What It's Like to Be Hit By a Car and Forget Who You Are
When John Doran was hit by a car recently, his crash helmet shattered, he was knocked spark out and he ended up with a concussion so severe that he temporarily forgot who he was.
You won't be able to remember the type of vehicle that hits you.
Nearly everything leading up to the accident is recalled as normal. That is to say: most of the memories are typically middle-aged in form. Granular. Prone to immediate temporal and spatial slippage. An emphasis on the weather. A tendency towards evanescence, defeatism, what-if? and melancholy. Essentially, my recollection of any event is a Tibetan sand mandala left exposed to the elements. What was originally sharply defined, ornate and colourful quickly becomes blurred, blotched and mixed up by the wind and the rain. But usually an overall pattern or schemata remains. There is enough left to get by on.
I nearly don't cycle to work on the Friday morning of the accident. The night before, slogging home in the drizzling dark through puddles of sodium orange and tail light red, I suffer four near-misses in Stamford Hill. These are due to unobservant pedestrians stepping into the cycle lane, passenger doors being flung open and cars pulling out too late without any indication. I come to a realisation: "If I get hurt or killed, it won't be in the rush hour traffic of Kings Cross or Angel, it will be within the Stamford Hill quarter of N16. Just yards from my own doorstep."
If we were driving, my dad – who was born in 1933 – would bring nationality into this, and this is why I won't get in a car with him any more. Generally speaking, a left / liberal-leaning man when walking, he sees no contradiction in becoming illiberal once behind the wheel. After all, what other explanation is there for the demonstrably bad driving in my borough than an inability to read or speak English properly? Other than possession of a y chromosome in some other cases, of course.
However, when cycling, I've nearly come a cropper thanks to a gratifyingly equal ops spread of people. My own observations show that age, race, gender, profession and nationality seem to be absolutely no bar to being an appalling driver where I live.
After dropping my son off at primary school, I pause momentarily before heading to my cycle locker. I'm not worried about the journey to work – the sky is uniformly blue, the air crisp; a beautiful day by any standards – but I slump internally, yet again, at the idea of returning in the pitch black. There is one thought that overrides all others, though: "This is the longest period of your adult life you've gone through without severe long-lasting depression. And a robust amount of cycling five or six times a week is prime among reasons why."
As soon as I head out of the estate onto Holmleigh Road, a vehicle passes me at speed. Cars are always parked bumper to bumper on either side of the road – apart from directly outside the school – and there is usually only space for a vehicle to pass one way with ease. Mini-traffic jams are common at rush hour, despite it being a residential side street. Regular drivers know this and some of them speed down here, lest they dawdle and get caught in a snarl up.
But what sort of vehicle is it? I stare hard at it. There is just a large gauzy white globe accelerating off down the road. It doesn't matter how hard I look at the disc of low wattage light, it doesn't resolve into the shape of a car or a motorbike. It could be Ted Glen's van from Postman Pat for all I know. It disappears round the corner onto East Bank at a fair old clip faster than the 20mph speed limit.
'Look at that dickhead,' I think to myself absent-mindedly as I cycle after him. But I'm not angry. What would be the point? This happens several times a day.
I round the corner onto East Bank, where a group of men in black hats stand shooting the breeze and a geezer is walking his dog. I see the indistinct pale disc a few hundred yards in front of me, near the entrance to the Stamford Hill post sorting office. The driver is in some kind of stand off with a vehicle coming in the opposite direction – one of them needs to reverse or they'll be there all day. The Liverpool Street to Shenfield passenger train rattles noisily past behind a chainlink fence.
I immediately abandon the idea of trying to cycle past the two vehicles – the gap is a bit narrow with cars tightly packed either side of the road, and if one of them doesn't see me I could get knocked off, or worse.
I slow to standstill and look at the back of... Ted Glen's van?... for reverse lights.
'After all, it wouldn't be funny if he just reversed straight into me!' I think.
It starts reversing, quickly, picking up speed. I have less than a second, at a guess. I look at the impenetrable wall of cars on my left and think, 'Oh for fuck's sake.'
It hits me full on, I go flying backwards and then someone switches on a strobe light.
There is sub-littoral whiteness. Not the black absence of everything but the whiteness of its complete presence.
