'Can you get up, love? Can you hear me? Can you get up, missus? Are you all right? Can you move?' A man's face was very close to mine, breath as foul as a dog's. I could only just hear him but I knew what he was saying -- I'd said those sort of things so many times myself. I pointed in case no one but me had seen the naked woman in the bathroom. He looked round. 'Don't you worry about that, we'll take care of that young lady. Let's see if you can move. Tell me your name. Can you tell me your name?'
I said. 'Queenie,' at least I thought I did.
'Can you hear me, love? What's your name?' ame?'
'Right, Queenie, let's try to get you up. You don't look too bad. I've seen worse turned out of pubs on a Saturday night. Up you get.'
Three men were putting up a ladder, trying to find a footing for it in the quicksand of rubble. While the naked woman -- her dark pubic hair a perfect triangle -- stared out from the shattered room as if a bit puzzled as to why she was now so cold.
'Can you walk to the ambulance? Course you can.'
Bits of me that should have slid easily together cracked so painfully I needed oiling. Glass sprinkled down from me as constant as a Christmas tree shedding its leaves. One of the men started up the ladder -- he trod each rung as dainty as if it were mined.
'Come on, Queenie, can you walk? Don't you worry about what's going on there, that's being taken care of. You just watch where you're walking.'
The man was with her now, up there in the once-private bathroom, beckoning her to come to him, to step to the ladder. But she stood like stone, unwilling to admit there was anything amiss. He tested the sheared floor, bouncing on it gently, then stepped off the rungs. When he reached her he wrapped his coat round her urging her to put her arms into the sleeves. She obeyed like a sleepwalker.
I took four steps, the man helping me along. I knew it was four steps because every one was as difficult as for a newborn. At first my ankle wobbled. My shoeless foot was lacerated. On the third step I almost tripped. It was on the fourth that my torn naked foot landed on something soft.
Looking down, I saw I had stepped into the upturned palm of a hand -- the fingers closing round my foot with the reflex of my weight. I could feel its warmth coming up through my sole. 'Sorry,' I said, expecting to hear a cry of pain.
'Just keep your eye on that ambulance, that's where we're going. Queenie, can you hear me? Can you hear me? Come on, love -- not far now. We'll soon have you nice and safe.'
The hand was wearing a gold ring, clothed in a blue woollen sleeve, but lying there attached to no one. My foot was being cradled by a severed arm that merely ended in a bloodsoaked fraying.
So many people at the hospital told me I was lucky. A nurse, a policeman even a little old woman with an oversized white bandage over one eye said, 'Never mind, it could have been worse.' Some cracked ribs, a sprained wrist and a cheek swollen to the size and colour of an overripe plum. After a rocket attack -- yes, I suppose that was blinking lucky.
From Small Island by Andrea Levy. Copyright Andrea Levy 2004. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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