This story was originally published in the short-fiction collection Grief and Other Stories (World Encounter Institute/New English Review Press, 2018), and is reprinted here with permission.
Amos Wilson was not a happy man. What had his parents—actually, his father—been thinking of when they, or he, gave him such a name? He had been mocked for it as a child and had never recovered from the mockery. The child, after all, is father to the man.
There was another serious reason for his unhappiness, however. Now aged forty, he had never known what every man desires, sexual fulfilment. For some reason which he could not fathom himself, there was no satisfaction for him in any sexual activity unless he imagined himself to be an amputee. He knew that this was, by the standards of others, strange, bizarre: but which of us can account for his desires, how and why they arise?
Fantasy is all very well, it is better than nothing at all, but it is no substitute for reality. By middle age, Amos had had enough of it and its pretences. Why should he be condemned to a second-rate life just because, through no fault of his own, he had developed a unusual desire that, if fulfilled, would harm no one else? Every man has a right to fulfilment.
He didn’t tell anyone about his desire, of course. Everyone in the bank in which he worked thought he was a decent chap, perfectly ordinary except that he had never married: and even that these days was hardly abnormal. Men did not commit these days in case something better came along.
It was high time to declare himself, he thought: he did not want to die not having lived. His first step then, was to tell his doctor. After all, amputation was a medical procedure.
Dr. Smith was a doctor of the old school. He was of the opinion that it was the duty of the patient to carry out his orders. For the most part, his orders did them good, but his manner was abrasive and he gave the impression of not suffering fools—ninety-five percent of the population—gladly. It took courage to confide in him.
Amos plucked up that courage. As he came into Dr. Smith’s consulting room, he felt himself being inspected even before he sat down. Dr. Smith peered at him over the top of his half-moon gold-rimmed spectacles, which gave him an air of unassuageable scepticism.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
At least Amos was not an habitual complainer, or one of those patients who regarded a visit to the doctor as the highlight of his week. There was at least a fair chance, then, that he really had something wrong with him, one of an elite among Dr. Smith’s patients.
“I need help, doctor.” said Amos.
“What kind of help?”
“I have a problem.”
Dr. Smith shifted slightly in his seat, a boatswain’s chair. He was not a man for the elliptical approach to things.
“What kind of problem?” he said. “Spit it out.”
“I’ve had it a long time,” said Amos, looking awkward or even guilty. “All my life in fact, at least since I was grown up.”
Dr. Smith had seven minutes for each patient, eight at most.
“What is it?” he asked. “We haven’t got all day.” And he looked at his watch, not to inform himself of the time, which he already knew from the clock on the wall opposite him whose second-hand emitted a faint clicking sound, but to indicate that he was busy.
Oddly enough, Dr. Smith’s brusqueness made it easier for Amos. It was now or never, and it gave him the courage of the desperate.
“I want my leg off,” he said.
“I want my leg off.”
“Whatever for? What’s wrong with your leg?”
“I’ve got one too many. I’ve always felt that, ever since I can remember. It’s not mine, it’s alien.”
Dr. Smith removed his spectacles and placed them carefully on the top of his desk. He had never heard anything like it.
“What do you mean?” he asked. Two, after all, was the normal complement, not the object for a museum of pathology with Siamese twins in bottles of spirit.
“I feel I ought to have been born with one,” said Amos. “The fact is that I can’t have proper sex with two legs. I have to imagine all the time that I have only one.”
“So you want your leg off?” said Dr. Smith weakly.
“Yes,” said Amos, “so that I can have normal sex.”
“Normal sex? What do you mean by that?”
“Sex that satisfies me, in the same way that it satisfies everyone else. After all, it’s my right. I don’t see why everyone else should have it but I can’t.”
Amos was warming to his theme now that he had broached it. He began to see that he had been oppressed all his life, persecuted in fact. He sensed that Dr. Smith was on the side of the persecutors.
“I want an amputation.”
