In the dream I am falling, it is slow motion, beautiful, I am in Paris and The Frenchman is with me, the walls are floating, magnificent, and the red carpet on the stairs is deep and rich and detailed, the flowers and swirly patterns lifting from their woven beds to join me in the sky, I am flying, flying out over the stairs and all the patterns are with me, so slow, so decadent, so full, it is beautiful, it is cosy, I am loved, warm, held. Lilou’s palely-lit face swirls and distorts in front of me and I can hear voices, calling, a wail, the sound of sirens. Flashing lights, a merry-go-round. The sound of a woman’s gentle voice saying over and over again,
“Mademoiselle, vous m’écoutez? Vous m’ecoutez mademoiselle? Mademoiselle?”
And then there really was a pretty woman with blonde hair kneeling over me and smiling and holding my hand like a paw and patting the paw with her other hand and there was something warm dripping in my ear and I smiled at her and she asked me again if I could hear her and I said yes I can yes thank you very much in polite French.
“You have been in an accident,” she told me. “What is your name?”
“Good Rabbit, we’re going to get you some help. I am Eveline, a nurse. I live here. Don’t worry. You are going to be ok.”
People were running up and down the stairs and I could hear the echoes of murmuring voices in the foyer and I wondered why I was on the floor but dared not look around me. Stay still, a voice said inside me. Look ahead. Don’t move. A kaleidoscope of swirling lights gave me a pretty show against the wall and I noticed I was on the staircase facing backwards. There was an open door beside me and people were rushing in and out of it. Was there a bomb? Did the building fall down? Were other people hurt?
Just lie still. Look forward, said the voice in my head. Don’t move. The trickling continued in my ear. Let them look after you. You will be ok. Just keep looking forward. Don’t look at it. Don’t think.
Then Mathilde’s face over me, white as white.
“Oh Rabbit,” she said, her eyes full of tears.
“Ca va?” I asked. “Is Lilou ok?”
“Lilou is fine,” she responded. “Who do I call?”
“The Frenchman,” I said.
“Ok,” she said. “What’s his number?”
I knew his number like I knew my name but I couldn’t seem to think of it. Then, the face of a handsome pompier over me. The dripping in my ear was now a streamy running. I’d always wanted to meet one of the Paris fire brigade men, sex symbols of the quartier. Now here he was, come to save me. He smiled and asked me to move my fingers. I did. Then my toes. I did. He smiled again. Then he put a spongey blue collar around my neck. It felt very curious indeed. And then I felt scared. And then I realised something profound.
I have hurt myself. Bad.
But just as quickly as that thought came, another replaced it.
I don’t have cancer.
And I looked forward at the wall.
“We’re going to the hospital now,” said the pompier.
I smiled. “Merci,” I said. And then I suddenly remembered something and shouted, “But wait! I don’t have any money!”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We will look after you.”
And it was strange but as we tore dramatically through the streets of Paris in the ambulance I felt surprisingly ok. I had always feared being in an accident overseas, thinking how terrible it would be to be far away from home, far from my family. But the reality was, this had become my home. This was more familiar to me than anywhere, this quartier, these trees, these streets, this language, these voices, these people. It was ok. Paris had looked after me before and she would again. Look forward. Watch, watch the streets, the beautiful rooftops, the windows, the archways, the street lamps go by, watch, watch. The siren wailed; I was now part of that familiar soundscape, inside it, drowning out the conversations at somebody’s party. Someone was looking out the window with their vodka pomme wondering what happened to me. Look ahead. Be still.
Mathilde had turned her face from me and I could hear her crying into the phone to her husband Fréd. I could only make out a few words over the sirens and tears. “I don’t know! Terrible. Horrible! Her face. Her head. They don’t know. I don’t know! So much blood… Fréd… Down the stairs…fainted? Lilou – no I don’t think so. She’s ok, she’s with Eveline. I don’t know!”
When Mathilde hung up I heard her cry and tried not to listen. Then I said,
“Rabbit?” she said. “What do you mean the lift?”
“It was the lift,” I said. “I got stuck, my head, the barrier…”
Silence. I could feel her shock.
“I don’t understand. It is impossible.”
“I looked over to call to Lilou, to get her attention,” I said. “The lift came down. It trapped my head. That’s all I remember. I must have pulled my head out from under it, that’s why the blood.”
“Oh mon dieu,” she exhaled, and I felt her put her face in her hands with a sharp sob. She put her trembling hand on my arm. I wasn’t worried. I was ok. And the hot liquid in my ear became a sticky trickling through my scalp as I looked forward and we wailed through the night to the Hôpital Tenon.
I knew it must be bad because at the Hôpital Tenon hands flew to mouths and children were moved behind legs. I must have looked like something from Night of the Living Dead or perhaps John Travolta in Face-Off. Mathilde held my hand. Her hand was clammy. I lay there thinking Look Forward Look Forward. There was a fine, crooked crack in the ceiling. I stared at it and focused on each craggy little angle. I imagined it was a river on a map through central Australia. Mathilde leant over and looked into my eyes. I told her not to worry, I was fine. She nodded slowly and her eyes were glassy.
