Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize 2017/18
I’M SICK OF WAITING. I wish they’d get on with it. I’ve been waiting here all day. Next thing I know they’ll come and tell me they can’t do it here and we’ll have to go somewhere else, to some special clinic. That’d be typical. The man in the bed opposite is still staring, wondering why we’re here. I brushed him off when he asked. It’s not worth trying to explain, I know that by now. He thinks it’s just me, of course. Thinks I’m here alone. I don’t even know what it means to be alone. I never have.
Now the tea trolley’s coming round again. Where are the doctors? I haven’t seen a qualified person since we got here. Not that I want to see them, though I’ll have to. Doctors are always a nightmare. I don’t trust them. They get over-excited, especially if they’re senior enough to get a research paper out of it, or a headline. The younger ones gawp and ask stupid questions.Sometimes they address him personally, as though he can hear them or answer.
‘He’s got no ears, in case you haven’t noticed.’ I point out.
‘May I touch him?’ They say, thinking perhaps that they can tap out Morse code on his shin.
They talk to me as though I’m his carer, as though they have to ask my permission.
‘He doesn’t like being touched,’ I lie. Then they hesitate. ‘He’ll kick,’ I add and that decides them. Idiots.
No one ever gives a fuck about me. It’s always him him him. And since he doesn’t have ears, and since he can’t speak, I’m the one who has to do the talking.
It’s not as bad outside hospital. Or rather, it’s bad in other ways. I’m the only one who knows he exists most of the time. No one believes me, even if I tell them the truth. The doctors only believe it because they’ve seen our file. Anyone who meets us thinks it’s just me. They think I have a limp, see the hip jutting, the one leg standing at an odd angle, behaving strangely, like it has a mind of its own, which it does. It shows up on the scan, a tiny brain, tucked inside my right hip, just big enough to control his leg.
His leg, I don’t know why I call it his leg, it’s his whole body, he is a leg.
There was a hand as well, or the beginning of a hand, but they removed it. It wasn’t much use to me and they thought he’d never be able to control it. He mourned his hand though. I know he did. I felt it. He resented them taking it from him. Not that they could have asked his permission. I don’t remember them asking mine.
Freaks. That’s what everyone says when they find out. Not to my face, never to my face, but it’s in their eyes. They don’t even know whether to say it in the plural or not. Are we one freak or two?
Two. I know that. I’m the only one who really knows that. He’s not me. This is not my leg. How do you tell people that?
‘I’m sorry, it was not my leg that tripped you up, that stood on your toe, that buckled under me all of a sudden. Yes, I know it’s attached to me, but believe me I have no control… no really… well actually… it’s my brother’s leg…’ I used to try to explain to people, when I was younger, but I quickly gave up. The looks in their eyes.
It’s not my brother’s leg; it is my brother. What a strange word. I rarely think of him as my brother, don’t call him that. He’s just Him to me. It suits him better.
He stopped my own leg growing, crowded it out. I had to have my right leg removed, along with his hand, because it was in the way and it was so small and stunted it was no use to me. Then we had to learn to walk together. That took time. Perfected it in the end though, he learned to co-operate. He had to, I gave him no choice. He’s always needed me, lived off me, like a parasite. Lived off my blood, feeding from my lungs, my heart, my gut. I dress him, keep him warm, keep him clean, buy him shoes. He couldn’t even put the shoes on himself.
The responsibility has always been mine. Mum made that clear from the beginning. Our father died when we were just three years old and I don’t remember him at all. Sometimes I wonder what he thought of us. I’ll never know, maybe best not to. It frustrated Mum that I was closer to her other son than she could ever be. She hardly knew him, but she never believed that I could know him better than her. There’s a strange intuition between us, a sense of mood. I can tell, usually by the way he behaves, how he’s feeling.
Mum was always anxious not to neglect him, tried every way of communicating. She would make me roll up my shorts and then she sat with him on her lap, stroking him, talking to him, tapping his toes. It bored me to death. She got books on Helen Keller and tried to find ways of teaching him words. It never worked. She thought she hadn’t found the right method, but I think he was doing it deliberately. It suited him to be left in peace, to be free of responsibility.
She wanted to teach him to play the piano with his foot, or paint, do something creative, expressive. She filled her head with stories of deaf-blind children, of armless wonders and conjoined twins who led successful lives in show business. I liked the idea of him earning us a living; I was always the one who had to do the hard work, the thinking. But it was tedious to spend hours with him lifted up onto the piano, making a racket that he didn’t have the ears to hear. ‘I’m the one who has to listen to him,’ I’d complain to her. ‘You can leave the room, but I have to sit here with him making all that noise.’ She hated it when I talked like that about her beloved son.
He could do no wrong in her eyes. No matter how difficult he made my life she refused to listen, refused to believe that he was capable of doing wrong. It was always my fault. When we fought and couldn’t walk, when he refused to cooperate, when he kicked out. It was always something I’d done. ‘What have you done now?’ she’d say, and ‘you’ meant me, not us, not him.
In some ways it was a relief when she died, for me, a relief from her fussing. He mourned her of course. He’d lost his only friend, until we met Janice.
A prosthetic leg would have been better than this. It might be awkward to move, less flexible, but I could swing it with my own hip. I could control it myself and be sure that it wouldn’t suddenly splay out at an angle just to get my attention. It wouldn’t do strange things with its toes or lie awake at night for hours while I’m sleeping, then wake me up by lurching out of bed on its own. It wouldn’t get angry and lash out, kick people, knock over furniture. It wouldn’t knee me, like that time he caught my chin and chipped a tooth.
