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Flowers from Venice

By: Stephen Brookes MBE

Samantha looked at her desk diary, and counted the days to her annual holiday.

Not that it would be much of a holiday - it never was, although it took her away from demanding clients who wanted their advert copy tomorrow. Two weeks with her aunt near Weymouth. It wasn't that she minded Dorset, it was a change of scene.

I'm not saying it's a bad place, she thought . It's just so ordinary - not the comfortable ordinariness of home, with its familiar London grime and clutter.

But the problem was just the thought of Aunt Enid and that perennial greeting.

'Ooh Samantha, haven't you grown!'

Of course she had grown! She was 26 now, and she had been going to Aunt Enid's since she was fourteen. Twelve years since her life changed. The car accident had devastated her life. Her mother had died and Samantha had been badly hurt; her legs which had been crushed in the head on crash were damaged and now she needed a wheelchair for much of the time.

It was not that she disliked Aunt Enid; she owed her aunt a lot. The worthy aunt, who was her mother's very much elder sister had taken her under her wing and aided Samantha's path to recovery in no little way. Samantha really found her a bit of a treasure, and her genteel diet was rather enjoyable. Aunt Enid had never quite adjusted to false teeth, but there are lots of things you can eat without having to chew. Oysters. Foie gras. Avocado vinaigrette. Strawberries and cream. Crème brûlée with vanilla and nutmeg. Fancy food, they claim, upsets the stomach. God forbid, thought Samantha, our remaining taste buds should be over-stimulated. But after all… ten years of luxury food and going to Weymouth!

The place does have a few slopes and steep pavements, 'We manage, though. Aunt pushes me around in my chair, and I direct her. Not that there's much directing to do in here; she can get me around just by using the ramps.'

And of course, Samantha reads to her. Aunt loves stories. In fact, she's the one who started Samantha reading as a child in the first place. We've had Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice, and Doctor Zhivago. Samantha was furious with her Aunt when she 16 as she wasn't allowed to have Lolita and Lady Chatterley. Aunt thought it wouldn't suit us.' If being with Aunt taught Samantha to appreciate literature, it was also that which introduced her to magazines.

They've been Samantha's passion for years, fashion glossies and society pages, restaurant reviews and film releases. It started out on book reviews and then she found she had quite a talent for description, and now she created the advert pages of bright ephemera, of shops selling Cartier diamonds and Chanel lipsticks and lush, impossible clothes. 'It's strange, really' thought Samantha 'after the accident those things really didn't interest me.'

Her father, who she didn't like, and whose fast driving after a few wines she blamed for the accident, had really only stayed with Samantha's mother for her money from a successful chain of hairdressing salon's. Now he had gone to work in America.

'After all' he said to his wine bar friends 'She (meaning Samantha) won't talk to me and I am having had to sell the businesses anyway, so I might as well pack up and go.'

In fact, it was her mother's solicitor and bank manager as her mothers executors who had sorted out the sale, as fortunately for Samantha, her mother, who had become more distant after seeing proof of her husbands 'interest' in his various secretaries and friends (female) had left much of the business money in trust for Samantha. So, her father had been given an additional boost in his need to travel; no money. Suddenly his close friends at the wine bar found him less attractive. Certainly the two most recent ladies in his life noticed a change in the class of presents and dinners they were receiving, and that change was something neither party was happy nor willing to accept.

After the accident, Samantha had slowly recovered, in spite of the trauma of finding that her legs were never going to fully heal, and that she would effectively become progressively more disabled. She also became aware, for the first time, of the sympathy and pity that disabled people have to face day by day. It made her angry, frustrated, and more determined to succeed on her own behalf. At times the fact that she was alone became an ally to her, as she could withdraw from people with their overbearing charitable attitudes when she wished. She could cry in isolation, and Aunt Enid seemed to know exactly when to slide into the shadows to leave the angry girl alone, and when to emerge to hold the lonely frightened woman.

