Although not connected to my series "First Steps" this came about from a conversation with R. Grace about Matthew and wanting to give the poor guy a backrub! Her help was crucial in "fleshing" out the story! Thanks a million my friend!
Matthew had never really given much credence to meditation. He was comfortable with prayer, but that, he felt, was communication with another...a higher power, the divine spectrum of heavenly powers above creation. Privately, he felt silly considering meditation; it seemed selfish to concentrate that much only on oneself. But, after his experience earlier that day, he thought pensively, he was a believer.
======= Earlier that day ======
"Really, Mother," he grumbled agitatedly in the modest sitting room of Reginald Swire's London residence. "I just sat down."
Isobel sat next to him on the formal, but comfortable, sofa.
"I know, Matthew; I know you're tired," she said soothingly.
"The weather is cold and retched, and the train ride was long and tedious this morning. I understand." She stopped for a moment, pacing herself, as she knew she had to pitch her agreement just right.
"Lavinia may not know how to address it with you. Or perhaps you feel it stings your pride, so you have to hide it from her; but I must speak to you."
Matthew felt like the inquisition was about to begin. He knew that gleam in his mother's eyes all too well.
"I know your back is troubling you as it continues to heal." Isobel looked her son squarely in the eye, daring him to contradict her. Matthew flexed his jaw he was not going to participate in this conversation, especially as the Swire's' footman, James, had approached with a tea tray. The servant arranged the items on a nearby table, fussing with them almost as much as he felt as his mother was over him. It was the proverbial straw the broke the camel's back.
"Thank you, James," Matthew said more forcefully than he had intended, but his foul mood was beginning to wear down his patience. He was grateful Lavinia was not expected back until dinner. It would give him enough time to recover from his miserable disposition. He only wanted her to be happy, so it was better she not see him in his current had been looking forward to this sojourn into London for so long. Lavinia had light-heartedly chatted on the train about all the plans she had made for their time in the city. Tomorrow she would go shopping with her cousins for a bridal dress, but now she was spending the day with her father.
Matthew was content to simply sit where he was. He was exhausted. He knew that his frustration was not just due to his mother's nagging, but because she was correct in her assessment. He felt awful. Contritely, he knew he should be grateful for the ability to walk at all. And, naturally, he had been beyond himself with joy for weeks just at the prospect of the feeling in his legs as it returned.
However, standing for twenty minutes together, or walking between rooms at Downton Abbey, was all he had managed before this morning's adventure. He had not anticipated just how difficult it would be to walk the entire length of a train station or traverse the city streets of London. Matthew sighed. He was utterly done in, and his ever-observant mother was the first to notice. When he spoke again, he tried to amend his tone so as not to draw further attention from her shrewd eyes.
"You may leave us now," he said to the servant. "Please," he quickly added. "I'd like to speak to my Mother in private."
He hoped he wasn't coming off too arrogantly to the man. He had wanted to make a good impression. Matthew had never stayed at the Swire house before now, having, during their earlier courtship, stayed instead at the Regimental Officer's club. Perhaps this was another reason he felt the vice grip of apprehension surrounding his already-weakened form.
Everything had changed since their engagement had been renounced. Only a few weeks ago they had celebrated the New Year, and he had suddenly found that he had so much to be thankful for. Lavinia had accepted him again, and everything was as it should have always been. They could be properly married. The bitter hell of paralysis had released him, and it was now but a fading memory. However, his frustration would still get the better of him at times, as his recovery seemed to mimic the pace of a snail.
Matthew suddenly realized he had been completely lost in thought. And he was still holding his stick despite the fact that he was sitting down. When he leaned forward to prop it against the end table to his right, the movement was a very unpleasant reminder of his current predicament. He could not stop the hiss that escaped from his lips. Leaning gingerly, he was unable to look in his mother's direction, though he could feel her keen eyes on him.
Matthew watched her from the corner of his eye as she seemed to sigh and shake her head. She then rose to stand by the tea tray. The dip in the sofa as she moved jolted him enough to further boil his unsteady temper. Agitatedly, he watched her pour a cup of tea, adding milk and a very generous portion of sugar, given the rationing that was still in effect. Matthew truly understood the depths of his stupor when he was actually surprised that she was, soon after, holding the tea out in front of him. He sighed and took the cup, finally looking his mother in the eye. There seemed to be a temporary truce in place, but he knew it wouldn't hold. She would, eventually, say whatever was on her mind.
