No breeze, big room, tired people. The sun untamed by net curtains heats slumbering air.
Samantha, the youngest team member, sits in the circle of therapists, stares at the floor and bites a lip. Jack, team leader and fighting to appear alert says, “I have too many clients as it is. I was hoping to offload some.”
Samantha looks up at Jack’s silhouette, sparse uncombed hair. She says, “Oh … I don’t want to offload him. I … I just need guidance.”
Shirley shakes her head. “No, you need someone with more experience to take over. Well, to assist. You’ve really made a strong bond with Vašek. I mean, congratulations, that must have been an adventure in itself but I’ve been here thirteen years and don’t feel confident to be his therapist.”
Others sitting in the circle nod or murmur agreement.
Jack closes the notes laid over his knees. “Yes, well done, Samantha, and it’s not just you and Shirley – we’re all a bit thrown by this one. However, help may be on the way. I was hoping they’d be here by now.” He checks his watch. “If any of you need to go, go. If not we’ll take a break and wait for John.”
Someone says to Samantha, “John was the mastermind of this place. He’s been retired several years but… It was his idea to have a unit where you weren’t just a therapist but lived with your patients. Ate, mucked around, watched TV, let them tell you when it was time to talk.”
Shirley rises and pulls a curtain aside. “That could be him pulling up. Does he drive a minibus-thing now? Hang on … that is him. He’s pulling a wheelchair from… Goodness, he’s brought Marjorie!” She looks back to the circle of people. “For those of you who don’t know, Marjorie was a care assistant here and shit hot. She ended up fielding people no one else could cope with. She retired shortly after I came.”
Samantha’s eyes widen. “A care assistant?”
Jack nods. “Things were different then. John didn’t care how many qualifications a person had – all that mattered was how good they were at the job. Things have slipped back towards the dark ages since he left.” He rises. “I’ll give them a hand with the wheelchair. Can someone cool down some coffee? Marjorie likes it weak and cold.”
The spring doors burst open as an electric wheelchair and its occupant arrive like a cavalry charge. “Damn this bastard thing!” Marjorie’s blanket, caught on a door handle, is dragged over her head as she flies forward. Briefly blinded, she brakes after scattering two plastic chairs. Looking at the assembled therapists, she grins. “I’m here. You can all relax. Move some chairs aside and tell me everything.”
Edging her wheelchair into the circle, she says, “Who is Samantha, his personal carer or whatever you call them now?”
“Uh … me.”
“Hello.” Marjorie takes her coffee. “Tell me about this young man Vašek”
“He’s thirteen, had a face transplant, is withdrawn, depressed, occasionally violent and displays several other elements of PTSD. On top…”
“I’ve read the clinical résumé, Sam, and assume you’re intimidated, along with all these lovely people here: God bless the little darlings. But I want to know about him. What’s he like?”
Samantha answers, “Fun – if you can get through, likes music and singing. He sometimes gets me to help him mess with the lyrics.” She pauses to bite her lip again. “Um … look, this may not sound important to other people but I think part, a big part of his problems arise from having moved from a rough area and abusive upbringing and into a less… I… Look, he learned to cheat, steal, bully and lie in order to survive. In the new school he didn’t know these things were not needed. Well, not so much.” She searches for words. “Guilt…”
“Stop!” Majorie sips her coffee. “Yuk. OK, go on.”
“I don’t think he fitted well into either environment. He’s not cut out for street life and wasn’t supported to cope with anything else.” She takes a deep breath and stares at the wall opposite. “In the time I’ve…”
Marjorie interrupts her. “Well done, Sam. You’ll go far. On you go, everyone. Samantha and I have this cornered. Sam, dearie, go and find the young man and we’ll begin before I need a nap.”
The room empties as Marjorie finishes her coffee in silence and studies the notes. Samantha ushers in a boy hidden behind eyes expressionless as body armour. Marjorie looks up from the tangle of cables she’s attempting to plug into the arm of the wheelchair. “Hello, Vašek, I’m Marge. Let’s get stuck in!”
The boy waggles his shoulders and looks up at Samantha. “I don’t want to talk to anyone.”
