On that hot August day Tara McGoldrick was making her way to work. She had taken the DART into Dublin’s city centre, and was now walking from her stop to her office, which was either a 15-minute stride or a 20-minute stroll away. Today she was in stride mode, seeing as she was late. It was gone nine o’clock, and so the pavements were not over-crowded – although there was still a good contingent of late stragglers along with herself.
Ah, there was that woman again – walking just ahead of her. Tara had seen this woman often before. Their respective routes clearly intersected for some of the journey, and their times of travel overlapped relatively frequently.
It wasn’t surprised that Tara had noticed the women, because her tangible joie-de-vivre made her stand out from the rest of the dull and leaden commuters (including Tara herself, she had to acknowledge). The woman’s tiny frame seemed to almost effervesce with the sheer joy of being alive. Her shoulder-length blonde hair bounced enthusiastically on her red-shirted back, matching the rhythm of her jaunty walk.
Tara couldn’t see her face as she was still walking behind her, but based on previous sightings she could guess that the woman’s face wore a relaxed and open expression, with a tiny turn-up to the lips as if she was thinking about happy things, and was on the verge of breaking into an exuberant smile, or even uproarious laughter.
Tara often thought how she’d love to have this woman for a friend. They were even about the same age – mid thirties – so it would be perfect. Tara didn’t know why she was so powerfully drawn to the woman. For sure the jaunty walk, the permanent half-smile, and the joyful energy were part of it, but somehow Tara felt (fanciful thought she knew it to be) that there was more to it than that, that there was some unknown connection between them.
But to make friends with somebody you have to start by talking to them, and how on earth could Tara possibly manage that?
It was much easier for children. They can just walk up to other children and say, “Can I play with you?” or, “Would you like to be friends with me?”
But adults can’t do that.
Maybe, Tara often reflected, life would be a lot better if adults could do that. Maybe there would be a lot fewer lonely people in the world if they could be so open and honest about asking for friendship. But our culture didn’t work like that – she’d be considered mad if she tried that. The person you approached would be nervous and intimidated. There was just no way.
She couldn’t even contrive a conversation, not easily. Even manoeuvring it so that she was in step with the woman, and passing a pleasantry, would be odd, and make the woman feel uncomfortable. You can say hello to strangers on country walks, but not on city streets. Them’s the rules.
The best she could hope for was that some time, some way, they’d meet in person. It was very possible. Forget three degrees of separation. In Tara’s experience, in Dublin there was only ever one degree of separation. No matter who you met, a few minutes’ conversation would find you somebody or something in common. No doubt the same applied to her and this woman.
If only she knew what it was!
Maybe they had a friend in common, or shared a dentist, or had been to the same school a couple of years apart. Maybe they lived near each other without realising it, maybe their children (if the woman had children) were at the same school. It could be anything, but it was bound to be something.
So it was very possible that they would meet. Their mutual friend might invite them both to a party. Or they might meet at a school reunion, or in the dentist’s waiting room, or at their children’s school’s open day. And meeting in outside circumstances – even a circumstance such as a dentist’s waiting room – would make it very possible for Tara to learn forward and say, “Excuse me, but don’t I know you? Don’t you work in the Four Courts area?”
And the woman wouldn’t be intimidated by that approach, she’d no doubt answer happily, and they could share notes about where they worked and the qualities of the dentist, and have a great conversation. And then the next time they shared a route to work, then they could fall into conversation.
Really, Tara often thought, the rules of society were strange and arbitrary indeed.
But anyway, the point was that it was possible that she and this fascinating woman would meet. It was possible, but – she acknowledged ruefully – unlikely. Even if they shared a dentist, the odds were against them sharing an appointment time, for example.
She wondered what the woman would make of her, if she should happen to become aware of her. Not that there was any reason to notice her, Tara thought, being – as she was – so nondescript. Tallish, thinnish, shortish brown hair, sharpish features. Not much to remark upon, really.
Everything would have turned out very differently if Tara hadn’t been studying the woman. If Tara – like all the other commuters – had been immersed in her own thoughts then she would never have seen the concrete wall begin to wobble and fall. In that case the wall would have fallen unhindered – and the woman, all unsuspecting, was right in its path. The wall would have fallen directly onto her, crashing into her head on the way down, pinning her under its uncaring weight. The woman would very possibly have died; she certainly would have been very badly injured.
But Tara was studying the woman, and Tara did see the wall totter and begin its descent.
