Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Iron Duke's Courtesan

I saw the orthopedic surgeon on Tuesday hopefully for the second last time. After a twenty-minute wait in the confines of his consulting room with nothing to do and read during which time I analysed yet again my inability to wait for anything unless I can occupy myself doing something else, the surgeon stuck his head from around the door.
‘How are you he said?’
‘I’m good.’ No niceties. I could not give up my annoyance too readily. But there was no point in telling him off for keeping me waiting for so long. This is the way the man works. The people who come to see him, although allocated an appointment, must generally first go for an x-ray. The receptionist recommends we allow at least an hour for x-rays as in x-ray people are assisted on a first come first served basis. You can wait a long time in x-ray or you can be lucky and hardly wait at all.

I operate on a fairly tight time frame in my work and home life, except perhaps for social events and find it difficult to tolerate this procedure, but I can see that it works for the surgeon. With him too, you can be lucky and be seen almost immediately or be unlucky and wait as I did on Tuesday for what feels like far too long.

As is his custom the surgeon looked at the x-ray first.
‘You can take off the brace from now on.’
How could I maintain any anger with such good news?
‘Take it off now,’ he said, ‘and we’ll have a look.’ At last, a chance for the laying on of hands.
I peeled the brace off awkwardly and as I hobbled towards the surgeon’s high bench to climb up I talked about my attachment to my brace.
‘You can wean yourself off it, if need be. You can wear the brace when you go out for walks. And you’ll need physio.’
I hopped up onto the bench with the aid of a footstool and sat with my legs in front.
'Stretch out your leg,' the surgeon said. ‘There. ' He pulled on my ankle. 'Stretch.’

I found it difficult to understand even his most basic instructions. I try every time to get it right but I cannot understand why when the surgeon says stretch, I am likely to bend my knee or turn to the left when he asks me turn to my right.

He put his fingers onto my hamstrings above the knee and pressed in, first on my good leg and then on the other.
‘Now you have a go,’ he said. I squeezed as he had done before me.
‘They feel the same to me.’
‘No way,’ he said. ‘This one’s not nearly as strong. Muscle wastage,’ he tapped on my knee. ‘The good one’s much stronger.’
‘I’m not good on bodies,’ I said, by way of apology. It seemed an odd thing to say, but how else could I explain my ignorance when it comes to things a surgeon or doctor would know instinctively. How the internals of a body feel, and whether or not things are in working order.

After I had replaced the brace and sat in the chair opposite his desk, the surgeon took up his favourite position against the windowed wall. He stood with hands behind his back, and asked to which doctor he might send a request for physiotherapy for me.
‘There must be heaps of physiotherapists to choose from in your part of the world.’

He asked then about how many hours I worked.
‘How can you spend all those hours listening to other people’s misery?’ he said. Bear in mind, this man’s wife is a psychiatrist.
‘It’s not all misery,’ I said.
I told him of my PhD in literature.
‘Oh that’s okay,’ he said. ‘That’s different. I have a cousin. She’s French. She’s written a biography of Casanova and a book about cleaning out her father’s house after he died. It’s a bad translation but it's interesting. She learned a great deal about her father.’

I told the surgeon my thesis topic, 'life writing and the desire for revenge'. His eyes lit up.
‘You’d have heard of the Iron Duke’s courtesan’.
No, I had not, I told him, daring once more to air my ignorance.

The surgeon then proceeded to tell me how all those monarchs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had their own favourite courtesans and there was one in particular, a woman of some calibre who eventually wrote a memoir about her life with various dignitaries, including the Duke of Wellington.
‘He’s the one who coined the term, “Publish and be damned”,' the surgeon said. 'The Duke said it when they told him about the memoir. He wasn't going to be held to ransom.‘
‘He’s my hero,’ the surgeon went on. ‘The Duke of Wellington – what a man.’ He then listed the Duke’s achievements, none of which I took in, amazed as I was to be having this conversation about someone’s courtesan.
‘I want to see you in six weeks,’ the surgeon said finally. ‘In the meantime go to see a physio. Physios have compassion.’

I went home and took off the brace. No weaning necessary. I have not worn it since.

What shall I do with this brace? It stands like a strange and lonely skeleton against the wall in my spare room.

Make it into an art installation? Plant it in the garden? We cannot recycle it. The orthotics folk do not want it back, although I offered. We cannot re-use it for hygiene reasons. Besides it was individually tailored to suit my leg.

It has served me well.

I walk with a limp and must try hard to remind myself not to, whenever I revert to this old style of walking, as if I am still dragging a brace. I must remind myself that I can walk normally now, no need to limp. But my body has much unlearning to do. My body has been used to leaning these past several weeks once weight bearing and now I must learn to walk freely again.

Six to eight months the surgeon says before I can regain my old form, but already I can see that I have moved more into my usual state except for the tell tale limp, and a bit of swelling around my left ankle at the end of each day.

And as for the Iron Duke's courtesan, I could not resist Googling her. Writing can be one way of assuaging a desire for revenge, but I suspect there was more involved here. See for yourself.
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