I was at home when he died. It was one of those dank March afternoons, with no sign of spring, and darkness peering in through the window too soon. The music in my room was new, unreleased, carried an undertone of sadness and melancholy. I didn’t know then that he was dead. I went out in the evening, unaware. Later, back from badminton, tired and sweaty, I was checking my emails and drinking beer when the phone rang.
‘Yes?’ I said.
‘You sitting down?’ It was Mark, from the cricket club.
‘It’s Jim. He got killed this afternoon.’
‘At about half past three.’
‘One of those hidden bombs.’
‘Shit.’ I shuddered. Unwanted images formed.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Can you get hold of some of the boys and tell them? I’ve not managed to call everyone yet.’
‘What’re we going to do? The season starts in four weeks.’
‘We’ll just have to go on. Nothing else we can do. He wouldn’t have wanted us to pack in playing.’
‘It doesn’t feel right, though.’
I could hear his shrug. ‘No. … Call me tomorrow to let me know how you got on.’
‘Might text you later.’
‘Fair enough.’ He sounded tired and distraught.
I put the phone down, stared at my computer. The house seemed even more empty now, the silence cold and no longer comfortable. I didn’t sleep that night.
The funeral was four weeks later, almost to the day Jim should have come home after his first tour of Afghanistan. A terrible day. Afterwards, we all got blind drunk and wandered through the streets of our tiny village not knowing what to do. He’d always led our drinking bouts, and now there was no-one to follow.
Before the season was over, before summer ended, the inquest was completed. And with it came a truth too graphic for us to handle.
Autumn comes. The bleary-eyed wind crashes into my body. Damn the damp. This always happens. Every year my back decides I carry too much weight, too little weight, too much energy, too little tiredness, and bends me double. This year it’s worse than ever, and I spend my empty weekends snapping at the pain which tries to defeat me.
My usual bone cruncher doesn’t have the desired effect. Osteopathy comes to a grinding halt against the rigid wall of my uncooperative and leaking vertebrae. Desperate, I look for alternatives. Homeopathy isn’t physical enough. I search the net, and find an acupuncturist who lives about ten minutes’ drive away. I’ve never thought of acupuncture before. Its healing properties seem too intangible, too tied up with some spiritual world I can’t believe in. And I’ve always had a fear of needles. That’s why I’ve never given blood. But the pain’s so bad I have to give it a try. I can’t concentrate, can’t work, can’t live. My spine carries my soul, is the centre of my being.
Although I know the acupuncturist is a woman, I’m surprised at her voice when I call to make an appointment. She tells me she lives opposite the church, that there’s somewhere to park, that I should just open the gate, and walk down the drive to the barn behind the house. She’ll be there.
I jam myself behind the wheel of the car, drive along the darkening lanes, and pull up where she told me to. I unlatch the heavy oak gate, walk through, remember to close it behind me as she told me to, walk past the old thatched house, along the noiseless gravel drive, round to the side of the barn in the garden. There’s a light on in there, shining out through the tall French windows. I can see her sitting on a swivel chair, feet under her, typing. I knock on the door.
She gets up and opens up for me. ‘Come in,’ she says. ‘It’s gone cold, hasn’t it?’
‘Sure has,’ I say. ‘Should I take my shoes off?’
‘Yes, please,’ she says. ‘Then follow me.’ Her bare feet make small sounds on the warm, tiled floor. ‘Under-floor heating,’ she says. ‘My luxury.’ She leads me to another door, which creaks as she opens it and holds it open for me.
The room’s much smaller than the other one, Chinese paintings and etchings on the wall, and the scent of joss sticks. It feels comfortable, safe, hidden. The windows are curtained shut with semi-transparent, silk drapes. On the floor, books line the wall.
She sits down at an ebony desk. The patina of age has taken the edges off it. ‘Sit down,’ she says, and points at an old, dark chair.
I lower myself into it.
