Not A Leg To Stand On, by Amy Hindley
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From: Not A Leg To Stand On, by Amy Hindley
The last time the RAF officer comes into the ward, he picks me up from the cot as usual, cuddling and smothering me with kisses and giving me a rag doll; I call her Polly. This moment is my earliest memory, and I can recall it vividly to this day.
When a nurse on duty rings a bell to end the visiting hour, his eyes become misty. I gaze at him, motionless, and cram my small fist into my mouth. Sensing the intense whispering among the nurses, I know that something is terribly wrong. I bury my face against his. My memory of the subsequent moments is a muddle of terrified screams and my futile attempts to hold onto him, as the nurse pulls me away from my special person. He disappears in the stream of other visitors, out of the ward and out of my life.
Alder-Hey Children’s Hospital is a teaching hospital. I’m wheeled on a trolley along to the lecture room, discussed sometimes briefly and at other times scrutinised in detail. Strange long words are uttered with great deliberation, as to how my body can be changed and improved. From the time of my birth, exploring fingers solemnly but clumsily probe me; a child who has spina bifida and vascular problems. [Spina bifida, which means literally cleft spine, is characterised by incomplete development of the brain, spinal chord and/or menges – the protective covering around the brain and spinal chord.] Sometimes as many as a dozen students queue up to look at my back, and my useless legs with their clubbed feet. It is strange to relate but occasionally, as some young student steps forward to take his turn at manipulating me, he is actually trembling with excitement, like a boy who has at last got his hands on some expensive piece of machinery. It is a queer feeling. Queer, I mean, because of their intense interest in learning their job, together with a seeming lack of perception that I, the object of their fascination, am a human being.
For years I’m swept into this strange world of medical ethics; hidden away from the outside world, lost between referring specialists, scientists, nurses, obstetricians and orthopaedic surgeons, no one taking ultimate responsibility. I’m a case on the record-cards of numerous professionals and a great source of irritation to some of them. None ever seems to know what to do for the best. Somehow I elude them all.
There’s the weekly routine of doctors’ rounds. Every Tuesday afternoon, between 3pm and 4pm, the doors are thrown wide open and about seventeen men and four women (some of them overseas students) erupt into the long ward with Mr Dwyer, the head surgeon. All are listening to him as, still in full flood, he lectures about the cases they have just seen. After a few minutes of standing in the middle of the ward surrounded by his attentive class, the surgeon walks over to my bed and begins, without further preliminaries, to ‘teach on me.’ There’s a deathly hush throughout the whole ward, except for the whispering of the student doctors. No patient is allowed to speak during these sessions. On a rare occasion a physiotherapist or woman almoner will accompany them but, like the nurses, they stand at the back out of the way and never speak unless they are asked for information. The group goes from bed to bed, trailing a big X-ray viewing box with racks underneath for charts. One by one we are being discussed.
On the mornings I’m scheduled for operations, I’m awakened in the early hours and given a thin piece of dry toast and a mug of Oxo. Then, washed and dressed in a white hospital gown tied at the back (but still with revealing gaps) white paper panties and theatre cap, I wait my turn throughout the long morning. Polly goes everywhere with me, even to the operating theatre. Nurse will bandage her little legs, a precursor to how I shall be after each successive operation. I watch nervously as the porter, dressed in khaki overalls, wheels the trolley past long rows of beds, to mine. A nurse, holding on to one end of the trolley, carries my case-notes and X-rays. Down we go in the grinding iron lift to the second floor; I’m pushed along the corridor into a side-room opposite the main theatre. The green-masked people speak with no mouths, and stand around me till I can’t keep my eyes open any longer, as ether is dripped into the mask placed over my mouth and nose.
Hours later I wake slowly, wincing at the sheer pain of being conscious and alone. A wire cradle has been put over me and the bottom end of the bed is elevated. Beneath the blanket, I’m covered in a white plaster cast, propped way up on pillows. A little later, without a word, the staff-nurse injects a syringe of fluid into my arm. The reduction of pain is only temporary; I’d have preferred just one sympathetic person to soothe me and hold my hand.
In the ward, everything happens very swiftly and efficiently. There’s always plenty of activity, as well as a strict routine. Sister Bradshaw is very proud of her ward and keeps it running like a well-oiled machine. Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, between the hours of two and four, are designated visiting days. Only two visitors are allowed around each cot or bed. Among all the patients, it is clear that I am the only truly unwanted daughter. Finally, I resolve the mortification by tucking my head under the bedcovers for the periods of visiting time.
One day the peace of the ward is shattered. Sister Bradshaw has taken Polly away and destroyed her, simply because she is considered unhygienic. This act of unnecessary cruelty has brought to the surface powerful feelings of anger in me. I have always been a good and quiet child, but now my outburst of anguish transfixes everyone, as well as shocking me.
“I hate you ...you ...fat cow!” I scream. There is a stunned silence. It is as though life has been suspended in the group of nurses; they have the appearance of puppets whose strings are being held stationary by their operator. Sister’s face becomes grey and pinched. Without a word she waddles over to the side of my bed, and hits me hard. Then she turns and stalks purposefully down the ward. Corpse-like, I lie on my side staring at the wall. Tears ooze from the corners of my eyes, the hurt of losing Polly is too powerful to sublimate. However hard I blink, moisture keeps pushing out in a steady trickle, and as my sense of isolation increases, I retreat into a private world to escape my misery.
On three occasions I’m put up for fostering, each attempt ending with my being sent back to the orphanage – a failure. The first time I’m fostered, I’m about six.
One afternoon, a couple in their middle thirties comes into the playroom with the administrator. After looking around the playroom and watching each child in turn, they cluster by the window to discuss the matter. Some weeks later the administrator visits the housemother to inform her of their decision. They have chosen me!
