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The man lay with his head propped on the book. The back of his skull felt hot, not hot and sticky as his forehead did, but as though his head had been packed with embers. There were ashes in his mouth.
He opened his eyes and saw the neutral roof of the train. He breathed consciously, hating the flat air, and it seemed to him that every dead thing in his life was crouching over him, taking the air.
He got up suddenly, too quickly, saw the train in a whirligig out of the bullseyes of his sockets. Round and round the neutral patterned seats, round and round the faux wood tables, the still train spinning.
Twisted faces lurched at him as he was caught in a kaleidoscope of arms. Round and round, the sick of his stomach, and the rouletting train. He fell.
He fell at the window with both fists, impossible, against the safety glass. In his dream terror he saw the hammer, or was it the axe, strapped snug in a little red holder against the heave. He put his hand through the shattering plastic, and heard somewhere, a long way off, the dull ugly bell that warned him to go back to the schoolroom, back to the operating theatre, that the oxygen was low, that someone was at the door to see him. The door. He found the door, sealed in its protective, insulating rubber, and with all his strength, he brought the axe to cleave the seam.
The vacuum dispersed. The doors bounced apart, just enough for him to shove the haft between them, and then he thought that two angels came on either side of his wounded arms, and pulled the doors back, and off their runners.
He let the axe fall, and stepped off the loose steel plates, on to the concrete harbour. Ahead, the cliffs, the sea, the white beach deserted, and the light.
He was carrying the book.
Years ago he had been in a car crash. He had been driving steadily, the smooth road, clear, controlled, then, as he tried to turn the wheel, the car disobeyed. The servile box of leather and steel turned on him, turned over and over on him, the tarmac rearing up off the hard core and coming through the windscreen at his face. He had been listening to Turandot and the compact disc jammed but would not break; La speranza, La speranza, La speranza, why had he not died? He often thought of it and wondered what the grace was for and why he had never acknowledged it. A second life. For what? Only to do again what he had done before but this time blunted by repetition? When he had crawled out from under the molten car, he had walked purposefully for two miles, before a police car picked him up. He said, 'There's nothing the matter Officer. I am a doctor.' He had shown them the tattered ribbons of his driving licence.
Later, much later, well again, he had joked about the effects of shock on himself, effects he had handled in others so many times over so many hospital years.
'You know,' he said, 'the odd thing was that I truly believed myself well and whole. I had a broken arm, a fractured ankle, burns, and I was bleeding. Nevertheless, I believed myself well.'
He knew the physiology of it, of course he did, and yet it troubled him. In what other ways did he deceive himself out of his wounded life?
From the Trade Paperback edition.