The phone call came at five that evening. Joe picked it up in the shop on the old Bakelite receiver they had in the back. They didn’t have a ‘phone at home, nor did many of the locals, so the shop phone was used fairly frequently for passing on messages for the trusted few to whom Joe’s mum granted the privilege.
Joe was just cashing up the day’s meagre takings and about to lock the doors before the final sweep up when the tinny sound came from out the back. Joe was tired and fed up, he’d been in the shop on his own all day and since Terry had called by he’d seen no-one to talk to other than the usual flow of old locals coming in for their Western Morning News and Daily Telegraphs. He ignored the ringing and waited for it to stop, he couldn’t be bothered. Then he relented, started to walk back to pick it up, when it stopped anyway.
He shrugged, locked up the doors, turned off the lights and sat on the stool behind the counter to roll himself a joint – it was a bit of a daily ritual.
He watched with satisfaction as a face peered in through the cards and adverts stuck to the locked door and, not seeing Joe, disappeared again. He continued rolling.
A few minutes later he sat there enjoying the silence and stillness, the deadening effect of the grass had left him feeling calmer. Less bored and more relaxed. He let his mind wander and mentally chose a couple of books off the racks to read later. He could hear the faint hum of the electricity running through the wires, listened to the rhythm of creaks in the wood as the floor restored itself to its most comfortable shape.
Then the ‘phone rang again, breaking up the moment.
Reluctantly he picked it up – the voice at the other end asked for his mother, Joe told them she wasn’t there - without volunteering who he was or offering to take a message.
The voice sounded flustered and then regained some confidence.
"This is the police – can you get a message to her ?"
Joe was shaken at first – he didn’t have a natural depth of goodwill towards the police and instinctively he took the joint out of his mouth and hid it in his cupped hand.
"There’s been an accident…", the cliché hung mundanely in the air, full of foreboding, then sank in weighted with its own significance.
"I’m her son !" Joe interrupted without thinking, then remembered his brother almost as an afterthought.
"Well, then, your brother…Mr… err?"
"Just tell me what’s happened…it’s Dave, yeah ?"
"Not me – my brother – he’s Dave. What’s happened ?" Joe’s voice was rising.
"Can you get here – to Truro ? He’s in the hospital – can you get here ?"
"What’s happened ?"
"Look, it might be easier if…"
"Just tell me what’s fucking happened !" Joe was shouting.
"Now no need to…er…look…I’m sorry your brother, er….Dave, he’s been in a car accident……he’s in the hospital now. Can you come down here ?"
"Not without a car…."
"We can send one over……"
That was the point Joe knew it had been serious. They didn’t send cars ‘round if someone had broken their leg, nor if they needed a few stitches. He drew deeply on the joint and told the anonymous voice to get a car ‘round to his house as soon as they could. He’d tell his mother.
"What’s happened though – what’s happened to Dave ?" Joe sounded strangled, as if all the air had gone from the room.
"I can’t say for sure….er….I don’t know….he wasn’t conscious when they pulled him out….um…it looks like he rolled the car….don’t think anyone else was there…might have hit something…..look I’m sorry…"
Joe sighed. He felt some sympathy for this person at the other end, but his mind was racing now. The earlier stonedness completely cleared by the shock and the rush of what’s and how’s crowding in on his darting mind.
"Just get someone here mate, yeah ?" Joe put down the ‘phone and walked out of the shop, leaving the door unlocked behind him.
After a numbed and wordless fifty minute ride in the police car, weaving in and out of the narrow lanes and occasionally putting on blue lights to clear a way through a bottleneck, they arrived at the hospital. Joe’s mum said very little other than answering politely the police driver’s questions about Dave’s age and other pointless details. She kept her hands clenched in front of her and hummed slightly under her breath, a tuneless noise which blended in with the engine sounds and eventually almost fell into harmony with them. Joe looked out of the window, eyes red but not daring to think ahead.
At the hospital they were led into a ward where a policewoman looked after them in a side room and made them cups of tea. Dave was still unconscious, they said, he had a broken leg and some fairly serious head injuries, although not a fractured skull. They couldn’t see him just yet – he was being assessed. The car was a wreck – it was down at a yard by the police station. They could see it if they liked – offered as if that might make them feel better about Dave. Joe stared into space. His mother carried on her hum, now in tune with the hospital rhythms of machinery and footsteps along sterile corridors.
What were the chances ? Joe asked the doctor who finally came. Not bad apparently, all the signs were good, but at the moment it might be that he would have some ‘head problems’ when and if he came ‘round. Joe took this as meaning brain damage. No-one contradicted him. The humming from beside him grew louder.
