Reflections following an endurance event, for which any talent was shattered long ago. And how.
I’m not an athlete.
I wrote that sitting on the Eurostar, travelling back to London. My legs tingling, heavy with exhaustion; my arse feeling every click, clack, clickety-clack in the firmness of the standard class seat cushion; my hand shaking as I wrote the words, threading my fingers around my pen unconsciously, holding it like handlebar drops in my claw grip.
Dr Dawn sat a couple of rows behind me, having a penetrating conversation with her agent about some TV appearance. Fiona the nutritionist sat across the aisle, refreshing her lipstick and preparing the launch party for her diet book, which told people what the f*** they should eat. She hadn’t used the censoring stars when she’d told me about it, in her broad Glaswegian accent. Dr Bill sat next to me, a thin strip of wire topped with a shock of grey hair: a real doctor with real patients and no TV presence, he was checking his text messages and making sure everything was still okay back home in Sussex.
We’d cycled 320 miles in four days to get to Paris, covered in lotion one day, under sunshine that frizzled any exposed bits of skin while you watched, or hidden in reflective waterproofs the next, bright yellows and oranges shining through rain that coagulated into a single sheet hiding us from one another as we navigated our amphibious a-frames blindly through the downpour. It would take us two hours to get back by train, with our bikes going in a truck on the ferry.
I was twelve years old and an odd, hippie boy when I ended up at the London Nautical (school number fourteen of eighteen). I’d been to India and to public school. I didn’t know what my Eleven-Plus score had been because I’d done Common Entrance a year early. So I dropped my aitches and slung my brown Adidas sports bag over my shoulder, keeping it in place with one hand and studied nonchalance – but I was still relegated to the fringes of the pack in the tyranny of the playground.
Thomas West lived on a barge – which I thought was probably cool, and served to explain why he was at a nautical school – but eccentricity was unacceptable in that unfathomable hierarchy of small boys. Unusually for a state school, our naval battledress uniforms were tailored, with brass buttons and cap badge. But West’s uniform was clearly second-hand and hung shapelessly on him, discoloured from washing where ours were dry-cleaned and pressed. Someone found out that West’s middle name was Melvyn. Given the state of his uniform, this naturally became ‘Smellvyn’. In the way of boys on the fringe, I tried to insinuate myself into the pack by joining in the alienation of a fellow outcast.
‘Oi! Smellvyn!’ I shouted.
West turned on me with an accumulated ferocity that he could only direct at the weakest pack member. He growled with the frustration of insults collected, compressed and packed away in hidden places, and leapt at me with both fists. The playground full of boys gathered in a joyful throng as we prepared to pummel each other into the dust.
‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ The throng was delighted at the prospect of a freak show.
I twisted backwards, hardly feeling West’s lunge as his fist glanced off my left shoulder. I lost my balance as I turned, and we both fell. I was still turning, and West’s momentum pulled him round, hitting the ground first in the rolling movement. As I pulled myself up, I threw all my weight into an uncontrolled punch that bounced West’s head off the tarmac. That was it. We stood up, blinking, looking at each other. It was over. The mob drifted away, as boys searched for the next entertainment.
Now I’d been hazed at boarding school: apple-pie bedding was an entrance ritual. I’d been mercilessly punished at the Gordon Schools in Huntly, because of my English accent. (I never did persuade them that my father’s family was from Aberdeenshire.) But I’d never been in a fight. I’d never punched another boy, or been punched in anger. I didn’t enjoy it.
My mother assessed the damage that evening. I’d punched nothing tougher than a really hard pillow before, and lack of technique meant that my hand had swelled up like a plumped cushion, my knuckles now puffy indentations. There was no way I could hold a pen. It was a Wednesday evening in early July, exams were finished, and school was preparing to break up for the long summer holiday.
‘No. You can’t stay home from school tomorrow. I don’t care if you can’t write – you shouldn’t have been fighting. You can still hear the teachers,’ said my mother.
I looked up at the kitchen clock that Thursday morning, cramming wholegrain Shreddies and goat’s milk into my mouth but holding the spoon in my left hand, cradling against my chest the plumped cushion that my right had become after the punch. I was late for the train to Waterloo. The London Nautical School operated a naval regime: timekeeping was paramount. Prefects would stand at the side entrance barrier in Stamford Street and place latecomers on the ‘defaulters’ list: detention. A couple of weeks away from the end of the school year, summer poking highlights round the corner, and defaulters would be a crap way to end the week.
I plonked my naval cap on my head, its removable white cover greyed by the London air, but still smart with its brass badge. I’d change the cloth cover over the summer. I picked up my brown Adidas sports bag with my left hand and flung it over my shoulder, ran down the passage from the kitchen to the front door – two skips to the right through the s-bend at the bottom of the stairs – and tucked the bag under my chin to free up that left hand so I could open the front door.
I pulled the door closed behind me and stepped through the front gate onto the pavement. I don’t remember anything else. I’ve pieced the next month together from stories.
