After the fall: Haunted by an act of 'casual cruelty'

The city of Bangkok showing the Grand palace. Photo: Getty Images
The city of Bangkok showing the Grand palace. Photo: Getty Images

It wasn't so much the fall that left former Otago Daily Times subeditor Gordon Brown traumatised, serious though it undoubtedly was. It was what happened next.

Everybody knows men aren't supposed to cry. For men it's more than just a notion, it's embedded in them, impressed upon them. It might even be in their DNA. It's nonsense of course; men do cry, not often, and even less often in front of someone else, even those whom they love and who love them.

When they do, it can come as a surprise, be a little embarrassing. It was for me recently, in front of a doctor, a man I'd never met before, and he hadn't even given me bad news.

I'd just moved into the area and was introducing myself, telling him my story, and, all things considered, it was a good news story.

I retired from my job at the Otago Daily Times in January and shortly after took a trip overseas. I had no real plan, no itinerary and no return ticket. I was free, well almost, to do what I liked, and when months later in Scotland I felt the pull of home, I mulled which way to go. I didn't want to take too long but I also wanted to go somewhere new, the Middle East for instance.

I flew to Tel Aviv, spent a week in Israel then crossed the border into Jordan where an email from a woman in Bangkok decided my next destination. She had been my boss years before during a stint working for an outfit devoted to the promotion of democracy in Thailand. It's a tough row to hoe. I had edited publications for them but the relationship had dwindled to the point of no contact for some years, and here she was, out of the blue, asking if I would be interested in editing a book they were about to publish.

Gordon Brown in hospital after the crash. Photo: Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown in hospital after the crash. Photo: Gordon Brown

The contact delighted me, and I immediately replied that I would stop in Bangkok on my way home. I didn't need to go there, of course; everything could have been conducted online, but when you've been aimless for any length of time, any indication of direction tends to be seized on. And who knows what might result from the personal touch?

Bangkok is one of the few cities in the world I feel comfortable arriving in; I know where to go and how to get there. I usually stay at a little inn, simple and basic, up a narrow alleyway in the middle of a Muslim district near the river in Banglamphu. The alley continues past the hotel, becomes even narrower, turns left and right leading deep into the neighbourhood to the mosque, nestled discreetly in its midst.

The old Muslim woman at the front desk always recognises me, whether it has been one year or two, and smiles a gracious welcome. She is receptionist and guardian, of property and propriety. If you're not a paying guest you don't get past her.

I settled into a room on the second floor and sent an email to D to say I was in town. Three days later, I had heard nothing in reply and began to wonder what I was doing there, why I had even bothered.

I decided to go home, New Zealand that is, via Australia where some old friends would make me welcome, and booked a flight to Perth for the following Sunday, four days away. The next day I grizzled to a friend in New Zealand that Bangkok had been a wild goose chase; I was bored waiting around for a reply that seemed not to be forthcoming.

Go to the green lung of Bangkok, she said.

"The what?''

"It's across the river from Klong Toey. There are planning restrictions there, no buildings above two storeys, cycle trails, wetlands, plantations, little food places, temples. You can hire a pushbike for the day; ride all over the place.''

An oasis apparently; the place sounded a bit fanciful. Klong Toey is the port of Bangkok; it's also home to one of the city's largest slums, and largest fresh food markets, but, if my friend was to be believed, two to three hundred metres across the river it was all green and lush and low rise, relaxing and tranquil.

Prapadaeng, the "green lung of Bangkok''. Photo: Getty Images
Prapadaeng, the "green lung of Bangkok''. Photo: Getty Images

I was somewhat intrigued, but did I want to ride a pushbike around some unlikely sounding green spot on the edge of an overpopulated high-rise mega city of concrete, glass and steel, impossible traffic and 35degC plus heat? Not really. But by lunchtime the next day I'd talked myself into it. That's one of the problems of travelling alone, there is no-one to bolster you, give you a kick up the backside, make you get going. It was early afternoon by the time I set out, too late to spend the recommended whole day cycling around the area, and that was a plus, at least from my point of view. The minimal aim was to go down to Klong Toey, cross the river and have a look. It was something new, somewhere I hadn't been, one of my voices argued, while another accepted the possibility of something incongruous, but seriously doubted the possibility of "something new'' - I'd been in Thai villages before, seen enough of Buddhist temples, Thai landscapes and tropical growth, and as for Thai food, there was enough of that on the street at the end of the alleyway to satisfy the most jaded of palates. I didn't need to go miles out of my way to eat. I'd also ridden a bike before, even if it had been 50 years ago, daily, 5km to school and back. I had found no reason to ride one since, had felt no compelling urge to do so again, and still didn't.

I caught a bus to Hualompong and took the subway to Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre station, where, having ascended to street-level blast-furnace heat, all thoughts of walking the 2km to Klong Toey pier evaporated. A gaggle of motorcycle taxi drivers stirred at my approach, anticipating the tourist price bonus; it was too hot to haggle, besides, they knew they had me. I was whisked through tight streets and lanes, past the sprawling market, at that hour almost closed, and through a temple grounds to the pier. A long-tail boatman took me across the river, to Prapadaeng, the "lung of Bangkok'', which at first sight looked promising.

I sat in the shade of an open-air restaurant built on stilts above the river and looked back at the city muscling up to the opposite bank, which was lined with several container ships, a cruise ship and smaller freighters; several giant rice barges pulled in line by a small tug crawled by mid-stream and long-tail boats zipped here and there. At Prapadaeng all was peace and tranquillity; behind me, along one wall, and less than beckoning, a line of old "old-lady'' pushbikes with baskets on the handlebars awaited, a bill of fare above, prices daily, half daily and hourly. It was 3.30pm; an hour would be sufficient, followed by an ice-cold beer in the relaxing onset of evening.

A bike was selected for me, no helmet offered and I didn't think to ask, having never worn one in the past. I rode up the road to a crossroads, turned left and more or less paralleled the river, out of sight to my left. I had neither watch nor map, and my cellphone was in the basket at the front. There was next to no traffic, tropical growth closed in on both sides, it was quiet, the heat seemed less oppressive. Somewhat charmed, I ambled along, past occasional discrete houses shaded by palms; somewhere there was a Siamese fighting fish gallery, a botanical garden and an eco hotel, a self-styled "tree house''.

Eventually I found myself on an elevated metre-wide concrete path crossing swamp and wetlands, past low dwellings built on stilts, picturesque and serene. I reached a T-junction, left for the pier, or so I assumed, or right for a bit more exploration. Estimating that I might have about 20 minutes left, I turned right, and soon passed a small food place fronting a house built on an island of higher ground. Three foreigners, tourists like me I assumed, were sitting at a table inside. To the left of the path was a small grove of trees and a cleared space where their pushbikes were parked. I gave them a wave and sailed on by. The land dropped away, the path elevated again above wetland. A railing along the left-hand side of the path, without my fully realising it, imparted a degree of security and surety, a safety reference point, something to grab hold of if need be, but about 200m past the food place it ended, and the path stretched before me, snaking across an area of wetland, naked and narrow, a cycling tightrope; at about one metre a relatively wide one for sure, but too exposed for me. I stopped riding just beyond the end of the railing and looked ahead, felt a sense of unease, perhaps foreboding.

Some of the cycleways through Prapadaeng's bush are elevated; some with safety railings and some...
Some of the cycleways through Prapadaeng's bush are elevated; some with safety railings and some without. Photo: Getty images

"No'', I thought to myself, "that's enough, time to go back''. I dismounted and turned the bike around, remounted and pushed off.

Anyone who can remember learning to ride a bike will know the unsteadiness of a teetering start, how the front wheel can wobble before control is achieved. This happened to me. If I had been on a road or at ground level it wouldn't have mattered. I'd have wobbled along, regained control and continued, or I'd have simply stopped, put my feet down and started again. But I wasn't at ground level. It had been a long time since I had ridden a pushbike; perhaps I was more tired than I realised, heat affected, a little dehydrated.

The bike wobbled, I braked, looked down at the pedals momentarily, looked up and saw the front wheel was at the lip of the path, realised in one shocking instant there was nothing I could do. It happened so fast. The bike went over the edge and I went with it, head first, on to the base and exposed roots of a palm tree. I felt a tremendous blow, a bang, as my head hit the tree. My forehead and the area around my right eye took the brunt of the blow, but I didn't know that then. All I knew was I staggered to my feet, thinking, "my God, I'm blind''. Then I swept my hand across my face and cleared the blood from my eyes, or the one that was still functioning.

Gordon Brown stitched up in hospital. Photo: Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown stitched up in hospital. Photo: Gordon Brown

I knew I was severely injured. It was a knowing more elemental than thought, something at the very core of my being. I had been injured before, many times, in my 67 years, but this time I knew was different. This was the real thing and I needed help. Is it a thing of men; a thing of my generation and the ones that came before? I have never liked asking for help, and try to avoid doing so and the weakness it implies. But this time, I knew I needed it and fast. I was totally alone, there were no houses nearby, no-one around, then I remembered the Westerners at the food place 200m back along the track.

I was on my feet, blood pouring from my face and on to the front of my shirt from what I later learned was a deep vertical gash down the side of my face just in front of my left ear and another one that started above my right eye, split the eyebrow and ended millimetres from the edge of the eye. My forehead was covered in grazes and contusions, there was a deep wound at the top of my nose, between my eyes and my nose had been forced to the left by the impact. Of course, I didn't know any of this at that moment, or that the right eye socket was broken in two places, but even worse than that, I had also broken my neck, in three places. Had I known that then, it is likely I would have done nothing more, stayed where I was, immobilised by fear of the possible and likely implications and consequences.

One of the numerous doctors I was to see over the subsequent weeks and months, one of the few who had time to listen to the full story, said it was surprising I had even managed to stand up, that it could have all ended right there, and in the context of my injuries, what I did next was "utterly bizarre''.

The bike was at my feet; I picked it up and heaved it back up on to the track. Then I remembered my cellphone. It had been in the basket on the handlebars. Half-blinded by the blood, I fished around in the mud at my feet and felt a surge of relief when I felt its smooth unnatural contours.

Gordon Brown back in New Zealand on the road to recovery, six weeks after the accident. Photo: Gordon Brown
A page from the Bangkok Hospital radiology report. Photo: Gordon Brown

At this point, I felt no pain, perhaps too shocked, physically and mentally, to feel anything. In one freakish instant my world had changed drastically, and there was no-one to blame, no-one else involved, no-one to witness what had happened, in a moment of inattention, a stupid, in almost any other circumstances trivial, loss of control. It was the latter that appalled me then, perhaps even more so than my physical condition, and an outlook I was far from aware of.

I climbed back on to the bike path, stood the bike up and pushed it back to where I had seen the tourists. They were still there and the sense of relief at seeing them, two women and a man, middle-aged, was palpable. They were still seated in the shadowy interior of the cafe, at the table I had seen them at only a few minutes before, in front of them tall glasses, now empty.

I parked the bike against a railing and walked to the open door. "Can you help me please?'' I implored.

I registered the shock on their faces, and only much later realised what a horrific sight I must have presented. What happened next has haunted me since.

They seemed transfixed, then, to my incredulity, the man spoke, but not to me.

"I think it's time we were getting back, don't you?'' he said to the women.

If he had walked up to me and struck me in the face, I would not have been more shocked than I was by his words; the disinterest, the intended desertion, a casual cruelty.

I've had plenty of time to think about that moment, that phrase: "it's time we were getting back ...''. He was a native English speaker, the women he spoke to the same. They were either British or New Zealanders. There was no hint of an American or Australian accent.

They all got up from the table and the two women edged past me. We looked into each other's eyes, and I saw their fear and what I like to think, prefer to think, was concern, bewilderment at denying their own humane impulse to help. But the man had spoken. Perhaps they were new to Bangkok, and he was their guide? They crossed the cycle path and stood waiting for him by their bikes. He had disappeared further into the cafe, presumably to pay the bill and when he did appear he hurried past me, eyes averted. I cursed him then.

"You bastard.''

At the edge of the bike path he stopped, and turned, looked directly at me and delivered a short lecture on just how offensive I was, how people like me ruined everything. At that moment, I was beyond shock, silenced. Ruined what? His perfect day?

He joined the women; they mounted their bikes and rode away.

I walked through the restaurant to a small courtyard, looking for someone else, not knowing what to do. The place seemed deserted. I sat down where I was, on the concrete edging of a fishpond, and waited, for how long, I don't know. Then, there was someone bending over me, a Thai woman asking if I needed help.

Shortly after a man pulled up on a scooter, hands helped me to my feet and on to the back of the bike. I was vaguely aware of trees and shrubs flashing by, then cars, trucks and buildings when we reached a road. At the nearest medical centre, I was helped inside and on to a bed, a precautionary brace put around my neck, the wounds on my face cleaned and covered; an ambulance was on the way. I felt a sense of relief, but an even stronger sense of disbelief, that this was happening to me, that three otherwise respectable looking middle-aged, middle-class Westerners, possibly my own countrymen, had deserted me, refused to consider offering their help, even for one second. I couldn't get that out of my head.

Now, more than five months later, on the road to recovery; I still can't get those people out of my head.

Gordon Brown back in New Zealand on the road to recovery, six weeks after the accident. Photo: Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown back in New Zealand on the road to recovery, six weeks after the accident. Photo: Gordon Brown

The first morning of what was to be 10 days in hospital in Bangkok, a group of doctors and nurses arrived at my bedside with the CT scans taken the evening before, and explained the extent of my injuries; an acute fracture of the bilateral anterior arch of the C1 vertebrae and the tip of the dens on the C2 vertebrae, a compression fracture of the T3 vertebrae, two fractures of the right eye socket and a suspected broken nose. But, most importantly of all, there was no displacement of the spinal column, news delivered with some evident relief by the Thai doctors, but largely unappreciated at the time by me in my ignorance of what could have been, of just how fortunate I was. Oh, and there was no indication of brain damage.

Thank God for that, I thought, I didn't need to be any more brainless than I already was.

Apart from the heartless trio, I have good memories not usually associated with the pleasures of travel, of Thai friends who visited me in hospital, of the exceptional level of care in Bangkok, of the cheerful, upbeat orthopaedic surgeon who visited me daily, the plastic surgeon who put more than 50 stitches in my face with such skill the scars are now almost invisible. I fell in love with her a little, her sardonic, worldly-wise wit; and the nurses who pampered me, the view of Bangkok from my 16th floor room, the restaurant-quality Thai food, three times a day.

I can recall the heat behind my eyes, the psychological boost when my son arrived from New Zealand, in time for the fitting of a rather Heath Robinsonish neck brace of metal rods, screws, clamps and hard plastic pads at the back of my head and under my chin to be worn night and day for three months, at least.

I can remember the flight home stretched out in first class, the taciturn but attentive male Thai nurse who accompanied me, the pedantry and officiousness of New Zealand's border control, the just adequate care of New Zealand's overworked and exploited hospital staff, and the love and kindness of my daughter and her partner, who took me in for 10 weeks.

It was at their kitchen table one sunny midwinter morning that I wept real tears for the first time since the accident, tears of realisation and relief, and thankfulness. There was no-one there to see. It had been 10 weeks since the crash; I was taking daily walks, had even come to terms somewhat with the discomfort of the neck brace, of only being able to sleep on my back, and then badly; it was time to push things along a bit, I foolishly thought, and went online in search of exercises to help in the recovery from cervical spine injuries. Fractures of the C1 and C2 vertebrae are relatively rare, I read, and paralysis from the neck down, quadriplegia, a most likely result. A veil lifted, of what I'm not sure, ignorance, complacency, a survivor's self-deception, some inner compulsion to only look ahead. I thought then of being confined to a wheelchair, unable to move from the neck down, totally, totally dependent on others to do everything for me but think, and the thoughts would be increasingly desperate, unbearable. The import of one doctor's comment, that I had "dodged a bullet'', finally struck home.

Weeks later, I cried again.

I had moved to a cottage in the countryside in North Otago, to live quietly and continue on what I had been told would be an 18-month road to recovery. The local doctor asked to hear my story and when I got to the part about the despicable trio I felt the heat build behind my eyes and stopped talking, tried to suppress the surge of emotion, struggled to continue, and failed.

"Take your time,'' he said, handing me a box of tissues. I took a deep breath, gathered myself and continued. "You've suffered significant trauma, not only from the accident, but also, clearly, from what was simply an inhuman response to your need at the time,'' he said when I had finished.

Traumatic memories recede over time, or so I believe, and thankfulness for good fortune and kindness helps, but the memory of that cowardly man and those two women, all three in any other context ordinary and nondescript, banal even, will take a long time to fade.

P.S. On that first evening in hospital in Bangkok, while I was in a drug-induced slumber, my cellphone rang and a Thai nurse answered it. It was D, calling to say my quote for the editing had been accepted at a meeting that morning. When I woke up an hour or so later, and heard her voice I thought I must be hallucinating, but no, when D heard what had happened, she and her husband, about to leave town on holiday, dropped everything and came straight to the hospital. I have since completed the editing.

P.P.S. When I left New Zealand I did not know how long I would be away. I paid for 10 weeks' travel insurance and when asked if I was insured on that first evening in hospital, I wasn't sure if I still was. It turned out I was, the insured period ended the next day. The insurance company could not have been more helpful.


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