I came out of Holborn Tube, crossed the road, headed down Kingsway and a woman in front of me fell over. Her feet had got entangled in a drifting coil of packaging twine, and she fell forward, as if poleaxed, landing with a smack on the pavement, face down. She didn’t move.
I went over, knelt next to her head and spoke to her. I can’t remember what I said, except for reassuring her that the bag she was carrying was still attached to her. If she spoke in reply, I couldn’t hear her. I didn’t think she was dead, though for all I could tell in those few seconds, in the dark, with the traffic roaring and dozens of people walking and talking nearby, she might have been.
A man came over and he too bent down next to her. Unlike me, he had some idea what to do. He asked if she could see or hear and whether she felt sick. Maybe a minute passed before she moved. Slowly, she sat up. She was middle-aged, wrapped up against the cold and although she left only a smear of blood on the slabs, her nose looked broken.
“I’m a medic,” said the man. “Are you dizzy. Can you see OK?”
I took my phone out to call an ambulance, but a young woman had already got through. A female friend with her went in to Burger King to get some ice, and soon the woman on the ground was pressing a bunch of napkins with the ice packed inside it to her swelling. The medic man had to go, but the first young woman was now collecting and relaying information about symptoms.
“I might have a concussion,” the injured woman said.
“You can’t get here for two hours!?!?!?”
Neither I nor the young woman on the phone could believe it. Might it really take that long to send an ambulance, here in the centre of the greatest city on Earth?
“Apparently, people keep having heart attacks,” she said.
Where could the injured woman wait for all that time, especially if the Burger King closed? Was there someone she knew who could help? She said she had a partner, but that we shouldn’t call him – he was at home, way out in the suburbs, and he was blind.
I walked to the kerb and, with fortunate good timing, was instantly able to hail a cab. Could the driver please take our injured companion, as she had by now become, to the nearest hospital? He could see the pavement scene from behind the wheel. No problem. Jump in.
I was prepared to travel with her, but the two younger women were ahead of me again. As we helped her into the taxi, she said, “I have money, I have money,” but the cabbie wouldn’t hear of it. And off they went, presumably up Southampton Row, two very kind young women and one unlucky lady with a long wait ahead in A&E. But at least she would be warm and tended too.
So I continued on my way, re-running what had happened through my mind as I walked. A part of me was there-but-for-the-grace-of-God empathy, imagining the sheer, terrible shock of the fall and the unforgiving impact. Another part reflected on the considerable coincidence that the woman who was hurt, the medic man and the young woman who dialled 999 – and perhaps her friend too – were all of them American. Finally, there was the generosity of the London cabbie, offered without a second’s thought. And some people say this town has become a foreign country with no heart.