Jon Dixon

Actor, Musician, Illustrator, Writer, UX Designer

The Surgeon's Tale

This story disturbed me so much (still does) that I held off sending it out to potential publishers for some time. Ironically, though, when I did it was accepted almost by return of post and was published in 1988 in 'The Pan Book of Horror Stories Vol.29', edited by the late Clarence Paget, who was kind enough to write to me later and tell me that it was one of the best stories that he had ever had submitted to him! It was my first sale and I was paid the princely sum of £250.

Danforth reached forward and threw another log on to the fire, making sparks dance through the smoke. He lit his pipe, which had gone out during the climax of the previous story.

'Yes,' he said. 'Strange, the will to live. When I was a practicing surgeon I saw many cases where the patient's survival instinct pulled them through injuries and trauma which you would have thought inevitably fatal. I think that survival instinct, that will to live is probably one of the most primal instincts known to man. Unconscious, of course . . .' There was a small cough from his left, one of those noises of polite disagreement that can be heard in light-hearted discussions and arguments between professional men and women wherever they may meet. The assembled company glanced as one to its source, a tall, spare man of indeterminate age, named Tobin, who was a relative newcomer to the club and who had listened to the evening's anecdotes in silence but with great interest. All that the members knew of him was that, like Danforth, he had been a surgeon at one time, and that he had only recently returned from a long sojourn in some foreign clime. They waited expectantly as he refilled his glass.

'I agree with your main point,' he said rather diffidently. 'I would differ, though, with your contention that the ability to survive trauma is always an unconscious and instinctive one. In some cases, I believe, it can be a conscious act. So much so, indeed, that trauma is actively sought in order that it can be experienced for its own sake.' Danforth laughed. 'We all know about those psychotic individuals who take pleasure in pain,' he began.

'No, no,' the other broke in. 'You mistake me. I do not mean masochism as such, which is well-documented. In the case I refer to the inflicting of pain itself was not a factor, could not have been...' He seemed to be remembering something with great difficulty. Smoke drifted through the charged air from his forgotten cigar. 'Indeed,' he continued, 'the actual inflicting of the injury was, in a way, incidental, or so it seemed to be. It was merely a means to an end. What was important was the effect of that injury, or those cumulative injuries.'

'But the injuries were self-inflicted?'

'For a time, yes.' He fell silent. After a while he looked up. 'The... subject... seemed to take a great, I might even say, obsessive, pleasure in the results of the injuries. There was what I can only describe as a sort of contempt for the subject's own body, a willful desire to damage it, to lessen it - to subtract from it. And a fanatical desire to see how far the process could be taken. Have you ever wondered about the personal identity that is bound up in the totality of one's body? How much of that body you can lose and still retain your full self-identity?'

Danforth shook his head impatiently and looked as though he was about to speak, but the other answered his own question.

'You would be astonished at how much. At how little can remain and still be that person...' He brought himself up sharply and covered his sudden stop by tapping out his pipe and taking a drink.

'That is why I cannot agree that the ability to transcend trauma is merely an unconscious instinct. Furthermore, I believe that this act is not only conscious, and sought after, in certain individuals but that it can be inherited, passed on . . . or taught.'

Danforth snorted in a disbelieving sort of way and gave a patronising smile. 'Well, it's an interesting theory,' he said. 'But pure conjecture.'

'No. I have seen the proof; shared in it, even. Would to God that I had not. It has haunted me throughout my life.' The intensity of Tobin's tone shocked everyone around him. He was trembling with some emotion. An embarrassed silence fell.

Danforth had never been the most sensitive of men. Many surgeons seem to develop a surface hardness that can seem callous, perhaps as a self-defense against the nature of their work. 'Good God, man, don't leave us in suspense,' he exploded. 'You say you have seen the proof of this preposterous theory; Tell us the story.'

Tobin stared at him. There seemed to be an internal struggle going on within him. Abruptly, he came to a decision.

'Very well,' he said. 'Although you will have to forgive me. This happened some years ago, and I have deliberately kept it from my mind. I vowed never to mention it, never to breathe a word about that frightful time. As to why, I think you will understand when you have heard the story. It will be difficult for me to tell it, but I feel I must.' The others all made various comfortable noises of reassurance and comradeship and settled back in their chairs.

'It began in the Autumn of eighteen eighty-nine,' Tobin said, 'and I was recently graduated as a general surgeon. I was at the time employed at St Veronica's Hospital in the East End of London, and like any young man of that time I revelled in the tarnished glamour and the vicarious thrills of the area's 'low-life', the seedy pubs and theatres, and especially the music-hall. Although the public taste for the bizarre and freakish was declining then, in England if not on the continent, still at that time it seemed that every theatre and hall had its exhibition of jugglers, aerialists, contortionists and fire-breathers; every tavern and drinking-den in the East End had its own museum of freaks or prodigies; and travelling showmen with their collections of dwarfs, giants, 'wolf-boys', living skeletons, fat ladies and exotic beasts often stopped at pitches from Cheapside to the Mile End Road. You will recall that it was in such a show that John Merrick, the so-called 'Elephant Man', was discovered in eighteen eighty-four, and I still recollect hearing a story of an elephant which broke free from a fair to stroll down Croydon High Street, much to the alarm of the local populace. It was my custom whenever I had time free to visit the halls and watch the acts, or to frequent the pubs and taverns in the area around them, from a mixture of professional curiosity and idle interest. There was a marvellous macabre romance for me in their air of tinsel unreality and their sly hinting at dark mysteries, so far removed from the harsh and often grisly reality of my work. They were a release, if you like.

'One evening I had not finished work until late. It had been a hard day and on my way to my lodgings I took what I thought to be a short cut through the maze of alleys and streets north of the Thames. Of course I was soon hopelessly lost. The area by now held no terrors for me and I pressed on in good heart, trusting that sooner or later I would come upon a policeman from whom I could ask directions. It was a balmy evening and I was enjoying the walk, feeling rather like an explorer in a far land. Rounding a corner, I saw, standing on the divergence between two streets a small theatre. The sign proclaimed it to be "The Jubilee" and promised "hair-raising acts! spectacular shows! astounding curiosities!". Dimly seen through a window in the ornate facade was a tall glass case containing what purported to be "the worlds only true Mermaid!" but which was obviously a manufactured chimera, monkey stitched to fish in pathetic grotesquerie. The evening's show had finished, but my eye was caught by the cheery light of a public-house adjoining the theatre. From within came the sound of singing and the clink of glasses. The thought of a fortifying pint of ale was a pleasant prospect and so I entered the crowded bar. Would that I had tramped on my way and never returned!

'The room was full of what were obviously show-people from the theatres of the area, many of whom had obviously come straight from their respective shows. Street-clothes and spangled costumes mixed together and the sound of cheerfully overloud conversation created a din that almost drowned the jangling piano in the corner. I made my way to the bar in high spirits; if one is in the right mood the hearty theatricality of entertainers can be infectious, raising the spirits like cheap champagne. The barmaid inquired my pleasure, called me 'duck', and delivered to me a pint of foaming ale. Turning away from the bar my attention was caught by a loud burst of laughter emanating from a group of people sitting in the corner. That was the first time I saw her.'

'Saw who?' asked Danforth. Tobin started as if his mind had been far away. He focused on the assembled company as if seeing them for the first time.

'Paulette,' he said. 'I saw Paulette.'

