The late April afternoon wraps a sticky blanket around the living. Despite a downpour an hour ago the air is already filled with coral dust. All the rain accomplished was to revive the pong from the drains, excavate new potholes, and crank up the humidity.
A frangipani tree is shedding its pristine flowers in despair, the petals turning brown as soon as they touch the pavement. Why did she even bother with moisturiser today? It’s a futile exercise at best, this rejuvenating anti-ageing business, especially in the Pacific. Coming back to New Zealand was even worse. Her skin felt like rice paper within days of touching down at Auckland airport, no moisturiser on the market powerful enough to make up for the normal level of humidity in Vanuatu. A tingling sensation on her hip has her worried for a moment before she realises her mobile is on vibrate.
‘It’s your chiropractor. ‘Ave you forgotten me?’
‘Not at all, I’m by the library, trying to locate you.’ Her eyes slide off the Bred bank’s brick façade, across a red Digicel sign, and land on a surf shop. No sign of a chiropractor.
‘You go towards …,’ followed by a smattering of French.
Left or right? She turns right, the phone pressed against her ear.
‘No, no, the other way!’
She swirls around. Across the street a man in purple cotton trousers is holding a phone to his ear, waving, as if he’s flagging down a taxi. He points at his phone and then at Cathryn. Hesitantly she lifts her right arm and makes a mini-wave in acknowledgement. She receives thumbs up in return before the man turns around and disappears through a door in the middle of a row of shops.
As fast as her lower back can manage she waddles like a pregnant woman, minus the baby, across the road and finds what must be the door to his practice. The window display contains spine replicas and cartoons of a chiropractor pulling the skin off a patient’s back.
He ushers her into his den. Kind eyes framed by bushy charcoal eyebrows and a shock of silver hair.
‘Now, what can I do for you?’
She’s been bumping along potholey city roads and flood-damaged dirt roads, followed by long days and nights stuck behind the desk. Staggering to her feet that morning the electric sciatic shocks fanning out from the original stabbing pain in the lower back were unbearable. The vertebrae felt fused from her shoulder blades down to the tailbone. She blames the delay in seeking assistance on the cyclone, on her health insurer’s tardy response (they don’t seem to believe in preventative physiotherapy), and on her regular physiotherapist being on holiday.
The chiropractor asks her to undress so he can see her ‘beautiful body’. She hesitates, feeling her heart beat in her throat, unsure if this would be considered an icebreaker in France. Embarrassed about stooping to stereotype, she starts to undress, relieved that she is wearing half-decent underwear today. Sooner or later even the most reliable materials succumb to the heat and humidity, the soles of shoes peel off mid-step, or there’s the dreaded lycra rip leaving its bearer with a garment twice the size. She can only pray it won’t happen at a children’s pool party.
Lengths of orange and green fabric are draped across the room, beyond it the ceiling disappears out of sight, forming a cooling atrium, Moroccan style. No air conditioning. Stripped of her protective armour she scurries for the treatment table.
‘Wait!’ He places a hand on her stomach, the other on her back, pressing the palms toward each other, pressing her flesh. He prods her tense muscles, turns her head, left and right, then left again. Asks her to slowly bend forward to touch her toes and straighten up.
‘Scoliosis,’ he mutters, triggering a distant childhood memory of a family friend, another physiotherapist.
The way her father frowned when Cathryn was unable to squeeze together her shoulder blades to touch the physiotherapist’s finger. ‘Scoliosis,’ she, too, muttered. Cathryn was eleven. She hasn’t heard that term since. It probably came up short against the family history of various ailments and disasters, and paled against all the victims of various military operations her dad was involved in.
She has no excuse, hasn’t even borne many children, yet her body is irreparably skewed. But was it ever symmetric? In her late teens she discovered she had an undulating ribcage. An ambitious young doctor examined the slope of her chest and suggested to cut off the ribs on the right side and reattach them with silver thread. It seemed overly intrusive back then, it still does. Possibly it explains why her spine and pelvis enjoy such a complex relationship with little tolerance for potholey roads or deskbound office marathons. It’s all about balance and symmetry. One accidental bump, no matter how innocuous, can upset this fragile arrangement of bones. Her body can handle being knocked about as long as both sides are evenly dealt to. In her quest for a pain-free, active life yoga has become a saviour, revealing the complex interdependencies of her body, while restoring balance and flexibility. Invariably professional adjustment is required every now and then.
