The Loneliest Man in Ward 11, Physiotherapy
He glanced at the nurse for confirmation before unwinding the bandage. There it was. The swelling had reduced but the bruises remained; they were like a puff of sand underwater, swirling alongside his ankle and settling thick by his heel. The colours were the pinks, purples and greens of coral, reminding him of childhood evenings watching nature documentaries with his mother.
‘Hmm … can you walk?’ the nurse asked.
‘Okay. It’s not far. Come.’
He limped after her to the rearmost section of the ward where she helped him climb a ladder and sit atop a large steel cylinder brimming with water. ‘You have to put your ankle there, next to that.’ She pointed at a nozzle within the cylinder.
He hugged himself, feeling curiously naked with his trouser leg rolled up.
‘Don’t worry, we won’t blast your ankle off!’
He was heartened by her smile, by her ink-stained fingertips, and rubbing the bridge of his nose he acquiesced.
She pushed a button and the cylinder thrummed while a jet of water surged against his ankle. At first unpleasant, it quickly soothed. ‘See?’ she said, taking a seat and cracking open a hefty medical textbook.
‘Have to, no?’
He dispiritedly thought about how he was on the cusp of completing his BCom and entering the family business. There would be no more textbooks in his future, only insurance, only his father’s constant supervision. As she underlined paragraphs his vision snagged on her greying stockings, stretched at the calves, and the small squares of skin exposed between criss-crossing threads. After a few seconds he averted his eyes. He had learnt it was one thing to look, another thing entirely to be caught looking.
Months before the injury he had been studying at home when he peered out the window and saw, in a balcony in the building across, a girl clipping laundry to a clothesline. A perfectly unremarkable sight except that her legs were bare. From behind curtains he watched her stand on tiptoes to reach the line, inadvertently exposing the white triangle of her underwear. His shoulders simmered with a heat which stoppered his breath. He had lost himself several times in the labyrinth of online pornography and had even experienced nights of darkness, fumbling and ragged breathing sharp from alcohol, but this was the first time he had seen, actually seen, the space between a girl’s inner thighs. Seen while he himself remained unseen.
After hot water immersion came wax therapy. He was led to a small room where he was made to take a seat and watch as the nurse deftly poured sizzling wax over his ankle. He gasped, recoiled. She held him in place and murmured, ‘No, no, no.’ The wax gradually cooled, hardening into a temporary cast, and she let go of him to flip through his records. ‘Torn ligament. Doctor prescribed…’ Her eyes scanned the page, brows knotting in confusion at the squiggly handwriting. ‘How did you hurt yourself?’
‘Oh, I was running in a park. I slipped and the ankle made this “pop”. After that I couldn’t even stand.’
‘And your nose?’
‘This?’ He covered it with a hand. ‘No, this happened years ago.’ He tried to forget the image of his mother’s face when he had returned from school with a broken nose and a letter from the principal.
‘Hmm … hmm…’
The nurse traced the lines of a technician’s report. Her lips were parted, aspirating unspoken words, and as she read he was struck by the idea that everything she was doing, the minutiae of her movements, they were all designed to help her better understand his body.
In the subsequent weeks he found himself drawn to the window. Often he was disappointed by the sight of clothes dried stiff, clinging to the line and crowding the balcony with their unwelcome presence. But sometimes he spotted things of interest.
Like the open balcony door revealing a carpet
Like movement behind windows
Like the girl leaning against the balcony railing and meowing, trying to grab the attention of a cat on the street
Like the girl stretching and revealing the darker pigment of her armpits
During such moments he felt submerged, the sounds of the world drowned out, holding his breath as he observed tidings and waited for something momentous to bubble into existence. It came to the point where he slept with the curtains open. Until he noticed the drying clothes were mostly green skirts, green ties, white long-sleeved shirts and matching stockings which were all unmistakably part of a uniform. A uniform worn by girls who attended a nearby school.
Once the wax cast was removed he was led to a curtain-partitioned stall and instructed to lie down on a narrow cot. She rummaged through some equipment and powered on a machine with a hammer-like device attached to its end.
‘Ultrasound,’ she said, squirting gel which was cool against his skin. She placed the head of the hammer against his ankle and slowly moved it in circles around the ball of his joint. ‘This is okay?’
It was a curious sensation he likened to a rumpled bedsheet being smoothed of wrinkles, filling him with the contradictory feelings of yearning and contentment. He thought of nights when his mother massaged coconut oil into his hair, humming a tune while he sat still, eyes closed, immersed in darkness and concentrating on his scalp, on the points of contact which glimmered through him like shards of light in a pool.
His skin burst into goose pimples.
Apart from his mother, no woman had touched him in such a tender way. What if his life were a different one? One in which such acts of caring were ordinary and embodied by a wife or a girlfriend or a woman and all the complexities that entailed.
