I took a tumble last week and managed not to blog about it. Well done, me. It was probably in part due to shock, embarrassment but also I was just reeling from an insane week.
I’d been working 12-hour days (on average — a few days were closer to 18 over the weekend) for 7 days straight as a freelancer at a design festival being held in London, managing the exhibition space where they were showing work that had been shortlisted for an awards show that ends the festivities every year.
Thursday, my last contracted day, loomed like this beacon on the horizon where I didn’t have to go straight up to bed and then wake up again at 07.00 the next day. I could finish at a normal time and let my hair down. I really couldn’t wait to blow off some steam.
I’d started smoking again, just casually during the day, mostly as an easily accessible respite during the long hours. It was exhausting and stressful work. (This line of work only comes in short bursts, thankfully. The thought of doing this full time makes me understand why all chefs seem to smoke — I would too under the circumstances.)
When Thursday arrived I was told I could clock off at 17.00 and I didn’t need telling twice. They needed to get the space ready for the awards ceremony so the exhibition came down and other members of the team took over. With my job done, I decided to tag along with some of the production crew, all a lot younger than me and mostly all fresh out of university. I tried to hang out without coming across as the older dude they had to behave around. I wasn’t the boss anymore and managed to chat to them all in turn, letting them know I’d worked at this place for a fraction of their contracts, and so once some barriers got broken down we grabbed a load of tinnies from the shop and went to find a park to sit in.
It was a really lovely evening. Hilarious, too. They were a really lovely bunch of people and I even tweeted about it, feeling all sentimental. It was the sort of night that was reminiscent of my first weeks living in this city, about to start a Masters degree and with no other responsibilities, just enjoying the last of the summer sun whilst making new friends. It was blissful.
But the good feelings didn’t last.
We’d been given wristbands for an after party being held in this bar in Shoreditch. It was mostly for awards ceremony attendees but it had a free bar so we rocked up as a little clique without suits on and continued drinking.
There was a DJ in one room who was amazing, playing jungle, mixed impeccably, to this huge crowd of design and advertising industry heads. It was quite a sight. A very strange and, let’s say “mixed”, vibe.
We carved out our space within the crowd and had a blast.
Later on we moved out into the smoking area and spent a few hours chatting together but there was a turning point, I can’t say for certain when, probably around 01.00, when it suddenly became very, very clear to me that I was way over my limit.
It’s very rare I get black out drunk. In fact, I usually struggle to get drunk at all, but these are usually the nights that it happens, dead on my feet from overwork, not thinking, just wanting to celebrate a job well done and ending up celebrating a little too much. I blame the free bar and the atmosphere. I definitely overdid it.
The next few hours are a blur.
I staggered out of the bar without saying goodbye to anyone, terrified I was about to make a fool of myself and not wanting to do so in front of people I barely knew. I made my way to the station off Shoreditch High Street but, obviously, it was closed by that time. My phone was dead too but I remembered that I’d gotten a bus from round the corner a few days earlier at around this time after work so I staggered there instead and waited for about 40 minutes but nothing came.
Anyway, I already knew, somewhere inside where there was still a few embers of reason, that I was far too drunk to make it home on the bus without passing out or making a mess so I said to myself, fuck it, I’ll walk home.
I found a Tesco that was miraculously open at that time and bought two sandwiches. I needed to sober up. I paid and turned a corner only to walk into a pair of paramedics trying to resuscitate a homeless man who looked quite obviously dead, lying on the floor. Whatever they were doing wasn’t working. I was sort of stunned. I didn’t mean to gawp but I felt immediately sober and clear-headed and didn’t know where else to look, aware I wasn’t fully in control of all my faculties, and I felt like I needed to sit down.
There was a man nearby who looked terrified. He approached me asking for some change and after all that we’d just seen I felt awful when I told him I didn’t have any. I asked if he was alright, if there was anything else I could do, he said he was okay but he was hungry so I gave him the spare sandwich I had in my bag.
I asked what had happened and he said he didn’t know but that he knew the guy and he seemed to be in shock himself. I felt awful for him and very quickly found myself sober enough to hold a conversation and find out where he was going for the night. He had a hostel nearby, he said, but needed £20 to get in the door. I walked him to a cash point and I gave it to him.
