Something happened


I once met a man with a hole in his head. We all have holes in our heads, of course, to let air in and feelings out, but this was an actual hole in his actual skull – in the ordinary run of things it shouldn’t have been there.

He told me that he’d come for a meeting. I told him that he was a month early.

“But I’ve come all the way from Norwich!” he said, as if expecting that this would somehow collapse time.

It didn’t; time was lamentably robust at that reception desk. By way of consolation I offered him a cup of tea to refresh him before he went about retracing his mistake.

On his return from the toilet the tea was ready; I passed him a mug, and perhaps assuming some kind of exchange was necessary, he gave me his life story. I politely tried to give it back, but he was insistent – I suppose when you’ve come all the way from Norwich you want to do something more than drink tea.

Happily, I forget the exact events of it now – it wasn’t a happy story. All I can remember today is that it included an accident and a year of painful, lonely treatments and recuperation in a specialist ward at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, in Cambridge; a year that left him still not quite right, but much healthier and with a hole in his head. He pointed it out to me, or I’d have never known it was there – it wasn’t even big enough to be shocking. But it was still hard not to show revulsion – the state of his scalp was terrible: great flakes of rice-papery dandruff… you could almost smell the hair just by looking at it.

But maybe when you have a hole in your head, though, washing your hair is far more trouble than it’s worth?

Finishing his story – the tea was long gone – he got up, sighed, and returned to Norwich. I took the mug, washed it up, and returned to my book. I was 23, and wished I didn’t identify quite so strongly with the central character, a middle-aged man who is slowly coming to the realisation that he is an unwilling stranger in his own life, too tired to even wholly despair, barely even able to feel, drearily trapped inside his own head – something must have happened to cause it, he thinks, but he has no idea what. It’s like a part of him is missing.

It’s a good book, though, Something Happened – once you get used to the repetition. And I’m quite OK these days.

A few days later it began to snow.,