In an instant Tara realised that she couldn’t shout to the woman. It would take too many precious seconds for the woman to realise that Tara was shouting at her. And even then, she’d most likely just stop and look around, wondering what the problem was – leaving her directly in the path of danger.
The only solution was –
Tara leapt forward, launching herself at the woman, pushing her out of the path of the wall, and they both fell to the ground, face down.
The woman gave a cry of panic and shock, no doubt thinking she was being attacked, and then a cry of pain as she landed heavily on the pavement, and a whoomph as her breath rushed out of her.
Tara landed more or less on top of her. The woman’s body broke most of her fall, but she tried to take at least some of her weight, and her arms and wrists took the brunt of it. She gave her own cry of pain.
Then the concrete wall completed its fall. But Tara hadn’t fallen clear – it landed on Tara’s left foot and ankle.
She screamed in panic and pain. She had misjudged the distance – if only she’d moved that tiny bit further. But she hadn’t had the time …
The events had jerked their fellow commuters out of their stupor, and immediately people were rallying around.
Through her pain Tara could hear the murmurs. What happened? The wall fell, look. Are they hurt? I don’t know yet. There was genuine shock and concern in their voices, but excitement too – a sort of delight at the drama of it all. They’d have loads to share with their colleagues!
A fiftyish silver-haired man took charge. “Can somebody ring for an ambulance?” he demanded, “and can you, and you,” – he indicated two other men – “help me shift this wall off her? And whoever else, come on!”
There was a silver flashing flurry of mobile phones as people rushed to do his bidding, and the two men he had indicated, and three or four others, moved towards the fallen wall with him, and began to try to shift it.
In the meantime Tara’s rescuee had realised what had happened. “Oh my God,” she whispered hoarsely into the ground, as she and Tara lay together in an inelegant heap on the grey path, “You saved my life. Thank you, thank you.”
Tara barely heard her. She had no room for awareness of anything else through the piercing throbbing pain in her ankle, and the rushing swooping fear that she had irrevocably damaged it. How would she go cycling with her children, ever again, if her foot had permanent damage?
Everything seemed blurry and distant to her; the crowd’s shocked and excited murmurs were fading, and she was feeling dizzy and nauseous.
“One … two … three … lift,” commanded the take-charge man, and with that the concrete was lifted off Tara. “Pull them away,” he commanded, a strain in his voice at the weight of the concrete, “we can’t hold this for long.”
Willing arms gently pulled both women that critical metre away, lifting Tara off the woman she had rescued, and laying her gently on the ground. Somebody even had the foresight to lift Tara’s injured foot so it didn’t drag on the ground. But still it hurt and she let out another howl of pain. With a whoomph of relief, the men lowered the concrete slab to the path.
People began to pull the woman Tara had rescued to her feet. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” she kept telling them, dusting herself down. But there was a wobble in her hands and a catch in her voice.
A kind-faced woman hunkered down beside Tara. “You’re alright, you’re alright,” she said, placing her hand on Tara’s shoulder. “The ambulance is on its way – in fact, I can hear it now.”
Sure enough, through the haze of her pain Tara could hear the distant siren.
Three or four minutes later the ambulance pulled up, followed by a Garda patrol car.
The ambulance men carefully and gently manoeuvred Tara onto a stretcher, and lifted her into the ambulance.
“We’ll head off to the hospital in a jiffy, I promise,” one of the ambulance men told her, with a sympathetic smile. “We’ll just get your friend.”
She’s not my friend, Tara thought. But it wasn’t worth pointing that out to him. And for sure she’d got what she wished for – a chance to meet that woman. But what a way for it to happen! God certainly had a sense of humour, that was for sure! She would appreciate it a lot more if her foot didn’t hurt so much.
“Can you give me something for the pain?” she asked, her eyes closed and her expression pinched with pain.
“Not yet, I’m sorry. They’ll sort you out in the hospital, and we’ll be there soon. I’ll just – ”
He went back outside and Tara heard him talking to the woman she had rescued.
“Come on and we’ll help you into the ambulance, love.”
“I don’t need to go to hospital at all, I think,” she said. “I just fell heavily, I’ll be fine.”
“Let’s just take you to hospital, get you checked out, love. Best to be sure.”
“Okay,” the woman agreed. “But I don’t need the stretcher”.
“Fair enough,” said the ambulance man, “but come quickly whatever you do – your friend isn’t critical, but the sooner we get her checked out the better.”
And the sooner they’ll give me something to stop this pain, Tara thought. But still, what was this compared to somebody’s life?