Matthew put the cup to his lips and drank, letting the warm liquid slosh blissfully down his throat - a wonderful sensation after his eventful morning. The February weather made walking with his stick an additional challenge, as the sidewalks and streets were lightly coated with snow. The fact that Lavinia had clung to his arm, not because he was supporting her, but rather the other way around, hadn't done much for his ego. He wanted her to be proud of him, after all - to be the man she had fallen in love with - not his pale, altered shadow.
"So," Isobel began, facing away from her frazzled son while she prepared her own cup of tea. "What is it you want to talk to me about?"
Matthew felt his temper betray him.
"Really Mother," he sneered, "I don't know what you mean. I only said that so we wouldn't have an audience for whatever scheme you are about to force me into." He took another sip of tea before reaching to set it on the side table where his stick was propped. But all finesse had fled from him as he moved awkwardly, juggling the cup and hissing again at the pain of twisting in his seat. He hated feeling so feeble and frail. The last thing he needed was an audience to witness his misery.
His mother turned to face him, her posture so stately. So unlike mine, he mused. She did not move to rejoin him on the couch, but kept the small distance between them. Matthew took a deep breath and accepted that she was going to speak her mind. At least she should soon get it over with. He braced himself, and looked over at her.
"Okay, Mother, I surrender. What is your proposition for this afternoon? Enough! I can't stand all this cloak and dagger from you!"
But his mother was quiet. She simply stood sipping her tea for a moment. Matthew felt his temper boil, and then cool abruptly. His mother did not deserve such treatment; she was only trying to help. With a deep sigh, he decided that, before he made the situation any worse, he must apologize.
"Mother, I'm…" he began penitently, but she cut him off.
"Matthew..." she chided softly. "I know, dear." She crossed the space between them and sat next to him again, gently patting his knee with her free hand.
"Thank you," he whispered. He rubbed is temple for a moment. Lord, he seemed to ache everywhere.
"So," his Mother began again, "the appointment is at 2:00 this afternoon. We have plenty of time."
"What?" Matthew sputtered, startled from his brief repose. He stopped rubbing his forehead and quickly checked his watch before glancing at the clock on the mantel to confirm the time.
"We're going to St. Thomas's Hospital," Isobel explained slowly, as if he was still a child, her words dripping gradually like nectar from a blossoming flower.
"There is a doctor there- a specialist- whom I really believe, dearest, will be able to help you with your current predicament." There was a short pause before she continued. "He published his work on the subject almost two years ago, about all the benefits that can be experienced from his practice. Massage, he says, is a potent remedy."
Matthew opened his mouth to object - to say anything - but he couldn't get a word in edgewise as his determined mother continued to speak. She even held up her hand to stop him, much like the way a school teacher would.
"We have to honor the appointment, dearest. It was difficult to schedule, as the doctor is a very busy man. Robert had to make a special phone call to arrange it," she explained, finishing her tea and returning the cup to the tray. It was at this moment that Matthew knew he had been beaten, outfoxed and out-maneuvered. She turned back to him with only a small expression of victory showing on her face.
"I'll just go freshen up, and then we will leave." Matthew watched her quick steps retreat from the room. Her movement was a blur before him.
His sudden recuperation was bringing out so many different sides to those around him. This was not the first incident involving his mother and Robert's scheming together. It seemed to have bonded them together, all this excitement about his recovery. Matthew wearily reached for his tea to fortify himself, and found he would like to shed the utter discomfort he was experiencing. It was no longer enough that he could move or that he could walk on his own two feet. He wanted more. He wanted to be able to move now without so much inconvenience, without so much agonizing pressure being stirred up in his sensitive back. He was feeling the results of the experience- the negative results, as his mood had displayed. It did bring him satisfaction that when he finished his tea he could rise and walk to pour himself more, should he wish it. However, at the moment he did not wish it. His lethargy was still so overbearing, so all-consuming. He was far from being independent in this early stage of his recovery. But a little impatience was a small piece to pay in relation to where he had been only a month ago.
His mother was right, Matthew concluded abruptly. She was absolutely amazing to put up with him, he thought humbly. Mother could always be trusted after all. He found himself suddenly anxious to leave for the appointment. It was odd how quickly his mood turned. He had to snicker self-depreciatingly about it. He did, after all, have so much to be thankful for. His earlier melancholy seemed absurd now. What a fool he had been. He checked his watch again, and the time pleased him.
