90,498

On the evening of 30 June 2011, a car struck me as I crossed the street, breaking my right leg and dislocating my ankle. From the onset, the surgeon cautioned me that this was ‘a very bad break’, but I had no idea what that would ultimately mean.

A lack of feeling in my foot caused some concern, but from the onset doctors were focused on the swelling. An x-fixator (like a scaffolding) was screwed into my leg to hold the bones in place. The surgeon told me he couldn’t operate while it was so swollen, because there might be a problem closing me up again, which would lead to all sorts of new issues.

Ten days later (and I was confined to the bed this whole time, with eating, washing, and toiletries to be performed from here) the surgeon declared the decrease in swelling good enough to operate so he could insert plates. After the surgery, the leg, ankle, and foot blew up tremendously again. When the surgeon checked me the next night, he commented, ‘It [the leg] really didn’t like that [the surgery].’

The next day, a physiotherapist visited me and taught me how to use crutches. She estimated that it would be about three months before I was walking again as normal, and another three months to rebuild the strength in my leg.

Up until this point, it seemed that the break would heal.

But over the next six months, they discovered significant nerve damage (one of the broken bones had apparently hooked the nerve and stretched it), and then the leg developed Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (a disconnect between the injured area and the brain, and the way they communicate).

I had exercises to perform three times a day, but also had physio at the hospital twice a week, hydro-therapy three times a week (first at hospital, then at the local pool), would see a hospital psychologist to prepare for a life of dealing with chronic pain, do retraining to try and get my brain and my leg communicating accurately again, and then had a nerve block done (a huge needle shooting anaesthetic into the nerve in my back that ran down to my leg) in a half-day procedure once a week for ten weeks.

This was also when I decided to write Just Another Week in Suburbia.

I can only imagine my mindset informed my writing at this time, and perhaps was even a subconscious means of processing what had happened, the complications I faced, and exorcising the anger at being struck while crossing the street with the right of way, and being left with the repercussions of that for the rest of my life.

And this is the scene that emerged …
 

Chapter 29
(continued from last week)


I get the sledge from the garage, come back to Vic’s door, ring and ring and ring the doorbell. Vic’s footsteps thud down the hallway before the last ring has faded. The door swings open again.
     ‘What—!’
     I thrust the handle of the sledge into his midriff. Breath explodes from his mouth. He clutches at his stomach and doubles over. I shove him by the shoulders. He upends, falls onto his butt, and curls into a foetal position. I step into the house and close the door behind me.