'She was sitting with her back to me. She wore a simple dress of dark red wool, and there was a grey overcoat of the three-quarter-length Chesterfield style thrown over her shoulders. Her hair was of a brown so dark as to be almost black. Of course I noticed this only in passing at the time. She was just a stranger in a crowd and my attention would have been diverted elsewhere and I would have forgotten about her if she had not chosen that precise moment to stand up and turn round in order to call something to the piano-player. As she stood the coat slipped down from her shoulders. Contrary to the fashion of the time her dress was tailored with quite short sleeves. They revealed that her left arm was a short stump, terminating some way above the elbow. Her right arm ended above the wrist in a neat bandage. The amputation was obviously recent for slight traces of blood had seeped through the gauze.

'The shock of it made me stare, I suppose. You must all know that... fascination that one feels on seeing some deformity in another, mingled with a sort of shame at that feeling. In my case, too, there was the element of professional interest. The amputation of her left arm must have taken place some while ago; the stump was fully healed. Yet the loss of the right hand was, as I say, very recent. I could not help but feel pity and sympathy at the double tragedy that had struck this girl, and left her one-armed and handless. The pianist struck up whatever song it was that she had requested and as she turned back to her table she glanced across and our eyes met. She had a pale, intense face, its pallor more pronounced for the dark hair that framed it. Her eyes were a blue so pale as to be almost colourless, beneath black eyebrows thicker than was the fashion at the time. As she became aware of my scrutiny she frowned and her face took on an odd ferocity of expression strangely at odds with the smile that curved her wide, mobile mouth upwards. She stared back at me as if in challenge. I flushed and looked away, pretending that I had been studying the playbills on the wall behind her head. She sat, and I stole another look at her as she returned to her conversation. There was muffled laughter from the table and a couple of amused glances flicked in my direction. Embarrassed, I finished my beer and left the place, feeling somewhat discomposed.

'I eventually made my way back to my lodgings and retired, but I could not forget that girl. Everywhere I went I saw that pale, pinched face with its paradoxical quality, at once inured and vulnerable . . .'

'Excusable.' Danforth smiled knowingly. 'You were tired, probably emotionally slightly overwrought from your hard day's work. The girl's unfortunate condition and your social embarrassment combined to make a great impression on you.'

'Perhaps. But there was more to it than that. I felt, for what reason I don't know, that I had stumbled on the fringes of a mystery, something strange and darkly bizarre.

'My work-load at the hospital increased sharply over the next month or two and I had no free time at all to speak of. My thoughts kept dwelling on the mysterious girl in the tavern, yet I had no opportunity to return there; indeed, I am not sure that I should, or even if I wanted to. You can see what a confused state I had got myself into by now. Then, one night some two and a half months after the events I have just related, returning to my lodgings once again, I found myself taking that same short cut and retracing my steps to the Jubilee Theatre and its adjoining pub. I loitered outside for some time before plucking up the courage to enter, my heart beating like a rabbit's.

'It was slightly earlier than the last time I had been there and the bar was not crowded. Remembering my embarrassment the last time I was slightly self-conscious, but the few patrons them took no notice of me and there was not a glimmer of recognition in the barmaid's face as she drew my pint. The girl was not there, of course. I relaxed slightly and began to laugh to myself at my own stupidity. I drank my pint and ordered another. There was a great burst of activity from outside, and a flood of people entered, obviously patrons of the theatre emerging after the last show. The bar soon filled. After a little while the character of the new arrivals changed as the artistes came in for after-show refreshment. Amid the hubbub, something made me look to the door as it opened to admit another group of three people. She was there. My heart did a great somersault and my head swam. Unreality swept over me. She wore the same grey overcoat as before, open down the front, but this time she wore beneath it what could only be some sort of performer's costume, a scarlet leotard embroidered with gold thread and sequins that flashed and sparkled in the light from the bar. The face had the same gamine quality beneath the thick black hair. A large Gladstone bag was slung over her shoulder. But what caused my shock and bewilderment, and I must tell you that I almost disbelieved the evidence of my own eyes, was the fact that she entered the bar on crutches. The short stump of her left arm, the sleeve of the coat pinned up, was slipped through a leather loop below the padding at the top of the crutch, and the simple steel hook that now replaced her right hand was hooked into a brass ring screwed into the right crutch where the handgrip should have been. Below the leotard her legs were sheathed in spangled tights. Or at least one of them was. The right leg of her tights dangled pathetically, limp and empty. She herself, had no right leg!'

Even Danforth was impressed by this. 'Good God,' he muttered.

'I say that she had no right leg,' continued Tobin. 'In fact that's not strictly true. As she carefully lowered herself on to the chair in which she had sat before, I saw that slightly less than half the leg remained, the amputation having been performed an inch or so above the knee. The leg, as I saw through the gauzy material of the tights, was wrapped in a fresh bandage . . .'

Danforth leaned forward. 'Again a recent operation?'

'Very. Just as her hand had been before.'

'Some malignant disease . . .'

'That was my first reaction once I had recovered somewhat from the shock. At first I could not understand why I had not seen this additional disability before. But no, that was ridiculous; how could I have missed something so obvious. There was no mistake. On my last visit she had had both her legs. Somehow, in the intervening ten weeks, she had lost part of another limb. As my colleague suggested just now, my first thought was malignant disease. But I know of no condition serious enough to require amputation that enables to victim to remain as well and active as she evidently was, or that affects different parts of the body at different times - we all know that tumours of the bones can necessitate amputation, but that is a last resort after the disease has spread throughout usually one limb. Accident, then? It would require a coincidence worthy of the devil himself for the same individual to suffer three separate accidents over a short space of time, all of which require amputation. Possible, I suppose, but unlikely. I sat there, my thoughts in a whirl. What could it be? And then what was the reason for her costume? If she was an artiste, what sort of performer could she be with such disabilities? I had to find out. In my own defence I hasten to add that it was not entirely for my own sake. As the fresh-faced youth I was then, I had great faith in my own ability - life's bitter reality and the awareness of one's own limitations when faced with human suffering had not yet impinged on me too much - and I thought that, if this girl's condition were, indeed, the result of some malignancy, I could help her, the gallant young surgeon on his white charger of medical expertise riding to the fair maiden's rescue. I hit upon a plan. I would be just what I was, a surgeon who happened to have come into this bar and seen her, offering his professional help. Now, I wonder at my own naiveté, but I was very young.

'Taking my courage in both hands, and somewhat fortified by the strong beer I had consumed, I waited until she was left alone by her companions, who had left the table to converse with friends elsewhere in the bar. I crossed to her, dizzy with nervousness.

' "Excuse me," I began. She looked up, startled. The pale eyes widened slightly. "I don't want to intrude . . .".'

' "You were here before," she said. Her voice was lower than I expected, with no discernible accent. My face fell as I realised to my chagrin that she recognised me from last time. Embarrassed, I was about to mutter some excuse and leave, when she said, "Sit down."

'I seated myself and she looked at me quizzically, sipping her drink. I noticed that she had it in a brandy-glass with a wide bell that she could balance in the curve of her hook. "Well?" she said.

'Her proximity was overwhelming. Again I was conscious of the strange magnetism drawing me to her. With nothing to lose now, I explained who I was and that I was interested in her condition professionally, being a surgeon, and had thought that I might be able to help her. "So I thought I would ask what the reason behind your surgery was . . ." I finished lamely.

' "Thank you," she said, "if that is really why you want to know." She looked at me again and I blushed. She nodded as if my embarrassed reaction had confirmed something to her. "But I must set your mind at rest. I have no illness. I am as healthy as you are, except for..." She gestured at her pinned up sleeve and her single leg. "What you see." She smiled at me and finished her drink. "So you really should not worry. But thank you for the thought. And now I must go, it's late." She awkwardly pulled her crutches across to her and positioned them under her arms. I stood and helped her up. She smiled her thanks and turned away. Desperate, I followed and gripped her arm. She frowned, unbalanced for a moment.