Matthew inched his body to the edge of the sofa and reached for his stick. It didn't matter which way he moved, the bending made him gasp. Still, it was good practice, and he did not give up until the stick was in his hands. The strain had caused beads of perspiration to dot his forehead, so he pulled his handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed at his forehead. Feeling the need to recline again, he gave in and rested his damaged spine against the sofa's soft cushions, letting them cradle him.
While he rested, Matthew absently fingered his stick. It was beautiful, he thought, the polished wood and the ornate ivory handle. Matthew enjoyed the cool feel of it in his sweaty palms. The stick had been a gift from Robert. Actually, that wasn't entirely true, as he had later learned. It was presented to him by Robert, so Matthew had assumed it was purely from him. However, as they sat and drank together later that night, Robert had let it slip that the gift of a walking stick had actually been Mary's idea. Robert had hastily tried to rephrase, saying that the entire family had wanted to give him something - a token of their elation for him - and it had been Mary's suggestion that led to the choice of this particular gift. Matthew remembered the feeling of the brandy going down his throat, a tingling flame that reminded him of a similar feeling between his legs at the thought of Mary. The friendly gesture still troubled him somewhat as he continued to stare at the stick in his hands. And there were still Cousin Violet's words to contend with.
"Mary is still in love with you."
Matthew appreciated that word even more than the concept of Mary loving him. If he had been so inclined, a dandy little fantasy could have been carved from those words, but his honor and gentlemanly duty were bound to his fiancée now.
Matthew brought the stick closer to his face, inspecting it as he did at least several times each day. His eyes wanted confirmation that he was not imaging, nor had he ever imaged, the engraved "M" on the wood panel. Did this mean something? Since Robert's slip, he knew the stick was from Mary. Did the letter stand for her name and not his? The concept stimulated something deep inside him; parts of his body that had previously been numb were now, like Lazarus, awakening. The simple little carved initial made him feel as though she was always with him somehow, even if he was being a tad sentimental about something as miniscule as a letter of the alphabet that they both shared. But privately it gave him hope, as she had always done. Even if he had no romantic future with Mary, he could still draw strength from her, from her brave and determined spirit. But he would always have the sweet love that Lavinia offered him, so pure and fresh. Loving Lavinia was easy in comparison to loving Mary, and the relationship came with far fewer caveats.
Yes, Matthew thought reflectively, the stick is a bridge from the past to the future, and my future is with Lavinia.
"Ready?" his mother said as she had reappeared in the doorway, already dressed in her hat and coat, Matthew noted fondly. So, with a sigh, he proceeded about the hefty taxing task of rising, once more, to his feet.
And so it was that, scarcely an hour later, Matthew found himself at the grand St. Thomas's hospital. The building was located on the Thames across from Parliament, yet the hospital seemed to stand its ground defiantly. It was composted of many different departments for research and teaching, and had once had Florence Nightingale herself walking its halls.
Lying on his stomach on a medical examination table, alone and practically naked under a thin linen sheet, Matthew felt uneasy about what was about to begin. His head was resting on a flat silk pillow and was turned sideways towards where his clothes were neatly folded and his stick was propped. He didn't know why this gave him a sense of relief, just knowing he could see his possessions, but Matthew wanted to know where his stick was at all times.
For all of his new-found gratitude that his Mother had insisted he come here, he was still relieved she wasn't allowed in the room during the examination and massage process. He could only tolerate so much after all, being a grown man. His mother sometimes seemed to forget that fact. He had almost thought she was going to win that argument, but, despite her lengthy descriptions of his condition - "Muscular rheumatism," she said he suffered from - the doctor had only taken a few notes, and then politely asked her to follow the waiting nurse. Matthew was more than a little amused at the doctor's "divide and conquer" technique as the door was then shut and locked. Poor Mother, he thought with a small grin.
Several minutes later, the same doctor he and his mother had spoken to an average-looking middle aged man with thinning hair and kind eyes entered the room, and Matthew felt his already unsteady emotions become further agitated. He tracked the man's slow pace as he walked towards a small sink next to the table where Matthew's clothes were neatly folded and proceeded to take off his jacket. He draped it over the table, then carefully removed his cufflinks before proceeding to roll up his sleeves and finally wash his hands. Just as his mother had earlier in the day, this man spoke to him with his back turned, dictating how he was to proceed. Perhaps it would have irritated Matthew if the tone of his voice did not offer such conviction.
