Extract from : Until it's Over

Chapter One

I had cycled around London for week after week, month after month, and I knew that one day I would have an accident. The only question was, which kind? One of the other messengers had been heading along Regent Street at speed when a taxi had swung out to make a U-turn without looking. Or, at least, without looking for a bike, because people don’t look for bikes. Don had hit the side of the taxi full on and woken up in hospital unable to recall his own name.

There’s a pub, the Horse and Jockey, where a whole bunch of us despatch riders meet up on Friday evenings and drink and gossip and share stories and laugh about tumbles. But every few months or so there’d be worse news. The most recent was about the man who was cycling down near the Elephant and Castle. He was alongside a lorry that turned left without indicating and cut the corner. That’s when the gap between the lorry and the kerb shrinks from about three feet to about three inches. All you can do is get off the road. But in that case there was an iron railing in the way. The next time I cycled past I saw that people had taped bunches of flowers to it.

When these accidents happen, sometimes it’s the cyclist’s fault and sometimes it isn’t. I’ve heard stories of bus drivers deliberately ramming bikes. I’ve seen plenty of cyclists who think that traffic lights don’t apply to them. But the person on the bike always comes off second best. Which is why you should wear a helmet and try to stay away from lorries and always assume that the driver is a blind, stupid psychopath. Even so, I knew that one day I would have an accident. There were so many different kinds, and I thought the most likely was the one that was hardest to avoid or plan against. So it proved. But I never thought it would take place within thirty yards of my own house. As I turned into Maitland Road, I was about to swing my leg over the cross-bar. I was forty-five seconds from a hot shower and in my mind I was already off the bike and indoors, after six hours in the saddle, when a car door opened into the road in front of me, like the wing of a metal bird, and I hit it.

There was no time for me to respond in any way, to swerve or to shield myself. And yet the events seemed to occur in slow motion. As my bike slammed against the door I was able to see that I was hitting it from the wrong direction: instead of pushing the door shut, I was pushing it further open. I felt it screech and bend but then stop as the momentum transferred itself from the door back to the bike and especially to the most mobile part of the bike, which was me. I remembered that my feet were in the stirrups and if they remained fastened, I would get tangled in the bike and might break both my legs. But then, as if in answer, my feet detached themselves, like two peas popped from a pod, and I flew over the door, leaving my bike behind.

It all happened so quickly that I couldn’t protect myself as I fell or avoid any obstacle. At the same time it happened so slowly that I was able to think about it as it was taking place. I had many thoughts, but it wasn’t clear whether they were happening one after another or all at the same time. I thought: I’m having an accident. This is what it’s like to have an accident. I thought: I’m going to be hurt, probably quite badly. I thought: I’m going to have to make arrangements. It looks like I won’t be at work tomorrow. I’ll have to phone Campbell and let him know. Or someone will. And then I thought: How stupid. We’re meeting for dinner tonight, one of those rare occasions when we all sit round the table together, and it seems like I won’t be there. And I even had time to think: What will I look like, lying flung out on the road?

At which point I hit the ground. I had flipped over like an incompetent acrobat and landed on my back, hard, hitting the wind out of me, so that I made an ‘oof ’ sound. I rolled and felt bits of me bang and scrape along the road surface. When I heard my body hit the Tarmac, there was no pain at first. It was like a bang and a bright flash. But I knew that the pain was on its way and suddenly there it was, at the centre of everything, beating against me in wave after wave, light pulsing in my eyes in reds and purples and bright yellows, each pulse a different sort of hurt. I made an attempt to move. I was in the road. The road was a dangerous place. A lorry might run over me. It didn’t matter. I was incapable of movement. All I could do was swear, over and over again:

‘Fuck. Shit. Fuck. Shit.’

Gradually the pain started to locate itself. It was like rain that had fallen and was now settling into puddles and rivulets. I felt dizzy but my helmet had saved my head. My upper back was numb where I had landed on it. What really hurt for the moment were lots of other places – my elbows, the side of one knee. One of my hands had been bent back and was throbbing. With the other I touched my thigh and felt sticky wetness and bits of gravel. A tiny part of my brain still had time to think: How stupid. If this had not happened, I would be in the house and everything would be normal. Now I’m here and I’m going to have to deal with it, and if only I didn’t.

I lay back and the Tarmac was warm against me and I could even smell it, oily and sharp. The sun was low and yolky in the fading blue.

A shadow fell across me, a shape blocking the sky. ‘Are you all right?’ it said.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Fuck.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ it said. ‘I opened the door. I didn’t see you. I should have looked. I’m so, so sorry. Are you hurt? Shall I call an ambulance?’

