That Split Second

A short story by FIONNA BARR

It’s been cold for days. The fields around the house are covered in snow and the drive has turned into an ice rink where the car has impacted the snow. I wear my snow boots with deep treads just to cross over to the boiler room to get supplies from the freezer.

On this particular morning I back the car out of the garage with caution, wondering how far I would get along the narrow country lane leading to the village. Nigel likes his paper in the morning, for the crossword, at breakfast. The newsagent’s won’t deliver because it’s outside their catchment’s area they say. Obstreperous I call it, uncooperative.

Every day I go and fetch it, that and a pint of milk for Nigel’s porridge. He hasn’t driven since he last ripped the door off his four-wheel drive parking it on a slope in neutral, without the handbrake on. It rolled into a brick wall. He ran alongside it apparently to try and stop it. Wonder he didn’t get himself killed, I said, but he just shrugged. He often does that, shrug.

“Don’t go out without your scarf,” I say, “you’ll catch your death.” Shrug. “Mind you don’t slip on the ice in your slippers.” Shrug. I often try to protect him from danger. Men don’t see danger, do they? No risk assessment, I say, a missing gene, men.

He’s 84 years old and still taking risks; stood in a wheelbarrow the other day hammering in a post. He fell out when the wheelbarrow tipped on its side and hit his head on the fence. Blood everywhere, four stitches in A & E. I ask you. That’s my Nigel for you. “Careful, Nigel, please be careful”, I say, but it’s not a word that features in his vocabulary.

Anyway there I go nice and slow on my way to the newsagent’s. Then I think; may as well get his medication while I’m in the village: eye drops, senokot, E45. He does scratch, does Nigel, it’s the cold, you see, makes his skin itch. I am away a bit longer than I planned. There’s always a queue in the chemist. They only have one assistant and a slow one at that. Not that I’m in a hurry. Nigel doesn’t mind waiting for his porridge.

He just gets on with his chores, carrying the newspapers to the recycle box in the shed, getting kindling for the fire, picking up toys for the dog. She will leave them on the drive looking like dead animals we’ve run over in the car on our way to and from the garage. Eerie.

I drive back carefully, skidding to the side of the road once or twice. They never grit the country lanes, do they, and us paying all that council tax. Criminal, that’s what I say. As I turn into our drive I see a dark heap lying in the snow, right in front of the door.

God, not more old clothes for the church bazaar. The shed is bulging with it and it’s not till next month. I mean, people will donate any old thing, won’t they? Still, it makes money for the roof. The vicar will be pleased.

I park the car in the garage and make my way to the house, careful to avoid the icy tracks and sticking to the grass verges. “Keep to the verges,” I shouted at Nigel yesterday, but he just shrugged.

It’s not old clothes. It’s slippers on thin feet, a bit of bare leg where the trousers have rucked up, a coat, undone and spread about the ice, a cap, upside down next to greying hair and blood, lots of blood.

Nigel is lying face down in the snow and groaning. I can’t hear what he’s saying. His speech sounds slurred, muffled. I kneel beside him. “Nigel,” I say, close to his ear, the one that’s not deaf, “Nigel, are you alright?” Of course he’s not, any fool can see that, but somehow you always say that, don’t you. Someone can have a seizure right in front of your eyes and you’ll say: “are you alright, love?”

I gently turn him over, make him sit up, hold a hanky to his nose. Nigel has an aquiline nose, aristocratic. It looks a funny shape, at an angle somehow, definitely broken.

“Does it hurt?” I ask. He pushes it back to where it should be. “Yes,” he says, “it bloody well does.” He tries to get to his feet and winces. “My neck, ouch, my neck hurts, too.”

“Whiplash,” I say.

“Shouldn’t have worn my slippers, stupid,” blood burbles in his throat as he speaks.

“What happened?” I ask, although it’s pretty obvious.

“I slipped on the ice. My feet just went from underneath me. I fell flat on my face, never had a chance to put my hands out. All it took was a split second.”

“Let’s get you in the car, sit here in the porch while I fetch it,” and I guide him to the seat where we sit to put on our walking boots. I run back to the garage and bring the car right up to the house. I help him into the front seat, strap him in, put his cap on. A & E again, I think, and; hope it’s not busy on a Monday.

It’s not and we’re in X-ray straight away. They look at his neck, then wheel him away for a CT scan. A doctor comes, nurses, blocks on either side of his head taped to the trolley, more people, the neuro-surgeon. Nigel has broken his neck.

