So he’s got an incurable degenerative condition? So he claims he’s going to decline and disintegrate, fall away from life? Well, I’ve got news for you honey, I’d think. We’re all going to fall away…”
by jacqueline downs
Once upon a time I wished for two things: that I’d paid more attention in science lessons at school because medical skills would have come in handy when I met you; and that I had magic powers that could make you love me. The science would cure you; the magic would cure me.
It was Halloween when we met. I was dismayed to find myself at a fancy dress party, begrudgingly and unimaginatively dressed as a witch. I had hat hair, the tram lines above my ears imprinted by the witch’s hat, worn at an angle from under which my long hair kicked and curled. My high-heeled purple ankle boots held me up, helped me to walk tall. You were zombified, in costume and manner. You inched forward out of your aloof shell (‘Ooh, like Mr Darcy,’ someone said when I mentioned this later. ‘Not so much Mr Darcy as rude,’ I replied). We smiled at each other’s costumes and started a conversation that lasted all night and made us both laugh almost until we cried. When the time came for me to leave, you followed me to the door where I tried to give you my most beguiling expression, hoping for a kiss, but you only gripped my hand and chastely shook it; and as you did this I noticed that your left leg shook a little, too.
The zombie in you appealed to me, and you remained on my mind. I thought about putting a spell on you but it turns out I didn’t have to, which is just as well, because I wouldn’t have the first clue. A couple of weeks later you tracked me down. Like magic. But with help from the Internet.
When we met again it was a warm late-winter afternoon, and I’d had my hair straightened. No kick, no curl. We walked slowly in the surprising sunlight through the London streets. In between that first meeting and this, I’d found out that you had multiple sclerosis.
‘He has an incurable degenerative condition. And I’m not talking about life,’ I told a friend.
Later, I’d discover that you had also used that analogy about your illness. Life and MS: both incurable, both degenerative. Both of us: witty and cynical. Hollow as Easter eggs. Just as sweet. Sickly sweet.
I can’t be pragmatic about relationships; I wish I could. So he’s got an incurable degenerative condition? So he claims he’s going to decline and disintegrate, fall away from life? Well, I’ve got news for you honey, I’d think. We’re all going to fall away.
But your illness kept you from me. Still lacking the science skills I now started to wish that some kind of ‘armpit of lark and neck of frog’ spell could bewitch you. I started to wish I could bewitch you, all by myself. I’d wanted you to say this: ‘It’s not my illness that’s keeping me from you. This, Kate, is what’s keeping me from you: you’re too beautiful, too sexy, too funny, too smart. Too bewitching.’
‘Oh, shut up MS Boy,’ I’d say, the soubriquet giving you magic powers. ‘Shut up and kiss me.’ And you would.
But it didn’t happen like this.
It was spring. Nothing was budding between us. Yet my desire was growing as my patience was wearing thin, and we had carried on meeting and talking and laughing. Describing the way you laughed I’d said of you: ‘He laughs as though he’s just discovered laughter.’ Discovery was the point, the distinction. Not invention; discovery. As though every time I made you laugh you were doing it for the first time, astonished by the sounds it produced in you, the way it shaped your face into a slash of teeth, filling out the sharp angles with a smile. This was when I knew I was serious about you, MS and all.
‘Get pregnant and trap him,’ suggested David, as he did every time there was a man even remotely connected to my life.
‘And how’s that going to happen? By magic? And anyway, I don’t think having a baby with him would be a good idea. He’d probably drop it.’
‘Well, you can always get a double buggy.’
We laughed at this, laughed long and hard, and I felt only slightly guilty.
My patience, by now stretched and popped like a chewing gum bubble, reached its end, so I decided to drag the witch’s costume from the back of the cupboard and see if I could fix things. It turns out that I didn’t need the magic powers after all because the Internet provided them for me. It’s amazing what you can find there. Spells for almost everything: spells to make money, spells to wake the dead, spells to make someone love you.
And whatever unholy agreement I made with the devil inside me worked, because something happened. Something magical. One day you kissed me like we were discovering kissing. Discovery was the point, the distinction. Not invention, discovery. As though every time we kissed we were doing it for the first time, astonished by the feelings it produced in us, the way our mouths fixed onto each other as though giving us life. Once you’d decided you were ready, you were really ready.
I wanted to see you naked; you told me how this illness had changed your body.
‘I was what they call “buff”,’ you said, not looking at me. I knew this because I was looking at you. I always looked straight at you; you always looked away. I’d focus on the deep blue under your eyes. Not quite bags or pouches, more ridge-like. Narrow shelves on which you placed your sorrows.
‘I prefer this,’ I said, indicating the litheness encased in its corduroy and cotton shell. ‘It’s rakish. Dissolute. It speaks of sin and decadence.’
‘Not to me,’ you said, blankly. ‘To me it speaks of deterioration and unnaturally early death.’
‘You’re such a laugh, Daniel,’ I said, wishing you would let the kissing go further. But although the magic made you love me it hadn’t taken us all the way. And so it was time for another spell: the one that would make you peel my clothes off. The recipe required my underwear, and yours; getting that was quite a challenge, but while you made tea one afternoon I busied myself in your wardrobe.
Later, in the bathtub at home, I added the solution of angostura bitters and the blood of 20 spiders. Another challenge, but my arachnophobia had disappeared like magic. I had barely emptied the bath of its foulness when you appeared at my door, falling into the hallway, dragging me into the bedroom.
And this went on, and on, and I liked to think it was nothing to do with the underwear and the spiders’ blood, but the spell of me; of me being funny and quite pretty and really kind and understanding. And so you gave yourself to me completely. And for two years it was as though your MS did not feature in our lives except as a couple of letters of the alphabet that had once stood between us but had now been consigned to the back of the cupboard with my witch’s costume. We were happy. We had love. It was, for want of a better word, magical.
And then came the leg tremors again, and then the stumbling in public, and the trouble you had standing upright. No amount of magic would set you straight. You could barely hold a knife and fork, or control the arms that had once held me so tightly I could barely breathe. And now you had taken my breath away again. I started to get embarrassed. You started to sense it. You looked at me more; I looked at you less. The ridges transferred themselves from under your eyes to mine and back again.
I looked on the Internet but there was no spell for fixing incurable degenerative conditions, and nothing to make someone fall out of love. The closer you moved towards me, desperate for my literal support, the further I moved from you. Until one day I was completely out of reach. I heard from a friend that your heart was in pieces. Mine was as hollow as an Easter egg.
For a while after I left I looked up spells on the Internet to see if anything had changed, to check whether I could harvest anything to make you well, but there was nothing there. That kind of surprised me – the limitations. In the end I stopped looking.
Sometimes, less often now, I think of you and I wonder if you’ve managed to stand up straight again. Like magic.
(illustrations: dee sunshine)
Jacqueline Downs lives in Crystal Palace (not the actual palace, though) in London, where she writes stories, edits books and makes a mean Old-Fashioned. Her stories have been read – by her and others – at events in that great city, and she has been published in Smoke: A London Peculiar and on Ether, as well as the Storytails and Liars’ League websites. More from Jacqueline Downs can be found in the Vault of Smoke.