Vic lays there, veins in his temple pulsating. He looks the way Jane did when Kai was fucking her.
     He mouths something but only a wisp of air comes out. His eyes bulge at me. I’m no doctor, but am sure he’s having trouble breathing, although I’m also sure it’ll pass.
     I rest the head of the sledge on his bare ankle.
     ‘You scared, Vic?’ I ask.
     He tries to say something. Now he manages a whine. It’s not voice. But it’s a start.
     ‘This is probably the way Wallace feels whenever he comes in here and you chase him out.’
     Vic kicks his leg forward, although there’s no strength in the action. Still, it’s enough for him to dislodge the sledge. The head of it hits the floor. The impact vibrates in my feet, so Vic must surely feel it in his body. Then there’s the sound: it’s not just the clatter, but that it echoes in the hallway. That sound communicates weight.
     Vic’s eyes bulge and he tries to scurry away, but his arms and legs don’t respond. He squirms, like a worm, but slides on the hardwood floor so he barely gains any ground.
     I step over him, kneel before him, poising the head of the sledge between my feet and parallel to his face. His eyes fix on it.
     ‘Vic, listen,’ I say.
     He gapes at me, but keeps trying to move.
     ‘Listen.’
     He keeps trying.
     ‘Listen.’
     He stops. Is still. I see in him what Jean Jacket must see in me – that desperation to survive the moment, to hope that nothing will come of it.
     ‘I know Wallace can be a shit,’ I say, ‘but he’s just a little dog. Your cat’s always in my yard. It’s a part of being neighbours.’
     ‘Screw you.’
     Or at least that’s what I think Vic says. It comes out in a wheeze and sounds like Sue ooo. But his colour is improving.
     I shake my head. Get up. Rest the sledge on Vic’s foot. He kicks forward again, dislodges it again. I hoist it up, hold it over his ankle.
     ‘What you’re feeling now – the fear, the helplessness, just the basic confusion – is something I’m sure Wallace feels every time he encounters you, Vic.’
     I drive the sledge down, the way I’d plunge a toilet. Vic kicks, but I mostly anticipate where he’s going. I smash his leg just above the ankle. There’s a crunch. It’s like a plank of wood snapping. Then something sharper – the other side of his ankle hitting the hardwood floor. His scream follows. It’s hoarse, guttural, but it fills the hallway. No problems with breathing now.
     From the waist up, Vic flops like … well, I don’t know what like. Like a fish on a bank, I suppose, although I always teach my kids to avoid the use of clichés. From the waist down, he tries to keep still. I don’t blame him. His left foot lays flush to the floor, but the bottom of his shin juts into his floor. The flesh is unbroken, but already it’s swelling and turning purple.
     I hoist the sledge over my shoulder. His scream tapers to a staccato roar. Tears stream down his eyes. His hands brace his shin below the knee as he curls back into a foetal ball, but continues to rock.
     ‘You bastard, you bastard, you cunt, you bastard,’ he says – or at least that’s what I think he says. It’s lost in his sobbing. And I’m not inclined to listen.
     He goes on and on. I wait for him to shut up. But he doesn’t. He bows his head until his chin is pushed into his chest, like he’s bracing himself against the pain.
     ‘Shut up,’ I say.
     He doesn’t.
     ‘Shut up.’
     He goes on. He has a steady drone happening. It’s like he’s trying to do everything at once – vent his pain, curse me, and sob. Since I don’t know how long he’ll be at it, I rest the sledge against the wall, and walk down the hallway.
     The house is almost identical to my own. There’s no pictures going up the stairs, though, and as I walk into the kitchen, I see there’s a stack of dishes in the sink, and the oven is grimy. Jane would hate that.
     I open the fridge. There’s not much in the way of food, but plenty of Coopers. I grab myself one and rifle through the kitchen drawers to find a bottle opener, but can’t. I want to call to Vic to ask him, but he’s still babbling, so I move into the adjoining dining room.
     There’s some cheap porn with shaky handheld camerawork on Vic’s 50-inch LCD TV – a big black guy doing a little blonde doggy-style. The sound’s low, but I can hear whoever’s doing the filming urging the black guy on in ways that are completely derogatory to the blonde.
     I barely give it a second glance, because on the coffee table – a rickety wooden thing – I see two empty bottles of Coopers, another which is almost finished, and one which is unopened. Next to the unopened bottle is the bottle opener. I take it, open my beer, fold the bottle top, and drop it into one of the other bottles.
     I take a swig of my beer and have a look around. The Booths have a tan couch and two recliners. A striped blanket has been thrown over the cushions of the couch. There are signs of wear on the armrests of the recliners.
     On the walls hang pictures of Vic and Chloe – one from their wedding, others at social functions. Vic looks almost human in his wedding picture. There’s no surliness about his eyes, his expression isn’t twisted into its perpetual scowl, and he’s even smiling. But those features appear in the other pictures. Chloe’s sultry and gorgeous in all of them.
     I leave the dining room, grab a kitchen chair from the kitchen, and head back into the hallway. Vic’s only whimpering now, and has squirmed towards the sledge. His hand reaches for it, although God knows what he’d do with it. He doesn’t have the strength to swing it and it’s not like he could chase me.
     I intersect his reach with the kitchen chair, swing it around, and sit on it so that my chest is pressed against the backrest. Vic’s hand falls. His head slumps to the ground. Tears roll from his eyes, and they’re not from the pain.
     ‘Here’s what’s going to happen, Vic. I was taking a walk, I heard you shout, I came in and found you – I guess you fell down the stairs. Maybe you got your foot caught in the spindles. I don’t know. I don’t care. But I called you an ambulance. Because that’s what you want, Vic, isn’t?’ I grab the sledge, plant the head of it between my chair and before Vic’s eyes. ‘It’s an ambulance I need to call? Not the morgue, or cops, or whoever it is that deals with dead fat bullies?’
     Vic holds his hand out. ‘Don’t …’
     ‘This is going to be between us, right, Vic?’
     Vic nods even before I finish the question.
     ‘You touch my dog again and I’ll fucking kill you.’
     I step over him, go back into the kitchen, and hunt for the phone.


