All Stories, General Fiction

Phantom Pain by T D Calvin

My appointment is at twenty past eight.  I stand waiting outside the surgery at half seven – when the receptionist opens the main door she fires me the same kind of look she would to a drunk or an addict but I pay no attention.  In the waiting room I flick through an abandoned copy of the Observer and enjoy the sensation of being the only person here, the only person Doctor Matheson is preparing to see.  I like to book the earliest appointment she has on any given day – I like the thought of being first on her list of priorities.

When I enter her office Doctor Matheson smiles, her teeth buffed to a perfect white.  A bustling of brown curls reaches the shoulders of her blazer and her smooth face is clear of foundation.  Her eyes look fresh even at this hour, both irises a shade of chestnut.  I make sure to ask how she’s doing, because if she concerns herself with my health the least I can do is concern myself with hers.

“I’m fine, Becca,” she says.  “How about you?”

I sit on the chair beside her desk.  “There’s been no change,” I say.  “Please help me.”

I start welling up.  Doctor Matheson plucks a tissue from the box on her desk and passes it to me – her fingers carry the scent of chamomile soap.

“Have you been doing what we talked about last time?” she says.

“I’ve stopped drinking,” I say, soaking the tissue against my eyes.  “And I’ve stopped having coffee and tea.”

Doctor Matheson begins to write on the front page of my file.

“I think they’re getting worse,” I say.  “It feels like they’re getting worse.”

“The pain is more severe?” she says.


“Are you taking paracetamol or ibuprofen when you think a migraine might happen?”

“Yes,” I say.  “But nothing makes a difference.”

“Are you able to sleep?”

“I spend most days in bed,” I say. “But I couldn’t tell you when I last slept.”

Doctor Matheson nods and adds more notes to the paper, words springing off the tip of her biro.  I admire her handwriting, the verve of each sentence.

“There’s no cure for migraines, Becca, as we discussed before,” she says.  “But I’m going to prescribe you something that should help alleviate them.”

“Thank you,” I say.  “Thank you so much.”

“Not to worry,” she says.  “It’s what I’m here for.”

I fold the prescription she hands over and slide it into my jeans pocket, telling Doctor Matheson that I’ll see her soon.

The afternoon sun is bright as Lucozade, the summer’s heat pressed hard against the windows; but I can’t risk stepping outside.  I’ve told Doctor Matheson that I leave the flat only when absolutely necessary, staying close to the bedroom kept ready for my emergencies with the lamps off and curtains closed, any light barred from the room.  Lying on the living room carpet I breathe the steam from a cup of chamomile tea and listen to music through my headphones, the volume soft – Whitney Houston wants to dance with somebody, with somebody that loves her.

As I place my cup on the floor a migraine erupts inside my head, searing the left of my frontal lobe like boiling water poured on my brain.  Every one of my muscles, every cell and nerve, contracts in panic – I blunder into the kitchen and drench a tea towel under the cold tap and charge to the bedroom.  In the dark I crumple on the duvet and clap the tea towel over my eyes, forcing the wet fabric into the sockets as if I’m staunching a wound, trying to dampen the pain.

When the migraine fades my head’s innards feel charred.  I drag my body off the bedsheets, testing my balance, and trudge into the hall where daylight has drained away.  I can’t be sure of how many hours I’ve lost or how long I’ll be safe from agony; but what isn’t in doubt is that I have to make another appointment with Doctor Matheson.

“Give it more time, Becca,” she says.  “You might not see an improvement for at least a couple of weeks after starting the medication.”

“I just want this to stop,” I say.

“I understand.”

Doctor Matheson sets her pen down and leans back in her chair, cinching her hands across her middle.  Her blouse is fondant-white, and the office’s scent is that of shampoo she must have used this morning, the creamy aroma of coconut.

“Give yourself a chance,” she says.  “Try to concentrate on something else.”

“I would if I could.”

“It’s easier said than done, I know,” she says.