"It is essential," the doctor began, "that you understand what you hope to attain by massage therapy." Matthew watched as he dried his hands on a nearby towel, his face still turned away.
"So, before I commence treatment, I am going to ask that you ruminate as fully as possible about what you have given in the past, and what you hope for in the future."
Matthew was taken aback by this kind of psychobabble. It was not what he had expected, not that he had known exactly what to expect. The doctor finally turned around and smiled just enough so that his moustache and beard curled for a second before he walked forward, his pace now brisk, towards the exam table. He took his place at the head of the table, and Matthew could almost feel his breath when he spoke. The doctor smelled of menthol and peppermint, it reminded him of the way his father had when he came home from work.
"Take a moment," the doctor said, and then added his name as if he had rehearsed in the hall before he entered. When the doctor said, "Matthew," it sounded as if he had always known this man, as if his name had always been on his lips. Despite his instinct to question this, Matthew did as he was told... or tried to at least. He took a deep breath.
I am here against all odds, he thought. The truth is I had been told I would never walk again, and yet I can.
Matthew felt a shudder go through him, a chill, as if he was cold even though he was not. That was the past and the future for him. Suddenly his mind turned to thoughts of his father: such a revered doctor, a kind and respected man in the Manchester community. Matthew knew his father was not the only doctor that he put those sick and wrenched around him at ease, but, until his moment, he had never met his equal.
"Now," the doctor said, "I want you to concentrate on counting how many times I use my heel, my palm, my fingers and my thumb as I massage. I want you to think about the distinction between these forms of touch. Empty your mind and just feel the sensation." The doctor's calm voice offered so much comfort, it made Matthew feel a little less anxious.
He appreciated the method of his forceful commands. It was obvious the doctor understood the distress he was feeling already, and the man had not even touched him.
And then it began.
Matthew couldn't help but flinch slightly as the large, powerful hands gently touched his shoulders first in small circular motions. It was not what Matthew had been expecting, as his back did not hurt there. He tried not to be too disappointed, however; it was not as though the doctor could perform a miracle and instantly cure him of his pain, after all.
"Massage," the doctor began again as his hands slowly moved over Matthew's upper back, "should commence over the non-sensitive area and gradually approach the injured areas," he explained. Matthew accepted this and decided to close his eyes; it was less embarrassing that way, as a man near his father's age continued to knead into his flesh. The hands disappeared for a moment, and he could hear the doctor's footsteps walking around the exam table into a new position. Matthew was suddenly overjoyed he had made the decision to close his eyes when the doctor's fingers returned to his back. He felt the touch slowly sinking into a firm decent down his back. It took a lot of his resolve not to whimper pitifully as the deep pressure slowly began to soothe some of the twinges in his aching muscles.
Matthew found before he could even have started keeping an accurate count of thumbs, fingers, heels and palm movements, he had lost all interest in the notion. But he admired the doctor's clever trick to distract him. The doctor's hands were now stroking deeper, rhythmically kneading. A small sigh escaped from his lips as the massage of his inflamed muscles continued. It was exquisite. It was just…so...
"God," Matthew exclaimed unexpectedly his voice barely above a murmur. "Oh God," he groaned, flinching as the doctor's left and right hands worked in tandem. They were squeezing handfuls of his tender flesh, varying the pressure with each manipulation. The technique was definitely very refined. Matthew had to stifle several further grumbles as the process continued. He felt his eyes roll back in his head.
"Massage is," the doctor's voice cut the silence in the room just as his hands seem to cut the daunting pain in his raw back muscles, "really a process of re-education, Matthew."
And with this statement, the doctor's hands ventured down Matthew's spine, and, for the first time, dug into the flesh of his lower back. The pressure hit him like the blow of a hammer, and Matthew felt his breath escape with a loud moan he didn't even know he had been holding in. The doctor made no comment at this, relieving Matthew's self-consciousness somewhat. His reprieve was short-lived, as the doctor's hands continued to deepen their strokes and fiercely claw through his extremely knotted back muscles. The lower the doctor's hand went, the more Matthew felt himself fight against the release of the pain as it erupted out of him. Matthew felt his own hands curl into fists and then slacken with the kneading strokes.