Dr. Smith had recaptured his confidence, his certainty. You could tell this because he had picked up his spectacles and placed them back on the end of his nose.
“It’s out of the question,” he said. “No surgeon would agree to cut off a perfectly healthy leg.”
“Not even if I paid him?” asked Amos.
“Not even if you paid him. He’d never be allowed to practice again if anyone found out that he’s carried out an amputation just for money.”
“He wouldn’t be doing it just for money,” corrected Amos. “He’d be doing it to help me.”
“Doctors are not here just to give patients what they want, you know,” said Dr Smith. He too could warm to his subject. “We have to do what is right for the patients, and cutting off perfectly sound limbs is not right. What if you came here and asked for both of your legs to be cut off?”
“That would be ridiculous and in any case, I haven’t.”
“And what would you do afterwards, after your leg had been cut off? You’d be handicapped, a cripple.”
“Artificial legs are very good these days,” said Amos. “There are people walking about with them that you wouldn’t know had them. I’d take my leg off only when I wanted sex.”
“Who’d want sex with a one-legged man, especially when she knew that he had had the other leg cut off deliberately just so that he could get excited?”
Amos became coldly rational, unlike Dr. Smith.
“It may surprise you to know that there are women around who want sex only with men with one leg. I don’t see why they should be deprived of their satisfaction too.”
“Natural amputees,” said Dr. Smith, “that’s different. They have their legs off for strictly medical reasons, not to gratify their, or anyone else’s, perversions.”
Amos was horrified by the strength of Dr. Smith’s prejudice—and him an educated man!
“My body belongs to me,” said Amos, “and it’s my leg. I can do what I like with it. It’s nobody else’s business.”
“It is somebody else’s business when you ask someone else to cut it off for you.”
Amos had never been much of a philosopher, but he suddenly discovered that he was one after all.
“Surgeons perform plenty of operations for non-medical reasons,” he said. “Face-lifts for one.”
“That’s to bring about improvement, not mutilation.”
“Who’s to say what improvement is?” said Amos. “Only the patient, it’s up to him to decide. And I can tell you that my life would be much better with only one leg.”
Dr. Smith was exasperated.
“Having your leg off is irreversible,” he said.
“So’s having a facelift. So’s having your appendix out.”
“That’s to save your life.”
“A facelift isn’t. And I know plenty of people who had their appendix out whose appendix was normal.”
“It does no harm. You don’t need your appendix.”
“And I don’t need my leg, on the contrary. It’s in the way of my happiness. It prevents me from having a normal life.”
“Amputees don’t have a normal life.”
“What are you saying? That amputees are not normal?”
“I’m going to bring this consultation to a close,” said Dr Smith. “It’s getting nowhere. You can't have your leg off and there’s nothing further to say.”
Amos rose to go.
“We’ll see about that,” he said, with steel in his voice.
On his way home, Amos replayed the consultation on his mind’s video. From the purely dialectical point of view, he thought, and on the whole, he had had the better of it, but winning an argument is not the same as getting what you want. Besides, there were things that he should have said but didn’t. And what, for example, if Dr. Smith had used the argument that amputees imposed costs on others because they needed special arrangements? It was best to be prepared in advance in the coming struggle.
What was the answer? Yes, that was it: all the arrangements necessary for so-called voluntary amputees should have been made already, so another group of amputees should make no difference. Besides, arrangements were made to rescue mountaineers, and what benefits did mountaineers bring to society? Why should those who wanted only one leg be discriminated against?
Amos began to grow angry at the thought of it. People were so narrow-minded, censorious and intolerant: they judged you without knowing anything about you or making any effort to imagine what it would be like to be you. They just assumed that everyone was like themselves, or ought to have been so. They didn’t want anyone to be different.
But what to do about it? Amos decided to try Dr. Smith again, give him another chance: he might have thought better of what he had said and changed his attitude, though this was very unlikely.
