As soon as I turned eighteen, I walked myself down to the nearest tattoo parlour and had a small drawing of a fox printed just below my collar bone. It was a spur of the moment decision. I didn’t even settle on the picture or where it would sit on my body until I was on the table. It wasn’t about what the tattoo was, or where it was, or even how it would look. It was about taking control of my body. Ironically, the act of choosing to scar myself softly pushed me into loving the scars I already had, the involuntary ones.
I was seven years old when I broke my wrist. I was climbing an apple tree. Not a tall one, in fact the branch I was perched on was probably only about seven feet from the spongy grass below. I reached out to take an apple with the intention of throwing it at my twin brother, and in my gleeful excitement to deal the blow I lost my balance and fell. Instant karma I suppose. My mother hurried towards me, her face contorted with concern. I lay still amongst mouldy fruit. Was I ok? I didn't know. I lifted up my left arm and it flopped back down like a limp fish. And so, my brother was left in the care of a slightly affronted National Trust volunteer, and I was rushed to Shrewsbury County Hospital in my grandparents’ four-by-four. My face was sticky with tears, but for once, I got to sit in the front. From my temporary throne I watched dappled light flash over the windscreen as we sped through woodland. It was a typical childhood mischance. I got a purple plaster cast, a shot of morphine and a bag of jelly beans and life went on.
Three years later I noticed a small, but nonetheless obvious, lump on my wrist. My friend told me, "It’s a ganglion". The word disgusted me and I prayed to whatever gods there might be that that wasn’t what was protruding from my bony little wrist. I showed my parents. They weren’t worried but they thought we ought to get it checked it out. Following a flurry of proddings, pokings and hushed, still x-rays, we were ushered into a small, harshly lit room of the kind you don’t want to be led in to. A room in which the only regular occupant is Bad News. My x-rays were produced. The doctor traced the ghostly replica of my wrist with her finger. When I had fallen from that apple tree all those years ago the break had occurred on the epiphyseal plate of my radius, an area of tissue responsible for determining the growth of the bone. It was a tiny hairline fracture, but the trauma had caused the plate to harden, retire, and become part of the bone. It meant that as I grew my radius was left behind. I didn’t know what this meant. Not really. Not yet. Just that there was something badly wrong. Something that couldn’t be fixed by a purple plaster cast, or a shot of morphine, or a bag of jelly beans. If it were left, the deformity would grow. I would be in a lot of pain and eventually lose the use of my hand and wrist altogether. No one at the children’s hospital in my hometown of Brighton knew what to do. Not even the orthopaedic surgeon at Great Ormond Street could offer a solution. The only answer, apparently, was Doctor Marks, the head of Paediatric Orthopaedics at Southampton General. I can’t say I thought much of Southampton. The city is generally as grey as my time there. Although it is only 64 miles from Brighton, the journey takes the best part of two hours. The Southern Rail train service stops at every station on the South Coast: Worthing, West Worthing, South Worthing...It seems every square metre of ‘Worthing’ must have a station. It became an arduous pilgrimage I would make countless times.
Marks had a slightly orange hue, the result of too much holiday leave in the Caribbean, perhaps. He breathed arrogance, the kind bred in the belly of private education. An aura of over-confidence. A blanket of authority. He drummed his fat fingers on the table as he spoke. We had previously been presented with one option: to shorten the ulna in accordance with the radius and stop the arm from growing altogether. It was a route Marks deemed impossible, laughing, ‘A young girl like you? Why, you’d never be able to wear a summer dress again.’ Instead, he wanted to employ his own experimental invention. A procedure that had never been done on a forearm before. He announced it breezily, "Of course, it’s the only way to go." He called it an 'external fixator'. A contraption of metal pins. It would be 6 inches, tops and lightweight. I could grow my bone back and preserve the vanity that my femininity apparently implied. Of course we agreed. We were too dazzled by fluorescent lighting and jargon to do otherwise.
The process of ‘growing my bone back’ that Marks had glibly outlined, spanned four years. My childhood went from playgrounds, freshly cut grass and grazed knees to sutures, x-rays and chronic pain. I had my fourth and final operation when I was fourteen, seven years after the initial injury. Paradoxically, the last was essential to try to rectify some of the damage inflicted by the previous three surgeries from which the wounds left behind were so severe that they had scarred me internally. As a result, more cutting was needed to stop the muscle from tethering. The time I spent in hospital is hazy. A fragmented, jagged jigsaw puzzle. I am on the fifth floor of Southampton General, looking out the window of the children’s ward. The city is a dreary sprawl. Roads run like arteries, clogged with traffic. I drift in and out of consciousness in a lonely sterile room, my little heart battling to find its rhythm following anaesthesia. I am watching Jurassic Park for the first time, half blinded by a smog of morphine. Nurses are cheerily exclaiming, ‘Well, at least it wasn’t your leg.’ Then there are the ashen faces of other parents in the ward. Depleted husks grimly anchored to their sick children.
My external fixator was not six inches and lightweight as Marks had promised. It was a weighty iron structure, with four grasping metal rods that pierced my skin, muscle, sinew and rooted itself in my bone. I woke with blood blistered fingerprints covering my upper arm and shoulder, shouting out the violence of the procedure.
Once I had been wheeled out of the operating theatre, Marks lost interest. I had become a piece of heavy machinery and was treated as such. On paper, his endeavour had been a success and my case could be published in a a medical journal with his name attached. I was transferred to another surgeon who would oversee my recovery and Marks went off to find new bones to play with. Meanwhile, I was required to insert a jack into 'the apparatus', twist it each day to stretch my bones apart. I wore the frame, or it wore me, for three months. When it was finally removed, I was left with a pathetic excuse for a limb, plagued with nerve damage and heavily scarred. Puckered pink aberrations screamed on my skin, three puncture marks and one long, numb mutilation where a metal plate had been left behind. Every time I looked down at them I saw those cardboard hospital sick buckets, the ones that look like an upside down cowboy hat. I smelled iodine. I heard Marks’ old Etonian bark. For years I sported only long sleeves. If it was really warm, I donned sweat bands, although I couldn't do any sport. Anything to cover a portion of what was left of my forearm.
I don’t know when my relationship toward my scars began to evolve. I think it must have happened gently, over time, as they began to change colour in the sun and I began to see them as a part of me. My acceptance of them though culminated with my tattoo. I’m eighteen and I’m looking in the mirror, admiring my new fox and the way it sits against the outline of collarbone. I’m wearing a strapless top to show it off. I’m proud of it because it highlights my autonomy, because I felt free enough, daring enough to have it done. I wonder why I should be so proud of the mark I had chosen to cultivate, and not the ones left on my forearm. They are memorabilia from the most painful time in my life. They are messy. They are rough. But they signpost an era that I survived. They remind me that I overcame all the pain and all the ugliness. That I am free from white-washed rooms and scalpels and cannulas. That I am strong. And I resolve to wear them as proudly as any tattoo.
Amy Wall is a twenty-four year old English Literature graduate from Brighton. This is a story she has wanted and needed to tell for a long time but could not find the words.