In the hospital hallway I got some excellent attention. Passing nurses and doctors stopped and peered over my face with sympathetic looks and asked Qu’est-ce qui s’est passé? Car accident? And I would tell them the story and the reactions were fantastic. They couldn’t believe it. I smiled at them and shrugged on the inside as I couldn’t actually move the upper part of my body. When they left I concentrated on looking forward. At the wall mainly, sometimes the roof.
There was lots of swearing in that corridor. I was surprised at how much doctors and nurses swore. Heaps of putains and merdes and fais chiers and salauds. I listened, hands clasped across my chest. My head was starting to throb and it felt sticky, like I had a piece of Glad Wrap around it. A young man came to the end of my bed and looked at me for a moment. Then he wheeled me into a room with very bright lights.
“I need my friend,” I said to him. “Can you please get my friend from the waiting room?” But the young man was gone.
An older man entered the room wearing a white coat and a very big smile.
“Oh là là là là. What happened to you ma chère?” he said, looking over my head and I loved the way he pronounced ma chère with a very long, warm ‘airrr’ at the end. It was very comforting.
“Un ascenseur,” I said. “I got my head caught under an elevator.”
He opened his eyes wide sat down on the bed and took my hand with a warm, sympathetic face.
“And you pulled yourself out from under, that’s how you hurt your face?” he asked.
“I think so,” I said. “I must have. I don’t really know.”
He smiled at me. His face was all delicate bonework, like a woman’s. I loved him.
“My name is Rigolette,” he said and I knew I would never forget it as rigolo means fun and that was pretty ironic. “You are going to need some surgery ma chère,” he said. Then The Frenchman came into the room.
“This is The Frenchman,” I said. They nodded hello.
“But first you are going to have to go off and have some scans,” said Rigolette. “Just to check everything else is ok. Do you have any pain anywhere else except your head?”
“No,” I said, “Not really. My neck is a bit sore, stiff, like when you wake up in the morning after you’ve slept funny.”
“Move your toes,” he said. I wiggled them. “Move your hands like this.” I flapped them.
“If zero is no pain and ten is the most excruciating pain you’ve ever had, what level is your pain?”
“Seven,” I said. “Maybe six. Or eight.”
“We’ll get you something for that,” he said. Then he left. Two nurses came in, one boy and one girl. They were laughing and bitching about someone they knew. They took off my sheet and told The Frenchman to wait outside. Then they took off my socks and my favourite high-heeled boots. They took off my jeans. They didn’t take off my underpants. Then they looked at the top half and sighed.
“Désolé,” said the boy. “We have to cut.” I was wearing my favourite red jumper with the printed image of the unknown person on it. Some thought it was a little-known image of Che Guevara. Some thought it was a woman. Some thought it was the violent little kid out of Flatliners. I didn’t care who it was, I just liked the bell-shaped sleeves and the high neck and how it was warm, especially on the Bike. Under it I had on my cheap H&M striped top and my favourite bra. Snip, snip, they snipped from the wrists all the way up to the armpits and down the sides. It felt sacrilegious, like when we mutilated our Barbie Dolls that day in the cubby house and mum gave us a smack. My breasts were exposed but I didn’t care. I was no longer a woman. I was a chunk of meat. I just wanted to get better. They put a pale Chux-like blue gown over me, straightened the sheets and left.
The Frenchman came back in.
“I wonder if we should call home,” I said to him. He shifted, nervously.
“Maybe it is good to wait until after you have the scan, just to know exactly what is happening,” he said. “To be sure.”
“Good idea,” I said to him. Then suddenly I didn’t feel so good. They wheeled me into a dark room and The Frenchman sat next to me. The light from outside the door cast a shard over a medicine chart on the wall. I tried to concentrate on it but it was giving me nothing. A strong disinfectant smell hit my nostrils and caused my stomach to clench.
“I don’t feel very good,” I said to The Frenchman. “I’m scared.”
“You are going to be fine,” he said. “Try not to think about it.”
