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The Country of the Blind
by Matthew Charles
Matthew Charles -- all rights reserved

There is, I can't help but notice, a tendency towards self-indulgence in the Pig. Not in all the people, not all the time, but it is definitely there. Oh, we cry, look at us! Cruelly abused unfortunates, outcasts from society because of something beyond our control. Every hand is raised against us, and we can find solace only in the company of fellow lost souls. We laugh but to keep from crying.

Well, not me. I love being a SCAB. I revel in it.

At this point, my putative audience raises an eyebrow. Has Sir had a little too much to drink?

Bzzt, wrong. I'm not drunk. Just happy, whole and alive.

The eyebrow moves up another notch. Perhaps I ought to explain.

I was cycling, no helmet. Car behind me comes up too fast. I decide to turn left but don't bother to signal. Bang. Ambulance. Hospital. Life-support machine.

You can keep somebody alive for a very long time these days.

I was lucky. The swelling went down after a day or so, and they were able to operate. It worked, more or less. I recovered consciousness with my higher brain functions intact. It's just a pity that over 98% of motor control went bye-bye.

Remember how Stephen Hawking was, at the very end? Right.

With an effort, I could just about blink my left eye.

I was, remember, ten years old. That's a hell of an age to find out you're going to be a cripple for the rest of your life. All you can do is answer yes or no questions, one a minute. Something as simple as getting an itch on your nose scratched can easily take an hour.

That was the worst part. Lying there, unable to move. Wanting to tell somebody, anybody, that you want to get out. That this isn't your life, you shouldn't be here. Belting out tortured screams that echo round your skull whilst on the outside one eyelid flutters.

For a while, I gave up. I dropped shutters behind my glassy eyes and retreated into never-never land. I was a cowboy, an astronaut, a pirate, whatever took my fancy. And while concerned doctors tried in vain to get a response, I climbed trees and stole apples and chased around the playground with laughing friends.

But reality has a way of getting your attention. It's called pain. So, hurrah, I started responding to external stimuli once more: I didn't get as much medication if I didn't seem to be hurting. At the time, it felt like the doctors were deliberately toying with me. Looking back, it was probably the best thing they could have done, though I doubt they realised it. If I'd had my way, I would just have drifted further and further apart. And when, finally, they'd have pulled the plug, sighed and turned away, I wouldn't have noticed.

Actually, things did get better. A bit. When I finally got out of hospital, they had improved to the point that I could make small movements in parts of my upper body. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's enough to control a wheelchair or click out a sentence, word by word.

But not much else. Having to be rolled over once an hour to prevent bed sores was the second most humiliating experience. I don't want to talk about the diapers.

So. I got out and made another fun discovery: kids are not fundamentally nice people. Anybody who thinks SCABs have it tough should go and watch a schoolful of children at play. It's quite a contrast, actually. In general, adults either go out of their way to be sympathetic - which gets cloying and patronising very quickly - or simply treat you like a non-person, an animal, talking not to you but to a more palatable companion: "Does he take sugar?" But then, any SCAB can tell you this much.

Children, on the other hand, have no mercy. Even under the best of circumstances, the schoolyard can become the stage of battles for dominance. When you're stuck in a chair and can't wipe the drool off your chin, well, you're an easy target. Nature red in tooth and claw, acted out by little darlings only two meals away from the Lord of the Flies.

If I'd had a mind to match my body, things might have been easier. I could have stayed there, tongue lolling, living for the chance to be patted on the head by one of those wonderful people, master, goodboy goodboy yesyesyes goodboy fawnfawnfawn.

But no. My faculties were intact. In fact, if anything, I was sharper than before. When you can't do anything other than think, you get a lot of practice. And I wanted to learn.

The best solution would have been home tuition. But that costs a lot and, with my mother nursing me pretty much full time, our money was spread thinly. My father was long gone, the pittance of his alimony keeping us afloat. I blamed myself for that, stupid as it sounds. So I went to school and lived for the lessons and died for shame in the breaks.

I don't really want to dwell on this. I did enough of that back then. Let's just say it's a good job I couldn't hold a razor, and skip ahead to graduation. Eighteen years old, slightly-better-than-average grades - think about that one - and an interest in history. Marketable skills: zero. In theory I could have gone to college, but we simply didn't have the money. So I could look forward to a whole fabulous lifetime of emptiness stretching ahead of me, looked after by my long-suffering mother day and night.

I was hovering constantly on the edge of life. Without that unceasing care, I couldn't survive more than a day or two. So near to death, and yet I had absolutely no way to die. Propped up by a human life-support machine.

