Pothole, by Fran Brown

I remember the day vividly, and of course I would, as my whole life shifted trajectory. I collapsed into freefall, and all I could do was wait until I found the bottom again. I woke up at six forty-five to leave by seven – any later and I would have been an hour late due to traffic. I brushed my teeth and dressed in my uniform; black trousers with green pinstripes, a dark green jumper and a black blazer. Six fifty-five I rode my bike to school. Maybe if I never learned how to ride a bike, I wouldn’t have been there. I came to the top of the alley way on the hill between the church and local school. I’d seen the postman standing on one side of his bike, and I wanted to try it. I unmounted, pushed it slightly and stood on one peddle. I hit the brakes before I reached the bottom; the bike skidded over the leaves just stopping at the kerb.

It was one fifteen. We were dismissed from our English class a full two hours early because Mrs Wilkinson felt ill. I learnt later that her husband suffered severe depression and in fact, she had gone to tend to him. Maybe if he just cheered up a little bit, I wouldn’t have been there. I unchained my bicycle. Usually, I would have to stare at the swarms of students cascading over each other just to leave through the gate that was only wide enough for one person. Today it was clear. Maybe if I had some friends, we would have stayed a little longer, and I would have missed the whole event. I unbuttoned my blazer and stuffed it into my bag before mounting my bike and riding off.

I took my eyes off the road for just a second and before I knew it, I was over the handle bars and on my arse. I picked myself up, mostly intact; my pride suffered the most. I was glad it wasn’t worse. (Un)fortunately, there was no one around to see. I pulled my bike to the kerb and saw the pothole. It was long and oddly shaped. I must have ridden past it a thousand times and hadn’t noticed it getting bigger. Did I make it that big? The tyre had jammed, the bikes brakes had ripped off, and the frame had warped. I couldn’t ride it anymore, so I shoved my headphones in and started pushing it up the street. How could such a simple thing cause so much damage?

The street was long and narrow. On every house hung streams of Christmas lights. Some flashed while others looped through the different colours. In one garden was a huge train driven by a Father Christmas. Next to it were several reindeer covered in white lights, some grazing and others standing alert. I stared at it wondering what Christmas meant to this house. Chunks of blue coloured plastic and metal danced past, just missing me as they skidded onward. The motorbike followed. It bounced up the street sparking as it twisted in circles, parts falling off as it went by. I couldn’t hear him screaming over the sound of my headphones. And I’m glad I couldn’t because when I turned around, he was lying there wearing no motorbike gear or a helmet. Flesh hung off his forearms and face, and his mouth was agape. He gripped his cheek, pushing the torn flesh back onto itself. I could feel my stomach turning. The heat rushed from my fingers as they became clammy and pale. I just stood there staring at the carnage in front of me. My eyes traced the scene; his front tyre was wedged in the pothole, the same one I had fallen victim to. ‘There is nothing left of you/ I can see it in your eyes’ screamed my headphones. The music abruptly stopped as I yanked them out of my ears.

I saw the metal embedded in his thigh. “The femoral artery,” I thought. His fingers traced it blindly before he grabbed it with both hands tightly. Move, move, move! I kept telling myself. I am fifteen, and I don’t know what to do. I needed to scream, to say something, to call for someone else, someone who knew what to do. My body felt as heavy as stone. I couldn’t hear anything, just an endless ringing in my ears. I could see his cheekbone, and I could see his arm bone, and I could see what would happen next. I couldn’t stop him. That was someone’s brother, son, grandson and all I could do was stand there as he screamed for me. Move, move, move! My limbs were stiff and alien to me, but I forced myself to run to him, I had to there was no one else, there was only me and I couldn’t leave him there. It was like floating; it wasn’t real; this wasn’t real. Music still blared from my headphones ‘You suffer/ I live to fight and die another day.’ How could I forget?

He pulled the metal from his leg, and I winced. I was ten seconds too late, and now I had to watch. Blood poured out of his leg pooling quickly beneath him. I grabbed his leg with both hands as tight as my weak arms could manage and he howled. His blood spurted, covering me from head to toe. I could feel it dripping down my face. It didn’t feel as I expected. It was thick and sticky, and when it dried, it made my skin stiff. I wiped the tears smearing the blood like paint. The human body has about twelve pints of blood in it, and I could have sworn I was drowning in about sixty of them.

I took his belt off and tied it above the wound. I pulled it as tight as my arms could manage. It barely slowed the bleeding, but I had to try, I had to do something. He kept lifting his head to see what had happened, and I kept pushing him away until he lacked the strength to lift himself anymore. I knew if he saw it his heart rate would increase and he would die faster. ‘Does anyone care/ is anybody there?’ I looked around and still there was no one. “Help… me… someone… anyone… please…” My voice was lost in my tears and blew away in the wind.

