I cannot be here because I am lying in the middle of a tiny road in rural France. It is dusk. My bicycle lies beside me. I’ve a broken collarbone, cracked ribs, shock, a phone that can’t tell me where I am and a fine view of the Alps as the sun sinks and the temperature drops and absolutely no cars go past.
I cannot be here because I was thinking about my lovely Nan, dead these past two years. I was remembering her standing on the path in her back garden one summer evening when I was a child, and telling me how she couldn’t see in the dark, had no night vision at all and that as a young woman the doctor had told her to eat carrots, but it hadn’t worked, and how she was always falling over at night, especially during the war when they had had the blackout. I was thinking that I too have terrible night vision, and then suddenly there was a pothole, I hit it and went sailing over the handlebars.
I cannot be here because I am nauseous with pain and being terrorised by the shade of my high school French teacher, Madame Norman, who is unimpressed that I can’t remember the French word for help after spending five years in her classroom. For a while I shout excuse me, or Je m’excuse, until Madame Norman gives me a withering look and tells me that I’m howling that I’m sorry, at nightfall on a deserted country road like a murderer.
I cannot be here because I’m shouting help in English very quietly and I’m so embarrassed that I start crying. In the middle-distance, dogs are barking. Do I hear a door slam? A male voice shouts at the dogs to be quiet and the door slams again. The crying makes me feel sad and my sorrows, as though sensing an opportunity, come gambolling across the hillside to join me where they take me through various failed romances and then remind me that I don’t have a house, a car, a dog, a goat, a dwarf-rabbit, notable successes or any money.
I cannot be here because I am shouting STOP! HELP ME! HELP ME! STOP, FOR FUCK’S SAKE, STOP! at the twin-headlights that have emerged from the pitch darkness. My rescuer is called Frederique and he calls an ambulance and puts a blanket round me. Two little boys climb out of the car. In the gloom, they appear unearthly creatures, two small sleepy fawns. She has abandoned her bicycle, one of them says. They peer at me in the darkness. And she’s hurt her arm.
I cannot be here because I am racing in an ambulance to Manosque hospital. As they wheel me in, a tall dark figure greets me. Madame, he says as though he has been waiting for me, as though we’ve tickets to the opera. Then I notice the security guard at his side and the overpowering smell of alcohol. He’s the only drunk I see. Where are all the drunk people? It’s midnight on Saturday night. In England, I tell them, c’est comme la guerre!
I cannot be here because, in a brightly lit cubicle, they are cutting off my t-shirt, and slipping me into a sultry backless paper gown. They bring me a nurse and give him to me as he speaks a little English. He is enormous with hairy arms and the most gentle amber eyes. Tears are running down my face, not because I am in pain, although I am, but because I know my broken bones are in the wrong place and I’m frightened they are going to wrench them about like they do in films. I want to go to sleep, I tell him, please don’t pull my bones when I am still awake.
I cannot be here because I am being x-rayed and then fed morphine on a sugar lump by my nurse. Once this is all over, I’ve decided we’ll probably get an apartment in Marseille, a goat, maybe some dwarf-rabbits. After a few minutes they set up some gas and a female nurse comes to sit with me while I breathe it in. I close my eyes and take long deep breaths in order not to waste any of its efficacy, like I’m fifteen again and we’re missing PE to try to get high off dried banana skins at Craig’s house.
I cannot be here because I have temporarily dissolved into oneness with the universe, am chasing through tunnels of veins and arterial tissue, as everything separates, collapses, rears up and divides before uniting into wonderful sense. Just before my bones are realigned and I’m bandaged up, everything I have experienced today, during my time in France, in my thirty-seven years on earth, and perhaps over the course of creation itself, resolves like the playing of a major chord, like the collapsing of a wave on a shore, and in a way that is so funny that I start giggling, and the lovely nurse who is sitting with me starts giggling too, and her laugh is a beautiful bell, clear and happy, ringing me back to myself.
I cannot be here because I am lying on a bench outside the hospital waiting for a lift back to my apartment, still wearing cycling shorts and my backless paper gown. It is 3am, the morphine has kicked in, and I am considering throwing up – then notice that someone else has got there first, all over the floor in front of the bench. The breeze is soft, the sky littered with heavenly trash, smears of stars and wisps of cloud and a moon as shiny as a coke can in a puddle – and I stare into it into the black puddle of the sky and have a splendid vision of a Berlin cellar-room full of books and wine and bearded and beardless beauties and think wow…I’m just so sorry I can’t be here.
*This was read out at the Another Country event on July 26th, but it applies to all the Berlin events of summer 2015. Don’t worry. Berlin has agreed to make it up to me. See you at our next Reader event this autumn!