Dr. Smith had not changed his mind, on the contrary. He said that Amos should just forget the whole thing and carry on as best he could. He wanted to hear no more of it and his decision was final.
His obstinacy infuriated Amos, who was not usually quick to anger.
“If you don’t help me, I’ll make other arrangements,” he said.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Dr. Smith.
“I’ll amputate myself,” said Amos. “There was a Russian doctor who took out his own appendix in a submarine when it was under the ice.”
“Don’t be absurd. He was a trained man.”
“I can learn.”
In fact, he had already bought a couple of books on anatomy and orthopaedic surgery (the internal organs did not interest him). He thought that perhaps he should practice first on a dog or cat or two, but that was illegal and would cause great distress to their owners if discovered. There was enough misery in the world without adding to it.
He read about war, particularly in the Nineteenth Century, when soldiers regularly had their arms or legs blown off by cannonballs and other projectiles. Many of them survived even though they didn’t have blood transfusions in those days, or antibiotics for that matter.
Amos’ hopes that he might not have to resort to extreme measures were briefly raised when by chance he read in the newspaper of a surgeon who had been willing to amputate limbs for people like himself (so you see, Dr. Smith, there were others like him); but his hopes were dashed when he read further that the surgeon had been disciplined and told that if he persisted—he had done it for money—he would be prohibited from further practice.
There was no prospect of official help, then: Amos would have to arrange things for himself. The best method, he decided, would be by train, you couldn’t get a cleaner break than that.
It probably wouldn’t even hurt, at least not at first, not if the stories from the battlefield were to be believed. Soldiers who had had their arms or legs blown off often didn’t even realise it at first, not until they were removed from the scene. It was only when doctors and others started to fuss around them that they began to suffer, and these days it was easy to control pain. It was just a matter of taking drugs until the pain went away of its own accord.
But then a thought came into Amos’ mind that he should seize the opportunity to do something for others, not just himself, indeed for his country and humanity as a whole. Until then, he realised, he had been thinking only of himself. But of course there were others suffering just like he. The public was lamentably ignorant, ill-informed, indifferent or hostile. Here was a golden opportunity to do something, the first time in his life that he had such a one. Amos began to think of himself as a leader, the leader of a movement, the Herzl of amputees.
How to begin his campaign? The obvious thing was to write an article for the Clarion, the famous newspaper that specialised in righting wrongs and fighting for the oppressed, giving voice to the voiceless. Once a week it allowed a completely unknown person to air his grievances (provided that, to be assuaged, they required radical reform). The article would also appear on the newspaper’s website, which was read around the world.
Although he had never written anything before, passion caused Amos’ pen to flow.
We are proud (he wrote) of our supposedly tolerant society. It is true that in some respects we are more tolerant than we were, but that it was not a difficult standard to raise, and there is still much to do. It’s high time we broke the last taboo.
Amos was very pleased with that. It struck just the right note, for the newspaper was ever in search of last taboos to break. It gave them a sense of purpose.
Some people (he continued), of whom I am one, can only obtain sexual satisfaction if they have only one leg. It is not our fault we are like this, it is a fact of our nature over which we have no control.
We were born like it.
Amos then turned philosophical:
Everyone is agreed that a fulfilled sexual existence is a precondition of the good life, especially nowadays when we are surrounded by sexualised images. But we are denied this by ignorance and prejudice, principally but not only of the medical profession. We wish and do no harm to others, which—if we did it—would be the only grounds on which our desires could justifiably be denied. While everyone else receives public assistance to live full and satisfying lives, we alone do not because of the deep prejudice against us. We are the object of the most naked and blatant discrimination. We are the niggers of sex.
The phrase pleased him, though it was daring and he doubted that the Clarion would allow it. It wasn’t meant in a racist way, of course, precisely the opposite: but the use of the word in any context was taboo. When the article was published, however, the word was left in (after a long discussion by the editors). It was merely changed to “We feel like the niggers of sex.”
