Brian Coughlan lives in Galway City, Ireland. His first collection of short stories, Wattle & daub, was published by Etruscan Press in 2018 and was a Foreword Indies Finalist. He has published work with Litro NY, Storgy, The Galway Review, Litbreak Magazine, Lunaris Review, Fictive Dream, ChangeSeven Magazine, and Crack the Spine, among others.
My fall was on a section of uneven concrete inside the stadium. I had the throw-in time all wrong. Just after the turnstile admitted me, a ticket stub clenched in one hand, a rolled-up match day programme in the other – I realized that the game was already underway. I started hurrying towards the covered section of the stand; in my mind’s eye visualizing that particular area I always try to find seating, and whether due to my lateness, it would be still possible to get even a half decent view of the game. Instead of looking where I was going and paying close attention to where my feet were landing, I caught the febrile roar of the crowd – was it the home or away team had scored? – and didn’t notice just how uneven the surface of the ground was right in front of me.
I stumbled, one foot kicking the other, and went down in a staggering motion, picking up momentum towards the rough surfaced concrete with hands extended. Pain instantly as sharp stones and pieces of grit embedded themselves in my palms to give me stigmata. Not only that but my hip on the left side twisted oddly when I hit the ground, so hard that I ended up gasping in the dirt, and over on one side, like a fish on dry land flapping and straining uselessly – in the most appalling agony imaginable. The irony of it was that at this unusual angle I had a very decent view, between the hoardings, of a long strip of the playing field, the young men clashing and straining to gain possession of the ball.
Strangely, the fall wrenched loose a memory seemingly out of nowhere; something I hadn’t thought about it in years. A long-limbed boy running past me. He trips, hits the ground hard, all that forward momentum meeting the solid asphalt playground. Like me all these years later, he examines his palms and picks out the tiny sharp stones embedded in soft yielding flesh. The major difference is that his boyhood trip stalls him, very briefly, on a journey he’s making to some other spot on the playground – he’s running to burn away the excess energy of youth – as for me, there was no getting up off the ground, I would have to stay down, and not only was I in physical pain, lying there, but my dignity, my self-respect, my inner strength were also injured in the fall.
I say that because a group of latecomers witnessed the incident, and appreciating the extent of my agony, looked around for somebody else to take charge. Only after a strange and agonizing delay did they bother to ask if I was alright, with expressions that betrayed the fact that as soon as they were past me, they would begin to punch each other on the shoulders, and make fun of the man who had fallen inexplicably, in the middle of the day, on a bit of rough ground. These were ultimately replaced by more sympathetic kinds (a retired nurse and a priest) who kept me warm, talked to me gently, and reassured me that everything would be fine: the ambulance was on its way.
In the hospital they gave me a painkillers and left me behind a curtained-off triage area for many tedious hours. A tired-looking doctor briefly examined me. A monosyllabic radiologist X-rayed me. A short-fused nurse confirmed that if I could control my bowel movements and support my own body weight there really was nothing that could be done. I was discharged the same evening, to be driven home by my gratingly sympathetic wife. The fall had greatly aggravated a pre-existing condition, they said, with a disc having ruptured, and subsequent nerve damage, but an MRI scan would determine the full extent of the damage. Did I have a fully comprehensive medical insurance package that would cover the costs of…
I was prescribed various painkillers and an anti-epileptic drug to treat the nerve damage. To recover my power of movement would require intensive physiotherapy. They had done everything that could be reasonably expected of them; an examination, an X-ray, and a prescription for drugs to dull the pain: the rest was up to me. In the weeks that followed I was inundated with people telling me what had worked for them. Everybody, from my dentist to my barber, to work colleagues, offered their advice on what I should do to get myself ‘fixed-up’.
What I found the most difficult after the fall was putting on my socks and shoes. Tasks I’d always performed by bringing one foot after the other, up to knee height, and guiding the sock over the toes, without a second thought, then dropping down to either knee and tying the shoelace quickly and efficiently without having to give any kind of consideration, were no longer feasible. My lower back and hip were locked and stiffened each morning with a dull pain originating on my left side and running down along the hip and through the buttock all down my leg and around the ankle right to the very tip of my big toe. I now had to hoist each leg in turn up onto the kitchen table and cast off using a sock in the manner of a fly-fisherman hoping to snag a big toe.
