Short Fiction: "Maura's Arm"
‘Maura’s Arm’ started life as ‘The Moor’s Leg’. In researching my novel The Mathematics of Love I’d come across the legend of St Damian and St Cosmas, who miraculously replaced a man’s damaged leg with that of an already-buried Moor, and I’d found out something about modern prosthetics. Human bodies and machines: that was what I wanted to write about. Its centre would be a modern woman with the kind of artificial arm that’s just beginning to be made, that links into the body’s own bio-electronic systems. I peered at her and realised that she was on the London Eye, that vast machine built for little humans’ pleasure. I knew that was the end of the story, so at what point in her story was I going to start mine? With a tiny machine that lives inside the human body: an IUD. And between the two was the Transport Museum, which enshrines one way that bodies and machines co-exist. Or crash: that’s the emotional centre of the story. What writer could resist the Dead Man’s Handle?
After that, it was a matter of building the route between these three points, and webbing all the ideas and images between them. I write about history – it’s the way I think – but this story had to be present-day because of Maura’s arm, so after a short struggle with her as a train driver, she became a curator of machines – clocks and watches (I’d just read Longitude) – and from that came a subsidiary set of ideas about time and our machine-measuring of it, and sea-going colonialism as part of London’s history. Her name echoes the Moor: I changed the title, because my MPhil tutor, the novelist Christopher Meredith, said the story isn’t really about the experience of phantom limbs that the legend embodies, and he was right. And Maura’s Irish name also makes another small point about post-colonial London.
Luke is named after the patron saint of doctors. The babies wired up in intensive care I knew about, from ten days’ watching my own newborn daughter, and I put Luke at Thomas’s on the South Bank to be near the Eye before I remembered the bronze Florence Nightingale. Googling ‘prosthetic arms’ trawled me far more more sci-fi than medicine, so I wanted a cyborg in my story. I added Princess Diana casually and it was Chris who pointed out that she was killed by a machine. Then there are alarm systems, guns, espresso machines, Playstations, helicopters, radio masts. And playing off them is the other set of images: sex, embryos, babies, ant-heaps, insects, flowers, seed-pods, wombs, and love.
Maura is lightly touched in, I know, and Luke even more so. They are the framework for what I really wanted to write about, and readers who expect the story to be about their relationship may not get it. But I did have a very strong and immediate sense of Maura’s thought and feeling, and though I don’t often use present tense for a whole story, and I only sometimes use first person, here that combination was just right.
I don’t remember much changing in workshops and tutorials, beyond tightening the prose and clarifying the ideas: I think it’s a story that either you get or you don’t. Luckily for me, Jim Crace, judging the Bridport Prize, did get it.
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