But then, for a second, I can see a faint edge. An inner surface edge which ripples, swells and ebbs. Through it I can see: Ajay driving the Greendale Rocket. He waves to me. Hello, Ajay! And then, next to me on the tarmac, my bike – and just over my legs, the rear bumper of Ted Glen's truck. Naughty Ted Glen... you reversed without checking your mirrors! And then: Postman Pat's big black hand reaching down to me. "Shit! Are you OK mate? Don't move." Has Postman Pat always been a black cockney with a gold tooth? And then away from the edge back into the dazzling brilliance of sub littoral white. God bless the postmen of Greendale, a great bunch of lads.
There's nothing in the sub littoral zone. Not even me.
I'm back again and looking directly into the face of a dog. An estate dog with a giant serrated smile. He's as big as the moon! What a lovely doggy.
White, white, electric white.
Now I'm back and a kindly looking man with a Staffie on a lead who is crouched next to me puts a hand on my shoulder and says, "Nah, mate. Stay down. Don't get up. I've called an ambulance." I can't say anything. I can't do anything but fall back into the white.
The sublittoral zone is phosphorescent but is now becoming compromised by dimension. I can feel up. I can sense a surface towards which I'm heading. I'm floating in the direction of something that has colour, time and presence now. I'm all at sea but I'm definitely heading towards shore.
I'm sitting on a stool at the bar of The Royal Alfred Hotel opposite the train station in St Helens. It's so vivid. I've been here so many times.
"Can I get you a drink? A sip of dog?" says the landlord, offering me a warm bottle from the wooden shelf and a half pint glass to go with it.
"But I don't drink," I say. "I'm teetotal now."
The landlord smiles reassuringly: "Yes I know, but it's Christmas. You have one bottle of dog every Christmas morning. Don't you remember? Everyone says it's OK."
He's right. Why have I forgotten this? I do have a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale every Christmas morning, and today is Christmas morning. I reach for the bottle.
But I'm not in a pub. I'm being helped up some steps into a vehicle. And I don't drink... I'm definitely teetotal. It's that fucking dream again. The same fucking dream I've had every single night for the last eight fucking years. But why am I having it now, on some steps at the side of the road? And who am I? I can't remember.
I'm thanking a man with a dog, saying goodbye. But what for?
A flash of white. Nearly at shore now. I can see sky through water. The back of my hand trails along ridges of sand under the water. Surf breaks over my head muffling everything before going clear again.
I'm sitting in a room, strapped upright into a chair with a blanket over my knees. There is a an empty stretcher in front of me. Ryan Gosling to my left and a policeman with scruffy hair and a notepad to my right.
"So he just reversed really quickly into you?" the policeman asks.
I shrug. I don't know what's going on.
"How is your shift going?" shouts the ambulance driver from the front of the vehicle – I'm in an ambulance!
"Nothing happening at all," says the copper. "Another minor RTA in Clapton at 8AM. That's it."
"Same here," she replies. It's hard to tell whether they're disappointed or not.
Ryan Gosling asks me for my name. I jaw away but no sound comes out so I shrug. I know this feeling... I'm so detached, not warm but protected, tripping my tits off, encased in cold liquid honey, sheets of Lucozade cellophane wrapped around my face like a blindfold. Not really sure who I am.
Ketamine. Oh yeah! I love taking ketamine! Weird taking it in an ambulance. Maybe it's an ambulance for horses! I would laugh but I can't feel my mouth or my tongue.
Remember when your mate fell out of a six-storey window and survived? The paramedics who found him stood over him and said, "You've had a nasty fall, sir. I'm going to give you ketamine, which is a powerful tranquiliser which disassociates..." And him looking up from the pavement and croaking: "I know what ketamine is, you cunt... will you hurry up and give me some?" Maybe I fell out of a window. I move my hands and fingers in front of my eyes. I wiggle my feet under the blanket. Or maybe I didn't.
I'm wearing padded gloves and a high-vis tabard. I reach up and touch my head gingerly. I'm wearing a helmet. It's broken in several places at the back. Was I climbing up the side of a building? How far up did I get? But then suddenly the cellophane and honey are gone.
I've been hit by a truck? I was cycling to... work? There was a train? A postman? As quickly as I can assemble my thoughts into some kind of chain, they turn to sand and blow away again.
There is a final brief flash of white and then someone switches the strobe light off.
