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18 September 2019

Personal story: One fall, and a whole new world

The ramp wasn’t significant. The fall, when it happened, wasn’t spectacular. But the long bedridden spell that followed changed everything. 

By Benjamin Myers

The ramp wasn’t significant. It was neither one of the vertiginous half pipes I saw in skateboard videos, nor one of the beautiful backyard swimming pools my Californian counterparts drained of stagnant water and skated until they were thrashed to pieces, often while the pool’s unwitting owners were away on holiday.

Instead, it was cobbled together from warped plywood sourced from skips, and repurposed rusty nails, and routinely dragged into the empty car parks and cul-de-sacs of a housing estate in north-east England. Around it we would gather to suck on ice pops and listen to nihilistic Reagan-era hardcore punk bands such as Misfits and Suicidal Tendencies, their music as alien as the faraway country that produced them.

The fall, when it happened, wasn’t spectacular, but it still felt like being hit by a car. Coming backwards down the ramp I leaned too far forward and slammed hard, faceplanting the sun-softened bitumen that is forever the scent of summer in the suburbs. My board shot off down the street as the wind was sucked out of me. I made a noise like a dropped accordion. My vision erased itself like a developing Polaroid in reverse. A distant dog barked, a plane drew a vapour trail across the sky – and I passed out.

I hobbled home and spent the afternoon vomiting and urinating blood so dark it seemed unreal. A doctor was called for, and suggested I be taken to hospital immediately. My temperature was dangerously high, though my specs had survived intact.

The next few days are reduced by memory to hallucinatory flashes formed by a 12- year-old’s imagination, a series of delirium sensations experienced through a feverish fug. Being wrapped, mummy-like, in cold, wet towels. A suppository that felt as if it were being administered by the clamped fist of the Hulk. The groans of the boy in the next bed who’d gone through the windscreen of a car and was held together by steel plates and pulleys. A host of NHS angels. The strange smell of myself. Here was a hint that there existed an untapped world beyond one’s immediate waking state; a psychedelic sub-conscious hinterland. A place to be revisited through writing. And all of it soundtracked by Small World by Huey Lewis & The News, the one album I owned on cassette (and by far Huey’s worst effort).

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My left kidney had ballooned in size and was not working. Did I ever feel nauseous and have to leave school, asked a team of doctors? Yes, I replied. All the time. That’s because your kidney hasn’t been functioning properly for years, they said. A congenital defect. They’d operate in the autumn.

And so the summer of 1988 passed in recovery, much of it laid up with books by my side. I found myself in a literary limbo: I’d read every children’s book in the library, everything by my beloved Judy Blume and all the Hitchcock horror anthologies, but was not yet ready for Sylvia Plath, Henry Miller and DH Lawrence. So I devoured Marvel and DC comics and graduated to the counterculture strips of the Freak Brothers and Robert Crumb. I wrote and drew my own comic, Rocker, but soon ditched the laborious drawings and simply wrote stories instead. I’ve been doing it every day since.

Long bedridden spells in adolescence are a common feature in writers, a profession that harbours its fair share of former sickly children. Everyone from Bram Stoker and HG Wells to Marcel Proust, Alan Garner and Maggie O’Farrell were laid up for longer than I ever was. To aid recuperation, my parents took me to the former smuggling village of Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire; three decades later it is the setting for my novel The Offing, narrated by a lad from the north-east coalfields who discovers a world of food, poetry and swimming beyond the confines of his limited life. Yet only when the book had gone to print did I realise the true significance of its setting: this was not just the summer in which I discovered the transportive power of the written word, but also the season in which I danced with death. An analyst might suggest The Offing is my attempt to revisit those days when I was first made aware of my mortality, and life became a question mark.

Summer passed and my bedside book pile grew. My notebooks became full. A prayer was said for me in assembly when I underwent surgery that October. I awoke with a scar like a shark bite, and one less kidney. Morphine helped the pain – yet one day while I was sitting in an armchair, the room began to lurch and tip and then spin at speed. Hallucinations of a narcotic kind took over: I was on an uncontrollable fairground ride that tore a hole through reality, and careered into a nauseating new dimension coloured a sickly yellow hue. One of the nurses had inadvertently turned off my morphine supply and I was experiencing intense withdrawal. Fortunately, my aunt was there for me to grab on to; she’d suffered the same defect, though her kidney had been saved. Every cold turkey scene you’ve seen in films doesn’t even come close. A combination of dancing with death and riding the opiate rollercoaster had awakened a dormant imagination, helping me see beneath the skin of things. Delirium showed me the infinite worlds within us all.

I recovered quickly, thanks to the NHS and a desire to explore the worlds that literature had opened to me. The old ramp rotted away, my skateboard snapped, and my torso still remains marked by a long silver scar to remind me of that summer my imagination blossomed into something wild.

Benjamin Myers’s new novel “The Offing” is published by Bloomsbury Circus

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