After a year's slow recovery, at the age of seventeen she started her first fight against the system to gain some further education. It had been a difficult period, with several course tutors and senior staff questioning her physical ability to undertake and fit in on the course. But by coercion and some threats of action against discrimination from her aunt, she was accepted a sixth form college, where she studied media and Public Relations.

'You won't be able to get involved in social activities' she was frequently reminded. But she did. She worked hard, and she overcame the problems of pain and sadness at being unable to be a very normal late teen. Her work was thorough and highly marked, although she had to overcome the public gaze even from her tutors who kept reminding her that she was very good, and that 'given her condition' it was amazing that she was so good.

Her move to University was not entirely smooth either, although there seemed to be a greater awareness there of her disability. The old buildings caused some problems for her. She couldn't always get the lift, and rooms were not always easy to get into, with raked seating typical of most universities. However, on the plus side she made friends and was involved in various societies which were either run by, or accessible to disabled students. But, she didn't make the big step to a relationship, even though fellow disabled students seemed to. Aunt Enid watched Samantha grow into a slim, pretty woman. She also watched Samantha shy away from relationships.

'It'll sort itself out' said Enid to herself, not knowing that Samantha had become scared of the idea of a relationship, because she knew that she was both disabled and disfigured, or at least that was what she had overheard her doctor and a physio saying in her recovery days.

She had done well though, gaining a respectable 2:1 and an interview at a PR company who displayed the equal opportunities symbol. In fact she was offered the job of account representative, and had established herself with her clients as competent and personable. But, she shied away from people insofar as personal relationships were concerned, particularly males who hearing her voice on a phone were generally dismayed to find that she was in a wheelchair.

When the theme of holiday came up as usual, she was challenged.

'Why don't you go abroad this year?' her friends all asked. But they knew the answer.

'Its too difficult to arrange and I can't let Aunt Enid down, she looked after me.'

'But she doesn't own you. You will go your own way one day' It was assumed that even Samantha would eventually find a soul-mate. The thought of a lover never even crossed the mind of her closest friends. After all she was disabled and such things don't happen.

But Enid did in some ways own Samantha. Till Samantha was 26, this year, Enid had been given power of attorney over the money left to Samantha by her mother. This had been done mainly so that her father could not get hold of it. Not that Enid was in any way greedy or uncaring.

Everyone knew that in her own way Samantha was outgoing, and was regarded as attractive by her few close friends. But they felt sorry that such a nice looking girl was in her situation.

That was the trouble for Samantha, they felt sorry for her and she knew it.

She was clever, as many are when they become loners. She was also sensitive, again a trait of the lonely. And Aunt Enid was at least good conversation having been in her day a very good teacher, in the days when teachers were all-rounder's and children respected them, but even she had tried in the last few holidays to introduce Samantha to 'eligible males', mainly sons of friends or even of her past pupils; with no success at all.

The day arrived, and Sam travelled the line from Waterloo to Weymouth with the normal 'here we go again' attitude. She always booked her seat and travel help in advance, so the journey was not such an issue for her. After being pushed up the ramp by an over intense porter she could manage, with some help, particularly in folding up her wheelchair, and to get to a seat, and avoid the indignity of being strapped in the guard's coach.

It only took three hours to get down to Weymouth.

It was the couple sitting opposite who stirred her thoughts when they mentioned their forthcoming trip from Poole to the Channel Islands and how easy it now was. Something in the way they talked about the journey and about the island caught her imagination. She had to go, and she made her decision as they passed the sea and harbour of that town. She had never seen the islands except in TV episodes of 'Bergerac'. She drank coffee again, and talked to the guard so that it was nearly lunchtime when she arrived in Weymouth. Samantha dithered on the platform, wondering where all the porters had gone. Everyone but her seemed to know exactly where they were going, and people with cases jostled against the chair as she went to the taxi rank. She began to feel some of her courage erode. The taxi driver was surly and reluctant, lifting the chair into the black cab while he steadied her into her seat.

