Essays Accident I Witnessed Books
The New Yorker, July 21, 1997 P. 33
PERSONAL HISTORY about meeting a woman who witnessed the author's crippling automobile accident ten years ago. It is fall 1996, and he is in a wheelchair. Every Thursday, he drives thirty minutes to Andover and picks up his daughters Cadence and Madeleine, fourteen and nine, from school. He takes them to their house to walk the dog, then to his house for dinner (cooked by a woman he pays), then back to their house, and hosts a writers' workshop at his house. "I like Thursdays." His right leg "hurts when I drive; it hurts when it is not at a ninety-degree angle, and most nights it hurts anyway." On a Thursday in late October, he reads Joan Didion's "The Last Thing He Wanted" in his wheelchair while the girls walk the dog. A brown-haired woman in her thirties, a new neighbor, comes out of her house carrying a very young boy, who is wearing glasses, and squirming. She says, "I've been wanting to talk to you for some time. I saw your accident. ...I was with my friend at the call box." The accident took place between midnight and one in the morning, on 1-93 north of Boston. Two women were standing at an emergency call box, reporting a car that had broken down. The woman has just moved here and, after talking to neighbors, realized that he was the man she saw that night. She saw two men hit; the other died within hours. Dubus says, "Only my leg's useless. I'm very lucky." Since the night of the accident, her three sons and his daughter Madeleine were born. The woman's youngest son, who is probably autistic and goes to a special school, begins to tear up his book. Cadence and Madeleine come back and Dubus explains that the woman saw the accident. "For a moment I was there: a clear July night, no cars coming, everything I had to do seeming easy." He says he is grateful that the woman had already called the state troopers. She has to take her son inside. Dubus wants to ask her what she saw; he remembers "only flagging down a car for help, then lying on its trunk." Her husband comes home and talks to Dubus, holding his son. He says, "She called me that night." When Dubus says he can't drive alone to Boston, at night on 93, the neighbor says, "that's a protective device. ...I believe everything we have is a gift." He says he'd like to have a beer sometime, and Dubus says he would like that. He has a problem getting his wheelchair back into the car, and calls his son-in-law, Tom, a mechanic who lives thirty minutes away. He feels calm, either because he went to Mass or because "my spirit was on the highway on the twenty-third of July in 1986." Dubus tells the writers in his workshop that the next time he sees the woman, he will ask her if she saw him get hit: "when I heard myself say that, I was suddenly afraid of images I have been spared, and I said no, I would not ask her." On Sunday he has a family dinner with three of his grown children, their spouses, the oldest son's two small children, and Cadence and Madeleine. He tells his two sons he had cried while doing leg lifts that morning and decides to start writing about this episode immediately: "meeting the woman...seeing her sons, especially the youngest one, and shaking her husband's hand, hearing his witness...had so possessed me that I may as well plunge into it...not to rid myself of it...but just to go there...and find the music for it, and see if in that place there was any light." The next day he writes; a storm rages for ten days, and with it "demons that always come on a bad wind: loneliness, mortality, legs." Then it stops. "On the eleventh day, I woke with a calm soul, and said a prayer of thanks. While I wrote this, the red and yellow leaves fell, then the brown ones, and the nights became colder...and I did not find the music. Everything I have written here seems flat: the horns dissonant, the drums lagging, the piano choppy. Today the light came: I'm here."
Every accident in one person’s life and the parts of body that let me down in each case.
The writings below form only a small part of the wider Accident Book project – originally commissioned by University College London Hospital.
A friend has moved north out of London in search of space and time.
God being the only landlord with unwanted rooms, he found his empty space in a large post-Methodist chapel. An atheist son of a Buddhist father, my friend delights in his personal programme of deconsecration – drinking in the schoolhouse, fornicating in the vestry and a dog housed in the chapel. Above Brindle’s dog bed hangs a sign – ‘Beware of the God’.
Somehow, though, spaces always assert the ghosts of their previous function. In winter the freezing timbers impose a puritan austerity on the lives of him and his girlfriend. As part of his programme of renovation he’s taking delivery of a lorry-full of insulation. The pile of 8ft by 4ft boards needs moving inside from the churchyard and with a friend I help to shift the mountain. I’m walking backwards through the chapel as we go to place the first load against the wall in the far corner. Seen from the perspective ofmy friend, as I reach the corner of the enormous room I suddenly disappear – as if God has smote me out of existence. From my perspective, I’m walking backwards and the floor suddenly vanishes – everything becomes dark.
