Caroline's Storybook


by Caroline Ashbee

I thought of the last time I had been in that street: I had had a wife then, when I met Dorothy for the first time, and my life was changed forever. It had been just an ordinary street then, typical of a small town in the north of England, lined with terraced houses built of glazed red brick, the houses opening directly on to the pavement, the sort of street that shopkeepers would have lived in, or clerks, the respectable lower middle class of the nineteenth century. It had been getting shabbier and shabbier, but now it was becoming genteel, with new traditional-panelled-front-doors with new traditional-brass-door-knockers, and new traditional-brass-carriage-lamps. The people owned Volvo estate cars, parked, bumper to bumper on either side of the road, and in most of the cars there was the grid in the back to contain the black labrador. Then it had been a commonplace street: now like everywhere I went it had an impalpable magic, a particularity. Every detail was sharp, newly made: a terracotta moulding, damaged over the years by frost, was delicately exfoliating into precisely defined scarlet flakes, the street-lights shining up, pools of yellow light from beneath the rain-wet flagstones flowed about me. The rain tasted of grapes freshly crushed, clean, clear, and sweet; and each sound paused, hung in the air for a moment to be heard for its very own self before it tizzed away in echoes down the street, to be succeeded by the next. My crutches clicked crisply as they were placed on the ground with each pace. I looked down at my stump swinging slightly in sympathy as my leg swung between the shafts, the aluminium still bright and unoxidized, the white ferrules still unworn, edged with little membraneous skins where the molten rubber had seeped into crevices of the mold. I had been trying hard not to fall into the habit of looking down as I walked; but it was fascinating to watch the foot swinging forward, placing itself between the crutches, the shift of the weight over the foot, the lifting, slight spreading of the crutches clearing the ground, the slight closing as they were placed ahead, the weight transferred to the arms, the moment of balance, hanging from the crutches, swinging the leg forward to complete the step. What was so fascinating was that all this subtlety was learned unconsciously, so naturally, and in such a short time. Already I was forgetting what it had been like to walk with two legs, but I would never need to do that again, never be able to do that again, so it might as well be forgotten.

That first time we met the conversation turned to her lover who had died a few months previously. 'At first I couldn't tell anybody, I was so ashamed. I thought it must have been obvious to everybody why I found him so attractive, I could feel myself devouring him with my eyes, but people are so unob-servant... When I told my daughter she couldn't believe it, she hadn't noticed. So I suppose that nobody noticed. At first I wasn't even sure that David noticed.' I had taken her out for lunch to a country pub, bread and cheese and apples, eaten outside, with beer, in the spring sunshine.

From where we were sitting we could see across a wooded valley, hazy and humid, as the rain, fallen continuously over the past few days, was drawn up by the strong sun. Talking of such matters I was careful not to speak loudly, not to be overheard by people sitting at adjacent tables, and to refer to things only through circumlocution and allusion. After lunch I had driven her home and she offered me coffee,

'Just instant.'

'Is there any other kind?' and we sat in the tiny garden drinking it, Dorothy lying on a folding bed, in the narrow patch of Sun slanting in a shaft between the houses, I sitting beside her, all tweed jacket and primness, on a folding chair, half under a weeping ash tree.

'No, it's quite all right, I'm very comfortable. No, really, I can manage. I like to have the twigs in my hair.' The talk turned again to David.

'Of course he was an amputee.' she said. 'That's what made him attractive. It's nice to be able to speak openly about it to someone else who can understand what I felt. I couldn't even speak to him about it directly, though towards the end I think he guessed. I don't think he liked what he suspected.' She went on: 'I think that everyone who is attracted to amputees has a wish, it might be weak, it might be strong, to know, to know really, to know in the only way you can really know, what it's like to be an amputee. Don't you? 'I've never told anybody before,' she added, 'but I have a fantasy about losing my arm.'

'Do you think about it very often?'

'There's no point in talking about it...' I didn't tell Dorothy but the conversation had moved my life to a cusp. For as long as I could remember I there had been periods when I had wanted, yearned, to have a leg amputated. The periods had come and gone, and knowing that they would pass eventually always prevented me from attempting to satisfy my desire. To divert myself I had sought out physical activities that demanded an unmutilated body, and had come to value my prowess in them as a distraction and an insurance... How could I continue with aikido if I had a leg removed? But the desire came flooding back to me, overwhelming the defences I had built about myself as easily as the flowing tide washes away a sandcastle, and this time I knew that I would not resist.