"Damn," he breathed in exasperation, his senses all but lost to him through the fog of pain and confusion. He felt as vulnerable and weak as a newborn kitten. In his prone state, his mind clamored defensively. He was ruthlessly plagued with thoughts of how he had acquired this injury, why his back was so broken. Shuttering against the painful memories, Matthew could feel the gritty taste of the whistle in his mouth, he could hear the ticking of his pocket watch, and he was fortified by the frightened, but trusting, faces of his fellow soldiers. The weight of such responsibility plagued him anew. And, next to him, Matthew saw William, as he often did when he closed his eyes. What came next was always the same. Darkness, and so much emptiness...until he woke up in the Downton hospital, Cousin Mary's voice the first thing he had to focus on that wasn't painful.
She brought him peppermint tea, and there was no further talk about his spinal damage. Everything else about that time had a veil drawn over the dark memories. Except, sometimes, Mary resurfaced in his mind's eye. She was the phoenix, and he was the ashes. Mary was always prepared for everything. She surprised him by pulling a book from her handbag - must have somehow remembered his fondness for poetry - and simply began reading poem after poem to him. Matthew could still hear her composed voice hitch slightly as she read him the poem, "Invictus."
Out of the night that covers me
Black as Pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul
Matthew remembered the words as the doctor continued to work away at his twisted musculature, and they were as great a balm now, as they had been then.
"Ahh!" Matthew cried out, overcome by the doctor's hands flaying over his delicate spine. The touch was melting his sanity. The sensation could no longer be adequately ignored as more pips and wails escaped him. Matthew wished he could hear Mary's voice again; he needed something to cling to, as he had then.
In the full clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed
She had been such a devoted friend, and had carried the heavy burden of nursing him until his Mother had arrived, and again after Lavinia had been sent home. Matthew knew he could lean on Mary's friendship because, though their romantic relationship had soured, she did care for him. In the damaged recess of his existence then he couldn't give up, not entirely, when he saw her face. He had to fight against everything, only allowing himself that singular comfort; he deserved nothing more and wanted nothing less.
His mind continued to meditate on Mary, and how, despite her harsh criticism during the early days of their acquaintance, she had still conducted herself with grace around him, considering he was the cause of her misfortune. He had always admired her for that. For he had understood her penchant to mock and tease him. She needed an outlet to vent her frustration. Their odd friendship had bloomed that way, at least for him. Mary did not crumble in the face of the adversity she had been plunged into. So, when he was injured, Matthew found that strange relationship rekindle, and, sometimes, he felt how she must have years before - like he was perhaps playing her part then as he directed his pain and disappointment at her.
Matthew lolled his head slightly from his position on the table, desperate to concentrate away from the double pains of his heart and his back; he continued reciting the poem to himself.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid
"Oomph," Matthew lamented with a grunt, his reverie interrupted as the doctor's hands continued to plunder the tangled mess of taut muscles in his lower back. It was like Never-land down there.
"Mm-hmm," he felt himself mumble dragging out the syllables wondering why the sounds from his lips didn't form into words. It was very hard to let himself lose control. Matthew could not seem to clear his muddled thoughts. The doctor's hands had their work cut out for them, for they had found a treasure trove of coiled muscles at the small of his back that demanded he remember so many things Matthew would rather ignore - or, better yet, forget completely.
So, he retreated into thoughts of Mary again. She had been so brave to remain at his side during those early, dark days. It must have been hard for her, balancing her own engagement with the demands of her crippled cousin. When he forced himself to remember that moment when she read that particular poem, he recalled that it had presented a ray of hope in his dark world... a tiny, shattered glimpse of a future that, though he had much to overcome, was still out there for him. Mary believed it could be done. The resolute tone of her voice had told him that. He had only to follow her lead, to listen to the words and the conviction with which she read them, and his spirits would begin to lift.
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul
"Oh," Matthew hummed, brooding over the puzzle pieces of his life. The doctor's voice interrupted his musings but he didn't mind. He needed to stop wallowing so much in the past.
"I will share with you something that makes me feel raw and exposed," the doctor said. His ferocious hands were rubbing a unyielding patch of knots causing Matthew to groan loudly and repeatedly.
Let this never end, Matthew thought with relief. At last, he was exactly where he wanted to be... where he needed to be. It was absolutely marvelous. His nagging mind, however, still lingered on less pleasant subjects, reminding him that he should feel awkward in his defenseless position. The doctor must have anticipated as much, as his words indicated.
"Enough!" he wanted to scream at himself.
Matthew squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to block all further thoughts from his mind.
"The experiences I am about to share with you," the doctor began, his voice emptied of emotion, as smooth and polished as the ivory on Matthew's stick, "Will level us, so to speak, so you need not feel so vulnerable. There is no further need to vex yourself with worry. In order to relax, you have to trust me. You must accept the pressure, and the comfort will follow. That is the process of massage."