The arrival at Enid's was predictable and as usual warm. But strangely enough the 'old greeting didn't happen. Enid seemed to know that Samantha needed to grow up. In fact Enid was quietly pleased about the idea of the Channel Islands from the first, as she wanted more than anything for Samantha to relax, and maybe make a 'friend'. She was worried about the scope of the trip; the ferry, which she knew wasn't particularly disabled accessible, but she also knew the independent streak of her niece who managed her life so well, and conceded (and maybe contrived) that Samantha could deliver a present to her old teaching friend Amy in Guernsey by hand. This old friend would also look after Sam while she was there.

'Alright dear. Have a day or two in St Peters Port, it will do you good. But be careful' It was arranged, and 4 days later Samantha found herself on the boat which was docking at St Peters Port. The ferry company had been good, and had really gone out of their way to make her trip as easy as possible. In fact a rather gay young member of the crew had taken complete control of her life on board. He had swished and fluttered around her like a butterfly after summer flowers.

As far as the island was concerned, she was loathe to be looked after by another ageing teacher, but accepted that it was inevitable. She had at a very early stage come to terms with things, like loneliness and 'needing to be pushed around.'

The ferry quietly berthed, and she was aided off the boat by her charming crewman who was obviously distractedly keen to meet his friend the chef on the quayside.

'Now have a nice time dear. Don't do anything naughty!' were his words as he skipped off to his date of asparagus and Madeira wine.

Sam realised that he actually meant it. Being 'different' himself, he saw her as normal. The normality of difference, Samantha knew it well.

She looked around and referred to the map and found the phone boxes where Aunts Enid and Amy had arranged she would be met.

No one was there. At least no one like an Aunt Amy.

There was only one person waiting. He was a casually but expensively dressed guy of around 30 who was looking at his watch impatiently.

She looked around again, and decided that her aunt must be late, and the boat was a little early anyway. She looked at the guy and asked him if he had the time.

'Yes, its 1-45' he said, hardly looking up, fidgeting again.

She knew that she was going to have to call. She struggled to get out of the chair to get to the phone. Suddenly he realised her restricted movements.

'I'm sorry, can I help?' He reached the chair. She noticed his long fingers.

'Yes. Please. Can you hold it while I get out. I need to phone. My Aunt's friend is late.'

'Don't worry, you can use my mobile' He held the chair, paused and said in a low voice. 'Your aunt? You wouldn't be Aunt Enid's niece would you? Are you Samantha?'

'Yes. Why what's happened? Is anything wrong?' She looked worried.

'Amy couldn't get here. I'm Simon. I'm Amy's grandson. She asked me to collect you off the boat.'

She felt some relief, but then looked into his face. The old familiar look.

'She didn't say you were…erm, a wheelchair' He paused as he saw the look of pain on her face. 'No, nothing's wrong at all. I promise.'

'I'm sorry.' She said. Not knowing why she said it.

'What for?' he asked.

'Being not what you expected. Being in this thing.' She spoke sharply. Every so often words hurt, and she reacted.

'Hey. Stop that. I didn't mean to upset you. I was just told to collect a friend. I had a vague description, but I didn't know about you being…well disabled.'

The pause was obvious. She was ready to bite when he surprised her.

'And I didn't know I was collecting a very attractive lady.'

'Don't patronise me. Please. Can we go.' She was angry. Angry at her own sensitivity, and angry for his embarrassment at her condition.

He gently pushed the chair toward the car park, and she cooled down in the silence between them while she looked at the sunlight reflecting off the boats in the harbour. The gulls wheeled and screamed across the couple of fishing boats.

He did not comment further on her wheelchair, her unmoving feet in their sand coloured slip-ons.

'Gosh, its getting cold' she said, trying to move the wrap on her knees.

