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"A LUCKY ESCAPE"


I'm late and I'm on foot. I'm never late and I never walk. I drive everywhere. But the damn car wouldn't start this morning. I couldn't even take the wife's car. She's away for a few days at a conference in Nottingham. I have a really important meeting at work this morning and there is no time to call someone to sort out the car.

So it's a London bus for me and it had better not get stuck in traffic because I really do have to make that meeting at the office. It's a board meeting at which we're probably going to wind up the company. I'll be voting for that – you can only take so many years of falling revenues and minimal profit. I'll be fine – I've got options. It means redundancies for all the staff but that's business.

I almost run down the hill, panting because I do so little exercise and because my briefcase is heavy with papers for the crucial board meeting. I curve round the corner and nearly knock over a young mother hand in hand with her two youngsters on the way to school. Galloping down the main road, I can see a bus approaching from the opposite direction. I don't know if it's mine. I can't see the number yet.

It's bitterly cold and my breath comes in sharp billows like an old steam train. Oh, no. It's my bus and I'm not yet at the stop and it's on the other side of the road and the traffic is speeding past in both directions. The departing passengers are off and all but two of the new riders have boarded. I have mere seconds.

Quick look backwards and forwards, lightning calculation of directions and speeds of oncoming vehicles. I can do this. Cross one lane of traffic. Last passenger about to board the bus. Dart into second lane. Then the world seems to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n.

Like a scene in a movie played in slow motion, I stand transfixed in the road as a metallic blue car overtakes the bus and heads straight for me. I know that the driver – a middle-aged woman - has seen me because her eyes are wide and her mouth is wider. I know that she's slammed down on the brakes because a terrifying screeching sound is shattering my ears. What I don't know is how much frost is on the road and how much impact it will have on the braking distance.

No, it's not a movie; it's a television programme. The frame of the front window of the car acts like the outline of a television set and I'm viewing the woman driver as if she's on the screen in my living room. The odd thought occurs to me that perhaps she is having a similar experience since she is looking at me as if I'm a character on her screen.

Then the world stops. Silence ...

**********

The car has halted and I'm still standing but the bonnet is literally touching my clothes at thigh level. I can feel the warmth and marvel at the curvature. That was some lucky escape - but I have no time to think about it or to apologise to the driver. I shrug my shoulders a little and give a forlorn wave as acknowledgement of the distress I've caused her and then dart around the front of the bus and just make it inside as the pneumatic doors are wheezing shut. I always thought that bus rides would be jerky affairs but we seem to float as if on a gentle river.

Sitting on the bus, I can hear my heart pounding inside my ribcage and I swear that I can feel my blood coursing through my veins. I'm literally shaking. I could have been killed there. If that poor driver is shocked, she's not the only one.

I recall that film with Gwyneth Paltrow called “Sliding Doors” and reflect on how a split second can change the direction of one's life. I think of the Philip Pullman trilogy “His Dark Materials” and the idea of parallel universes. Perhaps in a parallel universe, the car hit me and I was injured. Perhaps in another universe, it went over me and I was killed.

I read somewhere that, in a sense, we should live our lives as if each day is our last – and one day we'll be dead right. Of course, we don't know which day is going to be our last and, if we did, it would no doubt shape that day – and many days before it. Today could have easily been my final one. I ponder on what it might mean to live each day as if it might be my last. I really have no idea what that might involve. Maybe today would be a good time to start finding out.

**********

I traverse this road much more carefully and dart into the revolving doors of my company's offices. I dash across the reception hall heading for the lifts when a shout halts me in my tracks: “Mr Wallace! I have a message for you.”
“Not now, Anjie. I have a really important board meeting” I insist, somewhat intemperately.
“That's the point, Mr Wallace. The board meeting has been postponed until this afternoon. Your PA tried to call you on your mobile but there was no answer.”
My mobile? On the car seat ...

It turns out that a vital new paper is being prepared for the meeting which will now be held immediately after lunch. Wonderful – so I needn't have rushed and almost got killed. As the sense of urgency is lifted, I realise that what I want more than anything else is a strong coffee. I'm gliding down the corridor to the drinks machine and pass a colleague's PA. She looks me in the eyes and greets me: “Mr Wallace. How are you you?” I barely register her look and instinctively react: “How are you?”

As we pass one another, I freeze in mid gait. This is ridiculous. How can the answer to a question be the same question? I've conducted this type of bizarre exchange a million times and never noticed how utterly meaningless it is. I twist around and call out: “Alison! Really – how are you?”
She looks stunned – as well she might. This is not the Mr Wallace she knows and no doubt for whom she cares little.
I walk up to her and touch her lightly on the upper arm: “How are things?”
She surprises me by looking doubtful and then tearful. She offers - with some reluctance I feel: “To be honest, not so good, Mr Wallace.”
“Please – call me Dominic.” I think a moment and then suggest: Would you like to talk about it?”
“Do you have the time?” she inquires doubtfully.
“Let's go to the cafe across the road. I'll buy you a coffee and you can tell me about it.”

Alison tells me what is troubling her and I can see exactly why she was distressed. Her mother is having treatment for breast cancer and is finding it debilitating. Her father is suffering the early stages of Alzheimer's and is not really able to cope with his wife's illness. Her brother lives in Australia and she is the only family member on hand to help. I have no answers but I listen and she seems to appreciate this. Indeed when we return to the company's premises an hour later, as we part outside her office she almost whispers: “Thank you so much for your concern, Dominic. It really helped to talk.” Then she raises herself on her toes and kisses me on the cheek. The kiss is so gentle and so sweet it could have come from an angel.

