There’s a rhythm that runs beneath the clamour of life as strong and constant as a heartbeat. It strings all the noise together into coherence. But sometimes life’s tempo grows unsustainable; it gets faster and faster, racing out of control until the music becomes noise, and the beauty pure chaos.
When you lose track of this beat, it can be near impossible to bring sense back into the world.
I spin the wheels of my wheelchair with the precision of a rower. I’ve been visiting this building my entire life, and I know these halls and rooms like it’s my own body.
The sad lime green walls of the hospital haven’t changed. Even the plastic flowers in the waiting room are the same, their large leaves reflecting the lights. I reach his room and knock.
‘Yeah,’ he answers.
Pushing the door open, I roll up to the side of his bed. His skin looks pale, and the side of his face is grazed and purple with bruising.
‘How you feeling?’
For a moment he doesn’t answer, he only smiles a little. ‘What?’ he says suddenly, ‘No flowers? No card? Jeez, man, I thought we were friends.’
I force a smile, but my eyes land on the familiar painting of daffodils that hangs above the bed. The same print haunts every room. I can’t look at daffodils anymore without thinking of sickness and death.
‘I’ve brought you the best gift of all,’ I reply, ‘the gift of laughter.’
I reach into the bag that hangs off my wheelchair and bring out a boxset of Seinfeld.
‘Thanks for the thought, Liam. But there’s no DVD player here.’
‘Just shut up and open in.’
He cracks the case open to reveal a fat joint and a lighter. A broad grin spreads across his face.
‘Love you, buddy,’ he says. ‘You reckon you can do me one last favour? Distract Nurse Ratched out there so I can enjoy this.’
I come round to the other side of the bed so he can lean on my chair as he hobbles over to the window. His leg is encased in a fat white cast and already there are scribbles from friends all over it.
I leave him alone in the room and go down to say hi to the nurse on duty.
Her name is Rachel. She’s so pretty it’s overwhelming, but I know best of all just how tough she can be. She smiles brightly when she sees me and right away asks how I’m going.
‘Your brother’s a real pain,’ she adds, ‘I’ve had ten year olds in here who were more obedient. You know he snuck his girlfriend in overnight? I only discovered her at two in the morning. Tell him if I find anyone in his room at night again, he’ll be in for a world of hurt.’
I keep her talking for as long as I can before she breaks away to do her rounds. By then my phone has already buzzed with a message of thanks from Owen.
He said he was drunk and stumbled into the path of a car. The driver says he jumped straight out in front of him, deliberately and in full control. It was one man’s word against another, but what they both agreed on was that it had been Owen’s fault.
Still, the hospital sent in a counsellor to make sure it hadn’t been a suicide attempt.
‘What kind of bullshit is that, eh?’ he says when he finishes telling me about the “interrogation”, as he called it. ‘Talking to me like I’m a nutjob. “What were you feeling before the car hit you?” “What are you feeling now?” I mean, fuck! I was pissed out of my mind. What I was feeling was wasted. And what I’m feeling now is that I hate BMWs even more.’
‘They’re just doing their job, Owen.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ he sighs. ‘I just wanna get outta here already. Need a drink with the boys, you know?’
Yeah. I knew.
His girlfriend drives him home. She fusses over him throughout the day until he finally snaps and tells her he isn’t a goddamn cripple. Her dark eyes glance at me so fast it’s barely perceptible. Then she looks down and mutters something neither of us can make out.
In the afternoon the boys come round with cases of beer and their arms around their girlfriends.
‘Look at you, hamming it up!’ says Mike as he walks in. ‘Since when do they make you wear a cast for sore ovaries?’
He shakes hands with Owen, and then me. ‘Since our periods synced up, bro,’ he answers with a grin.
We all sit out on the balcony as more and more people arrive. The music is pumping so loud I can feel the vibrations running across the floor and up the structure of my chair.
It makes me feel uneasy.
The music isn’t blending the way it usually does; it’s roaring over everything, but Owen doesn’t notice. The table is covered with empty beer cans. He leans back in his seat, squinting under the hot sun as the skin between his tattoos turns pink.
Someone spills a beer and it runs down the back of my chair. ‘Sorry, bud.’
Cigarette smoke hangs thick in the air, with not even a whisper of wind to disturb it. I roll over to the esky to grab another beer. Someone knocks into me and I drop it.
It skids away across the ground, spraying beer in its wake.
‘Nice one,’ Owen slurs. ‘Next time lift up, stupid.’ It doesn’t feel like friendly teasing the way it usually does. I roll back out of the way, struggling to breathe the choking air.
The balcony becomes more condensed with people as the sky darkens. I watch the corners of his mouth slowly slip from a relaxed smile into a grimace. He doesn’t talk or laugh. He lifts one can after another to his lips as the noise of the night grows.
The music blurs into a jumbled mess.
There’s no beat to tie it all together; just noise.
Owen gets up, takes his crutches and disappears. I can see his girlfriend watching him go, but she doesn’t follow. The night builds, and then at some point it reaches an apex before winding down and dwindling away.
I roll to his bedroom door and knock. There’s no answer. His girlfriend is asleep on the couch, so I don’t hesitate to push the door open. He lies face down on the bed, splayed across it.
There’s vomit dripping down the edge of the blanket.
I roll closer and pull him onto his side. He groans. I can smell his vomit as I struggle to move him. He mumbles something.
‘What?’ I ask.
‘I said, I did it.’
‘What’d you do, Pepe Le Puke?’
‘Jumped in front of the car,’ the words are so quiet, I strain to catch them.
As they sink in, the world suddenly lurches on its axis. I don’t reply. I can’t. The pain of his words is unbearable. It cuts fresh and deep. I hold his clammy hand in mine as he falls asleep, and try to keep my balance as we spin away into chaos.