Just look forward, I said to myself, just look forward. A tear dripped down my cheek. What was surgery going to be like? What had actually happened? Just look forward. What did I do to my head? Have I ruined my face completely? Just look forward. You’re going to be ok. You don’t have cancer. Can I move? Will I walk again? I wanted to touch my face and the thought made me feel sick. Then the fluorescent lights switched on and a big, black nurse walked in just at the right moment with a trolley and lots of plastic instruments and packets. The Frenchman left for a cigarette.
“Bonsoir madame,” I said.
“De la morphine,” she said flatly. “Vot’ cuisse.” I showed her my thigh. The big needle didn’t hurt really. And it didn’t take long for the bad feelings to go away. In fact, I suddenly felt quite blissful. Love washed over me like a lovely warm bath. Then they wheeled me down to some dungeon oven grill dishpit where I lay staring at the clock on the wall tick tick tick tick tick and loved the clock so much and loved the feeling of being on the trolley and loved the nurse who told me ‘ten more minutes’ and loved the man heaving and coughing on the trolley next to me and the sensation of the cold sheets against my hands and feet and that my skin was still on my body - well most of it - and loved that I was going to be ok. That I had so much to look forward to.
“Allez…op op op!” said the big fat man with grey hair and the loveliest face I’d ever seen as he helped me from the trolley into the big pizza oven and my neck was really sore but I held fiercely on to the soft blue collar and my head as I was moved from one tray to the other and I laughed and said ‘my neck is really sore!’ and then he fed me into to the oven like the wicked witch and I lay there for a moment thinking of the beauty of life and then he buzzed me back out and I lay there for a minute before I was moved back on to the trolley and my neck really hurt that time but then it was ok and I got wheeled back up to the same room and The Frenchman was there and then Rigolette in his white coat. His face had changed. It frightened me. Then he cocked his lovely head and said,
“I have some bad news!”
I didn’t look at The Frenchman but I wondered if he knew.
“What is it?” I asked and some terrible thoughts ran through my brain. Was it cancer after all? Neck cancer? Face cancer? Did something happen to my brain? Am I dying? Where am I?, I suddenly thought. What am I doing here? In this strange hospital in this strange country, strange people around me, not even my fiancé any more, not my family, who are these people, what is this place? It was another planet.
Rigolette put his hand on my shoulder. “You have broken many bones in your face and have some wounds which are going to require quite a bit of surgery. But you have a bigger, more serious problem.”
I gulped hard, which hurt.
“You have fractured your spine.”
“Oh,” I said. What did that mean?
There was a pause.
“Your cervical spine,” he said and went off saying a whole lot of words that I didn’t understand in French. I caught the words ‘Surgery’ and ‘Extremely Lucky’, and ‘Fracture not Displaced’. If it had moved even a tiny bit I would have been a ‘tetraplégique’ which, he explained, means just a head on a body with no movement of any limbs. Like in the Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Or worse, he said, if it had moved a little tiny bit more I would have died instantly. ‘Spinal cord.’ ‘Very serious.’ A story flashed through my mind of a man in a car accident who had walked to get help and when asked where the accident was, turned his head – dead on the spot. I shivered a tiny shiver. No wonder my neck was sore. I thought about the soft collar they had put me in on the stairs and the looking forward and the pizza oven. Thank goodness I hadn’t turned. Thanks Voice.
“We need to get a surgeon to have a look at your x-rays to know exactly what we need to do,” said Rigolette. “We will know soon. For the moment we will need to operate on your face, it is important to do that quickly. Ca va?”
“Ca va,” I said. But it wasn’t true. A great lump of fear in my chest melted me to the bed. I was scared of the surgery and scared of the fracture. Would I walk again? Do cartwheels on grass again? Look ahead. You don’t know yet. You are ok. Even if you won’t walk you are ok. Look, you’re breathing, you’re not dying. You are perfectly fine.
“Please make me go to sleep,” I said. “I don’t want to be awake for the surgery.”
He put his hand on my arm. “No no no, I will keep you awake, it’s much better. Don’t worry, I will give you some little needles which will hurt a bit then after that you won’t feel anything at all. I will make you all beautiful again ma chère. Don’t you worry at all.”
He was so warm and nice he helped me not worry.
