Four months had passed since Beata had her bike accident before her friend Martyna could see her. First, she couldn’t visit because Beata was in a hospital at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, and the hospital had a policy of no visits. As restrictions eased, the rule became that only one person was permitted to contact each patient, and this person was Aldona, Beata’s best friend. When Beata was moved to a care home, the circle of visitors expanded to six, but Martyna didn’t qualify for this “first league” of family and friends, drafted by Aldona. When friends from the “second league” were allowed to see Beata, she got an infection and went back to the hospital, where visits were again restricted. Then Martyna went on holiday to Portugal for two weeks, further delaying a visit. But now, finally, she was on her way from Warsaw to a picturesque village surrounded by a pine wood and a lake in a shape of a horseshoe, some 30 kilometres from Włocławek, where Beata came from. In Poland, care homes were usually located in such places on the account of their landscape and the fact that it was easy to recruit a workforce. Women who previously worked in nearby factories and their daughters, if they hadn’t left for larger cities in the meantime, “were grateful to wipe asses of cripples for minimum wage,” as another friend told her.

Martyna brought with her a large box of chocolates for Beata’s carers and a small ceramic bowl for Beata, a souvenir from the holiday in Portugal. Armed with these gifts, she went to the reception and announced that she had an appointment. She was surprised to find out that nobody asked for her identity and was taken to Beata’s room by a pretty female carer, who introduced herself as Magda. Martyna handed her the box of chocolates, saying: “This is to thank you for your hard work.” Magda replied: “You didn’t need to do it. Miss Beata is our favourite patient. We all love her resilience and sense of humour.”

“That’s good to know,” replied Martyna, wondering if they were saying the same thing about each patient.

“Do you have many patients here on respirators?” she asked Magda.

“No, Miss Beata is the only one.”

A silence followed, during which Martyna wondered if it was a good or a bad thing for Beata.

“Does it mean that she requires more assistance than other patients?”

“A bit more, in terms of checking on her and feeding her, but she gets less physiotherapy. You cannot do certain things with patients on respirators.”

“Does she know it?”

“I think so.”

The carer took Martyna to a large room, divided by screens into four compartments, each for one patient. Beata was in a compartment near the window, which had a view overlooking a garden. From Aldona, Martyna learned that Beata was offered a private room, like the two other women in the care home, but she refused. She preferred to have company, even if this was a company of men. Indeed, she saw it as a bonus.

Beata seemed to occupy more space than each of her companions, but this might had been a false impression, given that they had wheelchairs in their compartments, while Beata had only a bed in her part and a small bed table alongside it.

Martyna kissed Beata on her cheeks and Beata repaid her with a wide smile and a movement of her shoulders; she had regained some power in her arms a couple of weeks previously, and there was a slight chance that she would be able to move her hands eventually. Then they started to talk. Beata wasn’t uttering any sound, only moveingher lips so that Beata could read from them. Aldona warned Martyna that understanding Beata might be problematic, but Martyna didn’t find it difficult as, by this point, Beata was skilled in her new way of communicating.

“It’s great to see you,” said Beata.

“It’s great to see you,” replied Martyna, trying to hold back her tears, while thinking that the exchange sounded like something from the second series of Twin Peaks: surreal, yet more real that normal talking. “You look very good, considering what you went through.”

This wasn’t an empty compliment. Beata’s face hadn’t changed. If anything, she had fewer wrinkles, perhaps a result of getting steroids or whatever medicines she was given. Contrary to Martyna’s expectations that Beata’s limbs would shrink due to the lack of use, they seemed to be even larger than she remembered them. In her large bed, Beata looked as imposing as Queen Elizabeth from the old BBC old series, played by Glenda Jackson.

“I know it is a long time now, but I wanted to tell you how I was devastated when I learned about your accident. For weeks, I couldn’t think about anything else. Aldona told me that you don’t remember how it happened.”

“It’s not that I don’t remember, only that I’m not sure if I remember well.”

“So what do you remember?”

“I remember that when I was cycling, I approached a high kerb and was thinking that rather than getting off the bike and carry it over this obstacle, I would jump over it. Then I was flying for a while among birds and then felt awful pain. You know the rest.”

“The birds you were seeing were probably those painted on the sound barrier you hit.”

“Looks like that, but then they felt like real birds, inviting me to dance with them high in the sky. Like in ‘Dance of the Bad Angels,’ if you know this song.”

“No. I don’t. How was it in the hospital?”

“It was awful. I was in pain and couldn’t see anybody for weeks. I knew that it was because of COVID, but it felt like somebody locked me there for some terrible sins, so I was going through my past to find out what sin I committed to be put in such hell.”

“At least this is now behind you and you were moved to here, which looks like a really nice place.”

“People say so, but I haven’t been outside yet. I only see a part of the garden and only when they move my bed, because with all these pipes attached to my body, it’s not easy to change position. I remember dystopian stories about people whose humanity was compromised by attaching them to some contraptions or changing their DNA, and now I feel like the tone of these stories were wrong. They should be utopian, not dystopian. Anyway, my problem is not that I became a cyborg, but that I’m a lame cyborg; the mechanical, the electronic, and the human don’t gel well in me. I won’t shed a tear for my old useless limbs and throat, or my disobeyed cunt and shithole, if the artificial parts functioned better than the original ones.”

