FICTION: Phantom Limbs by Diane Knight

We sit by the log cabin Rosie and me. The smell of pine resin is strong and has a lingering heat. Its intensity catches me off guard; pungent like cat piss yet not unpleasant. Its familiarity spans the years and brings my past within touching distance.

That was before the troubles began, before I hated who I was. I was the girl in a photo album smiling the freshness of youth from the confines of a square of paper. I was the girl who sat in different poses – staged, awkward, yet testimony to existence. I was the girl who, on page after black page became older, unaware of the decent into hell.

Denmark, the country of my birth; corn fields stretching and old ladies riding past on black upright bicycles talking in a language that has dulled for me with time. And now there is nothing to say as they ride through that part of my mind uncorrupted by adulthood. They ride and I watch, until they become tiny specks in the distance. They pass through neat white villages whose names I have forgotten.

I glimpse my Grandfather in his best suit bringing a bag of sweet smelling custard and cinnamon pastries, calling us in a voice dusty with age, and Sunday morning coffee brewing; its heaviness on the tongue, the thick mouth feel of it and an aroma of summers passing and occasions remarkable in their simplicity; a dining room with its large table gleaming and freshly polished, blue Danish porcelain year plates arranged in rows hanging on the wall next to the old clock. How they increase in number with each passing year. How they mark time. I watch my grandmother come in from the garden, her arthritic hands bent and twisted, stained with the juices of redcurrants and blackcurrants.

Later, outside in the still evening air, my grandfather and I sit on the bench watching curls of smoke from his cigar disperse the dancing mosquitoes. We speak in Danish then fall into easy silence as the setting sun slides into a pocket of cloud. I sit there and belong, never wanting to go.

‘You’re no different to any other alcoholic Jenny,’ Rosie tells me.

Rosie and I share the same disease – one that’s unappealing to most.

You can recover from a disease.

But this one is cunning – it has patience. It has narrow horizons.

Rosie’s wide eyes are unblinking as they pull me back to the business of the day. We are in a log cabin set apart from the main house and the scent of pine is strong, reassuring. Our group room; the place we spill our guts out. Apart from us it is empty and I hear my stomach growling. I am learning to give it peace.

The facilitator, Mrs. Broadbent, is the lumbering woman who directs our morning agony and the torturous list we have to compile about our daily feelings. She becomes less caught up in our savagery about half an hour before the bell sounds for lunch and she’s the first to head back to the house. Lunch is compulsory for us. It is one of the rules that we live by.  Mrs. Broadbent loves these rules. She’s a woman who carries a brooding glumness about her; a woman burdened by the heaviness of mashed potato and pork pies.

H.A.L.T. – the motto we live by. Provided we address our issues and avoid Hunger, Anger, Loneliness and Tiredness, we might stop ourselves from reaching for the next bottle. Mrs. Broadbent might have made it up herself, particularly the hunger bit as she is drawn to the kitchen the same way I am drawn to the bottle. She stuffs her face and I am stuffed to breaking point with painful memories. Half-formed, torturous, they pull me into a vortex; no connection between the insistent rumblings in my intestinal tract and the crap that plays leapfrog in my head.

Rosie stands; stretches and picks her notes up from the floor. Her flamboyant scrawl contains encouraging words destined for a group member. Each week we analyse the progress of another individual and check in with our feelings. Mostly we flat-line; buds of emotion struggling to gain hold in the wilderness of shit that stalks our heads. Random phrases are plucked from nothing and mood dependant, they can be challenging. We have to tell it straight. We have to sweat it out.

‘Let me guess …you’re still working on your ‘feeling’ word for tomorrow,’ Rosie says and grins.

‘I’m considering melancholic, I tell her.

‘You used that last week.’

‘Seriously? My memory’s shocking. How about paranoid?’ Anxious? – or combative?’

‘All used.’

‘Lousy? Crap?

‘Too general. You need something with more punch,’ says Rosie. She considers. ‘Don’t tell anyone but I sneaked into the library and cribbed a few new ones from the thesaurus …at least a week’s supply.’

