Ten seconds—that’s how long Jonathan Footerman was dead after he flew over the handlebars of his motorcycle.
Not long, ten seconds. I could scarcely believe the stocky, helpful man who estimated that I was on the tarmac for no longer than that. He should know—he had seen me dive over the handlebars. But I was sure I had died and gone away, dragged back after some interval by a contrary instinct that would not let me sleep in the middle of the carriageway. How could a mere ten seconds have passed before I sat up wondering why I had refused the sandman’s invitation?
I was tired after a patch of poor nights, and rode my 600cc motorcycle into an island which I know is there on a stretch of road that I ride every day. Over-familiarity, said Guy, in Honda, who sold it to me seven years ago, and told me his own story. Everybody has one, you see. The bloke in the cafe who gave me a cup of tea had one, and showed me the road rash under his forearm. Well, I had a swollen left wrist which had taken the impact through the handlebar, a watch ripped off the strap, a metal spectacle case flattened in my jacket pocket, a little finger bleeding from the cuticle and a big toe swelling up in my right shoe. Also, pain from the sternum to the left armpit from a severe impact on my chest. That is what killed me.
There is a period between impact and taking stock which is blank. I have to admit I am familiar with that, a few moments of excess sensory input which the mind is not quick enough to organise and retain (well, perhaps I should say that my mind is not). I cannot even recall the impact, or where the bike went. I just go from front-wheel-about-to-hit-massive-kerb to I-am-flat-on-the-ground-and-cannot-breathe. I was aware of more or less how I got there and not especially upset as I reserved thoughts about repairs for later. But there was a heavy, cramping pain on my chest that would not let me inhale, like being severely winded; except that when you get a smack in the solar plexus, you wait for the pain to pass and heave a noisy breath. I had such an experience as a teenager when a late pass of the rugby ball led to an unbroken fall under the weight of my large tackler. The referee, who could hurl a javelin to Olympic distances without moving his feet, stood my ten stone body up like a toppled ornament and began waving fingers at it, demanding how many. I knew the answer, and would have said so if only I could get my breath back.
On this occasion, I also wanted to breathe, knowing that I ought to, without the sensation of panic that normally accompanies oxygen starvation. The cramp on my chest, which was coloured the green of summer hay before it dries (not as lush as Irish grass, I thought inconsequentially), seemed to be permanent. I relaxed, and looked for muscles that might bypass the cramp, without success. There was no point in trying to move until I could breathe, I thought, but I felt quite comfortable. No other sensations, no sounds or smells were demanding attention or disturbing me, and in such a vein I drifted away on the waters of unmindfulness, and died.
I never knew how easy it would be until it happened. It does not seem fair. Dylan Thomas might urge us not to go gentle and I agree, but how do you fight if you don’t know the battle is on? There was an instant of pleasure, of release and muscular abandonment that is familiar as the moment before sleep, a mental not a physical sensation that is best in the easy flow of childhood, or after a day of exertion. But I did not choose to go: I simply felt no worries, in the antipodean idiom, and before I knew it was imminent I knew nothing at all. The moment came and went without notice, and I left with no last message in mind. Departure, but no farewell. Death is like that: abrupt, discourteous.
Reboot. Tarmac in close-up. That’s odd. Hmmm. Going back to sleep. No, better not. Why not, I’m comfortable? It’s cold. Tut, it’s very nice except for that. Better have a look. Oh, all right then.
Traffic noise. What is happening? No idea. Who am I? Leave that aside for a moment. Where am I? On the ground, beside an island, nice lady, strong man, hairy arms. What is happening? Ah, I just got it. Chest hurts. Wonder if I can stand.
People must have spoken, but no voices crossed my perception until someone said “He’s getting up.” I tottered to the pavement with the help of the two angels, sat down on a low wall while some men manoeuvred the bike into a parking space, bleeding coolant from a broken hose and oil from a smashed engine casing. The ambulance was coming, delayed by another motorcycle accident in the same road at the same time, with serious injury. Credit to the emergency services: what might have caused terminal confusion was competently dealt with. I waited in the nearby cafe, and spent the afternoon in A&E where X-rays revealed nothing requiring more than anti-inflammatories and pain-killers.
In my 60th year, I carry 100 lbs in addition to the 170 lb I ought to, and hit the ground at speed with a rucksack on my back, without breaking any bones. I must be part Neanderthal, I observed to my girlfriend.
“Nah,” she said pithily, “you bounced.”
Can’t argue with that. I was ten seconds dead. But I seem to have bounced.
Image credit: sprklg/Flickr