So here’s how it goes…
I’ve just spent a pleasurable morning engaged in an activity befitting a trailing spouse… shopping. Four of us—plus Mrs Ahn, the dressmaker—have been whirling through Dongdaemun Fabric Market snapping up satin and organza for next month’s showcase British Association event—the Queen’s Birthday Ball (I know—priceless!). And now here I am in a taxi, homeward bound.
The cabbie approaches my house from the top and pulls up outside the gate. He takes my money and hops out to open my door—not because I’m having a Kate Middleton moment but because the child lock is on.
Let me digress here to describe the street we live on. It is possibly the steepest tarmacked surface in the whole of Korea. How steep? Well, using the simple equation
I’d say our road slopes at an angle of approximately 56.31°. To put this in perspective, people have a habit of walking down our street backwards to give their knees a break.
Back to my story. So the cabbie jumps out, reaches for my door handle, and then… holy moly… the car starts rolling.
How long does it take a taxi to roll 150 metres down a gradient of 56.31°? I’m sure there’s a wiki out there that could give me an answer to the nearest 1000th of a second, but allow me to take the lazy option and give you a gut-feeling estimate. Fifteen seconds.
Let me tell you, you can pack a whole lot of thinking (and planning and living) into 15 seconds.
Initially, for a split fraction of a nano-second, my brain sees the funny side. If you’re a driver yourself, it’s a recognisable scenario, right? That brief moment of distraction when your car begins to glide—we’ve all been there! Oh but wait—traditionally the driver is behind the wheel when this happens and a quick clamp down on the foot brake/grind of the gear stick/yank on the handbrake and all is well. My driver, I can’t help but notice, is tarrying on the wrong side of the car.
The funny side gives way to a flutter of panic.
But not so soon Trailing Spouse! It’s all coming good—the guy has his fingers clamped around the rim of his door, and now watch, he’s going to bring the vehicle to a grinding halt by the sheer dragging force of his arms. He can pull it off, I have no doubt.
Ah. Maybe not. The driver staggers, loses his grip on the door and the car keeps rolling.
I think: handbrake! If this blessed man won’t control his fugitive car, then I will. I congratulate myself on my quick thinking and reach for the controls.
Bugger, the handbrake is already fully engaged.
The car is picking up speed. That’s not good, I feel it strongly.
But what’s this? The driver has reappeared. His hands are on the door frame again and he’s making a superhuman effort to hurl himself back into his seat. But it’s a real struggle and he’s not quite up to the task, and I have to be honest, I’m getting annoyed with him now because I’ve just spent the past 10,000 hours considering a scramble into the driving seat myself, but with this man attempting the stunt ahead of me, I feel my chances slipping.
Then he makes it—the driver actually succeeds in scrambling back into his seat. Good. Good.
But would you look how fast we’re moving! And how far we’ve come! The T-junction marking the end of my road is just there, we’re practically upon it, and what lies on the other side is a very solid garage door flanked by brick wall.
My thoughts get real. We’re in a runaway car hurtling towards a wall and I’m going to die. It seems inevitable. Pictures come to me of people who’ve been killed on the road. I salute the mother of a friend who was minding her own business at a traffic light until a truck bulldozed into her car. I revisit a book I read a few years ago (I also remember it being a really bad book) where a whole bunch of youngsters get killed in a mini-bus. All these people were very much alive until they were suddenly totally dead. And now, unbelievably, I’m about to become one of those people.
This thought is quickly chased away by another more urgent consideration: I can’t die—my children still need me.
Optimism creeps back. I allow myself to believe we may actually make the bend. Partially at least. We’ll definitely touch the wall, no getting away from that, but if the driver swings hard, we may be spared the full impact of the garage.
My mind races: what should I do to soften the blow? Clunk click would be great but there’s no time to worry about seat belts now. Is there some optimal position one should assume in these circumstances? I trawl through ancient files. Nothing jumps out. Then my inner globetrotter raises her hand.
“I think it’s brace brace,” she chirps.
I reply: “Don’t be ridiculous, that only works when you’re in a 747 crashing on water.”
Then another thought comes to me, and I believe I actually crack a smile. “Yeah right—brace brace works just great on water!”
For want of a better idea, I grab my head rugby-ball style and brace brace it out.
That’s why I hear the crash but don’t see it. I feel it too of course—the impact, so nasty and violent—but most of all I hear it. The dull, baritone thud of metal crushing on brick. It’s so loud it offends my senses—like the unexpected boom of a thunder clap, or the angry blast of bass from a car stereo. It’s a noise that keeps coming back to me later, when I’m trying to get some sleep.
Then all is quiet. I tentatively allow myself to believe the car may have stopped, then I find it really has stopped! And check it out, I’m alive! I suspect the driver hasn’t been so lucky but right now I can’t be dealing with this, so I bring my focus back to me. I do a quick body scan. I can feel new things going on, mostly in my chest and right leg, but it’s not pain—more a heavy pressure, like I’ve been sat on by a horse. This unfamiliar sensation scares me. I know it’s what they call shock but shock is a liar—a protective mantle designed to hide all manner of horror—and I don’t want it, I want regular pain, a known quantity. I think of the surfer who gets his legs shredded by a great white, only to paddle to the boat and announce he’s fine. “See that?” he laughs to his friends. “Close call!”
