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Sunday, 2017-10-22, 10:04 AM
Abraham's Hill Part I
I wonder if we all have one – a story about when we almost died. I didn’t realise how close I’d come until many years after the incident when I saw an item on the news about a young black boy called Damilola Taylor. He was stabbed in the leg in a dingy stairwell somewhere in South London and bled to death in less than ten minutes after a major artery in his inner thigh was severed. He didn’t stand a chance. No one who gets that wound survives unless expert medical help is immediately available. Even then there are no guarantees. The Hollywood movie Black Hawk Down shows an American soldier with a thigh wound bleeding to death despite the desperate attempts of the medics to staunch the flow of blood.
As I listened to the news about Damilola, I started thinking of my own childhood in Cumbernauld New Town, just outside Glasgow. I lived in an outlying district called Abronhill, the curious name being a corruption of ‘Abraham’s Hill’. A name like that promises miracles and Abronhill was certainly a miracle of scenic hills, dense woods, and long, lush grass. Like all of Cumbernauld, it had been designed according to a principle of separating people from traffic: it was possible to walk for miles without ever encountering any traffic lights thanks to the elaborate network of paths, bridges and tunnels. It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast with the grim high-rise, high-density housing estates of South London where Damilola lived. He must have spent a lot of time dodging traffic, coughing from the fumes of thousands of cars. I think he was originally from Nigeria. I can’t recall if he had any brothers or sisters.
Our lives could hardly have been more different, yet I think about him a lot. When I do, I picture myself as a ten-year-old, exactly the same age as he was on his last fateful day.
It’s autumn – October, I think – and I’m in a wood playing ‘commandos’ with my older brother. I’ve been patiently waiting in position for him to appear, ready to spring my ambush. I’ve got a toy M16 semiautomatic assault rifle that makes a great ‘tat tat tat’ gunfire sound when I pull the trigger. When you hear it you know you’re dead.
It has been raining on and off for the last few days and the soil beneath me is sodden. Everything has that strange smell of wet, rotting vegetation. My clothes are filthy with long streaks of mud and my mum’s sure to kill me, but it will be worth it if I win.
There he is, my brother crawling past my hideout, tightly gripping the Luger pistol I bought him for his birthday. Gotcha! I leap up, scattering the covering of leaves, ferns and branches that I’ve expertly used to camouflage myself, and slide down the embankment, grinning manically while I blaze away with my M16.
It’s just as I’m savouring my glorious triumph – my first victory in the last month after a disastrous run – that an incredibly sharp pain tears through my right thigh. This is the worst agony I’ve ever felt in my life, a pain so hot and sharp it robs me of my breath.
As an adult, I’ve often heard people claim that when they were stabbed they didn’t feel a thing. I wonder how that can be because as a ten-year-old I knew all too well how much it hurts when something hard and sharp rips through your flesh.
My brother stares at me, panicked by my shriek, his eyes popping. Unsure what has happened, I’m now gingerly sitting on top of a collection of multi-coloured autumn leaves, soggy peat and slimy mud, gazing down at my right leg. I’m slightly breathless, slightly apprehensive, but not overly so. I can see nothing but a tiny sliver of red on the blue fabric of my trousers. I’ve seen more blood than that whenever I’ve nicked my finger. Whatever has happened it can’t be too bad.
My brother comes over and has a look. The colour is returning to his cheeks so I think he also believes that nothing serious is going on. I tell him that I felt a really bad pain in my leg but it seems OK now. He asks me to stand up but for some reason I don’t want to, or maybe I’m sensing some kind of resistance. When he sees that I’m not responding, he says maybe he should take a look. I’ll need to slide my trousers down, he tells me. It seems like the sensible thing to do.