‘Against the rules! Secretive behaviour makes you sick – you haven’t learnt much, have you?’ I tell her.

‘I told you, didn’t I? I’ve shared, so I’m not lying, just short of new words to demonstrate how messed up life is.’

‘I hope you got a few for me.’

‘Serendipitous?’ Rosie spells it and I write it on the palm of my hand. It sounds good. Buggered if I know what it means.

‘I owe you.’

We have to have a stock of words – maybe they’re testing our command of the English language. Each morning in the cabin we have to write our feelings – who cares – I haven’t opened my eyes yet – are we still in the same day – I need a drink – why don’t you piss off Mrs. Broadbent – then tell the group, even though the day has barely started. Inevitably we recycle:

Stressed (overused)

Sad (hardly a novel emotion)

Depressed (in common use)

Hopeless (stands to reason)

Shitty (not allowed)

So we needed to raise the stakes; find words our torturer wouldn’t know the meaning of.

‘She’ll scuttle off and consult her dictionary at lunchtime,’ Rosie whispers, ‘It might keep her mind off stodgy steamed puddings.’

My opportunity comes the following morning with eight pairs of eyes on me and the she-wolf looking at her notes.

‘Serendipitous springs to mind. Yes, it best describes my mood today,’ I say to the group.

‘So you’ve occurred by chance in a beneficial way …impromptu-like? Would you care to elaborate?’ Mrs. Broadbent fixes me with a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes.

Smart-aleck. Bet her husband can’t stand her. Sanctimonious I’ve-never-had-anything-wrong-with-me cow. I-enjoy-a-little-tipple-now-and-again-after-my-enormously-fattening-Sunday-roast venomous viper.

‘Bitch. I hope she chokes over her lunch,’ I whisper to Rosie, ‘gets some spring greens tangled in her windpipe.’

‘Or a claggy bit of Spotted Dick wedged in her vocal cords,’ Rosie says, chewing on a fingernail.

The house rules that are intended to bond us like a family are pointless and make me angry.

‘You’ll feel differently once you’ve settled in,’ Mrs. Broadbent says. ‘We call them therapeutic duties.’

It means cleaning toilets and bathrooms; chucking the bleach about.

‘The rota’s kept outside the office door and we like to adhere to it. Strictly.’

‘We?’

‘We’re a family here dear. We all have to play our part.’

‘I bet she never wields the toilet brush,’ I tell Rosie.

Smoking. Because of this filthy habit the house stands empty and the garden full. We take our lungs to the designated smoking area in a corner of the garden beyond the neat lawn. We leave behind a flower border of roses as we aim for the square of concrete next to the bins. There’s a brick wall behind it where spiders ambush their prey from dark crevasses. I think of Mrs. Broadbent. There’s only room for a tiny round table and a metal ashtray the same size. No room for a cup of decaf there. No room for all of us either.  A thin screen, a mere gesture with no thought given to biting autumn winds, gives minimal protection from the weather. On such days we stand in a tight scrum, each taking it in turns to be on the inside and like a huddle of penguins on frozen wastes, we keep our extremities tight around us as we swap position. We waddle and slop about in oversized slippers.

We use an alien language; look through different eyes in our tainted world as people pass our Victorian house. They shop and go for appointments; time conscious they catch buses and exist in a different dimension. Normal. Some know the purpose of our building but they say nothing within earshot. There’s no sign outside the blue door, nothing to suggest that the souls who waft restlessly are hell bent on escaping the purgatory in their heads but I never catch anyone eyeballing us through the knot holes in the fence. Marooned we might be, but I could walk out any time. Nothing stops me except myself.

Rosie and I head in for lunch and see our leader sitting by the window spooning in a dessert. Before we eat we spend a moment appreciating another day of sobriety, doing whatever it takes and that means turning our backs on close family for a while. Maybe forever.

