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Authors: Cate Kennedy

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Like a House on Fire (9 page)

BOOK: Like a House on Fire
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I continue my slow swan dive towards the floor. ‘Ben, climb up the bookcase shelves and get it,' I grunt, my voice preoccupied with enduring the next ten seconds. ‘Don't pretend you don't know how.'

Oh, Merry Christmas, father of the year.

‘Immobilisation,' the physio had said all those weeks ago, writing a list in point form down on a pad. ‘Gentle stretching to help relieve pressure on the nerve root. Ice and heat packs if they help. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. Possibly chiropractic manipulation.'

He'd clicked his plastic model spine back and forth in his hands. ‘L3, that's you there,' he said, pointing to the disc in question.

Yep, that's me there. Some days it feels like that's my entire identity focused there in one single space between two injured segments of a bone puzzle, shrunk down to one locus of existence, and seized there.

‘Dad broke the nativity scene,' says Ben as soon as Claire gets home. I hear her close the front door then come down the hall, glancing in to see me in my accustomed place on the floor.

‘What? How did he do that?'

‘He dropped it.'

‘Bloody hell. Give me a look.'

Footsteps, muttering, the sound of fingers stirring through ceramic debris. A tightly constrained hiss of frustration and fury. You get good at listening to sounds in a household when you're prone; it gets so you can almost hear a head shaking in pained disbelief, or distant teeth grinding in the silence following the lifting of the washing-machine lid and finding the clothes set on ‘wash' this morning still there, strangled and spun around the agitator, and a husband who can't pull things out and can't hang things up.

Claire comes in and stands in the doorway, eyeing me.

‘Can I get you anything?'

‘Two ibuprofen, if you wouldn't mind.'

She trudges away — the accusation you can hear in a trudge, you wouldn't credit it — and brings me back the painkillers and a glass of water.

‘How was your shift?'

‘How do you think? Same as always.'

A big pause.

‘It's triple pay if I work overnight on Christmas Eve.'

We let that one hang. There's just no entry point to that excruciating discussion.

‘I'm getting Evie to bed then,' she says, and I hear her knees crack as she gets up.

‘I've been listening to the boys playing that computer game upstairs for at least an hour, so don't believe them if they say otherwise,' I add as she heads out the door, and that's the extent of how we communicate these days, in the tiny squeezed and inflamed gap somewhere between slippage and rupture.

She's a nurse, so obviously she was lavish in her care those first few weeks. Unstinting.

‘Six weeks,' she'd said encouragingly, slinging a heat pack into the microwave. ‘I've been talking with the doctor at the hospital and he says there's no reason why you shouldn't recuperate fully and be up and about in six weeks. Just rest and take it easy. And,' she added, tucking the heat pack under my back, straightening up the blanket, ‘yours was only mild, wasn't it? Only a mildly herniated disc?'

‘Well … yeah.' How to explain the pain, the fear of the pain, the grabbing freeze at any sudden movement? Then the weeks of me lying on the blue yoga mat, Claire on her laptop trawling the internet for information, calling, ‘Any tingling and numbness in the buttocks?'

‘If there's numbness, how would I know if there's also tingling?'

A long while has passed since we'd made jokes about buttocks. I can't remember the last time my wife touched me with hands that were anything except neutral and businesslike; hands turning me carefully over, carefully but somehow not gently, hands which so clearly conveyed that they wished themselves gone.

It was a side to her I was seeing for the first time, this professional, acquired distance. At our house, in our script, Claire was the slapdash one, laughing at me when I patiently restacked the dishwasher more neatly or tucked the sheets in properly. She was as messy as the kids, and that's saying something. ‘They're kids,' she'd say. ‘Don't inflict your perfectionism on them, for God's sake. Leave it for your job.'

Which was how I'd always been, managing a team of workers who did tree-felling and hedge-clipping, at a point in my career where I never did any of this myself, just organised crews and timetables and equipment hire and safety requirements, so I can't even blame good honest labour for injuring my back. I'd just finished supervising a job of clipping around tennis courts in a huge formal garden up in the hills, and the owner was about to stroll out and check our handiwork, and I saw — you can see where this is going, can't you — an errant bit of cypress bough just at head height, offending my perfectionist streak. And it only takes thirty seconds to wreck a perfect safety record, and I used mine walking to the van as I cursed the new guy, picking up the heavy-duty hedge-clippers that were nearest. I jerked the start cord angrily and swung them up over my head to cut that one pointless, unobtrusive bit of stray greenery. Picking up, and lifting; you wouldn't think that would do anything like the damage of, say, falling. But I was stiff and pissed off, with something to prove, my arms going up in an arc and then instantly down again as I staggered and the blades of the hedge-cutter stuttered themselves into the dirt, something hotly molten cracking open in my back and eating its way up my spine into the pain centre at the base of my head, turning everything white.

So it's been me, using up my own scrupulous work cover as sick leave, insurance that's already expired and the half-pay remainder that's running out very, very soon in the new year, when my doctor will look at my MRI again and say — and this is my worst, darkest fantasy — ‘Sixteen
weeks
? Frankly, I can't quite see why this hasn't resolved itself by now.'

There is plenty of time to relive those thirty seconds, here on the floor surrounded by toys and mess I can't pick up and driven mad by forgotten plates of toast crusts left on the coffee table. The immobilising pain of moving holds me completely still, and the scalding moments leading up to slipping the disc are on continuous repeat play, as I explore the million alternate universes that allow me to find the secateurs instead, or reach up and snap the twig off, or tuck it into the hedge and make a joke with the new guy, or just leave the bloody thing alone. Allow me, in a nutshell, to let it go. I am well aware of what's keeping me pinioned here, the compressed, pinched thing that commands all my attention now. I stare at the cornices, the tumbleweeds of fluff accumulating under the table, the faint cobweb hanging from the ceiling in a floating, dust-collecting drift. Soon we will have mice, I think. Soon rodents will invade the house and step over me, sneering, on their way to that discarded toast.