Tara felt the ambulance shift slightly as the woman and the ambulance man got in. They strapped her in, and then they headed off to the hospital.
She heard the woman leaning over her. “I’m Jennifer, Jennifer Holden.”
Funny, Jennifer was Tara’s daughter’s name too, only they called her Jenny. But Tara didn’t have the energy to explain this. She barely managed to whisper her own name.
“Hi, Tara. And listen – God, words will never begin to do justice – but thank you so, so much for what you did back there. You saved my life you know. Thank you.”
“ ‘s okay.” Tara couldn’t say more.
“Are you in pain?”
Tara gave a short jerk of a nod.
“I’m sorry,” Jennifer said.
“ ‘s okay,” Tara said again.
Jennifer gave a big, juddering intake of breath. “Do you know, it’s only sinking in now – I could have died! It’s just hit me. I mean, I really could have been killed! I know I said thanks for saving my life, and I meant it, of course I did. But I don’t think I realised just how close it was. Oh my God, oh my God.” Tara could hear a mixture of emotions in Jennifer’s voice, including huge relief that she didn’t die, and equally massive shock that she could have.
Tara reached out her hand and groped blindly for Jennifer, eventually landing clumsily on her arm.
Jennifer kept talking, the shock of it all causing a deluge of words. “Or I could have been badly injured. I might have had brain damage if that wall had hit my head. I might have been a vegetable for the rest of my life. Or I might have been paralysed, from the neck down maybe. Oh God, that doesn’t bear thinking about! And you saved me from all that. Thank you, thank you, God, I’ll never be able to thank you enough.”
With Jennifer speaking these thoughts over and over, and Tara giving her arm a comforting squeeze now and again, the journey to the hospital passed quickly.
Once there, with soft voices and gentle hands, the ambulance men took Tara off the ambulance and handed her into the care of the hospital staff.
She assumed that Jennifer, in her turn, would be looked after, but she lost sight of her in the hospital bustle.
They took Tara into the hospital, and carefully transferred her to a hospital trolley. Gentle as they were, she moaned with pain at the movement.
“Miss, I just need to take some details from you,” said a young woman, who was wielding a clipboard and pen, “and then we’ll get you x-rayed.”
“Can I have some pain-killers, please? I’m in agony.”
“Sorry,” the nurse shook her head sympathetically. “Not until you’ve been checked out. In case there are problems we don’t know about.”
They took her name and address and so on, and then she just had to wait. While she waited she texted her best friend at work to tell her what had happened, so they wouldn’t worry when she didn’t turn up. She would contact her husband and children later, when she knew what the situation was. No point worrying them unnecessarily.
After a wait of a couple of hours – a long painful couple of hours – she was wheeled down to the x-ray room. The radiographer took x-rays of her wrists and her ankle, and then the doctor had a look at them.
“Hmm,” he said, holding the images up to the light. “Your wrists are fine, just a bit of a sprain. But you’ve messed your ankle up pretty badly. It’s broken here, here, and here, look,” he indicated the breaks with a pen. Tara looked as instructed, but it didn’t mean anything to her – she didn’t know what the x-ray of a foot should look like, so couldn’t see how this x-ray deviated from that standard. She’d take his word for it. Her foot certainly felt broken in three places. At least.
The doctor continued, “We’ll need to operate on that, put a few pins in. It’ll be a long process, but you should make a full recovery.”
“Thank God,” she breathed.
She had to wait more hours for that operation, but at least they gave her morphine for the pain in the meantime, now that they knew it was safe to do so.
That evening she was lying in the hospital bed. Her foot was still painful, but thanks to the morphine it was easier. It wasn’t that the pain was any less, it seemed, but rather that it seemed more distant. It was there, but it wasn’t quite belonging to her. It was a strange feeling.
She had contacted her family after the operation, and they had come straight in to see her. There were tears and hugs and expressions of relief that she was okay, and declarations of pride in her that she was such a hero. It all brought a tear to her eye and a tightness of emotion in her chest. Her children, particularly, looked at her differently, shaken out of their teenage indifference to her.
“You risked your life.” Jenny realised. “You could have died.”
“I could have, but I didn’t.”
But she was glad that her children realised this. For now – for however long it lasted – they appreciated her, acknowledging that they could possibly have lost her. She knew, none better, that you never value anything as highly as when you nearly lose it.
They hadn’t left long when Jennifer came in to see her again, barely visible behind a huge bouquet of flowers.