He gestures towards the table. ‘On your stomach, please.’
Expertly he snaps off her bra as she puts her face through the hole in the table. Her underwear is folded down in a way that leaves her wondering how much is exposed. In this moment she’s feeling extremely vulnerable. A female friend from the university days once said, ‘You’re such a prude.’ It was triggered by Cathryn’s reaction to her friend’s confession that she’d hooked up with an older woman in a steamy relationship purely for sexual reasons. Maybe she’s overreacting this time, too.
The chiropractor tugs at her legs, slides her towards him. If she were one of these half humans, half aliens she’d break out in blisters, or turn purple on the spot. It’s just unbearable: the way he kneads her buttocks, his lame jokes about needing to play more with her boyfriend … He definitely seems to enjoy himself too much.
He tells her to relax and let him do all the work. An impossible ask.
‘Don’t resist!’ He lifts her knee and attempts to bend her limbs into a dogleg.
To distract him she reveals that she’s a yoga practitioner and is rewarded with his bellowing laughter.
‘But your body is like a piece of wood,’ he asserts, causing it to go completely rigid.
She could tell him that several yoga teachers have confirmed that her hip flexes are unusually inflexible, and that it would be unlikely that she could perform with a jammed back what would be impossible under normal circumstances. But she keeps quiet.
Agile hands run down her back, slide down her sides, knead and knead with strong fingers. Eight fingers clamp onto her hipbones while the thumbs bore into the side of her buttocks until she gasps with pain.
‘You can scream, you can cry, no problem,’ he purrs and she bites her lip, determined not to utter another sigh.
Her resolve only lasts until he forcefully pushes down on the left and right of her spine, all the way up and down again, putting his body weight behind each push, forcing the air out of her lungs in a series of groans. Through the face hole she can see his hairy toes on the yellow tiles. With strong fingers he gathers the skin along her spine and tugs, hard, and she can feel vertebrae after vertebrae click into place.
‘To create some space,’ he offers by way of explanation.
He pushes down on her pelvic bone, one hand on the left hip, the other on the right buttock, then switches to the opposite diagonal, followed by one hand on the small of the back, the other on her tailbone. An agonised ‘Uh’ escapes her as the sacrum and the coccyx find their vertebral alignment again. Then another series of diagonals and a final push in the centre.
He is curious about her age, wants to know how long she’s been in the Pacific, she says three years, and lies that she’s here with her husband and family. He reveals he’s been here for over two decades. France was becoming overly serious, too politically correct. With the recent shift here to allow dual citizenship for long-term residents he finally feels at ease in his adopted home country.
‘Beautiful place, beautiful people! Got my green passport, now the government can’t throw me out,’ he laughs and she wonders if she’s done him injustice.
She’s never met anyone who constantly exclaims the way he does, as if he’s announcing his ideas to the world. She makes the mistake of asking him whether horse riding would be a good idea in her current state.
‘If you have the balance, then it’s good. Moving your hips back and forth, like this, is good.’
It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what he’s doing. She refuses to look at him.
‘You need to select a smooth horse. Otherwise it’s bang-bang-bang!’ And he slaps her buttocks with each bang, causing her to bounce on the cushion placed under her hips.
If she had the guts she would get up this moment and walk away. Why doesn’t she? She’s furious with herself. What kind of paralysis is this? Maybe she’s haunted by the prude comment. That and the pain. The pain is real. She can’t manage a dignified exit and she’s desperate for the treatment to work. And she has faith in her colleague’s judgement. It was James, the keenest churchgoer of them all, who recommended this eccentric practitioner. He wouldn’t want any harm to befall her.
At last he seems to realise he’s overstepped the boundaries and refrains from any further action moves. But her reprieve is brief.
‘Relax, you’re just a slab of meat on my bed. Tomorrow you’ll think I’m evil.’ He bursts out in a terrible mock wicked laugh.
Is he for real? She can sense every muscle in her body tensing up into tight knots. Desperately she casts around for a subject that will restore equilibrium, not keen to revisit horses. Did he mention a son in France?
‘Your son, does he live in Paris? I hope he was nowhere near the Charlie Hebdo attack. That he was safe,’ she adds. ‘You know about Charlie Hebdo?’