“Thanks for listening,” I say.

“It’s no problem.”

“You’re the only one I can talk to.”

“Do you not have anyone else, Becca?”

“Just my dad,” I say.  “But we don’t speak.”

“That’s a shame.”

“He doesn’t like who I am.”

“How do you mean?”

“I told him I lived with a girl and she wasn’t just a friend.”

“I see.”

“He kept saying he’d been through enough, he didn’t deserve this.”

“I see.”

“It’s the way he is,” I say.  “He was in the Falklands, he got wounded at Stanley.  They had to cut his right arm off.  It keeps hurting him even though it’s not there anymore.”

“That can happen,” Doctor Matheson says.  “It’s called phantom pain.”

I nudge the tip of my finger into my mouth, grinding its nail between my teeth.

“Is there anything else that’s giving you cause for concern?” she says.

“No,” I say.

I can’t move from bed, the migraine’s strength pinning me to the mattress.  I’m terrified that even a shallow breath might spur the pain on until its pressure bursts my skull like a grape.  Twice I’ve had to swerve my head over the edge of the mattress and vomit into a plastic basin and earlier I seized strands of my hair close to the roots, convinced that by yanking some out I might pull the pain free from under my scalp.

By early evening I manage to stand and lurch to the bathroom.  I step beneath the shower’s steaming jets and pop open the cap of some shampoo I’ve bought – I inhale the lovely smell of it, sweet as a Bounty, and what comes with it is a sense of calm, of the deepest relief.  I froth the shampoo along the length of my hair and it wipes the day’s ordeal clean.  I let splashes of shampoo drop on my shoulders and glide down my back.

Afterwards I stretch out on the living room carpet, a towel strung around me.  Though I try to focus on fractures around the ceiling rose, fissures in the wall plaster, I can’t stop thinking of what should fill space after space after space in this room.  I turn my head to look at the empty air where Amy’s couch used to be, Amy’s television used to be, Amy’s lavender-scented candles and air fresheners used to be.  The last time she came here it was to take away everything she owned, remove every piece of evidence that we’d lived together here and loved each other here.  I remember saying that she couldn’t do that.  I remember saying that without her I wouldn’t last long.

My next appointment is at ten past four.  At three I plant myself on the cracked leather seats of the waiting room, meeting the stare of the receptionist.  I flinch every time the intercom blares and Doctor Matheson calls another patient to her office.  I choose a year-old edition of The Spectator from a mound of magazines on the table and flip through it, ripping some of the pages by accident.

Though I’m not seen until twenty-five past four Doctor Matheson’s faint smile eases my frustration – I detect traces of perfume around her, a fragrance of vanilla and cinnamon.

“It’s good to see you,” I say.

“Is the medication having no effect, Becca?” she says.

“None at all.”

Doctor Matheson sighs and lifts her pen, adding more notes to my file.  “I’m going to give you something that should stop any nausea,” she says.  “And I think you should also continue with your current prescription.  If we still don’t see any improvement within a week or so, we’ll need to think about referring you to a specialist.”

“It shouldn’t come to that,” I say.  “It shouldn’t have to come to that.”

“Let’s hope not,” she says, writing a new prescription and signing it, her name a beautiful curlicue of black ink.

“Do you not get tired of people talking about themselves?” I say.  “Do you never want to talk about you?”

“I can talk about myself when I get home,” she says.  “Don’t worry about me.”

“Who do you talk to?”

Doctor Matheson glances at her computer, the monitor’s glare blueing her cheeks.

“You were married once, weren’t you?” I say.


“But you’re not with anyone now.”

Her expression is such that I have to resist the compulsion to put my hand on her arm and tell her everything will be fine.

“The surgery’s closing soon, Becca,” she says.  “You’ll need to get going.”

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

“Even if you weren’t, I bet you wouldn’t say anything.”

Doctor Matheson clears her throat, eyes veered towards the computer.