I’m not expecting much, maybe a little scratch. But why so much pain in that first searing instant? Now, there’s no pain at all, but my reluctance to stand hasn’t disappeared. From my sitting position, I undo my belt and unfasten my trousers then I lift my backside a couple of inches off the ground to manoeuvre the trousers down my legs. My brother keeps his eyes fixed to the spot where the blood is located as I delicately edge my trousers downwards. I’m sort of watching his face and sort of watching the trousers moving closer to the bloodstain.
Then everything happens in either incredible slow motion or unbelievable high speed. It’s odd how, in a crisis, time perception changes so much that you can’t really find any context for it, so speed becomes meaningless.
I’m aware of several things at once. My brother’s face has instantly blanched and it looks as though he’s about to vomit. My trousers have descended beyond the original dots of blood but instead of revealing a slight scratch, something very different has happened. My thigh has split in two, two chunks of flesh separating from each other like the Red Sea Parting. I realise that my trousers had been holding the flesh together and now that the trousers have moved too far there is no longer anything doing the holding. It’s no minor cut I have received but a horrific wound that has virtually sliced my thigh in two.
I have a terrible taste in my mouth, as though I’ve swallowed dead leaves. Waterdrops splash on me from the high branches of a tree. Again, I’m aware of the smell of wet wood and damp soil. But, above all, I’m seeing something unbelievable. I’m looking down at a bizarre wall of red and white dots, with green and brown pulsing through them. Jesus, I’m not sure what I’m looking at. It surely can’t be my leg.
Looking back, I suppose I was seeing muscle, fatty tissue and a matrix of torn blood vessels. I’m not sure where the green and brown came from, perhaps the reflected colours of the autumn woodland. What I know for sure was that I certainly wasn’t seeing things as a normal person should. A huge blast of emergency chemicals had flooded my ten-year-old brain and my visual senses had changed dramatically. Now everything was rapidly becoming green-tinged and formless. I could no longer differentiate colours properly and I was finding it difficult to focus.
My brother’s face had been replaced by a vague greenish-white ball from which incoherent sounds were emerging. The trees had all merged together, surrounding me like some great brown giant with straggly green hair. I don’t remember the grass or the sky. I had a sense of my eyes turning around so that I was staring inwards into my own screaming brain.
My memory of what happens next is almost nil. Shock, I guess. People have told me what happened, what they did, what they saw, what they heard and maybe I can remember bits of that and maybe I can’t. Perhaps I’ve created new memories based on what people said.
What’s for sure was that I was in a bad way. I was located halfway down a steep wooded embankment above a railway line. There was a fence at the bottom of the slope and one at the top. To get out of here I would have to be carried uphill and lifted over a three-feet-high fence. What would happen to my thigh, already flapping in two places? Would it split apart completely and fall off? Can legs do that? Who knows? I’m only ten. What about the blood? On TV, blood spurts in huge gory fountains, but I’m oddly comforted that there is little sense of blood gushing out of me. Maybe my blood is as shocked as I am and refusing to move. Maybe I have no blood. Has it all gone and I didn’t notice?
I’m told that my brother raced up to our house, which was luckily only about a hundred metres away. Equally luckily, my mother and sister were at home. Strangely, I was never aware of being alone, but I must have been when my brother went for help. What did I think about it? Did I imagine I was dying? I was probably worried about getting a lecture from my mum. Didn’t I tell you not to go running around wild near that railway? Now look what you’ve done. What are we going to do with you?
I remember that she once bought me expensive training shoes for my Christmas and by the end of the day I’d managed to stand on some broken glass, piercing the sole of the right shoe, badly gashing my foot and saturating the trainers with blood. I was terrified of confessing that I’d ruined the trainers already – maybe she’d never give me a present again. I spent ages trying to clean them, but they were never the same again. In agony, I poured antiseptic over the wound on my foot. Luckily, I didn’t need stitches. The wound healed and mum never found out a thing. I hid the trainers for weeks until I could claim I’d ‘worn them in’.
My mum and sister somehow lifted me up the hill. My brother had gone into complete shock and was unable to do anything. He feels guilty about it even now. A few years ago he fainted when he had to provide a blood sample to his doctor. I guess he never got used to the sight of blood.