There is a pain in my lower back and I’m looking up through the floorboards at the ceiling and stained glass window of the Victorian chapel.My friend finds me at the bottom of a 5ft hole that Gerry forgot to mention.
Case History: Small stain
I am giving a paper at a conference at the new British Library. Before I start speaking, I visit the sparkling toilets designed in chrome and glass. I go to wash my hands in one of the line of new basins. Perhaps a little nervous, I push down the plunger on the chrome soap dispenser with unrequired force. A gobbet of soap jets out from the nozzle, shoots over my hands, over the sink and lands on the crotch of my freshly-washed trousers.
I join two friends in Münster to look at sculpture in the landscape.
We hire bicycles and ride along canals, rivers and lakes. I am leading because I understand the foreign rules. Something runs out of a bush as I approach. A creature stops just in front of my wheel but I swerve and miss it. I hear the bicycle behind me crunch the gravel but her wheels also miss the confused ball of fear.
James is tall and mostly silent. He ponders the small things in life from a height I can only imagine. He makes soft jokes that only register once the moment has passed – leaving the laughter unspoken, silent in the air.
Behind me there is a cry – in the distance there is aman at a loss for words. When I reach the bush, James is bent over looking at a tiny mouse – both of them frozen in mid-action. I pick up the smallmammal by its tail and drop it in the undergrowth. Looking up at James, I realize that I should have laid it down gently.
Sliding through the German landscape on a white I.C.E. train, I reach into my bag for my mobile phone. I packed in a hurry and the contents are a random jumble of stuff assembled for two days in Münster. I push my hand down to the bottom of the vibrating bag and something bites me. I pull my hand out and the tips of my fingers are cut. I hastily put them in my mouth and taste the metal flavour of blood. A young girl sitting opposite is watching me very closely.
After a few minutes (using my left hand) I carefully examine the contents of my bag and find a Gillette Blue II razor. I am still sucking my fingers and the girl is still watching me. When I have finally stopped leaking I can examine my hand. My index, middle and ring finger each have two precise but deep incisions that run in parallel across my fingertips – like tiny railway tracks. The girl is still watching but I resist the urge to show her and stare out of the window instead.
The mailbox next to the door of my new flat is too small and has a broken lock. I buy the biggest version I can find so that I can receive packages when I’m away. I take the old one down and mark the position on the wall where the new screws need to go. The first two holes go ok and I start to drill the third. The spinning head of the drill starts to enter the plaster. In the guts of the wall there is a small ‘phut’ sound – the rim of the emerging hole has turned black and there is faint smell of burnt plastic.
I have a problem. I’mleaving for the UK in three hours but I have blown all the lights in the stairwell and the landings of two Berlin housing blocks.Worse, I have also blown the bells that let the inhabitants know that somebody is visiting them. The Turkish Hausmeisterin seems to hate me because of my dog but, even though she scares me and we can barely communicate, I have no option but to knock on her door. I manage to explain and she shrugs. I persist. I manage tomime “fuse box?”, “trip switch?” Grudgingly she takes me down to the cellar. By the light of a torch I can make out a set of trip switches with one switch in the wrong position. Gingerly, I press the black plastic lever back up. It clicks into place and the lights come back on. I release my finger and it stays.
Eyes so brown they seem black. So dark that the cut-glass lights, the couple at the bar and my own white face are all reflected perfectly back at me. Their black, brown certainty confuses me – I say pointless half finished things. For once the luxurious darkness of an empty Berlin night eludes me. Faced with these calm mirrors I can no longer lose myself. I am too aware of my lips speaking things ill-prepared by my stumbling brain. Tonight even the Talisker won’t collude in self-delusion.
Cycling through the faintest shimmering of morning she tells me her theory about the Fernsehturm – the space age East-German TV tower that floats above the roofs of every Berlin street. How this beacon of communist future controls the mood of the city. How in bad weather the glitter-ball surface focuses the leaden sky and transmits despair into the chests of Berliners. And how, on a sharp morning like this, the eggshell sky is amplified and refracted through the roofs and walls of houses, and the Berliners wake up feeling inexplicably lighter.
Perhaps I am looking for the tower or trying to think what to say. Or maybe I shouldn’t be cycling. I hit an unseen curb and roll across the pavement. We go our separate ways.