**********

Back in my office, I find a heavy sealed envelope marked 'commercial in confidence'. It is the new paper for the board meeting: details of a possible new contract, a really large one, that could save the company if we are willing to take the gamble. I carefully absorb its contents and evaluate the opportunities which are considerable and the risks which are enormous.

I feel dizzy – but it's not the complexities of the financial spreadsheets. So I carefully make my way to the sick room, slump onto the edge of the low bed, and reluctantly unbelt my trousers. The whole of my lower body hurts so much and, as I stare downwards, ugly charcoal bruises appear on my upper thighs and spread out like ink on blotting paper until both legs look like charred pillars in the remnants of a fire.

This is not good – but I just have to be at that board meeting. For the first hour, I merely sit there and say nothing, listening, observing, noting. The original paper had proposed closing the company – the sensible option, the safe one for the directors, if the end of the line for the staff. But the late paper on the possible new contract offers an alternative that wasn't expected when the meeting was planned. Opinion is evenly divided and, as the debate swings from one position to the other, it becomes clear that my voice and my vote will be decisive.

This is not what I'd expected. I'd been ready to back what I had been sure would have been the consensus decision to terminate the company. We'd had a good run but market conditions are currently impossible and it was time to call it a day. But now it's different. There's a different option on the table. More importantly, I'm different.

I struggle to follow the debate and to weigh the options. The pain now seems to have gripped my whole body and I breath in gasps which I seek to hide from my board colleagues. My vision is blurred and my hearing weak. It's as if I'm on the other side of a dark glass which distorts the view and blocks the sound. I must focus. Again I say to myself: I can do this.

At last, I enter the debate and put the case for accepting the new contract with all its risks. It will save the company. It will save people's jobs. My voice sounds weird to me, as if my mouth is full of stones. But the board makes a decision, the brave decision, the right decision. The meeting ends and the news spreads through all the offices like a tsunami of hope.

I am in no position to share in the relief and the rejoicing. I stumble back to the sick room. Until today, I can only recall making one visit to this place when I slashed a thumb on the edge of a new sheet of paper. Now I'm back again.

I fumble to lower my trousers and squint in pain at the new view of my legs. I peer down in disbelief as viscose blood ever so slowly oozes from thighs, knees and shins like oil from the ground around a well. But this is not sandy desert but my skin. This is not black petroleum but crimson haemoglobin. Some of the blood coagulates and detaches itself from my lower body heading for the floor. Just before it hits the ground, it seems to hang suspended for a second before smashing into the tiles.

I grab a towel and gently dab the blood from my body. The oozing seems to have ceased. I desperately need to be home. I am so, so tired. I need to rest.

**********

The hill from the main road up to my home has never seemed so mountain-like. And it is even colder than this morning. Perhaps it will snow. I feel as if I could just lie down here and wait for the white stuff to blanket me and soothe me. But I know that this is madness. For the third and hopefully last time today, I tell myself that I can do this – and somehow I do. The house is a refuge from all that has happened to me today but it is also a sepulchre; unlit and empty (my wife is not back until tomorrow).

As I stand in the hall, I ponder. I simply cannot recall using my key or opening the door. It's as if I've somehow just passed through. I look over at the hall mirror. Gosh, I look as white as a ghost. As I shuffle forwards, there is a rustling at my feet: some mail. One marked 'lottery' catches my eye and I feel compelled to open it. Probably some new game or offer. No - I've won a prize! How much? £314,159. Incredible!! For the first time today, I smile broadly. This is not enough to make us rich, but it's sufficient to make a real difference to our lives. We can pay off the mortgage which will give us some genuine lifestyle options.

Ruth is not going to believe it when she comes back tomorrow and I tell her about my day. If things had been fractionally different, if that car had killed me, I doubt that I would have been so supportive of Alison, I don't think I would have taken the bolder course at the board meeting, and I certainly wouldn't have been around to take advantage of this financial windfall.

I ought to call her now but pain and nausea are hitting me like waves against a sandbank and I'm afraid I'm about to crumble. My fatigue is like a dead weight. I need to sleep ....

**********

I wake ... Somehow I had reached the bedroom, thrown off my clothes, and crawled under the duvet. For a time, I had managed to leave the pain behind. But then the throbbing begins, becoming more and more insistent. The agony is bad enough but laid upon that, like a load upon the duvet, there is a sense of disorientation or dislocation that simultaneously chills my spirit and bathes my face in perspiration. Something is wrong, very wrong.

I pull back the duvet and throw it to one side. I drag myself into a sitting position and carefully manoeuvre my legs over the edge of the bed. Before I attempt to stand, I flick on the bedside lamp – and then I recoil in horror. Projecting out of my left shin, like a branch stripped of its bark, is a bone with a jagged edge, smeared with blood and festooned with bits of sinew and muscle.

I am terrified and revolted in equal measure. I cannot leave my leg looking like this. Steadying myself on the bed with my right hand, I lean down and press the fingers of my left hand against the top surface of the exposed bone, attempting to slide it back into the gaping slit running down my shin. Nothing moves. I take a deep breadth and push harder. The bone snaps back into the sheath of torn skin as a thunderbolt of pure white pain throws me back on the bed and renders me unconscious.

**********

I wake again ... This time the bed seems to be hanging in space. Constellations of tiny lights dance and spin before my semi-open eyes. White-robed angelic figures drift in and out of blurred vision. Unfamiliar smells waft towards me. Muffled sounds announce an ethereal location. Eons of time seem to pass.

Then I hear voices.

“Mrs Wallace! Mrs Wallace!! Over here please. Your husband is coming round.”

“Oh, Dom. Darling Dom. They said that, when you were first pulled out from under that car, they thought you were dead. They told me that you could be in a coma for weeks or months. But I knew that you'd come back to me - and one day you will walk again.”


ROGER DARLINGTON

Published on 17 February 2010

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