“Am I dying?” he chocked his voice was flat and weak. I looked him in the eyes. What do you say to someone who is about to die? I took a deep breath and choking back my tears, and I replied: “You’re going to be okay.” I smiled at him, and he smiled back. I kept eye contact, stroking his hair and smiling; God, did I smile. I made myself look at what I had done until his eyes dimmed and his pale face turned away from me. ‘God sing for the hopeless/ I’m the one you left behind.’

It takes about two minutes for someone to lose enough blood that they die. He took a deep, laboured breath and exhaled. ‘Holding on too tight/ Breathe the breath of life.’ There’s something different about a person’s last breath. It is so distinctive. The way it seems to bounce up and down as they wrestle to inhale, and then it’s as if their soul leaves with the exhale; it’s pushed further than any breath ever was before. It sounds like struggling, if struggling were a sound. His body went limp. I don’t remember if I called an ambulance or if someone in the houses nearby did, but they arrived moments too late. It was like presenting something at school; you pause for a second, but it feels like a lifetime has passed. I paused. I had no cue cards, and I had done no revision, so I had no clue. At the realisation of his death I stopped crying, and shock absorbed me. I began beating his chest whispering the song ‘stayin’ alive’ because that’s what my Nan said you had to do to bring someone back to life. Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies…

I kept forgetting what I was doing, but I kept doing it because it felt important. I could see my sweat dripping out of my hair like rain when the paramedics arrived. They started doing their thing, and their mouths were moving, they were talking to me, but all I could hear was silence. I was pulled away and wrapped into a silver blanket and given an oxygen mask. “Are you hurt?” one asked. “Is any of this blood yours?” Would I have known if it was? All blood is red, and I was so preoccupied and full of adrenaline I wouldn’t have felt a thing. Did he feel it all, did it fade away in the end? And I wonder, should I have been honest? Should I have said that he was going to die and that it was my fault for not reacting fast enough? Did he already know? Do you think he forgives me for lying, for being so pathetic?

My mum picked me up from the hospital. We didn’t talk about it, we just drove home, and I went to bed. She fixed the bike, and when I thought I was ready for school again, I was awake at six forty-five, brushing my teeth and getting ready. But when I saw my bike I vomited in the roses and walked the two hours instead. I remembered the skin hanging off his face, and I remembered the gallons of blood I drowned in. I couldn’t sleep, it played over and over in my dreams. It haunted me at the dinner table, plagued me in the class room. ‘I will remember how you screamed/ I can’t afford to care/ I can’t afford to care.’

I entered the room. It was large and full of rows upon rows of desks each with an AQA English paper. I searched for my number, 276. That’s all I was, a number. I sat at my desk and filled out the details, and we began. I don’t remember the questions, just that I got stuck and I felt my heart race and my stomach somersault. I could feel my shirt soaking through. I had to write a story, but my mind was clouded. I wrote ‘He died in the end. He died in the end.’ My sweat dropped onto the page, and I pulled myself back. I thought it was blood pouring out of me and then panic – raw, blind panic. I threw my paper to the floor and walked out. Who was this broken shell I had to sit inside? ‘I can feel it crawl beneath my skin/ Dear Agony/ Just let go of me.’

My English teacher followed. “Frankie, Frankie!” She demanded I stop. Before I knew it, she grabbed my arm. “What’s the matter? You could have done that.” I lifted my face. We were the same height then, maybe about five foot seven. Her hair was long, and jet black. Her age was reflected in the flecks of grey you could barely see, weaved into each strand. I expected her to be angry with me, but when our eyes met, hers filled with the same sadness mine did. The light shone off her blue eyes. “He died…” I whispered “he was there and then he wasn’t and I didn’t do anything.” She took me off to her office, sat me down and handed me a book.

“I know what happened. I’m sorry you had to see that. If you don’t want to talk about it, this book might really help.” I never said a word and she handed me a book. It was called Looking for Alaska by John Green. The first part of the novel is about a group of teenagers – it was ordinary – it was life, same as mine. Half way through Alaska gets drunk and drives to her boyfriend, but she dies in a horrific car accident. The rest of the novel was about how each of them coped with what had happened. I remember it said “When adults say, Teenagers think they are invincible with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken.” This felt so true to me. I had never thought about death before, and I can bet that boy didn’t either. He was there because he didn’t think he could be irreparably broken and for that, he paid the biggest price of all. In another world, in another universe, it could have been me. Maybe one day I make that mistake, or maybe I don’t look both ways before crossing, or maybe I trip and fall down the stairs. My next door neighbour died like that. You can die putting your trousers on, you trip and hit your head and that’s it. How fragile we must be to die in such a mundane way. So, look after yourself. Put that seatbelt on, wear that helmet, have fun, but look after yourself.

Up until that point death was a distant concept. You could see it on the television, in video games and in a book, but it was always taken as unlikely, and at the very least you could start the game over again and not die. I learnt very early you can’t do that with life. When I think about it, nothing prepared me for this. We can’t all play the hero, some are tried and tested, and I just couldn’t square up.

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