The article had an immense impact. There were thousands of comments on it, ranging from expressions of support (at last someone has had the courage to come forward) to those who thought that all the author’s limbs and other parts ought to be cut off without anaesthetic. Amos found himself besieged by requests for interviews. He was a celebrity overnight.
The interviews were all the same.
“When did you first realise that you wanted to be an amputee?”
“Do you think it is normal to want to be an amputee?”
“How many people are there like you, do you think?”
“Should there be amputation on demand?”
Repetition allowed Amos to refine his answers. Before long he felt like a tape-recorder being played over and over again. Amputation, he said, should always be performed by a qualified surgeon because, if it were not, people would die, either by suicide or by performing it themselves. The latter would either resort to railway lines or to unqualified persons.
“Do you know of cases where people have actually done that?” he was always asked. “And if so, how many?”
With a patience that by no means corresponded to his inner state of mind, he would reply that it was impossible to say, because the subject was so taboo that no proper research had ever been done. Auto-amputations would be recorded as accidents rather than what they really were.
It was obvious to Amos, however, that after the initial flurry, the interest would die down: public attention was like a butterfly that flitted from flower to flower and seldom returned. Something more was needed.
At least twenty people with the same interests as Amos, so to speak, contacted him and they decided to form an association to be called the UBC, Unipeds By Choice. This would distinguish them from amputees that had been involved in an accident or had had gangrene from diabetes and smoking. One of the twenty, fortunately, was an expert in the design of websites, and before long there was a lot of what he called traffic. Most visitors to the site were merely curious or prurient, wanting a frisson of disgust or disdain, an opportunity to exercise their sarcasm. Everyone, after all, needs to feel superior to someone, and most people who visited the site could say to themselves or others, “At least I’m not like that!”
But increasingly there were enquiries from the seriously interested. Writing that they were desperate, they asked where they might have their legs off. The site began to act as in an information exchange. The names of surgeons and clinics in foreign countries where, for a fee, they were prepared to perform amputations were listed, followed by a lively debate on the injustice of this. Why should only the well-to-do have the right to amputations? Moreover, there were warnings about some of the foreign surgeons and clinics. They took your money all right, but they could be dangerous. Stories began to appear of death by haemorrhage or infection, and even of arrests and imprisonment in dark and terrible gaols, and the bribes necessary to get out. Going abroad, then, was not the panacea it had for a time been presented as having been.
It was obvious to Amos and those who he now called his colleagues that the only way forward was a proper amputation service in the country itself. It had to be free of commercial interest, of course, for nothing would have been easier for the anti-amputee lobby to impute corruption wherever money changed hands. The service, then, would have to be staffed by believers in the cause, those who amputated by conviction. But competent surgeons would not be enough, it was just as important that amputations should be performed responsibly, not just on a passing whim. It was necessary, therefore, that psychiatrists and psychologists be involved, to ensure that those who wanted a leg (or more rarely an arm) off were stable, of normal personality and fully aware of the implications of the operation.
The first problem was to find a willing surgeon. This was despite the fact that there had been a burgeoning number of people—seven eights of them men—who expressed an interest in having a limb off. There was a brief spark of hope when a surgeon in a small town in Wales declared himself willing, but the hope was extinguished when he was forced to retract and sent on a course on medical ethics.
However, his highly-publicised martyrdom proved a blessing in disguise, because it gave the group the opportunity to publicise the sad plight of people like themselves. The group started a petition in the surgeon’s favour which was signed by more than a hundred thousand people, and although this produced no tangible effect in official circles, it began to change the attitude of the general public, or that part of it that spoke of abstract matters such as rights. When the subject now came up at dinner parties (which was surprisingly often), people began to say, “Why not after all?”
But though Amos was pleased and even proud of the progress that had been achieved, he was impatient because the clock was still ticking for him and he no longer thought of himself as young. Eventual triumph in the struggle for freedom was all very well, and would be a good thing, but it could hardly satisfy him personally. His closest associate in the movement, whom he had met only via the computer screen, suggested that what was needed was a publicity coup.
