The shopping nearly killed me

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST noise was a squawk of brakes, and then a momentary lull in the noise of traffic, like a great animal taking a breath. And then an odd sound, which I quickly realised was the sound of six or seven people all running towards me. Out of sequence, the sensation of flying through the air, and, as the Tarmac hit my face, it wasn't as if I were falling on to it, but as if it were being dropped on to me, like a stone trapdoor falling on my head.

I leapt up immediately, worrying, for some reason, about my glasses. Where were they? Ah yes; there, on my face. So it wasn't as bad as all that. "I'm fine," I said to the little crowd of concerned faces. "A lucky escape, all in all." "Are you OK?" one of them, a traffic warden, said. "Yes," I said. "I'm fine. So I'll just be on my bike and off."

I went towards my bicycle, as if to pick it up, but the traffic warden was too quick for me. "Just go and sit down," he said. "I'm calling an ambulance." I tried a little shrug and a grin at the others at this absurd proposal, but they wouldn't grin back; they just looked at me, their faces deeply worried. And it suddenly hurt like mad to smile. I put my hand to my face. My jaw was wet and hot, and when I looked at my hand, there was some blood on it.

"I'm fine," I said again. "I'll be all right if I just sit for a moment." The traffic warden returned from the other side of the road, where he had been using a stranger's mobile phone. "The ambulance won't be long," he said. "Is there anyone you want us to call?" I looked around me, almost for the first time. I was lying on a pavement in Millbank, almost opposite a building I used to work in. "My best friend," I said carefully, "still works in that building, over there. Can you go in and see if he's around? And you'll need to call Laurent as well, to - Christ, my arm -" All I wanted to say was what now seemed terribly urgent, that I had to let Laurent know that I might be a bit late for supper with him that evening. But the savage pain in my right arm beat me to it, and my head started to swim.

I was out cold for a few seconds, and when I came round, my mate Janet was there, mysteriously. Beside her, the little group of passers-by was still there - the traffic warden, the receptionist from No 4 Millbank, an ex-colleague of mine, a couple of policemen and a passing dentist. Thank God, I thought, I had a crash in London, where people look after each other. In a Dorset village, they'd probably have left me in the gutter for hours. "Can you remember everything?" the dentist asked, holding my arm with scrupulous firmness. "Did you hit your head? Where does it hurt? Do you know how it happened?"

"It must have been my own stupid fault," I said. "I think my shopping fell into the front wheel of my bicycle. My teeth are fine, though." Not even the dentist seemed to think this was funny. One of the policemen hadn't heard. "Was it a car?" he asked. "Did you get his number?" "OSF," I said apologetically. "Own Stupid Fault. Sorry. Where's my bicycle? Is it OK? I only got it last week - Christ -" and then I fainted again, knowing with total resignation, as I went under, that there was something terribly wrong with my arm.

"Your bicycle is fine," Janet was saying composedly as I resurfaced. "Now, who should I call?" I thought, then remembered I'd made this request before. "Can you phone Laurent?" I said, not quite remembering why. She nodded, and dialled the number I gave her. "- Chelsea and Westminster," I heard her say as she was getting into the ambulance with me. "Yes, see you there."

And in the end it wasn't too bad. A broken right elbow, and a spectacularly cut-up chin; I still have two fingers on my left hand to type with, and no permanent damage. It's good, in a way, to be reminded of your body by its incapacities, to be made to think of your right arm as it hangs uselessly, a surprising weight, round your neck. To be reminded, too, that people, even in London, are good and kind, and don't walk past someone lying bleeding in the gutter, despite what we like to believe. Good, too, to be made to apologise to everyone around you for hours on end. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," I kept saying, and was still saying it hours later, coming out of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital with my date for dinner. "But I didn't mean you to come down to the hospital," I said. "I only wanted them to call and tell you I was going to be held up." "That's OK," he said. "I didn't have anything else to do."

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