Friday, 20 September 2013

Spare Leg by Rebecca Swirsky

Mannequin Legs

Let me tell you a true story. If you listen, I'll be honest. Remember those cold nights, a spate of them lasting a week, around two months back, when the frost tinged the air blue and made fingetips hurt? I was on my usual route, stationed at the intersection between Winifred Crescent and Sapling Drive, you know where I mean, waiting for Old Holly to finish her business. Difficult to know when Little Holly became Old Holly, time slips by so fast. As I waited, I saw a man pinning a 'lost pet' sign to the oak, that mighty thing, which for a while caused a fuss at those council meetings. I felt it my duty to look at the sign, knowing how upset I'd be if Old Holly got lost. When I looked closer, my eyes flew out their sockets. No you see, this hand-written sign wasn't for 'Missing Cat' or 'Missing Dog'. It did not say 'Missing Budgerigar'. Printed with thick black ink on light-blue paper, were the words 'Missing Leg'. And in smaller writing underneath, 'Whereabouts Unknown'.
            Don't stop reading, yet. Please. I'd like you to hear it to the bitter end, and then make up your mind. You see, I think I'm a receptive kind of person. Open to new experiences. This could be a rare species I hadn't heard of. The Leg cats from Arabia. The Leg dogs of Montpellier. More likely, 'Leg' could be an abbreviation. Well, it could, couldn't it? Cross-breeds are often introduced. You never know what you'll find at the shows. But I needed to get a handle on the situation. I needed to judge it properly. "Excuse me," said I, pleasantly, "does that sign say 'Missing Leg?'"
            "It does,'" agreed the man, equally as pleasantly. After that, well. I wondered whether I should alert the relevant authorities. But I'm a sensible woman, like I say. It's only fair to give people a second chance in life. I decided to humour the man by asking whether this was a usual occurence. Now he studied me - as if I was the one missing a sandwich filling. "Madame", he said raising an eyebrow, "do you have legs that ever go missing?"
            I saw his point. He removed a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, asking if I smoked. People don't do that nowadays, offering them out, do they? It seems rather old-fashioned. Respectable. And I'm not often called 'madame'. I peered closer. With the help of the street lamp, I saw the speaker was on the thin side. Not quite my height, a little younger, in his mid-fifties perhaps, laughter lines around his eyes and a fraying head of no-coloured hair. "Introductions first," the man said. "I'm Tom. Tom Boot. I'm sane, I think. Having said that, I'm happy to tell you, if you care to listen, how three incidents of legs have made their way into my life. Each, you'll find, are quite separate and distinct."
            There was no reason for me to leave, and I wasn't expected anywhere, so I nodded, pulling my coat tighter around me.
            Two thin jets of smoke streamed from the man's nose, giving him an elegant, thoughtful air. "The first leg incident occurred around four months ago. I was travelling to Kensington, not the expensive part, but the indoor-market section. My goal, you see, was to find retro clothing for a friend's birthday. This friend, who is wheelchair-bound, loves bright clothes. Unusual, glittery things. I wanted a scarf or waistcoat, something small but eye-catching. Perhaps mirrored. At Edgware Road, half-way through my journey, I switched to the Bakerloo Line. Around Paddington, the carriage became crowded. I stood up to let an older man sit down. He was grateful. Sometimes people aren't, I think. Holding onto the handrail and swaying with the bends, I had the sensation something was not right. It was a strong feeling, raising the hairs on my neck. Afterwards, I realised. My brain hadn't wanted to accept what it was seeing.
            "In the middle of the carriage, tucked between two people reading newspapers, sat a blonde woman, an un-read Metro spread out on her lap. She looked young, and tired. As this woman's raincoat only half-covered her knees, I was able to understand what the issue was. It was clear. Her left leg, you see, was a different colour.
            "I'll say it again. The top half of her body was a milky white, leaving the bottom left leg a deep, radiant, burnished black. I blinked. The leg was still there. Strangest of all, no-one had noticed. Not the people sitting either side, not anyone opposite. She was under everyone's radar but mine. Was I missing a trick? Was I the only one in the carriage not in on the joke – was there a political aspect? Finally, I had to question my own reliability. I had to accept the possibility I'd gone insane. Yet I felt normal. I pinched myself to make sure. The pain was just as usual. Regrettably, the next stop was mine and so I got off."
            There was silence as I digested what had been said.
            "There was nothing in the newspapers," I asked after a moment, "of students reporting a stunt? Perhaps she was an extra from a film company, leaving on her body makeup?"
            He ground out his cigarette with a sharp twist of his ankle that I found myself admiring. "If it was a joke, she didn't look light-hearted. From where I was standing, in fact, her leg had the realistic, multi-tonal effect of skin."
            We were quiet again. The only sound was Old Holly scuffling in a nearby hedgerow. Hedgerows are her version of an all-in-one playground, bath, feeding ground, toilet and meeting-of-friends spot. She is a happy dog. "The second incident?" I prompted, tucking my scarf around my neck to keep the chill at bay.
            "Ah," replied the man, shaking his head. "This was of a different nature. My cousin's daughter, Francesa, was born 12 years ago with a congenital dislocation of her hip and left knee. She has always had great drive and determination, yet she couldn't keep up with her friends when they ran or played games. This upset her greatly. When Francesca realised the Paralympian games were going to be held in England, unbeknown to us she began nurturing dreams of becoming a top paralympian. The more she dreamed, the more she realised the only thing standing in her way was her dislocated leg.
            "Her mother was opposed. After all, Francesca had come out of her body whole, withered leg or no. But Francesca claimed she'd found a way to wrestle control from her life. In the end, what parent could refuse? A reputable surgeon was found. A few months later, Francesca had the operation. Days afterward, she was seen riding a donkey on her local beach in Rye, looking very happy. It made the papers. She was a celebrity. The next step was to have a fundraising party. From that we raised the £4,000 estimated for a running blade and sports wheelchair. Francesca gave a speech. I remember her words exactly:
            'People (she said) were surprised at me riding on a beach days after the operation. I was getting on with things. Now I'm a step closer to achieving my dream of becoming an athlete. Thank you. I couldn't imagine spending the rest of my life dragging the other leg.'
            "She spoke of her inspirations, of soldiers injured in wars and a woman with a prosthetic leg who had been formerly married to one of The Beatles and was now competing in an ice-skating show. Listening to her words, I had to admit there was something in losing a leg to gain speed and power – and success. For many weeks, I thought about Francesca's choice. She's in training now and has been approached by a sponsor.
            "A white woman with a black left leg. A young girl choosing to cut off a leg, also the left, to achieve speed and success. Surely there were strange enough. But there is one more incident to come. A couple of weeks after Francesca's fundraising party, I opened my door early one morning to find a mannequin's leg. There it lay, on my front door step, in my garden. Stepping over the ankle section of the leg, I walked to my gate and looked up and down my street. No-one, not even the far-off noise of a car to give even a hint as to how that leg had arrived. My hypothesis was that local foxes had left it in my front garden. They did that sometimes with tin cans and yoghurt pots. But it didn't explain where they would have found the leg. I had to accept there was now not one, but three separate coincidences of legs, each intersecting as they crossed my life's path. And I had not a clue what any of them meant.
            "This leg was pristine. Not a single mark on it. Looking closely, I identified a snowflake stamped on the ankle. That was all. The entire leg seemed made of something other than plastic, almost marbley to the touch. And with a high arch and nice calf, it was in fact, rather attractive.
            "I felt foolish attaching any significance to that leg's appearance. Still, I gave it a dust and a wipe, and propped it on my living room mantlepiece like a vase of flowers. When guests came for dinner or friends stopped for tea, the leg became the talking point. I grew famous for being the man with a spare leg. People began touching it for luck, as if they could detect some whiff of potency or magic about its form. How could I argue? There was something remarkable about it being there.
            "What I hadn't counted on was receiving a steady stream of visitors. It's amazing how significance may randomly be attached to certain items. Jesus Christ on a piece of burnt toast. The Virgin Mary in a halved potato. Now, people seeing spiritual significance in a leg. Mysterious, yes, with that tiny etched snowflake. But even so.
             "Stranger, was that leg gave me a purpose. My previous relationship had ended bitterly four years ago. Since then, well, I've largely remained a single man. My job as an accountant is fine, if not exciting. I work hard, and I'm a responsible citizen, but you could say there isn't much scope for release of the soul. To my friends I may seem solid, but I feel myself a drifter, watching life from the outside, unable to participate at its heated core. And I hadn't failed to notice how these leg incidents involved females. In its own way, that spare leg added a lightness to my step. It gave me an edge. I was admired. Then, just as I had begun to rely on it, the leg disappeared.
            "I looked everywhere. Could it have been a jealous neighbour or friend? Maybe someone had moved the leg to a hidden spot which, in my panicked stupidity, I now couldn't locate? I turned the house upside down. Three days later, a sealed bank deposit envelope pushed through my letterbox. It contained fifty pounds. No explanation. Just a single, crisp, fifty pound note.