‘Of course. It’s crazy, insane! My closet is full of Charlie Hebdo comics, I started collecting them at sixteen. You know the comic strips in the newspaper? That’s all it was in the beginning.’
And in that instant the ground shifts with the despicable actions on the other side of the world providing the neutral ground she’s desperately seeking. He tells her about Bernier, Charb, Cabu and Honoré, and of Charlie Hebdo’s predecessor in the 1970s.
‘You know Colombey? You know Charles de Gaulle?’
She wonders briefly what de Gaulle had to do with Colombia, and hums in response, keen not to distract him from this safe track.
‘Colombey is his village. They did a comic about the Ball of Colombey when de Gaulle died. Brilliant! Just days after a fire at a nightclub where more than a hundred people died. And for Colombey it was just one man, yet it made the front-page news. One man. In return the magazine was banned, for making a joke about it. Can you imagine? Banned! The father was drawing at the time, then his son continued and set up another magazine, and that was Charlie Hebdo.’
He’s fired up, euphoric, spitting exclamation marks. Cathryn hesitates to reveal she hasn’t understood half the intricacies, yet she’s intrigued enough to want to look it up later. Jingling chimes interrupt his monologue as the front door opens and slams shut.
‘Bonjour, Madame M,’ he calls out.
‘Bonjour, Monsieur,’ a woman’s voice responds from behind the curtain, followed by the sigh of an armchair, the rustle of newspapers.
She’s safe. Finally she can relax.
Lightheaded she shuffles out into the steamy afternoon. Her backside a mosaic of bruised meat and stretched synapses. She hesitates to speculate how it will feel tomorrow, but the pain is dulled and without bite and, miraculously, she can move freely again.
In a daze she wanders up the street towards the market house, past cars and smoking minibuses fasfas, bumper to bumper. Avoid walking, he said, only float in water for the next few days to allow the spine to decompress and grow longer. She imagines her spine as a growing stalk, sprouting new shoots above her head, perhaps a flower. A vibration against her thigh interrupts her thoughts.
‘You’ve just walked past looking like a lost cruise ship tourist. Do you need a ride?’
‘Hi Bree, I’ve just been to the chiropractor.’ She mentions his name. The line goes quiet. ‘Hello?’
‘He’s a quack,’ she says and manages to sound like an alarmed duck. ‘You need to see Doctor Ma at the hospital.’
‘The one with the needles?’
‘It’s called acupuncture, honey. Once you get past the needles he’s good as gold. Had me skipping out after the first session.’
Cathryn suspects the chiropractor’s behaviour, rather than his expertise has shaped Bree’s impression of him, but she’s too exhausted to battle it out with her.
The following morning James appears at her desk, his eyes shining with curiosity.
‘Did you go and see him?’
‘And did he fix you?’
‘He sure fixed me. He’s … um, … not exactly kosher.’
James laughs and shakes his head. ‘He’s French.’
‘He wouldn’t survive in New Zealand with his methods, I can assure you.’
‘I usually escort my wife and wait outside the curtain until she’s finished.’ His grin is unapologetic.
‘Ah, you could have told me.’ Cathryn breathes a bit easier. If the locals trust the chiropractor to handle their wives, then she shall trust him, too. Without requiring a male escort.
She returns for further treatment only because she has no choice. Each time the chiropractor does something quirky that adds to her unease. Invariably she convinces herself afterwards that it wasn’t as bad as she thought whilst trapped on his table. One time he starts by declaring he’ll put on romantic music, for the two of them, and that’s when she tells him that this would not be acceptable practice in New Zealand.
‘But I’m French,’ he says with an exaggerated shrug.
She’s not sure whether having him buy into the stereotyping makes his behaviour any more palatable. After four sessions she’s on the mend and resolves not to go back even though his hands are pure magic. She nevertheless follows his advice and lets herself float in the ocean, in any pool she can access, at least twenty minutes at a time, feeling the tension and pain ease. Letting her spine grow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mikaela Nyman is a New Zealand writer born on the Aland islands in Finland. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in Turbine, Sport, JAAM, Minarets, SWAMP and Blackmail Press. She is currently working on a novel set in Vanuatu as part of her PhD at International Institute of Modern Letters.