Three days before the summer holiday when I was nearly 9 years old I fell through a greenhouse and sliced my leg in two. A half moon red-faced chunk of a smile stared back at me when I looked down and some of my leg seemed to be missing. Quite a large bit of it, as it happens. I knew I was in trouble. Not just with Mr Cundill for messing up his greenhouse, and not just my mother – who would be furious with the state of my shorts – but really, really in trouble. Not being able to walk trouble. And if I couldn’t walk that meant I couldn’t run. Not running was trouble.
Tracey Cundill was mouthing words at me but I wasn’t catching them. I turned my head to the side and really stared. Was Tracey actually even speaking to me? Tracey pointed to me then the greenhouse and then my leg and then she screamed.
“I’m sorry about the greenhouse,” I said.
There was glass everywhere. Really, a whole window of glass. It was a mess and when I looked I noticed that there were spots of my blood all over Mr Cundill’s tomatoes.
They probably wouldn’t be able to eat them.
“I’m sorry about the tomatoes,” I said.
Tracey went through the same pointing and screaming routine at least twice more and then she left. It wasn’t like her to be so incoherent: she was one of the cleverest girls in my class. It was, however, typical of Tracey to run away and just as typical that she was going to tell my mother that it wasn’t her fault that I’d come a cropper in her yard. Neither Michaela nor Dawn, my other friends, would have done that to me. They’d have stuck with me through thick and thin, they’d have let me tell my mother my own story. They’d have at least tried to help me get home. Tracey always had an eye for the main chance. She was a survivor.
I shifted my weight on to my good leg and then started to work out how I could drag the gaping one across Tracey’s yard, over the road and into my own yard. Once I got going it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. Slow, but also not as sore as I thought a gaping hole should be. It didn’t hurt that much at all. Not that I could look at it any more – because the last time I did I saw yellowy cream bits in there and that scared me.
When I was halfway across the road I could hear Tracey shouting; “Mrs B, Mary has broken her leg!”
“Where is she love?” I heard my mam say.
“She’s walking across the road!”
And then I heard my mam laugh, a big belly laugh that echoed all round the street. At least she was in a good mood I thought. At least she wouldn’t actually kill me.
My mother stopped laughing as soon as she saw it. Her face crumpled like a dishcloth. She swore quite a bit too. I knew it was best to wait until she was through with all that before I spoke… Then the questions came thick and fast. There were lots of questions about what I’d done to myself and what I was playing at that I couldn’t answer. The blood had started to pool around my ankle and my sock which had been pristine white, was now red. My mother disappeared and I heard a call to the emergency services. She didn’t scream, which was a bonus.
“Why are you standing out there for?” my mam said.
“I’m not messing up your floor, mam.” I felt brave, superhuman.
“I don’t care about the floor,” she said.
She did care about the floor though; and the towel, that we threw between us for a while.
“Use the towel love, to stem the flow.”
“No.” I said. This was the most defiant I had ever been.
We were still passing the towel between us when the ambulance men arrived.
“Blimey – got a bit of a scratch have you darling?”
“Always been the master of understatement Dave,” his mate said in the direction of my mother.
Dave started to bandage my leg. It felt tight.
“You’d better get your stuff love… and some night clothes for Flossie Teacake here.”
“I’m called Mary,” I said.
When we got into the street a crowd had gathered around the blue flashing lights of the ambulance. There was a traffic jam of people. Me – in a wheelchair now – waved to everyone. It was like being a celebrity and I knew as we drew away I would be the talk of the neighbourhood. Everyone would know the story by the end of the day and those who didn’t would make up the details. By the end of the week no doubt I would have had my leg amputated three times and re-attached – or I’d have had a leg transplant and would have one leg permanently longer than the other.
There was some kerfuffle when we finally arrived in A and E. Firstly, I’d had sweets which meant that I couldn’t be put to sleep. Secondly, and inexplicably, I told my mother that I wanted my dad. I knew this had wounded her, but I had no idea just how deeply this had hit her until years and years later, when she confessed it to me when she thought that she might die of cancer. She didn’t, and I spent the 30 years following that feeling like an utter moron for saying such a thing. I was 8. I was weak. And I was a daddy’s girl.
The details were bad but I had been lucky. The doctors said I’d missed the main artery by two millimetres. I didn’t really know what a main artery was but I could tell by the way the doctor looked at me a bit ashen and downbeat that it was a good thing I’d missed it. I stared back and forth between my mam and dad, who looked as though they hadn’t slept for a week and they smiled weakly. I was alive. I’d never noticed my mam’s grey hair until then or the lines on my dad’s face particularly around his eyes.
At about midnight, I was deemed fit enough to go down to theatre. My mother and my father had gone home, and I recall the tribe of doctors and nurses who steered the trolley I was on down the corridor. The taste of the rubber from the mask is a distinct but thankfully distant memory: I was told to count myself to sleep. When I awoke, I’d had 84 stitches. 61 inside and 23 outside. If this doesn’t seem that many think of the average 8 year old’s leg. I was very lucky.
The next day my brother and sister had arrived.
“You’re alive then,” my brother, K said, “I had to clean up the blood with Laurie next door. It was everywhere.”
My sister, KM brought me a comic. And didn’t say very much.
“There was flesh and stuff. Up the walls. Everywhere. Wouldn’t go down the drain. Everywhere. You know you’ve had a blood transfusion – that means you’ve got someone else’s blood in you. It could be an evil murderer. Or a Zombie.” K was excited.
“You’re only jealous,” I looked at KM. “Are you okay?”
“I should have been looking after you,” she said. “I’m supposed to keep my eye on you.”
“It could be a vampire’s. Or a werewolf’s. You’ll probably howl at the moon from now on whenever it’s full. It could be a crazed lunatic’s or a Druid or something.”
“It’s probably just the butcher’s,” I said.
Tracey and Dawn visited that evening. Their parents were very good – and Mr Cundill didn’t shout at me for messing up his greenhouse. He said that he’d given my mother some beetroot and would be taking the rest of the greenhouse down. “I didn’t know it was dangerous,” he said apologetically as he and Dawn’s mam retreated to the waiting room to give the us girls ‘space.’
“It’s only dangerous if you’re standing on it.” I said.
“He’s really upset.” Tracey looked around. “It smells a bit funny in here.”
“Probably thought he was going to be sued.” Dawn said. Tracey frowned as if to say he didn’t but didn’t speak.
“Can I see your scar?” Dawn was not backwards in coming forwards.
“It’s wrapped up. I haven’t seen it meself yet.”
“Me mam said you’d had 84 stitches. She said that’s more than you cast on for a jumper!”
I noticed a slight waver in Tracey’s stare. I looked at her, but she did not waver again.
“She’s not very well.” Dawn said. “Got a headache.”
“Is she going to come up to see me?”
They didn’t answer and talked about school instead – about the excitement of the last day of the year coming up, that I would miss.
A succession of people did come up to the hospital to see me – Uncle John and Aunt Vi brought me ten bars of chocolate which my mam said I would have to share with K and KM (which wasn’t fair), my teacher – Mrs Sweeney – gave me a jigsaw. Aunt Vic sent me a bundle of colouring stuff bought cheap off the market (“Probably fall to bits in a matter of seconds,” my mam said, curtly). Mrs Binchy from next door bought me some fruit, and my mam didn’t say I would need to share that! Loads of people came, but Michaela never did.
There was a very good reason for this, of course…
(To be continued…)