Better Shape

By Richard Salsbury

As I strode past the orchard on Cornwallis Crescent I realised that the tingling in my hands and feet wasn’t going to disappear after a bit of exercise. I was on my way back to the flat to pick up some tools I’d forgotten, and thought it might help if I stretched my legs rather than took the van. Then I’d be straight back to rejoin Steve on New Road. It was a big job – all new wiring, three phase mains, fire alarms, the works. And there was more stuff hard on the heels of this one. The books were chocka.

There were volunteers planting stuff in the orchard again, all wellies and bent backs and green fingers. It’s a good thing they’ve done there. I remember sitting on the bench by the basketball court, trying to sort myself out after Kirsty dumped me.

One of the volunteers looked up as I was striding past. It was the old lady from the flat next door to mine – Vanessa – wearing a big, multicoloured hippy scarf. So this is what she did with her retirement.

‘Have a pear,’ she said, holding out a browny-green fruit.

‘Can’t stop, love,’ I said. ‘Gotta get back to work.’

And I kept up the quickstep to my flat. Busy, busy me.

I never made it back to the house on New Road. An hour later I picked up my phone – which felt like a lead weight – phoned Steve and said I didn’t feel well. After two hours I was sprawled across the sofa and couldn’t get up from it, no matter how hard I tried. The phone was just over there, on the coffee table, but it might as well have been on the moon. After three hours my arms and legs were completely paralysed and I’d moved on to more pressing problems, like blinking and breathing. Through the window I could see the gardeners still working, bringing new life into the world, not knowing that just a few meters away, behind glass, life was quietly ebbing away.

If Steve hadn’t came round after finishing for the day, that would have been it. He knocked on my door, but by then I couldn’t make enough sound to tell him the trouble I was in. He went round the front, thank God, saw me through the net curtains and called for an ambulance. They had to crowbar the door off its hinges to get to me.


Now my world is a bed in a hospital room. I get to know the tiniest details of everything in my field of view – the way the pattern repeats on the pastel walls, the writing on the boxes of medical electronics that surround me, the flightpaths of birds as they pass through the rectangle of sky framed by my bedroom window. People tiptoe around me like I’m already in a coffin.

A doctor tells me I’ve got Guillain-Barré Syndrome, that my immune system is attacking my nervous system, but my prognosis is good. It makes me wonder if medical people have a different definition of the word ‘good’. I don’t understand half of what he says, but I can’t ask questions because of the mask.

A pretty Spanish nurse called Adriana looks after me. She’s the sort of person I might have chatted up if I was healthy, but it’s hard to keep any dignity with someone who turns you every two hours to prevent bedsores, and who has to deal with … well, yeah. What amazes me is that she does it all without complaining.

After a week I come off the breathing machine. My first taste of food – tomato soup – makes me wonder if they have a chef with a Michelin star working in the kitchen. They start me on the physio, which is a kind of torture – a reminder of how little I can do. But I know it’s important, and I take it seriously.

‘Will I be able to play the piano?’ I ask Adriana, after I’ve managed to curl and straighten two fingers.

‘There is a good hope, I think.’

‘Brilliant. I never could before.’

She doesn’t get it. The language barrier, I think. I’d explain, but everything is such an effort. Still, now that I’m stable and have some control over my vocal cords, they let me have visitors.

Steve is the first. He sits next to the bed, and says softly, ‘You’ve doubled my workload, you bastard.’

I manage a smile. His bluntness is refreshing, but after a couple of minutes talking about what the doctors have said, he struggles to find much else to say. I can’t blame him – he lost his dad to the big C a couple of years ago and the last thing I want to do is put him through any more of that.

‘Thanks for coming,’ I mumble. ‘Now get back to work, you lazy sod.’

He can’t hide his relief.

My parents come all the way down from Nottingham. Dad fidgets, like he’s ready to throw all his energy into the solution, if only he knew what it was. Mum brushes my hair and cries. I tell them things will be okay, and I try my best to sound positive about it. That’s my one and only duty while I’m stuck here: reassuring other people.

And then there’s Vanessa, wearing that same hippy scarf from the planting. I’m surprised to see her, and then … not surprised. She puts her hand on my arm like we’ve been best friends for years.

‘I got a locksmith to secure the door to your flat,’ she says.

It’s thoughtful of her, but …

‘My keys were inside.’

She dangles them in front of me. ‘I thought of that. If there’s anything you need from home, let me know.’

I’m not sure how happy I am with this, but I guess if she wants to rob the place I won’t be stopping her.

‘How are you feeling?’ she says.

‘Scared. Bored.’

She thinks for a moment. ‘I know …’ She dips into her handbag and comes out with a book. ‘I’ll read to you.’

I’ve never been much of a reader, but given my situation it sounds perfect. Perfect, until we get a few pages in, and I find out that even though I’m near paralysed, Virginia Woolf spends more time gazing at her navel than I do.

I tell Vanessa to stop. ‘Can we have something a bit less … ?’ I manage to stop before I get to the word ‘poncy’, but it’s like she’s heard it anyway. I wonder if I’ve offended her, but she’s back the next day with a bigger selection, although she doesn’t seem to read anything less than a hundred years old. We settle on Great Expectations. I’ve always thought I should read a bit of Dickens, what with him being born in Pompey.

There’s never been the time, though. I’ve lived my life at full tilt. No such thing as too busy, no such thing as too much work. Now I’m forced to drop back into first gear and my view of life is very different.

Words are like food. There are sentences from the doctors and specialists that keep me going like a good meal: ‘You’re past the worst stage.’ ‘Most people make a full recovery.’ ‘It might take years, but it may only be months.’

Vanessa’s words too. She comes every day – every single day – and reads to me. She explains things when I frown. She points things out I might not have noticed. She brings another world into my hospital room.

If I … when I recover, I know I’m going to be changed forever. It won’t just be the job any more. I’m going to notice the little things. I’m going to read more. I’m going to be grateful for what I’ve got.

‘Can I still have one of your pears?’ I ask Vanessa. ‘From the orchard?’

‘Yes, of course, but there won’t be any more until next autumn.’

We had a pear tree in the garden when I was a kid. At this time of year it was just a cluster of dry branches and twigs that clawed like an old man’s fingers. Hard to believe that anything would ever grow on it again.

‘That’s when I’m going to get it. I’m going to come down to the orchard and pick it off the tree myself. And I’ll give you a hand with the planting, or the pruning, or whatever else you need.’

And I think: I’m doing it again. That driven part of me is taking over, making goals, setting deadlines. Of course, I want to get better, but how hard should I push? I don’t know any more.

‘I need to find my balance,’ I say out loud.

I don’t know if she understands exactly what I’m trying to say, but she nods.

At the end of Great Expectations there’s this sentence that gets me: ‘I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.’

And I think, yeah. Yeah, that’ll do.


Inspiration: The way that plants and fruit grow, seemingly from nothing, is miraculous. Nevertheless, we take it for granted. I wanted to show how this might come to have meaning for someone only once their attention was drawn to it.


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