“Medicine develops very quickly these days. In five years or so you might be able to walk with artificial legs.”

“I doubt it. Besides, it’s not the legs which are my greatest problem, but the spine. In English, they speak of people who lack willpower as being spineless. Most people probably use this phrase without pondering on its meaning, but I now understand how accurate it is. Without a properly working spine you are nothing: you have no strength and no will.”

Martyna remembered that Aldona asked her to quickly change the subject when Beata’s thoughts darkened, so she asked: “What do you do all day?”

“I listen to the other guys. It’s like a radio play to me, broadcast in instalments. Sometimes it’s a drama, but most of the time it’s a comedy. Or even two radio series on simultaneously, because they talk and watch telly at the same time. I don’t hear everything they say or don’t know what they refer to, so I have to guess. Sometimes I guess right, sometimes I guess wrong. I give myself points for each right guess, and before I fall asleep for the night, I count my guesses and compare them with the previous day. Every day, I start from zero, so that each morning there is a fresh beginning and a chance to score better than the previous day.”

“Are you getting better at this game?”

“Yes, much better. This is what this life does to you: your senses sharpen and your mind works better; you start to connect things which you previously saw as separate, learn to build a story from dispersed words.”

“Do these men talk to you?”

“Now they do. First they avoided me, because I am a woman with a PhD and more of a cripple than them, but gradually, we started to spend more time together. Yet they are very careful not to tire me or intrude on my private life. Still, by now, I know their life stories and they know mine, more or less.”

“Why there are so many men here and so few women?”

“Probably because children are embarrassed to leave their mothers in care; with fathers, it’s different. Luckily, I have no children to check this theory.”

“What are their stories?”

“Stories of abandonment. The wife of Tadeusz left him less than a year after he had his accident. Andrzej is still married, but his wife and children visit him less and less. Marek is a bachelor and he is visited every week or so by his mother, but that’s all. He lost all his friends.”

“This will never happen to you. On the contrary, it was thanks to your accident that we discovered how many friends you have, and these are not only friends who said they were sorry about what happened to you, but wanted to do something about it. It must be well over 200 people in total. I don’t know anybody who has so many friends as you, Beata. If such an accident happened to me or Aldona, I don’t know if either of us would be able to scramble ten concerned people. Do you remember Amelia, the woman whom you met on your trip to Sicily a couple of years ago? She would like to visit you and committed herself to paying 1,500 zł per month towards your care. This is the highest sum anybody promised. In total, we collected enough money to keep you for a year in this luxury.”

Beata smiled in response and then said: “Most of these people will forget me when the novelty of my condition wears off. Plus, not all of them were ever close friends. Amelia might change her mind soon when she realises how much money she lost due to lockdown. This care home already has financial problems because some people stopped paying because their relatives lost jobs.”

“This is all temporary. The pandemic will go away soon and life will return to normal.”


There was silence for a while, during which Martyna was thinking what to say next. Before she came up with a new topic, Beata said:

“I forgot to mention that I also sleep a lot, at least twelve hours a day. Everybody here gets sleeping pills.”

“Aldona mentioned this. She said it’s a cheap way to deal with patients.”

“I don’t look at it this way. The people who take care of us recognise that our rhythm of life is different from those with able bodies and that sleep is a great equaliser. In sleep, a person without legs might climb a mountain, and one with a perfect body might be trapped in a well or be crippled. In addition, the sleeping tablets put you in a good, nightmare-free sleep. Either you dream about something pleasant like woods and gardens full of flowers or you have no dreams; you are given a taste of a painless eternity.”

“Which dreams do you prefer?”

“I prefer variety. In fact, I wouldn’t even mind an occasional nightmare.”

“You will soon have more variety, because more people will visit you. There is a queue and Aldona needed to prepare a rota to accommodate all of us.”

“It’s nice, but I don’t really want to see many people. They tire me. I cannot take more than one extra person per day and I keep falling asleep during visits. Moreover, whenever I meet somebody, we start with what for this person is my year zero: the accident. Like you, they ask me what happened, what did I feel when I fell off the bike, and so on. They make me to move back in time and look at it as if it was the beginning of my life. It was, I won’t deny it, but I moved on. I have new dreams and goals.”

“What are they?”

“I want to be taken off the respirator and regain power in my hands. People from outside remind me that I cannot walk; people who are here all the time, like my physiotherapist, make me believe that I can fly.”

Martyna wanted to ask Beata if she was fed well, but noticed that her friend had dozed off. She put the ceramic bowl on her nightstand and left the room.

Before leaving the village, she went for a walk in a wood. It was buzzing with noises. There were many birds flying and sitting on branches; a different world which she can’t comprehend. On the way to the car, she tripped over a large, dead bird, perhaps a hawk, and fell. Luckily, nothing happened; even her clothes remained clean. She boarded her car and left. There was a long road ahead of her.