' "I must know!" I said. If I let her go now, she would remain for ever a mystery. The strange fascination I felt for her over-whelmed me and all thought of the proprieties, of my rudeness and my prying into something that, after all, was none of my business fled from my mind. "Please!"

' " Why?" she asked.

' "I don't know," I said, aware of how ridiculous I sounded.

'She looked at me questioningly and seemed to be making up her mind, weighing me up. Some strange emotion flickered behind her eyes. "Very well," she said at last. "But I can't explain to you now. If you really want to know come to the Jubilee Theatre in two months from today. You'll find out then." She swung across the room and through the door into the night, leaving me stunned and speechless. I went to the bar and ordered a double brandy to calm myself. On an impulse I asked the barmaid: "Who was the girl that just left?"

'The barmaid stared at me. For a moment I thought she was not going to answer me. Her manner became perceptibly more reserved. But she did answer, reluctantly it seemed to me. "You mean Paulette," she said. Paulette! I knew her name! You may judge my state of mind by the fact that it was only then that I became aware that I had not known it previously.

' "Paulette," I said. "Who is she? What does she do?"

'The barmaid was now distinctly chilly in her attitude. "I really couldn't say," she said. "After all, I don't know who you are, do I?" She rather pointedly went to serve a customer at the other end of the bar. There was nothing for it but for me to leave, more bewildered than ever.'

'You went to the theatre, of course?' Danforth said.

'No, not at the time Paulette had asked me to. Pressure of work again kept me from any opportunity to do so. My life became dominated by the seemingly endless stream of suffering humanity that flowed through the doors of St Veronica's casualty department: machine accidents, ragged cotton tangled up with torn flesh and congealed oil; a man picked up in some grimy lane with his throat cut; or some poor woman dragged from the river, caked in foul mud. Despite my efforts to treat each problem with practicality and decisiveness my inability to take up Paulettes's invitation distracted me, made me furious. I was now obsessed, so much so in fact that the standard of my work fell off - not, I hasten to add, to such an extent that it threatened my patients - and my colleagues commented on my seeming preoccupation and inability to concentrate on all the small formalities and paperwork that surround one in any profession. Her face haunted my days ...and my nights. I began to have a recurring nightmare, in which I was called in to the operating theatre to perform an amputation only to find that the patient was Paulette. I was at my wits' end.

'Finally I was given a leave of absence to "rest", my superiors believing me to be simply overtired. I haunted the area around the Jubilee, hoping to see her, but never dating to enter the pub. I became rather a hopeless case, I'm afraid, such was the mystery preying on my mind.

'Then, one day, some months after the day Paulette had stipulated, I saw a poster go up outside the Jubilee. It simply said, "Paulette: one night only:" and a date, one week away. My despair sloughed away. At last I would find out who this girl was who had bewitched me to the point of manic obsession. I went back to my lodgings and settled down to wait out the intervening week in grim anticipation.'

Tobin paused to fill his glass, and the test of the company shifted slightly, but no-one spoke, waiting for him to continue.

'The night of the performance, if performance it was to be, arrived and as I dressed to go out my heart was beating like a jackhammer. I made my way to the Jubilee and bought my ticket. I was struck by two facts; first, that, although I had nowhere seen any other posters advertising the event, the theatre was packed to overflowing (indeed I was lucky to get one of the last tickets), and, second, that the tickets were priced at a sum least four time greater than normal. I made my way to my seat and waited. The band was playing sprightly music as the audience settled down. Then the auditorium lights faded and that murmuring buzz of anticipation peculiar to the start of a theatrical performance ran through the audience. After a moment, a succession of rather tired variety acts came on and performed in front of the curtains; a juggler, a contortionist billed as "Serpentina - the serpent girl", a very bad conjurer. The audience booed and cat-called, and thankfully the acts were soon over, obviously merely a "teaser" before the main evening's entertainment. Once more the house-lights flickered down to nothing and the band played a singularly gloomy march. The curtains rose on a cheap cardboard set purporting to represent some sort of a dungeon. Some rather flimsy representation of torture implements littered the stage.

'There followed a succession of scenes which were matched for their tedium only by the ineptness of their performance. I had unwittingly come to see an evening of what the French, I believe, call Grand Guignol theatre, where the appetites of a jaded audience are titillated by scenes of murder and bloodshed. It was awful; dull, cheap and without any son of wit, skill or ability to thrill whatever. The rest of the audience seemed to agree with my opinion, talking loudly through the scenes and jeering the performers. Paulette did not appear once. At long last the interval arrived and I was so disappointed that I went outside to check the poster again to make sure that I had got the right date. I had.

'Returning to my seat after the interval I became aware of a subtle change in the atmosphere. People were talking in low, excited whispers and a curious air of expectancy charged the air of the auditorium. It had rather a horrid quality to it, an overtone of what I can only describe as macabre glee. I imagine something rather similar was felt in the air before a gladiatorial contest in ancient Rome. I was affected by it to the extent that the hair of my scalp crawled with horripilation. Then the lights faded once more and the curtain rose.

'There could not have been a great contrast with the appearance of the stage before the interval. There was no set as such, merely white drapes and a white floor-cloth. In the centre of the stage was a high padded table, one of those tables with an adjustable back rest such as you see in a doctor's surgery. The table was covered in a white sheet, and the whole stage was lit by a simple white light. It may have been suggestion but a faint whiff of antiseptic seemed to waft over the footlights. The simplicity was far more effective in suggesting potential horror than the crude and cliched settings of the pre-interval scenes. This was genuinely disturbing in its surreal blandness. The music played in quiet steely cobwebs of sound, almost subliminal. Nothing happened for some time. Except for the music there was silence. Then from the wings emerged four white-coated men pushing low tables before them. On the tables were several objects draped in white sheets. They left after setting the tables on either side of the stage. Another pause. The music crept up in volume imperceptibly. Then there was a great rush of indrawn breath as Paulette entered.

'She was no longer on crutches. That was the first thing I noticed. I assumed that she now had some sort of artificial replacement for her missing leg. She wore a long cloak of scarlet velvet that concealed her completely from neck to floor. Her face was shockingly pale and her dark hair was confined in a spangled head-band that matched her dangling earrings. She moved slowly to the centre of the stage. a strange, stiff-legged, rocking gait the only outward sign of her disabilities. A low moan came from the crowd, rising into a chanting call: "Paul-ette, Paul-ette..!" She bowed her head slightly in acknowledgment. In the centre of the stage she stood, shifting slightly from foot to foot. The stage-lights went to black except for a single spotlight on her slight figure. There was a gasp from the audience. Paulette threw back her arms and the cloak slipped from her shoulders. Sequins flashed and sparkled. She wore the same scarlet leotard embroidered with sequins and gold thread, halter-necked. Her body was that of an athlete or a dancer, small-breasted and wiry. She raised her arms, one short stump and one longer, the latter clad in a leather sheath ending in a hook. But I could not take my eyes off her legs. This time she had no need to wear tights. She stood, precariously, on two crude wooden pegs, replacing both her legs from just above the knee!'

There was a long indrawn breath from around the fire. The story had a terrible fascination. Every member of the company was there in the theatre with Tobin, sharing his shock and bewilderment.

'She balanced for a moment, smiling slightly, as the crowd roared its applause and then quieted, watching in horrid absorption. But still there was the sense that this was only a prologue to something else; the air of grisly anticipation still permeated the place, and there was still the unexplained mystery of the other tables behind her with their unseen burdens.

