You’ll find I’ve changed a bit.
I looked at the words he’d typed on my screen, thinking.
We all must have changed. Callum had been nine when I last saw him, disappearing without warning from our school between a Tuesday and a Wednesday as if someone had pulled a plug. He had been a clumsy boy, stiff-legged and slow, not missed from our lunchtime football matches, although I had liked to sit by him on the benches and talk of his favourite fantasy games or the fortunes of Manchester City Football Club. He was the best gamer in the school and no-one could beat him on the X-Box. I’d learned a lot from him.
My family had moved away when I was eleven, to Blackpool. My mother was a teacher in a comprehensive school and my father worked for the local authority. Even then the seaside town had been starting to decline, the resort losing popularity as people sought cheaper holidays in hotter countries. The days of glory had in any case been before my time, although my grandparents spoke of them: Reg Dixon, the Tower Ballroom, the three railway stations bringing holiday-makers by the train-load. During the years I lived there the seafront hotels were boarded up one by one, their blinded windows ghostly in the flickering illuminations, staring out at night over a black beach with their ‘For Sale’ signs damaged by the wind.
I was glad to move back to Manchester when I got a place at university, studying film production at Salford. And then Callum found me somehow, on social media.
We started playing video games on-line: the fantasy and combat games he’d always loved; we teamed up and fought ever larger monsters against ever more impossible odds. We fought our way through snake-tangled forests, across the icy deserts of far planets and along the crowded streets of a Renaissance city. We took up Snow Devils: skiing and snowboarding, racing, jumping, colliding with each other in mid-air. Callum was a superhero online, and still a Man City fan.
Let’s meet up, I typed. Let’s go for a drink or something, or I’ll get tickets for a match.
He was reticent: You’ll find I’ve changed a bit.
In what way, mate, I asked, but he was not forthcoming: What’s the point of watching football when we can play it online?
Another time I asked him why he had left our school so suddenly.
I was in hospital, he replied. For a week.
But why hadn’t he come back afterwards? Had his family moved away, like mine?
He didn’t answer. Instead we launched ourselves from impossible ski-jumps, and raced down Olympic slopes, carving tracks into flawless snow, leaving plumes of ice-crystals swirling in our wake.
Then he went offline for a fortnight. I wondered if I had offended him, or been too intrusive, insistent about meeting up. Then he was back.
In hospital, he typed. I’m on the ward’s wifi.
Why the silence, I wondered?
Was in critical care.
What? I didn’t know what else to ask.
Oh sorry, mate. I’ll come and see you in hospital, is there anything you need?
He asked for nothing, but conceded the name of the ward; he was in Trafford General Hospital.
I took a bus into Piccadilly Gardens in the city centre and caught another that shuddered slowly away from the rough sleepers and the hotels, out a long way into the suburbs, grumbling through heavy traffic. I stared through the dusty window at the changing cityscape: the takeaways and the shabby little shops; the car dealerships; the bees pictured on buses and buildings that memorialised the Manchester Arena bombing. Urmston was a gentle suburb of tree-lined streets and red-brick bay fronted houses. The bus stopped outside a small supermarket across the road from the hospital. I didn’t want to go empty handed so I bought a plastic punnet of grapes, but on the ward, the nurse whom I eventually found writing notes in a small office, frowned at it when I said I had come to see Callum.
‘I suppose his visitors could have them.’ She directed me to a side room.
I pushed open the door and stood staring. He was sitting beside his bed, in a wheelchair. A stout woman, probably in her late fifties, was with him. She wasn’t Callum’s mom; I vaguely remembered her, fair and slim. Perhaps this wasn’t the same Callum – I must have made a mistake. But I recognised his face, what I could see of it, the thick blond hair that stuck straight up from his head, the bright blue eyes; he had been a handsome child.
There was a lot of medical apparatus in the room, and drops of liquid vibrated in corrugated plastic tubing that was attached to some sort of mouthpiece strapped to his face. A tube was taped to his nose and across his cheek; a creamy fluid was being pumped through it. He was terribly thin. When he saw me he raised his hands weakly towards his face: he wanted the contraption removed. It was a breathing tube. His companion shook her head.
‘Use the tablet, Callum.’
A touchscreen was on a metal arm attached to his wheelchair. He typed one-handed: Great to see you Nicko. His hand was crooked but he could still type fast.
‘Mate.’ I said. I didn’t know what to say. The woman saw that it was necessary to fill the silence. She smiled at me, amiably, and introduced herself as Sarah, Callum’s foster carer.
‘Well, his ex-foster carer. He’s too old for the care system now, but he still lives with us.’ She lowered her voice. ‘He’s got nowhere else, you see.’
Sit down, typed Callum.
‘What happened to you?’ There was no chair; I perched on the edge of his bed. ‘What about your parents? Were you in an accident?’
Muscular dystrophy, he typed. I didn’t know what it was. Sarah explained in a low voice that it was a wasting condition that slowly paralysed Callum’s muscles, that his mother couldn’t cope with it.
‘She doesn’t see him now,’ she whispered, over the top of Callum’s head.
I just want these tubes off me, he typed.
‘They’re helping you to get better, Callum.’ Sarah patted his shoulder. ‘It won’t be long now, and you’ll be home again. If only you’d let them give you the peg tube operation.’
‘What’s the peg tube?’ I asked.
‘It’s a feeding tube that goes into his tummy.’ Sarah pointed at her own stomach. ‘He could have liquid feeds at home to build him up. It would help him heal, help him fight off infections.’
No point, typed Callum.
Sarah sighed, leaning in and tapping gently at the breathing tube.
‘Maybe you could come off the BiPAP again. Don’t give up, Callum. You can still get stronger.’ She turned to me. ‘I’ll never forget once, he was in his wheelchair in the garden. I looked out from the window and saw him. He was beside the washing line post, and he leant his cheek against the post, and just sat there, staring. I cried.’
Callum didn’t want her to dwell on it.
You OK Nicko, he typed, you getting on OK?
‘I’m fine.’ I looked down: I was still holding the punnet of grapes. I felt a bit guilty telling him that I’d got a place at Uni, that I wanted to be a film producer, that Salford was great and I’d joined the skiing and snowboarding club. ‘We go to Chill Factore most weeks: it’s an indoor snow slope. Real snow.’
I wish I could go skiing.
Sarah shook her head, tears forming in her eyes.
Like Snow Devils.
Suddenly, I grinned.
‘I might manage that for you, mate. It’s called Adaptive Snowsports. Get the peg tube, and we’ll see.’
Before I left I hugged him; he rested his cheek against my coat.
A few weeks later a group of us from the Snow Club manhandled his electric wheelchair out of our minibus so that he could navigate his way into the Chill Factore building. Clipped into a sledge and guided by a skier, he sped down the slope.
I heard a yelp of joy.