and married very young but the husband was no good and had run off, leaving her pregnant. Soon now, though, the child would be old enough to start school. She was planning to return to nursing. And what more convenient place to come than here? I imagined that red-blonde hair pinned up underneath a white cap. Her uniform would be starched so that it rustled. Ah, that wonderful rustle…

Maybe she would be the one to plump my pillows…

It was about this point that reality always crept in to sabotage my fantasies. If Emmeline was to be my nurse she would also have to take me to the toilet, bath me. She would see me lying there crumpled and twitching and her face would take on that familiar, set expression. She would start addressing me in the plural, like Matron did. “Can we manage to turn over on our own this time, Mr Smith?” “Are we ready to get our socks on?”

The day the accident happened I had wheeled myself right up to the fourth floor window as usual. I was idly watching the workmen building the new Law Courts across the road as I waited for her. They swung about like monkeys, shouting to one another – jokes, mild obscenities. They take it all for granted, I thought: the sun on their backs, the jokes, the possession of muscles that work, muscles that can lift a hod and hold a woman tightly to them…

And then everything went out of my mind. Emmeline had just turned the corner at the end of the road. In a minute she would be here, passing underneath my window and as close to me as she was ever likely to get.

She was wearing a white cotton dress. It looked good on her with her small waist and her long hair – romantic and fresh. The child wasn’t with her this time. She was about to push the button for the pelican crossing when one of the workmen spotted her and shouted something. She looked up and grinned and he blew her a shameless, suntanned kiss like Errol Flynn playing a pirate in one of those old movies. My mind was awash with pain. Try as I might I couldn’t shut it out, the picture of this man with my Emmeline, naked, laughing; doing all those thing with her that I had never done, and never could.

I believe I was the first to see the lorry coming down the hill towards her. Of course I realised at once that it was going to fast – out of control, in fact. The driver’s face flashed into my mind quite clearly. He was screaming, his mouth making a great cartoon ‘O’.

People were beginning to turn round and look now, pointing, gasping. It seemed that everyone had noticed the lorry apart from Emmeline, who was still making eyes at Errol Flynn. I don’t know why I did what I did; pure inspiration, I suppose. With my one good arm I seized the nearest object to me – a large metallic ashtray – leaned forward in my wheelchair and hammered as hard as I could on the window of the fourth floor day-room. She couldn’t fail to hear. She whirled round and looked up at me, her face registering first surprise and then…

Was it disgust? I prefer not to think so. After all, she’s in no position to feel disgusted now. The accident hasn’t touched her face, and that glorious red-gold hair is the same as ever, but her body is twisted and paralysed out of all recognition and she can’t speak. Brain damage, you see. Couldn’t have worked out better if I’d planned it.

At my request they often park Emmeline next to me in the fourth floor day-room and I have tried to help her come to terms with what happened to her. After all, who could be better qualified than a man who has spent his whole life in a home? They approve of our friendship. I overheard Matron telling a visiting social worker recently how nice it was that Mr Smith was becoming socially adapted at last, and how fortunate it was that the new lady so enjoyed his company.

I have told Emmeline that she is still beautiful. We are all beautiful really, I tell her. Our minds – what’s in our minds, that’s all that matters. She stares back at me with those big green eyes of hers, and sometimes they fill with tears. This distresses me.

I would hate to think that the girl of my dreams was unhappy.

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