‘I hate to say it,' I say to Claire when she comes in to collapse into an armchair, ‘but there's a cobweb hanging from the ceiling that's really bothering me.'

‘Is there?' she says brusquely, opening the TV guide. ‘Good.'

They keep you awake, the anti-inflammatories. You could lie there for hours, thinking about what that sort of comment is all about.

‘Christmas presents,' I say instead. ‘I'm worried …'

‘It's all done,' she answers. ‘I got everything yesterday in my lunch hour.'

‘What? All of it?'

‘Yep. I'm going to leave the wrapping up to you, though. You can sit and wrap big light boxes filled with plastic junk, can't you? Hospital corners, and all?'

‘Yes, sure. Sure. It's actually feeling pretty good now.'

‘Good,' she says automatically, in a tone that says
so it bloody should
, unless that's the medication making me paranoid as well as sleepless.

‘Sorry about the nativity scene,' I say. It's Claire's, that set. Something she's had ever since she was a child.

‘That's OK. It was made in the Philippines. Funny how everything except the Jesus broke.' She laughs. ‘Anyway, Evie's improvising. Check out the dining-room table.'

I hoist myself up slowly and hobble over to see the crib surrounded by toys; Christmas designed by Disney and Mattel. Barbie is the Virgin Mary, Postman Pat has joined Ernie and Bert as stand-ins for the Three Wise Men. I count four shepherds, only one of which is a panda, and take in the plastic farm collection and a squadron of My Little Ponies, a giantess Dora the Explorer who must be the angel — everything replaced except, in the middle of it all, the baby with the Napoleon kiss-curl, arms spread to receive the gifts, or else to declare:
Come and adore me!

‘Don't do the Christmas Eve shift,' I say.

‘There's no way round it. I have to.'

I stand there thinking of last Christmas, when we were finishing a big commercial contract and I had a pile of overtime on my pay cheque, and Claire and I, reckless and laughing at the mall, spending it like water, bought them all bikes and a trampoline and then had that week at the beach. I get down on my hands and knees in dogged slow motion, like an old-age pensioner who's dropped something.

‘What are you doing?'

‘One of Sam's tennis shoes is under the couch and I've been forced to look at it all afternoon and I'm going to finally pull the damn thing out.'

‘Look,' she says, ‘either tell Sam to get it out, or forget about it. Just give the martyrdom and control freakery a rest.'

I'm genuinely shocked. ‘Control freakery, is it?'

‘When it's coming from someone lying flat on their back in the middle of a busy family room, it morphs pretty quickly into orders. I mean, why
there
? Just where you can keep your eye on everything, like Central Control?'

I dangle myself over the arm of the lounge chair, stretching my spine, face in a cushion.

‘I'm sorry,' I say, my voice muffled. ‘I just can't stand all this … chaos I can't do anything about.'

‘Well, get out and go for a walk. The doctor said gentle exercise is good. Anyway …' She hesitates. I breathe in the cottony cushion smell. ‘It should be better now. It really should. There's no explanation for why it's gone on like this.'

‘No. Well, Claire, I have no explanation either. I'm not faking it, if that's what you're getting at.'

‘I'm not saying you're faking it, for crying out loud. Why would you put us all through this?'

I take a breath to start in on how what they're going through is nothing compared to what going through it with a herniated disc at L3 is like, having your kids step over you obliviously on the way to the TV, not knowing what's going on at work, shifting your previously reliable body around like an unexploded bomb. I imagine saying all this muffled into a cushion like someone in a '70s therapy group, then … let it go.

Instead, I put my hand down behind the cushion and feel around for the small, pointy plastic thing that's been digging into my face. ‘Look, one of Evie's Polly Pocket dolls.'

Claire holds out her hand. ‘I bet she's been looking for that. That's probably another shepherd.'

After she's in bed, I go to her laptop to check whether gentle exercise is a good thing. I type in
back pain
and it lists all her previous searches containing those words. The latest one is
back pain psychosomatic
. Hey, thanks, Claire.

Two more painkillers, and I get each of those crappy presents wrapped so neat and perfect and pintucked, it's like I have a degree in it. It's like I've been in the army for years, drilling myself on just this thing, in preparation for a surprise attack.

Now the humiliation of helplessness, the hands-down winner of all humiliations, after all, as on Christmas Eve I watch Claire scrape her hair back into a ponytail and put on those squeaky white shoes, ready to go to work until 5 a.m.

‘I should have a to-do list,' I say, ‘and I'm really, really sorry I haven't got one. It would involve taking the kids to carols by candlelight and stuffing a turkey and making you breakfast in bed tomorrow morning.'

Claire stares at herself in the mirror and grimaces, then grabs a lipstick and slicks some on. ‘Well, it can't be helped,' she says, and there it is, the sound of everything she's really talking about, echoing in the big, hollow silence under her words.

Listening to the two of us, you'd never believe that we used to get on like a house on fire, that even after we had the kids, occasionally we'd stay up late, just talking. But now that I think of it, a house on fire is a perfect description for what seems to be happening now: these flickering small resentments licking their way up into the wall cavities; this faint, acrid smell of smoke. And suddenly, before you know it, everything threatening to go roaring out of control. Here's my wife with the hose, running to douse burning embers falling from a sky raining more and more embers on her, battling to save what she's got. And what am I? The guy who can't get the firetruck started? The one turning and turning the creaking tap, knowing the tank is draining empty, the one with the taste of ash in his mouth and all this black and brittle aftermath?

BOOK: Like a House on Fire
5.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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