Another wave of pain hit me. ‘Leave me alone,’ I said.

‘I’m so, so sorry.’

I took a deep breath and the pain receded a little and the person came into focus. I saw the vaguely familiar face of a middle-aged woman and I saw her silver car and I saw the open door, which had been bent outwards by the impact. I took another deep breath and made the effort to say something that wasn’t just whimpering or swearing. ‘You should look.’

‘I’m so sorry.’

I was going to tell her again to go away but suddenly felt nauseous and had to devote my energy to stopping myself vomiting in the street. I had to get home. It was only a few yards away. I felt like an animal that needed to crawl into its hole, preferably to die. With a groan, I rolled over and began to push myself up. It hurt terribly but through the fog I noticed that my limbs were functioning. Nothing was obviously shattered; no tendons had been torn.

‘Astrid!’

I heard a familiar voice and, indeed, a familiar name. My own. Astrid. That was another good sign. I knew who I was. I looked up and saw a familiar face gazing down at me with concern. Then another swam into focus behind the first: two were staring at me with the same expression.

‘What the hell happened?’ one said.

Stupidly and inexplicably, I felt embarrassed.

‘Davy,’ I said. ‘Dario. I just came off the bike. It’s nothing. I just –’

‘I opened my door,’ the woman said. ‘She rode into it. It was all my fault. Should I call an ambulance?’

‘How’s my bike?’ I said.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Davy, bending down, his face creased with concern. ‘How are you doing?’

I sat up in the road. I flexed my jaw, felt my teeth with my tongue. I felt my tongue with my teeth.

‘I think I’m all right,’ I said. ‘A bit shaken.’ I stood up, flinched.

‘Astrid?’

‘What about my bike?’

Dario walked round to the other side of the car door and stood the bike up. ‘It’s a bit bent,’ he said. He tried to push it but the front wheel was jammed in the fork.

‘It looks . . .’ I was trying to say that it looked the way I felt but the sentence seemed too hard to construct. Instead I said I wanted to get into the house. The woman asked again about getting an ambulance but I shook my head and groaned because my neck felt sore.

‘I’ll pay for the bike,’ the woman said.

‘Yes, you will.’

‘I live just here. I’ll come and see you. Is there anything else I can do now?’

I tried to say something snappy, like ‘You’ve done enough already,’ but it was too much of an effort and, anyway, she looked upset and bothered and she wasn’t defending herself like some people would have done. I looked round and she was trying to close the offending door. It took two goes to get it shut. Dario picked up my bike and Davy put an arm carefully round me and led me towards our house. Dario nodded at someone.

‘Who’s that?’ I said.

‘Nobody,’ he said. ‘How’s your head?’

I rubbed my temple cautiously. ‘Feels a bit funny.’

‘We were sitting outside on the front step,’ said Dario, ‘having a smoke and enjoying the evening, weren’t we, Davy?’

‘Right,’ said Davy. ‘And there was a crash and there you were.’

‘Bloody stupid,’ I said.

‘Can you make it? It’s just a few more yards.’

‘It’s OK,’ I said, though my legs were quaking and the door seemed to be receding rather than getting closer. Davy shouted for Miles, then Dario joined in even more loudly, and the sound echoed round my skull, making me flinch. Davy led me through the gate and Miles appeared from inside at the top of the steps. When he saw the state of me, his expression was almost comic. ‘What the hell happened?’ he said.

‘Car door,’ said Davy.

I was quickly surrounded by my housemates. Davy tried to hang the bike on the hooks on the wall in the hallway. Because it was damaged it didn’t fit properly. He took it down again and started to fiddle with it, getting oil on the front of his lovely white shirt. ‘That’s going to need some work,’ he said, with relish.

Pippa came down the stairs and said something rude to Davy about how it was me that needed checking, not the bike. She gave me a very light hug, hardly touching me. Mick looked at me impassively over the banisters from the floor above.

‘Bring her through,’ said Miles. ‘Get her downstairs.’

‘I’m fine,’ I said.

They insisted and I was half helped, half dragged down the stairs into the large kitchen-dining area where we ate and talked and spent our time when we weren’t in our own rooms. I was placed on the sofa near the double doors and Dario, Pippa and Miles sat staring at me, asking over and over how I was feeling. I was clear-headed now. The shock of the accident had settled into simple, ordinary pain. I knew it was going to hurt like hell the next morning but it would be all right. Dario took a cigarette from a pack in his pocket and lit it.

‘We should cut her clothes off,’ he said. ‘The way they do in A and E departments.’