MAGGIE IMAGINES THE stale Ginger Nuts and Milk Arrowroots that will be in the biscuit jar at break time, and the way her thumb will make little crescent moons around her styrofoam cup of milky tea.
‘Repeat after me: DRSABCD. Danger, Response, Send for help. Airway, Breathing, CPR, Defibrillation.’
The class repeats the words in monotone, while the instructor, Greg, ticks them off on his fingers. He wears dark-green trousers and a matching, iron-creased short-sleeved shirt with evenly placed badges. They remind Maggie of Girl Guides, her own badges which once meant so much. Greg fondles the PowerPoint clicker in his right hand, the screen behind him shivering with a breeze from the open window. It’s the jerk of her head that wakes her. And then the slow lull again.
To stay awake, she smooths her folder of photocopies and clicks the cheap logo pen they gave her at registration. She looks down at her phone in her lap, refreshing her email. Scrolling through Instagram. On her shirt she feels the pull of her name badge (pinned left side, above the breast, careful not to catch the synthetic lace of her bra).
Yesterday they learnt how to wrap a snake bite, treat a fracture or break, how to staunch a bleed and deal with a person choking. The signs of poisoning, heart attack and an epileptic fit.
Maggie likes the predictability of courses like this: how passive she can be, like a glass waiting to be filled. It is so easy to fall back into the role of student, appearing attentive even while her mind drifts to the tattoo on the arm of the man sitting in front of her. Is it a dolphin or a shark? A dolphin, she decides, from the absence of visible teeth. The way its mouth curves upwards into something resembling a smile.
Greg has begun the section on CPR, droning the ratio of breaths to chest compressions. She copies the numbers into her notebook diligently, trying to remember the last time she actually wrote on paper with a pen. Chest compressions should go a third of the depth of a person’s chest. Thirty chest compressions then two rescue breaths, each breath about one second long. Aim for around 100 chest compressions in a minute.
Each day, Maggie brings a packed lunch, feeling worthy at lunch break as she finds a nearby park for thirty minutes of sun. Today, an ibis pretends not to watch her eat her ham, cheese and tomato sandwich, only giving up when it sees a small child carry a towering box of chips to a picnic blanket nearby. She tries to read articles on her phone but the words swim and her eyes water. She blinks. It must be time to return to class.
THE ROOM HAS been transformed. The desks pushed to the side and across the floor, on yoga mats, legless, armless dummies are scattered. It’s the aftermath of a tragedy.
The dummies are the colour of the nylons her mother used to wear to work. Their eyes are closed, mouths open like sightless, limbless fish – mid gasp. There are two baby dummies as well. These are allowed arms and legs, perhaps because they’re still small enough to fit in the large duffel bags stacked in the corner. They can still be zipped up and carried away at the end of the day.
‘Everyone grab a dummy. Four to a group,’ Greg says. The baby groups fill up first. Everyone would rather save a baby. There are no female dummies, only the faintly moulded pectoral muscles that remind Maggie of the Ken dolls she played with in primary school. These have no smooth moulded crotch where the penis is meant to be though. The torso is cut at the navel line, like an amputation.
Maggie is in a group with two other women and dolphin tattoo.
‘Mind if I go first? I’ve done this a few times,’ dolphin tattoo says. The women shake their heads, shrug.
Beside the dummy is a plastic container of alcohol wipes, disposable gloves, a stopwatch and a box of face shields. Greg demonstrates first what they should do. They are to put on the gloves. Check for DRSAB. Then begin CPR, first laying the plastic guard over the dummy’s face. Practice resuscitation breathing while doing chest compressions, fingers intertwined and the heel of your hand against the centre of the breastbone, using the weight of your entire body (except with the babies, they get to use two fingers). Afterwards, disinfect the area with a wipe.
The other two women in her group whisper and giggle throughout the demonstration. It is as though the act of being in a classroom has regressed them to thirteen. Maggie half expects to look up and see one passing the other a note, folded in a soft paper triangle, the name on the front underlined in purple ink.
Maggie watches, quiet, while the others take their turns. Dolphin tattoo talks as he goes through the motions – ‘Here we go, laying the mouth guard, just a little to the right, perfect’ – as though he’s Jamie Oliver laying prosciutto on a slice of rockmelon. The other two women laugh harder than they should.
‘I’m so bad at this,’ one of them says, carefully pulling her hair over one shoulder when it is her turn. Her phone falls out of her pocket mid-rescue breath, and she pauses to pick it up and check the screen. ‘The mouth guard smells like a condom,’ she whispers to her friend, loud enough so they can all hear.
