Twenty-Six Little Bones
Short story competitions keep many writers going. Less of a commitment than a novel and good practice for our craft, they offer the hope and encouragement of being long-listed, short-listed, or even winning a prize.
So here is an opportunity to read my successful entry into the Hysteria 2017 Short Story Competition - which was subsequently published in their Anthology No.6. The theme, if it has one, is about the support women give one another.
It is also proof that I can produce contemporary fiction, as well as stories from 18th century London.
I hope you enjoy it.
Twenty-Six Little Bones
There are three girls down in the street, illuminated by the fake Victorian gas lamps. Arms entwined, they weave their way towards another nightclub and more mojitos. The blonde, in five-inch heels and a flame-coloured dress, the hem flirting around slender calves, could have been my double. Once upon a time.
'What are you looking at?' asks Sara, as I snap down the blind. My sister has popped in, to check what I'm up to, on her way home from A&E. She's doing twelve-hour shifts, back-to-back, this week. No wonder the grey eyes that examine me look exhausted.
'Nothing,' I say.
'You'd say, if you need to talk?' She measures out words like capsules of Tramadol. 'Or if you need anything. Wouldn't you?'
I restrain a glare. She means well, but talking won't help. There are plenty of things I need. Things I can't have any more. So I shrug in the direction of the black plastic bin liners in the corner.
'You could drop those off at a charity shop for me.'
Sara gathers up the nearest sack, its neck a pursed and disapproving mouth. Hefts its weight in one hand while the other reads the shape of its contents. Then struggles to compose her face.
I can't help snapping.
'Just get rid of the fucking things!'
It's the pity I can't bear.
'How many bones? In the human skeleton?'
I'm home for the weekend and we're crossed-legged on Sara's bed. A skull on her bedside table regards the revision exercise with a dismissive smirk, Not a real skull, of course. A plastic one, for medical students.
'Two-hundred-and-seventy at birth,' she says, reaching graceful arms towards the ceiling in a yoga upper body stretch. My baby sister is naturally beautiful. Not just attractive, as I am when dressed to go out. She's stunning. If she made an effort, men would drool over her, like Labradors at an open fridge door. When she's finally qualified - a real, live doctor of medicine - I worry about them letting her loose on vulnerable male patients. Anyone with a pulse might have a cardiac arrest.
'But only two-hundred-and-six in the adult.' She bends from the waist, in a post that will have an absurd name. Yoga isn't my scene. I gave up after my first Downward Dog. 'Because by then some have fused together.'
'Okay, smart-arse. How many just in the foot?'
'Twenty-six.' She settles into a lotus position and dispenses a smug look. Maybe I'll bribe her to be my secret weapon at a pub quiz night. 'A pair represent a quarter of the bones in your body.'
'Feet are workhorses. They put up with decades of hard labour.' She glances at the strappy sandals that I kicked off earlier, discarded on her bedroom carpet. 'Always assuming people wear vaguely practical shoes.'
'You sound more like Mum every day.'
Shoes take me up where I belong. Doesn't every woman crave gorgeous footwear? The higher, the more uncomfortable, the better? I reckon Cinderella swooned over that glass slipper, even though it must have been a bugger to dance in. Not my swot of a sister, of course. But for every red-blooded female they're essential. The snazziest killer heels make me feel hotter, my legs longer. Make me stand taller. Help me spot someone worth hitting on at a party. The trick is to find a pair you can prance around in all night, without being unable to walk the next day.
And I have scores, all in their original boxes with a photo taped on the end for quick reference. A fortune's worth of foot candy. Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin. Exquisite sandals and architectural platforms. Even a few designer ballet flats, which ought to please Sara, but apparently don't support my instep properly.
Alistair adored my feet. He loved to caress them, pale against his purple silk sheets. He admired their elegant arches in skyscraper heels. But it was the thigh-high biker boots I'd bought that really turned him on.
Dark-eyed, dark-haired Alistair was a miscalculation from the start. An ex-public schoolboy with a bogus estuary accent and a weird job in IT that I never fully understood, I hooked up with him in the lift of the building where my marketing company is based. He had a mild coke habit, but didn't press me to join him. And he was fit. My friends were gratifyingly jealous and the sex was awesome, though I knew from the beginning I wasn't the love of his life. That was his motorbike. A horrendously expensive Ducati Streetfighter. Black and silver, with touches of blood-red paintwork. Riding pillion behind him, pressed against the supple leather of his jacket, I could feel its power over him. The thrill of speed, of risk.
'When I think of you on the back of that thing, I shudder,' said Mum, tugging at the umbilical cord despite me being twenty-nine years old.
'Your mother's right, darling, said Dad, always ready with a scary statistic. 'You're thirty times more likely to be killed in a motorbike accident than in a car.
The truck was only marginally over the glinting cats' eyes marking the centre of the road, and Alistair hadn't even done a line of coke that night. But it was a juggernaut, driven on a surface slick with rain. Alistair limped away with cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder. A miracle, the doctors said. 'Born to be hanged,' he muttered later, unable to meet my eye. Anyway, after a few visits to my bedside in intensive care, he melted away, like the hand-made chocolates he'd brought that ended up with the nurses.
