By Clover Stroud
I cannot look back at my life without seeing a jagged dark scar through the moment that separates the time immediately before the accident from the time after. Even the year before the accident is smudgy in my head, like someone has loaded a gun and there’s a timer counting down to the really terrible thing that none of us can stop happening.
I was a child, and then I was an adolescent, and then there was the accident. If I want to make myself dizzy, I take my mind on a trip where the accident didn’t happen. It makes me spin: with melancholy and also with desire, to look at an alternative life where I can pick up my mobile phone right now and call the number I have stored there under a contact called Mum. Where I can walk into her kitchen and resume a conversation like it never ended, or sit on the edge of the bed while she gets dressed to talk to her about what’s happening for Christmas.
I imagine driving my children over to her house to spend the weekend with her, but when I bring the children into it the vertigo really gets me. If the accident hadn’t happened, would those children be Jimmy and Dolly? Would Dash and Evangeline exist if Mum hadn’t fallen from her horse? Would this life be mine if there had been no accident? And then I don’t know which future I want to protect: the one in which the accident never happened, or the one in which it did, but all the other stuff is mine too.
When I force myself to remember it’s like watching a car swerving all over a road and knowing it’s going to crash and kill everyone inside. I play and replay the moments before school, when Mum was making breakfast in her riding clothes, and I want to stop those moments and reset the day: the conversation we had about how she might still be riding after I got home, and the macaroni cheese she’d already cooked for supper; the space in the car as she drove me to school where I felt irritable, since she was dropping me off early to get out on her horse; the way she engaged me by talking about a history project I was doing; how the scent of Chanel No. 5 filled the car as we sat by the school gates, engine running, watching other pupils stream into the building; how I’d said ‘I love you’, slightly begrudgingly, as I was still sulking as I got out of the car; how she’d replied, ‘I love you more’ after me, before the door slammed between us.
I want to catch that last glimpse of smile she gave me before the windows of the car separated us, and turn it into just one more of hundreds of thousands of smiles I could have had with her since. But I can’t, and instead I vanish into school, enveloped into assembly while Mum moves completely out of reach.
On that day there were also hours spent outside intensive care with my father and sister, Rick and Nell, the displaced feeling of sitting on plastic chairs in a special waiting room, separate from the main room, which meant we were going to be told something no one else should hear, and then the unreality of standing beside Mum’s bed, looking at her head, as big as a balloon, bloody-bandaged with closed eyes like purple plums, and the sound of the rise and fall of a plastic tube in her mouth, hooked up to machines that were making her breathe.
I know there were all those things but what I remember most vividly about that day is a pile of ash. Cigarette ash, late that night, made by everyone smoking under the lamplight around the kitchen table. Until then, I wouldn’t have called myself a smoker. There had been the occasional stolen cigarette around a bonfire in a field at Minety and once I’d smoked with the lodger after we’d had sex in a wood. But after we got back from hospital I started smoking because it was a way of focusing on something other than what I’d just seen.
I was at school when I found out there had been a bad accident. It was double history, and the head teacher interrupted the lesson to speak quietly in the corner to our teacher, who glanced up at the classroom halfway through the brief conversation, anxious-eyed. Simon, who sat in front of me, flicked a ball of paper across the room while Neil, who sat beside him, jeered quietly.
‘Woah, sir’s here. Someone’s in trouble if sir’s here,’ Neil said, motioning to the head, and the class swayed into nervous laughter. Someone was in trouble, and sideways glances were exchanged, checking whose turn it was for a detention for skiving, or having been seen smoking in town in school uniform. I carried on reading a comprehension about the Suez crisis, since none of the above would have been me.
‘Clover, would you mind stepping outside?’ My name was plucked out of the classroom air and my pencil made a hollow sound as it dropped onto the table then clattered to the floor. Stuffing books into my bag, I dragged my coat from the back of the chair as it scraped across the silence of the classroom. Everyone else leant back in their seats and stared as I made my way out. The corridor was dark with the muffled sounds of teachers in further classrooms, pupils laughing, chairs moving, a raised voice.
‘Your mother,’ the head said, reaching for a light on the wall that didn’t work, then putting his hand forward to motion me through the gloom. ‘Your mother. . .I believe your mother has. . .There has been an incident. But your sister is here.’
At the far end of the corridor was Nell, her strong face crumpled, pulling at the sleeve of her jersey. I fell on her and the head vanished, muttering there was no need to sign myself out, he’d see to it.
‘Mum’s alright? What sort of accident? Has she broken her leg?’
‘I don’t know, I don’t know. She’s had an accident, on Quince, a riding accident. She fell off and I don’t know what’s happened.’ Nell didn’t tell me that she had already seen Mum, unconscious in the cottage hospital in Cirencester as she was stretchered into an ambulance. Afterwards, much later, Nell said there were sirens and lights and many people moving around Mum, who was in her riding clothes with blood on her face and an oxygen mask strapped to her. Nell has since said she didn’t know what was going on because there was so much noise, but she felt like she’d been hit in the back with a sledgehammer. Nell is brave in everything she does, but I badly want to be able to reach into the past and lift her out of that hospital courtyard to take her away from the sirens and paramedics and Mum’s blood and unconscious body.
Time heals so much of what goes wrong in life but, twenty-five years later, the memory of what happened to Mum on that day still makes my body react. I feel a straightening in my wrists and a silent pressure descending. My breath lightens, my mind flickering to find a concentration that won’t stick, and I’m suddenly irritated by everything in my immediate environment. My mind is a pony spooked by a shadow in the hedge. It doesn’t want to move forward but shies away, determined to return to the safer place it’s come from.
Nell took me to the car and then we went home. Rick had left Kemble on the early train for London that morning, but he came home wearing London clothes. Mum’s closest friend in the village, Dawn, drove Rick, Nell and me to hospital in Bristol. We sat for several hours in the white waiting room designated for intensive care—it had boxes of tissues on the table and no magazines—until a big man with huge hands like a butcher came in and told us he was Mum’s surgeon.
‘The prognosis is very grave,’ he said. On either side of Rick, Nell and I shook from the inside out. ‘Here we have a fifty-two- year-old woman who has suffered a catastrophic blow to the head and during surgery we have found areas of damage on both temporal lobes of her brain and several blood clots. Her brain is very swollen.’
Would she die? Would this fifty-two-year-old woman with a catastrophic blow to the head die? How many blood clots? How swollen was her brain? How much damage on the temporal lobes? Would she die? Would Mum die? Would Mum die? Would Mum die?
He didn’t have any answers, but when Rick asked, ‘This is a two-year recovery process?’ the surgeon hesitated for a moment, as something untold registered on his face.
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