When I mentioned it to my friend, Jennifer, as a reason for postponing our meeting – coffee and catch-up in the upper floor café at Foyles bookshop – she was briskly solicitous. “A fall, was it, or a FALL?”
I knew what she meant.
When my father first fell, really fell, he was getting off the bus outside where he and my mother lived, a small council block where the road levels out across from the reservoir on Dartmouth Park Hill. Bag of shopping in one hand, the other touching the railing of the bus briefly before stepping clear, he could as well, in that moment, have been stepping into space. Nothing until he landed heavily on one side, the few bits and pieces from his bag spilling out – sugar, tea, a small Hovis, frozen peas – his hip broken.
The ambulance took him to the Whittington, a little higher up the hill, and though he was treated and in time discharged – discharged too soon with a walking frame he rarely used – it was the slow beginning of the end. Within those moments he had begun the journey from being a physically confident elderly man in his 70s – he still talked about getting back on his bike – to someone whose movement and memory were increasingly uncertain, who was never the same again.
My first serious fall (or FALL) occured ten years or so ago, when I was in my early 70s. My partner, Sarah, and I were amongst the crowd hurrying away from White Hart Lane, a bustling thicket of mostly Spurs supporters spreading across Tottenham High Road on their way home. We were hurrying more than was safe, more than was necessary, stepping off and on the kerb into the road and back again. I saw the coil of orange wire before I could react to it, before my foot snagged inside it and the force of my movement sent me crashing to the ground. Some people stepped around me; others stopped to help. Somehow Sarah manoevred me towards the nearest shop – a women’s hairdressers – and asked if I could sit down while I recovered. One of the customers was a nurse, who, after a cursory examination, said we should phone for an ambulance: she thought I had dislocated my shoulder.
Not so many minutes later, or so it seemed – I think I might have been moving in and out of consciousness – I was strapped in the body of the ambulance, Sarah holding my hand while I gulped down gas and air and the driver used his siren to get us through the crowd and on our way to Whipps Cross Hospital.
An ex-ray proved the off-duty nurse to have been correct in her diagnosis; the doctor on duty gave me a choice of local or general anaesthetic while my shoulder was reset; without hesitation I chose the latter and around an hour later I woke up in the recovery ward with my shoulder back in place and an appointment with the physio department at the Whittington Hospital. Yes, that Whittington Hospital.
Since then, a minor fall some five years back when I failed to negotiate a kerb correctly, resulting in a minor fracture in my right hand – more trips to the Whittington, more physio – the occasional stumble out walking on Hampstead Heath – nothing serious, and then, two weeks ago, two weeks ago today, as Sarah and I were walking at a perfectly resonable pace along Goodge Street in Central London, on our way to see an exhibition of Caroline Walker’s paintings at the Fitzrovia Chapel, Sarah inadvertantly trod on one of my laces which had come undone, and I was pitched forward onto the pavement, face first.
Blood was gushing – yes, really – gushing from my nose and the back of my neck hurt like hell. People came running out of the adjacent restaurant with tissues, ice & offers of help; a passing London cabbie stopped and offered to take me to the nearest A&E, which he did, refusing a fare.
After due examination, I was admitted to the Acute Medical Unit at UCLH with a nasal bone fracture, a fractured wrist, two fractured ribs, and, most worrying, a spinal fracture at C1 (the top of the spinal column). After six days, various ex-rays and an MRI, I was discharged. My nose and ribs have been designated “self healing”, my wrist and lower arm are in plaster, and for the spinal fracture I have a neck collar – the fancifully named Miami J – to be worn 24/7 for twelve weeks. Fortunately pain is minimal, though sleep doesn’t come easy, and friends have stepped up to help Sarah remove and re-fit the collar every couple of days, for neck cleaning and general maintenance.
I’m wary about walking without assistance and it’s only the last couple of days that I’ve made it to the coffee shop around the corner without hanging onto Sarah’s arm. We both understand the importance of getting beyond that as soon as possible.
So … a fall or a FALL?
Time will tell.
Balance at our age is everything:
Like a perfect sentence depending
on that all-important semi-colon;
Everything up to and including
the final full stop.
from Summer Notebook, John Harvey 2021