by Russell Saunders
My body casts absurd shadows on my bedroom walls as I stretch, squat, reach, lunge and roll. It hurts. I’m told it’s supposed to. If it’s not hurting, it’s not working, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll hurt more. So I make it hurt. I push the pain from bone to bone, muscle to muscle, my body resisting, draining me. I do the exercises again at lunchtime and after dinner, in the same order, for the same amount of time, and I go to bed with a glass of water and a pill and pray that I’ll wake up tomorrow and the pain will be gone.
I didn’t do them before. Youthful stupidity, I guess. Doctors, physios, podiatrists—I’d seen them all by the time I was fifteen. They had different ideas about what the problem really was or how bad it could get, but they agreed on one thing. My body would get worse, unless I fought it. Unless I did the exercises.
But I didn’t. I didn’t think about them at all. I didn’t think about pain.
Then there was a party. Years ago now. For a while I ate and I drank and I was one of them, the same, part of something else, and I didn’t give it a thought. Then the sun went down and my friends became shapes on the dance floor, twisting and writhing around each other, against each other, holding each other, and without notice the long-promised pain was there. It had been lingering, biding its time. It grew as I watched them, and I sat alone with it in the dark.
It matured after that night, it swelled, came of age. Now it’s inside me, in my bones, and it wants every part of me. It takes its place with me on the sofa, walks to the corner shop and calls with my mother. It demands pills or ice or pinches or twists. There are moments, blissful moments, when I feel nothing. Some days when I wake up the sun streams between the shutters and the radio comes on. I look down at my body, stripes of shadow and bright light cast across it. Perhaps it’s gone, I think.
Perhaps the exercises are working. I feel light, nostalgic, and I don’t dare move. But then it starts, somewhere, perhaps in a knee or hamstring. It’s small and delicate at first but seeps outwards like ink on blotting paper, and it’s all I can think of.
No, it’s not gone. It’s just playing with me, taunting me; hiding before its day really begins. So I get up in the morning, have a glass of water and a pill, and try to fight it, I do my exercises. I do them again and again.
I’ve found something, I think. I’m getting stronger now. The work, the months and years of pitting pain against pain, of solitude, it could be coming to something. I’ve stood up to it. It’s still there, but I’m thinking more about what it would be like if I could contain it, if I could take something back, if I could win.
Today, I’m meeting a doctor to see how far I’ve come. I’ve had some x-rays and I’m in his surgery. He has pinned the series of strange, black sheets to a wall of light. I see the pale shapes; their curves, translucency and blurred edges, and feel like I’m peering inside myself. His fingers dance gracefully and deliberately up there. They show me my fibula and tibia, the bones that roll inwards and the bones that roll outwards, the pinched nerves and the stretched ligaments, and where my withered Achilles starts and where it ends.
“When did you break your metatarsal?” he says. “Metatarsal?” I say. I’ve heard of them. He raps a stick on a trace of black. “Yes. Two of them actually, and a while ago. Here and here.”
On the black sheets I see a version of myself I’ve never seen before. It’s luminous but somehow deeper, higher resolution, more vivid. I see it has been hiding something from me. There’s something else, the doctor says. He tells me the bones in my feet are not bones. They’re one bone, one mess of white fused together. He couldn’t be sure, he says, but he’d bet they always had been. And with them like that, I’d had no chance. I could do the exercises, and they might help, but my legs would always rock and roll and get worse and I’d always have to deal with pain. He tells me to take another type of pill, and to take them morning and evening with a glass of water.
My legs walk me out of the surgery, over the grass and onto the street, past the pharmacy and across the road. They take me through the park, past a woman walking a dog and a man pushing his son in a pram. I watch them and wonder who they are, what they want and where they’re going, but they disappear as I’m led onto a bridge, over the railway and down by the canal. As we go I can see my bones, pale against the darkness, and I can feel every flex and contraction of muscle and sinew around them. My bones are in charge, my body is in charge. It takes me where it wants to go, it makes me feel what it wants me to feel. I now know it has its own plan. I want things, it wants things, and what’s the difference. I do as it does. I’m its servant, and it takes me home.
* * *
Russell Saunders is a writer camped out in the wilds of south London. He left the world of marketing and a 15 year career behind to pursue the dream of writing words for people other than clients, bosses and other assorted middlemen – that and take a Grand Tour around Italy, build a patio and look after his son. He’s currently writing a collection of short fiction and a novella.