I call the paramedics and report Vic’s accident. While I’m waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I go back to my house, wash the head of the sledge in the backyard, then stick it back in the garage.
     I leave the garage and stand in the backyard, sipping on my beer. It’s just starting to get dark, and although it rained yesterday and was grey today, there’s a balminess in the night indicative of hot weather tomorrow.
     Vic will probably tell, although being the macho prick he is I hope he’ll have that schoolyard mentality of keeping things to himself. Of course, that means he might come gunning for me himself one day. Hopefully, I’ve broken the back of the bully.
     Not that that was my intention.
     I finish my beer. I’m unsure what my intention was.


An ambulance arrives, pulling into the drive, and two paramedics emerge. One’s a handsome young guy who wouldn’t be out of place in modelling. The other is a short, squat woman.
     They assess the situation, ask Vic a range of questions – I think mostly to check how lucid he is (Vic babbles in response, sticking to our story) – and then give him a thin, plastic green cylinder to suck on that helps with the pain. I’m curious and ask the paramedics what it’s called. The squat woman tells me it’s a Penthrox Whistle and that it contains Penthrox, an anaesthetic for pain and anxiety. There’s something I’ve learned out of this experience. I could do with one myself about now. I’d chug on it like it was a cigar.
     The paramedics hoist Vic onto a stretcher – Vic screaming as his ankle wobbles, even though it’s supported by one of the paramedics – and assure him he’ll be okay and that they’ll give him some morphine when they get him in the ambulance. That should deaden his pain but might loosen his tongue. Then they raise the stretcher onto its wheels and roll Vic from his house.
     By now, other neighbours have emerged from their houses and gather around Vic’s property to watch what’s going on.
     The paramedics load Vic into the back of the ambulance. Then they crowd around him. I move back and forth, side to side, to try and see around their bodies. They wrap Vic in a makeshift splint.
     Tarika Gupta approaches, Kirit and Pia in tow. Kirit bounds up to the ambulance to get a better look, but Pia stands in front of her mother. Tarika puts her hands on her daughter’s shoulders, keeping her close.
     ‘My goodness,’ Tarika says. ‘What happened?’
     ‘I think Vic broke his leg,’ I say.
     ‘How?’
     ‘Fell down his stairs.’
     The squat paramedic emerges from the back of the ambulance and closes the door. She jogs into the cabin, gets in, and starts the engine. Within moments, the ambulance pulls out of the drive and into the street.
     ‘Kirit!’ Tarika says.
     Kirit runs up from where he’s been watching from the curb.
     ‘To be honest,’ Tarika says, ‘I’ve never liked that man.’
     ‘No?’
     ‘No. He is loud and abrupt. Not like you, Casper. You’re a good man.’
     The praise surprises me. ‘Thanks.’
     Tarika smiles. ‘Still, I hope he’s okay.’
     ‘Me, too.’
     ‘Goodnight, Casper.’
     Tarika escorts her kids back towards her house.
     I follow suit and go back into my own, locking the door behind me.

 

My rehab went on for two years, and would also later incorporate additional requirements, like attending pain seminars, and learning to remould life around my right leg’s new normal – no longer being able to run, very little flexion in the ankle, constant numbness and pain (that would sometimes become excruciating), and (due to the nerve damage) clawing in my right foot.

It wasn’t long after the hospital discharged me from their system that the Hachette Manuscript Development Program selected JAWiS.

What I’d originally written must’ve been cathartic, though, because when I sat down to perform the major structural revision, I had no problem cutting this scene and writing in something new.

It had served its purpose and no longer fit.

