by David Mathew
I didn't want to. I didn't think I should.
"If you don't say it," the therapist threatened, "I'm walking out this door and I shan't return."
I wanted to tell him to walk out the fucking door and see if I cared, but I couldn't speak. As soon as my brain recognised the confrontation inherent in the words to be uttered, the message went to my mouth. Don't let him speak. As usual. The words made it no further than my throat. They died there, crushed against one another. My mouth opened; I managed a gurgling grunt and a long tear of saliva which fell onto my shirt.
"So be it," my therapist said after a minute had passed. He closed his briefcase and left my father's study, closing the door gently behind him. Not even a goodbye.
I was left alone.
"Goodbye," I said perfectly, and wiped my nose.
I heard muffled voices. I went to a bookshelf and took down my father's copy of the Complete Shakespeare. Opening the book arbitrarily I started reading halfway through Coriolanus. I knew the play well; it didn't matter where I started.
A raised voice broke my concentration. Then another. Then a curt goodbye (I think) and the door was shut.
On the count of three. One, two, three...
The study door opened. Father stood in the doorway, his face red, his brow crenellated. I could almost see the smoke coming out of his ears, like it does with Yosemite Sam on the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Sharking in, Mother appeared in the background. She would stay - or at least pretend to be - neutral; take neither side in the oncoming argument. My father would shout about how he'd paid for the best speech therapist his money could buy; and he would accuse me of not wanting to learn to talk again.
After a while his ranting would fall on deaf ears. That's a joke, by the way. I'd pretend to be listening; my eyes would follow his lips as carefully as they always did. But I'd be listening to my fingertips.
I was twelve when I discovered them. They talk to me at night in whispers, as if they're scared they'll wake my father and mother up, but I don't think anyone else can hear them. Sometimes they talk to me when I'm in town as well; a few times I've made the mistake of answering and passersby have thought I was talking to them.
Twelve seems like a long time ago these days. I'm fifteen now, and bright for my age, or so I've been told. But who can you trust?
My ears ring sometimes and I don't like it at all; they whistle, and that's even worse. I'll get a second or two of slurred babble through a door in my mind that suddenly opens, and I'll think my hearing has returned. It's a trick my brain likes to play on me. I try not to get excited when sounds invade, just to teach my brain a lesson. Because there's no point trying to fool myself: my hearing's never coming back. I'm stuck with this low, maddening hum for evermore. I'll never hear someone speak again. I'll read their lips.
All I'll ever hear, as I "say", are my fingertips.
Twelve. The age of twelve was when I had the accident. The doctors still think I'll never recover, but Ill show those cunts. Maybe I'll never a dance a tango, but one day I'll learn to place one foot in front of the other and walk. You'll see.
I used to be funny when I was twelve. Jokes on the spur of the moment; I tell you, I used to have my classmates in stitches. Now my brains too slow. Amusing apothegms arrive, but they are quicly carted away again; they arrive stillborn. Mother smiles and so does father, but they're nervous laughs. Even babies have a sense of humour, but not me. Am I a burden? Hey, if am, I'm sorry about that, okay?
Try to guess the sound of my voice when I "say" that. Guess its colour. After all, it was their fault. Go and do this, Phil. Go and do that, Phil.
"Why don't you go out and play, Phil? Play on your bike."
Losing my quick mind is one more thing the accident did. That lorry did plenty. My legs are match sticks, my pelvis was crushed and my ribs were broken; my heart was knocked slightly out of place. Lucky, the doctors mouthed, you're still alive. Oh, and I feel luck, I can tell you (except I can't tell you), when I think about the rest of my life in this wheelchair. Furthermore, and as you know, my hearing's ashes and I have trouble speaking.
Hence the therapists. I've had five now. They can't see what it means to have to learn to speak for the second time in your life; the terrible anger you feel when you realise you were better at it when you were two. With luck I am able to make my therapists slit their wrists. At the very least I want to give them nervous breakdowns. Father's rich, and they're paid well. They deserve some penalties.
"Dr Smithson is upset with you," my father said, standing in the doorway. His tone was angry: his lips were hardly moving. "He says you're not trying your hardest."
I am trying, I said, aware of the double meaning in the word. I thought that one was quite funny, but needless to "say" no one got it.
"Ar-ham... tr-hyig," was how it came out.
"He says you're not. He says you're perfectly capable of saying the things he asks. All you had to say was: the cat is on the windowsill." Father pointed to the windowsill, for elaboration. "That's not hard. He wants to know why you don't want to learn."
Because I'm nearly dead, I thought; by the time I've learned, you'll be putting your clever little boy in the ground. Right now I'm dribbling down my chin and you haven't even noticed, and I don't know if my brain will know how to wipe my face and interpret what you're saying, both at the same time. Is that answer enough?
"Do," I said simply. I put the Complete Shakespeare on the desk.