The smell of cigars is thin and its comfort almost threadbare. Long gone is the girl who sat with her grandfather and spoke of a time he wouldn’t be around to see; her future opening, his coming to a close. That was before I redefined myself, before I started going crazy and talking shit.

But I recall my grandmother’s arthritic hands; curled and gnarled like useless twigs and her little finger snagging on her jumper when she got dressed. Then, her decision to have it removed.

‘It’s no use to me,’ she had said. ‘I’ve asked the doctor to cut it off.’

I hugged her and questioned the life-changing decision.

‘What if it got better and you wanted it back?’I was sick at the thought of a twisted finger that had served her so well for a lifetime, being thrown away into a metal dish.

She laughed; thin, reedy as she held me close, her tiny finger lopped off at the stem. Soon it looked like it had always been missing. She could still feel it there a long while later, sometimes hurting like when she used to catch it.

‘My little phantom limb,’ she said, showing me the empty spot that caused so much pain.

It comes to me now, this phantom limb syndrome. I turned my back on my family; cut them off but feel the pain of their absence. A conscious decision for survival; a mind disconnecting from a body with its cravings. A mind that will stick with it.

I am not alone, Rosie lives it too and the door to the past must remain shut. We are in a way station where dreams of an uncertain future skitter in the peripheries of our minds.

The door is shut on our enablers; our families who kill with kindness and who won’t turn their backs on anger and aggression.

‘Are you better yet?’ they asked. Their eyes carried the concern of the desperate, faced as they were with someone manipulative and frightening.

‘I’ve turned over a new leaf,’ I answered. Almost believable.

They wanted to believe it.

I wanted to believe it.

I believed it for a day.

‘Get me some alcohol mum. I need it,’ I said later.

‘You’re doing so well though – let’s go for a walk watch telly do some cooking let’s sit down and talk about this …’

‘Either you get alcohol or I go and prostitute myself so I can buy it,’ I said – matter of fact – vile. ‘I can’t be trusted mum.’

I watched as she guilt-tripped to the shops.

So my family played let’s pretend. Out of sight when I was away getting drunk and not leaving my flat for days, they breathed a sigh of relief. They craved a good night’s sleep unbroken by the chaos I exacted. I knew, such was the desire for my problem to be gone they contemplated me being gone too, eradicated neatly from their lives like a chopped off finger. Instead it was an agonising wrench; sinew by sinew I pulled myself from the family bosom.

Old friends didn’t want me to escape or get better.

‘You’ll be back,’ I was told as they downed their vodkas.

‘You’re no fun anymore,’ I was told as they tanked up on gin.

‘I did a month once,’ I was told as they bought more rounds.

‘Perhaps you should be strict with yourself and have only one or two …you know, to relax …a wine?

A glass? A bottle? A flagon? A lorry load?

‘Joking aside, maybe you’re having an identity crisis?’ I was told.

I was always being told.

‘There’s nothing social about the way I drink,’ I said, ‘so don’t tell me!’ I showed them my capacity – gave them a demonstration.

Even then they didn’t get it. They would never get it. I was a bore – had fallen off the banter wagon. I became an outlaw.

They were the voices from a past I can never revisit.

I hurtled away; was whisked off in a speeding car.

In this backwater I seek salvation and cling to others like me. Because I met Rosie it’s possible to separate myself from the destruction I left behind.

Only time will tell.

Free – a curling trace of cigar smoke drifting lazily in the still air. And my grandmother’s words on the subject of her phantom limb; it can itch so you want to scratch it and hurt in a way no pain killer can help. It can feel as though you are able to pick something up with it.

That can never be another drink.

Diane Knight

Diane Knight graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in Literature, became an English teacher and went on to study Psychotherapy for three years. Her passion lies with writing short stories about various aspects of mental health and the darker side of our psyches. First hand experience has taught that such issues are often ignored or downplayed.

Her short story ‘A Mental Hiccup’ has recently been published with Fictive Dream. She is currently writing her first novel.

If you enjoyed Phantom Limbs, leave a comment and let Diane know.

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