Your right hand is the first to go. One Sunday afternoon as you’re sitting on the sofa reading the papers, it detaches itself at the wrist and walks on the tips of its thumb and fingers across the rug in the centre of the room. It strides up the arm of the leather chair he’s sitting in, pushes its fingers between those of his left hand and curls them down, interlocking your palm with his.
He continues working on his laptop. You try to call your hand back, mouthing and gesturing so you don’t disturb him. It ignores you, clutches him tighter. He doesn’t seem to notice.
You try everything you can think of to lure it back: cooing, threatening, ignoring. It remains interlaced with his hand. He continues to type.
How are you going to eat? Write? Dress? Can you manage with your left hand? You can’t remember the last time you tried.
You imagine him feeding you, wonder if you can convince him to do so. You despise yourself for considering it.
The following morning, after you’ve negotiated dressing (you acted coy, he helped), eating breakfast (toast, one handed; buttering was a challenge), getting the bus (you tipped the change from your purse onto the driver’s tray; he wasn’t impressed) and getting into your office (a balancing act), you sit at your desk and wish you could call your mother.
Sometimes you hear her voice in your head, saying the things you know she’d say to you, advising, guiding, reassuring. This time there’s silence.
You examine the stump of wrist where your hand used to be. It’s sharp, pristine. No sign of a struggle, no blood.
You teach your third-year students. The module is Women in Post-War Britain and today’s seminar is on the 1960s. You discuss the pill, the Abortion Act, Soho, the sewing machinists’ strike in Dagenham.
One of the young women has a ring finger missing. Is that recent? You’ve never noticed before. Another, like you, is devoid of a right hand. She takes notes competently with her left. You wonder what her story is.
Afterwards, you attempt to continue with the article you’re working on. You type with your left hand, o n e f i n g e r a t a t i m e. Your right arm hangs limp at your side. You slosh boiling water from the kettle over the rim of your mug.
That evening, you go to your own flat. You open the front door expecting your right hand to be waiting for you, alert, attentive, eager to be reunited with its parent limb. But the place is empty and still as though it’s unoccupied and has been for some time.
You move into his place. You reason that if your hand is there, you should be there too.
Over time, you realise that your rosy plump lips are thinning and fading.
You’ve never worn lipstick before but now you buy it in red, applying it after each time you kiss or eat. Brighter and brighter shades. The mouth of a clown reveals itself.
Hours are spent gazing at him, attempting to spot any changes. His nose, perhaps, has moved a little to the right. His left arm seems to be an inch or so longer. Possibly.
After sex he lies on top of you and you cradle each other, his shrinking penis nestled inside you still. You wonder why it doesn’t remain there when he rolls away from you.
Your heart pounds in your chest, thumping against your ribcage. Repeatedly you think it’s going to break out and leap at him. You picture it clinging to his torso, scrabbling for purchase on a nipple.
At the altar, you reach into your chest and hand your heart to him as he hands his to you. You place it inside yourself. It beats differently to your own. A rhythm change. A syncopated beat.
You think you’ll grow accustomed to it. You don’t.
And then there’s a third heartbeat.
As your belly distends and the baby shuffles and kicks, it lifts away from you. Attached by the umbilical cord, it floats in front of you as you walk. A cocoon. An alien egg. Strangers touch it, stroke it, ask questions of it, make proclamations.
After the birth, when you deposit your insides outside of yourself, you think there’s nothing left for you to relinquish. You’re wrong.
You break off a chunk of your heart, his heart, the exchanged heart. You feed it to the baby, placing tiny piece by tiny piece onto your fingers and transferring them onto his gums.
For days you watch the child, alert to his every whimper, cry, secretion, movement.
Your eyelids dissolve. There’s a tingling as they go.
When you take the child out, strapped to your chest, its head nestled against you, strangers stop to coo and talk in high-pitched singsong voices. You stare at them and don’t speak.
The baby sucks at your breast with such vigour you wait for the nipple to detach itself and dwell in his mouth. It doesn’t. Instead your left breast, the one he favours, slowly deflates. Eventually the whole thing shrivels, dries and falls off. You find it months later in the corner of his cot. An abandoned balloon.
You move the cot from your room to his; you sleep with your eyes and ears open. Your left ear – the one closest to the bedroom door – tuned to his frequency.
Eventually, exhausted, weeping over his cot at 4am, you pull at your ear. It detaches. As you place it next to him, it wiggles. You hear static in your head and then the puht, puht of the baby’s breath as he sleeps. As you move back towards your bedroom, the signal strengthens, the volume increases. That first night it keeps you awake, a radio station with you its only listener. You learn to live with it, background noise to your nights. You sleep. Sometimes.
And then there’s another baby.
You give the youngest child your right breast and move your left ear from the bed of the eldest to the baby’s cot. The toddler takes your left hand. Your lips fade to the palest sliver; you have no time for lipstick.
When the oldest starts nursery school, you glance at another mother, spot the space where her left arm should be. You look away, watch your son run towards the group, your left hand hanging limp from his right one. You spot the other mother’s child, the arm diagonal across her back, the hand cradling her side.
