Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Wooden Legs

            I was always fascinated by my grandfather’s wooden leg. It seemed to have various switches and catches, and perhaps some gears. When he sat down he would click it into place, by moving a latch just above his knee and to the side. But just as I was fascinated by his prosthetic leg I was even more in awe of his absence of leg when he wasn't wearing it. When he came to stay he would come down for breakfast not wearing his artificial leg, and this would involve a good deal of hopping while holding on to the banisters, and then the use of crutches when he arrived downstairs. I can’t remember what he did with the loose and empty leg of his pyjama bottoms: perhaps he knotted one leg, or just tucked the loose material into his waist band.
            Having only one leg meant that he had to drive an automatic car – something of a rarity in late 1960s Britain. His car of choice was a Ford Zephyr with a bench seat and amazingly (for the time) electric windows. I can’t for the life of me think why he needed or wanted such an enormous car. He was the least ostentatious person you could meet: a small-town vicar with an evangelical streak that got wider and wider as he got older (he used to talk-in-tongues when we visited him – which was as scary as it sounds). The car was exotic: everything about it seemed to articulate another world of movement. It wasn't just that the windows moved up and down with a slow purr rather than a jerky hand powered movement: the car itself seemed to move differently. Perhaps it was the way it was driven. My grandfather was the sort of driver who terrified his passengers by his indifference to basic road safety and by his willingness to be distracted. If you sat in the back you would never ask any questions because he would just turn round and start talking to you, forgetting that he was belting along a Norfolk road.
            Of course his leg wasn't wooden. It was, I would guess, mainly plastic with some metal and some textile fastenings. It made him move about in a slightly unpredictable manner – as if he needed more room for turning, as if he required more warning time if he was expected to stop. It was the same with the car: he would let it swing round corners in a manner that felt like a slingshot, and he was always slightly soft when breaking at lights. With the leg and the Zephyr (and perhaps the evangelicalism) there was a sense that he was moving in a different medium to the rest of us, more like a boat manoeuvring in water, or a satellite docking in space. Or perhaps more accurately like a fish out of water. 

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