Matthew's breath came in short gasps. He felt submerged below the turbulent sea of his own consciousness, unable to breath for the water's weight crushing down on him. He felt completely unstable. One moment blissfully relaxed, the next cringing in pain. But somehow the process still continued. And with each penetrating stroke, he was able to take a breath as the doctor's hands continued to ceaselessly knead and push, rubbing exactly were it burned the most at the base of his patient's rigid spine.
Matthew no longer tried to regulate the variety of strange sounds that escaped his lips. He relished the lessening of the tension in his back as he started to understand the cycle of sensations. For every knot that was discovered, the doctor's hands glided first over it charitably, then penetrated it with deep, sustained force. The pure unrelenting pressure on each newly-revealed trigger spot that caused Matthew's agony was certainly a welcomed reprieve. He could feel the balance of his whole frame almost shake as the doctor's hands continued to work. This massage was certainly the most surprisingly enjoyable experience he had been subjected to in ages.
"Crikey," Matthew whimpered as the pace quickened, the doctor's hands working over his throbbing muscles like a train building up steam. It was not dignified, but he had no control left.
"Bloody hell…." Matthew cried out as the doctor's hands once again found their mark. He couldn't help but blubber.
"Ouch!" he heard himself pathetically whine in exasperation as much as relief. It was very confusing.
The doctor's steady voice chose that moment to resume telling the story he had promised to share.
"Several years ago I was in love with the most beautiful woman. We shared a bond that illuminated the world as I saw it through her eyes. I let my fiancée travel before our wedding; it was a marvelous opportunity for her. I thought only of how happy the trip would make her, but fate struck a devastating blow. I believed she was dead. I had no reason to hope she could have survived. So, in my mind and in my heart I buried her. But I did not grieve. The pain was too raw, and I was not ready."
Matthew could easily relate to this. He felt he understood all forms of raw and unthinkable pain, and not just because of his present physical situation. He felt the doctors' hands change position, moving to either side of his hips. The steady pressure lingered there before moving across the lowest region of his back. As this was the precise location of all of his earlier bruising, Matthew could not help but chafe at the contact. He heard the last sound he ever did from William amidst the shells and gunfire all around them, he seemed to feel the push, and then the explosion, all over again. Matthew felt his eyelashes dampen as the memories surfaced with the emotional and physical pain mucking up everything around him. He blinked rapidly to dispel the moisture. He couldn't stop himself from crying.
"There," he moaned pathetically, "Aw….ohm…Lord." Matthew finally bit his tongue to cease his overwrought babbling.
Contradictorily sensations overwhelmed him – the searing pain mingled with transcendent relief. The turmoil of his emotions was harder to bear than the pain of his injury being excavated; the flood of luxurious relaxation was not something he felt he deserved. When he thought of William, when he thought of any of those who had either not returned from France or had only come home to die... How could he then accept the blessed flood of comfort which filled him in a steady stream? He was not ready to claim his position on the biblical ark and ride the storm out to a new beginning, but it seemed his body had already claimed his passage despite his mind's objections. He wasn't allowed to make the choice. It was already made for him, and that frustrated him somehow. Why did he have the right to survive over others? Did he deserve so much absolution and freedom from the clutches of pain when others gave everything?
Strangely enough, Matthew felt almost drowsy as the sensation spread through him, but the pressure was just enough to keep him alert. Through this mirage of pain and misery, he found he was curious about the doctor's story. He spoke of love and loss, of fate and despair. Matthew did need a distraction, any distraction, at the moment. Any distraction that wasn't William or Cousin Mary would also be especially helpful. He tried to take a deep breath, but the air hitched in his throat, making him almost gag before he could resume more normal breathing patterns. He needed somebody else's story to fill his head. He was sick of his own, after all.
Whatever had happened in the years since the doctor's personal tragedy, he seemed to have recovered. Perhaps that was what the older man was trying to communicate to him - the simple cliché that time heals all wounds.
"So?" Matthew asked dragging the words from his lips, "Then what happened to you?"
"Well," the doctor resumed his tale, "she survived, against all odds. My fiancée is now my wife. Though she witnessed more tragedy and more despair than any person in twelve lifetimes should have to endure, she made it home to me. She lived, and so did I. I didn't need my pain anymore."