He said nothing, instead he knelt in front of her, his dark hair falling around his face. Gently he moved her wool wrap.

'It is calming isn't it.' He spoke gently as he followed her gaze. 'I come here when I get to the island. Sit for a couple of hours. Maybe you'll come down with me one day while you are here.'

She looked at him again. He was smiling kindly.

'Yes. I'd like that. If you would like to bring me.'

'I'd like to very much.'

She hardly dared to notice his reply

They got to his car. It was an off-road vehicle. Somehow she had expected it. It fitted her perception of his appearance. He helped her, but seemed aware of her need to do things for herself. He only held her when she struggled with the step up into the seat.

'Thanks.' She said.

'What for?' he asked, seeming surprised.

'Meeting me, and letting me get myself into the car. I do like to do things myself.'

'I can see that.' He smiled at her as they drove out onto the main road.

They drove out of the town and then he pulled over at a small building.

'It's the best Italian restaurant on the island.' He said. 'I'm getting you some lunch.'

She had no time to refuse. He seemed to accept that it was a done deal.

She asked him if he would help her. She hated going into such places with the chair. She felt she became the target of sympathy when that happened. She felt different.

He seemed inclined to argue, but accepted her view, and helped her slowly and slightly painfully walk in to the little place, where he was greeted as a long lost friend by the effusive Italian waiter. They sat at a table near the door, and he ordered a couple of glasses of wine. It was good, and she looked at the menu.

'So, what do you do?' he asked.

'I'm in a PR office. I write press releases. Very ordinary.'

'I don't think that ordinary is a good definition.' He said looking at her with that smile.

'So what about you? What do you do?'

'I'm European sales manager for a major company. Now that is boring!'

She felt comfortable with him. And he became easy with her. They laughed through the dinner. There were no obstructions for her, no reminders of her frailty.

He looked at her and spoke.

'Amy is very nice, and very kind, but she is always busy doing things for the W.I or the church. She was a bit off when Enid rang. You will be made very welcome, but she won't have much time for you.' He saw the look of concern on Sam's face. 'So, I would be pleased if I could give you the grand tour while you are here.'

She looked at him and spoke quietly.

'I would like that' she said.

But the reality of her situation still stuck in her mind.

'But only as long as you aren't doing it out of duty.'

'Duty be stuffed ' he said quickly. 'It would be great to accompany a lovely girl around. Certainly one with her own mind. Make a change.'

'Does that mean there is someone else?'

He looked slightly uneasy, and was quiet for a minute.

'No. I broke with my partner about a two months ago. She wanted too much fun, and forgot that quiet can be good. No, I just work away and then relax here with Amy. Her house is so big I can get lost in it.'

'Ok. I'd love to see where you go, and how you relax.' She felt comfortable with him.

At the end of the meal and after the coffee, the waiter brought the bill, but Simon saw her looking tired and clearly in a little pain. Her argument when he went to the car and brought the wheelchair was not as firm as it might have been in another place, and she actually felt relieved that she could trust this man to help when it was needed. A lot like Aunt Enid she thought.

Simon paid the bill, and was about to push the chair to the door, He reached over to one of the tall vases by the door and removed an Iris. "Perhaps you'd like one of these?" He put it into her hand. It was perfect, highly-scented, barely open. It smelt of summer evenings and Swan Lake. In that moment she forgot all about her discomfort. A man - one who was happy with her - had offered her flowers. When the waiter came over to open the door he bent and whispered to Simon. Simon nodded enthusiastically.

The waiter returned with a silver wrapped box which he gave to Simon, who passed it on to Samantha. He leant over and kissed her lightly. She opened the box which contained three sculpted glass roses. Venetian glass.

'To you Samantha. Flowers from Venice.'

Her smile was wider and more relaxed than anyone would have known. She felt safe and happy.

© Steve Brookes MBE
Copyright © - Stephen Brookes MBE 2002-2003-2004 All rights reserved

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