For weeks now I have been erasing the surfaces of my new home. I can’t believe that I’ve done this, but I’ve bought a flat in Berlin. Wandering around the dusty rooms I don’t really trust they are mine. The flat is beautiful but every surface has been made ugly. I’ve ripped up laminate flooring to reveal floorboards covered in paint. I’ve stripped wood-chip paper from every wall that, in turn, has revealed ancient and crumbling plaster. I have scraped, and filled, and sanded, and filled, and listened to bad radio long into the night (working by the light from a single bulb). I’ve knocked down walls and made-good and everywhere dust has become my enemy. The inside of my nose is a Martian landscape and when my dog shakes himself he disappears in a cloud of white powder. The dust seems to have worked its way into my brain and I have become incapable of intelligent thought beyond judging holes and cracks and surfaces. My body aches, my palms are sandpaper and I am slowly acquiring small cuts like jewellery over my hands, ankles and knees.
Finally I am ready to sand the floors and a huge lawnmower-machine is delivered to the flat. In clouds of wood dust, through fogged goggles, beneath orange ear-protectors that only just dim the unbelievable roar; I have battled with this monster. My body is lighter and weaker than his and it is only through cunning that I can wrench the machine back on my course. I’m nearly done. I’m using the monster’s apprentice (a smaller spinning-disk-thing) to finish the edges and corners. The gyroscope momentum of the screeching disk is battling against my tired limbs. The blade catches under a doorframe and the beast explodes out of my hands. It twists through the air, lands on my foot, runs across the floor on its blade and screams to itself in a corner. I rip out the plug and the grinding slowly dies. Everything is quiet and for a moment I can’t bring myself to look down at my ankle.
A month after moving into my temporary new flat in Friedrichshain I am doing the washing-up with the bottle left behind by my Berlin landlords. I practise my German on the label. It has a picture of a friendly green frog but the images don’t seem quite right. I can’t decipher everything but I recognise the word ‘Fußboden’ and realise that I have washed my plates for 5 weeks using floor cleaner.
I feel slightly sick.
The park is now covered with a glass sheet of ice. Months ago the first snow fell. It lay there week after week as the snowstorms came and went. Gradually the surface becomes harder and glassier till eventually I can no longer walk up the hill to see the view out over Berlin. When I try, I slide backwards like a cartoon.
Carter is confused. When he first encountered freezing snow he tried to keep his paws off the strange substance – choosing three legs to stand on, so the fourth could escape the pain. Mostly though he resents falling over. When we try to play stick his brakes no longer work. He sails past the quarry and slides backwards – clawing the surface in vain.
There is a patch beneath the trees that remains unpolished enough to run on. I throw a stick that is too straight and sharp. Carter scrambles madly in the direction I threw it but there is a sound above him as the stick hits a branch. He stops and looks directly up, just as the stick is dropping vertically down. Without a thought in his dog’s head, he opens his elegant jaws to catch the prey. Half the stick disappears down his throat. In the middle-distance I can see Carter frozen in a ‘howling at the moon’ stance. The stick is held vertically in the air like a sword swallower playing to the crowd. A strange, strangled howl is coming weakly from his throat like no noise a dog has ever made. Running, I reach him. I think I pull the branch out of his throat.
Like something used to stir a pot of paint, the end of the stick is covered in a mucusy, red syrup. I put it down and both of us stare at the object, incredulous. Carter stands still – but gradually recovers from the shock of a stick that fought back. I can’t see any sign of damage in his throat so we walk back to the flat. After a few hours he seems to be back to his old self.
In the morning he seems subdued but I have to go out. When I return later that day something is wrong. For the first time in seven years there is no dog at the door. I search the flat and in the furthest corner I find a breathing hump of hair – unable to raise its head.We find an emergency vet and drive through the snow in panic. The vet uses a strange set of ratchets that locate onto Carter’s canine teeth to prise open his jaws. The vet’s hand disappears down his throat and Carter once more makes the strange, strangled howl. Behind the dog’s tonsils the doctor locates the hole. The length of the vet’s little finger slides inside Carter’s new orifice.
Friends have a five storey Regency house in Ramsgate – bought when this corner of the island was considered beyond the edge of the world. On the entire planet, the place I sleep best is in the room squeezed between the rafters right at the top of the many flights of steps. A small window at each end from which you can just see the sea. The cry of seagulls on the gutter, the wind rattling the old windows – all of this reminds me of being on the Antarctic Ocean.