'Followed by her spotlight, Paulette moved to the centre of the stage with that awkward stiff-legged walk, rocking her body from side to side to lift each wooden leg in turn clear of the floor, the small blocks that terminated them tapping hollowly on the boards of the stage. She turned to face the audience and a strange grim smile played over her face. As she did so the lights crept up to illuminate the whole stage. She went to each of the large tables in turn and hooked the sheets from them. Each bore a large tank or tanks of some clear, slightly viscous fluid - probably preserving agent - and in each tank was . . .'

'Her missing limbs.' Danforth's face was blank and ashen.

'Just so.' Tobin took a deep breath. 'Each of the tanks held, suspended in liquid, a part of a human body. Two held the lower part of a leg from ankle to just above the knee, one left and one right; two more held the respective feet; another held, like pickles in a jar, a full set of ten fingers; still others held two fingerless hands and a forearm and elbow. Each of the limb segments had a healed stump at its lower extremity. Each part had obviously been amputated at a different time.

'The crowd was still and silent, mesmerised by the horror of the scene. Paulette moved to the doctor's table, playing the pause and the silence like a skilled actor. One of the assistants raised the top half into its upright position and helped Paulette up on to it. Another wheeled forward a second table with a glossy white surface and placed it at her right side. Another sheet covered some large construction mounted on its upstage end. With her hook Paulette slowly undid the straps which secured her wooden legs and the assistants lifted them away. Her hook was unstrapped and laid to one side, leaving her without any artificial limbs at all, the full extent of her mutilations revealed. The crowd gasped and a murmur of horror swept the auditorium. She sat, her head bowed, a truncated, grotesque little figure. Then she reached across with her forearm and awkwardly lifted the sheet from the table by her side. The woman seated next to me whispered "Oh no!" and covered her face with her hands, peeking through her fingers. Under the sheet was what looked like a miniature guillotine, the razor edge of the heavy blade gleaming in the stage lighting. One of the assistants came forward and tightened a toumiquet around Paulette's upper arm just below the armpit. She placed her right arm into the guillotine so that the blade was poised above her bicep two or three inches from the elbow. The assistant mopped her arm and the blade with antiseptic. He took a wire that was attached to the trigger mechanism of the guillotine and looped it around Paulette's short left arm-stump. Then he retired to the shadows. The stage lights crept down until Paulette was picked out in a single bright spot. There was a low roll of drums that built to a crescendo and... stopped! As the drums stopped Paulette jerked her left stump and the blade of the guillotine crashed down!

'Her right arm was severed cleanly. There was one gout of shockingly scarlet blood and the limb dropped to the surface of the table, twitching once in a reflex action. The tourniquet prevented great loss of blood. Paulette sat up and raised her arms, both of them now stumps of the same length, the right one raw and bloody. Then all the lights went out. The crowd went mad, stamping and clapping and cheering. I felt that I was about to faint. I sat where I was for perhaps five or six minutes, during which time the sound of the crowd washed over me like a black tide. I thought I would be sick. Biting back vomit, I struggled for the doors of the auditorium. The excitement of the crowd was such that it took me another few minutes to reach them. As I arrived the lights of the stage went up again and I turned in a daze to see Paulette, once more propped up on her peg-legs. She grinned and acknowledged the crowd, raising her arms to take the applause. The right stump was crudely bandaged. Somehow I managed to tear myself away from the sight and entered the blessed quiet of the seedy little foyer.'

In the silence the club clock chimed midnight quietly. Nobody spoke or even moved. Tobin continued:

'Close to fainting, I sat on one of the gilt and plush chairs to recover. I could not believe what I had just seen. I was overwhelmed with horror. The worst excesses of Rome or the Middle Ages surely could never compete with this! And yet there was a perverse excitement about it; my heart had beat as fast as anyone's during the performance, and I had stayed despite myself, held by the macabre fascination of it as a rabbit is hypnotised by a snake. I felt that I had polluted my soul, yet at the same time I was caught, hooked. I knew that what I had seen would haunt me, tempt me, bring me back as it brought all those people that had been there tonight. Torn, I sat there. How was it possible that, not ten minutes after suffering a major amputation, Paulette had reappeared, smiling, apparently perfectly well. Everything I had been taught - nay, observed - of shock-trauma must now be disposed of. How, and more important perhaps, why did she do it?

'My head swimming, I left the theatre. Torn between a desire to flee the place and forget everything I had seen and a desperate need to see her face again, that familiar face that haunted my dreams and my every waking hour, I paced the streets of the area in turmoil, trembling with cold and with some other, darker feeling. I returned to my lodgings, aghast at my actions, more aghast at whatever insane, self-destructive urge it was that infected her, drove her to cut away her body, piece by piece. And knowing that I would return, hypnotised by the surreal horror and fascination of it. As for the obscure, conflicting emotions that I had for Paulette herself . . . what I felt for her, I knew, was something very close to love. I was relatively inexperienced and possibly emotionally somewhat immature, I suppose, and drained from my year of living at a heightened pitch of emotion.'

'Good God, man,' said Danforth. 'What did you do? Did you see her again?'

'Yes. Each time I was drawn back, almost against my will. A macabre fascination led me back to see her, to see... how far she would have gone . . .'

'And your fascination for her, I suppose, had nothing to do with it?'

Tobin ignored Danforth's boorishness. 'What else could I do! I returned to that hellish theatre the next time Paulette was advertised as appearing and watched, horrified and fascinated, as her right leg was removed halfway up the thigh. Again I left without speaking to her, burning with obsessive passion.

'During the next performance her other leg was amputated at the same point.

'I arrived too late to see her to next time she performed, but I watched from the shadows at the back of the auditorium as she took her curtain-call. Her left leg had been removed completely at the groin.

'This operation was followed after several more months by another. During the performance her last remaining remnant of leg was also removed. It was after this last performance that my relationship with Paulette entered another stage.'

Tobin refilled his glass and drank it down convulsively. He had consumed an inordinate amount of brandy, but he seemed as sober as if he had drunk nothing. His eyes held a terrible intensity of emotion and a small muscle twitched in the corner of his jaw.

'The events that followed I can hardly bear to relate,' he said. 'And yet I must. They have been locked inside me for forty years, and I must, at least, give them utterance, free myself from . . .' He suddenly looked up, pleading. 'I beg you, do not judge me harshly,' he said. 'For I have already paid a terrible price for my actions in years of lonely exile and tortured imaginings.

'After the performance I entered the foyer, filled with the terrible mixture of exhilaration and self-disgust that attended my every visit to that theatre of horrors, consumed with love for the girl and revulsion at her actions, and at my reaction to them. My desperate train of thought was interrupted by a light touch on my shoulders. A uniformed theatre attendant stood before me. "Miss Paulette noticed you in the audience, sir," he said. "And would be glad to receive you in her dressing room, if you desired a meeting."

'I leaped to my feet. My first impulse was to go. To see her! But still I hesitated, as I had hesitated on every occasion before. How could I sit and make small-talk with someone I had just witnessed deliberately maim herself so horribly! But, if I was to find answers to my questions, some respite from the conflicting emotions that threatened to tear me apart, should I not go? Confront her? Carefully, I controlled my voice. "I would be glad to pay my respects to Miss Paulette," I said.

'When I entered the room in response to a weary but still cheerful "Come in" she was sitting in a high-backed chair facing the door, still wearing her stage costume. A grey-haired, white-coated man was straightening up from attending to the wound in her hip where the leg had been removed, a wound which I saw had been expertly cleaned, trimmed and stitched. I was expecting to be introduced but he finished without either of them saying a word and left through another door. She stared at me quizzically.

