a short story by BOB JACOBS
Sometimes I dream that I’m back there, in that room. We’re all there, all fifteen of us, stripped naked and waiting in line. They thought it was funny making us queue because we were British. I was last in line. I had to watch each of the others go through it first before my time came, but none was more harrowing than Padmore who went first. When they pinned Padmore to the floor none of us knew what to expect. It was only when they brought the axe down and lopped off his right arm, only when Padmore’s scream filled the air, that it all became clear, and real, and my skin tightened around my whole body. When they lopped his other arm off I felt my legs giving way. Somehow they held fast, but warm piss ran down my thighs. We didn’t know then how far they would go. Would his legs be next? His head? But they lopped his arms off and took him away. Peterson next. Then Jamieson. I became acutely conscious of my arms in those final moments, wanted to be able to remember what they felt like, what it was to have them, and flexed my fingers repeatedly, then a mist descended.
I woke in a bed. The nurse spoke English. This surprised and confused me. “You’re in hospital,” she said. “They amputated your arms, but you’re in good health otherwise.” I cried then. When I stopped crying I looked around the room and saw the others. We were all there, all fifteen of us. I cried again. Nurse Helen dabbed the tears from my cheeks. “You’re going to be okay,” she said.
I tried to speak, but the sound I made was unintelligible.
“I promise,” she said, smiling, “you’re going to be okay.”
• • •
Luckhurst checked the clock on the wall. “He’s late,” he said.
“Give him time,” I said.
“He’s not coming,” Luckhurst said.
“Five minutes,” I growled.
Smith came round the table, lifting each tankard in turn so that we could gulp down some beer. The waiter came into the room and asked if we were ready to go through. Smith glared at him and shook his head, but five minutes later we went through in silence without Padmore.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Stop that,” said Helen.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Stop that, too,” she said, smiling. She raised another forkful of food to my mouth.
“Beer, please,” I said. She raised my tankard. I thought back to that hospital bed then, to what she’d looked like when I’d first opened my eyes. This old woman who had come back to join us each anniversary, what does she think of us, I wondered. They all came back, all the nurses, the officers too. Smith, Seaton, Brown, taking it in turns to lift our tankards and to feed us. Don’t they ever get tired of this, I wondered. Do they never think enough is enough?
The mood was sombre. None of us knew what had happened to Padmore. His chair sat empty. But as the evening wore on we grew rowdier, and after dessert we settled down for the competition. For almost an hour we arm-wrestled, fourteen men, fourteen armless men, going through the motions, playing it for real, grunting and groaning, winning and losing, and at the end Bradshaw declared the winner again. What did those nurses think of us, those officers, too? But their laughter was as authentic as their cheers, and they kept lifting the tankards.
We were back in the bar, Padmore in his absence getting more than his fair share of criticism, when the door opened. A woman came in backwards, grey-haired with glasses. She looked at us and dragged a wheelchair into the bar. Padmore beamed at us. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. He spoke to the woman then and she pulled back the blanket covering Padmore’s lower half. “I’ve had me fucking legs amputated!” he shouted.
“You fucking show-off,” I shouted.
“Cripple,” shouted someone else.
“You always thought you were a cut above the rest of us,” said someone.
“Get the man some food,” Smith commanded of the waiter.
Bradshaw and Padmore arm-wrestled, but the result was never in doubt.
• • •
The following year we were back again. It’s hard to explain exactly why it happened, and I doubt that many would understand, but we all got hauled into the bar in our wheelchairs, our legs amputated. Bradshaw won the arm wrestling. There was talk of us forming a football team. The only one missing was Helen. I cried when I heard. We all cried, all fifteen of us. It seemed so bloody unfair. Enough is enough.
© Bob Jacobs, 2018