The following week I’m handed over to the social worker. The car moves out of the driveway and down the long avenue, through the big wrought-iron gates towards my new home with the Browns. On this first occasion, I am disorientated by my unfamiliar surroundings and bewildered by these strangers. Every smallest thing that I encounter during those early days overwhelms me, not to mention the confusion engendered by getting used to having parents. I’m in a world of unreality. Everything is strange, although, in truth, at the beginning most of it’s wonderful.
I’m taken out in my wheelchair into a sleepy provincial city, a tidy little place with clean streets, bright red double-decker buses, and orderly traffic. I peer, unbelieving, into the interiors of the shops. I watch enviously a little girl of my own age, dressed up in her Sunday best, with puffed sleeves and button shoes, proudly wheeling a doll that reclines grandly on a pillow of its own. It sounds strange to relate, with hindsight, but I marvel just at the sight of the women in pretty dresses and men in white shirts and neckties.
And each day Mr Brown takes me sightseeing in his car, reads to me at bedtime, treats me as if I am his own daughter. At first it is all that I could hope for.
However, as the months go by, life in the Browns’ household takes a turn for the worse.
The couple starts quarrelling and my name crops up again and again. When Mr Brown arrives home, there’s invariably a yelling session. I’m so scared by the atmosphere engendered by their rows that I frequently wet my knickers. My bladder control, during childhood, is at best fragile, and any stress aggravates its fragility. Added to this, whenever I wet the bed, which is often, Mrs Brown will stoop and grab me by the hair, pulling me out of bed. At these times the tone of her voice, now sickeningly sugary, informs me of what’s coming. And it does ...ominously, inevitably. Her intimidating figure towers over me as she rubs my nose in the sodden sheet, while simultaneously slapping my bottom.
“If it wasn’t for my husband, you’d be out of here,” she snarls.
She roughly puts on my callipers, and tries to get me to walk with my partially paralysed legs. These callipers are attached to my thighs with soft, leathery straps. Two long irons extend to the heels of brown surgical boots, which enclose my club-feet. They’re heavy, uncomfortable, and do nothing to help me walk, as they have no flexibility at the ankle or knee. None-the-less, Mrs Brown will not accept defeat. I try so hard to please her, but she’s fuelled by impatience and accuses me of being lazy.
In her anger she gives me a resounding slap with her powerful right hand, shouting as she does so, “You stupid child.”
The threats and moments of brutality with which she holds me in place become more frequent. I stare unblinkingly up at her, and my defiant attitude seems to be the last straw. Taking their cue from their mother, her two sons increasingly assert themselves during their father’s absence. When we’re out in the garden they flick pellets of dirt at me. Each time a pellet hits my face I try to hide, dodge, zigzag my wheelchair left and right, attempting to protect myself from them. But there’s no escape.
One day I’m shoved around more violently. Next thing I know, I’m thrown from my wheelchair to the ground, where I lie cast, covered with scrapes and bruises. I let out a piercing scream. Their father has come home unexpectedly early from work. In two strides he is in the garden and onto the boys, before they can scramble up and make their retreat. Simultaneously, he seizes and lifts them by the collars of their shirts. With each shake the boys jerk about like struggling fish, and Mr Brown doesn’t hold back with his language.
His wife comes running out, shouting, “No, John. No!”
He releases his hold on the boys, and like greased lightning they’re off. Mr Brown bends to check that I’m all right, then lifts and carries me inside. He lowers me gently down on the couch in the sitting room, and takes a look at my bruises. Mrs Brown stands in the doorway with her arms folded across her chest; silent. After a minute or two she disappears to search in vain for her sons. They are not seen again for several hours. The anxiety levels in the house are close to eruption. Everyone has forgotten about me. Feeling that I’m entirely to blame, I start crying and stammering, to the extent that I become incoherent. Mr Brown kneels, puts one arm about me and holds me close to his chest, gently stroking my hair. The sitting room door suddenly opens. Mrs Brown is standing in the doorway with the boys. Her mouth agape, she stares fixedly at her husband.
“You think more of her than your own kids,” she blurts out. Then, to my horror, she approaches me, pushes Mr Brown to one side and forces me down on the couch, venting her feelings by giving me a stinging slap across the face. I cry out loud. It’s the final straw. All pretence of control has gone; she viciously beats me, her slaps landing on my cheeks, ears and head. Everyone in the room cowers. I wriggle, fight and resist with all my might. I’m totally bewildered; I can’t understand why Mr Brown does not intervene and come to my rescue. Eventually, his wife runs out of steam. I’m exiled to my bedroom, and Mr Brown is forbidden to see or speak to me.
Later, I’m taken away. I remember that Saturday afternoon with vivid clarity. Mr Brown has taken Brian to a football match; Ian is attending a birthday party. My scant belongings packed, Mrs Brown and I sit side by side in the back of the taxi. The scent of Mrs Brown’s perfume saturates the car, making me dizzy. I don’t know what her intentions are, but I’m only too aware that my future is in her hands.
On our arrival at the orphanage, she and the social worker disappear into a private room to confer for what seems like an interminable period. Meanwhile, I’m left outside. The waiting is horrible. I sit there only too aware that I have failed.
Finally the pair emerges. Astonishingly, in front of the social worker Mrs Brown smiles and pats me fondly on the head. During all my time with them, this is the first and last occasion she has ever shown me any affection.
Day after day I sit alone in the cubicle of the sickbay, making up fairytales and indulging in an imaginary wonderland. I am really a little princess in disguise, thrust into the cruel Browns’ household by accident. One day my own mother will come out of the sky to rescue me and take me to live in her enchanted castle. Eventually I become so absorbed in these fantasies that I actually begin to look forward to my future, comforting myself with the hope that, one day, things will be better for Polly and me.
Apart from daily rituals, I’m totally alone, unless some other child comes into the sick bay for a short period; and there I stay until I’m removed once again to the hospital.
When Amelia leaves hospital she asks her parents if I can come to them for Christmas. At this time we’re both eleven. To the Grove family, Christmas is to be observed in the true religious meaning. Even so, there’s still the giving of presents, which poses a problem for me as I have little pocket money. I have made Amelia’s Mam a cross-stitch bookmark, but what to give her Dad? I find myself with only sixpence to spend. How can I give him a solitary pencil, a packet of drawing pins, a cake of cheap soap, which is all my money will run to?
Amelia and I have been shopping all afternoon and are tired and hungry. Then a solution to my problem presents itself. We have stopped outside a bookshop. Amelia takes a rest from pushing me, and I’m turning over a tray of second-hand books marked All at 6d. It’s that 6d which has attracted me, not the books. They’re shabby and dirty and I have no thought of giving a successful solicitor such a gift. Anyway, books are for grown-ups’ bestowing.
This one volume is beneath the tray, and under a sheet of newspaper. Lifting the newspaper, I catch sight of its cover of clean white vellum, stamped with gold. I can’t imagine how it comes to be in the 6d tray. Cautiously, I draw it out, open it and cast a quick look inside. It’s obviously quite new; most of the pages are uncut. I feel the end papers, which are satiny white, stamped with a curious little object in gold that conveys nothing to me at all; no more does the title. Stunned by the beauty of both binding and paper, I can hardly believe my luck.
Even so, I do have an uneasy feeling that I should be sending Amelia in to ask about the contents, because the front cover has a picture of a naked man and woman, but they’re probably gods, I reason. Gods, I know, are allowed to be naked, as long as their hands are properly disposed. I drop my sixpence in the saucer, put the book under the blanket covering my lap, and we hurry home.
In the bedroom we share, I show my purchase to Amelia. She no more than glances at it, and reads aloud, “The Eight Attitudes and Sixty-Four Ingredients of Love.”
It sounds strange to me; I’m not aware that love has attitudes or ingredients. “Will it do for your Dad?”
“Yes, he’ll love it! Hurry – wrap it up! Mam’s waiting for us to take down our presents for under the tree.”
Mr Groves comes to my parcel almost last. I watch covertly. He undoes the string, unfolds the paper and looks. After a moment I begin to think he must be stunned, he’s so still. Smugly, I take this as a tribute; it’s a surprisingly handsome book to come from an eleven year old. He opens the front cover, still keeping the book in its paper; not once does he lift it out for public view, as I have proudly hoped. He shoots a look in my direction. Then I see that he has coloured deeply – with pleasure, I wonder? I’m assailed once more by the uncertainty I felt when I saw those naked gods. The next minute he’s wrapped the book up again and thrust it under all his other presents. He begins to undo his next gift. He’s been quick, but not fast enough for his wife.
“Why, Frankie, what do we have here?” she asks.
“Nothing,” he replies briefly.
Nothing! My precious book? I open my mouth but get a look from him that I have never received before, a look that quells me.
“It’s poems,” he says. “They’re only for me.”
“Poems? I never knew you went in for that sort of thing,” remarks Grandma.
There’s a sudden sound from Mr Groves; I raise my head and look at him. He is concentrating upon opening his other parcels; but it sounds like – a chuckle!
Fazakerley Cottage Homes takes in boarders and orphans; boys on one side of the avenue, girls on the other. The two groups are not allowed to socialise with one another. Life in the orphanage is governed by strict discipline and tedious rituals of order and stability.
From the end of November to the end of January, however, there’s a break in the tedium. We experience a round of festivity, funded by several Liverpool companies. Each firm adopts one of the cottages; they treat the children to Christmas presents, as well as paying for the annual summer holiday to the Isle-of-Man, or a holiday camp in Wales.
One Christmas, when I’m about five, I’m transferred from sick-bay to Number 14 Cottage, because the superintendent had managed to find an extra nurse to look after me. I’m taken with other children to see Father Christmas in a big department store in the city. He sits in his grotto surrounded by his little helpers, fairies and elves. I can hardly contain my pleasure at the spectacle. It’s rich with colour, exquisitely decorated with beautiful lamps, and lavishly furnished.
While my caregiver is paying attention to her own shopping, I wander off in my wheelchair to gaze in wonder at all the fairy-lights, the brilliant decorations, the amazing, brightly coloured and wrapped seasonal gifts, and so many types of toys. Fascinated by it all, I push my way through the crowd from one display to another, until I’m hidden among the seething mass of people. They are squeezing along the narrow aisles between the stalls, loaded with their many parcels. Sometime later, I begin to feel a little hungry. Then it dawns on me that I’m alone. Astonished and horrified, I scream! It takes an immense amount of screaming to attract any attention in that noisy throng. Finally, I’m successful. A crowd of shoppers gathers around me, staring. At first I like the attention and amuse everyone with my chatter. The manager is sent for. He surveys the crowd and addresses the assembly, wanting to know who owns me. The shoppers look at one another and shake their heads.
“Where is your Mummy?” he asks gently.
Bewildered, I reply, “What’s a mummy?”
The crowd opens in front of us and closes behind him, as he takes me up in a lift to his office. There, he gives me a lollipop to suck. Meanwhile, the rest of the group has assembled outside the store, and heads are being counted. All are present except me, of course. For a few minutes there is confusion. Two of the helpers are sent to look for me among the shoppers, while the rest of the Napier’s people and over-excited children wait outside. As the two women dash back inside, they hear an announcement over the loud speaker.
“Will the parents of a lost child please report to the manager’s office on the third floor, immediately.”
They head straight for his office and stare incredulously at me. I’m happily sucking on my lollypop and oblivious of the chaos I’ve caused. Open-mouthed, they don’t know what to say to me, but I know I’m in for a slap when I get back to the orphanage.
Every year, the orphanage puts on a variety show to raise funds. The dressing room is full of giggling children, already clad in their bright costumes. I’m ten and feeling gorgeous, in royal blue velvet. Mrs Joy, the assistant stage manager, hurries from one small player to the next, straightening hats, securing dangerously wobbling beards, and fixing cloaks. The music sounds. First the infant children troop onto the stage to loud applause, half-skipping, half-marching and keeping uncertain step. A big boy and big girl, eleven-plus, stand at the lectern and read alternatively the brief, fairy-tale bits of the Nativity Play, while the others mime their parts.
My entrance is ten minutes later, because I’m used as the entr’acte. This year it’s my turn to show off. I’m wheeled onto the stage, looking magnificent in my blue velvet and fake fur. No sooner have I finished my first song, Me and my Teddy Bear, than half-crowns are thrown onto the stage from all directions. The money keeps arriving throughout my second song, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. I stare around me as I sing. Never have I seen so many coins cover a stage.
The show ends with a tableau, and I’m in the centre front. After the applause has died down, we youthful actors, crimson with excitement, change into our own clothes and are sent back to the church hall for cake and a glass of lemonade.
When I’m fourteen years old, and after having my twelfth operation, the hospital discharges me back to the orphanage to be included, with children of similar age, in a fortnight’s annual summer holiday on the Isle of Man.
Nurse Clare and I stay overnight in the home of a timber importer and his wife, down by the Liverpool docks. In the bright, flat light of early morning we leave for the ship with our bags and baggage. There’s the exhilarating panorama of the docklands, spread out on every side before my eager gaze. A fresh breeze is blowing, causing the gulls to wheel and scream, while the ship’s anchor shifts and creaks uneasily on its cable. Mick, a gigantic Irish sailor, manoeuvres the wheelchair alongside the gangway, then lifts me out and carries me in his big hairy arms, as though I weigh nothing. Nurse Clare follows, pushing the wheelchair, then wishes me a happy holiday and departs. I’m so excited, because it’s my first time on a ship. I watch the waves break, thundering onto the harbour wall, knocking the boats against each other at their moorings. I stay on deck, laughing aloud as my hair is whipped into wild disorder. Several gulls float on the water, wings folded, seeming too idle to fly. Another gull cries over the sea, while I stretch out my arms in an unselfconscious gesture.
Maureen arrives with Matron, staff and the other children, who are being shepherded down the gangway onto the lower decks of the big ship. Maureen has been entrusted with the additional care of me. Silently, we watch the tossed whiteness of waves spreading from the bow, as the ship slips out from the harbour to the sea.
In the middle of the afternoon, we arrive safely in Douglas Harbour. A line of buses stretches along the quayside, waiting to take one hundred children and staff members to the seaside town of Peel. Soon we are being whisked along the seafront to the hotels. The coach lurches to a stop before the boarding house on the corner; Sea View. It’s one of a terrace of identical, pleasant, Edwardian seaside hotels with balconies. All joined together, they line the promenade that edges the shoreline.
Mrs Goodall, the proprietor, opens the front door before one of the staff can reach it. She greets our group of fourteen girls with a cheery smile and a pat on each head. She shakes the hands of the staff members. Me, she enfolds in her warm, heavy-scented embrace, which is at once comforting and stifling, like being wrapped in a thick eiderdown.
Every day staff and children are taken out on trips or, sometimes, to play on the sands, and Maureen goes with then. I’m left behind, sitting by the lounge’s bay window, alone. From where I sit, I can watch the sea throwing itself on the beach in enormous green and white breakers, listen to the crash of waves, the drag of shingle.
Half way through the first week of the holiday, I notice that a newcomer has arrived. He comes into the lounge and sees me sitting in my usual place by the window. I look up at the person who has interrupted my thoughts. He introduces himself as Jim, pulls up a chair and sits besides me. My heart is going boom! Boom!
“Are you the manager?” I ask.
He grins widely. “As much as I’d like to spend all my days in such surroundings, no, I’m not.”
Mrs Goodall comes in, notices that her guest has arrived and apologises. I gather that she didn’t expect him so early. His room is now ready, if he’d like to see it. They leave the room; however he’s soon back, having arranged some tea for us. I’m delighted. He wheels me out onto the terrace, where we sit at a corner table. It’s covered with a white, starched cloth. Mrs Goodall’s helper arrives with tea and sandwiches. I nibble away voraciously, feeling quite grown up. When Jim makes cheerful conversation, I can hear myself laughing immoderately. Perhaps it’s because Jim makes me feel so special. As more people arrive for tea, a shadow falls across our table. The figure comes closer, and I recognise it as Matron. She’s flabbergasted to see me talking to a stranger.
Jim’s response is quick. His eyes wrinkle with cool humour. He levers his long legs up from the low chair and stretches out his hand.
“Ah! You must be Matron. Jim Robertson.”
Matron ignores his outstretched hand. Her voice has the hardness of steel and the cutting edge of a carving knife. “What is the meaning of this? We must talk; but not in front of the child.” She draws herself to her full height. “My staff and I will meet you in the lounge – this evening at eight, Mr Robertson!” She starts to wheel me towards the hotel.
“Allow me, Matron.”
“I can manage!” she says haughty.
“Just trying to be of assistance, ma’am,” Jim replies, clearly taking the micky.
His composure makes Matron snap in anger. “We don’t need any assistance, thank you. It might be as well if you realise that from the start, to curb your instincts to assist. All you’re doing is leading her astray.” (I wish.)
