The opening chapter from Lynne Bryan’s memoir Iron Man, published by Salt in November 2021 and available from the Salt website.
There is a story I’ve carried with me since childhood. It isn’t a fairy tale and it isn’t enchanted. It’s more personal than that, and more terrifying. It has the usual story elements: a beginning, a middle and an end. But it’s a reversal of bad turning to good, dark turning to light. It offers no heart-warming redemption, no prince, no pot of gold or honey. There’s a transformation but the transformation is cruel. It is the story of my father’s terrible bad luck.
Once Upon A Time in Fleckney, in the English Midlands, just after the Second World War, my father was washing his hands in the kitchen sink, in the little house he shared with his parents, two sisters and younger brother. He was fifteen years old and a talented cricketer. Leicester County was interested in him. A village lad with real ability. He was washing his hands, thinking about County, when next thing he woke in hospital unable to move any part of his body except for his head. Everything between washing and hospital a blank. He’d caught the infantile paralysis disease, poliomyelitis. Or it had caught him. He was unable to sit, stand, bend, crouch, stretch, leap, hug, hold, draw, write, cross his fingers, do the V sign, thump, grasp, feed himself, go to the loo by himself, put his head in his hands and cry. But slowly the feeling came back. He was able to move his shoulders, to wave his arms. He found he could kick his right leg and flex his right foot. His left leg though… wasted, no strength, done for. He had to wear a calliper on this leg. His cricketing days were over. He had to learn to haul himself around on crutches. He’d become a cripple.
I can’t remember being told this story. It just is. It squats inside me: its brevity ominous and stifling. A story of impotence. Young, innocent, healthy boy felled, ruined forever. No reason why him. A terrifying story about fate, about not knowing what the future has in store. One moment you’re this person with these abilities, the next you’re somebody else entirely.
What does a child do with a story like that? It wasn’t a story I could repeat to my mates; I knew they’d all go running if I tried to share it. I also couldn’t discuss it with my family – with Mum or my sister Mandy or any relative – because this was Dad’s story and he’d shaped it and its tightness told me that it wasn’t to be messed with. There’d be no unpicking, no questions, his word was law.
Sometimes I see Dad’s story as an object, a punctuation mark, a full-stop, one of those monumental full-stops made by the artist Fiona Banner but not as glossy, a dark round thing blocking and ending and finishing off. Lump. I see it as a wall too, concrete and high, surrounding me and my family, keeping us trapped inside and life and everybody else out.
What the bloody hell is that? Dad would say, when we watched Top of the Pops together.
Mum would be taken up with housework in the kitchen, but Mandy and I would be on the sofa, trying not to reveal that we wanted to be one of Pan’s People or we fancied both David Essex and David Bowie, and as for Marc Bolan…
Jesus, is it a girl? Dad would say, sitting in his chair, which nobody else dared sit in, his crutches propped against the wall.
He’d scoff and swear, finding these weird pop creatures so very funny. Then in 1979 Ian Dury and the Blockheads appeared playing ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, Dury growling out the lyrics. I was 18, desperate to leave home. And suddenly, explosively, there on the screen, was another man who’d been crippled like my dad. Dury had a gammy leg, he wore a calliper (an iron), his body was twisted. He was the only other physically-disabled person I’d noticed in all my childhood apart from the Spastics Girl outside Boots the Chemist, who wasn’t human but a representation of a human, a plaster model of a young girl wearing a prosthesis like Dad’s and holding a teddy and a collecting box: Please Help Spastics.
I found Dury gorgeous: vital and furious and cheeky and creative. It was love at first sight. This amazing man spat out his funny, jolting, colourful lyrics and our living room contracted. Dad said nothing. I daren’t look at him or my sister. I stared instead at the carpet, which was made up of brown squares within cream squares within brown squares, and I listened, thrilled and ashamed by the energy in Dury’s voice. So there were other men like Dad? Crippled like Dad but not like him too? A polio punk. A cracker’s cripple. I wanted to run away and live with Dury. I wanted to be him. His words were like balls batted out there, one hundred miles an hour. He thwacked his story into the world and he thwacked other stories too. There was no wall. There were The Blockheads but no block. I saw him as fearless and curious. No limitations.
My father worked in the shoe trade as a puller-over and a clicker, and later in engineering as an instrument fitter. Dury worked as an illustrator and art teacher before becoming a lyricist and vocalist. I love art and words too, and so in a way I have run away to live with him. I’ve studied and taught both subjects, and I’ve had books published, and my favourite thing to do is to read. I know the power of story.
Here’s another story: for years now I haven’t had anything published. I’ve been writing and writing but haven’t been able to finish a single narrative. There’s a tower of uncompleted manuscripts in my office at home: countless short stories abandoned, five novels unresolved, essays, even a play script. An age thing perhaps, a loss of innocence, self-belief? Or something else entirely?
You should write a bestseller, my father’s fiancée often says to me, that’s what you should do.
No, that’s not what I should do.
I don’t say this to Sandra, but I think it; that’s not what I’m about.
Stuck. Lump. High wall. Trapped.
Time to face facts. I’m about me and I’m about Dad and I’m about bloody polio and what it did to us. That’s what I should write. The beginning, middle and end of living with disability. The complications, stuff unspoken, the hidden, the denied, the shame and struggle of it. The brutality. The bravery. No condensed full-stop of a narrative but something more elastic. A story about the awful event that changed Dad’s life forever and a story about those futures that came after that event. Futures circumscribed by his bad luck and how he chose to handle it, and by the way society – or, as Dury put it, the normal folk – chose to handle him and others like him.
Because stories – like events – have impacts. Dad knew this; he wasn’t daft.