by Lara Newson
In a pot in my bedside cabinet are fragments of skull.
Shards of off-white bone, too many and too shattered to ever fit back together. Many have been lost, either on the road where my head landed, or rinsed into washing machine filters. Some have been claimed by lovers along the way, a new twist on wanting a piece of me.
For years people have asked what happened to my head. The answer is both simple and complicated. There are many different versions depending who is asking and what I want them to know. Here’s one.
In the moment of impact everything slowed down, just like they say it does. As the leering grill of the Merc slammed into my right thigh my body flowed sweetly up around the bonnet and through a windscreen which melted around me.
Once I’d got a close up of the two faces in the car, I floated back out to land on my back on the road. That’s when my vulnerability finally registered and, using the badge on the bonnet for leverage, I pulled myself upright. In doing so the logo came loose so I threw it to one side in disgust and hobbled to the pavement.
A crowd gathered. Someone handed me a white towel.
“Get my bike,” I said, gesturing to the L-shape machine lying mid-lane. “Don’t want it getting damaged.” The crowd seemed rooted, staring at me. My return glare was obscured by gunk; the impact must have split the oil sump. I wiped whatever it was away with the towel. With one eye I saw the whiteness smeared with the same red and grey gunge I’d seen inside the car. More red this time, more vivid, more liquid. The car. I looked up at the crossroads where the Merc had been. It had gone.
“My bike,” I repeated, though there was no traffic. This was Pershore Road, a major arterial from the city centre, it was always busy. Time must be stuck on go-slow. Surely any moment the lights would change and send a three-lane stream over my sad bent scrambler.
People tried to move the bike but she wouldn’t cooperate. There she lay, the rounded headlight pointing towards me, her face the only thing intact. The rest of her was beyond broken. I watched others join those trying to hoist the bike to an upright she no longer had.
I don’t remember it arriving but an ambulance was parked beside me and two medics laid an unnecessary stretcher on the ground.
“I don’t need you,” I said. “It’s just a scratch.” Whatever was on my face would wash off. I was 21 and immortal.
“You’re going to need that head seeing to,” insisted a paramedic.
Birmingham Accident Hospital, crowded with post-Christmas casualties. I accepted the indignity of arriving in a wheelchair and being pushed straight through to intensive care. My neck felt gummy, the collar of my greatcoat a soaked sheepskin sponge. I stank, engine oil and iron over stale baccy and the sweat of last night’s curry. If I could smell this so could everyone else.
We rolled past an old sign for a Rehabilitation Centre. That must be it, I’m off to rehab. It isn’t my head at all; this is all a trick to get me clean. The simplicity made me smile. As if some twelve step salvation could help me now.
Then it hit. A delayed response, one impact to another. I wasn’t immortal. I wasn’t even tough. I was a fragile flower and I was broken.
I remember my grandmother’s expression seeing the mangled body she had nurtured. Her stunned pallor as she struggled to take in tubes sinking into flesh, machines bleeping in confirmation of life on the edge.
“Why did you do it?” she attempted through tears. Nurses were more accustomed to this scene.
“Don’t tire her; it’s enough for her to know that you’re here.”
But that doesn’t happen yet. My family didn’t even know. Staff asked for my next-of-kin but I insisted I had no-one. Plenty of people are alone in this world.
I needed to pee and insisted on taking myself. A nurse accompanied me in case I lost consciousness. They warned me not to look in the mirror but it wasn’t my appearance I cared about. I needed to soak up some solitude from the safety of the grey cubicle. From there I sat and took stock. I’d done it this time. I’d smashed myself up and had no idea if I was even fixable. My life was no longer in my hands. It was completely in theirs.
Staff insisted on going through my injuries as a way of keeping me still. An X-ray confirmed a fractured hip. They didn’t need an X-ray to show the broken skull, everyone could see that. What used to be forehead was now lacerated brain matter, strewn with shards of thin white bone, lightly sprinkled with grit and bits of glass. There was pain in the room and logic suggested it was mine yet I felt nothing, simply a softness at being forced to a stop.
The fracture at the head of the femur would heal with rest, prediction two months. The mulched brain was more complex. Faces around me suggested recovery was unlikely. I was an incomprehensible zombie whose being alive made no sense. My being conscious made even less.
I wasn’t a patient any of them would forget in a hurry.