I was the first of three babies to slide out of my dear Mum over the course of a few years. I don’t know if the gene pool was particularly shallow the day they ladled some out for me, but I seem to have ended up with all the bad ones, the dreggy bits, the bit of ham hock in the middle that you’re not even supposed to eat. As Mum once put it “We were still getting the batter right. You’re like the first wonky pancake, darl.” She said this to me as we sat in the waiting room of an orthopaedic surgeon, later, again, at a dermatologist, and once more when I, miserably teenaged, complained that my simian forehead made me look like Early Man.
The hand-me-down genetic trait I had my biggest beef with was not the downright unfair blanket of furious acne that covered my greasy face, but the fact that my knees and its constituent parts were apt to part company, by which I mean totally disassemble and cease to be of use. The first time it happened I was eight, swinging upside down on the monkey bars, showing off to some older boys who were about nine and paid no attention to me, my floral bike shorts or my impressive feats of monkey strength until I landed smack on my face on the black Astroturf. What happened was – and to the physiotherapist I saw much later, understanding what happened was key to my preventing it happening again, and thus he insisted on doing demonstrations with a plastic knee model complete with POCK! sound-effects as the pieces of bone slid out of place, until your correspondent hid in the armpit of her Mammy – what happened was, the impractically small kneecap on my left knee had slid out of its natural indent (which my forebears’ genetic material had ensured was too shallow to keep such a thing penned in) and swung around the side of my leg, stretching ligament and scratching against leg bone as it went. Some in-built survival mechanism told me how to fix it so I whacked the cap back into place where the joint immediately began to swell and stiffen before my watery eyes. Having established that I was put back together I set about screaming for my parents and watching the silhouette of two nine-year-old boys getting smaller and smaller in the distance. We had an awkward car trip home: me and my haphazardly braced leg took up all three of the back seats while my brother and sister hovered above it, their arms looped around the headrests of the front seats, pretending to sit as we passed police cars on the highway.
This happened countless more times over the next few years, becoming a more frequent occurrence as the problem snowballed; all the pieces became stretchier and smoother, and the owner of said pieces grew several feet and some hips. Like people with legitimate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder there are some moments in my life that have disappeared down a black hole in my memory so as to keep some semblance of sanity, and those moments were namely “anything to do with knees”. These events now exist as hazy CCTV replays, stitched together from eye-witness reports by the less physically traumatised, like the infamous Sausage Sizzle of 1997 when I was 11. The following report comes from a fellow student:
“Don’t you remember? We were all waiting in line to get our sausages and you were right at the front and then someone asked you to do a cartwheel? And you said no because you were about to get your sausage but they wouldn’t leave you alone because you were the best at cartwheels?”
It was true, I was the best at cartwheels and pointing this out was a sure-fire way of getting me to do them even if it meant missing out on a blackened sausage wrapped in a slice of cheap white bread, with a not inconsiderable amount of ketchup adorning its porky middle. So I forfeited my place in line and walked proudly to the edge of the park to ready myself for a run up (this bit I remember) because the whole Grade 6 class was watching, dripping in their swimsuits and clutching half-eaten dinners in their clammy mitts, and this cartwheel was going to be especially spectacular.
Mid-cartwheel was the point at which I essentially black out, memory-wise. But my eyewitnesses (those whose partially-masticated dinners tumbled from their open mouths and landed at their unshod feet) filled me in at a later date, when I returned to school a week later, on crutches:
“It was like your knees did something knees aren’t supposed to do?”
I put the question mark at the end because these are Australians, and everything is naturally phrased as a question. But also: they were also not entirely sure what happened – the legs, previously strong and straight and spinning in the air, had collapsed in the middle and bent at a sickening horror movie angle, before your broken narrator landed in a heap of dislocated bones on the dewy grass. I whacked them back into place, ensured everything was in order, and set about screaming, as per.
