I was going to be ok.
A nurse came in and gave me another shot of morphine. I liked it a lot and started to wooz out again. Later I was wheeled back into the corridor and had a great chat with a nice nurse about how nice she was and how nice everyone was. She told me I was nice. Then I fell asleep.
The sun was coming up somewhere behind the thick winter haze when I woke up. Daytime. I was still in the corridor. It felt like weeks had passed. Everything was surreal and foreign but I knew where I was. In Paris. In Salpêtrière. The sound of voices above my head, a new jab in my cuisse, ah… heaven. The crack I was looking at began to blur. The world went cotton. Then some angel swept me up like a gust of air and travelled me through the shining halls into a glorious room where a hundred dreamy people dressed in white awaited me. The people were all laughing and smiling and their laughter was the tinkling of high piano keys. It was a festival. All for Me. The people were so clean, so bright, they had been waiting for me, the guest of honour, and now I had arrived. I smiled at them as they all gazed at me with love. I loved them so much I could have burst. Then they began to crisscross and circle around each other in a Beauty School Dropout-style dance and each took their tiny piece of the sheet I was lying on, lifting my feathery body from the trolley and laying it into a soft, fluffy white bed. Then they whispered loving nothingnesses and floated out of the room, leaving me in my perfect bed. The sheets were cool and lovely. The sky was dark grey outside the window and it was going to be a beautiful dark grey day. A nurse came to the side of my bed. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. She had heavenly blonde hair and perfect, plump red lips.
“If zero was no pain and ten was the most excruciating pain possibly imaginable, what is your pain?” she chimed in her lilting soprano voice, an angel, a sublime, perfect angel.
“Three,” I said after some consideration and she smiled and puffed away like a cloud leaving me alone to drift in and out of the sweet sweet land of crisp white sheets and soaring dreams.
The actual horror didn’t kick in for two days. Things began to morph and change, the heavenly nurses shrivelled into ogres, even the beautiful angel one became pock marks and puckered lips and cold, scratchy fingers. No More Injections. I cried for them, but they insisted it was better this way and left me with a thousand ice-cold ants tearing through my veins. There was no more Shock either to keep me in its cosy surreality, all was savagely, brutally real. They moved an anorexic girl in the bed next to me who was having a back operation and her mother sat by her side and gave me sympathetic looks and water when I needed more in the plastic syringe I would squeeze into my mouth. I tried not to think of the anorexic girl, because the thought of her operation made me feel squeamish and so sorry for her I felt physical pain, and I was so relieved I didn’t have to have one myself. I just needed to get through this period, the tough bit.
It took days to walk and when the nurse finally got me out of bed I burst into tears and wanted to lie back down but she made me walk into the bathroom, where I saw my face for the first time. Utter Horror was replaced with the return of Pleasant Shock. Oh, heavenly Shock, thank you for coming back to me. Seeing my reflection was too horrifying to accept, too strange, as though I was in one of those stupid films where the people swap bodies overnight and see themselves in the morning and go ‘AHHH!! Nooo! Anyone but him/her!!!’ The nurse let me go back to bed and I hated her and when she came the next day to make me do it again I hissed at her and squealed like a child, batting her hands away. The new love from Melbourne called at just that moment and I said to him ‘Don’t let her make me do it!’ and the poor thing didn’t know what was happening. I hung up on him and the awful nurse barked at me to get up and insisted and insisted and thank goodness she did because it was much better this time and I didn’t feel like I was going to faint or die. I didn’t look in the mirror this time when I went into to the bathroom and I used the John for the very first time, which was truly magnificent as the bedpan was a mental challenge for me that I just couldn’t master. Small things, I know, but in some situations, everything.
Friends came to visit. One by one, my little Paris community came, even ones I didn’t know liked me that much. Some brought flowers and the nurses would quickly confiscate them. One nice nurse put them way up on a cupboard in the far corner so I could at least see them. Some friends came in groups, some on their own. One extra special one brought me a little mint and lavender perfume stick thing which I could sniff all day long to forget the awful hospital smells. One sat with me during a bad ant crawling moment and just put her hand on my arm, patient, silent, until it passed. Another sat in the shadows as the sun went down and just watched me, for hours. There was so much kindness. A Doctor Friend came in and yelled at the nurses to give me morphine and told them off for making me go cold turkey. I could have leapt up and kissed her. Slowly they weaned me off and put me on some other junk that I could take in tablet form.
The Doctor Friend rang my family and told them exactly what was going on. The poor things had received very little information and were beside themselves. They couldn’t even get through to the hospital for days, being repeatedly hung up on or told ‘We don’t speak English.’ Luckily for the Doctor Friend and some special Paris friends, they finally got word and were reassured I was ok.
