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Arms And The Man

The sound of one hand flapping

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

It was one of those celebratory nights. I’d landed some new writing projects; they would keep the wolf from the door for the foreseeable future. After an impressive consumption of ale, Shiraz, Merlot and champagne, suddenly, at precisely 1.45am my creative plans were bulldozed. Enveloped in a cloud of alcoholic bonhomie I ascended the stairs en route to bed. On the fifth step I slipped, did an almost balletic backward somersault, and landed heavily on my back on the hallway floor, smashing my face on the skirting board on the way down.

As an anaesthetic, alcohol can be pretty effective. I knew my face was bleeding yet felt no pain. Staring up at the ceiling I casually admired the Edwardian coving which was crying out for another coat of white emulsion whilst pondering the fact that my whole left side had no feeling. My arm, from my shoulder to my wrist, would not move. This provided a much needed, sobering cold-sweat moment. Good God! Is this permanent? How will I write? Will I be able to drive…you bloody fool — what have you done? My teetotal wife raced to the scene and hovered above me, uttering the totally justified question: ‘What are you doing down there, you silly bugger!?’ For some bizarre reason I said I was just ‘resting’ and that she should go up to bed and I’d follow…‘eventually’. Still bleeding, I began shivering violently and – after it became obvious that I could not move – she covered me with a duvet and called an ambulance.

With the NHS, our country’s most precious social asset, under constant negative media attack, I felt ashamed to be pestering the service after becoming one of the drunken A&E oafs I have always railed against. It was a long wait for an ambulance. As the booze began to wear off, the pain surged through my head and body and I was overcome with embarrassment and self-loathing. The three youthful paramedics, however, were wonderful: patient, compassionate and skilled. I expected perhaps some well-deserved censure for what I was putting them through, but instead they gave me morphine – and restored my dignity – as they dressed my head wound and told me my left humerus was fractured. Half an hour later I was in hospital, x-rayed, clad in plaster of Paris, and sitting on a trolley in a bewildered, cold post-alcohol daze. A nurse going off duty after her twelve-hour shift volunteered to take me home in her car. It was 9am, and I had just been told that it could well be over four months before I could function again, play the banjo or drive a car.

I am typing this with one hand. Fortunately, it’s the right hand. Yet I’m feeling disproportionately sorry for myself. Some famous names have been parading through my conscience recently. They include Stephen Hawking, Lord Byron and Sue Townsend, all challenged with some form of disability. Even Dickens was rumoured to suffer from epilepsy; Hans Christian Andersen had dyslexia, and Christy Brown’s achievement in writing My Left Foot remains awe-inspiring. It seems that many in the creative arts and those with depressive disorder spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating their own distress. Hemingway’s personal hell included borderline and narcissistic personality traits, depression, bipolar disorder and, later, psychosis. Ezra Pound, after being arrested for treason in 1945, was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane. The list goes on: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Frida Kahlo (the latter’s right leg was thinner than the left, the result of polio at the age of six).

All manner of questions about how to blaze a trail through infirmity occupied my thoughts, with images of mobility such as Raymond Burr playing the wheelchair-bound 1970s San Francisco detective Robert T. Ironside, or Peter Sellers as the sinister Dr Strangelove, manically manoeuvring his wheelchair whilst military leaders squabble in the midst of a nuclear crisis to be told by President Merkin Muffley (also played by Sellers) ‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!’ But all I had was a paltry, self-inflicted broken arm. So what the hell was there to worry about?

Painful months have passed with many X-rays, a cumbersome, itchy new arm brace, a bone density scan, all involving a cheerful consultant who always expresses interest in what I had done for a living. Note the past tense — ‘done’: making a living this way, with one hand, was not what I had planned. The left arm is still useless, but those weakened fingers still possess life. I could write in longhand, but that would still need keying in. Then I think again of Christy Brown, writing with his left foot, or Sue Townsend going blind, or Professor Hawking, his whole world contained in that amazing wheelchair. Someone suggested Dragon voice recognition software, but the thought of sitting here listening to my own boring voice is too abnormal to contemplate. For me, the flow of words from brain to keyboard is a cerebral process.

Over decades of daily writing, my keyboard skills had improved significantly, with a typing speed of 75 words per minute. Yet despite this current setback, the logjam of words needs to come out, to appear on the page, because this is the only way this pusillanimous self-absorption can be abolished. Thus I have devised an almost Heath Robinson-like method to speed things up. It involves three extra cushions on my chair to raise me an extra six inches over the keyboard. The flaccid left wrist is rested on a gel-filled pad so that the fingers can access the Caps Lock, CTRL and Shift keys. Although my right hand is doing most of the work, I’m back up to 40 words per minute. Of course, I have the consolation that this is hopefully a temporary injury, not a permanent disability, and by the end of the year I’ll be treasuring my restored limbs like never before.

All this has taught me many lessons, broadening my knowledge and appreciation of those many disabled writers and artists who have faced horrendous permanent challenges and still managed to produce brilliant work. It has also educated me, albeit late in life, about the potential dangers of inebriation, and I now regard the humble domestic staircase as a latent ladder to hell. I’m fortunate, too, to be a British writer. I can’t find enough words to praise the NHS. A friend in Texas, when I sent him a breakdown of the medical attention I’ve had thus far, calculated that under the US system, I would now be in debt to the tune of £28,000. Trying to stay creative under that sword of Damocles would kill the muse stone dead.

Parked on the street is our car. As I am the only driver in the family, during these immobile months it has remained static, taxed and insured. To keep the engine turning over and the brakes free my neighbour drives it a couple of miles each week. The lack of freedom of mobility is frustrating. Sometimes I use my bus pass, other journeys require a taxi. But until I have enough strength to change the gears, that neglected Vauxhall Zafira is just a piece of street furniture for cats to hide beneath when it rains.

Yet soaring above all these petty logistical problems is a sense of relief that this vocation, writing, this enclosed bubble of existence around my laptop, is still fully operational. I can think. I can imagine. I can write, and, meagre though it is, make a living.

So, it’s back to the prose-face with the following thoughts. Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) had a wooden leg, after an amputation suffered as a result of having injured herself during a performance. Yet she continued to perform the roles which had made her famous. And on December 31 1984, the drummer with the Sheffield rock band Def Leppard, Rick Allen (b. 1963), lost his left arm in a road accident. Was his career over? No. He adapted his kit and discovered a new way to play. It must have been a tough learning curve. So now that I’ve learned to open a tin of pilchards with one hand, all I have to do is not drink so much, hang onto the bannister…and as soon as I’m fit enough, give that coving on the hallway ceiling another coat of emulsion.

Roy Bainton is the author of eighteen books well as memoirs and poetry. He also works as a writer and researcher in the music industry and has written for magazines, radio and television. His latest book is the Mammoth Book of Superstition.

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