Accounts of kindness were likely to set off tears – a young soldier in agony with some nurse giving her own time and gentleness.
What a thing to find yourself as helpless as a new-born, and at the mercy of those never seen before or after.
Once living far away from home, tales of unthanked saviours appealed more.
A month ago my younger brother, Peter, flew back to New Zealand.
Returning from the airport after his good visit, I flopped into emptiness – in the flat and in my belly.
The window, with its covering of drizzled droplets, looked dainty.
One bubble, then another, became a line of water.
While those few ran down the pane most stayed as bubbles.
Watching became intense – looking in case that shift might be predicted.
It was a long and steady stare.
Then tears also went into flow – and soon I was shaking as though in shock.
This weeping was not for others reliant on strangers with no reason to be generous.
If I reached out, the Peter who’d appeared beside me, reading his book, would vanish, yet his presence felt like a re-living.
This was not just memory.
I have not forgotten my younger brother at 12, left to sit by my hospital bed, nor forgotten his smile.
And Danny’s continuing limp is a constant reminder of the accident he and I shared – Danny is our older brother.
But those easily recalled events had never returned, all-consuming, like this.
Eventually it grew dark and a cup of tea felt necessary.
I did not slither across the room on my stomach, although I felt back where we needed help and could not walk.
Recurring dreams hovered in tangled threads not stitched to coherence.
One night image was a snake with my face – above it a huge boot waited to stamp and crush.
In the other I was hauling myself up over nails – but – not sure – what if it was only tacks pricking into my naked belly and I gave up too soon?
Of what happened with Danny on the day of our accident, one blurred patch remains.
And trying to get a sharper outline holds some threat.
During the first months, the family focussed on Danny’s greater injuries.
The accident was over, what lay in front was the fall out, which would go on and on .
Danny required a long recuperation and there was no one else to ask about some detail.
Besides, at that time, no one I knew told their story. We did not expect to impose narrative on a mess .
Given that I lost consciousness, it felt unsurprising there were initial blanks.
As I came to, doctors called my scary wipe out “concussion.”
But their word for it did not fill my hollow.
I sought to close down, shutting my ears and eyes, away from being lost to myself, to all usual bearings and to some memory.
Doctors weren’t sharing that – they had charts and x-rays, and attended to broken bones – no bewilderment for them as they put me in traction.
Though I could have felt grateful for plaster casts their medical purpose was at odds with my suspension in sinewy disconnections.
Even when I was able to use crutches, despite the cracked elbow, my legs were not back on familiar ground.
Something must once have seemed solid beneath me for there to be panic that it was gone.
Though the abyss didn’t claim me that seemed the perpetual possibility – and balancing over it was exhausting. But what was there to say?
Confusion hardly provided conversation.
And my shaken mother sought reassurance that I was fine. Whether my brother’s head injuries were permanent, or if he would ever walk again, was more than enough concern.
That it would be acceptable for a girl, but not a boy, to head into adulthood needing help was not what she said aloud, but I’d listened to her for years and recognised what she believed.
My uncle gave some words I kept .
Peter was also there when, briefly, our uncle sat with us, after Dad was back at work and our mother took her high pitched worry back to Danny and intensive care.
My uncle’s exact phrase was soon shredded in faulty recall, but maybe what I heard was,“ Try not to acquire guilt, we too easily start blaming.”
The context of our falling from a cliff was readily sketched.
We had not taken a winter holiday before but Peter, almost four years younger than me, had been off school with a long illness and it was decided sea air would help.
Though our father stayed working, the rest of us went to a borrowed, basic bach.
Peter, convalescing, stayed on the nearer beach with his book and our mother, while Danny and I explored further.
Danny was in his final year of school and, only fifteen months younger, I followed in the next year.
How far I still followed, or now led, had become a tense question between us.
By mid-teens, girls in my class were kissing boys older than Danny and his awkward friends.
Yet Danny and I, despite pulling away, kept being drawn back. Having seen the best and worst of each other we shared our fears and spent intense hours listening to bands in my small room, since he shared a bigger bedroom with Peter. Though we had a new conflict over whose judgement of music was better.
But the day of our expedition Danny was confident and the one ahead.
He had been on several climbs and thought he understood how to use a rope.
We found a good place to try it.
Those cliffs were a two hour walk away so we took lunch.
The bit about the climb we did not mention to our mother.