A sexy-looking man came in and gently took all my measurements, which felt lovely, and came back the next day with a sort of robot contraption called a ‘Minerva Vest’, which he informed me I was to wear for the next three to four months. The nurses manoeuvred me into the contraption – it was a very strange thing and I didn’t like it one bit. A Velcro strap across my forehead held a long, sturdy plastic and metal structure in place which went all the way down my back and came around my ribs with more Velcro straps to keep it in place. A long, ugly, adjustable metal bar up the front supported a plastic chin support. It was sort of Ice-Hockey meets Hannibal Lecter. I named the brace Gina after my Paris acting agent Gina Brace because she was mean and our relationship was uncomfortable. I loathed the brace with every fibre of my being. It made me wild. Claustrophobic. Like being a butterfly in an iron maiden. I wanted to scream and fly and the ants went beserk inside me. The extra special friend sat by my side and patted my forehead and stroked my arm as I tried to adjust. But I couldn’t it was just too uncomfortable, especially in the bed. Eventually one of the warmer nurses let me take it off if I promised to lie very still and never move laterally. It was a relief to take the dratted thing off and I fell asleep and the very special friend left.
The next morning I was jolted from sleep by a man’s booming voice.
“VOUS AVEZ ENVIE DE MOURIR?”
A man about ten foot tall loomed above my bed. A monster. A giant. His shadow blocked the early morning sun.
“Pardon?” I whimpered.
“DO YOU WANT TO DIE? DO YOU WANT TO BE PARALYSED?”
“No,” I stammered.
“Well WHY are you not wearing your CORSELET MINERVE?”
“Because it hurts,” I squeaked.
“IF YOU DON’T WANT TO DIE YOU WILL WEAR YOUR CORSELET MINERVE EVERY MOMENT OF EVERY DAY FROM NOW UNTIL YOU ARE TOLD YOU CAN TAKE IT OFF. EVERY MOMENT. YOU HEAR ME? YOU MOVE YOUR HEAD ONE FRACTION OF A MILLIMETRE AND YOU’RE DEAD. OR WORSE, YOU’RE ALIVE AND CAN NEVER MOVE AGAIN. YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“Yes!” I said, tears squeezing out my eyes. And then the man was gone. I lay there, terrified. The nurses came and put Gina back on and gave me my wash. Gina still irritated me but the man’s words had resonated deeply. I would force myself to make friends with her.
“Oh là là,” said Solange, the black nurse who had become my friend, to the other nurse. “Her hair is degeulasse. We should wash it.”
And so they brought in a bucket on a stand and washed all the dried blood from my hair. They cut some parts out with scissors, which also felt good. I felt better, cleaner. And Gina didn’t feel so bad.
The next day when I woke, there at the side of my bed was a vision, like an angel descended from the sky.
My Beautiful Bunny Sister.
“Oh Bunny Sister!” I cried and she came and hugged and kissed me. I don’t think in my life I have ever been so happy to see somebody. A kindly friend of The Frenchman’s had generously collected her from the airport and chauffeured her straight to me. He stood lingering uncomfortably in the shadows.
“Thank you so much Friend!” I called and he smiled at me.
The Beautiful Bunny Sister is a nurse so after only a week the hospital let me check out early instead of me having to go to some nasty rehab hospital and we rode in an ambulance together with two friendly pompiers all the way back to the Rue de la Chine. The pompiers laughed and told jokes the whole way home which I translated for Bunny Sister and she laughed too. Then they lifted me up to my apartment in a stretcher as Luc from downstairs watched on in disbelief. I told him I was fine and not to worry. He nodded but his eyes stayed wide.
It felt amazing to be home.
Bunny Sister fed me and looked after me and every morning laid a towel out on my bed and bathed me. I was glad I could wash my own special bits and so was she. Showers were some sort of distant dream. Once she tried to wash my hair in a bucket but it was so awkward I ended up with big clumps of dry conditioner in it. From then on we used this weird dry shampoo in a can, which was crap, but better than nothing. And then after about a week I sat up in bed with brushed teeth and my stitches out and my face as clean as it could possibly be and the nicer green button-up shirt under Gina waiting for Bunny Sister to arrive home with a special visitor. I was excited and terrified. We had spent just one heady week together over summer but when I arrived back in Paris, despite the darkness I had quite a glow for him and he had booked a flight to come and stay for a few weeks. Now he had brought his flight forward. And though we really didn’t know each other at all, I just felt in my bones it would be good to have him here, despite the very very strange timing.
And then there he was, a vision of kindness and loveliness. I felt like a stiff doll, but extremely oozy inside. He sat down on the bed and I leant in towards him straight as a crane. Somehow through the gaps in the contraption he filled me with his warmth. It was wonderful.