He hugged me and we parted ways but it didn’t feel good. I wasn’t really thinking about it. I felt like I’d seen something otherwise unseen and, feeling so impotent and helpless, it was all I could do in the moment to make that moment, in itself, feel acknowledged. But it wasn’t enough.
This moment has stayed with me all week. I like to think that I’m the sort of person who is good in a crisis, and that’s certainly what I think I do well at in my job. But there I am, drunk out my mind, having just spent seven days managing something so relatively inconsequential as an exhibition of adverts and packaging design, and now here I am rendered impotent before the death of another human being.
I didn’t think this was something I could — or even should — write about but then I found myself flicking through some more Blanchot — because what is theory if not a life jacket for these sorts of moments that escape all comprehension. His fragmentary and aphoristic Writing on the Disaster feels perfectly rendered for moments like this. Unreadable from front to back, necessarily read through chance.
I open a page: “Calm, always calmer, the undesirable calm.” That’s what I feel. That’s what lingers over the past week; over the seed of the idea of this post (and it remains having finished it).
I pick up another book from my Blanchot pile and thumb Derrida’s essay on his short story The Instance of My Death. Derrida writes on Blanchot’s sense of testimony, this exploratory fiction on what may or may not have occurred:
As a promise to make truth, according to Augustine’s expression, where the witness must be irreplaceably alone, where the witness alone is capable of dying his own death, testimony always goes hand in hand with at least the possibility of fiction, perjury, and lie.
This is a challenge laid at the feet of a story heard or a scene witnessed, but what becomes of a story of a death witnessed through eyes obliterated and inebriated? Doesn’t that man’s death deserve a better witness than me? I know nothing about him but still I want to acknowledge him somehow but doesn’t even that acknowledgement cheapen the instance of his death? Derrida:
Allow me to call to mind an essential kind of generality: is the witness not always a survivor? This belongs to the structure of testimony. One testifies only when one has lived longer than what has come to pass.
I remember feeling like I didn’t deserve to bear witness to this, to survive it, simply because I couldn’t absorb its gravity. It bounced off me in my haze.
I felt grateful that the other man’s night was looking up for him but I felt awful, especially having thought earlier about how great this city could be. I’d jinxed it and walked right into the most brutal London night I’ve ever experienced. There was part of me, starting to feel the utterly depressive nature of the alcohol flowing through my system, mixed with the shock of what we’d seen, that didn’t want to make it home.
Still, I kept walking, with the Shard in my line of sight. I meandered around backstreets trying to get to London Bridge, thinking I could get a bus from there and be sober enough for it.
I came across another man lying in a sleeping bag underneath a cash point and gave him £20 too without really thinking about it. He’d been stabbed in the leg and, when he showed me, it looked really infected. I told him he needed to get in looked at and he said hopefully the hostel could sort him out. I asked where it was, if he needed help getting there, he showed me his crutch and said he’d manage alright.
I wished him well and kept going again, bouncing from disaster to disaster, wishing more than anything I wasn’t drunk in the midst of this hour.
I started to feel a bit sick at this point. Not so much from the alcohol but sick from the night. The streets were empty and the few passersby who I encountered seemed like mirrors to me. We were all alone and all hoping to get out, staggering in that same way, repelled by dark corners like London’s streets made up a giant pinball machine.
Everyone seemed to look haunted but I couldn’t be sure if all I was seeing in their faces was what I felt.
I started to fixate on the thought of the number that presently constituted my bank account. I realised I’d given away £40 that I didn’t technically have to give. I didn’t regret giving it away but the shock of how I’d buy myself food over the next week started to float around near the top of the night’s ever-growing stack of concerns. It felt like something else to worry about, something else to lean into that wasn’t the sight of that man on the ground and the paramedic’s utter dejection looming over him. Better the hole in my wallet than the hole in that man’s leg.
I started to feel quite drunk again and lost all my bearings. I headed down a few back streets and caught sight of the Shard again, directly in front of me, but the Thames was in the way and there were bridges to my right and left, both a fair distance apart. I thought the quickest route might be to walk down some steps and along the beach. There was bound to be another flight of steps a little further along and that way I wouldn’t need to meander blindly through more backstreets and waste more time and energy. Plus it looked nice down there in the moonlight.
I made my way towards the steps and reached the pebbles below before I even knew what had happened.