I start to giggle quietly behind my hand. Clearly, Jim is aware of the silence that has fallen, because he looks around to see the ring of stunned faces in the immediate vicinity. He lifts a hand to me in silent farewell as I’m wheeled away.
In a side office, Matron sinks down into a chair. Her elderly face is heavy and lined, the pouches under eyes faintly resemble those of a mastiff. She lowers her spectacles and proceeds to tell me that I must never, never talk to strangers, especially men, without an adult present. She leans forward and, whispering in my ear, asks if he has touched my private parts? Puzzled, I stare at her as she points her finger at my budding breasts and pelvic region. I’m even more perplexed.
At that moment there’s a knock on the door; she calls, “Come in!”
And it’s Maureen, whose timing could not have been bettered. Intrigued, she pushes me towards my bedroom and asks me what that was all about? To be singled out by Matron suggests that something really bad has happened.
“I had tea with a man called Jim and she thinks he wants to take away my private parts. Whatever they are.” Maureen begins to chuckle, then laughs all the way to the bedroom. She thinks it’s hysterical. She promises to explain to me later, when she puts me to bed. One of Maureen’s duties during the night is to get me up for the toilet, to prevent bed-wetting. This night, after she places me back on the bed, she lies besides me in her long white cotton nightdress. The red-gold mane of her hair has been softly layered to give a cascade effect onto her shoulders. She tosses it and I watch as the thick waves ripple back into place. A wry little smile curves her lips as, without a word, she shows me what Matron meant. She puts her hand underneath my nightie, softly fondling my little walnut breasts with infinite tenderness. I murmur with pleasure, wanting more, but Maureen climbs off the bed. Then, abruptly, she turns and opens the door, switches out the light, and is gone. I lie silently, flooded with new sensations.
In a mood of buoyant anticipation, I wait for Maureen to come and get me ready to meet the day; but she behaves as if nothing happened last night. I feel a little disappointed, and wonder whether I have dreamt it. However, I soon forget Maureen when, at breakfast, Jim enters. Nudges, winks and whispers from the other girls traverse the dining room as he casually threads his way between the tables. My three companions stare at him, doe-eyed. Jim greets me with wide smile. I sense the envy of every girl in the dining room. He’s come to tell me that he has permission to take me out to tea tomorrow afternoon, provided another person comes with us. Matron will arrange it!
Next morning, I wake in a state of excitement. Matron informs me that Nurse Richards, from the local hospital, will accompany Mr Robinson and me to tea this afternoon. For twenty long minutes I’m on tenterhooks, reassuring myself that, even if the nurse chaperones me, Jim’s company will more than make up for it. Then the lounge door opened and in he walks. He sets a tray with a plate of biscuits and a coffee pot in front of me. Is it my imagination that there’s a devilish gleam in his eye?
He pulls up a chair and sits opposite. During our subsequent conversation, he tells me that he was brought up in South Africa. After being a ranger for some years he was headhunted for television, because he knew his way around the continent. Now he has an urge to put down roots and go back to his farm, up in the hills. He feels that he’s done enough travelling to last a lifetime. He offers me more coffee. “What about you?”
Just as I’m about to reply, there’s a knock on the door, and in walks this stunner of a female, with a supercilious smile on her skilfully made-up face, and the shortest hot-pants ever to grace the township of Peel. She sweeps into the lounge and sweeps away my last hope of a comfortable and enjoyable morning. So this is Nurse Janet Richards! She removes her pink-rimmed sunglasses, looking coquettishly at Jim, leans forward – showing her cleavage to its best advantage – and fixes her baby-blue eyes on him.
Jim tells her quite shortly to be on time as the bus leaves at two-thirty – then he dismisses her. I can tell by the way she flounces out that Janet isn’t used to this sort of treatment. At two-thirty on the dot she’s waiting for us, and we make for the taxi. Jim effortlessly lifts me up and cradles me in his arms. I bury my head hard into his shoulder, trying to get closer to him, and feel the rough weave of wool against my cheek. Off we go to the bus depot to catch the coach. Once there, Jim carries me across to meet the courier. She tears the tickets in half, and then hands all three back to Janet. Jim places me in the front seat, and just as he is going to sit next to me, Nurse Richards deliberately obstructs him, actually pushing him aside. The two of them stagger for a moment in a clumsy dance, before she plonks herself down beside me, giving him a brilliant smile of victory. The wretched woman is gloating! Jim’s face is inscrutable as he makes his way to the rear of the bus.
The road is narrow and twisting as we drive into the countryside, passing orchards, rich stretches of green hedge enclosing fields, and rambling old farmhouses. Eventually, the driver draws to a stop by a gate leading to the ruins of a castle. The passengers must traverse a field of cabbages. They step carefully, because the ground is uneven and muddy. Jim carries me through a gap in the ruined walls, and we enter a wide green space fringed by fallen masonry. A few yards from the ruins, Jim puts me down on a patch of grass, in the shadow of an old oak. He squats beside me and suggests that Nurse Richards might like to join the others, who are inspecting the site? She ignores him.
Two hours later we are on our way again, to our tea destination. Jim finds us a wooden table by the window, so I can see the large, sloping rocks leading disjointedly to the ocean. I’m not used to cream teas, so to me it’s total luxury. Despite Nurse Richards’ determined efforts, I feel that I’ve experienced the sort of wonderful occasion that will become a cherished memory.
Later, back at the boarding house, Jim asks Maureen if there’s any chance of seeing me alone for a few minutes? He’s told to wait in the lounge, while she gets me ready for bed. An hour later, Maureen has me looking lovely; she has even given me a small dollop of her own scent. Then she goes to find Jim. She waits in the passageway, to warn him if anyone comes. In the bedroom he fishes in his pocket and produces a tissue-wrapped package. I open it carefully and, gasping with emotion, I try to thank him. In my hand nestles a tiny silver scarf-pin, in the shape of a deer. Apart from Polly, this is the only personalised gift ever given to me. Other gifts, at Christmases and birthdays, have been randomly selected by people of goodwill, and invariably labelled, Girl, Aged 6 – 7 etc.
