They tried so hard to be cheerful. They painted bright smiles onto faces that feared the worst. They told themselves if they were positive, he would be positive as well. Then the door of the ground-floor apartment opened and they stepped inside and saw for the first time the masses of cards and letters. They saw the clutter of equipment, all those wires and tubes and leads and screens. And they saw Neil, sitting amidst all this, like a deposed king waiting for the axe to fall.
They always recoiled when they saw the chair. He'd flinched himself when his mother wheeled it into the hospital to take him home. The fund-raising had started while he was still in the rehabilitation wing; one of the Appeal's first purchases had been the chair. With its padded cushions and headrest, and its specially designed ventilator-unit at the back, it looked more like a dentist's chair than those worn-down threadbare versions he'd seen patrolling the wards. The leatherette covers shone and the spokes gleamed. But it was still a chair.
Why had he flinched when he'd seen it? He was leaving the hospital; he was going "home". It should have been an occasion for relief (if not celebration). Besides, it wasn't as if he'd thought that he would walk away unaided, away from the bed-pans and the bowel evacuations, away from the curious gazes of the other patients and the breezy vigour of the nurses. The doctor had been quite clear. When a second opinion had been sought, the new consultant had been clearer still. "Not possible, I'm afraid. Not after this. Spinal cord, C 2. There's always stem cell, I suppose, but I wouldn't plan on anything."
He gazed about the apartment. Angelo, the Filipino nursing assistant had been busy with the tinsel. "Brighten the place up for Christmas," his mother had directed. The diminutive Angelo had set ruthlessly about this task. Ropes of gold and silver adorned pictures, door-heads and window frames; how had he managed to reach up so high? A single glittering green hawser hung over the length of the 40-inch TV screen the Appeal had also acquired. "You'll be able to watch all the rugby on the planet," they'd assured him, and it was true. With Angelo or Petr (his other nursing assistant; Czech, enormous, wordless) operating the remote, day or night there always seemed to be a match on somewhere. Despite what had happened, he'd continued to watch avidly. He'd never blamed the game. His injury was; well, unlucky. It could have happened anyone. They knew that also, the team-mates and supporters who called to see him a little less often these days than before. Wrong place, wrong time; it could have been any one of them.
When the national side won the Championship, the captain and most of the team had visited. They'd presented him with a signed jersey and chatted for more than an hour. He'd known a few of the players from before, from squad sessions together; he'd played on an underage team with one of them. They'd crowded into the apartment; hulking, good-humoured, decent men. There was talk of more fund-raising for the Appeal, talk even of a charity CD; much laughter as to who was the worst singer. Once or twice they'd paused as they'd strolled around the apartment, to look at the hoists and pulleys and supports, the monitors and charts, the jars of pills. Gesturing towards the chair, they'd made light as best they could; jokes about car insurance, and whether Jeremy Clarkson had invited him to appear on Top Gear. Each time they took the field these men put their bodies on the line in clashes so intense it hurt to watch; they did not take a step back. But here, surrounded by all the contraptions and appliances, the drugs and the devices assembled to try to hold together the pieces from the wreckage of a life, he could sense their unease, the wordless fear, flickering behind their eyes.
How empty the apartment felt when they had gone! This was the part of visits he hated, the winter silence that descended afterwards. In the bleakness of their absence he always felt lonelier after than before. His mother came every day, carrying more cards and letters. He watched her slit the envelopes one after another, reading out each well-meaning message of support. "Never give up." "Keep fighting". "We're with you all the way". But of course, they weren't.
He sighed. Four o'clock. Simon should be here soon. Six foot three, with a voice like a foghorn, he filled the apartment on his own. "Now then," he'd blare, as Angelo looked on in awe, "what have you been up to today?" They'd met at college, at a training session. Neil was all dodge and feint; Simon was bruise and bash. Rapier, bludgeon. The next day Simon had spotted him walking across the courtyard. "Neil!" he boomed, oblivious to the two terrified Japanese tourists nearby who in response had dropped instantly to their knees. Neil adored him.
They'd played together through their years in university; Simon scrum-half, Neil out-half. In their last year the college had won promotion to Division One; Neil was top points scorer. It seemed certain they would soon both play for Ireland. Clubs from across the water had already come discreetly calling. Simon, Neil; Neil, Simon: "The Odd Couple" one rugby correspondent had dubbed them. In team huddles before games there was a comic incongruity about the pair, Simon looming beside Neil, his arm wrapped brutishly around Neil's neck in awkward solidarity.
He could hear Angelo clattering about in the kitchen, the radio tinkling out songs of peace and joy and snow. Was Christmas that close? This time last year, his mother had asked: "What do you want for Christmas?" He'd struggled to answer; there was nothing he could think of. Twenty-one, his post-graduate degree going fine, the provincial management asking if he'd sign up to play, his room in the little redbrick near the canal he shared with team-mates Ricky and Wheels. And Anna; sexy, leggy, sassy. What more was there?