Maggie is last. Finally, she follows the steps. There is the smell of alcohol and taste of plastic when she breathes into the dummy’s mouth. She feels its chest fill. The heel of her hand is in exactly the right place. The weight of her body, straight elbows, and his heart beneath will somehow begin (again) to beat. The plastic is soft, not at all like a doll; it gives in accordance to the pressure she places upon it. It receives her ministrations. The only shock is how cold it is, how dry. A real person would be warm, perhaps wet with blood, saliva, sweat or urine. There would be bones beneath which might crack or break. Muscle which could bruise, or simply tense beneath the skin.
When CPR is finished the dummies are packed away in their bags and stacked against the wall. The students are back at the desks to learn to treat shock, diabetic emergencies, frostbite, burns and scalds, bites and stings. What are the signs of an allergic reaction? What are the signs of an asthma attack?
Maggie decides Greg’s delivery is the reason she cannot focus. The way he reads from his PowerPoint, as though he were reading the back of a cereal box rather than instructing them in the ways to save a life. She glances down at her phone; there is a message from Ethan. A missed call. She gets up and leaves the room as quietly as she can, but feels the eyes of the others as she goes.
In the hall outside the classroom are first-aid posters that have been laminated and stuck to the wall with Blu-Tack. One is slipping, the blue substance stretching like gum stuck to a shoe, and Maggie fixes it as she returns Ethan’s call. She never checks her voicemail. It makes her anxious to think about the hours of unlistened messages that have accumulated over the years. But the longer she leaves it, the less likely she is to ever listen.
The phone rings once, twice. He picks up on the third ring.
‘Hey can I call you back?’ She can hear he is in a café: the murmur of voices, the hiss and clunk of a coffee machine. He frequents cafés that are all polished concrete, which echo every sound.
‘I’m just calling you back. And I’m in a class.’
‘For once she learns something useful.’
Maggie imagines him walking out of the café onto the footpath of people with their heads down, looking at their phones. The cranes above bisecting the sky.
‘Why haven’t you called Mum back?’ Ethan says.
‘Is that why you called?’
There is a high window in the door into the first aid classroom, and Maggie peers through it, only to meet Greg’s even stare. She backs away, towards the posters.
‘She said she’s left you five voicemails this week.’
‘Which I’ve specifically told both of you not to do.’
‘And the insurance? They’ve been ringing her, asking–’
‘I’ve got to go back in. There’s a test today. I can’t fail.’
‘I’ll call you later. Tonight.’
Maggie hangs up before he can say more. He will go in the café and retrieve his three-quarter half-decaf soy flat white, then ride the lifts to the twenty-second floor where he works at a desk with a view of the Harbour Bridge. All day he watches little figures inch up the curved steel, tourists most of them, while he enters rows of numbers into a screen. Their mum brags about his view as though it is her own.
‘I’d rather look at a wall,’ Maggie said once, ‘than see the harbour while stuck behind a desk. At least I wouldn’t be constantly aware of what I’m missing.’
That hadn’t gone over well. ‘I’d rather you had any kind of job you could keep for more than six weeks consecutive,’ Mum had said, and then caught herself and gripped the stem of her wineglass, as though her grip could silence her. As though letting go would unstopper the harsh words that had gathered.
Maggie knows she is missing important first aid facts but she goes to the ladies. She pees in the third loo, flushes, and washes her hands slowly, drying them until there is not a skerrick of moisture remaining. She goes to check her teeth in the mirror. But instead of her teeth, all she can see is the grimace on her own face.
MAGGIE HAD BEEN driving to work that morning and the sun was harsh to the east. It was eye-level glare, bouncing off the mirrors and steel, the glass of the buildings and the smeared bird shit on her windscreen. She had tried the windscreen wipers but the fluid was empty. Because of the lack of fluid the bird shit smeared itself further across her field of vision and Maggie squinted and drank the dregs of cold coffee from the takeaway cup. It tasted odd, as though they had mixed up her order and given her someone’s almond milk, or maybe just skim. There was a chalky bitterness in the back of her throat. She drove past the coffee shop on the corner of Broadway and City Road and the smell of their roasting beans was burnt, and the bitter taste only grew stronger. She wasn’t looking at her phone, Maggie said later, to the officer. But she was just before. She kept it in the centre console when she drove.
She would only pick it up to see if the ping was important. Sometimes, she forgot that she wasn’t meant to be looking and without thinking found herself scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. Just to see if there was something important, something new. But that was only at red lights. Or stopped in traffic, mostly.
