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You know how it is, you just catch a glimpse of someone; perhaps you see a limp or just a flash of light on a crutch or you spot the signs of a calliper - a bit of metal on a shoe or an unnaturally stiff leg. It can be quite subtle, but you know that you have seen someone who finds walking difficult and, if you are anything like me, you just have to go and take a closer look. Maybe take a photograph if you can. Up to now, that had been that. This was the first time I had dared to say Hallo.
I first saw her, across a hotel restaurant in Nice. I was staying in the hotel for a week’s break - a bit of sun and sand and perhaps some good food. She was a few tables away, in a party of five, which looked like a family group. Fairly well-to-do, I reckoned. Enjoying themselves; laughing, comfortable with each other. One of them stood out from the others. The young woman, late teenage or early twenties, I would think. I could see above the table that she was wearing a bright electric blue, v-necked Cashmere jumper, sleeves pushed up and a gold chain round her neck. No rings. Long blond hair, a pretty, lively face. But there was something about the way she moved. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I was sure there was something interesting. There was a limit to the amount of staring I could do, obviously, but it just looked as though she was not sitting quite comfortably. Yes, I could see that occasionally she had to adjust the way she sat by using her arms, pushing herself up by the sides of the chair.
I needed to see more. Yet my meal was going to be over long before hers so I would have to hang about. I found a strategic position in the lobby where I could see both exits from the restaurant. I hoped that the family would pass me in the lobby, but failing that, I could watch them leave by the residents’ door and at least I would know they were staying at the same hotel as me.
I ordered coffee and waited. It was clearly a long, relaxed family meal. When was it going to end? I ordered more coffee. I almost missed their exit because I had to relieve myself. But returning to my seat, I saw the family standing up. I saw the girl push her seat out from the table and stand up using her left leg. I saw her pull her right leg upright by leaning over to her left and jerking it vertical. I saw she was wearing multi-coloured blue, red, yellow flowered trousers. Then I saw the sharp movement of her buttocks as she snapped the knee lock into place. And I saw her walk out in the middle of her family with her right leg locked stiff in a legbrace. To me it was the most exciting sight in the world. A beautiful girl walking, quite clearly handicapped, in a calliper. I could see its outline through her trousers. A full-length calliper attached to a blue shoe that matched her other clothes with heel raised 1or 2 cm. She was not looking at all self-conscious, but enjoying her family and not really concentrating on reducing her limp.
They left by the resident’s door. I decided against following them to their floor in order to find their rooms, so there was no more for me to see that night. But they were staying here. What was I to do tomorrow?
I decided on a simple procedure. I would post myself in the lobby, which was the only way out of the hotel, and wait. I would be ready for the beach, if that was where they were going (the hotel was across the road from the beach, so that was not impossible), but I would wear non-beach gear on top in case I had to follow them into town. I had a hire car, but decided not to try to follow if they want by car, which I supposed was pretty likely in view of her handicap.
The next day, I sat in the Lobby at around 8. Fortunately it was busy enough not to attract any attention. I settled down with my book, but with my eyes looking excitedly round.
After an hour and a half, or so, her father came down to the front desk, briefly checked some details and used the internal phone. (At this stage I assumed him to be her father. She later confirmed this and told me that the family was made up also of her mother, elder brother and younger sister). A few minutes later, the others appeared. I was somewhat disappointed to see that she was in a wheelchair. She was wearing loose fitting pink trousers and another cashmere jumper, this time with pink and white horizontal stripes. I could see that she had the calliper on, but I could not really get a good look without being ridiculously obvious. She pushed herself out to a large car drawn up outside and I watched her hop on her left leg out of the chair and sit sideways in the car. She pulled her right leg in with both hands under the knee and her other leg followed in one movement. The door shut, the driver put the chair into the boot and the family drove off. I reckoned, correctly, that would be that for the day. They were not even back for dinner.
The following day I was again in position at 8. This time, rather earlier, father came to the desk, dressed for the outdoors. Again he called on the internal phone. I kept an eye on the lift indicator and saw it go up to the 9th floor. On its return, the family arrived, but this time, without the girl! Where was she? Could I dare to hope that she would be doing something alone? The four of them left and my heart raced as I settled down to watch as calmly as I could.
I had to endure 3 hours before I saw her. This time, I think my heart stopped and then started at ten times its normal rate. At any rate, I could feel my face flush red. I had to control myself and do my best to act normally. Can you imagine how I felt? Here was the object of my dreams, wearing a white one-piece swimsuit, knee-length cut-off jeans, a bright orange jumper tied loosely round her neck - and a full-length calliper attached to a raised Nike trainer. I could see that, although she was making no effort to disguise the fact that she was wearing a legbrace, she was concentrating on walking as normally as possible. There was less rocking of her body and she was keeping the leg almost vertical, perhaps a few degrees out to the side. I counted to 100 and followed.
She had crossed the road by this time and was heading for the beach. I noticed that she was carrying a bag and a rolled up mat. She was going sunbathing! Perfect!
But what was I going to do? Would I pluck up courage to say anything? I followed. As she walked along the pavement and crossed the road, I could see that she was really quite crippled. When she put weight on the braced leg, her bum pushed out, her back bent at the base of the spine and her hips moved left a few centimetres as they took the strain; her body and shoulders leaned right for balance and also because her right thigh muscles did not have the strength to support her. Now she quickly moved her left leg forward, leaned on it, bending to her left and forward as she gracefully swung the braced leg forward, almost vertically now until it was just a few inches in front of her. Then her weight was back on the right leg, ramrod straight in the confines of the calliper. She spent about twice as long on her left leg as on her right. Although it looked as though walking was quite a strain and that her waist as well as her leg on the right were severely paralysed, she looked expert and her lifeless foot glided barely a centimetre above the ground. It was a tantalising mixture of elegance as she stood on her left leg and vulnerability while her atrophied right side was in use.
On the other side of the road a few short steps led down to the beach. She got down them, leaning on the left handrail for support. I moved a little more quickly to catch up. Walking across the sand was obviously more difficult for her. As she took her weight on her good leg, she dragged the crippled one from behind her until it was next to the other. As the foot was pulled across the surface, her toe occasionally caught in the sand and was forced outwards, so that her flaccid calf wobbled jelly-like. It looked like a Polio leg, although that did not seem very likely on a 19-year old in 1994.
I thought about what it must have been like 20 or so years ago, when beautiful girls were regularly paralysed by Polio and I really admired this young lady’s guts in not hiding her handicap.
When she had got within a few metres of the end of the dry sand, she dropped her bag, stood, both legs stiff and unrolled her mat. Then she let her cut-offs fall to her ankles before unlocking her calliper and sitting down, taking the strain on her left leg. She then lost no time in removing the brace, shorts, pullover and the other Nike and placing them to her side some distance away next to her bag.
I had parked myself a few metres away, trying to look casual. My heart still pumping, I wondered what to do. She had taken a book out of her bag and was reading, lying on her stomach. The ache in my groin was so intense, that I had to do something. I could not sit there all day. Even so, I walked around for 15 minutes or so, trying to think of
end of file! help!
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