My worst experience

N.B. This one is bad, and bloody, and graphic. If you’re sensitive, especially about animal suffering, stop reading: you have been warned.

I’ve just started reading a book by Professor Richard Wiseman called 59 Seconds, and it argues in the very first chapter that according to empirical scientific data, talking about bad experiences doesn’t actually do you much good. Writing about them, however, by using a different part of the brain and by forcing you to apply a narrative to the events, does help you.

So I’m going to try that because I’ve just had one of the worst experiences of my life.

(What, worse than the time those boys kept ducking you in the swimming pool and you thought you were going to die?)

Yes, worse.

(What, worse than the time you got stuck in traffic with diarrhoea and pooped yourself?)

Yes, much worse.

(What, worse than the time you caught the end of your knob in your zipper?)

No. Not that bad. But close.

So here it goes.

As research for my novel I’ve been spending a lot of time on military forums and message boards, and been struck by how many military types look down their noses at us civilians. It’s as though they think the hardships we experience are in no way comparable to theirs, like we’re weak and sheltered and have easy, pampered lives. So, funnily enough, I was having a conversation just this morning about how everybody has bad things happen to them, you can’t tell what someone’s been through just by looking at their face, and nobody has a monopoly on suffering, and less than an hour later I had a terrible, traumatizing experience that proved us both right.

I live on the edge of the New Forest. I was driving my daughter to nursery with my wife this afternoon when the car in front of me pulled round something lying in the road. It was brown, about the size of a Great Dane, and there was blood everywhere.

‘Someone’s hit a deer,’ I said as I started to pull round it, assuming it was dead.

And then it lifted its head.

Oh. My. God. As we passed, it tried to stand up, but its legs were jutting out at all the wrong angles, like something from a John Carpenter movie, like a broken spider, and all it succeeded in doing was spilling more of its insides across the road.

I stopped, got out and told my wife to drive on. It was screaming, and it was obvious it was going to die, and I thought immediately that I had to kill it, to put it out of its misery, but I knew I didn’t have it in me to do it. Kneeling by it, I put one hand on its shoulder, the other on its neck to hold it down because it kept struggling to get up on broken legs and broken spine. Cars were slowing to stare and driving round me. I was worried they might not see me, but I was wearing a white shirt and I kept an eye out for traffic.

A passing motorist said whoever hit it and left it was a bastard, before she handed me a towel and, ironically, drove off. I covered its head, tried to keep it still and calm. It was on its right side, its two front legs facing left and the two rear ones facing right, like it had been ripped in two pieces about the middle. And it kept making this horrible screeching noise, this sound so sharp it cut to the bone.

There was so much blood. Blood and guts and intestines spreading out over the road.

With one hand holding it down, I fished my phone out of my pocket and called the police to come and destroy it. By the time I’d finished, a man came up from his car a hundred yards down the road and said he was the one who’d hit it. Where he’d been the past five minutes is anybody’s guess, but to be fair to him, he did stick around and he was badly shaken up. He clearly had no idea what to do.

By now, the blood was a big puddle just draining out of it, and it kept screaming and struggling and I kept holding it and trying to calm it down. There seemed to be two types of blood, this dark red liquidy kind and this much thicker, brighter, syrupy kind that oozed slowly towards the ditch, and I felt sick to my stomach, but I made sure the driver was okay and I rang the RSPCA to see if they’d come quicker, but I couldn’t get through.

More and more cars went past and I could see faces pressed to the windows, grown-ups, children, all desperate for a peek, and I thought any minute there’d be a camera and a selfie. (And, bizarrely, a woman with her husband beside her and three kids in the back shouted out the window at me, ‘You’re brave, aren’t ya!’ as she passed, which makes no sense to me whatsoever).

A woman pulled over and asked if I needed any help and I said I thought we needed to get it out of the road and onto the verge. She agreed, said we needed to think about its dignity and thanked me for covering it with the towel. Together with the driver we picked it up and carried it across the road and gently laid it down on the grass.

I kept my hands on it, soothing it, trying to let it know it wasn’t alone. It wasn’t screaming anymore, just making this quiet keening noise like it was winding down. There was blood on my hands and blood on my shirt, and I knew it wouldn’t be long. I felt its chest rise and fall, rise and fall, and then stop. I waited another minute to be sure.

‘I think it’s gone,’ I said, and peeling back the towel, I saw its eyes had turned a milky blue colour and it was dead, and my hands were shaking and I wanted to cry.

‘Have a good sleep,’ the lady said and touched it on the nose, and then thanked me again and left.

As I said, the guy who’d hit it was pretty out of it, and he was white as a sheet. He rang his work to say he wasn’t coming in while I called the police again and told them they were no longer needed, that it was deceased and it was out of the road. I called the council to come and remove the carcass, but again I couldn’t get through, so standing at the side of the road, I filled in an online form and sent it just as my wife pulled over to pick me up. It must have been twenty minutes since I’d first seen the deer. It took it fifteen minutes to die.