‘So, how can I help?’ She’s tiny, black hair down past her narrow shoulders, much too delicate.
‘My back,’ I say.
‘Tell me about you.’
‘What do you want to know?’
‘Start at the beginning.’ She scribbles something onto a sheet of paper on the desk in front of her.
‘When I was born?’
‘If you think that’s important.’
‘I didn’t realise you were a psychiatrist.’
‘I’m not, but I need to know you if I’m going to treat you.’
‘But … I’m not very good at monologues. … Ask me questions.’
She smiles, not at me, but to herself. She rubs her nose. ‘Have you got a history of back pain?’
‘I was seventeen when it first happened.’
‘How?’ she says.
‘Play much sport still?’
‘What?’ She’s as monosyllabic as me.
‘Hockey, like I said. Football. Both as goalie.’
‘Ouch,’ she says.
‘What do you mean?’
‘High impact sport. Not good.’
‘What about cricket?’
‘Let me guess … You kept wicket.’
I nod. ‘Still do, sometimes.’
‘Another ouch, I’m afraid.’
‘Running?’ I know what she’s going to say.
‘All these bads don’t make a good. I thought you said you only did a bit of sport now.’
‘So I should just be totally inactive?’
‘No. But you need to look after yourself.’
‘Of course you do. That’s why you’re here.’ She looks at me. Her eyes are as dark as her hair.
‘What about work?’ she says. ‘Very active?’
‘No. I sit on my bum all day.’
‘Like we all do.’
‘I’m sure you are. … Are you happy?’
'I haven't thought about it.'
‘Why not? Doesn’t it matter to you?’
I notice the wedding ring on her finger. ‘I’ve never thought about that either.’
‘What matters to you then?’ She opens the door to an emptiness I’ve never noticed before.
‘Is that an answer or a question?’ Her voice is as pale as her skin.’
‘Both, I suppose.’
‘It’s not what I’d have expected,’ she says.
‘What did you expect?’
‘Most of my patients talk about their families, or their dreams, or their failures.’
‘I have none of those.’
‘How odd.’ She scribbles some more. ‘What drives you then?’
‘The shape of the world, I guess.’
Her look is a question.
‘I love photography,’ I say. ‘If I see something beautiful, I take a picture of it. It’s so easy now, with a digital camera, to grab a shape and keep it.’
‘Hence the beauty, I suppose.’
‘Yes, I think so. … Is that the right answer?’ I blush at feeling I have to justify myself.
‘I’m not judging,’ she says. ‘I just need to try to understand you so I can treat the cause of your pain, not just the symptoms.’
‘And you do this for every patient of yours?’
She nods. ‘Treatment is impossible without it.’ She gets up and leans towards me. Comfy cotton trousers and a T-shirt. ‘Show me your tongue.’
I stick out my tongue.
‘Mmm.’ She makes a note. ‘Again.’
‘Good. Thanks.’ She takes a deep breath. ‘I need you to relax now.’
‘I am relaxed.’
‘You’re not, actually. … Lean back. Close your eyes. I’m going to take your pulses. I need you to let your arm go limp when I take hold of it. Otherwise I won’t be able to feel anything. I sense you’re someone who doesn’t like to let go.’
‘Fine.’ I lean back, close my eyes, and take a deep breath.
She takes hold of my left wrist. Her hand’s temperature is such that I almost can’t feel it, as if my wrist is being held up by an intangible, invisible force. I let my arm go limp so that she is bearing its weight. She breathes loudly, deeply; in through her nose, out through her mouth. Her fingers press down on my veins as if they were playing a flute. But it’s a nothing touch, a wisp of skin. Then she lets go of my arm, slowly. She says nothing, walks round to my other side, and does the same with my right arm.
Back at her desk, at right angles to me, she writes something down. Quick, jagged, small movements. ‘You’re out of energy,’ she says, and puts down her pen. ‘Your fire needs stoking up again.’
