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.

Clean Hands and Dead Birds

Is it bad luck having a bird of prey die in your hands? Scratch that – of course it is. The bad luck is having a bird of prey die in your hands. Especially when you aren’t wearing gloves, it’s a wild animal that could have all kinds of illnesses, bacteria and bugs, and you have an eleven week old baby.

I opened the front door this evening to find a beautiful sparrowhawk sitting on the driveway. A young female by the look of it. Long toes, curved talons, mean yellow eyes, hooked beak. But it had a tear right across its face.

I crouched beside it and it fell onto its side, stretched out its wings, arched its back, spread its tail, tried to lift its head and balled its feet into tiny avian fists. At the time I figured it was trying to assess what was damaged; looking back, it was in its death throes.

I’ve always been sensitive to the suffering of animals. I can’t watch nature shows because I find it heartbreaking when things die. I can often relate better to animals than I can to people. This is actually quite a common thing for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, which I think stems from our difficulties with Theory of Mind. People are complicated, extremely so, and their lives and deaths, thoughts and feelings, are imbued with so much meaning, symbolic and literal, that it’s impossible to understand even one iota of what it means to be another person.

Animals are simpler. While humans have many layers – intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual – and live in the future and the past, the spaces between thoughts and reality, animals live on instinct in the moment. They feel affection, hunger, fear, the need to protect their children, the will to keep living – things common to all of us, but distilled to their purest, most absolute form. You don’t need to second guess why an animal does something, or if it has an ulterior motive in wagging its tail, or what it really means when it says ‘miaow’. It means I can understand, and empathise with, animals in a way I often can’t with humans. And so a suffering animal is a call to action.

In my time I’ve rescued a litter of baby hedgehogs and two pigeons, one of which I put in a shoebox but sadly died and the other I took to the vet after finding it hanging from a tree wrapped in fishing line. If I’m walking in the rain and spot a snail on the pavement in a location it’s liable to be stepped on, I pick it up and relocate it to the nearest bush. And even though I accept that nature is cruel and animals eat one another – I’m not a vegetarian, in case you were wondering, though I have every sympathy for people with the strength to pass up a bacon sarnie – I must admit to freeing butterflies from spider webs.

All of which is a long preamble to the revelation that I decided to take the sparrowhawk into the garden, find it a box, feed it if I was able or otherwise allow nature to take its course – I couldn’t leave it struggling on the driveway where any of the local cats could torture it for fun. So I bent down, gently picked it up, and it was dead before I even straightened up.

I figure it flew into a window or wall and critically injured itself. When I picked it up, thinking I was a predator and in its weakened state, it died of shock. It was like switching off a light – instant. I knew it was dead. There’s something about holding things when they die – I’ve had dogs put down – you can feel the transition from a living, breathing being to an inert thing. You’re suddenly holding an object where a moment before you were holding a friend, and some intangible essence has left. It’s not simply that it isn’t moving anymore, it undergoes a complete change, from a fellow traveller on life’s highway to something no different from a table, and it happens in an instant. I’m not religious, but certainly when things die it’s as though an energy that we can feel through some deep-hidden sensory organ has departed – almost as though there is such a thing as a soul. But I digress…

I put the dead bird on the garden table and suddenly realised I had touched a dead wild animal. And in that moment, I started to itch all over as I pictured whatever fleas or mites could have been living in its feathers (I’m still itchy now hours later in bed thanks to my mind’s overactive paranoia manifesting phantom bugs all over me). Worse, what if it had diseases? I have a baby, what have I done?

I soaked my hands in scalding water, washed them in three types of antibacterial soap, and I’m still afraid to touch the baby. I’m sure I can’t do her any harm, but I keep wondering ‘what if, what if?’

In hindsight, as a dad with a young baby I probably should have left that poor beautiful sparrowhawk to its fate. But if I did that, I wouldn’t be me. And as Izzie grows up, I want her to see her dad isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty helping those in need. Because if we teach our kids to look the other way in the face of suffering, then what the hell kind of world are we making?