He appeared out of nowhere, from between a bus and a truck, and the first she knew of him was the sound of metal hitting metal as she collided with his bike. There was also a lower sound, something softer. Then screeching of brakes. A crunch. That was the car behind her smashing into her. She yanked her handbrake, cut the engine, and got out. Walked around the car. There, on the footpath side, was the moaning torso of a man in lycra. His legs were beneath her car. The one she could see was bent at a strange angle, the wrong way.
‘Oh God.’ She bent over double. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ Other people were running over. Someone was telling the man to lie still. A woman was on her phone, ringing an ambulance. There were cars still crawling past and more people gathered, and Maggie couldn’t stand.
Her legs were boneless too.
She sat on the kerb, watching blood pool beneath her car, around the tyre, nearly the same black. The bike was a jangle of metal, abstract. There was something she could do, must do, she just couldn’t think what. Her phone was in her hand. Someone was using a T-shirt to staunch the cyclist’s blood. There was a shirtless man, a young man, who was holding the cyclist’s hand.
Someone put an arm around Maggie.
‘Are you okay?’
‘He came from nowhere.’
‘You’re in shock,’ the woman said. She had grey hair and a skin-coloured mole over her lip, just beneath her right nostril. Maggie wanted to say: No, I’m just useless.
The sound of sirens grew closer and soon the ambulance was there, the ambos spilling out in their blue, carrying cases full of equipment. They began CPR and then they had the box out, the defib. A robotic voice counted. Maggie could no longer see what they were doing. There were so many people. Somehow they were lifting the car. A police officer came and sat beside her, introduced himself, said he understood she was driving the vehicle at the time of the accident.
Maggie nodded her assent. He asked if she could stand, if she was injured. She stood. She answered his questions, told him what she saw, how the cyclist had come between the bus and the truck. Out of nowhere. How the sun was in her eyes.
She counted to ten into the plastic tube. No she had not had a drink today. Last night: yes, a beer, possibly two. He wanted her to come to the station. They just had to ask some more questions.
‘What about my car?’ she asked.
‘We’ll arrange for that,’ he said, guiding her by the arm into the back of his police cruiser. ‘Watch your head.’
AT THE END of the course there is an exam, but it’s open book. Maggie wants to stomp her feet and scream. As if someone is going to come across a car crash and flip open their copy of Australian First Aid to Chapter 5, page 42: ‘Resuscitation Techniques’.
She’s not going to use her book, she decides. If she doesn’t know it, she doesn’t deserve to pass. The first ten or so questions she gets. They’re multiple choice, which makes it easier. Then they become more difficult.
Maggie can’t remember if you put a person with a high temperature in a cold bath or give them Panadol. The difference between treating a snake and a spider bite. What Greg told them about choking – that was yesterday – whether you come from behind, fist under the ribcage, or make them bend over and whack them on the upper back. She finds herself, mindlessly, picking up the manual and flipping through it. Just for these last ones, she tells herself. The last two. Okay, three.
MAGGIE ASKED ABOUT the cyclist, later, when they finished interviewing her at the station. He was in critical care, the officer said. He might lose his right leg, from the knee down. He was a uni student, and his parents were driving in from Orange, where they lived.
‘Okay,’ she said, and put her hand up. Enough.
They rang a cab to take her home. Her car was being towed. They would be in touch if they had further questions.
In the back seat of the cab, she checked her email, scrolled through Instagram, Facebook. There was a message from her boss. She would have to call: to explain why she wasn’t there. She forgot to tell the cab driver where to turn.
They missed the exit.
ON THE EXAM she scores twenty out of twenty. Big surprise, they all do. And they each get called by name to the front of the classroom, where they stand on the vertiginously patterned blue carpet and shake Greg’s capable, square hand and get a certificate and a little card. Maggie slips it in her wallet.
Dolphin tattoo and the two whispering friends from her CPR group are going for a drink at the pub and they ask her along. On the walk over they make up new words for the acronym DRSABCD. Doing Rad Stuff About Blood, Crisis and Drama. They joke about how seriously Greg took himself and whether his wife or mum stitched the badges on his neat green shirt. Maggie’s phone chirps in her back pocket. The crickets that denote Mum.
They stop outside the Dove & Olive.
A cyclist pulls up as they do and locks his bike to the power pole on the edge of the footpath, blue lycra shorts gleaming in the late afternoon sun. She clutches the St John Ambulance calico bag in her fist. If he stepped off the kerb now and into traffic, if he should be hit by a car, she would check for danger before following him. She would speak, in case he responded. She would tell the others to send for help and check his airway, then his breathing, before commencing CPR.
‘Hey,’ they are standing in the doorway of the pub. ‘You coming?’
‘Go on,’ Maggie says, blinking fiercely in the light. ‘I’ll be right behind you.’