The bobbing up and down of her head was the first I saw of the girl, probably about 17 then, as she made her way up the crowded street. Fascinated to see why she was moving like this among the others moving quickly for the home buses, I hurried to reach her and was amazed to see her, using crutches, the left leg strong and muscular in a four inch black heel, the right, just dangling, toes pointing straight down to the pavement, wobbling loosely at the swing of the axiliary crutches. She moved quite quickly and turned to a hall-way leading to an accountants’ office, reached by a flight of stairs which she climbed, crutches first, left leg next and the right following, hitting each stair with its downward toes and bouncing back again as this was repeated up the stairs. I was mesmerized and followed her without thinking, the crutches going into marks at the side of each stair, proving this was where she climbed to the office to work. Her short leg bobbled about but pointed forward, the ankle having now power to it. The heel was at least 12 inches from the ground The leg was straight, without muscle, scarred with old stitch marks from ankle to mid calf, dark in colour through the brown tights and about a quarter of the size of her good leg. There must have been 15 stairs for her to climb and at the top was a door she reached to open and as she turned, I was there, embarrassed and overwhelmed by the experience. She said the office was closed for the day and asked if I had an appointment. The reply was that I wanted to see an accountant and had called on the spur of the moment, a good enough response to enable me to call back again the following day and to start an admiring and thrilling relationship with Carol.
Carol was at the desk in her office when I called the following afternoon for the appointment I had nervously made over the phone. She stood up when I walked in and for the first time I saw her right leg from the front, this time in a blue miniskirt some six inches above her strong left leg. This exposed her short leg as the useless appendage it was as it hung there. I imagined where her right knee was in relation to her left but my attention was suddenly taken by her comment "Funny little thing isn't it? Not seen a leg like this before I suppose?" It threw me out of my trance and I stammered something like "Sorry, I didn't mean to stare but you look so wonderful standing there." These were the first words we spoke after the phone call where I had at least had the cheek to ask her her name and how long she had worked there. Now, the ice was broken and we seemed to have made a good, honest start to getting to know each other. Carol showed me to her boss's door, hopping three paces on her good leg and I caught a sneak look at the right, flailing about in the forward and backward motion I has seen on the stairs the night before. I looked up and saw her smile and I smiled back. The meeting with her boss, Mrs Walters, lasted a few minutes and when I came out it was time for Carol to close up the office and leave. In fact she had her shoulder bag strapped to her right crutch and was holding the door key ready to lock up. Mrs Walters left first and I went ahead of Carol as she locked the door. I watched as she came down the stairs with her crutches It was almost as exciting as seeing her go up for this time, she reached down to the next step with the crutches, followed with her left and the bobbling right hitting with some force the stair as it went down it each one, until the whole process of crutches down, right leg then left leg was repeated 15 times before we went onto the street outside the Post Office. The black patent shoe on her right foot was obviously suffering from the constant banging into the stairs she climbed up and down and was scuffed at the toe but the left shone as she crutched her way across the road with me following, its four inch heel clicking on the pavement. Its mate hung almost perpendicular, the tiny foot wobbling so enticingly, the heel shimmering in the dying sunlight that caught her shoes. I said I had a bus to catch too and we walked together.
The next few days passed without me needing to go near the office where Carol worked. Although we had been friendly and chatted as we went to get our buses, I didn’t think Carol and I would meet again. But I really wanted to. I was caught in the spell cast by her short right leg and was amazed by her openness about it. Carol certainly wasn’t ashamed of her disability.
At the weekend, I went on my own into the cellar bar of a pub in the city centre and across the room I saw Carol and waved. She moved towards me but her walk was not the swing through crutch walking for she had nothing to support her under her shoulders as she came across the crowded bar. We smiled at each other and Carol told me she had decided to come out to dance and had left her crutches behind. Then I saw what she meant. Her little leg hung in a steel calliper that ended in a high rubber mould, a sort of foot on the ground 18 inches below the limp leg, making up for 12 inches of leg shortness and six inches of high heel The steel bars of the calliper had two wide, brown leather straps across them, one set just below her tiny foot and the other at the level of her left knee. I must have stood there, my mouth gaping as I saw her do her version of a twirl in front of me.
“Just to dance with,” she said. “I use my crutches when I take this thing off because I can walk quicker without it.”
Carol looked lovely. I told her so and I took her hand, moving to the small dance floor in the middle of the bar.