I ran down to the corner, over Broughton Street to the traffic lights outside Brewer’s the newsagents. This was where I always crossed the busy main road. I poked my head out behind a white van parked at the kerb, to check the traffic. Clear, so I ran across. A man on the other pavement was waving at me, shouting at me to get back. The Citroën DS coming from the other direction braked as he saw me.
I thought the Citroën DS was cool: I loved the space-age body shape and the single-spoke steering wheel.
Police measurements of the skid length indicated that the driver was going through a green light at 32 mph. It wasn’t his fault, but the car tore open my left thigh and flung my slight, twelve-year-old body through the air. I flew at a height of about six feet and travelled 20 feet up Queenstown Road, landing on my head next to a storm drain.
Ed and my mother came out of the house together. Ed would drop my mother at her office and then drive on to his own. They noticed the commotion at the traffic light.
My mother saw the white naval cap.
In the evenings after work, my mother was reading Power in Praise, by Merlin Carothers. The message was simple: praise God in all situations, because all things work together for good. All things.
Including finding your small boy in a bloody heap as you leave for work in the morning.
‘Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,’ said my mother as she ran towards the gathered crowd.
‘Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,’ said my mother as she knelt next to me and waited for the ambulance.
‘Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,’ said my mother, a mantra as she travelled with me under blue lights to the hospital.
My mother is a literal woman.
The ambulance took me to St Thomas’ Hospital on the South Bank of the Thames. I was assessed and transferred to the Gough-Cooper Department of Neurological Surgery, then at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, Maida Vale.
The right side of my skull was fractured. My right eye was bleeding, bruised and swollen. My left side was paralysed, and the muscles of that side of my face had stopped working, my cheeks sagged and my mouth drooped. I had no control of my left arm or leg. But it hurt.
There was bleeding inside my skull and around my brain, but no specific damage. And, on the plus side, it hurt. A lot. Which meant the paralysis wasn’t from a spinal injury.
In 1974, two professors from the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Neurological Sciences, Graham Teasdale and Bryan J. Jennett, published the Glasgow Coma Scale. It’s called the GCS in Medspeak. A patient is assessed against the three criteria of the scale, scoring from one to five, and given a cumulative score between three (deep coma) and fifteen (fully awake). Generally a score below nine indicates a severe injury. Eye opening in response to pain but not speech gives a score of two; making incomprehensible sounds gives a score of two; extensor motor response gives a score of two. Two plus two plus two: a combined GCS score of six.
Thinking out loud in front of my mother, the medical team discussed the question of surgery, so she prayed. She sat in a waiting room, praying. She prayed until an internal voice told her it was all going to be OK. But the computerised tomography (Medspeak: CT, or CAT) scans showed no specific injury to my brain and there was no need to operate. My mother has relayed this exchange to me as evidence of the power of prayer: ‘The doctors were going to operate, but I prayed. And they came back in and said they didn’t need to.’
As a miracle, it fell short of a full cure. The power of prayer palliative – enough only to mitigate injuries. Had the medical team been more circumspect in their discussions, this impressionable tree-hugger, wrestling Christian Science (‘None of it’s real, it’s all error’) against a newfound fundamental, born-again Christianity (‘God will heal your child if you have enough faith’), might have taken on more responsibility for her son’s recovery. Instead of leaning back on the self-soothing comfort of magical thinking.
Another measure of the severity of traumatic brain injury (Medspeak: TBI) is post-traumatic amnesia (Medspeak: PTA). This is a state of ambulatory unconsciousness and random, sometimes bizarre behaviour. Three and a half weeks is pretty damned severe. I don’t remember the rest of July.
I don’t remember standing on my bed, looking out at the Thames and saying, ‘I don’t like this boat.’
I don’t remember space flights, or cravings for fish and chips.
I don’t remember wanderings round the hospital, my family at a safe distance behind to make sure I didn’t get myself into any more trouble.
I don’t remember asking my mother where my other four legs were, because I was a quinx and I should have six. And no, I don’t know what a quinx is either.
Continuous memory came back on the day I was discharged. Hospital radio played Amii Stewart, singing ‘Knock on Wood’. Oh the horror. I tried to play table tennis in the ward’s recreation area but I couldn’t close my left hand around the ball. I couldn’t throw it in the air to hit it with the bat, or even pick it up off the table. I sat in the book area and tried to read, but the letters on the page swam about like oddly shaped fish.
We didn’t have a car any more – Ed had given up his job to take care of me, and it had been a perk – so we walked from the hospital to catch the bus home. I tried to leapfrog a bollard in the road, but I jumped straight into it.
I slept in my bed, and in the morning I told my mother and Ed about a bad dream I’d had, where I’d been in an accident and I’d been in hospital.
‘It wasn’t a dream,’ they told me.
‘Oh,’ I said, and went to brush my teeth.
I slept in my bed, but in the middle of the night I tried to climb into my mother’s wardrobe because it was a spaceship. My mother steered me gently towards the shuttle in my bedroom, and back to sleep.
Life crashes into you and you are ambushed by events. I also wrote that on the Eurostar.