Marjorie snorts. “Who said anything about talking? We’re going to sing! Are you any good at sound systems? I can’t sort this bloody stuff out at all. Then you can tell me what music we need to download.”
Vašek stands, one gloved hand over the other. Down the slope, among the leafless trees half-caked in clinging snow, stands a group of people, adults and children, hugging, talking and partially obscured by the blizzard.
A chill sprints a tremor from scalp to toes; he draws a balaclava from a pocket and pulls it over the one he’s already wearing. Lifting both layers of fabric and removing a glove, he wipes a finger against tear-moistened skin, crouches down and runs it over new snow. Taking a rosebud from his lapel Vašek lays it on the mound.
A figure leaves the group and walks through snow towards him.
As he stands, the person arrives at his side, watches for a moment, hesitant, and says, “I’m Lydia. Did you know my mother?”
Vašek turns to her. “Yes … yes I did. Long ago before you were born. Would you like me to tell you what a wonderful person she was? though I’m pretty sure you know already.”
Lydia bites a lip; a piece of inherited body language which makes Vašek’s heart stop for a moment. She answers, “On this day of all days I would be grateful.”
Vašek looks down at the grave. “It’s the story of two women, me – Vašek, and a dead girl. The girl was called Kay and I was horrible to her. It went on for ages. She was a natural victim and we taunted her, isolated her… I was often the ringleader. She went without chocolate one day on a school trip. I’d stolen her pocket money. She knew I’d deny everything to the teachers if she complained but she’d given up that long before. Complaining only led to retaliation. Tragically the bus crashed on our way back to school. Kay was in a coma for months … never recovered. I lost my face and scalp to fire.” Vašek looks at Lydia. “That’s the bad bit over. It gets better.”
She holds out an arm. “I’m cold. Walk with me to the cars.”
He lets Lydia take his arm and lays a hand over hers. “I had a face transplant … and scalp. This face looks a bit like mine but a lot like Kay’s. I have her hair too. It changed everything. I could never go into town in case her parents saw me. I don’t think that would have been kind. I was beginning to grow up. Kay’s face could have gone anywhere in Europe. It was a cruel twist of fate that it ended up in the same town.” The snow creaks under their feet, already a thick new layer obscuring the old and mud-stained. “Your mother and a woman called Marjorie saved me from PTSD, depression, guilt and probably suicide. Marjorie was skilled, so clever. She tried to take me back to being a child – you know, that place where all is accepted and grown into. It was very effective but there was still crucifying guilt and shame to work through. At that time I’d left quite a lot of the child in me behind. It was like she’d given me water wings and asked me to jump into the deep end of trying to live a normal life. Your mother was there in the water to catch me every time I tried, got it wrong and tried again.”
Lydia nods and squeezes his arm. “Yes. Strong. Patient. Always there.”
“You’ve no idea. It took years. Her patience was tested beyond belief. That went for both of them. In the end they had to compromise with me. Neither were happy about that but time was running out.”
He stops and turns to her. “Think of a teenager who, every time he looked in a mirror, saw someone he’d been relentlessly cruel to.” Catching his breath he turns again and they continue towards the car park. “I decided part of me was Kay; a sort of fantasy that felt real. It helped with the guilt … I couldn’t let her die completely. I had hit the age of seventeen supported by three pillars. Marjorie, who died about then, your mother and the enduring pillar that grew from their endless patience and trying to help. The trying … that was so much of it. Maybe we could have taken it further but the funding stopped and the unit closed.” He looks at Lydia. “I hope I haven’t upset you.”
“No. I’m … it’s just a sad time.” She squeezes his arm. “But I could listen to you talk about Mother all day.”
“Not out here you couldn’t. Our face never got its full complement of blood supply and suffers in the cold.”
“Vašek, would you like to come to the wake?”
“Thank you, but no. Neither Kay nor myself have ever become very sociable, though inspired by Marjorie and your mother we do our bit for others, we try too, but discreetly.”
“Like you being here to tell me all that?” They reach the car park and she releases his arm.
©Gary Bonn, 2018
©Gary Bonn, 2018