I Lose A Toe
Monday 4th August 1986
I glance across to my workmate. He is about fifty feet to my left, at the other end of the grassy bank, dutifully dragging his lawnmower across the overgrowing herbiage. I push my own mower forward, to the bottom of the bank, then swing it round and start to drag it behind me as I begin to ascend the short gradient.
The grass is dampened by a recent rainfall, although the sky is currently clear and the weather friendly. My right foot slips on the moisture and slides down. At the same time my flailing arm, gripping the handle of the mower, pulls it towards me. Under the mower, a disc spins at 3600rpm, two triangular blades jutting from it. The impetus of my foot ceases as it slides beneath the mower and strikes the disc.
There is a truly Godawful grinding noise. My leg below the knee instantly numbs, my hand instinctively opens and loses its grip on the machine, and I collapse on the grass. The liberated mower trundles down the gradient, crosses a footpath and carves a track through the front garden of a terraced house before halting.
I sit up, somewhat stupified. What the hell...? I look down at my paralysed leg. My trainer is shredded along its right side. I feel a wave of nausea hit me, a rush of adrenalin and fear. I reach down with a quivering hand and gingerly - oh so gingerly - slide the destroyed trainer from my foot.
The blade of the lawnmower had not stopped at my trainer - it had made a useless rag of my sock. And then, reaching my skin, had kept going.
The spinning blade had struck halfway down the right side of the foot, carved through the flesh and bone, then exited above the fourth toe, carving an arc two inches deep and two inches long. I could see inside my foot. I could see bone and sinew and mincemeat. There was, however, surprisingly little blood. A familiar aroma assailed my nostrils, the smell of a butcher's shop. My little toe, unscathed, hung limply an inch away from its neighbour, attached to my body by a thin strip of gristle.
Abstract thoughts crowded my head as the shock struck home. What was going on here? A couple of days ago I had been in the local Sports Centre, watching my friends Lea and Jason play badminton. Jason had lost. Yesterday had been his eighteenth birthday. Only an hour ago I had been at home, only a mile away, eating soup for lunch. Now I'm sitting on a grassy knoll with one of my feet in pieces. Well, that's Summer fucked.
My workmate has finally noticed that's something's wrong, and is now running toward me. In six hours time, I will undergo surgery several miles away to repair the damage. In six hours time. The natural anaesthetic, those endorphins that kicked in when the foot was struck, will begin to wear off in TWO hours time.
It's going to be a very long afternoon.
21 Years Later...
I Gain A Toe
Saturday 1st September 2007
Dusk, the magic hour where Night and Day achieve a brief and diffuse harmony, falls across the City of London. It is relatively peaceful, the commuters having left the previous evening, the air cleaner than usual and the soft twilight casting an aura of expectation as the City prepares to light up.
I wander aimlessly along the line of the City Wall, the Barbican and the Museum of London at my back, passing the office blocks that stand on the site of the disappeared Silver Street. Shakespeare once lodged there with a family of Huguenots. Some scholars suspect they may have provided him with the French dialogue in Henry V. The possible site of the creation of our most revered History Play is long gone, Silver Street swept away in the post-war development of the City.
I cross the road and find a small public garden, a square of grass outlined with shrub beds, a wall to the rear along which crumbling gravestones are lined, like a line of decrepit soldiers, forgotten veterans in the War Against Progress. This is the site of the church St Mary Staining, destroyed in the Great Fire and never rebuilt, its location remaining as an extra burial ground for the neighbouring parish.
Sitting on a low wall that holds back a shrub bed, I quietly, peacefully and languidly roll myself a cigarette, then spark up and take a deep inhale. It's unusual to find peace and solitude in the Square Mile, and I'm enjoying it while I can. I glance casually behind, at the shrubs, thinned out so as not to overburden the garden with foliage, and notice something small and pale protruding from the earth, within easy reach. Most would think it a small stone, a fragment of flint perhaps, but I recognise the object for what it is, and carefully lift it into the palm of my hand.
By the time the City Churchyards were closed in the 1850's, they were in a dreadful state. Overcrowded to the extent that the ground level had often risen several feet above the surrounding steets, they were a cause of pestilence and offence, and an easy target of Victorian sanitary reformers. Paupers' graves were often left open until packed with a dozen bodies, then loosely filled in only a matter of inches below the surface. Bunhill Fields near Moorgate covers only four acres, yet holds more dead than the modern city of Southampton holds living. It is no surprise that fragments of bone, disturbed by worms or gardening, occasionally rise to greet the fresh air.
I inspect my little find. It is a very light brown, its surface pitted, plugged with fossilised mud where the marrow once ran. Only a centimetre long but with a discernible joint. It's a toe. A little toe.
I wonder, pointlessly, who it belonged to. Close to the surface, probably unprotected by a coffin... most likely a Victorian pauper of indeterminate age and gender. I should have prodded this fragment of mortality back into the ground... but I didn't.
Monday 10th September 2007.
I sit on the floor of the lounge, laptop before me, hammering away on the keys and cursing my spelling mitsakes. I am barefoot. On the right of my 'puter sits a fragment of bone, a skeletal digit, revealed for the first time in a century and a half, an archaeological artefact and a reminder that Victorian London was, for the most part, ghastly. To the left of my 'puter, my feet stretch out. My right foot below the left, the long scar still sensitive two decades later, touching the cold carpet. The scar travels up the side of the foot before swinging right and ending just below my fourth and final toe. I type about irony, and how it can take twenty years to manifest itself.
There cannot be too many people who can claim to have lost a toe.
There cannot be too many who can claim to have FOUND a toe.
And there most certainly must be very, very few who can honestly claim to have done both.
I think about my mysterious and unknowable Victorian, our lives separated by more than a century, our lives connected by our toes. I should take the fragment with me when next I return to that corporate neighbourhood, and I should return it to the ground. That is what I should do.
But I lost a toe once. So I'll probably keep this one. For all I know, it's karma. Fate intended me to find a digit just as it intended me to lose a digit.
Besides, at long last, I'll be able to play 'This Little Piggy' again.