No, wait, I've been here before. I've been in an accident and I know what this sensation is. I have concussion. Just stay with it. Don't panic. Things will come back. I remember that squaddies kicked me unconscious outside Spiders nightclub in Hull. Afterwards I spent a week in the flat on my own, forgetting my name, forgetting where I was, forgetting what had happened. Unable to see out of eyes that had been beaten shut. Cold food rotting in pans on the hob. The buzzing of flies drowning out the radio.
I was 21. Am I in Hull? Am I 21?
"The first thing you do when you get to work is you organise the files," somebody says, but I can't see who. What files?
"How old are you?" says Ryan Gosling.
"21," I say.
He must be a happy fellow. He's laughing a lot. So is the ambulance driver and the policeman. What larks!
"What's your date of birth?" asks Ryan Gosling.
"February 29th, 1971," I say without pause.
"Well, you're 45 then," he says.
"Don't be fucking ridiculous!" I spit.
The thing with the soldiers wasn't the last time this happened, though; I cracked my head open on the corner of an antique display case in Barry the Barber's shop recently and Little John was with me. I stood up awkwardly and ripped my scalp open on the hard wooden edge. "I'm OK! I'm OK!" I said as I swayed around, but I could feel a warm spray on my face and then thick droplets of blood spattered across Barry's black and white tiles. It's a good place to cut your head open, the barber's. They have those sinks for leaning back into. Shower heads to rinse you down with. White towels to dry you and stem the flow. The whole mess was cleaned up in minutes. While Barry was washing the last of the blood down the sink, I shouted to John: "Are you OK, mate? Not afraid? It looks much worse than it is." He shook his head, not looking up from the book he was staring at.
Later, on the bus home, John inspected my scalp and patted me on the head. "Don't worry," he reassured me. "I was a little bit scared."
I have a five-year-old son. I became a dad when I was 40.
"I'm sorry. Of course I'm 45," I tell Ryan Gosling, full of contrition.
Except it's not Ryan Gosling. It's a paramedic with a diamond ear stud, a rakish haircut and a rainbow-coloured enamel badge saying: LGBT Paramedics Association. Lucky gentleman or gentlemen of East London.
45. How did that happen?
Things are coming into somewhat sharper focus now. I have had concussion more times than I will ever be able to remember. On my first weekend away with Maria to Brighton 13 years ago to watch Arthur Lee play live, I surfed a wave of alcohol all the way down to the coast. I fell over on the train when it braked suddenly, head-butting a glass partition. Then, later that night down the Lanes, I knocked myself out on a sign screwed to the ceiling of a pub saying: "Please mind your head." And later still, after leaning out of a moving cab to shout at someone I thought I recognised, I broke my nose on the partially rolled-up window. The next day I could barely remember my name.
What a fucking oaf. How did I even make it to 45?
"Can I phone my girlfriend please?" I ask.
Operating my phone is near impossible. It's like I'm in a nightclub at 4AM on a handful of zesty pingers.
"There's been an accident, I'm afraid... knocked off my bike. I'm in an ambulance... Homerton. No... No. No, I'm fine. It's something and nothing. Can you come though? Thanks."
I could murder a drink. The paramedic hands me a little, slightly flimsy frosted plastic cup of water.
"The first thing you do when you get to work is to organise the files," a voice in my head is repeating.
I need to phone someone. We have a workie coming in today I need to let her know that no one will be in the office. I try looking through my iPhone's address book for my work colleagues but I can't remember anyone's surname. I am pretty sure they're called Luke Skywalker, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Bale, but they don't appear to be in my contacts.
"What is it that you do?" asks the paramedic while taking my pulse.
I pause and think about it: "I'm a writer."
"What sort?" he asks, shining a light into my eyes.
"Not a very good one", I spit. "Too many mixed metaphors. I don't speak from a solid philosophical or political foundation. I get easily distracted during the editing stage. I use the word literally too often. My lack of a proper further education really shows in nearly everything I write. I lack the fundamental streak of cruelty one should have. My entire ethical code, as much as I have one, is based entirely on obsessive re-watching of The Walking Dead series two to five inclusive. And I'm not as funny as I used to be since I stopped taking drugs."
"No, I mean, what do you write about?" he says.
I stop and think very hard before it dawns on me: "Oh... I'm a music journalist. Oh..."
We set off for Homerton A&E at a snail's pace and, at one point, we even pull over to let another ambulance with sirens sounding pass.
At A&E Maria arrives full of concern, care and questions. She takes control. I am free to sink down into the trolley I'm on and count and recount the number of cracks on my cycle helmet. They number five no matter how many times I repeat the process. But I can't be sure, so I order another recount and begin again from scratch: one, two, three, four, five...
