QUALITY OF PAIN

 

Inspired by a “Blow Dry” fan fiction by Amanda Rose: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5262501/1/

 

By Catrin Achrya

 

 

 

Phil poked aimlessly at the scrambled-on-toast on his plate. His stomach felt queasy, but eating nothing would only make the hangover worse, he knew. He took a gulp of black coffee from the absurdly cheerful-looking yellow mug and turned another page of the morning paper while he waited for the fizzy aspirin tablet to dissolve in the prescribed half-glass of water.

 

He stared blankly at the page and a random paragraph in its middle.

“People remember the circumstances of having been in pain, how strong the pain was, but not the actual quality of the sensation. We don’t remember pain the way we remember a specific sound or smell.”

What utter and complete bollocks, he thought. Imagine getting paid for writing that twaddle. Who was it anyway, a doctoral student in ‘cognitive neuroscience’, some kind of mental quack?

Of course you remembered pain...

 

--- --- ---

 

Qualifying for his first national championship at his age had been terrific. Winning his category, excellent. The category being Bridal Hairstyle, absolutely unique. Afterwards they went out to celebrate: Shelley, Sandra, Barry, Tim, Regina and himself. Several bottles of cheap red later he and Shelley were wandering the streets on their own in the dark, giggling and stopping to snog from time to time.

 

The small tattoo parlour across the street from the competition site had picked up the hair theme. It displayed photos of people in extravagant hair styles sporting spectacular tattoos, Japanese-style tattoo motives of geishas in perfect, shiny black wigs, and a row of hair-related tattoo designs.

There he saw it: the scissors with the lightening bolt.

“I want that,” he mumbled and pointed.

Shelley tried to say something to distract him, but he saw a light inside and insisted on knocking on the door.

An earnest-looking, burly forty-something Tunisian, wearing clean, freshly ironed jeans and t-shirt and smelling of shower soap and after-shave, opened the door.

Shelley had walked on and was calling to him: “Come on, Phil, let’s go!”

“I want that,” he repeated to the tattoo artist and pointed to the design.

“Certainly,” said the Tunisian in a soft baritone, “but not now. It’s late. And you’d bleed a lot. Come back when you’re sober.”

Before Phil could insist, the door was closed and locked in front of his face.

He shrugged his shoulders and stumbled on to catch up with Shelley.

 

He did come back, the next day, after a very late breakfast. He had no idea what Shelley, Barry and the rest of his gang were up to, if they were up at all, and he needed no company.
The Tunisian tattoo artist was in, just as clean, earnest and proper-looking as the night before. He made the changes to the design that Phil asked for, but said that the placing was a bad idea.

“It will hurt,” he said. “And you shouldn’t put any weight on it for several weeks.”

All that would pass, Phil thought. And it would look amazingly sexy when he did decide to show it to someone. Not to mention what his mates would say.

 

A few moments later he found himself lying on his stomach on the tattoo artist’s bench, his left foot bare and the trouser leg rolled up. Transferring the design to the sole of his foot tickled like mad. His toes went stiff from the effort of holding the foot still and he gritted his teeth not to giggle or scream.

 

He had heard that the pain would lessen after the first few minutes – in some people, possibly. Not for him. It was bad in the beginning and then it got gradually worse. After a while he was gasping, twitching, squirming, no matter how hard he tried to keep still.

“Do you want me to stop?” the tattoo artist asked.

“No,” Phil managed to gasp out. “I’m no coward.”

“Courage has nothing to do with it,” said the Tunisian. “Your feet are extremely sensitive, that’s all.”

“I’ve noticed. Can’t chicken out now. Go on.”

“It’s your decision.”

The grip about his foot got firmer and the tattoo machine resumed its buzzing.

Phil bit the terrycloth of the towel below his face, yet gave another gasping moan as the pain returned.

 

When Shelley found him, he was regretting the whole idea, but there was no stopping.

He imagined Barry’s face if he showed up with a limp and half a tattoo on his foot. He would be “Phil the Sissy” for the rest of his life.

Shelley said only: “Thank god I’ve found you, we all thought you’d gone off the pier.”

By then he was sobbing outright, unable to stop the tears, unable to control the convulsive, shuddering intakes of breath, unable to keep his hands from scrabbling for purchase, for a hold, for some sort of support.

Shelley gave the Tunisian a questioning look. His eyes met hers for a quick moment and he shrugged his shoulders. When she pulled up a stool to sit next to Phil, the tattoo artist gave a brief nod.

She reached out and found Phil’s hand. He grasped her fingers and held on for dear life, she was his connection to the world outside the pain, his one hope that sometime, somehow it would end.

 

It did end, eventually. Shelley scrounged a pair of crutches for him from somewhere and he was quite the hero at the pub that evening. He would allow no-one except Shelley to help him keep the tattoo clean while it healed. The incident at the tattoo parlour was never ever mentioned between them or to anyone else.

 

From then on he always worked barefoot in competitions.

And, yes, the female spectators, not to mention the gays, did sigh and swoon.

 

--- --- ---

 

Phil finished his breakfast, gulped down the aspirin and waited for the worst of the headache to pass while he brushed his teeth and shaved.

“I’m off,” he said to Sandra as he passed through the salon. “Where’s Brian?”

“Sleeping in.”

“Good, let him. He needs it.”

“He’s promised to mind the shop this afternoon. Tell Shelley I’ll be along after lunch.”

Phil gave her shoulders a one-armed hug and kissed the top of her head.

“I’ll tell her,” he said.

 

The hospice was housed on the third floor of a utilitarian building of greyish yellow brick, the lower floors occupied by nondescript small industries and export-import businesses.

