The Decimated Man

A man dressed in a hospital gown shuffles down the pavement of a dusty, litter-strewn side street, somewhere near Euston Road. He is pale and drawn out, a layer of perspiration covering his skin. His sunken eyes are lined with an interminable tiredness. Passersby merely register his odd appearance, before carrying on past him; in other parts of the world they might ask if he’s okay, and if he needs help, but the spectre of London dissuades such action – lest he be dangerous or, worse, weird. But the man isn’t interested in help, or pity, or in fact any such attention: he hopes to continue this journey unnoticed, untracked, alone.

Across the road a newsagent’s sandwich board heralds the week’s shocking event and inexhaustible talking point: that two lunatics with assault rifles had taken to the streets and started shooting indiscriminately at pedestrians, shouting something indiscernible, yet chilling all the same.

Averting his gaze to the chewing gum laden pavement, the man in the hospital gown rounds the corner of an alleyway, fading into the shadow of the adjacent building.

The nation had been gripped in a stoical mourning as reports of the attack and its resolution surfaced – first in social media, and then later in rhetoric-rich news articles and commentary. The attack had come to a stop when a man attacked one of the assailants with a piece of scaffolding, incapacitating him; the other assailant, suddenly aware he was shouting alone, turned to see the man, grounded by shock, standing over the motionless body of his comrade. The assailant pursued the man round one corner and then another, before turning into an alley with a dead end. The man, cowering behind a skip, a seeping wound in his abdomen, mustered the strength to look up at the figure towering over him, saying something he did not care to listen to before disappearing into a deep unconsciousness.

Three people had been killed, and several injured. The man had been recovered from behind the skip, his wound still seeping and unconscious with shock. Next to him lay the expertly despatched body of the second assailant, lifeless in stark, calm contrast to the events of just moments ago.

The man had awoken in a white box room, with white sheets, a white hospital gown and a white memory of how he had come to be here. Doctors and nurses flitted and fussed around him, before his wife and young son were allowed in to see him. They rushed over to him, teary eyed and palpably relieved, and with a lingering disbelief that her husband, his father, could be the man to have risked his life to save others. Their tears and relief touched him, but his thoughts were arrested by this lingering disbelief, for he too could not believe that he had done what they said. What’s more, that he couldn’t remember it happening nor even locate the residue of adrenaline that must have coursed through him before and after he acted, interminably separated him from this supposed act: he could not reconcile himself.

By now the authorities had released his identity to the outside world. In the days that followed, Mr Cartwright heard his name upwards of two hundred times, which must have been at least a hundred and fifty times more than in the previous decade. Between fitful and feverish sleep, he was visited by people he did not wish to speak with.

A besuited man with Home Office credentials perched at the end of his bed, with a sugary smile in which he found nothing to trust. The man removed a notepad and pen from his jacket pocket and proceeded to interrogate Mr Cartwright with a comradely demeanour that appeared somehow insidious, waspish. How had Mr Cartwright come to be in the area, at that precise time and date? From where did the piece of scaffolding appear? Could Mr Cartwright make out what the men were shouting? Did this mean anything to Mr Cartwright? Does Mr Cartwright feel lucky to have survived attacking highly trained and reckless murderers? You understand, Mr Cartwright, that it is my duty to establish if you pose any danger to the wider public; and I mustn’t dismiss out of hand any possibility of complicity? Mr Cartwright answered in a daze, finding it difficult to do so on behalf of actions he did not, and could not, feel responsible.

Later a journalist arrived to “…assist in telling the world his story”. She revealed to him the zeal with which the public had taken him, and his actions, to heart: that Mr Cartwright was referred to widely as a hero; a defender of the people; a symbol of democratic virtue and shared high values. He answered the questions with little desire to tell any story, not least because he could not remember. Would Mr Cartwright have a message for people out there, people who might be scared that something like this might happen to them? People that may find themselves in a situation where they could act, as he did, to save many lives at the risk of their own? He doesn’t; he’s sorry.

Laid up in his hospital bed, pale and sullen and with a film of sweat shining across his brow, the man indulged Daniela’s inquisition with monosyllabic answers and at a tangible distance. Somewhere, towards the back of his eyes and deep within the recesses of his self-consciousness, the man paced an inner attic restlessly, pouring over the week’s events in search of some sense of meaning. This is what Daniela would have liked to have written in her column; this is what she perceived, without being able to evidence or quote it, and this is what would unfortunately escape public notice. In its place the story would predictably condense the man’s actions to that of an singular, heroic act, in the name of a speakable, tweetable cultural value to be wielded against those who would seek to challenge or even destroy it.

Though she would go on to write up the story in the hand-me-down journalistic prose of little authenticity, Daniela would leave the hospital affected for her experience. The man was so absolutely alone and yet so abundantly in company: wife, child, the entire nation purporting to know him and collectively thinking of him as standing for something they equally share. She saw the terrified loneliness in his eyes and it shocked her.

The following day his wife came again, bearing the news article that had just been published. She beamed with pride and glowed with love, both of which disturbed him: he did not recognise them, and resented them for replacing what had been there before. And not in the sense that neither pride nor love had existed before, but that somehow they were different now, other. He recalled the time he had first succeeded in holding their small child and calming him from screaming fit to peaceful sleep, and the look that she had given him that filled him with so much warmth; so much confidence that he was doing it right, that he could do this. Another time, as they went to sleep and after he had successfully held his ground over her father’s entreaties for him to leave his job and come work for him – so that he would have more stable employment and be better able to support his daughter’s family – how she had delicately placed the palm of her left hand on his rib cage, where his heart beat, as though she were cupping it, protecting it.  

That look, that touch – they weren’t necessarily any different now, but she didn’t hold his gaze, tilt her head and gently furrow her brown, or place her hand on his chest and nuzzle into the crook of his neck, in the way she might have previously when conveying her pride and admiration. What was different? Perhaps it was that he was different. Yes, that must be it.

As these thoughts rolled around his head, coming and going with the tides of exhaustion, he realised that since waking in the hospital she had not once used his name.

That night, exhausted and unable to sleep, his body clock shattered into a billion pieces, he reflected on his new life: he felt adrift, atop of piece of wreckage that disintegrated a piece at a time, floating upon a vast ocean on the horizon of which all ports led to Mr Cartwright and life after the act. He resolved in the dull, whitewashed glow of the white box room, that this chain of events was irreversible; that he had been decimated, and that all the pieces of him had been distributed far and wide for purposes not his own. That night, he decided to leave Mr Cartwright behind in the hospital bed: he lifted the sash window of the third storey room, maneuvered himself onto the fire escape and began the long and painful descent, careful not to break the stitches in his healing wound. Each step down, he reflected, was one towards the unchartered territory of a life he had not expected to lead and a person he had yet to meet; each step, he realised, was one away from the man, the hero, he had never been, and had never wanted to be.