Her and Him

He was sick, very sick. Upon reflection of all the parts of his body, he realised only his eyes worked properly. Today, he also had a headache. Finding work was the source of the stress, but the backlight of the computer screen gave him a headache and so his vision was blurred. So, he lay back on the bed, and rested his arms on his chest. He winced as the muscle of his third finger tweaked. He took a breath as a wave of pain travelled up his wrist. He had maxed out the number of pills he could sensibly take. Ice packs provided a moment’s relief. Apparently, heat packs were supposed to deal with this particular wrist ailment, this week’s show of defiance from his body. But heat packs made his arm feel like it was about to explode. So, he just lay back, and attempted to derive pleasure from the open window, the cold air, the air not so deeply infused with permanent humidity. The liquid in his chest gurgled as he breathed. He’d have to circumnavigate the maze of inefficiencies inherent in the British health care system. But perhaps not today.

She was sitting in a Japanese restaurant in Taipei waiting for her friend to arrive for dinner. She had just Skyped him and he seemed remarkably well, but she was always concerned. Too much, perhaps? But, deep down, she knew how to separate her life from his. He said she was ‘emotionally mature’, which she didn’t quite conceptually appreciate, as her English was not perfect. Or maybe this was it. The ability to both care deeply for someone, to love them like no other, but also to separate his shit from her shit.

Having said that, 6000 miles was a bit too separated for her liking. At one bout of coughing, at one more experience of overcrowded Taiwan-she was used to having to walk slowly, to walk in rows, to essentially queue up to walk down the street, in the middle of the day, no less. She did not especially like Taipei. She lived in Yilan and would ride her bike a lot. Yilan was quite small, so it was not too difficult to escape out into the countryside. Rice paddies surrounded the area outside of the town. And the beach was nearby. That was the perfect place to relax, listening to the waves lapping against the shore, to close her eyes and escape the classroom.

It was a strange dichotomy (a hard vocabulary word, but one she was determined to use) to both be fascinated by education and how it best needs to be implemented, but then to have no interest in and energy for, teaching children. She did not even like children, which is highly problematic (another visit to the dictionary), when your career is based around interactions with children. She found them frustrating: she was one of those who gave dirty looks when the kid screams on the metro. That is why she aspired to be an academic. She had ideas, she had experience. And it was her aim to leave her classroom and develop ideas, define processes, perhaps even shape policy. But not to actually interact with the end result. ‘Dichotomy’ is more like ‘black or white’, whereas, she supposed, perhaps I am complex.

He said he would go to wherever she ended up studying her Masters. He was a freelancer and thus bound to no place. The priority was to have him leave Taiwan. It was a medical priority. So, despite the fact that she would miss him, that she would sometimes feel lonely, she was happy to see him leave. Because she wanted nothing more than to see him improve his health. The logic of the scenario overcame any emotional misgivings she might have. And now was a good time for him to leave, because, it being Christmas, it was a time of year when friends made efforts to have dinner together. Christmas wasn’t celebrated in any real sense in Taiwan-it was a commercial excuse and not a national holiday. She remembered how he would usually work late on Christmas Day, as a way of burying any significance that the day might have. If there was not to be the kind of Christmas a Westerner would have, then there would be no Christmas at all. Nevertheless, for her and for many others, it was a time for friendships to be at least prodded out of slumber. Which meant that the loneliness of his departure could be confronted for a time. It also helped that IELTS tests and applications took such a long time to prepare for. Time was thus taken up.

It had been hoped that leaving the intense and constant humidity of Taiwan would help him. Like many of his waiguoren (foreigner) friends, he had developed GERD or something similar, an acid reflex that was antagonised by not only the humidity, but the air quality of Taipei-the constant flow of traffic, the build-up of vehicles at each traffic light, then the light would turn green and a great buzz filled the air-he compared it to bursting a giant cyst: the fastest and fiercest burst would come first, as the scooters which had made their way to the front buzzed away; followed by the more gentle but still constant flow of cars. Around 3 o clock in the morning was the only time that this great animal charge of vehicular mass partially rested from spewing out its filthy air.

So, his GERD had something to do with this. But it was also related to stress, which was a constant, leaving its metallic, blood-like taste in his mouth. And he was also fat. This had as much to do with greasy, oil-coated Taiwanese food (like little glass balls floating in your soup) as it had to do with his fibromyalgia, which caused a constant dull pain in all of his limbs, a great deal of weakness and pain when he did anything that wasn’t lying still. Which also meant he could not exercise, which worsened the GERD and thus a…’vicious cycle’, yes that’s the phrase, was created.

Cycling: since the air was cleaner and clearer in Britain, this was the exercise he could do. It had no sharp impacts on the legs, and did not cost any money, unlike swimming, which, when taking into account the fact that he could only swim for about ten minutes, suddenly became more effort and money than it was worth. More exercise, feel happier, less GERD.

Then he contracted tendonitis in his wrists (possibly as his condition made him prone to it) and he could now no longer work, which increased the stress and so on and so on.

She had been to Europe before, but mostly Scandinavia, favouring Stockholm over Oslo. She had been to London before, and was looking forward to helping her wallet not suffering the city’s horrific, violent attacks on it. He was waiting for her at the coach rank. She had balked at the price of a coach, but had nearly barfed at the train prices, so they had settled on a coach ride. It was a long, tiresome journey through lifeless, grey landscape. Or so he’d said. And so it proved.

