Then one year she started falling.
There were drinks (was she drunk? She doesn't think so), the dark glitter of many bottles on an island unit in a kitchen, architect designed; ceiling lights dimmed, and sequins on the women's clothes catching the secret rays. An evening party in a festive season, in a capitalist Western city, black night beyond the front door and filtering off the still-cold coats in the hall. Silhouettes, and a young man's voice bemoaning the loss of a budget; another, from another corner, insisting best to sit tight, do nothing rash, see how things pan out, you never know. Voices fluttering like paper cut-outs, that's what she remembers, her sense of detachment – not a drunken detachment, she's sure, though who can ever be sure? She was distracted, certainly, she was wondering where her boyfriend had got to. She stepped out to the hallway to look for him, and into that moment, a long, long moment – this is how she remembers it – when she leaned her weight into her right high-heel and it slipped, pivoting, on a metal lip in the threshold. She felt herself turning, like a dancer, then tipping, and the moment was so slow that she could think about what was happening – detached she was, still – that there was nothing she could do to save herself, nothing she could hold onto, no one nearby to save her. Looking back on it afterwards she can see herself turning, tipping into a different future, and the moment itself as a pivot.
But of course also the moment was fast, which was another thing she was thinking, fully aware that there was just no time for any reflex in her body to stop her tipping. But then as she toppled, her reflexes did kick in: she careered forward in an effort to regain her balance, crouched and stamping, and she had the space to see the shocked faces of the two people at the end of the hall she was rushing towards, one arrested in offering canapés to the other; she had an image in her head of the foolish, clumsy spectacle she must be making, and her all done up to make a different kind of impact in her cocktail dress with roses and her bright-red high heels. And then she hit the ground, the hard wooden floor of the hall, and all she remembers of that is the crashing sound of the wine glass in her left hand.
Next day she turned over what then happened: the men who'd been at the end of the hall crouching over her, concerned by the mess of blood and glass that was her hand. It riveted her too: the perpendicular embedded shards and the dark-red ribbons beginning to ooze. The way they helped her to her feet; she remembers the prodding sensation of their fingers in her armpits, the idiocy of her legs akimbo and exposing her pants as she tried to stand. It was her hand that was the dramatic thing, and it wasn't until next morning that she understood that she'd hit the base of the doorpost with her head.
She was brushing her hair in her own hallway mirror: it wasn't easy because as well as damaging her hand and right knee she'd badly bruised her right shoulder. As the brush touched the side of her head she realized that even though she had slept without noticing it, her right ear was sore. She brought her hand up to feel her skull around it, and winced with pain.
In the mirror her boyfriend floated up behind her, pale, the way mirrors can make you, the slight asymmetry of his features reversed and exaggerated, the effect you get when you see others reflected. A man whom women found attractive, whom some woman last night had indeed found attractive, pulling him off to dance, which was where he'd been when she'd had her fall. And she voiced her thoughts to his reflection in the mirror: that an inch to the right and she'd have hit her head harder. She could have died.
And she turned to him, his real-life face, its asymmetry hardly visible, and it was obvious that he thought she was being melodramatic – well, he hadn't been there had he, he was removed from the vivid, concrete experience – but she didn't mind, because all that concerned her was how lucky she was to have had that one inch, to be in life now when she could be in death, and to make the most of it, not to fret about her boyfriend, not to let those trivial, personal worries so distract her she could go spinning off into a fall. And, since really it was the fault of the shoes she was wearing, never again to wear high heels.
But then she fell again.
She had once been a painter but had given it up for a more secure way of earning a living. After the fall, making the most of her life, deciding to do now what she was meant to be doing, she took up painting again. A year after the fall, near Christmas again, she was coming back from the studio and making for the shops. She strode in her jeans and trainers, a different, purposeful person now, no longer the hesitant woman she felt she had been. Late afternoon, and the navy-blue sky splintered by street-light decorations, darkness chipped into the gutter. Ahead of her a pantechnicon came to rest on the narrow pavement outside the betting shop, and the driver jumped out and nipped fast through the shop door – eager or desperate in these times of recession, or just because he'd parked illegally. He'd left no room on the pavement for pedestrians to pass. But she, striding in her jeans, proud to be as agile as the driver, stepped over the low wall he'd parked up to, which enclosed a narrow concrete area in front of some abandoned shops. She cut inside the wall, a dark corridor between the truck and the shop fronts, and reached the back of the lorry, where the low wall ended. She strode over the end of the wall and into an unenclosed corner. Her foot slipped in the slime of long-uncleared leaves; she fell headlong, out onto the pavement and right behind the truck.
It was fast this time; she knew nothing between the long slip of her foot and the impact with the ground. It was her knee she fell on, and the pain was so intense that for a moment or two she couldn't move. Then people were asking Are you all right?, a man with a briefcase stopping, slightly embarrassed, and then when she answered that she was and began struggling up, moving off into the road to get round the truck. A young woman with a pushchair who lingered longer, more worried, especially when, because the pain was so severe, she collapsed again briefly, but then finally too moving on, also forced into the road, looking back once to ask again Are you sure you're all right? before she disappeared around the truck.
She stood up. She walked a little way and turned. The driver shot out of the betting shop – hardly any time to place a bet, she'd have thought – and back into the cab.
Abandoning high heels had not saved her from falling. Losing her hesitancy hadn't saved her from falling. Indeed, it was her determination that had sent her plummeting, and maybe even the slippy soles of her trainers had made a contribution. What she needed after all was more care.
When it happened the next time she was wearing small heels again, pink ones to go with her dusky pink jacket, but she was being careful. It was a summer evening this time; she was crossing the newly-paved square and looking to check that a tram wasn't coming. In the direction she was looking the tram lines gleamed on a flat white plane of paving stones; she didn't see that just where she was treading a kerb rose at an angle out of the flatness, and she tripped.
Again this time she had no experience of the actual fall, but this time she seemed to hit the ground softly, there was something easy about it, something she was now used to doing, knew how to, she seemed to fall like an acrobat on her hands, and she felt nothing, not the hardness of the paving, no pain, not until later when people rushed to help her, a young woman and a young man with a rucksack on one shoulder and a half-eaten kebab in his hand. Are you all right? they asked her, and the words echoed, a repetition, and then once again as before pain pierced the curtain of consciousness and her ankle racked her. And the thought came to her then that will never leave her now: that she was dreaming, is dreaming those falls, dreaming a life out of which she keeps falling.
That maybe, after that first time, she lies on a hospital bed, unconscious and dreaming.
Or that maybe this happened: she fell in a wooden hallway, and by the time the men with the canapés had reached her she had stopped breathing. And the party ended in disaster, blue lights revolving, slicing and scattering the discreet glamour.
Or: the truck driver, abandoning his bet in the worry about parking, dashed out of the betting shop, started up the engine and reversed to clear the low wall, right over the woman prone on the pavement behind…
Or maybe: the young man with the kebab watched as others tried to revive the woman in the pink jacket lying on the square. They pumped her chest and gave her the kiss of life, but though her eyes were wide open she wasn't breathing. She must have had a heart attack, somebody may have been saying. And now her face was turning blue. The young man dropped his kebab in horror. He had never seen a person die, and he didn't want to, he didn't know if this was what he was seeing. He wondered if he was dreaming.