Danny never wanted to speak of that day and my mother probably could not forgive me. Any mention of it immediately became fraught with her.
But Dad told me what he knew.
Though Danny and I had no identification on us, when fishermen called an ambulance, I surfaced sufficiently to give our names and home address.
The police tracked him from that.
Our mother had the car so Dad borrowed one to drive absurdly fast, he said, and went straight to the hospital.
There was no phone at the bach so the police drove to where our mother was cross we were later than agreed, but not yet worried.
It took over a year before I went to the library, seeking whether my father left out things in his account of what two fishermen told the press.
The car park was at the far end of the beach from the cliffs.
They neither saw or heard anything of us, but as they were walking towards where we lay out of sight, one of the men briefly saw pale fabric waving.
It could have been a rag blown by the wind.
One man, and not even the one who caught sight of my signal, made the effort to walk to the cliffs and check it out.
The other set up his rod. It could so easily have been that neither of them were curious.
It was reported that I was no longer conscious by the time he reached me but had taken off a blouse to wave and that was in my hand.
My brother, only a yard or two behind me, seemed barely alive.
With no mobiles back then, his fishing friend sped to get an ambulance.
He took off his t-shirt to cover me, he is reported as saying, but at that point what did I care for modesty? Why mention it?
My waking was into fug yet it was obviously a hospital.
A nurse sent for my parents who were with Danny. There was bleeding in his brain. I must have hit sand and he landed on rock.
I recognised my mother’s face, made up of dots seen too close.
She lacked substance, yet was a start to orientating and coming out of swirl.
But, as my senses took in her presence, the high anxiety she brought overwhelmed – I shut that out to float again.
The next clear moment was seeing Peter nearby, reading as usual.
He looked up and smiled – a warm and wide welcome.
I treasured that moment – he simply smiled.
Once pieces began to come back, I could vaguely remember raising my head, having been out of it, and taking in that we were on the beach.
Battered Danny lay breathing, but with eyes open and unseeing.
I think I shouted to no purpose.
From somewhere in me came an imperative to go towards help.
It had to be up to me.
I could not stand, so set off pulling myself along over stones.
Extreme pain might keep me awake and moving.
Did I assume I could get down a long beach to the road?
Then I thought there were two small figures.
I screamed, or so I believe, but the crashing waves sounded louder.
After some struggle I could get my top off to wave and attempted standing and failed.
I must have fallen back and passed out again.
Hoping to make me feel better my father said how trying to get help saved my brother.
The fishermen would not have noticed us lying flat below cliffs.
Time mattered for Danny, and our mother had only a vague idea where to look if we didn’t get back.
But there was no heroic intention to rescue Danny. There was only a surprising drive to live, which set me dragging myself inch by inch away from possible extinction.
Over the nineteen years since that day, I left New Zealand and family, taking with me a tidy and sealed version.
It was a complete story I offered, though it left things out.
On each return home I tried tentatively opening a conversation with Danny, with whom I once could talk freely.
But any indication of reluctance stopped me from persevering.
Potential exposure lay undulating in that, as yet, unshaped space.
Perhaps Danny knew something which had been obliterated in me.
It was possible I behaved in a way that could not be faced. So I dared not push him into giving an account that might accuse me of cowardice or blame for his headaches and other injuries – safer to leave some questions unanswered.
As I sat shaking before rain on a window, there was Danny above me, slipping and there was my scream.
Though I seemed to be back on the cliff face, it was still not clear whether I screamed only as his fall pulled me off the cliff as well.
Or was it over-reaction to Danny dislodging stones onto me which precipitated us both crashing?
Peter could not reduce my lurking self-doubt.
He had no recollection of our uncle suggesting I should not take blame and added, “how on earth would he know? Only you and Danny were there.”
Despite his warm companionship Peter also brought one big complaint.
Danny and I always left him out, except if we fought and one of us briefly tried him as ally. He played alone or read, while “you two were so close and only interested in each other, with all those elaborate games.”
Before we were adult, Peter seemed so much younger. And it is true that Danny and I grew up as a tightly tangled pair, often taken for twins.
After falling we pulled far apart.
What had we thought by tying ourselves together?
It was so reckless.
Neither of us were experienced, yet I let Danny, with his usual air of knowing more than me, take charge, and simply followed him up that cliff …. until we both fell.