As I was making sure the driver was okay to be left on his own, a woman on a horse came by. She glanced at the deer, still under the towel, looked at me, then tutted and muttered something about people who drive too fast as she rode on. I wanted to knock her riding helmet off her head, and shout, ‘It wasn’t me! I’m not the one who hit it!’

So eventually, after I was sure the driver was okay, I went to shake his hand, but there was blood on it, and blood on mine, so instead I wished him well and told him to look after himself, and I left.

And. I. Felt. Awful.

When I was nineteen, I moved house with the hamster cage on my lap. The hamster ran on its wheel for an hour, then curled up in the corner panting and I watched it die. It broke my heart. And it was a hamster.

This was so much worse. It was a bloody, violent, horrible death. It was struggling and it was screaming and there were bits of it all over the road, and I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and hollowed out, and on the way home I let out a roar of pain and anguish.

But when I got home and washed my hands and looked at myself in the mirror, I looked no different. I wasn’t even pale. I felt utterly gutted, but to look at me you’d have no idea I’d just been tending to a dying animal in the middle of the road. And when I went to pick up my daughter from school, none of the other parents could tell that all I could see was that thick, red goo oozing out over the darker puddle of blood.

Because you can’t tell what someone’s been through just by looking at their face.

It’s definitely one of the worst things I’ve had to experience. I say ‘had to’ as though I had no choice in the matter, but I don’t think I did – it didn’t even occur to me to drive on, not for a second. I’ve always been like that – I run towards danger to see if I can help instead of away from it, get involved when it’s probably more than I can handle, but I don’t know any other way to be and I don’t understand how people could drive past and not do anything.

This whole experience has made me realise that the experience of combat probably is something beyond what civilians can understand, except those special civilians like doctors, nurses, and the emergency services. We all encounter death in our lives, but it’s normally sanitised or hidden away; violent death is something else altogether. To see something’s insides on the outside; to see its blood spilling across your hands, and hear its screams, and feel its struggles, and know there’s not a damned thing you can do about it, is a shocking, reality-shaking thing. It’s so unnatural, so beyond how things are supposed to be, you can’t quite get your head round it.

I’ve seen many things die. A hamster, a dog, a chicken, a rat, a deer, a sparrowhawk, about a million fish. And it never gets any easier.

But while I’ve seen animals die, I’ve never been there when a person has died – I’ve only ever been there shortly afterwards. Now imagine if, instead of a deer, it was your buddy, your comrade, the man you’ve trained with and gotten drunk with and fought alongside, who was bleeding out into the Afghan soil. Everyday civilian life doesn’t really compare to that experience. No wonder so many of our soldiers have PTSD.

So, long story short, I think we’re both right. Nobody has a monopoly on suffering, and civilians can experience god-awful things in the usual run of their daily life, including death, just as soldiers can. But as civilians, we’re generally sheltered from the gut-spilling reality of violent death, while soldiers are surrounded by it. How much worse it must be to lose someone on the battlefield.

I’ll finish with the words of that woman as we said goodbye to that poor deer on the side of the road: have a good sleep.

Casualties of the Parenting War

There’s a line in The Hunt For Red October where defecting Russian submarine captain Marko Ramius says something along the lines of, ‘It’s a war without battles, without monuments…only casualties’. He’s talking about his dead wife at the time, but I’ve always taken it as a description of the Cold War as a whole: two great nations circling one another like prize fighters, watching, waiting, testing, provoking, through storm and shine, day and night, summer and winter, year on year, the dead on each side mounting up from accidents, collisions, clumsiness, fatigue, bravado, without a shot being fired or any open form of hostility being declared.

The relationship between parent and child is a lot like that.

I have been kicked in the nuts more times in the past few months by my daughter than I ever was by the jackasses I went to school with, and believe me, I used to get kicked in the nuts a lot. I’ve been punched in the face, headbutted on the nose, had fingers rammed into ears and nostrils and down my throat, been strangled, throttled and choked, and had almost every hair on my body pulled, tweaked or ripped clean out. At the moment she enjoys jumping on me, hitting me, throwing things at me and smacking me around the head with whatever’s at hand. And lately she’s discovered the joys of poking her plastic toy forks in my eyes – cheers for that, sweetheart!

Then there are the accidents: as a person with autism, I have a tendency towards clumsiness, which generally translates to walking into things, banging my head on things, tripping over things, and falling down a lot. Many times I’ve hooked my foot around the leg of Izzie’s high chair, refrained from grabbing onto it as that would be dangerous, and thus fallen like a ton of bricks to the floor. Many times I’ve been holding her hand in the street and watching to make sure she doesn’t walk into anything, only to crack my shin on a bollard myself. And getting her lunch out of the oven today, I burned the back of my hand on the shelf.

The worst thing at the moment though is my back. The other day I was opening her pushchair on the quayside, pressed down on the foot-plate, got my shoelace caught in the mechanism, and fell flat on my back in front of a whole cohort of leather-clad bikers, pulling the pushchair over on top of me, bruising my ribs and wrenching my spine and shoulder in the process – I couldn’t lift my right arm for hours after.

