The Average Human Heart
by MARTIN LAW
There are eight hundred steps to my door. Two bus stops, one school and one swing-park. I can walk there in four hundred seconds. There are chalk drawings in the school playground. Hopscotch grids, drawings of animals, drawings of teachers. The swing park has two red swings and two blue swings and a green and white slide. Today is very cold and very bright. Today is Sunday. In the kitchen I take milk and bread from the bag. Sliced bread contains chemicals to preserve it and stop decay and the average loaf of bread will last up to seven days. The average person eats four slices of bread in a day and all those preservatives go inside them. Sometimes I don’t shop at the local shop. Sometimes I shop at the big supermarket, four miles away. It takes thirty minutes to walk there and four thousand steps. I don’t drive anymore. It has twenty-eight different aisles and seventeen checkouts and four different kinds of frozen broccoli. The frozen aisle is one hundred and fourteen feet long and I can walk from one end to the other in eighty-three seconds. There are forty freezer doors in the frozen aisle and their freezers can preserve things for one year. My freezer compartment can preserve things for three months. I slowly rinse a cup under the tap, the cold water rolling over my hands. I put the cup next to the kettle. It takes four seconds to walk slowly from one end of the kitchen to the other. The floor is covered by one hundred and eight white kitchen tiles. I don’t do this so much anymore. I used to do it a lot. After the accident I did it all the time. I know how many knives and forks and spoons I have and how many plates and cups but I know from memory, I don’t count them anymore. Almost everyone knows how many days are in a year but I know how many days are in six months, ten months, two years, ten years. How many hours? How many minutes? How many seconds? For me, easy. I know how many beds the average hospital has and how many meals they serve. I know how many patients they treat and how long the average stay is. I know the average number of car accidents in a month and how many casualties. I know in these accidents there is an average of two hundred and eighty-seven fatalities every month. The most popular type of car for accidents is a small car. People can’t stop having accidents in small cars, they do it all the time - head-on, side-on, single vehicle, multi-vehicle, rollover. The most popular colour is red. Most accidents happen in October and November and most happen between 4pm and 5pm on a Friday. Often steering becomes impossible, the brakes lock, the car can roll over or spin into oncoming traffic. The occupants of the car may have injuries to their arms, legs, pelvis, back. They may have injuries to their head. Sometimes the occupants are thrown from the car and suffer injures from crashing through the windscreen and impact injuries from landing. People in the front seat can be killed by the impact of someone in the rear seat. Sometimes the main injury is brain trauma caused by impact with the steering column. Every year there are over forty-four thousand single vehicle accidents that don’t seem to have a cause. One car every ten minutes drives off the road for no apparent reason. No apparent reason. A serious accident means there’s six firemen, eight ambulance men, six policemen. They cordon off a section of road and police help to redirect traffic. The firemen check the car is not volatile, it won’t explode. They cut people out of wrecked cars. The police try to talk to anyone who might have seen anything or even the drivers if they’re able to talk. They call this being cognisant. They go through belongings for details of anyone they can contact. They’ll go through the car, the glove compartment, maybe a bag. If they can they’ll go through a driver’s pockets. The kettle is on and I stare out the window and see only the grainy stilted pictures cutting in and out, the pictures made from the things they told me. I see her there in the wrecked car, trapped for six minutes, her heart struggling to beat four hundred and twenty times and I hear every one. I see me make phone calls and leave the office for something to eat. She is lifted into an ambulance and I’m in a queue wondering if I should be wild and get a BLT. They put the oxygen mask over her mouth and I smile at an assistant and ask for a chicken sandwich with low-fat dressing. My phone rang three times before I answered it. I stand over the kettle and steam boils out and over my hands. In the hospital I would hold my hands over her mouth, trying to feel her breaths make sure they were there. I stared for hours and traced the small lines around her eyes, counted her fingers, counted the wires going in and out of her, touched the fresh flowers on her bedside cabinet, the yellows, the reds, the purples, the greens. I looked at the get well cards, the books the magazines. The average patient receives 3.4 visits during their stay and each visit lasts on average thirty-five minutes. When someone is on