Caroline's Storybook

A Sense Of Reality

by Caroline Ashbee

It was only after the catastrophe of the amputation that Miranda fully understood what it was to be beautiful. She was still tall, with an aristocratic linear figure. Her face was still long, bony, and elegant, with surprisingly full sensuous lips, and with wide blue eyes under arching, naturally Garboesque brows. She still had flaxen blonde hair; but now she had one leg.

The man is ordinary, at least he looks ordinary: what you'ld expect for any forty-eight year old bachelor who hasn't taken care of himself. Some things he can't help: he's going bald. It's not his fault; but that doesn't stop his hair from falling out, and it doesn't look good. He's got a pot belly: too much beer, too much starch, no exercise. His face is meaty and his nose is red, beer again. He could dye the grey out of his hair, but it wouldn't occur to him to want to do that, and anyway if he did it would look as if he were wearing a wig. He would look better if he shaved off his ridiculous toothbrush moustache; but if he ever thought about it he would be smugly proud of it. He teaches English at the local academy and he wears the kind of clothes that men who teach English at the local academy wear. He loves the poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries. In his mind he is a cavalier, elegant, witty, a mixture of sacred and profane, sometimes with the rather brutal energy of Donne, sometimes the urbanity of Marvell, sometimes the piety of Herbert. He doesn't speak about this because there is nobody to speak to: he has lived alone since his mother died; but in his bed-sittingroom, in the evening, he reads aloud the words. Sometimes he sits gazing into the gas fire and in his reveries he sees again the ideal girl, his own girl, shaped, perfected in his imagination over thirty years, swinging her single leg between her crutches.

It wasn't enough that another girl ripened too early, blossomed at fourteen for a while, to fade and coarsen, with short limbs, barrel torso, fulminating acne, in her late teens; not enough that there was nothing for her at school, nor for her in life. She spent her time hanging round the bikers, on the periphery, paying for their toleration by inert amenability: she would do anything, allow anything. She was riding on the pillion when the driver was killed. A drunken driver turning right hit them broadside and dragged them two hundred yards. That was not enough, and afterwards she lost her leg. Now she wears black sweaters like sacks over long blanket skirts. Her skin is like red porridge. She stamps about the world. She is still ready to do anything; but nobody asks her now. She has no hopes, no aspirations; she lives without introspection. She buys cider to drink alone in front of the television in her mother's flat.

On Saturdays he goes into crowds looking for the girl. He has given up any hope of speaking to her. What could he say to her?
'Come my Celia, let us prove
'While we may the sports of love...
'Come live with me and be my love...
'Love bade me welcome...
'Go, lovely rose...

But he goes, walking through the weekend-crowded shopping streets, searching, intent, glancing from person to person, hoping to catch a glimpse, not of the girl, the platonic ideal, but of some sub-lunary realization of that ideal that still retains some vestiges of the perfection of the universal.

She has to buy shoes. She is stamping through the crowds going to the shoe shops. She hates buying shoes: the assistants always want to try on the right shoe, and her right foot is the artificial one.

He sees her head and can see that she walks with a limp. There is, can be, no attraction: just vulgar curiosity. He moves towards her obliquely. Close observation has taught him what to look for: the uncreased shoe, the rigid ankle, the slight outward swing of the leg. Yes, she is an amputee, to that extent she is a manifestation of the universal girl; but bulky in black, and sullen faced, she is not attractive. 'Mustn't be too obvious.' he thinks looking away. She sees him staring, another one. Should she say anything? 'It's rude to stare.' or 'Eat shit and die.' or just bark at him, barking is very effective and it makes her feel better. As she stamps past him she turns and barks at him like a dog. He starts and walks away hurriedly, guilty and embarrassed. The quest loses its charm. He goes straight to the nearest bus stop and waits for the next bus home.

It happens so seldom. Perhaps twice or three times in a year he sees a woman who has lost a leg and then she is too old, too young, too beautiful, too ugly, and always too unapproachable. Once, at a party held by the Christian Union, when he was a fresher, he had seen her, cool, elegant, slight, with blonde hair to her shoulders, in a lavender summer frock, one leg below the skirt, sitting alone on a sofa. Drowning with emotion he could not speak to her. By the time he had nerved himself to speak to her another girl had joined her and he hadn't the courage to introduce himself. He had seen her a few times around the university; but he never dared to speak to her. Then he heard that she had died of lung cancer. The other time, in love with the perfect girl for him, not beautiful, but pleasant, smiling, forthright. Everything was wonderful and then one day he asked her to leave off her prosthesis and go out with him on crutches. She called him a pervert and he went away. She never spoke to him again.

When he got home he boiled the kettle on the gas-ring in the fireplace. He made a pot of tea and while it was brewing he got out his portable typewriter and the packet of quarto typing paper. He unfolded the little card table and set it up in the narrow gap between the bed and the armchair, poured out his tea and began to type.

'It was only after the catastrophe of the amputation that Miranda fully understood what it was to be beautiful. She was still tall with an aristocratic linear figure. Her face was still long, bony, and elegant, with surprisingly full sensuous lips, and with wide blue eyes under arching, naturally Garboesque brows. She still had flaxen blonde hair; but now she had one leg...'

He had it all planned out. She would meet Miles, a publisher, handsome, a yachtsman, at a chamber music concert: string quartets, Haydn, Débussy, Mozart. He would see her sitting down and wouldn't be able to tell. They would talk, discover shared interests, 'Can I see you again?' and then she would get up and walk to show him, before she answered, and he would see and wouldn't mind. Later he would tell her very tenderly, after they had made love for the first time, that he thought her even more beautiful without her prosthesis. A little pain, a little apprehension, a little unhappiness, and a lifetime of happiness together, she swinging on her crutches, more than resigned to her fate, welcoming it, revelling in the support of a handsome loving man, he cherishing the most vulnerable, cherishable of women.

He finished writing it, typed a fair copy, and filed it with all the others.

Sunday tomorrow, and after Sunday another week at school, and then out he would sally forth once again, as usual, hopeless, on the unachievable quest.


Friday 30th June 1995
© Caroline Ashbee 1992-1995