The Other Me

‘The Broken Road’

vii.
Through physio and hard work, I rebuilt my right leg so the calf was only a half-inch smaller than the left calf. But the damage meant I was restricted. I couldn’t walk down stairs normally, or stoop on the right leg to grab something out of a drawer, for instance, because I no longer had that flexion in my ankle. Uneven ground was treacherous, because the strength in the right ankle struggled to support me. I could no longer run. Barefoot, I always had a limp. When I wore runners, I could usually walk okay for about thirty minutes or so with discomfort, but then discomfort became pain, and the limp followed.

It got to the point that I had to constantly remind myself, Walk normally. Walk normally. I had to train my brain to assert a normalcy in gait. A limp didn’t have to exist – I was avoiding walking normally because of weird sensation. So it was, Walk normally. Walk normally. Walk normally. And I did that until pain grew intolerable and I had no option but to limp.

When people asked me about it and I told them I could no longer run, they’d ask me, ‘Well, were you really running that much?’ But you do run often throughout the course of a day – maybe not competitively, or athletically, but sometimes life demands it. You run to grab the phone when you hear it ring, or you run catch a train or to get to your car when it’s raining, you run to get across a busy road – now I always had to take these things into consideration. A physio explained that propulsion came from the bottom half of your foot, and the bottom half of my right foot simply was no longer working normally due to the nerve damage and CRPS. The lack of flexibility in the ankle didn’t help either.

Then there was playing with Allie’s kids. I used to drag them out into the yard to play cricket, or kick a football around. Now, when I tried to kick, my ankle felt rigid under me, and the foot and leg unsupportive. I could manage weak kicks, although not always accurate, because I didn’t have the balance, or even the ability to gauge how my leg would support me. When the ball was kicked back to me, if it wasn’t within reach, I didn’t have the ability to move with any spring or fluency to intercept it. I’d just have to hobble after it.

But I kept rehabbing. This was not the way I was going to be. I refused to be. I was always the guy who defied expectation. So I did everything possible: physio, hydro, exercises. I knew I could lapse into self-pity, or even use my injury to curry favour, but as had been the challenge through my life, I wanted to be me. It was as simple as that.

One day, when I was limping to the pool for my exercises, a guy of about sixty – a quadriplegic, flanked by carers in the pool – watched me approach. Once I was in the pool and walking my warm-up laps, he asked me what had happened. I told him. He said, ‘I hope it gets better.’ It was an amazing and humbling attitude. I never used to believe in the axiom, ‘It could be worse’, but now I started to see the truth in that.

During another visit with the surgeon – about eighteen months after the accident – I asked him if I would get back to full functionality.

The surgeon laughed. ‘God, no – there was way too much damage.’

He went on to say it could’ve been so damaged I might’ve needed it amputated, or the nerve damage mightn’t have recovered and the foot might’ve hung useless from my leg, or the pain could’ve been so debilitating and omnipresent that I might’ve begged to have the foot removed.

‘This is a victory for us,’ he told me.

The neurosurgeon was a bit more apologetic. He said he hoped they could’ve brought my recovery further through the use of the nerve blocks and all the various treatments, but this was where recovery had plateaued.

I limped from the hospital, disappointed that this was it, but also relieved – after two years, I was finally out of the hospital system. Everybody involved at the hospital (the Austin) was brilliant – the surgeon, the neurosurgeon, doctors, the nurses, the physios, the anaesthesiologists, and anybody I may have missed. They made a horrible experience bearable. But now I was free, which at least gave me some sense of normalcy – at least behaviourally.

I just had to accept now what was: the toes on my right foot had contorted into a permanent claw (and the third now partially overlapped the fourth), I hadn’t regained full feeling in my foot (particularly the lower half) because the nerve damage had only partially healed, some element of the Complex Regional Pain Syndrome remained (and flared up when I overused my leg), my ankle was stiff and I never gained normal flexion, and the pain was bad, sometimes excruciating when I did too much , but I learned a simple lesson – this was it.

You can do your best, you can try to defy the odds, but you can’t always choose what you want in life.

Then, it’s just a case of making do.