He gives me a hug, which is nearly my undoing. Until now I have managed to face our parting dry-eyed. Maureen gives a little cough to indicate that someone is approaching, and peeps in.
“You’d better go now, Jim.”
Tears blind me. It’s been so fleeting, and now the dream is over. I’m stranded in the shallows of reality.
Next morning I mask my feelings of loss and sadness, letting the girls at the table chatter on about all the things they have seen and done.
The last days and hours of the holiday drag interminably. Even when I’m taken out onto the beach, on the final day of the holiday, the beauty of golden sands fails to move me.
When I turn fifteen the social worker calls to have a long talk with me. I’ve reached the age when I can no longer go back to the orphanage. She has found me a foster home. Remembering my experiences with fostering parents in the past, I plead, sob and entreat her not to do this to me.
“Beggars can’t be choosers, Amy, and you should consider yourself a lucky girl, that someone wants you.”
Her words hit home like a thunderbolt, leaving me terrified, miserable and unsure of what to do or think. They reinforce the sad fact that I really am unwanted, but there is nothing about it that she or I can do. After all, beggars can’t be choosers.
I’m taken by car to the Stevens’. The social worker runs up the three wide steps; the car driver follows with me in his arms. The door opens and an immensely large man stands there, his bulk silhouetted against the faint glow of lamplight. His face is like a walnut-shell, both in colour and wrinkles. He indicates that the driver should carry me into a bedroom, while he and the social worker confer. It’s breathlessly hot and stuffy in there, but very pretty. For the next half hour, Mrs Stevens, my new foster-mother, is busily engaged in unpacking my meagre things and disposing of them in a small chest of drawers.
Mrs Stevens turns out to be a perfectionist, a woman who lives according to the highest principles whatever the price; she’s very religious, austere, and a severe taskmaster. Each day passes like a year in this household and, despite Mr Stevens’ warmness, I feel that as an individual I count for nothing. My self-confidence is already at its lowest ebb; with a handicap like mine, I reason, no wonder no one wants me.
So spring and early summer pass.
One day, while sitting on the back veranda, a voice from out of nowhere says, “Hello.”
It’s the lad from next-door, and he’s grinning at me over the fence. And – even more exciting – he holds up a bottle of beer! My spirits lift. Even the notion of talking to someone my own age has a powerful effect on me. His name is Michael, he tells me, and after that initial meeting, he comes across to talk to me whenever, to quote him, “ ...the coast is clear.”
Throughout the rest of summer we meet secretly whenever the Stevens are out. This secrecy creates an atmosphere that’s exciting because of its mildly clandestine nature. Mike will emerge through the fence, running barefooted towards me, sit himself down on the top step of the veranda, leaning his back against the post and stretching out his long legs. He looks vibrantly youthful. We talk endlessly, and share the beer he invariably brings with him. I admire Mike enormously – more than I have ever admired anyone except Jim.
Whenever the Stevens’ car is heard on the gravel, he jumps up, taking the empty beer bottles with him, dashes across the lawn and disappears through the fence just as the Stevens’ car door bangs. I wish I could tell my foster parents about our friendship, but somehow I know that Mrs Stevens, at very least, won’t approve.
One hot and airless afternoon in early autumn, I’m sitting out on the veranda, feeling listless, when the telephone rings. Mrs Stevens’ mother has been taken to hospital, and clearly the Stevens are anxious to be with her. Mr Stevens takes me over to the neighbours; then he and his wife drive off.
Mike’s mum, who’s fully aware of our friendship, has an appointment that afternoon with her hairdresser and also some shopping to do afterwards. She’s happy enough leaving Mike to look after me. After she’s gone, Mike carries me upstairs to his bedroom, in which all his personal clutter is concentrated. We sit on the bed together, listening to his pop records, drinking beer to quench our thirst and eating crisps as if there is no tomorrow. Our friendship has never progressed past the occasional kiss and cuddle, and it’s all very innocent.
Some time later, Mike gets up and begins to dance to his favourite jazz tune, Oh, When The Saints Go Marching In; and he turns the volume up. As it is hot in the small room, he takes off his shirt and dances in his bare feet, while I am sitting up on the bed, moving my head and arms to the rhythm. We’re enjoying ourselves so much that we don’t hear his mother come into the room, with Mrs Stevens behind her.
The music stops abruptly and we both look up to see their frigid disapproval. Suddenly, horribly aware of how we must appear, I blanche.
Back home, my stomach is churning. In my attempts to explain our blamelessness, I’m gabbling like an idiot.
Mrs Stevens is having none of it. In a black fury she lets fly, using vocabulary that I don’t understand. ”Slut! Shameful hussy! Fallen woman!” There’s no end to her invective. “What do you think we are?” she continues, “A house of ill repute?”
If I knew what a house of ill repute was, I might answer. Instead, I just shut my mouth and look mutinous. The accusations go on and on, until my mind goes blank and my eyes blurry. It’s a relief when, finally, I’m sent to my room.
That evening, the second catastrophe occurs. Mike’s father calls on the Stevens, to inform them that Mike and I have been seeing each other secretly, and for some weeks. The clandestine nature of our meetings, however above suspicion they really are, proves to be the last straw.
“How dare you go behind my back, bringing disgrace to our house and corrupting the Thompson’s lad!”
So chilling is her voice that I can no longer hold back my tears; they’re cascading hotly down my cheeks.