The next few weeks were sweet and memorable. You’d think they would have been Hell with all the pain and medication and nausea and house-boundedness, but it wasn’t. It was cosy, a lock-in, the New Lover/Friend played gentle songs on his guitar and cooked his spaghetti napoli and shopped for delicious things and we all played scrabble and nutted over cryptic crosswords and talked about absolutely everything and ate macarons from Ladurée that people brought us as gifts. The snow fell outside. It was quite magical. Once a week the same funny pompiers would come and take me and Bunny Sister and the New Lover/Friend to appointments at Salpêtrière with the monster giant doctor man who had yelled WANNA DIE at me that day, who was actually a meek 5-foot-nothing bookworm with a small impish voice. He didn’t remember booming at me at all, just warning me of the dangers of not wearing the brace.
Mathilde and Lilou came one evening to visit and Lilou, though she was scared of how I looked – Frankenstein meets Robocop - gave me a little kiss on the elbow. Mathilde passed on a present to me from Eveline, the lady who had helped me that night on the staircase, who had apparently been very concerned about me. The book was called Monsieur Caramel: Chroniques Parisiennes. She had inscribed in the front:
A story of a building in a Parisien quartier. Speedy recovery! Eveline.
The book is all about a man who, living all his life in the country, retires in the 20th arrondissement of Paris.
A quote at the front reads, in my translation:
“To penetrate the heart of a city, to grasp its subtle secrets, one must act with the most infinite tenderness, and also sometimes a desperate patience.”
Jacques Yonnet, Rue des Maléfices.
I shivered. What was Eveline trying to say? Having experienced a near guillotining by a Paris elevator, I wasn’t really interested in reading a book about the delights of the architecture of the 20th arrondissement. What an odd gift, I thought.
And then, a few days later, Bunny Sister and I waved goodbye to the new Lover/Friend, who stood in my apartment smiling generously in a pile of my boxes, and took a long and hideous flight home to Melbourne Airport where my poor Bunny Dad stood waving to us with tears in his eyes.
“I’ve never been so happy to see you two in my life,” he said taking us in his big warm arms.
And the New Lover/Friend, though we’d only just met, packed up the remains of my little Paris life and joined us a week later down at the beach where I had moved in with Bunny Dad and Bryson the Dog. It made my heart leap to see him, with his Wine and Woody Allen box-sets and pile of carefully-selected books on loan. There is another lovely story in that for later.
But for now, let’s just say that I lived in that little house for the next few months eating meat and three veg with Bunny Dad and reading and resting and walking along the beach and eventually one day dunking my entire robot body under the swell of a wave which felt like pure delicious heaven. People thought I was crazy but I didn’t care. I was getting better. And now I’m completely better, you would never know I’d even had the accident unless you looked closely at my right cheekbone, where Rigolette has left his most delicate, elegant signature. I love the scar, my reminder that the accident did, in fact, happen.
As I was recovering I was shocked to read that a 14-year old Parisian boy was actually beheaded in almost identical circumstances. His friends were calling him from downstairs to come down and watch the football, he looked over and – whoosh. For some stupid reason I let myself read the comments on the online newspaper articles and was completely winded by much of the public reaction to the boy’s gruesome death. Many Parisians saw it as his fault, as if he was silly to think that leaning over the banister of an old building wouldn’t result in death. Many wrote about the dangers of Paris buildings and how that, simply, was how it was. Paris was a beautiful, old, dangerous city. If you chose to live there you had to be aware of it.
But I certainly hadn’t been. At nearly 6 foot in boots, the hand-rail which was just 170cm high and on a steep angle had not provided an adequate deterrent to my excitement. Where I had leant from the height of the rail was as low as 130cm. I didn’t realise for a second I was in danger of coming into contact with the lift – I never dreamt it possible. Though I of course do question myself, constantly, I do fundamentally believe the building was ill-equipped to deal with the natural enthusiasm of a tall woman. Nor the innocent response of a tall kid to the calls of his friends below.
That poor kid, his poor family. All that saved me that night was that the lift stopped at the second floor. I hadn’t called it and nobody else was up there to have called it. A miracle. Thanks Miracle.
Accidents happen. Strange things, bizarre things. Life is mad.
I think of Eveline’s gift. I think I understand it now.
This is Paris, she was saying. Magical, impractical, beautiful. Beauty is dangerous. You have to be careful.
That was the final installment of 'The Night I Nearly got my Head Chopped Off by an Elevator.' Thanks for following!
Goodness me, what will I write about tomorrow?
J’ai changé les pronoms dans cette histoire pour être discrète… ND, R et SD si jamais vous la lisez j’espère que ca ne vous faites pas trop de mal. xxx