Today is the birthday of my first cousin, Stephen O’Flaherty. This always makes me think of time perception because of the time when he dived face first into the pebble dash wall of my sister’s house. Before we talk about the dangers of balance games at barbeques I should explain what time perception is.
There is a theory that at the point of your death your entire life plays like a movie reel just before you die. In one blink of an eye you experience a lifetime. Time compression is when long periods of time can be experienced in an instant.
At other times a single moment of time seems to expand into an age. This is a trope used in films to explain how someone can manipulate time to deflect or avoid speeding bullets. In time expansion the person who can move quickly in the quicksand of time can change the world.
I experienced a moment of death. I didn’t see the reel of my life pass before my eyes. I did experience time expansion, but I was unable to do anything to save myself as I was also moving in slow motion. The perception of time moving slowly may be the impact of a flood of adrenalin hitting your bloodstream kicking off your “fight or flight” response.
I was cycling home through the city at the end of a days work. As I crossed the Liffey there was the usual traffic jam, but behind me I could hear multiple police sirens. As I reached Lloyds pub on Amiens St. in Dublin the police were catching up with me and I saw a landrover parked on the footpath outside Lloyds. That is not a place to park.
As I came level with the pub a guy ran out, jumped into the landrover and gunned it. He floored the accelerator and aimed for the road. He aimed at the road in exactly the place where I was on the road on my bike. This is the point at which time slowed. I saw the landrover coming at me. It happened slowly but I could not turn my bike, I could not speed up to get out of the way. I was dead meat.
But between me and the landrover was a road sign. The jeep hit the sign and rose up at a 45 degree angle. The sign bent over and came down on top of me, again in slow motion. I managed to turn the handlebars just enough to avoid the sign. Landrovers are great over uneven ground but rubbish over roadsigns!
At this stage half a dozen policemen reached the landrover. Using batons they smashed the windows and dragged out the struggling driver. Three of them sat on him as a fourth hit him on the head with a baton, while the fifth got handcuffs onto his wrists.
At that stage time began to move more rapidly again. I didn’t die….but it was close.
So back to the barbeque in Síle’s house. It was a lovely day, sunny weather, good crowd. It was not the day I almost died. We all had drinks. Nobody drunk or messy, just all very pleasant. Somebody came up with the bright idea to have a game.
A popular beach game of the day was to put your head down on a stick and rotate three times around. When you stand up and run it’s hard to keep a straight line and it’s fun to watch people go in all sorts of directions.
So we put two stools in the garden and formed two relay teams. The house was in Violet Hill in Glasnevin. It may seem obvious in retrospect given the address but the rear garden was rather….steep. Being on a hill! You ran up the hill, head on stool, circle it three times with head on the stool, stand up, run back. Next team member takes off.
When Stephen came up off that stool time slowed down for me. I also had a premonition. I could see the entire episode play out before it even happened. He took one step and staggered to the left. He tried to correct his direction with the next step. I could see the concentration on his face as his momentum took him in a direction over which he had no control.
At the back of the house the kitchen table was laid out with all the salads, plates and cutlery for the BBQ. The table abutted the back of the house which was plastered in pebble dash.
Pebble dash is a dressing used on the outside of walls to texture and waterproof them. It is a mixture of plaster, paint and pebbles which sets into a rough, abrasive surface. Pebble dashing and faces are not good friends. You don’t want to rub your face against pebble dash. You certainly don’t want to plant your face at high speed into pebble dash.
As Stephen careened down the steep hill towards the house he was trying anything to avoid meeting the rear wall. He hit the kitchen table which took out his legs and he went sliding head first over the table like a cowboy down the bar in a 1950’s western. Salads and plates sprayed left and right as he slid in slow motion down the length of the table and hit the pebble dash face first.
Stephens parents were also at the Barbeque and immediately began a damage assessment which led to them bundling him into the car and heading for an emergency room. There was nothing, absolutely nothing funny about the situation.
Perhaps this is why the giggling began. We were all trying to be serious and concerned. But at the same time the slapstick nature of the accident was pure comedy. When you looked around the garden you could see half a dozen people doing their level best to keep a straight face. If you have ever tried to look worried and concerned when you want to explode laughing you will understand.
People were setting each other off. Stephen’s mother, Angela was furious. Her son was bleeding, possibly concussed, and people were giggling. Not maliciously, but uncontrollably. One person would corpse and three or four would scurry into corners trying not to follow. The harder you tried the worse it got.
When they eventually got Stephen out to the car and the door closed there was a resounding explosion of relieved laughter until all the tension was burned off. Happy birthday Stephen, I’m sure you remember it very differently! It was NOT funny.