When I wake there is a fresh pot of tea, a china cup with saucer and a tiny jug of milk, all resting on a delicate silver tray. Simon was immaculately raised and is irrepressibly proud of his domain. He has many enthusiasms – dogs, birds, self-help books, smoking – but one of his strongest addictions is to the exquisite china that he trawls from Ramsgate’s charity shops.
Eventually I leave my cabin and make my way down to the kitchen five floors below. My eyes are still gluey and my body is not yet properly organized On the last flight I trip over the end of my sock. I manage not to fall headlong down myself, but the tray crashes to the landing at the bottom. There is a moment’s pause and then two heads appear above each other around the door jam. Underneath, a worried dog looks nervously up the stairs, above, Simon’s face executes a perfect smile.
Leaving the music, we drift across the road with the first light. The street lamps are still oozing their sodium glow but the sky is already a fragile shade of blue. The hazy world seems freshly constructed – soft, sharp and new. Our bodies operate remotely as we move over the tarmac towards where our bicycles should be – now hidden behind a muscular vehicle. Mine and Melanie’s cycles are locked either side of a lamppost – in our warm confusion Melanie unlocks her chain and a bicycle falls away from the lamppost against the gleaming paintwork of the car. All three of us stand still, looking at the bicycle as if it has acted on its own accord – grumpy at being left for so long.
Out of the corner of my eye I see an enormous man bouncing across the road – his arms so large that they are lifted away from his body by the layers of sinew and muscle. He rounds the car and the world collapses. Suddenly there is no air coming down my throat, flexing ripples of muscle are squeezing into my neck from all sides and everything in the world has shifted through 45 degrees – I can see Melanie’s shocked face sideways against the sky.
“what are you going to do about that… eh… eh… what are you going to do about that… eh…” – shaking my neck as he says this like a dog playing with a rabbit.
Panicking, I try to speak but only a small hiss squeezes through the pipes in my neck. Like an air hostess in a crisis, I can hear Melanie calmly beginning to reason with the man. The more she speaks the more the muscles slacken. I can feel the warmth of his armpit and smell the maleness of his sweat and aftershave. My head is gradually released and air flows back into my lungs.
“It wasn’t me” I gasp, like a fish pleading with a sushi chef. Characters from the night have silently appeared and a small crowd forms around the car. Mini cab drivers offer escalating estimates for the cost of repair to a scratch that we can barely see. Melanie’s voice has siphoned the adrenalin from the early morning air – the doorman is unarmed by the logic of her eyes. The bear slouches back across the road and the crowd disperses.
Above the arctic circle the countryside is flat and empty and I haven’t seen anybody for two days. I have a small car, a Finnish CD from a petrol station and endless miles of roads banked with copper trees and the occasional strolling reindeer.
A bar like you saw in the Dukes of Hazzard. I’ve looked at it for three days trying to get the courage to open the door. It’s dark and there is somebody playing the slot-machine. The barmaid pours me a beer in Finnish and I sit at one of the booths trying to read my magazine. Eventually a man with a huge beard comes over and plays with something in the wall above my head… A light comes on and I realise he saw me trying to read and has come to help. The man sits down and starts to talk. The language is as alien as birdsong. I say I don’t understand, but I realise pretty soon that this is irrelevant. We talk for a while and then another slightly smaller beard arrives. A man with a friendly laughing smile and mouth full of broken teeth sits down. We find a piece of paper from the barmaid and explain things with drawings and signs. I say things and they laugh, they say things and I laugh. We drink beer. As long as I don’t look down, this feels fine, normal – a drunken conversation in a bar with two people so intoxicated I wouldn’t follow them in English. The small beard has been asking something and I realise he needs a light – “No, I don’t smoke,” I say. The first waves his cigarette and the second manages to grasp it. Time after time he moves the small glowing light towards his face but can’t quite find the end of his fag. I get up and say I have to leave.
Driving back along the pencil straight roads. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a crashing of trees and undergrowth. My leg automatically pounds the brake pedal. The flimsy, airport-Nissan-Micra slides and a huge shape slices across my bonnet. The car squeals to a stop.
As you get nearer to the poles you are travelling increasingly slower. In London you are spinning through space at 656mph – here the speed of the spinning globe is much, much less. The moose is gone. Everything is still – just the forest, an endless road to the Russian border and the low streaming clouds. My leg is locked rigid against the brake pedal – trembling like a whippet. In the silence of a stalled car, in an endless forest, near the still centre of the planet, I’m left with the frozen afterimage of a pair of terrified eyes, panicking beneath a head full of aerial-antlers.