I tried to resolve my back issues by myself one fine morning, using an online yoga video, tailored specifically for back pain sufferers. One of the exercises was to put a rolled-up beach towel over the foot, and while lying on one’s back, to bring the leg upwards and stretch out the foot against the rolled-up towel, with either end of the towel held right and left. A few minutes after performing this manoeuvre I was visited once again by pain. Off the scale pain. Every nerve of the left leg spasticating the muscle into rigidity. The spasm and the jerk of nerves rippled their way right through the center of my being to leave me in a state of fully hysterical anguish, then wailing and thrashing around the house in search of painkillers. I fought my way to the shower, and under ice-cold water screamed and bellowed, as excruciating spasms wrenched my muscles into tight screaming bundles and then delivered a strange numbness throughout my left leg.
Sucking on a large syringe of morphine I assured the A&E nurse, and with complete seriousness, that there was no possible way childbirth could be more painful than what I was experiencing. Another examination confirmed that there was nothing they could do for me, I could support my own body weight and I was not incontinent, ergo there was absolutely nothing they could do. Any surgery in that particular part of the anatomy would be complicated. The only thing for it was to have an MRI scan to confirm what they already suspected, which was that discs had ruptured and consequently all the nerves in the area were being pinched and aggravated with every movement of my body.
I will not mention the chiropractors, faith healers, back-cracking specialists, bone setters, or any of the other time wasters I encountered on my slow journey towards partial recovery. Instead let me tell you about the renowned acupuncturist I’m seeing. My first appointment started with him filling out a sheet of paper with his tiny snub-nosed pencil. The room was converted from a sitting room in a domestic dwelling place to a surgery office. He had me walk and move around the cramped and windowless space. He examined my boxer-short-wearing-self with a hand pressed to his chin. He would need to figure out what the problem was. I had pain in my lower back but where was it really originating from? That was the seemingly philosophical question he was posing to himself. Having stuck a few needles in me and placed a blanket over my shoulder I was left lying on a bed in the tiny room with the curtains pulled and an incense stick burning.
On the mantlepiece of his treatment room, above an unused fireplace, there was a curious piece of artwork. Painted on a black matt background, on what appeared to be a piece of wood, was a figure that I struggled to make sense of. It was difficult to establish what the picture consisted of until I began to interpret an image: a garland of cherry blossoms around the central figure of a woman in a long flowing dress of the kind concealing a whalebone corset and legs in white tights. Head bowed over to one side. Her expression inscrutable but endlessly mysterious. It drew in my attention, offered no hint of explanation or meaning, but distracted the patient from the tedium of lying there, in a converted sitting room, low lighting, the hum of traffic at the intersection.
Before I find an answer to the riddle of the picture he’s back and removing the needles. When asked if my pain has receded I’m forced to lie to him. And on two further visits (in different rooms) I tell him how effective his treatment is proving when in fact I’m only grasping at straws, hoping for a miracle to relieve the almost constant darting pain. He has me stand up and sit down. He has me roll around. He has me touch my toes. Each time I perform these tasks he rewards me with ‘very good’ and a series of grunting noises as he scribbles on the piece of paper that contains all of my details and a crude outline drawing of the human body.
That peculiar childhood memory replayed itself as I lay on the ground, as the match continued with sheer indifference to my suffering, as the priest laid his anorak over my shoulders to keep me warm, as the nurse assured me that everything was going to be alright, as the crowd roared in approval at some feat of skill from one of those players. I was carried back to that moment in the schoolyard, alone among a horde of screaming creatures, surveying a scene that was happening right there in front of me, but without my participation. I focused randomly on that skinny, long-legged boy, rushing towards me and in that split-second I decided that to become a participant I should stick out my foot and trip him.
Today, still in considerable discomfort, I phone to schedule another appointment to see my acupuncturist. There are still openings in his calendar. His secretary tells me in her querulous voice that it’s entirely up to me which one I want. I don’t believe her: it’s entirely not up to me. We unwittingly do what has been prescribed for us. We never have a choice in the matter, just the vaguely comforting illusion that we do. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve embraced while lying here on the ground, staring at the ceiling, slowly extending each leg in turn as part of an exercise regime in futility.
The half time whistle sounded. Within seconds I was engulfed by a whole stand’s worth of spectators flowing past me, gawping at me, their slack mouths and dull pitiless eyes glancing down at the injured man laid out on the cold concrete, moaning in agony. I was transported back to that still lucid playground scene with the long-limbed boy turning around to see what had tripped him. Did he realize that I was the one responsible for his fall? I’ll never know. He looked straight through me and without a moment’s hesitation dived back into the fray, merging with the others into one screaming entity, scruffy headed, all arms and legs, runny noses, wild eyes, feral.
The acupuncturist’s secretary interrupts; wants to know if I’m still on the line. She mis-spoke a moment ago. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are completely out of the question, all she has left is a Friday morning slot.
I suppose I’ll take it.