“I just need to have a good look at your face now,” he said and he turned to The Frenchman. “This will be a bit gruesome, you might want to wait outside.” But The Frenchman said, “I have no fear.” I was glad he was staying. I wanted him to watch and tell me later.
“Don’t forget what we said,” I called to him. “Don’t tell me.” He nodded and sat down in a chair at the end of the room. Then Rigolette started to touch my face. I felt a warm sensation on my ear as though it was being caressed by the downy flesh of my cheek. Now that was weird. I looked straight at The Frenchman. He was pale but stonefaced, watching closely. I felt a sensation of being very open. Rigolette tapped me on the head. “Ok, back in ten minutes.”
The Frenchman came to the side of the bed, eyebrows raised. “Don’t,” I said. “Not even eyebrows.”
“He is going to do a great job,” said The Frenchman, patting my arm. Rigolette came back.
“I have some news about your neck. Your C2 is definitely fractured, that is your cervical spine. The hangman’s fracture. But there is good news. The fracture is definitely not displaced. This means you will be fine, you are most likely to recover fully. You can either have surgery or wear a special brace until it heals. You are young, you will heal. You do not need surgery.”
A weird, diluted sense of relief and wonder ran through me.
“You are very very lucky ma belle,” he said solemnly. “You were this close to death and this close to being a legume,” he continued, holding up his fingers to show a tiny gap.
“Yes,” I said and I knew. He left the room again.
“I think you should call my sister,” I said to The Frenchman. He folded his arms and looked down.
“Ok,” he said, “but tell me the words.”
Poor Frenchman. His English was no good and though I told him to preface everything with ‘Rabbit is fine, Rabbit is ok,’ he got his words all mixed up and blurted out the opposite, almost sending my sister, who was driving at the time, careering into a tree.
Rigolette came back in with the boy and the girl nurse. The boy nurse put his hand gently on my arm.
“Ca va?” asked the boy with a very sweet, empathetic voice.
“Ca va,” I said, smiling. Then Rigolette pulled a trolley over and set up next to my head.
“Ca va ma chère?” asked Rigolette.
“Ca va merci,” I said.
“Now I’m just going to give you some needles in your face then we’re going to do a beautiful job of you. I just need you to turn this way,” and he turned me very carefully to my side with the aid of the boy and girl nurse. This time The Frenchman wasn’t allowed to stay. The boy nurse gave me his hand to squeeze. I looked forward. Rigolette jabbed and it stung. He jabbed somewhere else and it burned. He jabbed again and it pricked. The boy nurse had to leave and he gave me a soft rubber ball to squeeze instead of his hand. Rigolette jabbed deep somewhere else again and it panged deeply. Then he said ‘one more!’ and it sizzled.
“Et voila!” he said. Then he bounced his thumb in various places asking feel that feel that feel that? And when I didn’t any more he rubbed his hands together and bent over me.
“Now I’m going to cover you up with this cloth so don’t be afraid. We’re nearly there.”
But we weren’t, the stitching took hours and hours. There were hundreds, thousands, I could feel them, sewing, sewing. ‘I am a lampshade,’ I thought to myself, ‘I am a skin-suit’. I squeezed the thing in my hand. Rigolette talked to me and I talked back. I told him about Australia and how we eat kangaroos and he said he’d never tried them but liked Fosters.
“Oh là là que les Australiennes ont une peau épaisse,” he said teasingly as he tugged somewhere around my ear. Thick skin, like a pig. That made me laugh. He told me to keep still or he would sew me like an imitation Chanel.
Afterwards I felt brave, noble. The Frenchman came and peered over me. “Wooooow,” he said. “You have thousands of the tiniest stitches I’ve ever seen. He is amazing. How did he do that? Wooow. Wow.”
When he had finished admiring my stitches, The Frenchman came around to the left side of my face and took my hand.
“I have to go now,” he said, “It is 3am and I have my audition early in the morning.”
I asked him if he wanted me to test him on his lines but he said no. Then he told me everything would be ok, gave me a little kiss and left. I never saw him again.
Tune in tomorrow for the final instalment of ‘The Night I Nearly Got my Head Chopped off by an Elevator’!