Over the years I had planned how to do it, how to make it necessary for my leg to be amputated. The obvious things I had discarded because they were too dangerous: they mostly involved danger from loss of blood or from embolism. Shooting a leg off with a sawn-off shotgun would satisfy the desire, but I would need to summon help, and there was the possibility that I would bleed to death. Help could be summoned before the shooting, but to be safe the ambulance would have to be at the very door and the ambulance-men would hear a shot said to have happened several, perhaps many minutes previously. Sitting on a railway line waiting, with a leg over the rail, was another idea; but I couldn't think of a way to guarantee that I would be treated before I bled to death, but even if I could solve that problem I was always frightened that some protruding part of a train would strike me and kill me as it hurtled past after it had sheared off my leg. After I had attended a first-aid course at work the outline of the plan presented itself. What I would have to do would be to stop the circulation to my left leg until it mortified˛--by this time I had decided that I wanted to have my left leg amputated˛--using a tourniquet, and that after the circulation had been completely stopped for some hours the flesh would be dead beyond hope of revival. The problem with this is that if the tourniquet were then removed the circulation would import products of the mortification into the rest of the body and this could cause kidney failure and death. The final solution came when I remembered a project I had been involved with when I was a student. We were studying seals and needed to identify them individually. To do this we branded them, not with a hot iron, but with a cold one; it is more humane. You shave off a patch of fur hold the brand on to the skin and where the brand touches the skin the fur grows back white. The brand was a massive block of copper chilled to a deathly cold by being immersed in bucket of containing a mixture of methylated spirits and dry ice. I remembered the bucket bubbling as if the purple spirit were boiling as the dry ice sublimed into gas. So that was the combination, a tubular container, a climber's harness, a tourniquet, a stethoscope, and a mixture of methylated spirits and dry ice. It worked: there was no way they could save the leg after it had been frozen through, so they had to amputate it. That was six weeks ago.

So much has changed since then. Mary, my wife for fifteen years, horrified at what I had done to myself committed suicide. I hadn't anticipated that. She committed the act in the careful thoughtful way she did everything: She took the cat to the vet's and arranged for it to be boarded there until I came out of hospital. Then she went through the correspondence and paid the outstanding bills. She even took her books back to the library. She wrote a letter to me telling me what she would have done by the time I received it, and posted it to me. Then she went home, put the car into the garage, closed the door and attached a piece of hosepipe to the exhaust of her car, fed the hose through a window, started the engine, and poisoned herself with carbon monoxide. When they found her they were surprised that she had not fouled herself in her death agony: I knew that she wouldn't have done that, she would have taken care to void her bladder and her bowels before the final act. She died as she had lived, neatly, and considerately. It was the ultimate gesture of disapproval. Either she had stopped loving me or she had loved me too much: an irresolvable and pitiful enigma.

They took me to the funeral in a wheelchair. There had been no announcement in the press. There was the parson, and there were the two ambulance men and a nurse with me at the crematorium. The capstan of the tape machine was worn out and the organ music stuck and jerked, just as the curtains did as they closed before the coffin. The Burial Service was gabbled from the Book of Common Prayer. I felt the sadness from behind analgesic satisfaction, like the pain behind the morphine, the new pain I was experiencing, pain of the body, still pain, still feeling no different from unanaesthetised pain, but not disturbing, not frightening. I was sorry she was dead, and I knew that I had killed her; but the pain did not distress me then, no pain could, though it made me feel melancholy. Everything was so new then. Everything was so newly precise, and nothing could distract me from the glory of the little stump, my stump, healing under the blanket.

My employers suspected that there was something unusual about what had befallen us. They were very generous with sick leave. I suspect that if I had insisted on returning to work they would have suspended my employment until the complications had sorted themselves out. There were new things to do. I had to buy a car with an automatic gearbox and learn to drive it. I had to do something about my clothes: as it was, the empty leg of my trousers flapped everywhere. At first I simply doubled it up and safety-pinned it at my waist, later I doubled the leg back inside itself, and tucked the empty end inside the waist-band. Finally, I got out Mary's sewing machine, and cut off the superfluous cloth from the left leg of each pair of trousers, and sewed it across on the inside to make a closed bag for the stump. I left the cat in the boarding kennel and without knowing quite why I was doing it I drove half-way across England to see Dorothy. I had parked the car at the end of the street and was walking in the crystalline night, rain, sweetness, precision, crispness of clicking, slap of the footstep, murmur of a passing car, towards Dorothy's front door.

I paused, looking at points of brightness in the droplets of the rain on the buttery brass door-knocker. I shifted my weight, passed the right crutch to the left hand, and reached for the knocker. For a moment I paused. I could still turn and go away: that would be the best thing; but I knocked, transferred the crutch back to my right hand, waited, and she opened the door. The empty right sleeve of her shirt was pinned up to the shoulder.

'Oh Dorothy...' I said.

'Michael...' she said, 'You look so lovely...'

'You look so lovely.'

© Caroline Ashbee 1992-1995