“We’ll send him to the neurological department”, they say, “to stabilise his neck. We may have to bolt him into an iron cage, maybe surgery to fuse the vertebrae.”

I sit dumbstruck by his side and hold his hand. “You’ll be okay,” I say. Why do we say that? “You’ll be okay.” Someone could be dying; “you’ll be okay, love.” Daft really.

In the end they send him home in a neck brace. “Are you happy to take him home?” they say. “He mustn’t move. The first two days are critical. Any tingling in his hands or feet and you call an ambulance straight away. Are you happy to take him home?” they ask again.

“No,” I protest, “no,” panicking.

“Do you want to go home?” they ask Nigel. He tries to nod but can’t.

So I go and get the car, drive it up to the entrance of A & E and a nurse comes out wheeling Nigel in a wheel chair. We help him into the car and I take him home. They never looked at his nose.

I sit him down by the fire and make him a cup of tea with lots of sugar, for the shock. Nigel takes one sip, grimaces and says he wants to go to bed. I hover anxiously. Should he lie down, sit up, on his back, on his side, what? He goes to lie flat on his back and shuts his eyes. I curl up next to him.

Several times during the night he wakes, turns, snores through his broken nose. Each time I click on the light to see if he’s okay. We don’t sleep much but pretend for each other that we do. In the morning I help him into the bath, dry his feet, dress his bottom half, find cardigans rather than jumpers, slippers rather than shoes. I comb his hair at the back where he can’t, mustn’t reach, help him downstairs and sit him at the kitchen table. He apologises again and again.

“Nigel,” I say, “Nigel, stop it. Anyone can have a fall. Of course you shouldn’t have gone out on the ice in your slippers but, you know, easily done.” I don’t believe that. Stupid, I think.

We’re in for a long haul. Six weeks, they said, six weeks of immobility to give the bone a chance to grow back. He is not allowed to move a muscle; no lifting, straining, coughing, sneezing, laughing, sudden movements.

We try the television at ten in the morning but he’s tired and it’s too noisy. We try yesterday’s crossword but he can’t bend his head to look at it properly. I fetch a better table for him. I move the furniture around so he can sit in an upright chair to look at the television, but he finds it uncomfortable. He flops back onto the sofa, sits at an angle, wriggles his neck in the neck brace. It itches. I fret, worry, exhaust myself with anxiety. Nigel wants to walk outside and ventures out with two sticks. I follow behind, panic struck. And so the days pass.

He goes to put a log on the fire and ducks under the low beam of the inglenook fireplace.

“Don’t”, I say.

He shoves a chair out of the way to get a better view of the television.

“Don’t,” I shout.

He bends forward to try and pull the coffee table nearer to him so he can reach his paper. It’s solid wood, heavy.

“Don’t,” I yell.

He would shrug, if he could. Instead he sits and looks at me despairingly, sighing heavily; “I can’t do anything, can I?”

“No,” I say.

I have to go upstairs to change the bed. His nose will bleed. When I come back downstairs I find him emptying the dishwasher, bending down to take big plates out of the bottom of the machine.

“Nigel,” I scream, “for heaven’s sake.” I sit down at the kitchen table, head in hands, and cry.

He joins me. “Sorry, love, sorry.” He makes his way to the living room, moves a chair and starts to wind up the grandfather clock, pulling at the chains to bring up the big weight from the bottom of the clock case. I hear it coming up slowly and stop crying. “Nigel, will you please sit down and do nothing,” I beg.

The next day is sunny and bright and I decide to give the kitchen at the back of the house a good clean. There’s nothing like a bit of vigorous scrubbing to work off frustration. I leave Nigel sitting comfortably by the fire, nicely banked up so he doesn’t have to touch it, and put on the radio while I work. I decide to empty the kitchen bin, gather together the plastic bag inside it, knot it at the top, pull it out and heave it to the front door. The door is open. Sunlight is streaming across the doormat showing grey with ash where I’ve walked it into the house after sprinkling it on the icy drive. No time for cleaning that up now, I think. As I step out I squint into the bright light and can just vaguely distinguish a dark shape moving away from me at the end of the drive. Nigel!

I turn around and there in the corner of the porch are his sticks. Nigel has taken himself off for a walk in the snow without his sticks. I grab them and am about to rush after him. The slightest stumble, jolt or bump can be fatal, it echoes in my head. Immobile, no movement at all, they said, all it takes is a split second. A red light flashes in my head, danger. I look again and can barely make him out.

I step back into the porch, gently lean the two sticks against the wall, close the front door behind me, walk into the kitchen and put on the kettle to make myself a cup of tea. SLQ

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