Sometimes I’m not as careful as I should be; I’ve let him stub his toes more than a few times. But I was only deliberately cruel once, and I was a boy then. He’d made me trip at school, in the middle of a football match. I’d been on at the lads to let me play; they never would, because of him and his strange behaviour. That time I’d worn them down, determined to show I could play just as well as the others, that I could join in and be up to the team. He let me down, the bastard, and I know it was no accident; he knew what he was doing. He was jealous, jealous of my friends, of my freedom. He couldn’t be bothered to spend the lunch hour running around and kicking the ball, he didn’t understand, didn’t care. He did it slyly, let me fall, hit me hard on the ground, and I lost the ball at a vital moment in the game. The lads never let me play again.
I was still fuming when I got home and I went straight for the penknife I kept in my bedroom desk. I’d planned it all afternoon through Maths. He sensed that something was up, jerked about and wouldn’t stay still, which only made it worse. I didn’t stab him, I wasn’t that stupid, he was spilling my blood. But I gave him a nasty cut, in the thigh, where the skin’s most sensitive and it wouldn’t show. I expected him to leap and kick and knock me around, you’d be surprised at the strength of a single leg. He didn’t though. After the shock of the pain, he stayed dead still, thinking. The hate left me then and I realised that I had cut my own brother, my own mute blind deaf brother.
It changed our relationship that cut. It made us adults somehow, wary of each other, of each other’s power, but respectful too.
Then we got older and I started seeing girls, which led to more trouble, to the very worst trouble. There was this girl who used to hang out with her mates in our local pub. I’d fancied her for ages and it had taken me a long time to work up the courage to ask her out. I never told her about him, tried to keep him hidden, pinned down. That’s probably why he did what he did. It was the first night she invited me back to her place and we fell asleep in each other’s arms. Suddenly I’m woken by her screaming in my ear and the next thing I know her flatmates come running in and they call the police and I’m dragged down to the station. He cracked two of her ribs he kicked her that hard. They treated me like shit at the station and I can’t blame them, from their point of view I was a shit. He was as good as gold then, didn’t budge out of line, didn’t support my desperate explanations for a moment. I had to get my doctors in to verify and then they didn’t know what to do with him. It’s not as though he could stand alone in court, or pay compensation, let alone serve a sentence. I was lucky she dropped the charges in the end, after it had all been explained, but she never spoke to me again, always crossed the street to get away from me. It made me wary, made me sad and furious too, but also careful of bringing girls home. It put an end to one night stands, thank you very much brother.
I have had other girlfriends. There was Janice, of course. She was good to him. She was good to us both if I’m honest. She would tickle his toes, rub his shin, massage his calf and he loved it. I think he was in love with her, in fact I know he was because after we split up it took him weeks, months to get over it. At night he insisted she slept next to him, and he would stay awake for hours stroking her with his toes. He was always wanting his nails cut at that time and his foot cleaned. I think Janice reminded him of our mother, giving him so much care. She was amazing really, the love she lavished on him. At first it used to annoy me, because I thought it was just pity, some silly sentimental thing, feeling sorry for a disembodied leg. There was more to it though, she put thought into the attention she gave him. And when we spoke, years later, she asked after him before she asked after me. When we stopped seeing each other it was a nightmare; I could barely walk for weeks and barely sleep, he was so restless at night. It took him a while to realise she wasn’t coming back, but I couldn’t explain to him what had happened. How could I tell him that although he and Janice got along so well, she and I had run out of things to say to each other?
So now what? It’ll all be different I suppose, after this. If they ever get round to it. We’ve been here for hours, since this morning.
I knew as soon as I woke up that something was wrong. He’s always been light sleeper, doesn’t need his eight hours like me, and usually he’ll be lying awake, desperate for me to wake up so he can move about. When I woke this morning there was a strange stillness down there, below my hip. I reached down to give him a shake. I’ve only had to do that a few times before, usually after a long walk, some unusual exertion. He wasn’t cold, exactly, he still has my blood in him, but he was still in a way that he’s never been before, not even when he’s fast asleep and then I knew, I just knew.
I pulled back the covers and looked down at him, a bit paler, a bit greyer, next to the skin of my own leg. He just lay there, inflexible, inanimate. I pushed myself up to sit against the pillow and stayed for a while watching him, trying not to think about what might come next. It was some time before I realised that I should get the doctor, call an ambulance, take him to hospital and see what could be done. But I had no delusions. You can’t resuscitate a leg.
It’s strange to sit here now, with him unmoving. He hates to stay still for long. Hated… I can’t get used to thinking of him in the past tense, not while he’s still here.
The doctors don’t know what caused it. They’ll do a post-mortem, they said, but they can’t promise anything. They told me straightaway that amputation is the only solution. They’re not sure what would happen, but they can’t leave him there. His brain, at least, will have to be removed.
I don’t know if I feel grief. I’m calm. Maybe it’s too soon, maybe I’m in shock. It’s so sudden, unexpected.
And after he’s gone, will I be lonely? It’ll be the first time in my life I’ve been alone, just me. I’ve wanted it so often, wished I had my own leg and no conjoined brother. I never wished him dead though. I always assumed we’d go on together, until my own death. I never thought he’d go first. So now I’ll get that prosthetic leg. Have to learn to use it, but it won’t be the same.
Here come the doctors now, a whole gaggle of them. I know they’re heading my way, they’ve got that look in their eyes. Get a research paper out of this, or a headline.
People will see I don’t have a right leg, but they won’t understand. How do you explain that?