I was probably very light and easy to carry. Even so, it’s still hard to work out how my mum and sister got me over the fence. I can’t remember any of it. I guess they must have found a hole, or perhaps made one. Somehow, they managed to prevent the wound from growing any worse.
Next thing I know I’m lying in the kitchen of my house with my mum looking down at me, carefully assessing the damage. I can’t remember if she was shocked, angry, appalled or anything else. I know I kept saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ over and over. I’d done a bad thing and apologising was the least I could do. It’s a very bad thing indeed to be lying on your kitchen floor with your thigh sliced in two. A considerate person wouldn’t do something like that, causing all this trouble and inconvenience. But my mum was stroking my hair, telling me everything was going to be fine and that I wasn’t to worry. She was trying to make me sip some water. Had she given me an aspirin? I don’t think she believed me when I said I wasn’t in pain. I felt oddly weightless, as though I wasn’t really there. This couldn’t be happening. It all seemed too ridiculous for words.
Again, everything becomes unclear. Did my dad come back from work? But he worked miles away and it was always hard to get in touch with him because, as a Quantity Surveyor, he was frequently on building sites. Maybe it was my mum and sister again, but someone carried me up to the doctor’s surgery. It was about three hundred metres away, up another of Abronhill’s many slopes.
So, I’m lying on my stomach in a treatment room. I’ve been given immediate priority and I’m feeling sorry for all the people in the waiting room because I’ve skipped the queue and I hate it when people do that to me. A female doctor is crouched over me, examining the wound. I think my trousers are around my ankles or maybe they’ve been cut off. It doesn’t occur to me that I’m in a very undignified position. Clean underwear? Don’t know, don’t care. I just want things to be back to the way they were. I want my M16 – where is it? Please don’t stop me playing commandos. I love running around in the woods.
The doctor is speaking to me and I am tremendously reassured. It’s the way she speaks. Very calm, professional, knowledgeable. Even though I’m only ten I know I’m in the care of a highly capable person. She will do an excellent job, I don’t doubt it.
She gives me Dolly Mixtures, which I take as a sure sign that things will go well. After all, why would you waste sweets on someone who was about to die? Then again, adults are very odd. She tells me about a Tetanus injection. Maybe she mentions other injections (there must have been one to deaden the pain; of which there was still surprisingly little). All I know is that injections are coming my way and they terrify me. I have a plan. I line up several Dolly Mixtures between my teeth, my clever idea being to crunch down on them at the moment the needle pierces my skin. Rather than feeling pain I’ll taste the sweetness of the Dolly Mixtures and all will be well.
Of course, life is never so obliging. The injection is very painful and I grunt involuntarily, making the Dolly Mixtures fly out in every direction. I wonder if the doctor was distracted by the small colourful sweets suddenly shooting around her surgery. I guess not because she did an expert job. I received twenty-five stitches, in three layers. The inner two layers were supposed to be of the ‘disappearing’ sort. I’m not really sure what that means. Are they still inside my leg even now? If not, where are they? How did they disappear? As for the removal of the outer stitches several months later… well, that’s another story. Let me just say that having a nurse clean the wound with stinging antiseptic a couple of weeks before the stitches came out remains one of the most strangely and unexpectedly pleasurable experiences of my life.
It was a pleasure denied to poor little Damilola. He got his wound on the inside of his thigh, while mine was on the outside. Only inches apart technically, but in fact an entire human life. He bled to death in minutes while I was carried to a surgery, patched up and I suffered no ill effects apart from the scar on my thigh. I lost scarcely any blood. Within months, I was happily playing commandos again.
My assailant wasn’t a violent teenager with a Stanley knife but a broken milk bottle that had been carelessly tossed over the fence and wedged itself in the railway embankment. My dad found it later that day with drops of my blood still visible on it.