Most of the children have something: a hand, an arm, the occasional leg, lips, ears and even eyes which hover at a short distance, tracking their captors. Some ignore their appendages; others pet them. One drags an arm across the floor, clinging to it then using it to hit other children.
You wonder what sort of lives those with nothing lead: are their parents better at this than you? Will their offspring grow up to be independent, resilient, future leaders?
You start having coffee with the other mother. Neither of you mention your bodies, but sometimes you sense her focus on the hole where your ear used to be, or your stumps as you touch your hair, forgetting you can’t tuck it back anymore. Although her left arm is missing, her right is intact. She lifts her cup with ease. You’ve taken to drinking through a straw.
On several occasions you attempt to move the conversation beyond the children, your upbringing, school. Sometimes you talk about work. Who you used to be.
When you try to talk about who you think you are now, the words disappear. Melting away as though they never existed. Your temporal lobes throb.
You go back to your job. You can’t remember your passwords. You type with your toes. Your brain swells and tightens as you listen to people; concentrate on their greetings, instructions, opinions. Your left ear, which you reattached when the youngest started school, is still fuzzy. A trace of static remains.
You wish you could divide yourself into more people. Several versions of you, each performing a different role. You examine yourself for signs of a split but you remain a single, albeit damaged, being.
When you have time to sit opposite your husband, eat dinner, talk, listen, you look at him. There are lines on his forehead, around his eyes, at the corner of his mouth. His hair is beginning to grey but, essentially, his body appears unchanged.
One day, a pair of shoes you’ve owned for several years rubs your feet. You’ve noticed your clothes are looser recently although you’ve done nothing in particular to warrant this.
A week later, as you wince at the raw skin on your heels, you decide to throw the shoes away. You try several pairs in four different shops before finding some that fit. It’s not until you reach the till and the cashier reads aloud from the label that you realise they’re a size smaller than you usually wear.
Your skirts grow longer. You tread on the hems of your jeans.
The only time you see glimpses of yourself is in class. You snatch at moments when you make salient points, see your students engaged, feel arguments forming.
You think of the women you’ve spent your adult life with: Hatshepsut. Cleopatra. Boudica. Empress Wu Zetian. Hildegard of Bingen. Joan of Arc. Elizabeth I. Empress Nur Jahan. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Elizabeth Blackwell. Harriet Tubman. Marie Curie. Marie Stopes. Sarojini Naidu. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. Rosa Parks. Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Angela Davis. Indira Ghandi. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Benazir Bhutto. Once upon a time you thought you might take your place on the list; become a footnote to it, at least.
Static buzzes in your head. Your frontal lobe hammers against your skull. Your stumps throb. Your chest aches for its missing breasts.
You sit in the office alone. You scream. You scream. You scream.
You scream until someone knocks on the door to check if you’re okay. You tell them you’re fine. When they don’t leave, holding on to the door handle not knowing whether to come in or walk away, you say scream therapy and shrug. They depart.
That night, after the children have been fed, bathed and put to bed and your husband is deep in a book, you do something you haven’t done for years: you go for a drive. You get into the car, use your forearm to slam and wedge the gear stick, hook your stumps into the spokes of the steering wheel and drive and drive and drive. You drive until you can’t drive any further. Until your stumps throb in agony. Until you’ve reached the end of the petrol and the end of the road.
There you find a B&B, warmly lit, cosy and nurturing. On the other side of the road is a hotel. A chain hotel with identikit rooms. You choose the hotel.
You lie on the bed and sleep. When you open the curtains the following day, the sun blares into the room. It’s too late for breakfast. You tip the contents of your bag onto the bed. Your phone display shows seventeen missed calls, five voicemails, twenty-two text messages and seven emails. You turn it off.
You leave the hotel, buy a pastry and a coffee and sit on a bench in a park to eat and drink. The day disappears under your feet. You walk purposefully but without destination. Somehow you find your way back to the hotel. You buy a sandwich and eat it in your room.
Housekeeping has programmed the television to welcome you. You change to another channel and let several hours of light entertainment glide across your eyes. You fall asleep.
You wake to the television’s breakfast programme glow. Your stomach rumbles. In desperate need of a shower, you discard your clothes and stand in the plastic tray, allowing the water to run over you until you feel your skin shrivelling. You have no option other than to pull the same set of clothes back on although you turn your pants and socks inside out.
In the hotel’s breakfast room, you ignore the server’s suggestion of a table in the centre and sit in the furthest corner. Your stomach rumbles again. You help yourself to a full English with toast.
As you’re eating, you notice the older couple on the next table glancing towards you in-between intense whispering over an iPad.
It’s not her, you hear the woman hiss.
It is, says the man. He holds the tablet up and you see yourself, or someone who looks like you, if you were intact. Your fork clatters against your plate as it falls from between your stumps. The heads of some of the other diners turn. You look down.
Now look what you’ve done, says the woman.
She leans across and rests her stump on your arm. It’s okay, she says. I know.
You turn to her. Her cheek and eyebrow scrunch towards each other in a gesture you recognise as a wink performed by someone without an eyelid.
You leave the dining room flanked by the couple, return to your room and grab your bag.
You fill the car with petrol and begin to drive.