'Bastard,' Sara said. But I could see it. See what looking at me did to him. The guilt. Because there wasn't enough love. Never had been, really.
He's an attractive man, my surgeon. Which makes everything hugely worse. That, and the look in his liquid brown eyes. He should learn how to hide caring about what he'd had to do to me.
'When can I go home?' I demand.
'Maybe in a couple of weeks.' Mr Saheed looks at his clipboard. 'You've done incredibly well.'
'And walk again? With two feet?'
I refuse to leave this place in a wheelchair. I want at least to look normal.
He pauses, takes an almost imperceptible breath. He will have done this scores of times.
'You need to be realistic, Kate. After losing a foot, post-operative recovery can take as much as a year.'
I stare out of the hospital window. There's a mass of scaffolding outside. A builder's skip. It looks like they're trying to shore up the external wall. A young hard-hatted guy is strutting his stuff by shinning up a ladder like a spider monkey.
'I'm sorry,' he says. 'But things like this can't be rushed.'
I slouch in the chair in my bedroom and make myself look. I'm screwed, aren't I? Ugly. Gross. What man will ever look at me again with desire? My stump itches. The prosthetic foot is like something from those old Monty Python programmes Dad loved so much.
Well, I refuse to limp back to my parents, to sleep in the single bed of my childhood. To be fussed over. I'll stay in London. It's easy to be anonymous here. I won't return to my old job, either, though they're offering promotion and an increased salary to tempt me back. I'll work from home. Sort out some kind of consultancy deal. Financially I can manage and the insurance will help. I'll be like one of those hermit crabs: safely tucked into my shell, with my putty-coloured, carbon fibre foot for company.
Sara drops her backpack on the carpet, drapes her jacket over the spare chair and starts dragging squealing hangers along the rail of my wardrobe. She tosses skirts and dresses onto the bed in a whirl of textures and colour.
'We're going clubbing,' she says.
'You're not getting out of it, Kate. I want my sister back.'
She picks over the clothes with slender fingers, her nails unvarnished and clinically short. 'Anyway, I need a break from having a score patients in need of care in A&E. With half-a-dozen more waiting in ambulances outside.'
She holds up a skinny dress in silver grey crepe. It's a Victoria Beckham. Expensive.
'I'll borrow this. I've always envied your clothes. Lucky we're the same size.'
She pushes and pulls me into silk stockings, a tight black sequin skirt and a skimpy top, her expression reminiscent of when she was little, dressing her dolls. Always looking to me for approval. Then she digs around in the top drawer of the bedside table and thrusts my make-up bag into my hands. She's the big sister now.
When I finally link arms with her in front of the mirror, face on and outfit smoothed down, I have to admit you wouldn't know I was disabled.
I may have only one foot, but I've got a pair of shapely legs and a good body. My balance is sort-of okay, if there's something handy to grab hold of. I refuse to have a stick and the crutches are pushed under the bed. In the flat, I imply lurch from one piece of furniture to another. But in a club, a sister's arm might be just the thing to get me to a bar stool.
I'll humour her. I wouldn't mind a well-made vodka Martini. I imagine the tinkle of crushed ice falling into a tumbler. The sshush of Vermouth being poured over. The rattle of a silver spoon, stirring. The transfer to the chilled, long-stemmed glass. The tang of zest in my nostrils from that twist of lemon. Theatre for a party girl.
Sara rarely gets a proper evening out and in that dress she's like something from a fashion shoot. She naturally gets invitations from the guys at her hospital, but there's someone she's been seeing - an overworked and bespectacled GP from Deptford - and they don't get a look-in. Saturday night for Sara and Dr Dedicated is some impenetrable foreign film.
She's brought a pair of sensible courts in her backpack, the kind Mum swears by, but she'll get away with them. Everyone will be looking at her face.
'A sequinned skirt with scuffed trainers?' I say, looking down at myself. 'Really cool.' Then I laugh. I actually laugh. This is so crazy.
'Sit down and stick your feet out,' she orders, reaching again into the backpack.
I freeze as she pulls out my almost-forgotten patent kitten heels, the ones encrusted with fake diamonds. Last seen at the bottom of a bin bag. Then I take a deep breath, ease myself into the chair, and do as I'm told. She's right. Having an artificial foot isn't such a big deal these days. I can still wear fancy shoes. Enjoy dressing up. There's more to me than missing twenty-six little bones.
'I kept them for you,' she says, grasping my carbon fibre toes in loving hands and guiding them into a shoe. 'They're safe in their boxes. I knew you'd wear at least some of them again.'
I put my arm around her and breathe in the scent of my sister: clean hair, traces of the Coco Mademoiselle I gave her for Christmas; all that unconditional love. She's right. We are two strong women, needing to get on with our lives.
Skipper doesn't mind when the stories are set, just as long as he can rest his head on a friendly knee and listen. Hopefully you agree.