My father only had one leg. He lost the other one in the war. He didn’t mislay it. He rode over a mine on his motorbike. He got blown up, the motorbike mangled his leg, and he was left for dead. He lay there for three days. Then they noticed he was still alive. So they sent him home and cut his leg off. He had the choice, mind you. The doctor told him he could keep the leg or have it cut off. If he kept it, he’d have circulation problems for the rest of his life. If not, not. He had it cut off. He was 19.
Luckily, he had good legs. That’s what we always said in the family, that Dad had ‘good’ legs. He only had one-and-a-half of them, but they were good ones: ‘Daddy’s legs’; ‘You’ve got your father’s legs’; ‘I wish I had Daddy’s legs’. Even the doctor treating him after his stroke remarked on them. ‘Good legs’, he said. ‘Where did you get them?’. ‘Rugby’, my dad said. He meant the game, not the place.
Kids crave prestige and I was proud my dad had fewer legs than most people. It was a kind of distinction. I didn’t boast about it - My dad’s got less legs than yours. I wasn’t stupid. But I let it be known, in a casual sort of way, suggesting a world of heroic deeds and outlandish adventures far removed from the domestic round of suburban London. Pride also burgeoned on the beach. With his good legs, Dad was a good swimmer. He’d sit at the water’s edge and take his leg off and all the other kids would fall over while I stood straight and Dad leant on my shoulder and hopped into the sea, plunging into the waves with an elegant crawl. When I was ten, my parents bought a flat in Malta. Dad bought a flipper, too. He wanted to try snorkelling. He went into the shop and asked for a mask and a snorkel and one flipper, Size 13, right foot. Yes, just the one. The shopkeeper beamed at him. Three days earlier he’d sold another single flipper, Size 13, left foot. I think it was a right flipper Dad wanted. That was one drawback about having a father with only one leg. When we got mad at him, he’d provoke us till we kicked his shin. We always got the wrong leg.
Dad never complained about his missing leg. Occasionally he mentioned it had been ‘weeping’ in the night. That was all, weeping, as if it was crying for its lost other half. But weeping was a euphemism. The stump rubbed raw, blistered, grew sore. The pain must have been real. There was always a tube of Savlon by the bedside. But wanting half a leg never stopped him sailing, never stopped him playing football with me, never stopped him crawling round the ferns in Richmond Park in elaborate games of hide-and-seek. On holiday in Norfolk, he climbed a forty-foot tree when I got stuck at the top. We walked up Box Hill once. At retirement, he was still able to make it up to Halnaker Mill on the Downs. In his late sixties, he horrified my sister by vaulting over a turnstile in the Paris Metro. At seventy he got in a scrap with a punk-rocker who’d been beating up a traffic warden. Dad’s leg didn’t exist as a problem. It was just a source of pride and fascination.
When I was a kid, I loved watching him put it on in the morning. In those days, the leg was fastened with an elaborate harness of buckles and straps going half-way up his thigh. Not that they did much good. The leg regularly dropped off in the street, horrifying passers-by and crippling Dad – with laughter. He always laughed about his leg. Except one time when we were boarding a ferry and the marshal kept waving us closer and closer to the bulkhead till Dad roared out: “We can’t go any closer, I’m a fucking cripple! What do you want me to do, climb out the fucking window?”. That was after his stroke, though.
It wasn’t in his nature to complain, not while he could be going out and alarming strangers with his leg dropping off. Perhaps he was just glad to be alive. A secure job, a comfortable home, that’s enough once you’ve been left for dead then had your leg cut off. And he was lucky to be alive. When Dad joined up, he was given a gas mask. He and his pals didn’t have much time for gas masks. They were eighteen and immortal. So they ditched their masks and filled the cases with tobacco. Dad had a half dozen tins of Gold Block strapped to his chest when he rode over the mine. When the nurses were undressing him, they found a lump of shrapnel the size of a fist buried in the tins of tobacco. It was just touching Dad’s sternum. No gas mask would have stopped it. He smoked Gold Block for the next fifty years. In his sixties, Dad felt something hard under the skin at the side of his neck. He squeezed it and a pellet of lead popped out. Later on, x-rays revealed fragments of metal dotted about his body like pockets of ore.
