Because my mother wasn’t as badly affected as most of the Thalidomide babies, she managed to escape the more elaborate prostheses that were developed during the sixties - alarming contraptions with leather straps and flaps and gleaming hinges, gas-powered metal pincers that opened and closed with a hiss. When she was ten, a professor and two students from the engineering department of the local university came to visit her. They wanted to test a new false arm, one with different tools that screwed on at the wrist - hairbrush, knife, hook; even a violin bow. The professor lay the various components out on Nan’s coffee table, as if he were a vacuum cleaner salesman. Nan wondered briefly if he’d offer to throw in a free set of steak knives.
She shook her head. The professor was crestfallen. "I don’t want her trussed up like a Christmas turkey," she said. "It’s not healthy for a growing child."
Nan had a vague notion the missing limb might grow as my mother grew, and she didn’t want to restrict it. So she cut and hemmed the left arm of my mother’s blouses and cardigans and dresses, exposing the stump. "Let it get some air," she said. " Air and sunshine will do it the world of good". But as my mother grew older, the forearm failed to sprout, and she became more and more ashamed of the stub poking out from her shirt sleeve; it reminded her of a blind worm emerging from the soil. She began taking socks to school in her coat pocket, pulling them up over her elbow as soon as Nan was out of sight, securing them beneath her armpit with elastic bands, hiding the flesh.
My mother was in a strange limbo. She wasn’t what people thought of as a ’proper’ Thalidomide child. "Teratogenic," that was how the doctors described the drug. Monster-producing. My mother was no monster. She was almost whole. What’s more, she was pretty. As a precociously-developed teenager, she noticed the look in men’s eyes, taking in her slightly feline face, the cloud of curls, the high little mounds of her chest - and then the change when they saw - or rather, didn’t see - her arm. The absence, the empty space below her left elbow, seemed a vacuum sucking something out of the air; hope, maybe. Something changed in their faces, like shutters coming down, a cloud passing over the sun. Sometimes she wished she’d been born properly monstrous, flipper feet, no tongue, cleft hands, the lot; or at least just plain and doughy and dumpy, with the sort of forgettable English face most people had in Crowholt. She would have been spared that moment of illusion, that second of weightlessness that made the swift jolt back to earth even more crushing.
She knew these thoughts were ungrateful and blasphemous. She tried to pray for forgiveness. My nan had a brass crucifix tacked up in the toilet (a gift from a cousin who’d gone to Lourdes and lit a candle for my mother after she was born). Each time my mum peed, sitting on the puffy plastic toilet seat cover, she’d look up at the crucifix and try to repent for her wicked thoughts. But she’d stare at Jesus nailed to the cross, his arms outstretched almost luxuriantly, each muscle sculpted and sinewy, and she’d envy him, and wonder bitterly if anyone would have believed he was the Messiah if he’d been missing a limb, or if he’d have been shunned as a leper, and then she felt even more vile and sinful.
At fourteen, after it became apparent that there was no burgeoning forearm about to germinate, my Nan finally conceded and let her daughter be fitted for a prosthesis.
"It’s a choice, unfortunately, between aesthetics and practicality," said the surgeon, who had one very long nostril hair which kept distracting my mother. "You could either go for something that looks realistic but doesn’t do much, or you could be fitted with something like this - " he produced, from a leather briefcase, something that looked like a silver shotgun with two orange antennae poking out of the barrel. "It’s a wonderful piece of engineering, you see; it’s ergonomically designed, full range of motion in the wrist -"
"I want one that looks like an arm," said my mother, barely glancing at the thing in the surgeon’s hands.
He looked disappointed. "Well, that’s certainly possible," he said. "But I’m afraid that there won’t be the same functionality. Really, this prosthesis is cutting-edge, if you’ll allow me to demonstrate -"
But my mother was adamant. And so she ended up with her hollow plastic arm. It was a slightly unreal peach Barbie colour, but it was slender and elegant, with tapering fingers and perfectly oval nails which stood in sharp contrast to the ragged cuticles on my mother’s right hand. It seemed aspirational, somehow - she felt, when she wore it, like she was putting on a costume, like a child wearing her mother’s perfume; Mitsouko or Shalimar, something too sleek and sophisticated for her age. But she loved the way it filled out sleeves, the balance it gave to her body. She painted its nails with blood-red Revlon polish, Cherries in the Snow. When she took it off (reluctantly), it lay on her lap like a pet cat. It seemed to have a personality, a life of its own, polished and forthright and sarcastic. She imagined it talked to her sometimes. It had the voice of Bette Davis.