In truth, I could have asked her to give me an OD or something. But after all she'd done for the last eight years, I couldn't bear to hurt her like that.

So I hung in there. Somehow. I tried writing, but when half a dozen words a minute is your top speed, you tend to get disillusioned. The rejection letter that came when I offered to freelance for the local paper was very polite. Life was not good.

Well, you all know what's coming next.

Yes, you're right. But first there came two months of sheer, mind-numbing nothing. Watching daytime TV for want of anything better to do. Feeling incessantly guilty for being such a burden, but unable to do anything to help it. Those bloody diapers. Baby food. Sympathetic-apologetic faces everywhere. And the prospect of more of the same for the rest of my life.

I want you to hold onto that image. And every time you feel bitter about being a SCAB, take it out and look at it long and hard. There are things worse, much worse. I know. I've been there. And I'm damned glad I got out.

I'd already had the Flu, several years ago. Somehow, I survived it. For whatever reason, it took far longer than average for full-blown SCABS to develop.

My mother noticed before I did. My ears went first. She didn't have the courage to tell me, and I had no way of knowing. In fact, I was unusual that way. Most SCABs lose consciousness for the change. Perhaps because I was used to pain and drugged to the eyeballs, I stuck with it.

First the ears, then a light dusting of fur and a tail. And I still didn't know. I tended to avoid mirrors.

In theory, she should have called a doctor. But I think that more than a little of my depression had leaked into her. After all, what was the worst that could happen? I could die? I should be so lucky.

But then it happened. Itches were the bane of my life, and one was just starting up in my ear. So I asked her to scratch it, please.

She just stood there staring at it. And then started laughing. Because the damned thing was twitching.

Needless to say, I thought she'd lost it. And when, trying to explain, she said that my ear was moving, and wasn't it wonderful, I knew I was right. But then she fetched out that mirror and showed me my reflection. I still can't pin down the feelings of that moment. Amazement, revulsion, curiosity, resignation and a whole slew more, positive and negative. But there was one that stood out, one that I hadn't felt for a long, long time.


I can pinpoint that critical moment after which we knew things were going to be okay. I was still in the throes of the virus, almost able to feel bones and flesh shifting. My mother had laid me down and was preparing to bathe me. Still smiling, even after all these years. Without knowing what I was doing, I stuck out my tongue and licked her. It took her a moment to realise what had happened - and then she pulled my head close to hers, crying for joy. When she finally let go, she was dripping with salty tears and canine saliva.

It took a long time. A long time. Another fortnight for SCABS to have its way with me, then months of therapy, slowly learning to use my body again. It was almost a year before I could speak easily and naturally.

But even the growls and whines that made up my vocal repertoire for the first weeks let me do something I'd been cut off from for too long: express emotion. And even if I couldn't talk, I could operate my speech synthesiser a hell of a lot more easily. Twenty or thirty words a minute doesn't sound a lot, but when you've been used to four or five it's a minor miracle. It more than made up for the embarrassment of having to be house trained.

And that, more or less, is that. It isn't the end of the story, not by a long way. You can't simply close the pages of your life and say: "And they all lived happily ever after."; you have to live it out, one day at a time.

It hasn't all been easy, either. My mother devoted nearly ten years of her life to nursing me; ironically, she's finding it hard to come to terms with not needing to do so any more. Fifty-two is a lonely time to lose your focus. But, like me, she's rebuilding. It might be my imagination, but ever since she decided to become formally qualified as a nurse, she seems to have been seeing one of the doctors for extra coaching more than strictly necessary. And so it goes, life moves on.

And me? I'm getting along. In a fit of political correctness, McDonalds decided to hire me; I'm supplementing the wage with the odd article for that local paper. And, if things work out, I should start at college in nine months' time.

But for now, I'm happy just to be here, one of the Lupine Boys. I'm no mover and shaker. Even now, I'm a little reserved - well, reserved for an LB, anyway. Old habits are hard to break; I still tend to think to myself and speak in sentences that wouldn't take long to tap out. But I'm getting better, night by night.

My favourite part of the day, though, is the morning. I can't stand lying in bed, for obvious reasons. I used to spend the first few hours of each day just pacing around, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with me. Now, I run. There's something magical in the smooth rhythm of the motion, the cool air rushing past. You can't help but feel wonderfully alive.

And just recently, Colleen has taken to following the same route. She doesn't bring a vodor, so we share nothing more than quiet panting and chuffing. Maybe there's nothing more to it than a shared love of the exercise. But maybe, just maybe - well, that's another story.

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