What should it be?
Amos and his colleague devised a plan. Amos would be the first, but not the last, to perform an auto-amputation on a railway line. Of course, it would have to be perfectly planned, not an impulsive act. He would do it in the presence of his colleague (who was called Sam). The first time they met in person would be at the track, but before that they made sure that they had learnt how to staunch bleeding and apply pressure bandages. Amos reconnoitred the local railway lines for a place suitable for the operation. It had to be isolated enough to be away from prying eyes, yet easy of access for the ambulance that Sam would call immediately on the approach of the amputating train. Sam would make himself scarce, of course, as soon as the ambulance appeared and would use a temporary telephone number to make his call, to avoid any possible imputation of crime. And they would also have to find a trustworthy person to take a proper film of the event, preferably of professional quality, to post on the internet. They found such a person in William, a student of media studies at the local university, who had also expressed an interest in having his leg off. The film would alert the world to the lengths to which desperate people would go in the present oppressive circumstances; it would shock and inform at the same time.
They had no doubt of its success, but a nine-day wonder was not enough. They had to keep the pressure up: a corpse of a moribund society needed repeated shocks to bring it back to life—if it had ever really been alive. They planned what they called “future events.”
The day of the first action arrived. The place they had chosen was a line very near a road but hidden by a little covert of birch. To Amos’ regret, it would have to be a below-knee amputation because it was too awkward to manoeuvre one of his thighs on the rail and it was advisable to lie comfortably while waiting for the train.
They had, of course, researched the train timetable thoroughly. They had selected the train that was to perform the surgery, an express passenger that would not be able to slow to less than eighty miles an hour between the moment when the driver first saw Amos and the time it reached him.
William filmed Amos for a few minutes lying in the ground with one leg extended over the rail before the arrival of the train. Amos looked cheerful and gave the thumbs-up sign, though he was of course feeling a little nervous. Would he be able to go through with it, or would he change his mind at the last moment? He was determined, but one never knew.
The train approached. Amos could feel the vibrations in his leg when it was a long way off. Sam called the ambulance so that it would arrive very shortly after the operation had been performed, and he gave the controller Amos’ precise GPS position as well as providing a detailed verbal description of where he was lying. Sam put his hand on Amos’ shoulder to steady him. He, too, wanted the action to be a success.
It all went precisely as planned. The train was on time and was not able to stop before removing Amos’ leg. William filmed it, carefully avowing not to include any picture of Sam applying the bandage afterwards. Intolerance imposed the need for anonymity.
The event would have made only the local newspaper, and perhaps not even that, had it not been filmed and posted afterwards. The doctors at the local hospital were astounded at what Amos had done (a hospital nearby had been another criterion of choice of location) because they had never had a case like his before, such was their inexperience and lack of imagination. But Amos’ wider fame did not spread until the film of the operation was posted.
At first Amos felt no pain: his exultation conquered his nerve endings. Then the pain began, but they treated him with drugs that detached him from reality and left him as if floating on a cloud. But when he woke up from the hospital operation to ‘tidy up’ his stump, as the surgeon called it, he was delighted to find that his amputation had been extended to above the knee, which of course was much more what he had desired. It was held in much more esteem than the below-knee type.
It was only after the first posting of the video that Amos’ fame really spread. It was not fame, however, that Amos, Sam and William had sought, but acceptance and reform. What business was it of anyone, after all, to pass judgment on them? Was a human being constituted solely by the number of his limbs? Did anyone refuse to admire or obey Admiral Nelson because he had only one arm? It would have been different, of course, if they had been demanding amputations for others, but they were not.