I had never danced with a girl with a short leg, let alone a girl with it strapped into a shiny calliper and wearing a short white mini skirt that must have been nine inches above her left knee. This left her right leg knee-cap just peeking out from under the hem of the skirt but held between the calliper uprights by a brown leather knee pad, its straps held by small buckles at the outside of the calliper. She wore grey seamed tights, stretched light and sparkling in the lights across her full left leg but darker on her little leg where there was no flesh or muscle to make it have the same effect. On both feet, Carol had on patent black shoes, with what seemed like six inch heels. Both had two ankle straps with tiny buckles but on her little leg, her tiny foot was held in with two extra straps across it and because it was so small. I assumed there was padding underneath it and in the toe to keep it in place. Its ankle straps were drawn tightly across the tiny limb, the spare patent leather cut to stop it flopping about untidily.
We reached the dance floor, me following and watching Carol walk her rigid calliper along almost as if a normal leg was inside it, always pulling it along after the step she first made in her arched high heel with its click and then the thud of the calliper’s rubber foot. Her limp limb swayed between the two calliper uprights, its six inch heel, unable to stay still despite the control of the knee pad, making a slight clacking sound as it struck the calliper sides. We danced opposite each other, as Carol moved her hips and twisted her left leg, sometimes taking it off the floor for a second, taking her weight on the calliper by itself.
“Well, you couldn’t do this on crutches,” I said.
“I have tried but people kept falling over them,” Carol joked.
We danced a while and sat down to talk, picking up from when we had met at her office. Carol talked about how she was determined not to let her little leg get in her way in life. It was a fascinating story.
Above the music in the bar, I told Carol I had moved to the city recently to work in a travel agent’s and that I would be glad of a bit of help about what the place had to offer. For her, the city was home since she had been born there and yes, she was 18 and old enough to drink in the pub!
She said her disability had been with her since birth. Her right leg had not formed like the left, the thigh had ended with the tapering of the limb to her knee and 12 inches below that to her foot which had pointed backwards. But operations during childhood had turned her foot forwards, explaining the row of old stitch marks I had seen as I had followed her up those stairs. We talked about school and college and families and Carol ‘s ambition was to overcome her little leg’s limitations and be “as like the rest as I can be.” Dressed like this, I told her, she certainly got my attention.
I pointed to her high heels and calliper and added; “Quite a combination this is, Carol. You’ve learned to stand out from the crowd for sure!”
“Well, I can at least stand wearing this,” she said, touching the steel of the calliper, stretched out straight under the table. “Leaving the crutches behind means I get about slower but I look normal especially in a crowd. That’s unless people look me up and down,” Carol laughed as she said this.
She looked at me and asked if I had ever been in a pub with a girl with a little leg before.
“Never but I like the experience,” I said. “You dance so well even in those shoes,” I said a little nervously.
Carol looked down at them, admiringly turning her left ankle so the full height of the heel glistened in the lights. She said they were her favourites and had the right shoe adapted with the extra straps on it but she said she had to stuff cotton wool into the toe to stop her foot dropping out. Carol could see I was fascinated by her story and she said she had told it before, but most men had turned the conversation around to other things.
“I’m not embarrassed about how I look, not like some disabled people I know. Does it bother you?”
I told Carol that it certainly didn’t bother me and a college friend of mine who had polio had the same outlook as her. “She doesn’t get concerned at all, although she struggles to get about on two callipers,” I said. “You walk in yours so well.”
We had a couple more drinks and Carol decided it was her turn to pay. So as not to stop this very independent girl, I moved sideways to let her get to the bar. Without warning, Carol grabbed my shoulder to pull herself to a standing position, dragging the calliper from under the table and adjusting her mini skirt. For while she had been sitting, the skirt had ridden up her left thigh, exposing the lustrous tights and even more inches of calliper so I could see her knee pad’s two tones of brown leather. Carol had to squeeze past me, her calliper brushing against me as she did so. But her rubber calliper end slipped and she started to fall away. Instinctively, I grabbed her but the only thing I caught was the top of her calliper at the protruding thigh band, gripping it underneath the skirt and holding on to it as she regained her footing.
“I’m not drunk, honestly,” she giggled. “The last time that happened I fell and couldn’t get up as this thing is just rigid.”
“Want any help with the drinks?” I replied.
“No thanks,” replied Carol. “I’ll be fine, just catch me on the way back!”