‘And how will you do that?’
‘That’s for me to know and you to feel. I need you to take off your socks, your shirt and your trousers.’
I hesitate. My osteopath was a man.
‘Don’t be shy.’ Her smile mocks me. ‘I’ve seen it all before.’ She points at the treatment table in the middle of the room. ‘Lie down on your stomach when you’re ready, please.’
I stand there in just my pants, still fearful. It’s dark outside by now. I can see the street lights through the curtains.
‘Pillow or hole?’ she says.
‘Do you want a pillow for your head, or do you want to stick your face through a hole in the table?’
‘Pillow, please.’ I’ve always loved the touch of cool cotton.
‘I’ll give you a gentle massage to begin with,' she says. ‘Just to loosen you up a little. If it’s too hard, you must tell me. This isn’t about being brave.’
I’ve never been brave. It’s easier to hide than stand up for something. Jim was the brave one.
She runs her fingers from my heels up along the back of my legs until she reaches the small of my back. ‘Here?’ she says, her hands right over the pain.
‘Yes. … How … ?’
‘Not enough,’ she says. ‘Let your body breathe for you, right down into your stomach, like babies do. Don’t hold it back. Don’t hinder it with your consciousness.’
So I let go. I feel myself sink into the table’s padding, my head into the soft, white pillow.
Her hands slide into my flesh without touching me. She parts my skin and touches the pain inside. She pulls my spine apart and caresses each single bone she finds, holds the sharp shards of me in the palms of her hands, and rolls them into smoothness.
‘Is that ok?’ Her voice is muffled by my trance.
‘Good.’ She puts me back together again, each fragment of my body returned to where it belongs, until I am whole again. The pain has already lessened. ‘The needles now.’
She stands next to me, her belly in line with my eyes, a needle in her hand. ‘They’re very bendy, so they can’t actually do any damage.’ She breathes that deep breath again. ‘Ancient needles were made from stones or bones, and they could quite easily have poked someone’s eye out.’ She bends the needle backwards and forwards to show me. It’s no thicker than a thin wire. Then she opens her other hand.
‘This is an old one,’ she says, and lets the thick needle roll across her palm. ‘That could do some serious damage if you used it in anger.’ She puts it back into a small box on her desk, under the picture of an old Chinese face. She sees me staring. ‘That’s Huang Di,’ she says. ‘The Yellow Emperor. They say he invented acupuncture.’
I say nothing, put my head back down onto the pillow.
‘I would love to have met him’ she says. ‘The books say he was a very wise man.’
‘If he taught you how to do this, he must have been.’
‘Now you know not to worry about my modern needles, I’ll start,’ she says, like she hasn’t heard me speak. ‘You’ll hear me tap them into you. You must tell me when you feel pain. I’ll feel resistance if there is pain, but you still have to tell me, so I can be absolutely sure.’
‘Then I’ll have found where your energy is blocked. And then I’ll free it.’
‘Not that simple at all,’ she says. ‘Specially not with you.’
‘You talk too much.’
No-one’s ever accused me of that before.
The first needle boils into me like a coil of poison. I buck and jump, nearly fall from the table.
She catches me. ‘I’ve got you,’ she says. ‘The others will all be easier.’
I grunt. How can she be so strong? She’s only half my size.
She runs her hand down my back. ‘Shh, shh.’
As the needles pierce me, warmth spreads from where the pain was, out into every extremity, fills me entirely. I feel heavy and tired. I can’t move, don’t want to move.
‘I’ll leave you for ten minutes or so,’ she says when she’s put the last of the needles in. ‘You won’t fall off the table if you go to sleep. Just relax and heal yourself.’ She touches the soles of my feet and is gone.
I can’t open my eyes, and yet they are open. I see into myself, have to face the emptiness behind the door she opened, and stare into the abyss I forgot about. No voices, no dreams, no anything. Where is my soul? There’s not even an echo.