On an art residency in Helsinki I set up my makeshift studio in the room that has been provided for me. I unpack a series of hard drives, power-packs, cameras, Palm Pilot and my laptop – creating a tangled web of cables and connections which I begin to plug in. I insert the lead between my PalmPilot and its power supply. There is a dull ‘fizz’ sound and a faint smell of smoke. My PalmPilot is dead – killed by the voltage intended for one of my hard drives.
I’m having an exhibition at a small independent gallery. In the rush to get the show arranged I end up writing the press release. In describing the work I reference one of my favourite Jorge Luis Borges stories – The Map in the Sand. The story describes how an emperor’s cartographic obsession with knowing his empire leads to him commissioning increasingly complex maps – culminating in the attempt to construct a 1:1 scale map of the territory. The effort required to achieve this task ultimately ruins the empire – leaving only a few scraps of its doppelgänger blowing in the desert. The press release is duly dispatched out to the world and by the end of the show there are a smattering of reviews and listings that have used this text as the basis of their description of the exhibition.
A year passes.
I’m giving a talk and want to reference the same story. Being less stressed I have time to check the details. I google “Borges map.in.the.sand”. There is a cluster of results all citing this same story but as I explore further I realize that all these references lead directly back to my press release. There are no other references to a story called Map in the Sand by Jorge Luis Borges. Eventually, amongst my shelves, I track down the volume where I thought I had read it. It doesn’t exist. Or at least not as I had imagined it. After rereading the whole book I find a tiny half page parable called On Exactitude in Science. In this half page of text there is no mention of an emperor or sand but there is a description of an abandoned 1:1 scale map: “In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar”.
Sixteen years after his death, with the help of lazy journalists, it seems I have accidentally inserted into the world the spectre of a thoroughly new Borges story.
Working with a colleague I have organized an open-submission competition for internet based artworks. Having successfully applied for funding we have been inundated with submissions from our ad in the art-press. The standard is mostly very high and our invited panel has struggled to select our nine successful applicants. All that is now left to do is for me to send out the carefully scripted mail that informs the rest of the applicants that they have been unsuccessful.
I have agonized over this email. I have never been in this position before and it is excruciating trying to get the wording right – how do you reject someone affectionately? Finally I am ready. I paste the addresses into the mail and hit send.
A few minutes later I receive an angry email – then another and another. I have pasted the addresses into the ‘cc’ field rather than the ‘bcc’. Everyone on the list has received each other’s addresses. This is not only extremely bad etiquette it causes a kind of solidarity of the rejected. Within hours a rival website is launched that contains all of the 157 rejected art works.
Drunk on a bike, I misjudge a corner and the world becomes inexplicable.
I am looking at the pavement with a macro lens – a landscape of tiny pieces of gravel and ring pulls. My mouth hurts. Nervously exploring with my tongue, I find a small stone behind my lips. Picking it from my mouth I see the broken end of a moon-white tooth.
I’m facing into the street – struggling to lock my bike to a lamppost. I wind the lock around the lamppost, through my bicycle and back. Eventually I succeed in wrangling the objects together.
As I straighten up, I find myself looking at the large traffic intersection of Southampton Row and High Holborn. On the opposite side of the road a businessman emerges from between two stationary cars. He pauses to assess the traffic – the lights are still on red and he gauges that he has enough time. He begins to cross. His suit flaps open around his belly as he attempts to hurry across the four lanes of empty tarmac.
Nearly at the middle of the road the traffic lights change. The man hesitates. Internal combustion engines growl as taxis and buses lumber slowly into motion. One powerful motorbike, though, explodes out from the pack – its engine screaming a different high-pitched squeal.
The businessman sees this and starts to head back to the safety of the pavement. The motorbike rider, however, has guided his machine to pass behind him. The bike is flying through the air at escalating speed – only a few microseconds have passed since it leapt from the starting line. The rider now sees the man’s change of direction and leans the other way – altering his path to pass in front of the hesitating man. But the businessman makes the same decision.
Two very soft things and one lump of metal merge together for a moment. The impact is strangely silent. There is no thunder-crack of metal and plastic ripping apart. No audible punctuation for the violent things that are unfolding in front of my eyes – except perhaps a dull thud like someone hitting a sofa.