Every time I hear Damilola’s name I think about that incident. Scarily, it was also a broken bottle that was used to inflict his wound. He was on his way home from an after-school computer class. A few seconds earlier or later and he might never have encountered his attackers.
Life and death, it seems, are a question of inches and seconds. Those inches and seconds – I’m sure we’ve all had our close encounters with them. Maybe next time we won’t be so lucky.
Ahead of the Game
‘Twenty years ago,’ the old white man said, a ghost stepping over my dawn shadow, ‘that’s when your life stopped.’
Twenty years. So it was. Twenty years to the day since…since…I last saw her.
‘It was in the kasbah, in Casablanca,’ the old seer went on. ‘You thought you were being daring when you stepped into that opium den for an exotic "eastern experience”. Your wife told you she wanted to stroll through the bazaar, perhaps buy an oriental carpet. You never set eyes on her again.
‘For a whole year you criss-crossed Casablanca like an echo trying to hear its voice one last time. You searched every thoroughfare, every back street, every out-of-the-way alley. They were all question marks, signposts pointing only to a dwindling hope of ever finding what was most precious to you.
‘How do you know all of this?’ I yelled, unable to control myself. ‘Have you heard news? Is she alive?’
‘I can say nothing about that.’ The old man placed a clammy hand on my shoulder. ‘If you want to know more you must go to the king of the archipelago of shrunken heads. He’s another of our kind.’
‘You mean he’s white?’ I found it impossible to believe that three explorers had independently managed to find their way to this godforsaken part of the Congo.
The old man nodded. His voice dropped, as if he were whispering in church.
‘He’s as insane as the midday sun trapped in a single drop of midnight rainwater.’ His tone was oddly reverential. ‘When the Hawangi killed his beautiful wife, he lost all touch with reality. The tribesmen say he killed one hundred of them with his bare hands on that lethal day in the jungle. They threw spears at him, fired a thousand arrows, but a possessed man cannot die. Finally, the tribesmen fell on their knees and worshipped the lunatic. What else could they do? They tried to appease him by telling him how they could give his wife a kind of immortality.
‘Almost out of his mind with grief, he listened to his wife’s killers telling him they could shrink the head of his wife to the size of an orange, keeping all of its features perfectly intact. They described the intricate process, the bizarre details worked out by trial and error over many centuries. He seemed to like what he heard.
‘At any rate, he agreed. He himself beheaded the corpse of his wife, not trusting anyone else to do a good job. He took instructions in head shrinking from the elders of the tribe, so determined was he to do the gruesome task himself. The tribesmen say the greatest gods guided his hands, for there was never such a masterwork as the one he created. Love on an unimaginable scale spoke through every fibre of his craftsmanship.
‘Now he’s one of them. He’s their leader, their priest, their talisman. He goes where others cannot. He sees past people, past the world, to God only knows where.
‘He never allows any of his followers to see him. He always stands behind a curtain when he addresses his people. Only his voice, his truly uncanny voice, is heard. I have been told that his words are not words at all – they are said to be poems poured like dark wine over fields of blue tulips; seas of glittering amethysts suspended in silver waterfalls.
‘It is said that the heads of one hundred thousand men, women and children of conquered tribes lie around his village on the banks of the river. All the islands lying in the centre of that river have been levelled and the shrunken heads placed on them like a bizarre flower plantation. Row after row of the tiny heads now stare lifelessly at a world of which they can never again know anything. All of this at the behest of the white shaman. He’s obsessed with the tiny heads. The only one that is never displayed is his wife’s.
‘A huge killing field has been cleared in the heart of the jungle so that the darkness in his mind can extend across a tropical forest. He claims it’s a tribute to his wife, the blonde woman who abandoned her previous, comfortable life to be with this tempestuous lover.
‘You must go to this man and talk with him. Only he can end your crisis. He might allow you to breathe again.’
I stared at the old man and I knew he was right: I had to find this other white man. We were connected through the deaths of those we loved most. He would understand me. Maybe he could give me the answer I craved.