Amazingly, Carol and I had not seen each other for 28 years. She had moved to Sheffield and had married there. But the memories of her up those stairs and crutching swiftly about the city remained with me as I became entralled by shortlegged women. Then, around the corner, just streets away from her old office, she came. The same short fair hair and the same smile when we realised we knew each other. But the walk had changed and she didn’t hide this one difference. Where the short leg had been dangling and limp there was now a calliper, full length, gleaming and encasing her floppy limb in steel with black straps and cuffs at the ankle, and below and above the knee that was visible under the skirt. Her tiny foot was now contained in a massively raised shoe with a heel an amazing 17 inches high, black and laced. The callipers squeaked as she hauled the leg along, good leg first, steel construction second and leaning into the side to swing onwards. On her left leg, she wore an elegant 5 inch high heeled shoe. Her walking was much slower now the crutches were gone and the only thing that kept her upright was the calliper that went to a thigh cuff and to a socket at the hip where the pelvic band gave her strength. The meeting after all this time was a dream. That was in July and Carol had come home.
We just stopped and gazed at each other, smiling as I looked her from head to toe. Carol spoke first saying I had changed a bit, had grey hair but otherwise I looked well. I replied she had changed too, still the prettiest girl I had known but then I asked about her walking difficulty. Slowing up due to old age, I joked as I asked where the crutches had gone. Carol looked seriously at me and suggested coffee and a chat. The cafe was 25 yards away on the bridge and was where we used to go together 30 years before. But then Carol used crutches to swing along and she didn't have her huge steel calliper ending in her massive raised boot. We chatted about the weather and how the city had changed as I walked by her swaying side, left leg forward first, stopping abruptly, right leg swerving out in an arc to the side and then forward, landing with a thud as the boot hit the ground alongside its shapely mate patiently waiting in the teetering black high heel. Then the next step was taken, each one covering no more than a couple of feet.. The metal and leather creaked and Carol's upper body moved to the left, hauling the heavyweight construction on its painfully slow journey forward. We got some stares as we neared the bridge and on entering the café, I realised nothing had changed there and the stairs were still there. Carol looked at me and said a bit of help would be useful so I said if she could make the first flight, I'd carry her the rest of the way. Deal done, she said and with no one else looking on, Carol mounted the first stair. She clung onto the handrail, using her right hand and put up her left heeled foot. Then she let go of the rail and grabbed the calliper above the knee, again using her right hand, pushing the hem of her skirt up several inches as she did so, revealing the black knee cuff and its straps wrapped around her tiny limb. Then she hauled the steel, leather and boot up one step, letting go of it with the hand before grabbing the rail again and moving laboriously upwards. The landing arrived and Carol looked down at me as I edged up after her and grinned, saying she may be 47 but she could still "show a leg." We laughed as I came up behind to pick her up, putting my arms under her so her calliper was furthest away from me and her left arm nearest my chest. I picked her up and as I did so, my hands went to hold her calliper, one near her 17 inch raised boot and the other at her thigh, pulling her to me and mounting the first stair. Her shapely left leg dangled down with its high heel catching my knee as I walked upstairs. Her right leg stuck out Her hair brushed my cheek and I said she weighed more. But all that time ago, she said, she didn't have "this to carry about "and slapped her thigh, the sound of her hand hitting the thigh cuff beneath her hitched up skirt. I felt Carol's secret immediately and she knew I had when I felt around her lower back and her left arm.
Gently I put Carol down at the top of the stairs, clinging on until the last moment to her calliper which I had clutched so tightly, my fingers between the shiny flat steel and her reddened and limp limb, held there by the black leather that seemed to be everywhere up her right leg. Her little leg, as we had always called it, flopped about as I stood her up. But the weight of her body stabilised it as her hip pushed down onto the steel and high boot beneath her and she gave me a kiss on the cheek. At the table, Carol reached down to unlock her calliper at the knee which was high above the hem of her skirt. This allowed her to sit without her leg protruding outwards ”for the waitress to fall over,” she joked.