life support, staff don’t bother too much about visiting times. You can visit for as long as you want. Life support means someone is in a coma. Life support means there are machines to make you breathe, machines to make your heart pump, machines to feed you, machines to take your waste away. There’s a machine that tells you how often your heart beats. There’s a machine monitoring brain activity. Life support uses 3.2 KWh of electricity every day. Many people come out of a coma and fully recover. Some people never come out of a coma. In the hospital I would sometimes go into the bathroom hoping that would give her a chance to wake up, she could surprise me and be waiting for me when I casually came back in. Almost everything in the bathroom was white. The white towels had a black stencil mark identifying them as hospital property. The walls were covered in white tiles with a band of dark green tiles at head height. Seventy-eight dark green tiles, six hundred and seventy-eight white tiles. When someone is first in a coma they often have a good chance of making a recovery. The doctors call this a good prognosis. When someone has been on life support for two months they have a thirty percent chance of making a recovery dropping to two percent after six months. The doctors keep you informed about what might happen and what they hope will happen. They try not to build your hopes up. They’re serious. They say brain activity may remain minimal. If that happens then the prognosis is not good. If there is an absence of brainstem reflexes for twenty –four hours then there is very little chance of a good recovery. Just preparing you for the worst. What we really want is to see increased cognitive neurological function but we have to be prepared for it not happening. They give you literature and ask if you’d like to see a trauma specialist. If you’d like to talk. They say it can really help to talk about this situation with someone who’s trained to deal with it. This situation. I’m kneeling on the kitchen floor with my hands in a bucket of cold water. I lift out a cloth and squeeze water out and wipe the kitchen tiles. My hands move slowly up and down, they are almost blue. I look away. This is a new house. I sold the old one and bought this one. My friends said I was being hasty, I wasn’t thinking straight. I should take time to think about it more, I’d had enough stress. Enough stress. The old place was often full of people, over for dinner or bringing their kids round. We’d have family meals or friends would come by to drink and talk and listen to music. I haven’t had any visitors since I moved in here. This living room has a couple of chairs and a TV and that’s about it. The old place had all that stuff – TV, DVD player, stereo. The old place had pictures on the walls and photographs and hairbrushes and makeup. The old place had book cases and two different kinds of hair straighteners. In the hospital she had photographs on her bedside cabinet. She’s on a swing when she’s six, she’s with her mum and dad at their fortieth wedding anniversary, she’s with her friends on holiday and they are all so young. We are in a restaurant, smiling. She had hairbrushes and makeup too. They say you should try and make it like home, make it a familiar environment. They say people are more likely to come out of it if it’s a familiar environment. They say you should talk to them too and read to them, they might be able to hear. I would’ve done it anyway. I told her about what’s happening, what I had for breakfast, what nurse is on duty. I told her about our friends, what her parents were doing. I read to her from the books and magazines everyone brought. I talked about names for the two kids we would have. In the hospital I smoothed her covers down or brushed the hair from her face. I sat with her, her hand warm in mine. I’m at the table, my hands cold together. This isn’t doing any good. Sitting here, not doing any good. Time for a walk, a change of scene. I get my jacket from the chair, the buttons glint in the low sun coming through the window. I go into the toilet to wash my hands. There is one toothbrush and one tube of toothpaste and one bar of soap. There’s one bottle of shampoo in the shower and one bath towel on the towel rack. There’s a mirror above the sink. I don’t look at the face in it. I turn on the tap and slowly move my hands under the cold water. And on a day like today, there are seven hundred steps to the park. Past doorways and parked cars, past frozen water and old newspaper, past shop windows and traffic lights. The park has four miles of green painted railing around it. The railing is 5’ 7” high. I walk one hundred and fifty-six steps to the quieter south entrance, touching each icy railing with my right hand. Even here, even today there are people around. Some are walking quickly, passing through; others are strolling. A tall man in a heavy, light-coloured coat and dark gloves beats his hands together. He looks at my bare hands as he passes. I’ve tried to become invisible. I practice when I walk to