Perhaps as a result of this fall, or perhaps because I carried her around on my back up and down cliffs and over hill and dale all last week, I made my back susceptible to further damage. You see, I have a semi-slipped disk in my spine, not bad enough to do anything about, but bad enough that every few years it trips and leaves me bedridden for days. And it’s tripped.

A couple of days back I put Izzie in her cot for a nap, bent down to pick up the nappy I’d just changed, and the next thing I knew I was on my elbows and knees with my forehead pressed into the carpet and my lower back muscles in agonising spasm. And a poopy nappy right under my cheek. Luckily, although I can barely walk, hobbling around like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, I can actually walk. For now. Izzie still needs putting in and out of her high chair and her cot, bathing, changing, dressing and all the other back-breaking tasks of parenting, and in spite of the pain, it’s what you have to do. But in all honesty, it hurts like hell.

For her part, Izzie has the good grace to freak out every time I fall down and hurt myself. And it’s not exactly all one-way traffic.

When she was on my back last week, I did on one occasion walk under a low branch and hear a rather dramatic thud. More than once I’ve knocked her head on the top of the car door when I’ve been putting her in her car seat. She tried to run away from her shadow the other day, tripped and face-planted on the patio, tearing open her knee. A couple of weeks ago I was lying on my back on the floor when she charged at me and stumbled, slamming her head against mine and cutting her chin open on my tooth (I felt so freaking guilty as the blood poured down my T-shirt!). And every day she adds to the bruises on her legs and arms and forehead as she trips and falls and bashes into things and bounces off your knee and tumbles off the sofa. It’s a jolly good thing toddlers are resilient or else she’d feel as rough as I do now!

And that, fair readers, is one of the little-discussed aspects of parenting: without battles, without monuments, you will injure the crap out of each other. There will be blood, there will be tears, and sometimes you’ll feel like you’ve gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson, but ultimately you’ll look back on it and laugh – that is, unless she puts your eyes out first!

Millimetres from disaster

Every parent has been there, probably multiple times. You’re doing something, anything, and you come a hair’s breadth from disaster.

Sometimes it’s small – you’re carrying the little one up to bed in your arms and her head skims the door frame. You breathe a sigh of relief, knowing  you were a cat’s whisker away from cracking her skull into a solid piece of wood.

Sometimes, it’s bigger – you’re holding her in your arms, normally in public and over concrete, when she braces her feet against you and suddenly launches herself backwards into space. Somewhere between instinct, determination and sheer dumb luck, you arrest her fall with hands, arms and thighs. No trips to the hospital today, you think, shrinking from the disapproving stares. Crisis averted.

And sometimes, it’s on a whole other level.

I changed Izzie’s nappy the other morning, got her dressed, and left her to roam free upstairs as I finished getting myself ready. Long gone are the days where if you did that, she’d close the door to the nursery then sit behind it, sending you into a mild panic as you struggled to get back in without squishing her. Nowadays, she’s far more interested in exploring, and as long as you look round to check on her every thirty seconds, there’s not normally that much trouble she can get herself into.

And you can hear her – she’s fast, but boy is she noisy. Even when her hands and knees aren’t drumming over the floorboards, she babbles to herself constantly. If you want to know where she is, just listen for a couple of seconds and she’ll announce herself.

Anyway, the other morning Izzie was in the nursery pulling sleepsuits out of the drawer and throwing them over her shoulder, and I figured it’d be the ideal time to pop to the toilet. It would take her at least half a minute to completely empty the drawer, then another few minutes of flinging them to every corner of the nursery for her job to be truly finished. Plenty of time, and I’d hear her if she left the room.

So, I’m standing there, peeing, minding my own business, looking down, as you do when you’re a polite man who was taught how to aim, when to my absolute horror a little hand appears between my knees and grips the rim of the bowl. Then another little hand appears beside it, followed by the head of my little daughter, mesmerized by the majestic stream cascading down mere millimetres away from her face.

Oh. My. God. I cannot describe to anyone who has not experienced it the awkward awfulness of such a moment – hands full, mid-flow, the peace of a second before now hanging in shreds, replaced by the terrible fear you’re about to piss on your baby’s head!

I sprang into action. But just as I was pinching it off to avoid something that would haunt my nightmares for years to come – no mean feat in itself, any man can tell you – she switched her focus to the water (and other) in the bowl and reached down into the toilet, ready to scoop –

My free hand caught her wrist and stopped her a gnat’s bum fluff away from breaking the surface.

Manoeuvring her safely off the toilet and out of the bathroom – one hand on my junk, one clutching her wrist, and her so unsteady on her feet – wasn’t the easiest of things, but was nothing compared to what had come a moment before.

Now, I will never have to flashback to the day I gave my daughter the world’s worst hair wash. Never before have the words ‘millimetres from disaster’ held so much truth!