Before everything that came after, there was the fall.
He had no memory of the incident, being an infant at the time. His parents had taken him, their firstborn, for a holiday in his grandparents’ chalet in north Wales. The chalet was a timber-framed prefab on a small conurbation of similar dwellings known as The Warren. A home from home for the businessmen, Rotarians and retirees of north-west England, where they and their elaborately-coiffured wives decamped for gin-soaked summers in the Seventies.
This particular week was coloured by the presence of a toddler, a new and difficult experience for his young parents. In keeping with the times, his father worked long hours while his mother carried the burden of responsibility for the child, and their large, puppyish male Labrador, who also made the trip to north Wales.
The inclement weather didn’t help, confining them indoors. At some point during the week, possibly driven from the chalet by the spectacular rain pelting the granite patio and drumming a tattoo on tin roof, his parents decided to take a day trip.
Somewhere between the chalet and the waiting car, as she hurried through the rain, he slipped from her arms and fell onto the stone patio, landing head-first and fracturing his skull. The day trip became forty-eight hours in hospital.
For a long time after his mother’s confession, he thought of it often as a threshold moment, a break that catalysed everything that came after. He was troubled by the ramifications and the possible permutations. The difficulty he had remembering certain things, facts and figures, important errands or requests, or even what he was about to say when speaking. His quickness of temper, the rages and sulks. His failings.
Had he been a little older the bones in his head would have been more fused, and the damage to his cranium more severe. The bone may have splintered and caused bleeding on the brain. He may not have been treated immediately. Had he fallen from a greater height. Had his mother not been rushing or dressed in a waterproof jacket. Had his father not been waiting in the car but carrying his son instead. Had they stayed in the chalet and not gone out. Had they not gone to north Wales.
There is a photograph from that week. He is sitting in bed with his grandparents, the remains of breakfast toast on his chin. They are laughing at the expression on his face. He looks faintly cross-eyed. He can’t work out if this picture was taken before or after.
(Throughout his childhood other injuries followed, as if the chemistry of his body had been thrown out of sync.
The cheek trapped in a door lock at his maternal grandparent’s house aged two.
The arm pulled from its socket by his father when he refused to come in for bedtime, one winter's day later that year,
His forehead split open at nursery aged three. Running in circles, he tripped and landed face-down on a metal digger. Thereafter the abiding memory of screaming hysterically and being physically restrained by his mother's while the doctor doggedly sewed up the wound, while nurses and doctors came into the room with concerned faces.
Falling into the ashes of a day-old fire and blistering his wrists aged five.
The right-hand wrist fractured at a friend's birthday party aged seven. Playing in goal, one of the other boys’ father decided to join the opposition team and kicked the ball with some force towards his goal. He saved the shot, but his wrist splintered like a broken sapling. The last thing he saw, as he dropped to his knees and screamed in pain, was the father walking off the pitch, his shoulders hunched in embarrassment.
The large mole removed without anaesthetic from the underside of his left forearm aged eight. The doctor botched the operation to get it done before he started to panic, and left him with a ragged hole in his arm. His mother tried to soothe his screams and took him to a toy shop after the operation.
The left eyebrow torn open in a playground collision with a female pupil aged nine. As the blood poured down his face and streaked his sweater, a dinner lady ignored him to check on the unbloodied child. He returned to school the next day with three stitches above his eye. The girl stayed at home.
The trip to A&E on Boxing Day aged ten after jumping backwards onto a radiator. The product of hi-jinks and far too many Quality Street. After clanging into the radiator he stood and felt the thick, warm blood ooze between his fingers. The canary yellow acrylic jumper his mother had knitted for him for the winter was ruined. After he returned from hospital his brother declared that he could see his womb.
The moped kickstand that gouged a hole in his shin on a petrol forecourt on the Greek island of Paros aged twenty-one. A large American woman sat on an idling moped released the brake and smashed into him. He made no fuss, and rushed towards the large American woman, now pinned to the ground by the moped, with one of her flip-flops in his hand.)
Before or after. Pre or post. In later years he would recognise the philosophical resonance of falling. The prelapsarian cadences. Original sin. Adam in the garden. Dante Alighieri and Albert Camus. All That Fall. Failure from hubris. Daedalus and Icarus. George Mallory and Sandy Irvine. The Man Who Fell To Earth. Yuri Gagarin and Don Draper.
To fall. From Middle English fallen, from Old English feallan (to fall, fail, decay, die, attack), from Proto-Germanic fallaną (to fall), from Proto-Indo-European (s)pōl-. Cognate with West Frisian falle (to fall), Low German fallen (to fall), Dutch vallen (to fall), German fallen (to fall), Norwegian Bokmål falle (to fall), Norwegian Nynorsk falla (to fall), Icelandic falla (to fall), Albanian fal (forgive, pray, salute, greet), Lithuanian pùlti (to attack, rush), Ancient Greek σφάλλω (sphállō, bring down, destroy, cause to stumble, deceive).
To fall. A reduction. A lowering, a lessening, a loss. A collapse. A misdeed. A failure.
Every event has a specific set of circumstances which determines the inevitability of its outcome. He was lucky, and yet he was not. His mother, still tending to her guilt, waited many years to tell him. After they told him, his abnormality became a sort of joke.
He could not blame his mother for what had happened. Nor could he imagine how she felt in the moments after he fell from her arms, during the ride to hospital. Her terror, her grief.
What remained. The image of a woman struggling in the rain, her infant slipping from her arms, its head encountering the earth’s unyielding solidity. The sound of bone striking stone.
After he had children of his own, he didn’t carry them. He clung to them.