' "Drink?" she said. I declined. "'Well, would you pour me one?" she asked. I poured her a drink and she took the glass in her mouth and sipped it thoughtfully before returning it to the dressing-table top. "Well," she said finally. "Now you know."

'I sat down. Here, with her, my feelings for her, in all their tangled complexity, were suddenly heightened to a new extreme by the physicality of her presence, the smell of her perfume mingling with the sharp tang of antiseptic, the play of her muscles beneath her costume, the movement of her hair. I desired her horribly. "Yes," I agreed. Then my emotions overcame me. "But why! How?" I gestured towards her helplessly, indicating her state. "How can you ...?" She raised her chin defiantly, those pale eyes abruptly bleak.

' "You judge me?" she asked.

' "No, but . . ."

' "I'm going to tell you why - and incidentally how," she said. "Do me the courtesy of listening, at least. After all, I don't seem to have any problem with what I do. You apparently do have such a problem. so in a sense it's for your sake I tell you this."

'Paulette was now twenty-seven years old. She had been born in eighteen hundred and sixty-four, the only child of poor parents in Whitechapel. At first, she seemed a perfectly normal child, but slowly something strange about her began to be noticed. You have perhaps come across those extraordinarily rare cases where a person is born wholly lacking the sense of pain, to the extent that they have to be constantly on their guard against unnoticed injury. Paulette, or Pauline Lockyer as her full name was, was born with this strange condition. Her parents did their best for her but they could not afford to have her well-educated and, when her parents were taken off by an influenza epidemic, she was forced to earn her living as best she could. Hard times followed. A friend of hers, knowing of her strange imperviousness to pain, suggested she should go on the halls as an entertainer, billed as "The Human Pin-cushion - the girl who feels no pain". Desperate, Paulette took the friend's advice and was soon employed by one "Lord" Harry Newman, the proprietor of a "freak" show and entertainment booth. She became quite successful, performing the son of act that comprises passing needles through the cheeks and other parts of the body, lightly scoring the skin with a knife, that kind of thing. As I say, she was reasonably successful, at least to the point of earning a comfortable living, and had soon left the cheap environs of Mister Newman's stall and was ensconced in the Raven saloon, an establishment in St Giles, although she even appeared once or twice at the "respectable" Evans's in Covent Garden. But the height of the bizarre show had passed with changing customs and ideas of morality (exemplified by the closing of the annual Bartholomew Fair in eighteen eighty-five), and peoples' appetites, jaded perhaps, required more than the act she was doing. She found it hard to get work. She slipped from second or third billing to the bottom of the poster. Finally, at that very theatre, the Jubilee, she both reached the nadir and, at the same time, hit upon the saving of her act. Halfway through her performance she was being barracked by the audience, and by one great beefy fellow in particular, who remarked loudly at one point that "anyone can do that". Desperate, furiously angry and close to tears, Paulette seized one of her knives and with a cry of "So, do you think just anyone could do this?" hacked off one of her fingers. There was a moment's stunned amazement, and then pandemonium broke out. Some of the audience fainted clean away, some were horrified, but most stayed and whooped and cheered for her long after she had left the stage. She was obviously on to something, although at the time she had acted purely on a desperate impulse, and had no idea of continuing with that particular part of the act.

'The theatre itself was at that time going through a crisis of falling audiences and the manager had taken note of the extraordinary event that night and, more important to him, the audience's reaction to it. He called Paulette into his office and put a proposition to her. You can all guess what that proposition was.'

'The blackguard!' Danforth exploded. 'To force a young woman into doing such a thing!'

'Oh, there was very little force required,' said Tobin. 'Paulette had known what it was to be poor and without work in London. The substantial sum that the manager was offering her to retain the new "climax" to the act was an irresistible inducement. After all, what was a finger or two? She accepted.'

Danforth laughed incredulously. 'Ridiculous,' he said.

'So you would think. Nevertheless she did it. The manager, seizing his chance, promised her top billing, a huge increase in salary, and time off between performances for the injuries to heal. It seemed a wonderful idea. For a consideration a surgeon who had been "struck off' due to a rather inordinate fondness for the bottle but who was reliable nonetheless, was retained to supervise the operations and minister to Paulette during her convalescences. And so "Paulette - the indestructible girl" began the new phase of her career. Word spread, and soon the Jubilee was acquiring a notoriety and an income exceeding all expectations. It was one of the first theatres to install the electric stage lighting that had been introduced, and was renowned for its air of wealth, so at odds with the neighbourhood in which it was situated. The rarity of Paulette's performances and the fact that her advertising was deliberately kept to a minimum created an air of mystery and elitism as well as keeping the theatre and the nature of her act free of the prying eyes of moral arbiters and "do-gooders" to whom music-halls in general were places of wickedness, lewdness and vice and who would have surely become apoplectic at what Paulette was doing. New converts to the act were gained only by word Of mouth, as if to a secret society, but nevertheless they flocked to every performance. Paulette was a star. The act went on - nine more times.'

'Until she had run out of fingers!'

'Precisely. There came a day when, after so many operations, she had no fingers left to remove. You may ask why she had not stopped before then. I still do not know exactly. It may perhaps have been the lure of the money she was getting, but I suspect that there was a stranger, darker reason. One I referred to earlier. A growing fascination with the subtraction from herself that was occurring. Paulette had to make a decision. If she continued with the act she would be losing more than fingers. She would rapidly become increasingly maimed and crippled. It appears to have been her own choice to continue. Some perverse fascination with the mutilation of her own body had taken hold of her and I believe she would have continued even without financial inducement, Performing the amputations for their own sake. Paulette made her decision. The next time she performed, in the full knowledge of what she was doing, she took a cleaver and cut off her left hand. Well, if the amputation of a finger had been a sensation, that of a hand caused a near riot. Overnight the audience doubled. New seats were placed in the theatre to accommodate the crowds that wanted to see Paulette. If she had been a star before, now she was a sensation!

'And still Paulette went on, her peculiar obsession taking a firmer and firmer hold on her. The performances were more widely spaced now to allow time for Paulette to recover from the greater injuries. In the next performance she amputated her left arm above the elbow. Some months after that she removed her right hand . . .'

'Which is when you saw her for the first time.'

'Yes. But now you see what I referred to when I say that she had an obsession with the results of each amputation. She took a perverse delight in peoples' reactions to her amputations. She flaunted them in public. Where another would have fallen into despair at such crippling injuries she delighted in them and gloried in the shock and dismay they evoked in other people.'

Danforth leaned forward. 'But the trauma associated with these amputations!'

'My original point. There was no pain. Could not be, that sense being completely non-existent in Paulette. Any trauma from the effects of the amputation she dealt with by sheer force of will! She took a grim pleasure in her increasing disability, her increasingly truncated body. The ability to transcend shock and damage became an active pleasure for her, as, say, the ability to sing well or to play a fine game of cricket would be in a . . . well, let us say a more normal person.

'As she related this story to me my feelings changed. Knowing the facts behind the mystery which had haunted my life for the past year or so I could examine the case objectively. My obsession with her remained, but its nature had changed. I began to feel...I can only say a perverse excitement equal to hers at her mutilations, to feel an enormous affection and pride at her resilience and pluck, in the overcoming of her injuries, even though my spirit still rebelled at their self-inflicted nature. She must have seen the change in me, for she said, "You understand." I nodded. I had also become aware of the strength of my unspoken love for her. It was all I could do not to blurt it out to her as she sat there, radiant with a bizarre truncated beauty. Still, I tried once more to assuage the lingering guilt I felt at the nature of my feelings.

' "But you must see that what you are doing is wrong, self-destructive," I said.