The second part of the plan was now put into effect. A youth or young man of seventeen volunteered to have the same operation performed on him by a passing train. Unfortunately, it was not such a success and the young man bled to death. For some reason the bandages were not applied properly and the arrival of the ambulance was delayed, and it was on the delay that the national press focussed. “This case illustrates the cruel and criminal folly; said the editorial about it in the Clarion, “of budgetary cuts that overstrain the ambulance services to breaking point. The fiscal fetish kills.”
But the death of the young man only accelerated the next stage of the plan, which Amos and Sam called a mass amputation.”
The arrangement needed extra care because the railway authorities were beginning to display extra vigilance, hurriedly installing cameras up and down lines: but of course this was futile because it was impossible to cover more than a small proportion of the network, some of the cameras didn’t work anyway, and with typical bureaucratic incompetence they were often placed where they would never have dreamt of carrying out an action anyway, where no one in his right mind would consider amputating his leg. The plan needed a large number of volunteers to ensure its success.
The great day came, the day that was to change the nation. Eight people, only one of them a woman, lay down their limbs, or put their limbs on the line (literally), for the cause of social progress and sexual fulfilment. (Only one of the limbs was an arm.) This time it was a great success, with only one death, and that solely because the local hospital had run out of ambulances. The event was a triumph of determination and organisation, conducted in the utmost secrecy, having completely evaded the authorities beforehand. They had used a clever diversionary tactic, sending a group of supporters to a line not far distant from where the real event was to take place. By advertising their presence, they had drawn the attention of the police and other authorities away from that place. A few of the diverters had been arrested for trespassing on railway property, but this slight martyrdom was a small price to pay for the success of the liberating coup de théâtre.
This time, the event was reported nationally and ad nauseam. Members of Parliament appeared on television to demand that henceforth surgeons be obliged to cut off the limbs of those who wanted them amputated. This, they said, was the only way to stop the carnage. Neuroscientists appeared on the television to demonstrate what parts of the amputees’ brains lit up or failed to light up on scans before and after their limbs were cut off.
Amos, whose injury had by this time healed sufficiently and had learned to manipulate his crutches before he was fitted with the latest in artificial legs, appeared many times on television, usually described as the victim of the current dispensation. But though he agreed with the Members of Parliament as far as they went, he said that what was needed was more than a reform of the law. The fundamental problem, he said, was what he called quadrilimbism, the assumption that human beings have four limbs and that any deviation from the hegemonic pattern was bizarre, abnormal or pathological. For example, the illustrations of all children’s books, apart from Treasure Island, showed characters only with four limbs, that is to say two arms and two legs. This indoctrinated children with the idea that that people with one or more limbs missing were abnormal in some way. He also suggested that from now on the word amputee should no longer be used, as it had derogatory connotations of disability or even inability. He suggested that from now on amputees be known as the differently-limbed. As for the inclusion of apotemnophilia and acrotomophilia in textbooks of psychopathology, he suggested that the pages be torn out. The mediaeval witch-hunt of the quadrilimbists against the differently-limbed had to stop.
The government quickly passed a bill, without opposition, obliging surgeons to amputate the limbs of adults above the age of fourteen who wanted them amputated (the parents of the fourteen year olds were specifically not to be informed) and from now on it was inscribed in the code of medical ethics that no doctor could refuse to assist such a person in finding a surgeon to perform the operation, henceforth to be known as limb correction. Once the bill was passed, thousands of people came forward for limb correction (mainly legs), and soon there were so many people waiting for the operation that it became a national disgrace. The solution was to train nurses to cut off legs, though arms, being more difficult to sever, remained the province of full surgeons.
There was still much to do to remove prejudice, but Amos was pleased to see that publishers were now printing children’s books with pictures of Mummy and Daddy (or just Mummy) with fewer than four limbs, and some with no limbs at all. In some primary schools, children were being taught a course against quadrilimbism, and he hoped that these courses would become compulsory everywhere.
After a prolonged period of sick leave because of anxiety, two of the three train drivers whose trains had performed the initial operations killed themselves.
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