I speak with effort. “I ...we’ve ...we’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Don’t lie to me! You know perfectly well I expect absolute honesty from you. I am not speaking of a casual acquaintanceship, but of something a great deal more serious.” Her tone is like being drenched in icy water. “The problem is, Amy, that you are deceitful as well as manipulative, and you’ve led Michael into sin, as well. You don’t deserve to be housed and fed amongst good, Christian folk. You should go back to where your kind belongs!”
Where my kind belongs. My kind? What is my kind?
As my world crashes around me, I leave the living room, wiping my streaming eyes with the back of my hand. I’m stripped of my defences, I’m unlovable and unwanted by my foster parents. The only person in all the world to whom I mean something is Mike, and I cling to this thought throughout the long night.
The next day Mike is ushered into the living room by Mr Stevens. And it’s a very different Mike from the boy I thought was my friend. I don’t know what his parents have said to him, for all he does is stand there, stammering how sorry he is. Then he rushes over to me and hugs me; but it’s a very different hug.
Something’s terribly wrong. This is not our normal approach. Is this what my kind can expect? As a tidal wave of disillusionment engulfs me, I break free. Mike turns, kicking one of the footstools out of the way, and moves blindly over to the window. With his back to me, he goes on to tell me we can’t see each other any more. It’s unbelievable that he should have changed so quickly; that our shared sense of unity can have vanished so completely.
Another moment, the brush of his lips on my cheek, the click of the door – and he’s gone. I sit in the middle of the room, my hand to my cheek, looking blindly down the endless days ahead. Yes, perhaps this is what my kind can expect.
Life in the Stevens’ house resumes its normal pattern, but it now feels completely artificial. I live in an atmosphere of constant uneasiness. Mrs Stevens has made it all too clear that I’m here on sufferance. For the sake of appearances she always shows me a smiling face, but I sense the contempt beneath the mask. In true Christian spirit, I’m to be given a roof over my head, three meals a day and nothing else.
One day, during lunch, Mr Steven begs his wife to stop punishing me. Clearly noticing that he’s making no impression at all on her, he pauses for a minute, before suggesting that I go to his sister’s for a while. Evidently, however, this suggestion is totally unacceptable. And, horrors! they start arguing. There’s a dreadful sense of déjà vu. I sit quietly trembling, until, overcome by nausea, I wheel myself to the bathroom and manage to lock the door behind me before I’m violently sick. I stay there long after the spasms of shock, caused by their quarrelling, have receded. History is repeating itself. I press my forehead to the cool wall, until the shaking has subsided. Then I methodically rinse my mouth, splash my face with water and make my way back to the dining room. A deathly silence greets me, and in a way this is worse than their arguing. Mr Stevens is tucking into raspberry cheesecake and the sight makes my stomach heave in protest. Mrs Stevens abruptly leaves the room, complaining of a headache. Mr Stevens finishes his cheesecake. He puts the spoon and fork neatly on the plate and folds his napkin. Then he tells me gently I will have to leave. After that earlier scene, it comes as no surprise. He asks me if I would want to stay, the way things are?
I give an uncertain laugh, twisting my hanky in my hands. My voice, at this point, springs to life, as all that I feel emerges in a flood. I can’t recall, now, just what I say, but I certainly use the phrase ‘my kind’ more than one. Easygoing he might be, but Mr Stevens is disconcerted by my scarcely veiled criticism of his wife and the cynicism of my insight into the way her mind works.
He leaves the room while I stare stonily in front of me, at the shaven lawn, bright in the afternoon sun-light, the last michaelmas daisies piling into bloom in the border beyond, dimmed by the greenish haze of early autumn. I sit quietly by the window, still lost in the detachment of unbelief that has followed Mike’s departure. I want to lie my head on my arms and give in to my feelings, for all my body is crying and only my eyes are dry.
Where is Mike now? Never have I imagined how terrible silence can be, when imprisoned in the human body. To see someone you know and love so eager to abandon you, is more torturous than to be writhing in pain.
Even so, perhaps with the resilience of youth, I live through the crushing sadness of my perceived abandonment.
Back to the orthopaedic ward, F3, Children’s Hospital. I’m placed once more under the scrutiny of Sister Bradshaw. Yet again the medical students are invited to make a diagnosis. They palpate me, talking to and fro over my head throughout the lesson, which lasts some time. There are no screens around, although to some extent the student crowd hides me from the rest of the patients. I’m given no say in the matter and, although I’m seventeen, I’m uncovered throughout the session. At first it’s really embarrassing, although you can get used to anything. The group discusses me in a totally impersonal fashion, emphasised by Mr Dwyer’s habit of speaking about me as ‘this child’.
They talk about the difficulty of what to do next. Mr Dwyer goes on to give the students my case history, using Latin terms that I can’t understand. He asks the students how he should proceed.
One brave young man, his tongue fumbling momentarily, blurts out, “I’d amputate, sir.”
There’s a stunned silence. I hold my breath and silently pray. It’s what I’ve longed for, for such an age.
“Mr Dwyer?” I say, as calmly as I’m able, “I agree with the student.”
His eyes show a flicker of surprise, he raises his eyebrows, surveying the student who has just spoken, but totally ignoring me. Then he takes the poor fellow by the elbow and steers him away from my bed to the other side of the room. They return minutes later, the student red-faced with embarrassment.
A rage erupts inside me, a wide, spurting, uncontrollable rage. I steady myself, knowing there can only be time for one retaliatory burst, and my rage demands that it hit him square on. I’m so sure that the intern is right. Seizing Mr Dwyer’s arm, I let loose a torrent of words.
“You ... you ...you insensitive bastard! For sixteen years I’ve been encased in a handicapped body with useless legs, I’ve undergone twelve operations, I’ve been cross-examined and scrutinised by hundreds of students down the years, and I’ve been patronised and manipulated. I’ve had enough, do you hear? I want my legs off, NOW!”