My doctor tests my muscle responses and addresses Maria: "The first thing you do when you get to work is to organise the files. His files are disorganised. They need to be put back in the right drawers and filing cabinets."
My head is lurching this way and that. Things aren't snapping back to normal.
The doctor continues: "I think he will be fine, but because he was knocked unconscious and because he had concussion for 20 minutes we need to be on the safe side. He must have cognitive rest."
I start laughing like I've just heard the punchline of a very funny joke, but no one joins in so I stop.
"He will get a headache soon. His files are being reorganised. He needs complete cognitive rest. If he does not get complete cognitive rest this headache will last for six weeks. So that means, for two weeks – no reading, no TV, no internet, no emails. And if he has to do any of those things after a week, he should have a long break; so an hour on, an hour off.
"He should not even have conversations. If someone insists on talking to him, he should just shrug, nod or ignore them. He should not reply."
Even though the goal is standing wide open, Maria heroically refuses to tap the ball in, by revealing to the doctor that this is usually how I behave when people try to engage me in conversation.
An hour or so later I'm walking slowly hand in hand with Maria through the graveyard of St John's in Hackney, then we're getting on a bus to go and have fish and chips at Suttons. Later we will go together to pick Little John up from school. I know that I can count myself as lucky.
A day later I'm in sheer mental torment, lying on the couch trying to do nothing. Maria and Little John are suited and booted in the hallway, ready to disappear off out for the day. John explodes into the room, bundles of toys in his arm, over to where I'm lying pathetic and prostrate.
He starts slamming down toys on my chest. "Who do you want? Ted Glen?" Bam! He slaps down the truck and its driver so I'm staring at the rear bumper. Bam! The Greendale Rocket joins the truck. "Ajay?" Bam! Postman Pat's van makes up the trio. "Or Pat?" He doesn't wait for an answer, but tears off, leaving me staring at the rear of three vehicles.
Maria sticks her head round the door: "Remember! No internet! No reading! No DVDs! You can go for a long walk. You can go to the gym. You can go swimming. You can sort through all of your records and leave them in piles: which you're selling and which you're keeping..."
Wait a second! I don't remember the doctor mentioning the gym or my record collection...
I get up and start pacing about the front room, picking things up, looking at them, putting them back down again.
On the table is a big pad of lined paper – a cheapo refill pad with ring binder holes, a light blue margin and thin grey lines. When it is time for my son's writing practice I draw out sentences as John spells out each word to me and he then copies them underneath.
"Dear Grandma and Grandpa,
I hope you are well.
We went on the bus.
We had pizza.
We went to the swimming pool.
Love from John."
Clutching the pad to my chest I lie back down on the couch, but the longer I spend horizontal doing nothing the more my head fills up with a jumble of images, associations and ideas; and none of them are welcome. Police scuba divers. House to house enquiries. Heavy boots crunching on suburban gravel. New referenda. The echoing stairwell of a tall building at nighttime. Opening an official envelope. Waxy white hands over starched hospital sheets. An unexpected knock on the door. Voices choked on crackling phone lines. The knife amnesty bin outside of St Ignatius Church. The swastika on the bus stop outside of Stamford Hill Library.
I sit bolt upright and tear off a page. I can still see the indentation of his words. I tear off two more pages until it becomes a palimpsest of nothing. The pad is no different to the one my dad would point at when I complained of boredom four decades previously. "How can you be bored," he would say, "when you have this pad and some pens?" And he was right. But now I long for boredom and writing is the only way I can hope to achieve it.
Through the net curtains, out of the window and above the blocks of flats, there is the sky and, beyond that, the sun. I stare at it intently. The carbide drill bit of the sun carves a circle through my eyeball and through my retina. I stare at the bright white circle and count. ONE: They didn't say I couldn't write in pencil on paper. TWO: I just need to make some notes. THREE: I mean, I actually need to because how does the headache of the concussed and cognitively unrested... FOUR: ...compare to the headache of the writer who is told not to write? FIVE: So I'll just make some notes, because for everything else in life there is always Paracetamol.
Thanks to the dog walker, the postman, the paramedic, the ambulance driver, the nurse and the doctor who sorted me out. And thanks also to Maria. Apologies to Luke Skywalker, Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Bale and anyone else who has been inconvenienced by my absence from work