He took to going for afternoon strolls which led past the gates of the girl’s school. On one such excursion, after the final bell had rung and students thronged the pavement, he caught a glimpse of the girl embracing a boy. The two clasped hands and hurried towards a park. Once within the park they visibly relaxed; the boy untucked his shirt and the girl slung her blazer over her shoulder. The path they were on wound its way through clusters of bamboo to large flat rocks upon which couples of different ages were seated. There were no public displays of affection. Just women and men talking, laughing, sharing food or blinking in the fading sunlight.
Standing behind a tree, pretending to be on his phone, he realised there were other men like him, standing behind their own trees and gazing at these couples. For a moment he was indignant. His mother liked to walk in this park. Who were these men? Some were staring with such ferocious intensity. Were they driven by lust or by something more like an innate desire to see, and in the process imagine, what it felt like to be the object of someone else’s affection? When he left the park he was unable to control himself and mentally undressed every woman he passed.
The nurse wiped his ankle, tossed the tissue in a bin, then palpated his heel. ‘Painful?’
‘No,’ he grunted.
It was and it wasn’t. At times she prompted a jarringly violent throb which made him shudder, but mostly the sensation of her fingers on his foot, a body part neglected for the majority of his life, made him feel something hard to describe. Not sensual, not sexual, no, but something which carried weight – a temporary yet implicit trust.
‘This type of injury takes time to heal. And the ligament will be weaker and therefore more likely to tear again. You’ll have to be careful. Take it easy. None of your running about, okay?’
He smiled at her parental concern and was surprised to find his eyes burning, tears threatening to spill over. ‘It’s my mother’s birthday,’ he wanted to say, just so he could confide in her. It had been so long since he had last surrendered his body to someone else’s hands.
Standing behind a cluster of bamboo, like the other men standing behind clusters of bamboo, he had been pretending to look at his phone when he realised the girl had noticed him. Her head was cocked in an angle of recognition.
His heart skipped a beat.
A part of him asked, ‘What was he doing that was so wrong?’
Then the boy looked at him.
In his mind a multitude of scenarios played out: parents, police, prison. Would his mother’s face once again drain white as it had when she read the principal’s letter? He remembered the life he had led and envisioned the lives he might lead and made to nonchalantly stroll away but in fact jogged, then ran, as hard as he could. Wind in his ears, heart beating behind his eyes, he tripped over tree roots and fell into a gutter. He clutched at his ankle, already ballooned to twice its size, and whimpered not from the pain but from a depthless panic. Had she seen? Had she decided to follow? Too terrified to check, he swayed to his feet and held a phone to his ear. Keeping his eyes on the ground, he pretended to be in the middle of a conversation and forced himself to limp towards the nearest auto.
It was during this moment when he felt most exposed – the nurse’s touch stirring memories of his mother giving him a bucket bath and tucking him into bed – that he was enveloped by an acute sense of loss. When was the last time he and his mother had done something together?
He ran his fingers along his nose, knowing the answer lay in its ruins. How bold he had been, how stupid. In school he had squeezed a classmate’s ass in an attempt to impress his friends. It was only a dare, that’s all, but later the classmate’s brother had beaten the shit out of him. At home his mother had held an icepack to his nose and rubbed his back, her face pale from reading the principal’s letter. ‘Not my boy,’ she said, ‘he would never do such a thing.’ His father hadn’t been concerned about the truth but had raced to meet the principal and explain it was ‘Just boys being boys, some harmless fun.’ Money exchanged hands, promises were uttered, and the matter was quickly smoothed over if not forgotten, though his cartilage remained irreparably damaged.
‘There,’ the nurse said, interrupting his thoughts and signing a sheet. ‘All done. See you on Wednesday, okay?’
‘You’ll be here?’
‘Me only. I’ll fix your ankle, don’t worry.’
He smiled at her ink-stained fingertips. ‘Thank you, Sister.’
Body humming from the attention it had received, he hobbled out the ward and paused at a temple to offer a prayer to the goddess Durga. He contemplated what to do next. Since the injury he had avoided temptation, steering clear of the school and keeping his curtains drawn. He had not seen the girl. But it was difficult; already he was slipping into the habit of standing in the darkness of his room and peering through the curtains at her balcony, waiting for signs of movement.
Inspecting the goddess’s features, he decided he would buy a cake for his mother. It would make her happy. Perhaps she would cup his chin like she used to, her affection manifesting in the smallest of gestures. He hailed a bus. Climbing aboard, he winced at a stab of pain and remembered how his father used to say pain was just weakness leaving the body. After what he had experienced, he didn’t want that. No, as the bus swayed and passengers tilted right, then left, their faces illuminated by oncoming traffic, he pushed himself deeper into the crush of bodies, his mind awash with the idea that a lifetime of injury could guarantee a lifetime of intimate contact.
Bikram Sharma is from Bangalore. He was the 2016 Charles Wallace India Trust Writing Fellow and completed his MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His writing has appeared in various literary magazines including The Suburban Review, Writer's Digest, and Out of Print.