As the shock of this tirade dawns on Mr Dwyer’s listeners, there’s a chorus of gasps. I’m quite amazed, myself. A muscle along Mr Dwyer’s jaw-line flinches, and I know that my stone has hit home. That tiny gesture aside, his face might have been carved out of granite. A convulsive shiver runs over my skin. For a fleeting moment he looks like a man who could be cruel. Perhaps he thinks I should only be grateful, or be seen but not heard?
Without a word he turns on his heel and marches away, followed by his charges. A hand grips my elbow, fingers biting into my skin.
“What on earth possessed you to make such a scene?” Sister Bradshaw hisses. Without deliberation, without any thought at all and still consumed with rage, I swing my free arm around and hit Sister’s face with an open-handed slap. It has the explosive crack of a gunshot. She reels back from me, her hand to her cheek, her knees seeming to buckle. I realise I have gone too far. Tears of mortification sting my eyes. I cover them with an arm, immediately putting my head under the bedcovers and awaiting punishment, but it doesn’t come. Instead, Sister announces supper in the voice of an automaton.
When the authorities refuse to let me have my legs removed, I actually contemplate taking my own life. This rings alarms bells! I can tell the nurses are not used to people being ‘dotty’. They become alarmed at my behaviour and walk past as if I have double yellow lines around me and they’ll get a parking ticket from Matron, or God, if they put their hands on my contaminated bed. However, a visit from the new senior psychiatrist assures them I show none of the classical signs of depressive psychosis.
A request for a second opinion is called for. Professor Griffin, a neurosurgeon, visits me, walking towards my bed ahead of his retinue and with Sister Bradshaw hurrying after him. He’s surprisingly nimble for a man of his build and years. He can’t be more than four-foot seven tall. Someone places a footstool in front of him; he stands on it and leans over the bed to make his examination. His proficient hands run over me.
After a suitable interval, he smiles. He breaks off abruptly and the group discusses me in the usual, impersonal fashion. Then he informs me of the technique he has pioneered, which will improve my circulatory system and give me a new lease of life, especially when it comes to healing my legs. I want to know if the operation will help me to walk? He shakes his head. I won’t be able to walk.
“Then I would rather have them taken away,” I plead, with gritty determination. By now, nothing less will satisfy me. He regards me in silence for a moment, straightens up and pats my hand, then leaves the ward without a word to anyone. His retinue of students departs in his wake.
The following Monday morning, there’s a case conference about me. A group of assorted professional workers crowds around my bed to share their concerns. The atmosphere seems friendly and co-operative, even in the absence of Professor Griffin. Once again, of course, they talk among themselves over my head, as if I’m not there. The arguments tend merely to be reiteration of their views, for they are still not convinced that I should have my legs amputated, and treat my request as a childish whim. I’d like to point out that no one ever asks me how I want to spend my life; but after so many years when all decisions about me are made by others, I need to be fired up, just to interrupt. Even so, I have a sense of doors closing behind me, and the path of my life being fixed irrevocably.
And – surprise – once more I’m merely told of their decision. The Professor will go ahead with the operation to improve my circulation. There’s no mention of amputation. What torments me most is the pretence, which for some reason they all keep, that I only need stay quiet and carry out the doctor’s orders, for some great change for the better to result. Their refusal to admit that nothing will ever be able to improve my legs frustrates me dreadfully, along with the anticipation of still more agonising suffering. It appears that I’m doomed to a life of dependency. No wonder I spend much of my time in tears.
The operation is part of a research project. It’s scheduled for three weeks time. Nobody seems to notice my silence and deeply distressed state of mind; they’re busy chattering cheerfully about what they will do with me.
The whole procedure, like the previous ones, becomes a monotonous blur. There’s the preparation, pre-med, anaesthetic; then, hours later, consciousness bringing with it pain and nausea. I try to slip back into oblivion to escape, but it isn’t possible. I’m now aware of a voice repeating my name and someone gently slapping my face. I open my eyes to see a nurse smiling at me. She props a pillow under my head and shoulders, then checks my pulse. I am being given a blood transfusion from a plum-red plastic bag, suspended on a rickety, stainless steel stand. The blood doesn’t always flow smoothly. Staff-nurse has to raise it, lower it, have its drip-rate increased, decreased, inspected by her or another nurse. The blood enters me through a needle in my forearm; it causes a kind of bruising, making my arm hurt like hell. The post-operative scar starts from my spine and continues around the side to the front of my right hip. I’m traumatised by what has been done to me.
Professor Griffin comes back the next day to exam his handiwork. He’s satisfied, but wants to know why I’m lying down? There is an excruciating silence.
“Get her up, sit her up!” he says sharply, as he leaves the ward.
Astounded, two nurses get me up. I barely have the strength, even with their assistance, to sit in an armchair beside the bed, propped up on pillows. The pain is remorseless. It ebbs and flows, often coming at the most inconvenient times; or nags away with a demoralising relentlessness until something is done. I’m given morphine injections every four hours. Even then, nothing very tangible results. In the midst of this constant pain I can no longer control myself and weep helplessly.
However, as the weeks drag by, my legs do show signs of improving, and gradually the commensurate pain eases as well.
The time has come for me to leave hospital. Sister Bradshaw becomes concerned and realises that without the hospital staff, there is no one looking out for me.
She has a word with Mr Dwyer on his next round, and wants to know what will become of me?
He replies, “With a personality like hers, she’ll get anywhere in the world.” And he moves towards the next bed.
Bearing in mind how little I like myself at this time, his words leave me puzzled. It’s only in retrospect that I appreciate just how important his opinion was.