He listened. Outside, distant car-noise, the slish of tyres going by in the rain. The music of movement, of momentum. He'd been out several times. To Mass, his mother pushing him up the side-aisle to the front where she prayed patiently for the miracle to happen. The lads had taken him to matches, to pubs. They'd promised to make sure that he did not miss out. Behind the goalposts he'd inhaled the damp air, listening to the roars of supporters, the thud and crunch of bodies colliding on the field. In the corner of a heaving bar after he would at first delight in the chatter and the clink of glasses, the giddy prancing girls, guffaws of laughter among beery hearty men who sat beside him, taking turns. Sometimes later in the evening one or two young ones would totter over to take a look, moist-eyed with sympathy and vodka. "You're gorgeous," gasped one of them once, kissing him on the cheek before returning to her friends. He watched her as she left, a pair of skin-tight jeans disappearing into the maw of the crowd, the night, the life he no longer had.
Anna. They'd been together less than a year before the accident; there was no guarantee it would have lasted anyway. She'd hung on gamely for a while; tearful visits to the hospital, and later to the apartment. But the visits became shorter as she became more and more distracted by what he'd long since realised: that this was it. The pressure-sores and the spoon-feeds, the rhythmic, constant wheezing of the ventilator pumping air in through the hole in his trachea: this was all there was, all there ever would be.
He'd seen it one night on television. Switzerland. It wasn't cheap, as one might expect from a country already providing another kind of final resting-place, the bank-vaults like hidden tombs stacked high with hoarded millions. Obviously the Appeal could never – would never – pay. The Appeal was, after all, dedicated to keeping Neil alive. But Simon had organised it all; forms, the appointments over there with the Director of the Centre and the counsellors, and the plane tickets to Zurich (one return, the other one-way). All to coincide with the first away international match of the season, against Italy. "Rome," Simon had explained to Neil's mother. "My treat. I promised. Call it a Christmas present." There'd be no need for Angelo or Petr; he knew what to do and would be with Neil all the time. His mother hesitated initially, but had later agreed. What else could she do, with Neil insisting that this trip meant so much? "So kind," she'd smiled, blinking back tears. Simon had smiled back weakly; Neil too.
He couldn't have told them. Couldn't. They would immediately have put a stop to it; he knew also they would have assumed responsibility for his intentions, as they had assumed responsibility for everything else in his life. His mother would sob quietly about the sacredness of human life and would redouble her prayers and devotions to the saints. His friends would be stunned, bemused. He imagined them arguing with him: did it take more bravery to die than to live? He could imagine also the hurt, the sadness in the eyes of the Appeal volunteers. He would be begged and hectored and implored to think again. But he had thought about this, again and again and again. It wasn't the pain; the drugs worked, mostly. He had every gadget going. He even had enough money, for the moment. What he didn't have was a future.
Simon had refused point-blank at first. "No way, absolutely no way; you're on your own on this one". Exactly. Neil had wept then, one of the few times since he'd left the hospital, wept as he'd explained that although he'd made the decision on his own, he couldn't do it on his own. Simon had pleaded. "Ask your mother then. Ask your sister. Not me." But Neil had persisted. "You're the only one I know who'll say yes, the only one I trust." More than anything else in life he wanted this, and only Simon could deliver. His mother, his sister; out of the question. Angelo or Petr; no. Even if either had been tempted by the substantial cash offer he'd considered, they'd be… just wrong.
The facilities offered by the Centre seemed excellent. A room the size of a really good hotel room, with a table and chairs where "those you wish to accompany you" could sit for a last drink if you wished. And a bed. There was a medical assistant standing by, and a counsellor who was obliged to speak with you in advance on the same day "to make sure you were proceeding freely with your decision". Well, "freely"; what did that mean? But certainly it was his decision, his alone. He'd even promised Simon he'd leave a note, taking all responsibility, apologising for what would seem to some like cowardice. Absolving Simon from all blame. And Simon, exhausted, had relented. They both knew the promise of exoneration meant nothing; that always afterwards there would be fingers pointed at Simon: You could have stopped him. Simon would carry this burden from now on, just as he would carry Neil from the chair for the last time, carry him to the pristine-sheeted bed beside a window that gave out onto snow-covered mountains reminding him of Christmas.
There had been ten minutes left to go in the game. They'd been leading by seven points; Neil was certain they'd win. A big forward had come round the back of a scrum, trundling straight at him; he'd tackled him, and they'd gone down. Others arrived on either side to join the heaving mass of limbs scrabbling for the ball. He'd fallen slightly awkwardly, but wedged in at the bottom he'd felt quite safe, waiting for the ruck to end. One of the opposition was raking him, hip, thigh, leg with his boot. The studs dragged across his shorts, his flesh, his socks; it hurt and would hurt more later, but he'd been here before. And then he'd heard a roar of protest from his own side, a deep sonorous voice he knew so well swearing vengeance as it thundered into the ruck. Everything changed then; the new impetus driving the opposition back, driving Neil's body forward, forward, forward – except for his head and neck which had remained pinned against the dewy grass, the cold earth. He thought he'd heard a click; the vertebrae in his neck cracking under the pressure, unable to hold his spinal cord in place. The referee had whistled immediately, a short panicky blast which meant things were bad. The last voice he heard before he'd blacked out had been Simon's; nervous, anxious, contrite, promising him it wasn't serious. Promising that the stretcher and the straps and head-brace the emergency personnel were expertly fitting into place were only a precaution. Promising Neil that, no matter what, everything would be fine.
John O'Donnell was born in 1960 and lives in Dublin. His poetry has been published and broadcast widely. Awards include the Irish National Poetry Prize, the Ireland Funds Prize and the Hennessy/Sunday Tribune New Irish Writing Poetry Award, which he won in 1998. Promise is his first short story.