'She shrugged. "Perhaps. But it's something I have to do." She wriggled herself over to the edge of her chair and bent to take another sip of her drink, steadying the glass with a short stump of arm. "It's late. I have to dress."

' "Of course." I got up, reluctant to go. I felt drained, exhausted. "Good-bye. And thank you for telling me. I wish I could convince you to stop." I opened the dressing room door.

'She was looking at me with a strange expression in her eyes. "I want to see you again," she said.

'My heart beat wildly. Could it be that she returned my affections? That was surely ridiculous. After all she hardly knew me. But she smiled at me warmly.

' "Why don't you wait for me outside," she said. "Join me in a drink next door. There is something I want to ask you.!'

'Stunned, I agreed, feeling as if she could see into my heart and know all that was there...and uncomfortable at that. Nevertheless, I waited. After a quarter of an hour or so the stage door opened and Paulette was carried out into the street by the stage-doorkeeper. I blinked in astonishment. She had changed into street-clothes, and was wearing a blue jacket and skirt and a small hat with a feather. Her sleeves were pinned up and her skirt was neatly folded tight under the hips. She gazed up at me, amused. Somewhat embarrassed, I took her from the door-keeper, as I was evidently expected to do. She was very light. I carried her to the door of the pub and we entered the seedy brightness of the interior.

'Once I had helped Paulette settle herself into her usual place and had fetched us two drinks from the bar she turned to me and stared deep into my face. "I believe, Mr. Tobin," she said, "that you care for me." I started in surprise, at her use of my name as much as at her forwardness. Foolishly I nodded, speechless. "I believe, also," she continued, "that despite your protestations, you are not so wholly antipathetic to my ... occupation as you pretend. No, do not interrupt. I can see it in your face when you look at me. Do not attempt to deny what is in your heart. You are fascinated by my self-inflicted amputations, perhaps from professional curiosity, perhaps from something more. Do I speak the truth?"

'Helpless before her forcefulness, I nodded, and it was as if a great weight lifted from my shoulders as I finally admitted to the secret feelings that wracked me. "You are right in every particular," I said simply. She nodded and smiled. "But how do you know my name?"

' "I too have made inquiries, concerning you," she replied. "I must tell you that I reciprocate your warm feelings. Since our first meeting I have thought often of you. Slowly my thoughts have turned to a stronger emotion which I hesitate to name, and I have been disappointed that you have not come forward sooner."

' "I could not ..."

' "This I realised. But now you are here and we have no secrets from each other. There is something I must now ask, and risk placing the warmth of our new-found feelings in jeopardy." She paused and dropped her gaze. When she spoke again her voice shook slightly. "I am now all but limbless. But this is not enough for me. I must go on. I must find out just how far I can go. You are a surgeon. Tell me, how much can be removed from a human body before that body dies?" There was a terrible intensity in her voice.

'I shook my head. "I have never asked myself such a thing," I said. "Such academic questions rarely enter one's head in the atmosphere of the operating theatre."

' "Of course not." She smiled. "Anyway, I intend to find out eventually. If you'll help me."

' "What!" I almost spilled my drink. "What do you mean?"

'She turned to me, her eyes burning. "My next performance," she said. "Lafleur, the surgeon who has assisted me up until now, has become unreliable. I can no longer trust him to perform the operations safely, particularly now that they are becoming more serious. I want you to take his place." A thrill of pure horror ran through me. But it was followed by a perverse excitement shocking in its intensity.'

'You could not agree, surely!' Danforth expostulated, but Tobin's tone suggested what his answer would be before he said the words. He spoke in a whisper, refusing to meet anyone's eyes.

'I agreed,' he said, 'to my shame. Her sweet face lit up and to my shock and embarrassment she kissed me on the cheek. Theatricals are always less bound by the proprieties than the rest of us, I suppose. But through my embarrassment a great happiness rose and bubbled within me. For the first time in nearly two years I was at peace. So I began my association with Paulette during the latter part of her career.

'Three months later a date was set for Paulette's next performance, a performance in which I was to figure. Her performances had now, of course, to be timed to fit in with my schedule at the hospital as it was essential that I should continue with my usual work. This was to be the most radical operation yet. The stage of the Jubilee had been transformed into one of the most advanced operating theatres, with a large wooden operating table, a sterilising unit for surgical instruments and an ingenious system of pipes and pumps for the dispersal of carbolic spray to prevent sepsis. The whole had been constructed and installed to my specifications and paid for out of Paulette's accumulated savings. It was as if we were embarking on a great adventure together and the true horror of what we were doing never impinged on our obsessive excitement and sense of ultimate experimentation.

'The night of the performance I waited in the wings, nervous. I watched as Paulette was carried on to the stage and went through her usual teasing preliminaries. She wore her scarlet leotard, her arm-stumps bare. Gruesomely, she had decided to wear her spangled tights, and they dangled from her hips, limp and empty for their entire length. She had liked the effect. The "prologue" over, she was carried to the centre of the stage and placed on the sloping surface of the table, the upper half of her body lifted so as to be visible to the audience. This was the moment of my entrance. I walked on to the stage, pushing my trolley of sterilised instruments, masked (as much to hide my identity as to avoid infection) and gowned. A gasp greeted my entrance, and a murmur of anticipation. For an instant, as I gazed down at Paulette, her face chalk-white and her eyes wide and expectant, I faltered, but then the excitement of the moment took hold of me and I began.

'From the moment when I first raised the scalpel, glinting in the bright lights, to the moment when I put down the last curved suture-needle was about fifteen minutes. I had never operated like that before; so sure, so quick, so accurate. My face was bathed in perspiration, my hands were covered in blood, and Paulette, lying on the table, trembling and exultant, was now minus both her arms in their entirety. Even her shoulders had all but gone, her collar bones projecting as small nubs from the smooth slope of her upper torso, bisected by neat lines of stitches. The din from the audience was indescribable as I helped her into a sitting position, balanced on the base of her pelvis, and she nodded her head in acknowledgment of the mixture of cheers, applause and appalled screams. We returned to the dressing room in triumph, where I checked the wounds and carefully bandaged them.

'I was now sure that Paulette's bizarre career was ended. She was totally without arms or legs. Reduced to just a trunk, what more was there to cut off? In a way it was a relief. But every now and then she would lapse into a dark reverie, and I knew that her mind was working on some further manifestation of her obsession. Once, when out with her - for we were spending as much time with each other now as we could - she said something that disturbed me. I was lifting her down from a cab at the time. She was wearing a suit of scarlet velvet. The jacket had been tailored without any sleeves at all, or even arm-holes, and instead of a normal skirt it had a tight sheath of velvet, close-fitted around her legless hips. Normally, she seemed oblivious to the shocked stares and horrified remarks that were directed at her as she passed other people on the street, but this time she faltered as r particularly loud whisper of 'Oh, look at her, poor lamb! She ain't got nuffink left; she's lorst everything!' came in a wondering voice from a fat lady passer-by "No," she said. "Not everything. Not yet."

'So I was not surprised when, not long afterwards, she asked my opinion of a theoretical surgical procedure that was so shockingly horrible in its potential that I refused to speak of it again for some time. Paulette would not drop the subject, though, and finally I agreed that it was theoretically feasible, although complicated and dangerous in the extreme, being so far beyond our present level of surgical technique as to lie in the realms of the fantastic. Once this admission had been made, it was only a matter of time. Impelled by our shared obsession and seemingly bound with iron chains of inevitability, we notified the theatre of another performance and made preparations. All my skill as a surgeon would be required and even so I knew that there was only a small chance of Paulette living through the operation. You must remember that at this time perhaps one in five of operations involving the opening of the abdomen ended in fatality, and what I intended went far beyond that. Yet if I succeeded, my contribution to surgical procedures would be immense.