Instantly, the three objects all have new trajectories. The motorbike continues its journey spinning across the tarmac on its side like a hockey-puck skimming over the ice. It is now heading almost straight towards me. The rider also glides across the tarmac moving impossibly fast but on a slightly different path. The motorbike skims past my lamppost on my right. And the rider, spinning on his back, flies past me on the left.
Finally there is the noise. I don’t see it but the bike crumples as it hits the front of a shop behind me and the rider bounces off the wall nearby. I don’t see this because I am still looking in the same direction as I was a second ago when I first straightened up. The grey suit of the businessman lies on the tarmac, like a bundle that has fallen off a lorry. Four lanes of traffic are still just beginning to move across the junction. They are heading towards the soft, motionless lump almost exactly halfway across the carriageway.
Without thinking I run into the road, waving my hands above me. I reach the bundle. The traffic flows either side of me and then stops. I look down. The lump still looks like a man – perhaps a man lying face down after too much drink. The smart pinstripe lines are still straight – only his hair is slightly confused. There is a strange gurgling sound though, like the last bit of water leaving a sink. The grey of the suit matches the London tarmac but there is a pool of deep red liquid expanding across the chips of asphalt. His face lies in this pool – his unseen nostrils blowing sticky red bubbles in Ribena.
Everything is still.
Suddenly there are lots of people. A man emerges who seems to be a doctor or at least acts like he knows what to do. I watch as other people do things. The body of the businessman still seems to be connected in all the right places. More people arrive on the scene, I can no longer see clearly through all their legs, but the man seems to have regained consciousness. With help, he sits up. Sirens grow louder from the surrounding streets. Ambulances and police cars appear. Things are moved. Police take statements from three people who say they saw everything. I am still stood at the back. The time comes to leave the road and the people drift away.
Returning to the lamppost, I watch the vehicles and officials disperse. The traffic begins to flow again. For a long moment I am at a loss. I unlock my bike and cycle slowly away.
I have a part-time job in a bronze casting foundry housed in the railway arches that line one side of Limehouse Basin. All day long, as I work on the wax-casts of heads, and cats and ballerinas, I stare out of the window at the water. The empty, windswept basin where the Regent’s Canal meets the river Thames. All the old warehouses and wharfs have been pulled down but the luxury lofts that were planned have failed to appear. The ground is thick with brambles and at the edge of the water there are now accidental beds of bulrushes – populated by moorhens and ducks.
There is some activity on the banks opposite me. A collection of men are looking at the dark water. A diver in his wet-suit emerges from their ranks, enters the water and disappears from view beneath the surface. All day I watch as his bubbles move up and down the stretch of open water – slowly covering the basin with carefully coordinated sweeps. The diver re-emerges. A lorry parks next to the water and the arm of a small crane swings out over the basin. The diver attaches a blue rope and the driver lifts the arm. At the end of the rope a shape breaks the surface. A man’s head and shoulders appear and then a whole naked body swings in the air, dripping canal-water. The skin of the body is as grey as Plasticine. His arms are held out in front him by rigor mortis and they bounce slightly as the rope is jolted.
Our washing machine is old and erratic and seems to be leaking from the back. I drag the heavy white box out from under the worktop. I think I can see the problem. After unplugging, I unscrew the back of the machine and experiment with one of the hoses. By pushing and tightening Jubilee Clips and pipes I think I have improved the situation.
I want to test its new state. I plug the washing machine in and it grumbles its way back to life. The solenoid clicks out and the sound of sluicing water can be heard as the drum starts to fill. I watch the systems throb and grind through the open back of the machine. There is still a tiny leak dribbling down one of the pipes. Wanting to trace the source, I instinctively put out my finger and touch the pipe.
Outside I can hear the neighbours and a pigeon. A cat passes me on the floor. In the next room I can hear the bubbling of the fish tank. I float through the house like a grey ghost. I find Bernadette in her studio but she hasn’t noticed me enter. There is a gash on my wrist where the electric shock jammed my arm into the metal casing. Moments pass. I stand looking at her back and I can think of nothing to say.
My eyes are tired from too much looking and the sky has troubled me all day. I’m driving to Reading in my Mark-2 Ford Escort. It’s not quite vintage but I bought it recently because of its shiny metallic green paintwork, chrome bumpers and gleaming hubcaps. Above 60 miles-per-hour the engine is extremely loud and the cars in the rear view mirror stretch vertically because of the vibrations that hum through the bodywork.
