Rushing to meet his daughter, Andrew Clover tripped in a secluded, muddy wood and hit his head on a stone. He could feel himself slipping away … Suddenly, he was immersed in a series of visions and realisations about being a father.
It was 7.42 pm, on a wet Tuesday evening. My wife was about to return after two days away. I was uncomfortably aware, however, that the kitchen was strewn with breakfast things, and the wall was decorated with soup. I was desperately cleaning.
My wife called. She wasn’t going to be home for half an hour.
On the upside, the delay would give me more time to pick the pebbledash of Rice Krispies off the bowls. But, in five minutes’ time, my eldest daughter would be getting off a bus, a mile away, and while she’s a very competent girl, she is only 12.
I wanted to go and meet Grace. Equally, I didn’t want to leave the youngest one, home alone. Six-year-old Iris is the one we worry about.
I called my wife to ask what I should do? She was driving. She couldn’t speak. I felt a stab of rage. Did I need my wife to tell me what to do? Come on, I was cursing at myself, you’re such an idiot! Just make a decision!
I made a plan and told it to the relevant person: my middle daughter, 10-year-old Cassady. “Cass,” I whispered, “Mum won’t be home for half an hour. I’ll run and get Grace.”
She smiled. She knew what I was asking. I wanted her to look after Iris. We were both calculating that as Iris was watching Barbie Princess Charm School she wouldn’t be moving.
I ran off. I ran down the drive. Then I decided to take a short cut through the orchard. I quickly realised it was full of muddy puddles and I was incorrectly shod. I was wearing slip-on blue suede shoes. Should I go back and change? (Come on! Just get on with it!) I accelerated angrily.
The path went through a little copse. A branch had fallen across it. Beyond, was a puddle. I tried to leap both branch and puddle and snagged my trousers on the branch. I fell hard. I tried to stop myself falling. My hand skidded in the mud and, turning, I smacked the side of my head on a big stone.
Bang. I was out – out of my body.
I could see myself lying face down in the puddle. I was filled with terror. “Oh God,” I was thinking, “the girls!”
Then, somehow, although my body was lying in the copse, I was in the village. I could see Grace had just got off the bus. She was fine.
Then I found myself in the house. My middle daughter had left the living room. She was coming through the hallway, picking up a hairbrush. She was preparing for bed. She was fine.
Then I went into the living room, and I saw Iris. She had fallen asleep on the sofa. Her nose was running and she looked unwell. She wasn’t fine! I thought: I’ve done something truly awful … will she be all right?
Some people say that when you die you see your life in reverse, but what I saw next – as my body lay unconscious in the copse – was a series of incidents in my life with Iris.
Recently I’d taken her to Disneyland Paris. Now I saw us checking in to the hotel. Our tickets were for the next day, I explained. “So we won’t actually be in Disneyland till the morning.”
She was bewildered. “But Dad,” she said, “we are already at Disneyland!”
During the day, there was only one thing on her mind. My mum had given her £5 and she wanted to know how she was going to spend it. At the end of the day, she walked into the Disney shop and went straight up to an Ariel dress. “How much is this?”
Iris picked up a Cinderella wand and crown set. “How much is this?”
“That’s £19.” She wasn’t disheartened. She found an Ariel pen for £7.50. “Can I afford this?”
“Yes,” I said, “I think you can.”
She was heartbreakingly delighted. Then, getting on the train, she pulled the top off the pen and it broke and rolled under the wheels.
I was seeing this scene again, and feeling desperate. It seemed to sum up all my failings as a father. What have you done? I thought. What have you ever done for this girl? What had I done?
Then I was seeing the games we played together. I saw her as a toddler. She was sitting in her high chair and blowing raspberries and I turned, pretending to be shocked, and shook with laughter.
I was watching this scene, but fading back from it too. I realised that this silly raspberries game had taught her something: she knew could make a noise and get a reaction, and that it would be fun. And I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather have taught her.
As I had that thought, I started to feel terribly sad – God! I was thinking, just how much will I miss Iris? – but at the same time I felt light, as if I were floating away backwards and upwards. I opened my eyes and saw I was swimming up through warm water. I saw sparkling light. I felt a wonderful peace.
Then I heard a voice. “You can’t be here now,” it said. It sounded amused, playful.
Suddenly I felt very, very sick, I felt I was being dragged down, and then, bang …
I was back. I could feel my body hanging heavily around me, all mud and ageing flesh. “Be here,” said the voice, and I felt a prod in my back.
The next thing I knew, I was crawling out of the muddy field. I was choking and coughing, and doing awful things. But, strangely, I felt calm. I was still on my hands and knees feeling very shaky. But I was looking at an ant, which was crawling up a sheath of grass, on which there was a perfect drop of water. Everything seemed beautiful and very alive.
Then Grace appeared.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
How to answer?
“I just slipped,” I said.
“Did you hurt yourself?” she said, alarmed.
“I’m OK,” I reassured her. “I bumped my head and then got up. But for a moment I did think if I didn’t get up, of all the things that I’d miss.”
“What were they?” she asked.
I looked at her. I didn’t know what to say. I realised that one of the things I’d miss from my life was this: being one-to-one with my daughters.
“I can’t tell you now,” I said, getting up.
I still don’t know what happened, on any level – spiritual or physiological. Did I – as I believe – briefly start to asphyxiate in that puddle so that, for perhaps seconds, I was technically dead, during which time I was helped by an angelic being? Or did I just give myself a big bang on the head, during which time a few thoughts flashed through my head?
It didn’t matter. Either way, I liked that angel’s tone and the advice: be here.
As we walked gingerly home, my daughter talked happily about a netball game. She described a move that led to a shot. She really wanted me to picture the scene. She demonstrated the shot, (beautifully, but with a touch of physical comedy). I smiled. I was so there.
Andrew Clover’s novel, The Things I’d Miss, is published by Arrow books. http://www.theguardian.com