'The night before the performance I spent at Paulette's rooms. The permanent maid that she retained now that she was unable to look after herself was away for the night. I must tell you that up to this point our relationship had been totally proper. Our love had been tempered by respect and had never been expressed in anything other than the most discreet way. That night, though, Paulette gazed up at me, her pale face, within its frame of black hair, solemn and, for the first time in all the time I had known her, a little frightened. Given the nature of the following day's operation I believe I knew what she was going to say.

' "A while ago I told you that there were no secrets between us," she said. "I was not telling the truth. I want to tell you that I have a daughter." This was not what I had expected to hear. "Her name is Susan. She is now eleven years old and lives with her father, whom I never married. I see her rarely, wishing to spare her full knowledge of what it is that I do, although she has seen me since I began my... career. She knows only the effects of my injuries and not their cause. I tell you this so that you know what sort of a woman I have been." All manner of protestations rose to my lips but she stopped me from speaking with the flick of her chin that was her replacement gesture for a raised hand. "At the same time that I told you I had no secrets I also mentioned that I thought you held feelings of affection for me and that I reciprocated them. I believe this still to be true." I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. "Phillip," she said, my first name. "Love me. Before . .. it is no longer possible."

'That night we were lovers, her thin, athletic torso writhing beneath me in a kind of desperation. And the following day, on that scrubbed stage, smelling of carbolic, blood and sweat, I amputated the lower half of that torso at the waist.'

Danforth gave a burst of incredulous laughter. 'Impossible!' he cried, but it was obvious he was only half-sincere in his protestation. Not one person there around the fire in that silent room disbelieved the extraordinary tale that Tobin was weaving. Tobin, himself, seemed oblivious to the rest of the company. He was living again the events he was describing, his face sheened with perspiration and his hands shaking with a febrile tension.

'Paulette did survive. The techniques I used are irrelevant to this story, but I shall give you the gist. During the course of the operation I excised some and re-located other of the abdominal contents and constructed a new outlet for the elimination of body-wastes. Then I removed her pelvis and abdomen, creating a thick pad of muscle beneath the ribs, folding surplus tissue from the lower back forward and underneath. By the time I had finished, and had sewn the body closed, Paulette was a head attached to a ribcage - no more. She was on the verge of unconsciousness due to shock and blood-loss. She had barely the strength to smile weakly at the audience before the curtain fell and I rushed her to the specially prepared post-operative area in her dressing room. The audience did not cheer or clap after this performance as they had used to. There was merely a stunned, sick silence throughout the entire procedure, and a desultory and rather shaken reaction afterwards. Paulette, perhaps, had gone too far at last.

'After several weeks, months even, of convalescence, during which time she drew on all the resources of her weakened body; she recovered, and her evident delight at her appalling condition still had power to shock me, even after all I had experienced.

'I prepared a paper on the radical operation, carefully presenting it as a theoretical possibility only, to be performed in the event of pelvic injury that would otherwise prove fatal. Its publication was greeted with much the same reaction as that of my colleagues here, and for a time I was ribbed by my fellows at the hospital and the chairman of the Hospital Board suggested that I applied myself to academic work of a slightly less "advanced" nature. Emboldened by the success of my innovative surgery, however, and now wholly taken over by the fascination of our grisly quest, my mind began to take the procedure further.

'Paulette seemed content with her present condition for a time, but then the obsession took hold of her again. When I caught sight of her looking at herself in the mirror one day I tentatively broached the subject that had been occupying my mind for some time. It had struck me that with the diminishment of her body and the consequent need for less oxygenated blood, she had a huge surplus of lung capacity at the moment. I had recently read a paper by the eminent German physiologist, Von Sternbach, in which he gave a table of relative lung capacities to size and weight. Using his calculations I had reckoned that I could remove at least one and probably one and a half of Paulette's lungs without damaging her ability to respire. If that were done there would be a great unused space within her thoracic cavity. Might it not be possible to re-locate only those organs essential to Paulette's continued survival within that cavity, thus making the lower part of the ribcage redundant?'

'This is madness,' Danforth said. 'Such a procedure is not even in the realms of the fantastic!'

'So I believed at the time in my heart of hearts. I half-expected Paulette to laugh and agree that such an idea was a fanciful conceit. After all, her obsession did not extend to the point of becoming a full-blown death-wish. Yet as I spoke her eyes shone and she seized upon the idea. Several more months passed as I checked and re-checked my surgical notes. The equipment from the Jubilee was moved to her house and a spare room was fitted up as an operating theatre. There would be no audience. The operation was something personal to her now. And to me.

'We did it. Again, the horror that I should have felt at the hideous nature of the operation was all but dispelled by my single-minded intensity of concentration, as I worked without pausing in that Frankenstein-like operating theatre, inventing new surgical techniques where established ones would not do, in an insane frenzy of surgical endeavour, intoxicated by scientific zeal. The toll on Paulette's body was appalling; three-quarters of the liver went, one kidney, most of her bowel and stomach, all bur half of one lung, the spleen... The remaining organs were packed into a space within her ribcage vacated by the removal of the lungs.

'This time, not even Paulette's great reserve of will were sufficient by themselves to surpass the shock of the operation. All my skill was required to nurse her through the months of near-death that followed, the endless transfusions of blood that were required, the temporary failure of organ after organ as the internal functions settled, the difficulty in breathing as the intercostal muscles took over the whole mechanism of respiration from the missing diaphragm. I took an extended leave of absence from the hospital, citing personal reasons, and devoted all my time to her. Finally, she was safe. There came a day when I awoke from an exhausted doze next to her bed and saw her looking at me, fully conscious and seemingly on the way to recovery. She did not speak but I knew what she would want. I pulled down the covers. She directed her gaze downwards at herself. She looked like a classical bust. Her body ended immediately beneath the breasts in a smooth curve, its lowest point an inch or two above where the base of the sternum should have been. Her eyes widened in shock and a delicious horror. Then she smiled at me and fell into a natural sleep.

'When she had fully recovered she, of course, refused to hide her condition in any way, revelling in the ghoulish fascination of the curious, but I could not. A sort of reaction had set in. I still loved her as much as I had ever done, but my original feelings of horror at her condition were starting to return. Along with these came an ever-growing sense of guilt at my part in her maiming, even though I defended myself with the belief that if I had not done it she would have found someone else who would, such was the inevitability of the course on which she had embarked at the start. Our relationship slowly lost its original intensity, while remaining one of warmest friendship, and I think both of us knew that at some point we would part. Perhaps it was that cooling of our ardour that enabled me to do what 1 eventually did in that last year. Surely, no sane person could have even contemplated doing what I did to another, loved as much as Paulette was loved by me before that slow drawing away. For a time I believed that Paulette's obsession was all but satisfied. She had reduced her body to the barest minimum required for continued survival. There was, literally, nothing else left to lose. Or so I thought.

'Time passed, a time of seeming content, before she said to me one night, apropos of nothing: "People live quite happily blind, don't they?" A terrible feeling of foreboding shook me. I knew that the old obsession had once more gripped her. I tried to talk her out of it but once the idea had entered her head she was adamant. I temporised for a time, trying to appease her with relatively minor operations. I removed her breasts. I removed her external ears, leaving her still able to hear but muzzily, with no focused directional sense. Once begun, however, she would not stop, and her grisly enthusiasm infected me once more. That mad spirit of scientific inquiry gripped me again. I think I was truly insane at that time, as we embarked on a series of operations horrific in their effect, secreted in that terrible operating room.

