Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sudden Death and the English Pastoral

It's 7.15 on Saturday morning. Kelly and I are woken by the sound of an explosion, or a collision. I run downstairs and try to see what has happened. Nothing to the west, the road is clear. My view eastwards from the front right window of the living room is obscured by the tree of heaven which is in full leaf. There's no commotion in the street, no screaming. A car passes, and a train. I consider going back to bed. And then there's a young black man, tall, oddly dressed - as if he's on his way to work at Dixons, but in three quarter length trousers - looking back towards Forest Gate. He looks like he's seen something awful, he's slack-jawed, terrified.

I pull on a pair of jeans (I'm naked) and run outside, still barefoot. By now there are three or four people standing in the street. There's an uprooted bollard, a quarter of a ton of it, still rolling back and forth in the road. I turn into Ash Road, still running, and I see the first body. She's on her front, three-quarters of the way out of the car. There's not a lot of blood but it appears as though she's been thrown through the car door. Not through the window, but through the metal door. The physics of it are impossible to comprehend.

She's fleshy, black, not wearing much. Her face is pressed hard into the tarmac and she's obviously dead. I'm three or four feet away but she's definitely dead. The first dead body I've ever seen and in the most absurdly violent circumstances. Behind the wheel of the car is a man, sat upright. He's not moving. I run back to the house to ring 999 despite being half-aware that someone is already calling them. I hear my voice shaking as I'm connected. I start babbling about "a terrible accident" and give the address, correctly, I think.

"Which emergency service do you require?" the operator asks, rather laconically.
"All of them, I think, " I say, and again I have a point, but it occurs to me that I'm paraphrasing a film, something with Alan Rickman in it, where someone shouts "SEND EVERYONE!!!" into a 'phone.
"Who do you want first, Fire Service, Police or Ambulance?"
"Ambulance, I suppose." No-one's told me to calm down, so I haven't.
"Connecting you."

The man at the LAS asks for more details and makes it clear that I have obligations as a witness. "Grab a mobile when you go back outside and if necessary we'll talk you through CPR procedures. Check for breathing and pulse and make sure no-one moves anybody."
"Yes," I say, "I've already told them that." (I'm not sure that I have).

"Where are the sirens?" Kelly asks. "It's been five minutes."

I pull on a shirt and head back outside, horrified, frankly, that I'll have to help in some way. Some context here:- Two years ago to the day, I assisted in another crash between two vehicles along the same stretch of road and acquitted myself well enough. Everyone survived, to my knowledge, and I was there right amongst the blood and the broken glass. I'm the sort that gets involved, despite myself. Most people are, given the circumstances. Morally, the options are limited. Turning a blind eye, or gawking. This is different in scale though. It's hopeless. I'm certain that they're both dead.

To my great relief, and without fanfare - or siren - an ambulance has arrived. I trot up to see if there's anything I can do and now I take in more of the scene. There's another body in the back of the car. I think it's a man but there's just a head, no face, no profile, really, just flesh.

I'm numb at this point. The last thing I register is the arrival of firemen on the scene, the first of whom flinches at the sight of the ruined BMW and immediately shouts for cutting equipment.

There are no skid marks on the road. The driver never tried to slow down. He regains consciousness later, I learn, and has escaped with a broken arm and a suspected lung puncture. The two women died instantly, initial reports suggest. A second male passenger fled the scene the police believe, the tall Dixons employee I saw first of all and put out of my mind, believing that no-one could survive.

On Friday morning I walked amongst the sand dunes in North Somerset. Rabbits scattered in front of me as I made my way down to the beach. We saw wild goats in the Cheddar Gorge later. Tragedies happen anywhere, of course, but it seems that here, where we live, tragedy is just around the corner.