I don’t have cancer, I thought to myself again, and I was just so glad I didn’t. How could anything be bad in comparison to that? Everything was ok, I was hurt, but I wasn’t going to die a slow and painful death. My poor, poor mum. Nothing could possibly be as bad as that. How must she have felt, knowing that she would not get better? That even though she was being looked after she would never recover. The agony of watching her slip away. The absolute grace of her, the unfailing positivity, the sheer guts, the beauty. Having watched that fight, there would never be any excuse not to fight. Nothing could ever compare to that. This was a scratch. I didn’t have cancer and none of my loved ones did, so everything was ok.
They wheeled me through a series of corridors and the lights kept flickering and going off. We passed a man with a huge bump on his head who was screaming very loudly. There were other screaming and moaning sounds too and I wondered for a moment if they had brought me to the loony bin. Was I mad? Finally at the end of the corridor we arrived in a darkened room. They wheeled me to the back corner and pulled a curtain around me. Other patients and visitors were in the room and they looked at me but I tried not to look at them. The screaming and moaning continued. Someone yelled TA GUEULE and the loud man shut up for a moment. Then he started to whimper and the whimper gradually built to a loud moan again, and then a scream.
The lights continued to flick on and off, on and off, fluorescent bands, flicking and strobing. Mathilde sat next to me, silent, white as a sheet, holding my hand. I thought she was being a little over dramatic. I was ok, after all, I was conscious. Everything wiggled. I just cut myself. They would fix me.
“Has anything like this ever happened to you before?” she asked, and there was the strangest tone in her voice. I couldn’t understand what she could be meaning.
“No,” I said. “Of course not.” Had I ever got my head trapped under an elevator and near wrenched off? No.
“I’m pregnant,” she said and burst into tears. “I found out yesterday.”
“Congratulations!” I said.
“I have to go,” she said. “I don’t feel well. I’m sorry. I will wait just here outside until someone else comes.”
“Ok,” I said.
She kissed me and went out. I heard her footsteps stop and the sound of a deep male voice. The Frenchman.
He swept aside the curtain and smiled at me. He was wearing the long, dark coat. His face was warm and his beard grown out at my favourite length. I reached out my arm and he took it and looked over me.
“Oh là làaa Mistinguett,” he said. “Qu’est ce qui s’est passé?”
I was relieved to see him. He was good in heavy situations. I told him about the elevator. “Bi-zarre,” he said and rubbed my arm. We hadn’t seen each other since the day after I got back from Australia where we’d met for drinks at the Rendez-Vous des Amis and agreed we’d just try to be amis. But of course there was tension. A thousand things unsaid.
The lights went off completely. When they flicked back on The Frenchman was gone and there was a nurse at my side, come to clean my wounds. She was very stressed.
“Ahhh… puTAIN,” she said as the lights flickered again. “It’s BAGHDAD in here.” And it was, but I didn’t mind. I was safe. I was going to be ok. I wasn’t dying.
She washed my head and face saying oh là là là là là là là with countless làs as the blood removal revealed my wounds. I looked ahead and didn’t think about it. I was ok. Nobody had cancer.
The Frenchman returned. “Oh làaaaaaaa,” he said at the sight of my injuries and I told him not to tell me, not to tell me anything he saw that night, I was looking forward, I didn’t want to know.
“Ok,” he said and looked at me affectionately. Our fiery, destructive two-year relationship and subsequent engagement had completely dissolved just before I left. It was strange that he was here and yet so comforting. A sort of stepping aside from life. As though the day-to-day was just the soapie and this was the alternate sphere where things were real. He was my family.
He moved from the bedside to let the nurse and a doctor through. They had serious looks on their faces as the doctor spoke. In between the crazy man’s hollers and intermittant darknesses I made out the words Injury and Danger and Tests and Surgery and Scans and Specialists and Hospital Salpêtrière. A flutter of fear. What did they suspect was wrong? Was I ok? The Frenchman put his hand on mine.
And so I was whisked across the Seine past normal people doing normal things in the streets of the Latin Quarter to the impressive, foreboding, ex-asylum Salpêtrière. The Frenchman pulled out a script in the ambulance and looked at it. “I have a big audition tomorrow,” he explained.
The ambulance men put me on another trolley and wheeled me in to another waiting room. Then they left me in a corridor to be registered while The Frenchman sat in the waiting room, whispering his lines and practising his blank actor face. I looked forward. A doctor came over to me and looked at my file, then gave me a very long, stern look. He furrowed his eyebrows together like two piles of sticks. Then he put the file down and left. I should probably tell my family, I thought to myself. Then I thought of mum and how badly I needed to be by her side whenever anything was wrong. I pictured my family clinging upside down to my bed on the other side of the earth. And I decided not yet, that I would find out exactly what had happened first, what exactly I had done.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s instalment of ‘The Night I Nearly Got my Head Chopped off by an Elevator’!