'One by one, Paulette's dear features were judged superfluous by her and removed. I had already removed her ears. Her nose went next, followed by her right eye and then her left eye. In each case I used flaps of skin from her face to cover the sockets, so that only blank skin bounded by faint scars marked where each excision had taken place. The worst was when her tongue and vocal cords went. Never again would I hear that low, husky voice. But we went on, Paulette communicating now by written messages, painfully scrawled with a pencil gripped in her teeth. She decided that she could communicate equally well by nodding or shaking her head for "yes" or "no". What need then was there for jaws or teeth? She could take nourishment through an opening directly into her oesophagus between her collar-bones. I removed both her upper and lower jaws, once again covering the wound with skin from the face and neck, leaving a small opening to her gullet and another into the trachea so that she could breathe. Paulette was blind, dumb, faceless, limbless, all but body-less.

'The last operation was my idea, and 1 will carry the horror of it to my grave. I put my idea to Paulette, and the terrible, featureless head nodded in agreement. This would be the final operation; as far as we could possibly go in the process of subtraction from the human body. The day of the operation I carried her to the theatre. All was ready. I excised the entire remains of the face and removed the lower skull from just below the orbits of the frontal bone, so that all that was left was the cranium itself. Carefully, I removed all seven cervical vertebrae, preserving the main blood-vessels to the brain and the protective dura mater surrounded the spinal cord itself. Then I lowered the cranium into the space at the top of Paulette's trunk, between the collar-bones and the shoulder-blades, keeping the spinal cord intact. The operation was of an unbelievable delicacy and complexity. Paulette had ceased to be a person to me and was merely the object of a great scientific curiosity and experiment. Once the cranium was securely sited I covered it with a large flap of muscle and skin from the upper back and neck, sewing it firmly along the line of her collar-bones, without covering her breathing and feeding holes.

'Paulette's heart still beat. She was alive! I stood back and viewed my handiwork. Paulette was simply a small, featureless block of flesh perhaps twelve inches by twelve inches by eight inches in size!

'After allowing some days for her to recover from the shock of the operation, days during which I never slept, keeping a constant watch on her, I began to tap gently on her chest as we had arranged. Imagine my feelings as a series of small hisses from her breathing-hole greeted me, which translated as an inquiry. "Had it worked!" Laughing like a madman, I ran my fingers gently over her body-surface so that she could get, by feel, some idea of her final shape and condition. The excited reaction, revealed by her breathing-rate and the hisses from her tracheotomy showed her apparent delight as she realised that at last she had achieved her ultimate ambition!

'It was that achievement, though, that finished her. It seemed that the only thing that had enabled her to transcend all the other gross injuries that she had suffered was the knowledge that there was more to do, more to overcome. With the realisation that she had done all that she could do a great weariness came over her and her strength of will began to fail. She lived, as happily as she could do, for about six months before quietly fading away, not as a consequence of her condition but, I believe, from simple boredom. One day I greeted her in the morning by a gentle stroke to discover that her flesh was cold. Her heart had stopped and there was no respiration visible. She was dead.

'With her death it was as if the preceding months and years had never happened. The obsession lifted from me as if it died with hers. I was suddenly very sane, and what I had done, the full implication of my actions over those preceding years came home to me. I was racked with such feelings of guilt and shame that I longed for death. Slowly I picked up the threads of my life, resumed my old habits, but I was, and still am, haunted by those years, and shall be until the day I die. The only thing that provided me with some crumb of comfort, some reason for my continued existence, was the belief that it could never happen again, that Paulette was alone in her terrible obsession, and that knowledge of the terrible secret that we had shared would eventually die with me. That is no longer the ease. But I had to speak, to share my terrible secret with others . . . forgive me.'

There were several minutes silence at the conclusion of this extraordinary story. It seemed that there was nothing to say. What the company had heard was so bizarre, so frightful, that it seemed to transcend the ability of language to describe or comment on it. Tobin sat, his head bowed, a picture of misery. Finally Danforth cleared his throat and spoke.

'Sir,' he said. 'Either you are the greatest liar that ever lived, or you have known and experienced an aspect of human nature that should never exist or be spoken of freely. If I cannot forgive you for your actions, which I suspect not to have been those of a sane man, I understand your anguish. Rest assured that I speak for the rest of this company when I say that what you have told us will go no further. But I have one question. You told me at the beginning that the ability to survive against unbelievable odds can be conscious, and even looked-for and enjoyed, and if what you have told us is true, I believe it. yet you also said that it could be inherited or taught. What is your reasons for such a belief? You have already implied that your only comfort is the belief that Paulette was an aberration, a unique individual . . .'

'I said that was my only comfort,' replied Tobin. 'The tense was intentional. For now we come to perhaps the most disturbing and distressing part of my unhappy tale. It is also the reason for my long, self-imposed exile. Several years later I found myself in the East End of London once again. The events of the past had faded enough that I felt able to re-visit my old haunts without too much distress. I was not intending to go back to the old Jubilee, indeed, I suspected that it had probably closed, such was the transient life of music-halls in those days. so some unconscious instinct must have guided my steps to that convergence of two streets. In front of me was the pub that had started the whole train of events in motion. Nervous, but with a sense of laying old ghosts to rest, I entered its cheerful interior. Some old force of habit made me glance over to the corner where Paulette had used to sit, knowing full well that she would not be there.

'Imagine if you will the shock that ran through me when I saw that familiar figure, seated with her back to me, the same old raincoat slung across her shoulders beneath the thick, dark hair. A thrill of unimaginable horror and bewilderment made me almost faint. I thought I must be going mad. Only half-conscious of what I was doing, I crossed the room and touched the shoulder of the figure, a shoulder whole and complete, with an arm depending from it. I spoke her name.

' "Paulette?"

'Her face turned to me in surprise. Of course it was not her. This was a different women, younger. There was, though, a similarity, some cast of features which recalled Paulette's face to me. Covered in confusion I stumbled some apology for my mistake and turned to go, horribly embarrassed. But she called after me. "Mr. Tobin!"

'I turned back. "You will not know me," she said. "But you knew my mother. I recognise you from photographs that my mother showed me." Realisation hit me like a hammer blow. This must be Paulette's daughter, Susan, whom she had only briefly mentioned to me those few years ago. No wonder she had looked so familiar. And if she recognised me from photographs . . .

' "You saw your mother!" I asked, my voice trembling uncontrollably, long-suppressed memories washing up into my mind like brackish water. "Before ... !" She nodded, smiling at me in such a strange way that I felt quite afraid. She knew! Surely, she knew! A thousand questions, excuses, explanations, beat in my mind, but I controlled myself, conscious of the stares from the other people seated at her table. I murmured something conventional, I suppose. I don't remember much of that evening, for I was quite ill for some time after my flight from that pub. My nerves, you know. I use the word flight advisedly, because what happened next caused me to turn on my heel and run from there as if the devil himself were at my back. She spoke through my confusion.

' "Won't you sit down and join us, Mr. Tobin? I know that you and my mother were very close before she died." I sat down. "There is something I have to ask you," she went on, laughing a little. "Oh, and, I know it's an unlady-like habit, but do you have a light?"

' "Of course," I said and, reaching into my pocket for my cigarette-lighter, I held it out. What I saw then is seared in my brain for ever.

Danforth leaned forward. 'What was it?' he whispered.

Tobin stared him full in the face. 'The cigarette that she brought up to be lit was held in a small loop at the end of a length of wire protruding from the cuff of her sleeve. There was no hand. And her other arm, the arm that she brought up to steady my trembling hand, ended at the wrist in a freshly bandaged stump!'

 

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