The sun is glancing off the three lanes of wet tarmac ahead. I see the banks of floating red taillights too late. Three people slowly emerge from their cars – the driver of the Ford Fiesta behind me, and the driver of a Ford Sierra behind that. A girl with a shaky voice tells me that it wasn’t her fault. I find some paper and a large black marker-pen in my glove compartment. As we write in the rain the clumsy letters of our names and addresses slip and blur down the paper. The traffic has started to move again. Three strangers stand together in the central lane and watch as the hiss of the passing tires flattens the plastic and glass from their cars.
Eventually the police close the motorway and tow us to the side.
We have won two free flights to New York. We bought a Hoover deliberately to get the tickets and after dogged persistence through a series of hurdles designed to decrease the uptake, we have been given 4 days notice of our departure time. Not having proper jobs we manage to arrange things. As ever, we pack in chaotic panic. As the taxi arrives I rush round the house switching off plugs, lights and heaters – everything that could be turned off.
A week in New York – the most beautiful and most vertical city I have seen.
The taxi travels through the rows of small terraced housing and drops us off in front of our East End house. Bernadette opens the door, walks into the living room and screams. In the tropical fish tank there is a miniature version of the end of the world grown cold. The small neon-guppies float on the surface with their eyes white and glazed, the speckled catfish lies on its side on the gravel – wedged between two rocks. The bulbous-eyed-goldfish-thing rests its overgrown head in a corner and the two tropical frogs float upright – their long legs and webbed feet just touching the gravel and their small forearms outstretched towards the water’s surface.
My girlfriend’s dog, Jonah, is old but still fit. Half Greyhound, half Staffordshire Bull Terrier, he is fast but solid. He has three loves – running, demolishing things and food. He has a quick mind and a bloody-minded determination. When we leave the house in the morning there is a growing list of chores to be completed as he sits on the bottom step and stares at us with his black, unfathomable eyes. The fridge has a bungee to keep it closed because he has taught himself to open it. The chairs must be arranged on the sofa. The rubbish must be put outside. The shopping bags must never be left on the floor even if they only contain cans.
If we have erred there is a scene of chaos when we open the door. The shopping is spread across the entire kitchen, the tins of tomatoes are left intact but the cans that pictured a lovable innocent mutt are now only mangled and twisted remains. Over the hours we were away, Jonah has sunk his canine teeth through the metal containers hundreds of times until he is able to suck out the sloppy brown contents. I don’t think he can actually read, but his powers of problem solving and smell are impressive.
There is a lump on his back leg. The vet tells us that it is malignant and that we have a choice. If we leave it he might live another six months. The lump is attached to the bone and the only other course is to remove the leg.
As the vet takes the confused hound through the door at the back of the surgery he looks at us.
When we return the nurse opens the door and a three-legged creature hops madly towards us pulling the vet behind him. His breathing is furious and fast. His eyes are huge and staring, set within a ring of white terror and confusion.
I have just bought my first vehicle. Found in a second-hand car lot on the southern fringes of London, I was seduced by the chrome and metallic green paint of this not quite vintage roadster. Alone in my own wagon, I drive joyfully back to Bow via the Blackwall tunnel. The Victorian tube twists and turns as it wriggles its way beneath the river.
As I start to ascend the incline out of the tunnel, my car begins to splutter and gently coughs its way to a stop. The fuel gauge is faulty and I have to be towed back to the surface.
On a beach in Italy I am slightly delirious. I am trying to sketch with ink and pen but the heat is frying my mind. Although I’m persisting, the drawing is going nowhere and my vision is wobbling like the heat rising off the sand. I go to reload the pen from the pot of black, oily ink but somehow I miss and insert the sharp point of the steel nib deep into the side of my thumb.
Twenty three years later I have a tiny tattoo between the joints of my left thumb.
I have a bad head from drinking. I find an Alka-Seltzer and try to swallow the large pill rather than let it dissolve in a glass of water. An object the size of a 2p piece has stuck in my throat and seems to be in the process of exploding.
I have passed my test and can now drive my dad’s beige coloured Skoda. The sense of freedom almost outweighs the embarrassment of being seen in this car. I’m driving my brother and his friend Nigel to the train. Our house is at the edge of the woods above the A4074. Goring & Streatly train-station is the other side of the hills that lie beyond this main road. It is twilight as we leave our gates. Nigel in the back, my brother beside me. I am disagreeing with my brother. He doesn’t understand and I am trying to make him see. I cross the A4074 and everything becomes very strange and slow.