The above event exists in my mind as flashes of horrifying photographs – the bit in the movie trailer where the music stops, and they set freeze-frames of wide-eyed characters to the soundtrack of a beating heart. But I do remember what happened afterwards because, well:
Given the school’s locale, it was little wonder almost everyone had eschewed their cars for a leisurely walk on a summer’s evening, where there was to be an end of year pool party for the class, plus also the aforementioned sausages. And thus there were no cars to transport this one particular broken student home except for that of my nemesis: Rebecca.
Rebecca was not actually my nemesis, though I didn’t like her enough to change her name here, and neither did anybody else: she flagrantly picked her nose and ate it, and when she was completely tapped out of her own bodily produce she simply ate the teacher’s Blu-Tac. The image of my teacher rifling through her drawers in search of some Blu-Tac is an abiding memory of my school years. “Excuse me, Miss?”
“Rebecca ate it again.”
She would bow her head, rub her eyes, and sigh as she led Rebecca, chewing, out into the hallway for a quiet word.
I was however her nemesis, a fact I gleaned from the title of a diary she kept in her desk called WHY I HATE HAYLEY CAMPBELL which was brought about because the object of her affection (a man who is now a model and ballet dancer but who was then about three feet tall and insisted on wearing a cowboy hat with a feather in) was at that point in time besotted by the best cartwheeler in class. And frankly, who wouldn’t be. They were some fucking phenomenal cartwheels.
So Rebecca’s Dad lifted me up and put me in the back of the car. For the entire five minutes of the drive Rebecca stared back at me from the front seat, while I eyeballed her back from the rear, frozen and splayed like a cornered spider. When I returned to school after my time off, people had forgotten about the knee thing thanks to it being superseded by a more universal horror. All they wanted to know was did I actually touch the insides of the car because ew, you guys.
Later, at 14, a high-kick ended my dance career, a thing that could only have been made more dramatic if I could transpose the soundtrack from a previous episode over this one – the strangled low-octave piano keys I landed on as my knees buckled beneath me at home. As my right leg became parallel with my face the supporting left leg collapsed and once again I found myself broken on a floor, this time covered in resin and surrounded by traumatised dancers.
Doctors and physiotherapists decided that surgery was the only thing that was going to fix this, hence the orthopaedic surgeon’s waiting room and my Ma’s comment about me being a wonky pancake. They sawed off the knobbly bit at the front of my leg, moved it over a bit, bolted it down, shortened some ligaments, did a bunch of stuff I never asked about, most notably “Why did I go into surgery wearing big green paper underpants and why were they not there when I woke up?” Hospital at night is full of gibbering horrors and lost old ladies doing shits in darkened corners. I got in trouble for pressing the self-administering morphine drip too many times in one hour, and could not wee in the presence of nurses so was left with my naked bottom hefted atop a dish for half an hour until they came back to collect their golden bounty, by which point I needed to go again.
They did this surgery three times, twice on one leg, once on the other, and I spent months out of school on the sofa watching Ricki Lake and Sally Jesse Raphael, occasionally Donahue if he was on, Oprah, Jerry Springer, obviously, as well as Home & Away repeats from the ‘80s, while also plowing through mountains of comics, novels and videos dropped off by my Dad’s friends (Twin Peaks, Lipstick on Your Collar and various other Dennis Potters). When I wasn’t doing that I was fashioning characters out of modelling plasticine or getting an awkward sponge-bath off my poor Mum, once a week. If I ever get a Wikipedia entry this is the bit where I become “stricken with polio” before the bit about my stubborn and unlikely climb to the top of the pile of geniuses .
These days I have two bolts in each leg that go off in airport metal detectors, accompanied by scars on my legs that go purple when I’m cold. They’re vertical and kind of bunchy, and someone once said they look like fannies. I don’t run for buses, and I no longer cartwheel, and in answer to my Mum’s last question about them: no, I can’t kneel for blowjobs.