            "I was desolate. The obvious conclusion was the money had to be payment for my leg. But that leg represented something. How could it be reduced to a mere cash note? For the last four weeks, I've been searching under hedgerows, down side-alleys, in people's rubbish bins. I've taken up smoking in my anxiety. But I'll have to give up searching. After all, I existed up to this point without a spare leg. I suppose I shall do so again."
            A car drove by, its headlights sweeping over us. I shivered, and assured Tom I'd keep an eye peeled for his missing leg. Then I whistled for Old Holly and clipped her up.
            At home, I fed Holly and had my supper of red wine and a slice of cheese. I wished I could talk to someone about Tom Boot and his leg. I would have told my husband Jeremy, but he'd disappeared up to the attic. He's got quite a number going up there. When Jeremy announced he was installing a camp bed, stereo and fridge in the narrow space underneath our roof, I'll admit I was shocked. Now he's talking of putting in a toilet. Of course, I do understand having one means he won't need to come down so much, but then that's the point. After 25 years of marriage I can't help wondering how it got to this. Him up there, me down here.
            So Tom Boot was a welcome distraction to my life. Nothing would have made me happier had I been able to reunite him with his spare leg. Wouldn't that have been a nice ending? I'd already made the decision I would keep an eye out. But here's the thing, the nub of it. Something you really won't believe. Last week, I was doing a spot of window shopping at the posher end of our high street. In a wedding dress shop window, two sales assistants were tugging at a mannequin. It was a crime scene without the blood. I banged on the glass. "Excuse me," I called, "what are you doing?"
            One of them, a pert young thing, paused to poke her head round the display door. The mannequin, she said, was heading for the refuse. It's style was out of date, she added. "Well," I replied, "hand me that leg, then."
            This caught me an odd look. Legs had been on my mind so much, perhaps it wasn't a surprise I wanted one of my own. With my husband, it's a bed and a fridge in the attic. With me, it's Holly the Schnauser and a spare leg. A dog and a leg. There's a joke in there somewhere, I'm sure. I took it home and tucked that leg into our living room cupboard. I'm glad I did. It's no trouble at all. Every so often I'll lay it on the coffee table. I'll wash it with a wet flannel, then wipe it with a dry. There it is. One sparkling left leg.
            In a funny way, I understand why Tom Boot grew so attached to his. Affection for my leg grows daily. There are so many things to admire about its shape and proportion. Its innate balance. One of these days, I'll call him. I'll say to that Tom Boot, "It may not be yours, but I have a spare leg too." He'll be pleased, I think.
            There are many things you can do with a spare leg. Yesterday I tied a light-blue satin bow, the exact colour of a baby's arrival blanket, around its calf to lend it cheer. For Halloween I'm thinking glow-in-the-dark fancy string, fairy lights for Christmas. Foil-wrapped mini-eggs for Easter. You get the jist, don't you? In a year's time I'll dress us up in matching party hats to celebrate the day I brought it home. Our little Spare Leg anniversary.
            So it goes without saying that I've developed an affection for mine. Despite my leg being a symbol for movement and speed, it never needs a walk. It never needs watering or feeding. It doesn't hide in attics, then sit grunting or belching when it decides to grace the table with its presence. Yes, I think you'll agree, a spare leg is rather an exceptional addition to any household.

About the Author: Rebecca Swirsky is a London-based writer specialising in short fiction. Her work varies between 100 and 10,000 words. She has an MA (Distinction) for Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, where she won the A.M. Heath Prize. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and Fish Short Fiction Prize, notably contended for the Bristol Short Story Prize and awarded third prize in Ilkley’s Literature Festival Short Fiction Competition. Rebecca has read and had her work read at the London Review Bookshop, Bloomsbury; Ilkley Literature Festival; Limmudfest and Liars League, Central London. Her stories and criticism have been published in journals including Matter and the online Royal Academy of Arts Magazine and has short fiction forthcoming in Ambit journal, Big Issue in The North Anthology, Ink Sweat & Tears, Stories for Homes anthology in aid of Shelter, and Cease, Cows. She has a review forthcoming in the Royal Society of Literature Review and current copywriting work includes weekly journalism for the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine online. She contributes to a blog on acupuncture. Rebecca is currently working on her debut collection, Just Something, Just Nothing. Follow her on Twitter @rebexswirsky

Image: (c) Proggie