“You get used to saying nothing when there’s no-one to say anything to,” I tell her.

Amy and I had a future and she took a knife to it.  She hacked our lives apart, sliced them down the middle, and asked what I’d expected after everything she’d had to put up with.  She talked as if there was nothing wrong with her, as if there are people that exist without defects.  Everyone has malfunctions that need repaired; everyone’s after a cure for something that isn’t right.  That day a migraine fried my thoughts and scrunched up my eyes as if I was snow-blind.  I remember the desperation to gouge my fingernails through my forehead and get my hands on its source.  I’d imagined finding a shard of glass embedded in my brain tissue, or a rusted needle, or a razor-blade.  I never thought the pain might be a symptom of something else.

“No,” I say.  “I don’t want to go to a clinic.  I don’t want to see a specialist.”

“Don’t you want to get well, Becca?” Doctor Matheson says.

“I just don’t want that kind of help.”

“I’m afraid this is the only option.”

“There must be something else you can think of.”


“Can’t you help in some other way?”

“Becca,” she says.  “Please listen.”

“I am listening.”

“If my course of treatment isn’t working, the next step is that you go to the clinic,” she says.  “Making more appointments with me won’t be of any benefit to you.”

“Please don’t say that.”

Doctor Matheson rakes a hand through her curls.  “We’ll find you help elsewhere,” she says.  “I think that’s best.”

She takes up her pen and turns a page of my file, rubbing one of her bloodshot eyes.

“You look tired,” I say.

“I’m fine.”

“Maybe you should go home early,” I say.  “Do you have children at home?”

“I do, yes.”

“Boy or girl?”

“A boy.”

“How old is he?”

“He’s five.  It was his first day of school on Monday.”

“At Saint Columba’s,” I say.

Doctor Matheson stops writing in my file.  “That’s right,” she says.

On the landing’s sideboard is a bowl of potpourri – I push my hands into it and bring palmfuls to my nose to sniff the petals, slipping some into my mouth to eat.  In the bathroom I lick white dollops of coconut shampoo from the bottle and skoosh some chamomile soap onto my tongue – my stomach stings from some perfume I downed, one with hints of vanilla and cinnamon found on the dresser in the bedroom.

I head downstairs to the living room where the Tiffany lamp shines.  I kneel on the carpet to smell its fibres, before pulling both prescriptions from my pockets and unfolding them on the sheepskin rug.  I start tearing at the corners of each slip, shredding them, dicing all of the words Doctor Matheson wrote except her name – her signatures rest intact among a thousand crumbs of paper.  She must understand I have no use for pills or chemicals; to be healed I need her love, as she needs mine, because those who care must be cared for too.

Car tyres rasp on the gravel drive outside – I lunge for the blinds, parting two slats to watch Doctor Matheson come home.  I expect her to carry a shopping bag full of cottage cheese, wholemeal bread and a bottle of Pinot Noir; Ryan to dash ahead of her to the front door with a school jumper tied around his waist; and the doctor’s earrings to glint in the pale light of dusk.  But there’s no cure for what I see.  There’s no cure for the sight of Doctor Matheson and her ex closing the doors of her car, Doctor Matheson and her ex sharing laughter or Doctor Matheson and her ex holding hands, bodies drawn close as they walk the path to the doorstep.  The slats of the blinds snap back into place and I wait for what’s coming.


T D Calvin

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5 thoughts on “Phantom Pain by T D Calvin”

  1. I enjoyed the narration and how I was gradually drawn into the world of the neurotic character. This goes beyond an obsession, it is a dangerous mental affliction that in this is case not understood by the character and worse; completely missed by the doctor.
    This will not end well, the story reminds me of the film “Fatal Attraction”.
    Great story.


  2. Hi TD,
    I agree with all the previous comments.
    This was a tight, atmospheric piece of writing.
    The ending was left to the readers imagination and I don’t think anyone would have it ending well!
    Entertaining and unsettling!


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