I get myself quite worked up. I don’t want to fall prey to some crafty mechanism of self-deception. I don’t want to be entertaining these galloping, live-person thoughts while my body is secretly dying. I’m terrified of losing consciousness and being whisked away to some funky Korean hospital in the middle of the back of beyond. I can almost see the ‘Jane Doe’ label hanging off my big toe.
I scream out the window.
“Get a doctor!”
I say this over and over (coz of course it’s a line that works well in Korea). It hurts my chest to scream. Ominous. There’s a guy ambling up the road. Ambling! I scream some more. The person vaguely looks my way. I keep yelling, this time furious with the pedestrian for being so damned passive. And now he’s fumbling in his bag or maybe it’s his pocket, and I wonder if he’s even realised there’s been an accident—the idiot is fumbling for whatever while I’m stuck in this wretched wreck of a car!
I say ‘stuck’ but actually I’m not stuck at all, I’m just choosing not to move. It feels like the right thing to do, on account of the strange pressure sensation. I may be a novice at car crashes but I do know you’re meant to remain immobile until help arrives.
I fish my phone out of my bag and am mildly surprised to find it still looking like a phone. I call my Dear Leader.
“I’ve been in a crash,” I scream/wheeze, “Come now!”
He wants to know where I am. Where am I? I’m damned well here is where I am! I can’t figure out why he’s being so slow.
I think of the kids. Damn, I’m on taekwando pick-up this afternoon. I call KS and blubber/tell her that she’ll need to collect today (even though it’s her birthday). I must be feeling lonely because I call K next and blubber/order her to come stand with me.
“Where are you?” she asks with efficiency and concern.
“Oh you’ll find me.”
The taxi driver is conscious now and making phone calls of his own (how did crash victims pass the time before mobile phones?). He’s lying outside his door and there’s lots of blood. I see an imprint of his forehead in the windscreen complete with a tuft of hair. He reaches a hand through the car door.
“You okay?” he asks, touching my leg. Bless him.
“I’m okay. You okay?”
I remember now that he was one of those nice chatty cabbies—the rare kind who attempt a few words in English.
K and KS are with me within minutes. Someone must have called N too because suddenly she’s there too. I have three friends by my side in this foreign place and it brings the most indescribable comfort. I pass KS the macaroons I was planning to give her for her birthday. She later sends a picture of them looking jauntily bashed up.
The police arrive not long after, followed swiftly by an ambulance. The driver is carted off in a neck brace. I say a little prayer for him. My ambulance comes next but I won’t get in until my Dear Leader arrives with his colleague, the lovely B, who speaks English and Korean.
I refuse to lie down in the ambulance because I have this irrational fear that I’ll never get up again (I’m still a little stuck on the Jane Doe image), plus I’m fairly confident by now that my injuries are the kind that don’t warrant bed rest. B sits next to me in the ambulance and hugs me but my Dear Leader is too furious to be nice. He can’t believe I didn’t think to remove myself from the scene of the crash at once (out the window if necessary, which is how he made his escape from a far worse accident 500 years ago in Hong Kong).
“Your problem is you haven’t seen enough car films,” he growls. (I later learn from A, KS’s husband, that the cab crashed a whisker from a gas mains outlet. So much for doing the right thing by staying in the car…)
The hospital is neither funky nor intimidatingly Korean. We’re processed by English-speaking doctors in the plush International Clinic, and after X-Rays and a fabulous shot of pethidine, I’m pronounced well enough to go home. I’m whiplashed, winded and I ache all over. Bizarrely, I have a big yellow bruise on my butt. My right leg is fat and gashed and I walk like a peg-legged sea dog. There may be tendon or ligament damage, we’ll see, but fingers crossed the fat leg will slim down of its own accord.
I leave the hospital feeling enormously fortunate and deeply deeply grateful.
The driver, I’m happy to report, is now out of intensive care.
The police are of course eager to know if the engine was left running when the driver slipped out, and/or if the car was left in gear. I have no idea. Maybe the driver is to blame, maybe the car. I hope it’s the car. I don’t suppose the driver has too many back-up career plans, and I’m sure he’s feeling pretty crappy as it is without all the ugly repercussions of being culpable too.
My brother says: “If I’d been the driver, I’d have let the car roll.” (Before you condemn my brother, please bear in mind that A. He turns ‘being practical’ into a religious practice, B. He was picturing a random passenger in the car not his beloved sister, and C. He’s one of the world’s finest pastry chefs.) Whether it was love of his car or love of his passenger that sent the driver scurrying down that hill after me, I’ll never know, but what I can say is that I’m deeply thankful to this man for trying his best to save the day.
And here’s something else I know: I had an angel looking out for me on Monday April 11 at 1.50 pm.
The road overly travelled—pic taken outside my house. Thats the cab at the end.
Things to be thankful for... There were no kids in the car. There were no kids standing at the bus stop (my two stand at this precise spot every day, waiting for the school bus). There were no cars or pedestrians passing this junction when we burst onto the scene. Man—my gratitude will never end...
- Bonkers posing near the crutches made for me by Little Lord Fauntleroy