Over coffee, Carol told me what had happened to her. Just nine years ago, she had exchanged her crutch-swinging mobility for her lumbering calliper hauling after a car accident outside Sheffield. Carol looked right at me when she told me her left arm had been paralysed below the shoulder because of nerve damage and she was now unable to move it at all. The crash had resulted in Carol’s lower back being crushed and she had to wear a thermoplastic corset. She said she spent 12 weeks in hospital and crutches were useless to her after that because she could not hold the two supports she had become so familiar with. Carol said she wanted to stay mobile and had seen enough women in wheelchairs to stay determined to keep moving. The only way forward was to get movement in her little leg and strapping it into leather and steel was the only thing to do The orthotics department at the city hospital had made the corset as part of the pelvic band of her calliper so her right leg got all the support it could and her lower back was encased too.
“Now I’m more different than I was,” she said. “I just hope you’re not shocked as you see me now.”
I replied with a grin and a squeeze of her right hand, noticing her left hand hung loosely at her side, and said I had dreamed of meeting her again and was here to help.
We stayed in the café for an hour and talked about all we could remember and the missing years. Carol had come back two weeks before to be with her mother who lived just outside the city and to join a local firm or accountants, having become a qualified accountant soon after her move to Sheffield. She had been apart from her husband since the accident, the split caused by the effect of her injuries and dependency on him. I said I would have behaved differently and Carol laughed and said she knew I would. They had eventually divorced.
I reached down to her left hand, holding it in mine as I brought it to the top of the table. We smiled at each other as I bent my head to kiss it. Her hand was slightly pink, the fingers wobbled uselessly and her wrist and arm had little weight, the muscles having atrophied to its present state. I moved to Carol’s right side on the seat overlooking the river, pressing next to her to get enough room, feeling her body, the corset hard at her waist and the thickness of the pelvic band to which her heavy calliper was attached. I gave her a hug, reaching to the limp left arm, pulling her to me and feeling the imprint of the plastic, leather and steel on my left side. It was time to go.
“Please can I help, if you will let me,” I said. I stood up and held out both arms to pull Carol’s right arm so she could stand, making sure the knee lock was in place. I told her she had been so independent when on crutches and would rarely let me help, let alone open a door for her.
“You can do all the helping you like now,” she replied, trying to unhitch the hem of her skirt caught in the calliper. “Such as seeing where I’m stuck,” laughing and pointing to the rear of her right leg. “I can’t reach.”
I bent down and saw the most amazing site. The skirt had entangled itself at the knee drop-lock, catching in the black leather knee pad’s outside buckle. Luckily no one was watching as I got on my hands and knees to free it, Carol giggling and trying to stand still. I couldn’t help what happened next as my hand worked its way up the calliper, reaching the hip joint on the pelvic band and then moving down her little leg, resting tightly embraced in its steel construction.
“Remember when you hadn’t got this boot and calliper to haul about? It was easier to reach your little leg then.”
Carol’s little leg still had nerve sensation but no movement. She said I was tickling her as she felt all the touches of my palm and finger-tips. Carol responded with a silent grin, glanced around to see if we were still alone and grabbed my hand under her skirt as if to stop me. Instead, she pushed my hand up to the calliper hinge at the hip joint on the pelvic band. She wiggled her hip to move the steel hinge open and pushed my fingers gently down over the moulded leather thigh support and its tight laces. I felt all this and gazed upwards into her eyes. She was enjoying this pleasure as much as I was. Her hand guided me down the inside bar of the calliper and the soft and flaccid flesh of her little leg that was stretched between the enforced enclosure in her high boot and the pelvic girdle at the waist. During every inch on this amazing journey we had our eyes locked on each other. I held her leg tightly with my fingers, feeling no muscle beneath the sheer tan coloured tights. The shape of the thigh was as I remembered it, just like her left for six inches and then tapering inwards to the small kneecap and the doll like foot. It was hard to reach under the tightness of the leather knee pad but I slid my finger tips under it until I reached the material of her skirt, trapped in the drop-lock. Although Carol was standing, she leaned to one side, taking her weight on her high heel so I could push the lock upwards and take out the hem. She was now free to move.
“Thanks for that,” Carol said as she let the boot and its metalwork thump to the floor. “Time we went.”
I slowly started to take my hand away from her knee but lingered longer as I slid my fingers down the shiny calliper sides to the ankle t-strap that pulled the tiny ankle joint to the side of the narrowing top of the huge raised boot. My fingers almost encircled the part of her leg before the ankle, the little leg being so small. The leather at the top of the boot was soft and was a band a full three inches high where the laces were tied in a little bow. It looked like the boot was sucking in the tiny limb, stopped only by the steel structure above it. I had been allowed to touch Carol’s little leg for the first time in 30 years.