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  • Fifty years after he arrived in Cambridge to study and then work, Paul Jensen, a professor of mathematics, died. The car that hit him wasn’t going fast but the professor never saw it coming. He’d just depressed the top spring of an umbrella and stepped out of the gate in his walled back yard when it crawled past. His mind was full of the wet afternoon and that flimsy moment became the last fact of his life. It would have been easy for Jensen to summarise it in a neat equation of mass and velocity. A quick, hard knock to the pelvis sent him straight to the ground where his head hit the cobbles. The umbrella and a brown paper bag flew from his hands as he fell.

    The car stopped at once and its handbrake coughed. Leaping out from behind the wheel, a brief look of shock gave way to a cycle of fearful expressions on the driver’s face. He ran to Jensen’s side and heard a low moan. The old man was trying to raise his head. Behind him, blood ran away to the gutter in a thin stream. The extended umbrella was rocking itself in a distressed circle. A scuffle of feet approached and then someone spoke.
    “Let me help. I’m a doctor.”
    The incomer was already kneeling on the rough stones. The driver moved back at once in agreement.
    “I’ll go for help.”

    The professor was in a grave condition, knew the doctor, his skull certainly fractured. As he asked the old man’s name, he felt a weak pulse in the neck and flutters of breath. It was a relief when Jensen answered with a rasp. The doctor looked into his eyes. One pupil had blown and the other gave a gentle blue tug against the light. Sprinkles of rain were settling on his white hair and waxy skin.
    “Jensen? I’m Ralph. Don’t try to move your head.”
    “Ralph Forbes. I’m a doctor. There’s been an accident.” The professor’s hands groped weakly on the ground beside him and Ralph reached out to grasp one in his own. “You were hit by a car. The driver’s gone to ring an ambulance. Is there anyone we can contact for you?”
    “” A gleam of light escaped as the professor grinned with pain. “No fuss.”
    “Of course. How do you feel, any sensations?”
    “Yes, it’s getting heavier. Shall I get your umbrella?” It had come to a stop near the old man’s side. After pulling it forward by the crook handle, Ralph let go of Jensen’s hand. Wincing at the cobbles under his knees, he twisted to take hold of the brown paper bag which was also within reach, then rocked back on to his heels and righted himself in a crouch. “I have your belongings here. Let me just put this up. Now, that will keep the rain off.”
    “Take it.” There was a faint scrape of bone against stone as the professor began to turn his head. Holding the umbrella overhead in his right, Ralph took up the old man’s hand again in his left. It had already gone cold and trembled in his own. Shock was taking over the body, blood pressure likely low.
    “Please try not to move, Mr Jensen. I’m not going to take any of your things.”
    “Professor. Mathematics.”
    “Oh, I do apologise, Professor.”
    “Please take the book.” The effort of a full sentence exhausted the injured man’s breath. “The bag. A thank you.”
    “You don’t have to thank me. You’re going to be okay. The ambulance will be here soon.”
    “Open it.”
    “Are you sure – all right, I’ll open it.” As Jensen’s head gave the slightest nod, Ralph held the bag up in a hurry and looked inside. “It’s a notebook.”
    “A journal, I understand.” Ralph shook it out and opened the cover. “Blank.”
    “I see.”
    “Not for important dates. Every day. Be sure to mark...the date.”
    “I will. Have you always kept a journal?”
    “All my life. Always wondered....”
    Ralph gave a nod while holding on to the frail hand. Jensen’s nails were large with thick ridges, the knuckles deeply creased with wrinkles and all somehow smooth. Ralph tried to keep his mind clear. The tremble had strengthened and he knew the professor was in a state of shock.
    “Every year. Birthday. Death date.”
    “We only have one death date, though.”
    “Once...a year.”
    “Gosh, yes. I never thought of it like that." Ralph said after a moment's pause. "A hidden anniversary.”
    “Now my number’s up. Twelfth June.”
    “You’re going to be fine, Professor.”

    Ralph’s head darted up to look along the narrow street. There was no sign of anyone, only smooth brick walls and gates of private properties. The cobbles and slate roofs shone with a flat, wet light. A cat leaped up to the top of the wall from the opposite yard, not seeming to mind the rain.
    It shouldn’t take the driver long to find a telephone but Ralph was growing anxious. Less than five minutes had passed since the accident happened. A rapid response at this time was crucial. Everything the doctor knew about head trauma indicated an impending loss of consciousness.
    “June rain.” rasped Jensen beneath the canopy. This was the confusion setting in. “Fresh.”
    “Unusual for June, isn’t it?” Ralph smiled, keeping his tone conversational. Talking was a good sign. “I like the odd spell of weather myself. It’s good for the land. I’m a farmer’s son.”
    “Yes. Plants.”
    “What college are you from? I studied Medicine at Corpus Christi.”
    “Ah. The best for maths, I believe. Not one of my strong points.”
    “The greatest. Newton...Babbage. So many; Nabokov. Tennyson. Wittgenstein.”
    “Incredible pedigree. The Corpus alumni are a dry old bunch, in comparison. We certainly wouldn’t measure up! Ah, here’s the driver returning.”

    “I’m sorry it took so long – I had to knock on so many doors and got no answer, I ended up running to a friend's in Peas Hill. The ambulance should be here any minute, I told them to come straight away.” The driver called as he raced up the street but fell back when he drew near. His face was pale. “How is he?”
    “He needs to get to hospital.” Ralph looked over the crest of the umbrella. He could tell that it obscured the horrible sight of the injured man but it couldn’t hide the blood. A red fan spread all the way to the gutter.
    “Professor? Can you hear me? Professor Jensen?”
    The old man had become unresponsive. Ralph thrust the umbrella aside and felt for the pulse again. With his other hand, he plucked an eyelid open. “He’s not going to stand it out here much longer. We need that ambulance now.”
    “I don’t hear anything!” The driver cried. “They can’t be far.”
    “There isn’t time...I’ve lost his pulse. His pulse has stopped.” Ralph bent an ear to Jensen’s mouth. His knees met the cobbles again. Deep in concentration, his eyes trained themselves on the wall above. The cat had disappeared.
    “Do heart compressions! Mouth-to-mouth, or something. Please!” There was a peal of sirens some way off.
    “I’m sorry, I can’t. He’s gone.” Ralph’s voice was measured as he straightened up but his eyes didn’t leave Jensen’s face. “He was old, and lost too much blood.”
    “That stupid umbrella!” The driver pitched backwards and slumped down against a wall. His hands hung limp across his knees. In the distance, the ambulance gave a scream. Low clouds hung overhead, blank as a first page. Everything Ralph knew about death suddenly seemed insignificant. He turned and knelt again, obscuring the driver’s view once more.

    Photo: Kortney Thoma.
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