We are spinning upside down and gravity is lurching in irrational directions. The jump cut edit in reality makes no sense but during the treacle drips of slow time I think clearly to myself that this feels like the Waltzer ride at the Reading funfair.
Everything is very still. The wind blows across the barley that surrounds our car. We are all still sitting in our seats but are now staring out of the broken windscreen at the A4074. Still on the road, the car we hit is crumpled along one side and two people are looking back at us.
A new girl moves to our village. I’m told by tormentors that she fancies me and naturally I disbelieve them. Time passes and I still refuse to trust the intermediaries but on the 14th of February I receive a card that was delivered by hand.
We arrange to meet in the woods that lie between our two houses. The snow still covers the spaces between trees.
The feel of somebody else’s lips is extraordinary. Sliding along a tongue, past my own teeth and into the alien geography of someone else’s mouth is the most adrenalin filled journey of my life. Dentistry felt in reverse – from the outside in. My tongue sliding behind her teeth and moving over places where moments before her voice was playing. Two tongues searching a space where ‘me’ and ‘not-me’ is becoming confused. The smoothness of white porcelain, the textured swellings of tongue. Breathing is negotiated through nostrils squished against cheeks. We are both as quiet as possible – I can hear or feel the faint sigh of her breath against my cheek.
How long has this been happening?
In the distance I can faintly hear my toes complaining. Submerged in the snow, the pain signals sent from my feet have finally made themselves heard above the clamour of my brain.
The next morning the world is different but my toes are red and swollen with chilblains. As a small child this affliction was a feature of every winter. To soothe the pain, my mother used to pluck the lambs’ wool snagged on the barbed-wire fences and wrap my painful toes in the warming lanolin of unwashed wool.
The next evening I walk to the other end of the village. My heart is stuttering and my toes are secretly wriggling in wool.
There is a strange, red mole on my left shoulder. My mother drives me from the village to the Royal Berkshire hospital. We walk down an endless corridor. At times we seem to be deep inside a building, at others the corridor becomes a translucent, scratched tube crossing open space. Always we are walking in a straight line. Ahead of us, fast walking nurses appear and disappear out of the vanishing point in the distance.
The laser makes a strange noise and the doctor tells me not to look, but the smell makes me turn my head. Where the red blob had been bulging outwards there is now an equally deep hole. The thing that fixes me though are the wisps of curling smoke. What was me is now drifting weightlessly through the air.
In a field near the next village there is Shetland pony. Fascinated by its scale, I put my hand through the fence to stroke it and the pony locks its teeth around my arm. I scream and pull but the pony is determined – its teeth sinking deeper into my flesh. My dad arrives but still the monster won’t let go.
Sometimes I hate my father. He can scare me, and when he comes back from London the hair of his moustache is rough on the skin of my cheek. Sometimes though, he is a hero. He blocks the nostrils of the malevolent beast and the pony lets go so that it can breathe.
Running wildly between a line of tents, my small toe collides with the metal of a unseen tent peg. 30 years later my small toenail is composed of two independent sections.
The ornamental pond fills with pillows of frogspawn. The black dots begin to wriggle in their capsules and the aliens emerge in black swarms of activity. Little buds appear at the rear of their body and become their two back legs. Their tails begin to shrink and as their front legs take shape, the spacemen have mutated into proto-frogs – perfect but tiny.
I’m playing with some froglets. I’ve found them a boat – a flat topped log that is heavy enough to glide through the water when I give it a push. Several frogs are sitting on the deck and there is one clinging onto the prow looking back at me – with his legs dangling in the water. The boat sails across the pond and hits the vertical stone side with a thud. The frog at the prow has lost a leg – there doesn’t seem to be any blood and the frog’s face looks the same as before, but where there was a leg there is now a tiny stump.
I run away.
In my mother’s room there is a single-bar electric fire. I’ve plugged it in but the element isn’t glowing red. I push my fingers through the silver grill. I sense that this is wrong but my curiosity is stronger than prohibition. I want to see if the fire is really coming on.
I’m thrown across the room onto my parents’ bed. I’m too shocked to cry. My arm has a sick, rubber feeling – as if it belongs to a stranger. I decide not to tell anyone.
Running from my brother, I trip on an unseen root. My knee lands on the razor edge of a broken flint that pokes out of the surface of the woodland earth.
In the bathroom my blood drips onto the lino floor. I must be screaming but I am also fascinated by seeing the inside of myself – the white bacon-like stuff beneath the skin that is revealed whenever my mum cleans away the red.