All she could afford was a small apartment in suburban Glasgow. Despite having no functioning limbs or voice, he didn’t qualify for disability benefit-(One of his most unpleasant memories was an exchange with a benefits assessor-“But what work am I expected to be able to do?” he had said; the assessor had raised his voice: “It’s not my problem, is it!”-she would have yelled at the assessor-how grossly inappropriate to be so rude at such a time! And there was no need to feign politeness any more. But instead, there was only silence, and a slinking away of a soldier wounded by two years of applications) She now had to win the bread. She was a little frightened of Glasgow; she had heard stories about it. But she was mostly concerned with the space. Houses were squeezed together here. There were no gardens. Of course, in Taipei, there are no houses and no gardens. And comparatively, there was quite a bit more space separating oneself from one’s neighbour. But, still, she was concerned that he would feel like he was moving from one dense beehive to another.

“I can’t believe you,” he said, “You’ve made so many sacrifices for me, you’ve been so good to me. I can tolerate this place. It’s still fresh. It’s still new. It’s fine. It’s more than fine. What’s important is whether you like it or not.”

“I like it. It’s…it’s…homely.”

“Good use of idiom. You are relentlessly positive.”

“Oh, shut the fuck up.”

“And thankfully not a literal angel, because words have definitive meanings!”

“What is an ‘angel’?”

“I would say ‘you’, but it seems you need it explained. They’re like…the spirit…workers of the Christian god. They, erm…”

“No, I get it now. I know the word.”

She worked. She worked very hard. She went to college during most days. Other days she volunteered at a nursery. But she would not tell him how much she hated it, because his condition depended on him remaining calm and happy. They talked regularly about it, at set times. Once every three days, they agreed to a ‘stress release time’ for her, when he would be ready to receive bad news, or complaints. So, deep down, he could keep track of reality, to keep track of where she was, that there were two people, not just him. He also had to force himself to not worry about the one-sidedness of this arrangement: he was well aware that their lives were skewed towards him. But they were both aware that if he worried about it, then that would be counter-productive. He did his best to show his appreciation when he could.

But she hated children, and therefore infants and toddlers were far beyond her standard tolerance levels. She was good at hiding her emotions though, of ‘pretending to like things’ to keep the boss happy. She would rather have stacked shelves in a supermarket, but they were picky about where you came from-she had hoped that Scotland would be different to England in that regard, where she was constantly afraid of being told to ‘fuck off back to where you come from’. She had tried to work a summer in Cambridge, but had mostly been sneered at. Thankfully, or a kind of thankfully anyway, she had, as an afterthought in her undergraduate year at the Taipei University of Education, taken a childcare course, and bothered to show up to the safety inspections. And nurseries were always looking for staff. So no one would turn her away, even though ‘you’re Chinese, right?’; which, of course, she wasn’t.

He could not prepare the meals or do the housework. She understood this. She did not resent him for his lack of contribution to the household. Although he would stand at the door when she returned home, and he would take her coat, and he would ask her how her day had been, and he would occasionally give her a free ‘stress relief’ moment, because she worked at an evening nursery, which could only mean that the parents were so busy working that even at those hours they could not look after a child, which was horrible, even if it wasn’t the parents’ fault, but although there were fewer children in the evening than in the afternoon, the children cried more, although some of them didn’t, because they had become accustomed to not seeing their parents very often, which made her cry anyway. So he would embrace her. But he could not embrace her for too long, because his arms would start to hurt, so she would release the embrace, even though she wanted to carry it on, and go and make dinner. He no longer complained that he was tired of vegetable hotpot. It was the easiest thing that she knew how to make, so they would have it the most often. Soup always made him feel hot, but he didn’t say anything, because he appreciated it and he would always agree with her when she asked him if she was a good cook, even though he really was tired of vegetable hotpot.

Then, one day, she decided that it was enough, that it was time to stop. She had completed her Masters, and her PhD proposal had been accepted because she excelled at her studies, and she had been doing that and thus the lifestyle remained, but this was it. She simply couldn’t do it anymore. But she had planned it all out carefully. She said they were going on a day trip to Dunbarton. And she had even prepared sandwiches. And they drove out and found the most remote spot they could and took a walk across the stones on the shore and he had joked ‘Did you plan to come out on such a windy day?’ Then she picked up the heaviest stone she could find and smashed it over his head. But she had insisted he wear thick, cotton-like coat, even though he insisted it was not that cold, so that when the blood started pouring out, it would absorb the lion’s share. She didn’t have a lot of time. So, she then took the rope she had put in her bag and tied it to herself, took one last look at the stone and placed it in the bag, and filled the bag and her pockets with more stones and had then waded out, and with all the strength she had earned from the sports lessons she had let slip, she swam as hard as she could. She had remembered that the corpses of foreign nationals had to be returned to their home country, and she remembered something about how the family had to pay for it, so the only way to relieve the world of her burden, which included him, she had to swim out to see where no one would know and sink the bottom where no one would find the corpses. So, she swam as hard as she could, dragging his miserably fat corpse with her.

It was a coursing, gushing, fighting river stream in time; a moment of thought that had severely frightened her, because she never thought in extremes, and violence frightened her-she didn’t even like action movies. So she would not have even dreamt of doing such a terrible thing, even if she couldn’t tolerate him any more. If that was the case, she would just apologise and leave. She told him about the thought, then she began guffawing with laughter, saying “I’m so ridiculous! What on earth is wrong with my brain to make my dreams so broken and silly!” They laughed together heartily and they kissed and made love. And she quit the nursery.