Matthew licked his lips; they felt so parched. "What…." His voice was so hard to control, but he had to try, "had happened to her?" he asked, his thick tone sounding like a growl to his own ears.
"She was on the Titanic," the doctor explained, his massaging strokes now not as violent as before. They were repetitive and reassuring. Matthew could feel the doctor's palms moving in opposite directions, from his lower ribs to the base of his pelvis. The contact was slowing, allowing him to unwind.
"Oh," he grunted, "The Titanic." The ship that had changed his life, as well. And, for the first time, Matthew felt himself stretch into the massaging strokes. As he did so, he yawned.
"You must accept comfort," the doctor instructed, his strong hands reaching deeper into the layers of strain Matthew felt shrouded him almost completely. The doctor's hands were now making small, deep circles concentrating only on the tenderest area he had so far exposed in his patient's tortured physique. Matthew was utterly exhausted, everything else could wait, he thought drowsily. He had been through enough. Finally, he thought. Finally. Enough.
"That is what I believe to be the message behind massage. It is what I teach and what I offer."
Matthew could only equate the sensation he was now experiencing to that of being drunk. He was lying as he was on a table, this stranger offering up pearls of advice for his mind while ministering so completely to his broken body. It almost didn't seem real. Perhaps he was dreaming. Perhaps none of this was happening.
"So, you must stop fighting," the doctor said with emphasis, his voice rose louder than before and his hands followed his tone, stabbing repetitive strokes into Matthew's throbbing back.
Oh, if only it was that easy, Matthew thought. So many people had made sacrifices for him, after all.
"You must give up your past, Matthew," the doctor ordered.
It was hard for him to remember a time when he hadn't been wracked so brutally with constant uninterrupted pain. It was generally just hard to think at all at the moment.
"Saints alive," Matthew muttered under his breath, feeling the tension continue to ooze out of him. There were so few people he had ever felt this vulnerable and still this comfortable with before. Cousin Mary made the list. Matthew suddenly found his mind focusing on his time in the hospital, and how Mary had sat perched next to him on his small bed. The wooden chair set out for visitors had been quickly abandoned each time she arrived. He remembered how, at times, their hands would be almost close enough to touch. She stayed with him after he had released dear, sweet Lavinia, when he knew the truth of his condition and acknowledged that he couldn't hold onto her.
Matthew thought of Cousin Violet's words to him again. It didn't seem possible to him that Mary could have loved him during that awful time. He certainly didn't feel worthy of her love when he had nothing left to offer anyone, least of all a woman that he had loved. But, Cousin Violet, with all her brass, had insisted it was true. He still blushed when he thought of all that he had once imaged would be possible with Mary. Despite the intervening years, he could still taste Mary from all the kisses they had shared: some only simple pecks, some rather more daring.
"Tell me now," the doctor said, "about your fiancée. Your mother mentioned you are engaged."
Since he was completely this man's prisoner - a willing one at that-the rules of a civilized society, which would not inquire about private situations between strangers, did not seem to apply.
"Her name is…" Matthew had to suck in a deep breathe as he felt a sudden hypersensitivity to the liberation of his stress. The gentle soothing strokes a balm on his very existence. Matthew cleared his throat and felt the words pool out of him unconsciously feeling completely uninhibited, "My fiancée's is… Mary," as the name spilled from his lips he felt his eyes pop open at this revelation. He found his gaze was staring at the stick still leaning against his folded clothes. Mary's stick. His stick. Mary.
Through the haze of shock and lethargy,Matthew was transported back to a moment from the day before. Lavinia was glancing at the books in Robert's library. She had looked like an angel, glowing in the bright winter light that streamed in from the windows, her dainty fingers lingering on a volume of Greek Mythology. Matthew's mind did flips over the memory. He remembered with new-found pride how he had slowly risen from his armchair without help, and had taken small steps, leaning on his stick, to join her and observe the book. Just then, Mary had entered the room. Her presence almost like a siren demanding his attention refocus only on her, she stole his ability to concentrate. Her words like the tide of the sea crashing loudly against him. She was correct in having cast herself as Andromeda, so long ago.
"Oh, mythology," she had said eagerly, instantly recognizing the volume in his hands. "I may have misunderstood Perseus," she continued, her sly wit dancing around her velvety words. "At one time."
Before Matthew could chuckle and correct his slip of the tongue, the doctor was rubbing into his back with renewed aggression. Matthew found that everything had instantly drained from his mind and nothing else could be focused on. He trembled beneath the touch as the strained area that was being massaged, that had so long been riddled with such hostile spasms, was released.