work. The trick is to see everyone before they see me and be inconspicuous but still be there. Hide in front of everyone and make sure they can’t see me. I try to notice the colour of their jacket or the colour of their hair. I look at how tall they are or how fat. Maybe they’re talking into a phone or looking in a shop window, searching in their bag or staring straight ahead. I catalogue them and put them away. When it doesn’t work and people see me I lose my rhythm and have to start counting again. When the accident happened there was so much to do, everything was so busy, there wasn’t a lot of time to think. Family and friends calling and visiting, medical staff walking around checking things and moving things in and moving things out. They tell you she’s stable. They tell you it’s really all about whether she wants to fight now. And even though she looked impossibly weak and vulnerable and you wondered how it could all be about her, how could she be expected to fight, you believed them. You believed the doctor when he said she was lucky, most people wouldn’t have survived. Lucky. Gradually everything calms down. Friends stop visiting. Who could blame them? It’s dull, I had nothing to say. People stop saying she’ll pull through and if they say anything they say you poor thing or they say she looks so peaceful lying there. Maybe if they think you can’t hear them they say why not put her out of her misery? It’s no way to live and he needs to get on with his life. It’s a tragedy but things have to go on. I could tell by their faces the doctors weren’t positive anymore and all they had to show me was pity. I didn’t want their pity. I used to think about her all the time and now I catch myself not thinking about her. The pain is unbearable. Everyone’s face, their voice, their eyes asking me how I can go through this. The worst thing was knowing for them it would pass, just another detail. Jobs and things to do, people to argue and talk with. Sometimes I would count their sympathy as they looked at me, count it as it ran down to nothing. My friends have gradually lost touch. I don’t blame them. Being with people, especially people who know me, shows me too much I am not the person they think I am. I don’t want to see anyone and I don’t want to pretend I’m feeling different from how I am. Deep down, no one really understands, no matter how much they’d like to. Deep down, no one really cares enough. Loneliness is all there is. There are six hundred trees in the park and forty flower beds. I’ve counted them all so many times. It doesn’t matter, I count them again. I reach the pond and it’s frozen over and I sit on the end of a bench with my hands on my knees. The swans are huddled together at the far end of the pond, black beaks stand out against white bodies. There is still some green in the trees on the other side. It was hard to become invisible here but I’ve got better at it. Almost no one notices me any more. There’s a young couple walking towards me and I practice disappearing. It’s easy, they don’t see much outside themselves anyway. I notice how close together they walk, how slowly. She is fair and slim and has four buttons on her jacket, he is dark and his jacket has a zipper. They both have shortish hair and gloves and they hold hands as they walk, faces in and down, towards each other. Easy to not be there when they pass. It was three months after the accident when they spoke to me. Prognosis is not positive, we’re sorry. There’s been no improvement in her condition, no increased brain activity. We know how difficult this must be for you but we have to consider every eventuality, it may be time to think about moving on. Obviously, it’s an extremely difficult decision and if you need to talk about it we’re always available, but it’s important you brace yourself for the worst. It was three months after the accident when they spoke to me. Ninety-one days, 2,171 hours, 131,260 minutes. I hold her hand but it’s cold and I look away. There was an earthquake yesterday. Somewhere far away, Malaysia or something. Dozens of people are dead, homes destroyed, families devastated. The guy on the news was talking about rebuilding. Rebuilding. Things go on. Even on life support the average human hair grows one centimetre every month and the average human nail replaces itself every six months. What for, what for? The average human heart beats seventy times a minute. The average human heart. There were one hundred steps from her room to the stairwell. There were six hundred steps to the foyer. There was one reception desk with two attendants and two shops. There were one hundred and eighty-seven cars in the car park. There was one blue sky with one cloud in it. On the bench my right hand is holding the icy metal arm rest. I look away.
MARTIN LAW finally found the guts to actually do some writing about four years ago. Up until then he'd talked about it a lot. Short pieces have been published in Elimae, Abacot Journal and 971 Menu. He plans to play Nintendo for six months once he's finished his difficult second novel.