Phil pushed the lift button and heard the motor lurch into action. The remembered smell of rubber and disinfectant made bile rise to his throat, so he turned and opened the heavy, fire-safe door of the stairwell instead.

He knew that taking his time for reflection was a bad idea, so he stretched his long legs and took the stairs two at a time, barely stopping for breath on the two lower landings. When he arrived at the hospice floor, he was panting and the hangover had caught up with him from the exertion, his headache throbbing in time with his rapid pulse.

A while later, his shirt unstuck from his back and his breath almost back to normal, he opened the door. No knocking or bell in the daytime, you just opened the door and walked in. The staff knew him well – the pretty young nurse with the porcelain skin and the wrist-thick ginger braid down to her waist gave him a friendly nod and smile.

“Hello, Phil,” she said, “you’ll find Shelley with Elisabeth, trying out a wheelchair.”

He nodded back and managed a twitching grimace resembling a smile in response.

 

He found Shelley in the corridor outside her room, in a wheelchair being pushed by the physiotherapist. He bent down and kissed her gently on the lips – they were cool and dry with an artificial feel to them.

“Hello, love,” he said, “getting ready to come home?”

“Yes,” Shelley said, twisting around to glance at the physiotherapist.

“Yes, Shelley may quite possibly be strong enough to spend the week-end at home.”

“Oh, good,” Phil said. “We’ve moved a bed to the ground floor, to the little room behind the salon.”

One moment he felt that he was babbling away, the next second the silence was oppressive.

It was as if the word “last” was hanging in the air when they mentioned Shelley’s visit at home, but no-one knew what to do with it.

“Well...” said the therapist, “Shelley, would you like to keep the chair for now, and have your lunch in the dining-room?”

“No, thank you, Elisabeth. I’m tired. I’d like to go back to bed.”

They were in Shelley’s room next to the bed; she leaned forward in the chair to reach for the bell button.

“I can help,” Phil said, half to Shelley, half to the therapist.

“No, thanks, I’ll ring for Tommy, he’ll help Elisabeth to move me.”

“Oh... all right...” Phil backed away from her and from the bed.

After another oppressive silence, a skinny black-haired young man came in, wearing blue jeans and with a staff name badge next to the wolf’s head on his t-shirt.

Shelley sounded almost impatient: “Phil, would you leave us for a moment, please?”

 

Stiffly, numbly, he stepped out into the corridor.

He stood staring down at the pale yellowish faux-wood plastic flooring, it occurred to him that he was obstructing the door, so he moved away a few steps.

Tall leafy green plants in self-watering pots, straight-backed ergonomic armchairs, chintz curtains, nursing staff in private clothes, everything was busily pretending that all was normal, that this was just another part of the ordinary world, a part of life.

He felt big and clumsy, out of place.

A few patients and their visitors were on their way to an early lunch. He recognised a tall woman in her early thirties, brown wig, synthetic but good quality, she always wore dark blue or grey skirts and what he suspected were real cashmere twin sets in different shades of pink: salmon, ashes-of-roses, lavender. Today the set was unusually bright, almost a shocking pink, but there was the usual single strand of pearls around her neck, small and lustrous enough to be genuine.
The day she can’t dress properly for lunch and dinner, Phil thought, she’ll be dead.

 

The black-haired aide came out of Shelley’s room, followed by the physiotherapist. She nodded to Phil: “You can go in now.”

“Wait...” he stopped her, “why...?”

He made a helpless gesture. “I’m her husband!”

The therapist understood. “That’s why,” she said. “You’re a part of her past, of the healthy world. Sometimes it’s easier to accept help from strangers who get paid for it.”

He mumbled some disjointed words of thanks and opened the door of Shelley’s room.

 

She lay resting and did not open her eyes when he came in.

Phil pulled up a chair, sat down next to the bed and said nothing, although he did not think that she was asleep.

She was wearing the blue gauzy cotton scarf that she used when she wanted a rest from wigs. It was tied at the back and her head had rolled to one side away from the knot. Her chin and throat looked chunky, swollen from the side-effects of the cortisone that she had to take every day. Her hands were hidden by the blanket, but he knew that her fingers were swollen and clumsy too. She felt ugly and repulsive. He could never see her as ugly and repulsive, but she felt that way no matter what he said.

 

She opened her eyes and he said: “Sandra sends her love. She’ll be over after lunch.”

“Thank you. How’s Brian?”

“Fine. He slept in this morning, and he’s promised to mind the shop in the afternoon.”

“His day off, is it? From here, I mean.”

“Umm...”

“No, that’s all right. He needs it. All of you do.”

He agreed, but saying it would have felt indecent somehow. Improper, unseemly, obscene.

Minutes passed in silence.

He did not know what to say, Shelley was in a world of her own, apart from his world, shut in, as if she felt guilty of having let him down, let all of them down, but there were no words to express it, no words for her or for him.

Shelley had kept her eyes closed for another long moment. She looked at him again and said:

“You should go and have lunch.”

No, there was nothing he could say or do here.

“Should I bring you something, now or when I come and visit tomorrow?”

“No,” she said. “Everything’s fine.”

He stood up and leaned over the bed for another kiss on the cool, dry lips.

“Phil?”

“Yes, love?”

“Umm... switch on the telly for me, will you?”

He did, and saw her focus all her attention on the athletics competition.

He blew her a kiss, waved his fingers at her and left the room.

 

On his way home he thought about having the tattoo done, all those years ago.

He tried to remember the feeling.

No, he thought. That neuro quack did have a point.

 

 

 

 

THE END