‘King of all I survey.’ The white man’s voice fell and did not land. A man in the ocean with no flotsam to cling to. In the sky, wingless. Surrounded by desert, with sand alone in his flask. In the snow with an empty lighter in his frostbitten hand. The man I had come to see was no man at all. His life had made him something different, a bridge stretching only half way across a river.
‘A wooden hut for a palace, illiterate savages for courtiers, a circlet of bamboo for a crown.’ His voice substituted a vacuum for a soul. ‘Do you see any garden out there?’ he went on in weird soliloquy. ‘I see only rows of tiny human heads. Nothing blooms here except death. I am the gardener of extinction. I am Bible. I am Gospel. I am all the letters returned unanswered from God.’
I longed to pull back the curtain and look at the man, to see hell in the shape of a human face looking back at me. But there were twenty tribesmen, painted from head to toe in blue dye, determine to stop me.’
‘Why did you lover her?’ the disembodied voice asked.
The question shocked me. It was everything required to unsettle me. Above all, it was a question to which I had no answer.
He laughed when I remained silent. ‘How can a woman know you love her when you say nothing?’ There was malice in his voice, contempt.
‘She knew my feelings,’ I replied lamely.
‘Did she?’ He let the comment hang. ‘Was she a Delphic priestess who could read the signs?’ he jeered. ‘When I met the woman I loved I told her she was my life, my death, my blazing Viking longship sailing over the edge of the world. She was the red-painted oxygen in my lifeblood.
‘She told me that no one had ever spoken to her like that, least of all her husband. She gave up everything to run away with me.’
A shiver, so insidious, went through me when he said that. A dreadful voice told me that he was speaking of my very own wife, the wife who had vanished without trace all those years ago. My shock seemed to paralyse me. I listened, dumb, as the madman ranted on.
‘Love is an end, never a beginning,’ he babbled. ‘It’s a tear shaped like a flower falling into a star too bright for mortal eyes. It’s a polished moonstone onto which bright mercury is being poured. The mercury runs over the whole glistening surface but can never find a resting place.
‘Love is an abyss. To somehow find it beautiful while it’s killing you is what it means to be something other than an animated corpse. Love destroyed me. I lost everything when I lost my woman. Life had to be paid back for taking my lover from me. Don’t you understand? That’s why I plant dead heads and not living flowers. I spread the desolation in my mind all over the jungle. I’m in a benighted continent, and my wish is to make it darker still.
‘I was told that you were a kindred spirit, another soul trapped in the escapeless void, another nothing in the silent emptiness, a cipher searching for a non-existent origin. But you’re just an ordinary man, with the ordinary inability to see yourself for what you are. Come back tomorrow and I shall show you everything you want to see. You will have precisely what you seek.’
Without a word, I stood up and walked away. I heard him laughing as I departed his hut. I hated him. I wanted him dead. I knew he was the man who had stolen my wife twenty years ago.
I returned at exactly the same hour the next night. My dagger seemed light in my hand, comfortable. I was surprised to find that there were no guards. Inside the hut, the madman’s curtain had been slightly pulled back…an invitation.
When I snatched back the thin gauze, I felt the abyss the lunatic had spoken of growing exponentially in my mind. I swear, the white god was swinging from the rafters by a noose fashioned by his own hand. In his left hand was clutched the most grotesque object in all the world. Like a lover hanging on to a final kiss, he was grasping the long blonde hair of the head he had worshipped for twenty years. The tiny features of the white woman’s shrunken head were preserved with perfect, uncanny accuracy.
I began to laugh, crazily, like a chimpanzee staring in a mirror. The absent tribesmen reappeared. They crept into the hut and stared at me in that special way I knew they reserved for their next leader.
I used my knife to cut free the woman’s head from the white man’s death grip. I ordered the tribesman to give the head a decent burial.
It wasn’t my wife.
It was his.