"I'm not going to argue with you," my father said. Good; I haven't learnt how to sign-argue yet. It made me smile, which father didn't notice. "Your mother and I..." and there was mother, right behind God. "...are at our wits' end."
I opened my mouth and more dribble rained. Words collided in my throat. I was going to choke if one didn't come through and let some air in. Was I turning blue? If I'd had a voice I could have said, with sharpened sarcasm: "You're at your wits' end! Look at me!" Of course, I never would, but I could have, and that power would have given me confidence. What my scrambled eggs proffered instead was:
And I could breathe.
I'm not saying it again.
"Cartoons," my mother told him. "He wants to watch cartoons, don't you dear?"
"Well he's not. I'm..."
As my father turned to debate the issue, I stopped listening, unsure of why I'd said "cartoon". This is another joke my brain likes to play: surprising me with unexpected words. One day I'll swear; I wonder how they'd take that. Truth was, I didn't want to watch a cartoon. I wanted to listen to my fingertips.
I was riding my bicycle. A bright, sunny day. I was with my best friend, but he's not my best friend anymore. He doesn't want to know me. He's scared of me. Most people are.
We were twelve and riding our bikes in the countryside. We both saw the lorry. We were riding abreast, my friend out in the middle of the road. A small lorry and a narrow road. The lorry was coming from the opposite direction. I looked over my shoulder, just to see where he was, and I swerved away from the edge of the road. What's a lorry doing on a country road? I remember thinking. I looked ahead again. The lorry was much too close. I could feel the air underneath it, dragging me under, sucking my hair. It was a vacuum cleaner, and I a shout - heard the roar of a powerful engine...
And I don't remember anything else.
I woke up in a different world. My eyes offered indistinct images; my nose was at a funny angle. When I touched my face I felt plasters; when I touched my chest I felt pain; when I touched my groin I felt...nothing. Nothing at all. People spoke in a droning monotone; I understood nothing, and that made me cry. When I cried, I coughed up blood; when I saw blood, I panicked; when I panicked, my head hurt.
Before long my fingers began a discourse.
They didn't open little mouths, of course; if not for the fact that my fingertips tingled when I heard the voices, I don't think I'd ever have known who was speaking.
Hello, they said.
I was puzzled. I thought it was a doctor, or someone come to visit me, although I could see no one.
What I said I couldn't actually hear, so my failure with "hello" didn't scare me. That fear was still to come. I was to learn I'd lost the ability to speak when my eyesight improved, about seven weeks after the accident. Only then did I notice that when I spoke, baffled expressions arrived on my listeners' faces. I'd speak again. It dawned on me that they didn't understand. I hadn't realised I was just a mind. My visitors struggled with what I was trying to say and I was too blind to notice. They wrote me messages for replies, which I held an inch from my face, trying to recall how each letter sounded. All I could hear when I spoke was that hum.
How are you feeling?
The tingling sensation in my fingers was nice. They were talking to me. My fingers! Not one voice, but ten, in unison. And I could hear them! No more scribbled notes, no straining my eyes. The joy was overwhelming, overbalancing.
Time passed, and eventually I left hospital. Twelve years old and being pushed along like an old man. My legs were fucked. Comprehensively, and with no fear of understatement, they were fucked. The doctors hadn't needed to tell me I'd never walk again: it was perfectly obvious those twigs would never be able to support my weight.
I'd been told to rest but I grew hungry for a pursuit. I started reading Shakespeare. I started with my father's King Lear - and the passion fizzled out. Not only did I fail to understand Shakespeare, I threw the book across the study in frustration.
My second pursuit was learning to lip-read, and I persevered with the play. I wasn't about to let Shakespeare beat me; I'd been defeated too often recently by bigger things. I could beat the Bard. Lip-reading came fairly easily and I looked up words from the play in the dictionary. I wrote the story down in numbered points. By the time I'd read King Lear four times, I understood it. I began All's Well That Ends Well. My lip-reading got better.
My elocution lessons began, and I hated my therapist immediately. Nevertheless, I tried to do as she said.
"After me: The dog chased the cat."
"Chased the cat."
"Once more. The dog chased-"
I stopped listening. My fingers were more interesting; they'd begun dancing, just for me, and they were singing as they jigged:
The doctor is a cow, the doctor is a cow;
Eee-aye-eddy-oh, the doctor is a cow.
A nursery rhyme tune. I started to chuckle.
After a while my first therapist left, with the declaration that I would never learn to speak until I wanted to learn. A refrain that they have all offered since.
And I didn't want to learn.
They don't always speak in unison. Sometimes they argue and I don't like that. My thumbs have the loudest voices. I think my thumbs are fathers. I don't know which fingers are mothers. My thumbs are better fathers than my father. I like my thumbs a lot when they're not arguing with my fingers; and maybe if I didn't like my real mother, one of my fingers would emerge as my new mother. Who knows?
"I've managed to persuade Dr Smithson," my father said, "to return to teach you."
Bring out the flags, I thought; let's hear those trumpets.
"Ankoo," I said.
My father seemed surprised. "You're welcome," he replied.
I wanted him to go. I'd have done anything to calm him down.
"You're getting to be a man now," he said. Mother smiled. I tried to smile back, though how she was ever supposed to take pleasure from seeing my split lips and broken teeth I had no idea. A man indeed! What a consolation! You're the world's tallest dwarf, son; how do you feel? Soon I'd be able to drink, smoke and have sex. I was fifteen years old when my father spoke these silent words; but I'd never do the things a normal fifteen-year-old did, let alone any of the above.
I picked up the Shakespeare. My ears were ringing so I didn't want to talk anymore. I wanted to carry on with Coriolanus. I'd come to love Shakespeare's plays, the verticality of the language; and how the characters in them spoke beautifully. Their words never nearly killed them. Even barking-mad bloody King Lear managed to string together great bursts and gusts of dialogue.
My fingers were talking among themselves; idle gossip. My pelvis ached, but I didn't ask for a pill. I wanted to be alone. As the study door closed behind my parents, I coughed up some blood and spat it as far as I could. It landed on the globe, then slid down through the fist of Africa.
Are you feeling okay? my fingers ask, in unison.
Fine, my brain says.
It's night and I'm in bed with the families. Now I have three families to myself: two hand-families and one human family. My older parents are asleep; my new parents are tingling messages to me. I feel part of a unit with my fingers; not so much the outsider intruding. I think I'm too much for my original parents. My new parents think so too.
You could kill yourself, they suggest; but it's only a joke, and I quickly pooh-pooh the idea. They say, Good. Why not try walking, in that case? And we'll help you.
I have no answer. It's what I've wanted for three years: to walk; to be partly normal again. I try. My arms support my weight as I lower myself off the bed and onto the floor. A dizzying feeling, just to be supported upright again, after so long. What happens if I let go of the bed? I don't want to ride in that wheelchair for the rest of my life.
Go on, my fingertips urge. You're on your own now.
On my own. Like lonely Lear, who couldn't see truth and justice. But with my families' support. My arms are large; my muscles have been developed after three years of pushing my wheels; they can hold my weight easily. But my legs are thin and weak. They are, as I have "said", quite fucked. Too weak to hold me upright.
Try! my fingers beg.
I let go. Agony shoots from the soles off my feet - which I'd long considered dead - up to my knobbly knees. Knees buckle. Pain burns through my thighs and ignites my groin. It hurts worse than when I go. Up the ladder of my verterbrae, strumming my heart en route, and into my skull. Mouth opens, screaming I think. Nose is bleeding.
No, say fingers, it's only snot. You're doing well. Another step!
I fall. Something is knocked to the floor - the shadows shift: it's my nightlamp that's been upended - and I think I hear a thud. No; the sound was the air migrating through my body like ugly birds, to be released in a whooooosh! My bedroom door opens and the light is switched on. Fathers face is red and old. He runs to me. Mother's not in the background.
Raise us, say my fingers.
I extend my arms. Father sees me as a baby wanting to be picked up and carried to bed. He wraps his arms around me and tries to lift. But he's too old; I'm too heavy.
"What were you doing?" he asks breathlessly.
My fingers circle his throat. My new fathers shout and dig themselves into the old man's Adam's apple. It's like preparing a chicken, and I read his gurgling scream. His eyes show befuddlement. So, I expect, do mine.
In the doorway Mother appears. Her hands go to her mouth. Is she whispering to her fingers? No need, I want to say; they read your mind. She's crying.
"Doan cry," I say, tightening my grip.
The man struggles, but my arms are strong, my grip is unbreakable. His eyes bulge; his tongue protrudes. Surely he's nearly dead; how long is this supposed to last?
The body falls limp. Blood's filled his eye sockets and my mother's fainted, shocked into unconsciousness. And what do I feel? I feel touched. Emotional. My fingers have killed my burdensome old geezer for me, no one else. My little pinky fingers speak to me on their own and I move to my mother's prone body. My little fingers are my new mothers; I've discovered the truth at last! I place my hands on her neck.
My old folks didn't want me. My new ones wanted me to be part of them so much they were willing to fight for me. Kill for me. They were jealous. They hated the old man, this revolting old woman. She smells of talcum powder and Father's tobacco. Why didn't I see it before? My fingers tightening around the old woman's throat are saying so clearly... we love you. And I love them back.
Now, they tingle, you are our little boy...
I frown at my mother because the light has changed again. Shadows have splintered and scattered like something spilt over the walls.
Father has picked up the nightlamp. And his lips are not moving now.
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