Apart from kicking the wrong shin, there was another drawback to having a father with only one leg. When I was about nine or ten, I suffered nightmares that wouldn’t stop when I woke up - walls closing in on me, wardrobes falling, things like that. One time I dreamt the number of legs you had was an inherited characteristic and I would soon be running short of legs myself. After another delirium, a locum suggested hospitalising me. My parents refused, but when I dozed off again I dreamt I was in hospital and the nurses were asking why my father only had one leg and I couldn’t explain or find any plausible reason no matter how hard I tried.
When Dad was 72, he had a stroke. It affected the left hemisphere of his brain, I think. Certainly the side governing his ‘good’ leg. Dad had a stroke and he didn’t have a leg left to stand on. Later that Summer I saw a letter he wrote from hospital. I first learned to walk when I was 2, he said. I had to learn again when I was 22. And now I’ve got to learn again at 72. He never really walked again, but he could move himself about with the help of a crutch. He didn’t hop anymore, though. He sort of dragged himself. He died six years later.
It’s hard sorting through the belongings of the dead, reminding yourself that things have no meaning without the person who used them, balancing sentiment against reason, deciding what could be kept, what should be kept, what must be kept, what could, should, must be chucked. You feel so callous, sifting the detritus of a life, wondering why they held onto this, what value that had, whether you’re not betraying some cherished memory by discarding the clutter. Clothing is especially difficult. Vacant clothes lose their shape, yet you remember this cardigan, that coat, can sometimes even smell a lingering hint of the body that is no more. When eventually you give them away, it’s as if you’re compelling the dead to really die, cutting off their retreat by removing the shell they might return to once they’ve been away for a while. One of the hardest things I had to do after Dad’s death, was take his legs back to the limb-fitting centre. It was daft really. Mum didn’t need a wardrobeful of legs hanging about the bedroom and it wasn’t as if we were going to stick them on the mantlepiece and sit about reminiscing. They were just lumps of fibre-glass and leather. They could be refurbished, sent to Africa, refitted for more recent victims of mines. Somebody else could walk on Dad’s legs, somebody else probably is walking on Dad’s legs at this very moment. It was difficult, though. They were my dad’s legs and it felt like I was letting him down by giving them away. If he did come back, he really wouldn’t have a leg left to stand on.
About three months after his death, I was lying in the bath when I chanced to glance down at my own half-submerged leg, my right leg, as it happened. Looking at it, I was suddenly struck by the conviction that this was my father’s leg. It wasn’t just a resemblance of muscle and bone. This was his leg. Now that he was dead, he had become a part of me, was in me, of me, the very leg I stand on. This was not speculative genetics or airy mysticism. It simply was - is - a matter of fact.
The morning after Dad’s stroke, I was the first to visit him in hospital. I don’t know why, but they hadn’t let us stay overnight. One of my most harrowing memories is of Dad being dragged away for the night, slumped between two nurses. He spent that night alone, having his stroke, like he’d spent those three days alone, losing his leg. I got there first thing in the morning. He was lying in bed, his face a little lopsided, an arm and a leg, the ‘good’ leg, still paralysed, and he was doubtless contemplating the prospect of having to learn to walk again for the third time in his life, of living a life limited in a way no amputation had limited him, of enduring all the manifold indignities a stroke imposes on its victims. And, for the first and only time I know of, he gave way to self pity, he cracked and in despair began to weep. It’s a hard thing to see your father weep, especially when he’s a man not given to displays of emotion, a strong, forceful figure inspiring respect and perhaps a little fear. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, but I did it without knowing or even thinking. Oh, Dad, I murmured. There was nothing else to say. And I leant over, rested my forehead on his, and wept with him. We stayed like that for perhaps a minute, maybe two, three, four, I have no idea, forehead to forehead, tear to tear, father to son. And for the first time I could remember, we were absolutely together, indivisible and one. No more barriers, no more fencing, no more confusion. Arguments, resentments, misunderstanding, mutual bafflement, all were dissolved in tears. I think that’s when he moved into me, gave me his leg. I guess it was a kind of confirmation.
I’m forty years old now, my dad’s age when I was born. I’m writing this with his pen, a black-enamelled biro with most of the enamel worn away to the brass underlay. And I’m standing on my father’s leg, his good leg.
This is the story of my father’s leg.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace