Variants on a Theme

by Liam Hogan

It was like living through a dream; a nagging, constant, vague sense of the unreal. The ninth time he was thrown (kicked, dropped, catapulted…) through a plate glass window, emerging dazed and bleeding on the other side, he wondered if, unbeknown to him, he was on some cosmic filmset, with a pernickety alien director shouting “CUT!” and demanding a change to the script (lighting, camera angle, background noise…), before they could run the scene again, and again, and again; the one constant: his clumsy defenestration.

Except this wasn’t some stuntman friendly environment, with sugar glass or other suitably weakened glazing. This was hard, and frequently jagged. Though just as often it shattered into a thousand tiny jewels–the advantages of modern safety glass.

Still hurt, though. Still left pieces embedded in his palms (knees, elbows, buttocks…).

He was vaguely aware, sitting there attended by a concerned delivery man (bicycle courier, store security guard, harassed mother…), dripping blood and waiting for yet another ambulance, that film lore claimed that certain takes by auteurs such as Stanley Kubrick were done over a hundred times; madness seeking perfection. But the comparison didn’t, couldn’t stand. Had it been the same plate glass window, in the same location, with the same audience of extras, then perhaps… A groundhog moment, repeated ad nauseam.

But every plate glass window was different; variants on a theme. Maybe because he avoided the scene of his previous accidents, as much as he could. Took alternative routes. To no avail. Even as he tried to steer well clear of any large windows (shop-front, panoramic, French doors), circumstances would force him towards them. A bus (camper van, garbage truck, ambulance…) would jump the kerb, and as he dived out of the way…

…he would find himself falling through breaking glass, the sound condensed into a sharp retort, reverberating around his ears, his hands lacerated and his clothing torn once again.

And then, depending on the severity of his injuries, he would stumble away, or an ambulance–another ambulance–would be called for. Lights would be shone in his eyes (blood pressure taken, grazes cleaned, bandages applied…) and, patched up, they would send him home. Or, sometimes out of an excess of caution, sometimes for more obvious reasons, he would be taken to hospital.

It wasn’t until the third time he found himself on the plastic benches of Accident and Emergency that anyone else spotted the trend. By his seventh visit, both the doctors and the paramedics recognised him and his name, with a muttered, incredulous “not him again?”.

They admitted him, for observations. Checked his balance; the workings of his inner ear (vision, nervous system, brain…).

Everything appeared depressingly normal. He was discharged, with a prescription to “be more careful”.

A police officer was called on his seventeenth defenestration, his eleventh trip to A&E, his fourth failure to “be more careful”. But there was nothing–nothing at all except the uncanny reoccurrence–to suggest it was anything other than the worst possible run of luck.

But what were the odds of that?

He’d long since taken to avoiding the high street, with its gauntlet of brightly lit shop windows. Not that that helped. On one occasion, the glass came looking for him, carried, comedy style, by two gloved workmen, presumably on the way to repair one of his earlier accidents. He wasn’t sure if it technically counted as a defenestration; did he go through the glass or did the glass go through him? Something for some other jobsworth to decide.

Gallery owners who saw him coming held their breath until he had passed by. Not today, they would sigh, though there was always his return trip. Shopkeepers cleared the space in front of their stores of any potential hazards. The council was busy repairing cracked paving stones and filling potholes.

Taking him out of the equation, accidents were down. But with him in the equation, all health and safety records were being broken, and not in a good way.

After the thirty-seventh time, on his return from the twenty-third trip to hospital, a local reporter showed up at his door as he lay groggy on the sofa, a bag of frozen peas (sweetcorn, chips, ice-cubes) on his purple-bruised knee.

The resulting article was an entire page, full of the gathered comments of witnesses, of shop-owners, of an upbeat glazier. There was a map, with a rash of bright dots, and a witty sign-off, from a reporter who bemoaned the effort the story had taken. So many people to talk to, a day spent traipsing endlessly around town. And the supposed meat of the piece–the only thing that could have elevated it above news-popcorn–had turned out to be a dull, far from conclusive interview with him, the hero (victim, unwilling pawn, villain…) of the piece, hopped up on painkillers and as confused as anyone, and a whole lot less coherent.

Despite that, there was the briefest of interest from the national media (The Daily Mail, Radio Five Live, Good Morning Britain…), but he ignored them, regretting having said anything at all to even the town’s free newspaper.

The interest fizzled out, not just because of his unwillingness to play along, but because that was his last defenestration. There would be no thirty-eighth. The newspaper story turned out to be a one-off, unsustained by the eagerly anticipated repeats. His accidents stopped happening as suddenly as they had started. As if, the world having taken note (via three columns in the local newspaper opposite an advert for the edge of town DIY store), it no longer needed to clamour so for attention.

It took him a while to believe it. A while to accept that the joke, if that was what this was, was over; done, no punchline to be discerned. Slowly, his scars healed, leaving white-line reminders on his arms and wrists, a livid criss-cross that people never asked about it, already certain they must be self-inflicted.

It wasn’t true, but only he knew that. Not that it mattered, nothing did. The fugue state had departed, but what life was left behind was mundane. Banal. Lacking in peaks and in troughs. For a time he had felt important, even if only as a plaything of some uncaring external power (god, demon, universe).

Only he knew how difficult it was every time he passed a plate glass window. How he felt the vertiginous possibilities, imagined a mutual attraction, and had to resist throwing himself through the looking glass, just to see what was on the other side.

Only he knew how tempted he was.


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