I was in agony. I landed in the foetal position and decided just to stay there but I couldn’t stop myself crying out. I had no idea what I’d done but, whatever it was, it did not feel good. I tried to stand but couldn’t. I stayed right where I was for what felt like thirty minutes but could have been seconds. After the initial shock of the impact subsided, I managed to hobble back up the steps I’d previously been at the top of.
Now I definitely had another concern to focus on. Everything else fell away. A strange analogy, I know, but it was like the world when Frodo puts on the One Ring in the movies. All wind and darkness, no form to anything, just an abstract desire and a goal and the momentum to reach it. People passed me and cars drove by but no one seemed to stop and ask if I was okay. I felt invisible. I felt empty. The pain basically emptied out my brain and I felt like I was on auto-pilot, just trying to get back to familiarity and my own bed.
I found myself on the bridge I’d seen from the steps and crossed it. It was then that I found myself in somewhat familiar territory. I was in London Bridge where I’d been just two weeks before, having some drinks with friends, but still I couldn’t find a bus stop that could take me where I needed to go.
I suppose I could have asked someone but I felt like a zombie, with the innate sense that if I opened my mouth to talk to anyone all that would come out would be “aaaaaarrrgh”.
I hobbled alone, bracing (what I thought) was my good leg and limping on. I started to make my way towards what I thought was Elephant & Castle when I saw a couple get out of a taxi on the opposite side of the street. I hobbled over and asked the driver if he was free and if he could take me home. He said yes and he did. Another £20 I didn’t have. There was a reason the free bar had been so attractive. With the weight off my feet the other worries reemerged. What had happened to that man?
I made it home and up to my flat and took my shoes off. My right foot, which I’d experienced no pain in at all, was covered in blood and it seemed obvious that I’d broken a toe. I think about that for minute, surprised that I didn’t notice. I text my girlfriend a drunken apology for coming in stinking and looking like I’d been run over and I tell her I’ll see her in the morning before passing out on the sofa.
In the morning, she wakes me up and says, come on, you big mess, I’m off to work, let’s just put you to bed. I can’t even stand up. We call the non-emergency NHS helpline and they say to go to A&E. She drives and waits with me. I was the fourth ankle injury in that morning but I’m the only one making use of the hand rails along the walls. I nearly pull one off as I hobble from bench to bathroom to bench, to consultation to x-ray to consultation. They give me crutches which I’ve never used before but moving about still isn’t so easy.
Miraculously, the x-ray of my foot showed no broken bones at all and the doctor’s best guess for a tear in my ATL. Not a complete tear but a nasty one all the same. It’s a bit unusual for a sprain to leave you this immobile, she says. I have a feeling in the back of my mind that the x-ray isn’t even mine. No foot that feels this bad looks that normal.
The reason for my immobility became much clearer over the coming days, as the swelling went down. What hurt so much was no doubt the bruise the size of my palm covering the entire inside of my foot. I’d never seen a bruise so big on such a relatively small area of skin. It looked like I’d crushed it.
They send me home. As lucky as I am with my escape, I’ve still got an injury to each foot, making both useless for putting any weight on. I’m in bed for two days before I can hop around the flat.
Much of the past week has been spent feeling a bit sorry for myself as a result but, more than anything, I’m not yet over seeing that man die. Just like the fall itself, everything happened so fast and in a blur, but it was clear immediately that something wasn’t right. I remember the downhearted look on the paramedic’s face when he gave up on the chest compressions and then the next thing I’m doing is talking to this other man. I witnessed something but now I can barely recall it. I want to focus my memory on it for his sake but nothing emerges with any clarity. I’m not sure if it’s the alcohol or an auto-defence mechanism.
I’ll be back on my feet unaided in a couple more days but it all seems unimportant compared to that part I can barely remember.
A few days after my fall, the “cliff wife” meme starts going around. I make a joke about it, of course, but there’s something oddly resonant in the video that I feel slightly nauseous about wanting to dig out.
“Life has its own way of throwing trials and challenges and frustrations and kinda ruining your day,” says Shaun McBride in the notoriously overdramatic video. His wife calls their day “life-changing”; “it really changes your perspective… life can change in a split second.”
She’s not wrong, of course, and so there couldn’t be a more relatable meme right now. Some things really do change your perspective, but I can tell you now, Mrs. McBride, that a bumpy ride down to the beach ain’t it.
Being the London cliff wife was resoundingly the least awful thing to come out of last Thursday.