The dog lay at their feet as the two women stretched. They were in the only empty space in between the weight machines jammed into the rehab’s gym.
The spaniel was white and brown and wearing a blue “Support Dog” vest. Her head rested between shaggy paws. There was a half-busted tennis ball in her mouth. She watched Diane, her master, and Poppy, the gym trainer, bending from their waists until their heads almost met in the middle.
‘You wonder what she thinks about all this. Like, do they understand us,’ Poppy offered her client.
As she reached for her toes, Poppy’s blonde pony-tail plonked over her forehead and eyes. Her movements were swift and fluid like water running down a stream, Diane noticed.
‘I know this dog probably does. Bloody mind reader. But for her sake I sometimes hope she doesn’t see the insides of my FUBAR head at all,’ Diane said. She tapped her knuckles on her short-cropped, female-standard military haircut.
Poppy laughed as she brought one leg over the other and then pressed her elbow to stretch her glutes. Diane did the same.
‘FUBAR. Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. Haven’t heard that one for a while. Mostly from the Vietnam guys, and there’s less of them now.’
‘Yeah, I have plenty of friends in low places. The first time the Army put me in the nut house, they sent me to America. Programs allegedly more advanced there.’
‘Push further into your glute. Feel it? So, were the programs better?’
‘Dunno. I was messed up at the time. Only a few months post-shit. PTSD were just a bunch of letters – it was new to me then. Now, it’s a fucking lifestyle. Isn’t it, dog?’
The spaniel dropped the soggy ball from her mouth. It slapped a slick saliva blob on the mat. She lifted her head, solid as a tugboat, toward Diane, as the women stood up.
They each leant forward. They put their hands on each other’s shoulders and pushed. Poppy’s designer activewear stretched tight against her toned body. Her legs looked like they’d been drawn by a Ferrari engineer sitting in an immaculate white studio looking through a huge window out a Shinto garden.
Diane’s faded cotton rugby shorts, with her unit insignia’s embroidery fraying on them, pulled against her broad ass.
Diane felt the younger woman’s strength through her lower back and down into her hamstrings. It was the first human touch, she recalled, for months and she breathed it in.
But, as she breathed out, the constant tingle in her spine switched gears into piercing pain. To the left of where a piece of shrapnel from the roadside bomb had hit her and caused two vertebrae to instantly rupture. The rest had hit her lower down.
And hello Dolly, she thought. To ease the pain, she closed her eyes and visualised a zipper being opened and closed.
The dog shifted position and crawled in between the archway the two women had formed.
Open and close, Keep breathing. Open and close. These were the card tricks Diane had picked up in wards and clinics. From shrinks, physios, other vets, the fucking Internet. In-patient, out-patient, in-and-out patient, in-between patient, out-of-bounds patient. Anything but patient.
Self-awareness. Mindfulness. Accepting versus challenging your thoughts and emotions. Breathing. Visualisations. Role plays. Dousing the face with cold water.
There was also an endless array of acronyms. From the first one – IED or Improvised Explosive Device - to all borne of it. CBT to DBT to IMPROVE to SUDS – each some psychological Rosetta Stone dreamt up by an academic to deal with the pain, calm the constant chatter, and help move forward. Card tricks to distract the brain away from what it wanted to do: hurt you.
It was like taking one acronym – PTSD – and fighting it against another in a no-rules cage match. Battle Royale for the Brain. But to Diane it seemed PTSD knew the ring better, had fought more bouts, and could take a storm of punches from any opponent.
‘FUBAR,’ she laughed as Poppy pressed harder. The acronym she remembered over all others. The dog stood up and her thick tail wagged between the women stretching.
‘It’s like she knows it’s the end of the session. Places to pee, people to see.’
As Poppy’s hands dropped from her shoulders, Diane felt like she was falling out the back of a C140 aircraft. She took a step sideways, steadied, and reached down for the dog’s lead.
‘Me included. People to see. Mum’s crook with a cold so I need to go see her. But tomorrow right? Same time, right.’
‘Roger that. Hope your mum feels better.’
Diane looked at Poppy’s blue eyes. There wasn’t a red mark anywhere on them.
She realised then it was the clearest she’d felt in weeks. It hadn’t been about some kind of therapy, framework, or model.
As Poppy turned off the gym’s lights, Diane organised her gear, picked up her gym bag, and told the dog to lead on.
As they went into the hallway, she heard Poppy’s cheerful ‘Hooroo’. The kid knew her old Aussie stuff too, Diane thought.
Diane and the dog walked down the hospital’s hallway. Her mind bounced. She wondered about permission from the Nurse Unit Manager to use the kitchen and make Poppy’s mum chicken soup. The fresh image of her muscular legs stretching the bright flowers on her workout pants. What it would be like to share cold wine in a pub garden on a sunny Sunday.
They turned the corner near the administration office. She saw the pictures on the wall: Pope and hospital CEO.
Then, she noticed a package on the floor against the admin’s door. It was spherical, cardboard covered and bubble wrapped. Black and yellow plastic tape around it, saying: FRAGILE.
Diane couldn’t move. She reverted back to her breathing exercise. The dog’s thick tale wagged against her prosthetic leg and made a metallic sound.