"Oh, God… YES." Matthew voice quivered, and he sobbed. "My God," he cried again before frantically muttering a string of inarticulate sounds. It was as if another shell had fallen on him, the explosion having dulled all his other senses except for the force of the doctor's hands on his spinal column... except for the tense muscles finally giving way after a very long siege.
"There now," the doctor said calmly, his strokes evening out and returning to a rhythmical kneading of the tight muscles encased around his lower back. "That's better," he said softly. "Mediate on her," he said his voice kind and understanding. "Go beyond the boundaries of your physical pain Matthew and allow yourself to relax. Feel the calm, peace, and completeness. Allow her to guide you. Think of your Mary and be still now, as you rest and recuperate."
Matthew knew he should correct his earlier statement, but he couldn't summon the necessary energy to do anything other than give in to the luxury of the fantasy. He knew he should stop the charade and take a stand. But... Mary, he thought longingly.
He wished to strip her down physically, feel his fingers in her hair, and watch each individual strand float across her chest as it came down. If her hair was long enough to cover her breasts he would have to kiss it all out of his way so that it wouldn't block his view. Sometimes he even thought Mary akin to Lady Godiva, her long hair hiding her perky breasts as she rode through Downton bareback on her horse.
These thoughts seem to fit perfectly with the strength she had loaned him during his recovery. She had been stripped down; she wore no jewelry, and yet she had all the sparkling refinements necessary with merely her radiant countenance. She was a feast for his eyes. Matthew remembered how they often sat outside together, the wind blowing through her pinned hair. How he longed for the wind to increase and give him a vision of her flowing locks, just for a moment. He wished to be the wind and kiss the line of her neck as she angled her head, challenging him. Sometimes he could feel, even then, a stirring inside him, something that trumped the physical arousal which he could no longer perform.
Matthew suddenly discovered that he had, in fact, used meditation before. Every time he had seen Mary's face in fact. He had survived against all odds, overcome paralysis, and would have a full life. He could have everything any man dreams of. And Matthew had always dreamt of Mary. When he groaned again, it wasn't from the intricate ecstasy of finally being able to relax, as the massage retrained his habitually-tense muscles. No. He thought ruefully of the phrase "be careful what you wish for." Matthew told himself the fantasy was simply that. The facts of the matter were simple. He couldn't risk it again in reality; he had barely survived the heartache the first time. Yes, a fantasy was better suited to him. He knew he had placed her on a pedestal before, which had been unkind both to himself and to her, and had turned what they shared into a tragedy.
Matthew felt a burning in his groin. Contrary to the rest of his body, this area of his anatomy was not compliant to relaxation. He certainly didn't mind the torturous sensation of arousal; it was a glorious reminder of his the pain in his back fading away, the discomfort in his loins was all the more apparent.
All people have fantasies; there was no harm in admitting that much. So Matthew merely let a deep, inarticulate grumble roll from his mouth as he sank further into the trance that was descending rapidly upon him. He felt the need to make a promise to himself, that even if he subconsciously slipped and uttered Mary's name when he knew perfectly well he should say Lavinia's, this was as far as the fantasy would go. He meant to think to himself therefore, "I vow," but instead the word that escape his throat more closely resembled, "Wow."
Matthew's quiet voice filled the room as the doctor's hands crept gently along his spine, further lulling him mischievously away from what he knew was the truth, further into the fantasy of Mary. The hands on his back seemed as if they would never slacken as they continued massaging, calming his stressed body. Matthew told himself that it was okay to indulge in the prescribed fantasy because, here, he did feel like a completely different person. Humpty Dumpy had been put back together again. Matthew, therefore, took the doctor's advice; he gave up and stopped fighting. He was lost himself entirely to a pleasure-filled journey with his fantasy Mary by his side as she always had been: in body, spirit and mind.
======== the end ============
I must thank R. Grace again for all her enthusiasm when I had this idea and she insisted I write it! And thus Matthew "back porn" was born! LOL
Check out my tumblr user name wdedalus for additional information and notes.
Authors note: Dr. James B. Mennell is the doctor that I based Matthew's nameless doctor on. He was a real person who worked at St. Thomas's hospital in London, and his fiancée was a survivor of the Titanic.
As mentioned the poem Mary reads is called "Invictus" it was written by the English poet William Ernest Henley.
Thanks for reading!