When they saw Dave his face was black down one side, where he’d hit the door frame apparently. More alarming were the number of tubes feeding him air and fluids. One in his nose, another in his arm. A monitor was taped to his chest and bleeped softly via the machine they wheeled to his bedside. His leg was strapped up but not plastered. His face was almost blank of any feeling. This was the morphine, explained the nurse – it helped him to come round more slowly, reduced the shock. Joe laughed for the first time. He’d like that. The nurse threw him a conspiratorial look.
For days they sat there, taking it in turns, shift working the watching. Joe wanted to go back and sort out the shop but for the first time in living memory his mother refused and shut it up. First she rang a trusted neighbour to make sure that a sign was put up explaining the ‘personal circumstances’ and apologising for the inconvenience. Joe knew that some people would still feel aggrieved and never return their custom – that was village life for you. Petty.
No-one else came. By their request they just wanted it to be the two of them. Dave’s breathing stayed quite constant; his face went from black to blue to red to vile yellow. The machine beeped. Joe and his mother sat and slept and read, holding Dave’s limp hand through the bed’s cot side.
The monotony exhausted them both but no amount of cajoling could move them.
It was after four days that Dave came ‘round, just as Joe was about to leave to get some lunch. The nurse had turned down the morphine drip and was holding his wrist, taking his pulse, making those unchanging observations and noting them down. She felt his hand stiffen and his eyes flickered open. He stared at the ceiling for what seemed like a long time. Joe leant over him, scared to speak, scared to hear what he might or might not say in reply. Joe’s mother showed nothing on her face but leant forwards in her chair, reached for Dave’s hand, stopped humming.
Dave finally opened his mouth and tried to speak but a slight strangled croak came out instead. The nurse quickly remembered what she was there for and held a paper cup of water to his lips. He sipped slowly, fighting against the dry soreness of his throat to get the liquid down. He smiled, in a confused way, but a smile nonetheless. Joe said a tentative hello. Dave turned towards him and stumbled over his sounds, but somehow managed to get out a barely whispered ‘Hi’. Then he shut his eyes again and for the first time since he’d arrived he snored.
The doctor came not long after and told the nurse to take away the morphine altogether. Dave stirred again, sipped more water and asked why he was here. The accident seemingly slipped away from his mind. The doctor asked him if he knew his name – he did – did he recognise his mother – he did – did he know who Joe was – he paused. He looked at Joe intently and then said that he sort of did, but he couldn’t put a name to him. Joe smiled weakly. Where was he – no idea, in London maybe, on a school trip ? That seemed possible. He wasn’t sure. How old was he – fifteen he thought. Years had been peeled back. He was somewhere other than now, somewhere in a part of his mind that had been dislodged and brought forwards. Forgotten souvenirs tumbling out of a drawer, rearranging themselves in the wrong order, old things falling on top of new, covering them up.
When they told him he was in Truro this seemed to be perfectly OK to him. But when they told him who Joe was he looked pained, looked sad – Joe, he asked, what happened, why are you this old ? Joe turned away and tried hard not to cry. His brother was only part there.
As the days wore on the physical pain started to rear up in Dave – his face, at first just bruised, became too tender to be touched and every facial movement was accompanied by a series of winces and dramatic flinches, His leg was throbbing and itching and his headaches were bad. But with the pain came a reassembling of his self - after two days he could work out a vague sketch of his life since fifteen, after four days he was more comfortable with his age and after a week he suddenly shot up in bed – much to the shock of the nurse who was clearing away his food.
"Oh Christ, oh Christ, oh Christ…." He moaned a long low moan, started crying, started shaking.
She held him like she was his mother and he rocked back and forth in her arms. He couldn’t say anything, just sat rigid, moaning, then, as the charge nurse approached, fell limp and sobbed. He lay there like this for hours – opposed to all attempts from the nurses to calm him. When his mother came in to visit that night he just started crying all over again, wordless.
The doctor gave him some sleeping tablets and he finally drifted again into the comfort of nothingness. They thought he might have remembered the crash – that his memory had finally caught up with him and his mind was processing it all – they wouldn’t know unless he said.
When he woke in the early hours he looked hollowed out. He was quiet now and wouldn't say any more, refused to speak about what had caused the panic. He denied any knowledge of the crash, of anything much before getting into the car that day. Nobody pressed him, happy that other than this he seemed to have recovered most of his past.
They let him go home after three weeks, still bruised, leg in plaster, but otherwise more or less functioning.
Me and baby brother.....