“Hi Jennifer! Oh thanks, they’re beautiful.” She rested the flowers on her lap, enjoying the sight of them. “I’ll get the nurse to get a vase in a minute. It’s good to see you.”
“Oh, and it’s good to see you too. You’re looking a lot more cheerful!”
“Well, I’m on drugs now!” She indicated her morphine drip. “It always helps. And they’ve operated on me, so I feel more cheerful about my foot. It’s going to be fine!”
“Oh, I’m so glad!”
“How are you? Did they find any problems?”
“No, I’m fine, thank God. Badly bruised, and stiff. It’s going to hurt for a while. But God knows I’m not complaining. When you think how it could have been …” she gave a shudder at the thought. “It really makes you appreciate your life, you know, when you’ve nearly lost it. I mean, I love my life anyway, don’t get me wrong. But in a way I took it for granted. I assumed I’d have life for – well, for ages yet. But now I realise how fragile it is and how precious it is. Oh –” she groaned in frustration – “I don’t know if I can explain it.”
“I know what you mean.” Tara smiled at her. “I nearly died once, and was lucky to survive, and it really changed me too. Now I never grumble, little things just don’t get me down, it’s wonderful.”
“So you understand!”
“I surely do. I just wish other people knew what a gift life is. Without having to nearly die, I mean. Because after all, that’s a rather high-risk strategy!”
Jennifer laughed, and Tara smiled at her before continuing. “Whenever I hear people moaning and complaining, I just want to shake them and tell them how lucky they are! I mean, people complaining about little things, you know the sort of thing. The weather, a husband leaving dirty socks on the floor, a late bus, that sort of thing.”
“I think I know what you mean, and I’m certainly going to be a lot more zen about stuff in future. Now, listen, maybe – well, when you’re better could I bring you out to dinner? To thank you properly.”
“For sure. I’d like that. I’ll give you my number.”
Jennifer got her phone out and programmed in Tara’s number as she dictated it to her. “That’s great! You know, I wouldn’t have wished for it to happen this way, of course, but I’m glad we’ve met. I used to see you on the way to work, and you always looked so kind and serene I used to think that I’d love to meet you. But you can’t just walk up to people, can you, and start talking to them.”
“No, you can’t, you’re right.” Tara decided that she’d tell Jennifer another time about how she, too, had wanted to be friends. They’d have a laugh over it.
“I really am so, so grateful,” Jennifer said again. “I’m so glad that I didn’t even get an injury. I’ve a terror of needing a blood transfusion!”
“Have you a phobia about needles?” Tara asked with a sympathetic grimace.
“No, it’s not that. It’s that I have a very rare blood type. The rarest in Ireland, actually,” she said with a mixture of ruefulness and pride. “AB Negative. I discovered this when I first donated blood. And so, it’s hard for them to get the right blood for me, seeing as only 1% of Irish people have it.”
“Really?” Tara asked, clearly fascinated. “What a –”
But Jennifer spoke over her. “In fact, once I got a call at work asking me to drop everything and come in to donate blood, that they had another AB Negative person who desperately needed it. A young mother who’d just given birth, seemingly, and who was haemorrhaging badly.”
“When was this?” Tara asked, her expression focussed and her voice intent.
“About twelve years ago.”
“Well, it could have been.” She shrugged. “It was the summer anyway, I remember that. Why do you – oh.”
They stopped and looked at each other.
“I was going to say,” said Tara, “What a coincidence! About the blood group that is. Because I’m AB Negative too. And – this is just amazing – twelve years ago in June I gave birth to my daughter. Jenny. And I haemorrhaged so badly that I nearly died. I told you, a minute ago, that I nearly died once – that’s what I meant! They told me afterwards that somebody had to come in specially to give me blood – it must have been you!”
Tara and Jennifer stared at each other, eyes bright with excitement as the realisation came to them.
“I wanted to know afterwards who had saved my life. I wanted to contact her – well, you. But they wouldn’t tell me. The best they would do, and they weren’t even supposed to do that, was to tell me your name so I could call my daughter after you. It was the least I could do. But now I can thank you – thank you, thank you, thank you! You saved my life.”
“And you saved mine!”
“And think – if you hadn’t saved my life all those years ago, I wouldn’t have been there to save yours today.”
“This is just amazing!” Jennifer said, her facing shining. She rose and gave Tara a big hug, mindful of the drip.
When she sat back into her chair, “And you know, in years to come, when people ask how we met – well, we can tell them that we’re blood sisters!”