Monday, November 9, 1998

‘Last call’ can also be ‘a close call’

It's the courier's version of ‘last call’ — the rush delivery before the close of business on a Friday afternoon.


Only two days on the job, but 18-year-old Talia already knows the drill as her green mountain bike skirrs over potholes in turbid laneways. Avoid gridlock. Drive for the light. Even if it means squeezing through an intersection where that light has turned red.

But on this warm, sunny pre-Halloween afternoon, the trick won't work and there's no treat waiting for Talia as she pedals furiously to keep pace with a white car heading north on Mansfield.

The white car enters the intersection of de Maisonneuve on a yellow light which is about to turn red. Talia is on the left side of the car, believing it will shield her until they have both passed safely through the intersection. She is wrong.

Michel, driving west on de Maisonneuve in his banged-up, black Pontiac 6000, notes that the white car has not cleared the intersection. He slows down to avoid hitting it. What he doesn't see is Talia on her bike who has failed to keep pace with the white car. Michel's black Pontiac catches the rear of Talia's bike, catapulting her three feet into the air.

It is 3:55 p.m. Hundreds of bustling business people freeze in the horror of those few seconds that Talia's lithe body is in transit.

It's like watching a slow-motion replay of the football "hit of the week." But this time it's not two superbly conditioned and padded athletes ripping into one another. It's the dull thud of mechanized steel bludgeoning flesh and the screech of skidding rubber on cement.

Miraculously, Talia is thrown through the air locked in the fetal position. She soars over Michel's car and lands with a thwack on her buttocks in the middle of de Maisonneuve.

Many among the business people and entrepreneurs who moments earlier had been trying to finish their last-minute chores now rush to her aid.

Michel, the driver of the car which hit her, jumps out. He looks young and scared. He has dilated doe eyes. A black baseball cap covers his short hair and his face is mottled with acne. The words "South Pole" cover the front and left arm of his sweatshirt. He wishes he were there.

"There was nothing I could do," he tells a nearby businessman. "I wasn't going fast. I didn't see her behind the white car. I was scared that she had fallen under my car."

Among the first to reach Talia is Sandy, a Cote St. Luc resident who is into her fourth year of medical studies at the University of Western Ontario.She immobilizes Talia in the upright position she landed and asks questions, such as the date and time, to see whether she has suffered a head trauma.

But Talia is more concerned with her last batch of business deliveries than with her broken body. Her cellular telephone, which landed on the pavement three feet away, is handed to her by a nearby businessman. She asks that someone call her office to let them know that she is running late.

"You're far too concerned with your job at this moment," Sandy admonishes her in a gentle manner. "Let's take care of you."

But Talia, who has taken this job as a courier to support herself while she goes back to finish her high school diploma at night, has one more piece of business on her mind. She looks at Michel, the driver of the car which hit her, and says: "It was my fault."

Michel, 19 and clearly shaken, says softly: "I hope you'll be okay."

At that moment, they both look vulnerable. Oddly enough, each of them is wear running shoes with the laces undone - Michel in his Adidas and Talia in her Fila.

All of five minutes have elapsed. Two businessmen have used their cellular phones to call an ambulance. Another man in a suit has jumped into the middle of de Maisonneuve to redirect traffic.

Sandy and a businessman in a blue suit help release the straps of Talia's green backpack. Sandy persists in her questioning. Talia knows the date and time. She also knows there is a searing pain shooting from her right shoulder down to the middle of her back.

Within 10 minutes, Urgences Santé has arrived on the scene. The technician, together with Sandy, slowly remove Talia's green helmet without disturbing the position of her neck.

"I don't want to mess your hair," he jokes with her, as her shoulder-length dark brown locks cascade out.

With her helmet off, she is a dead ringer for a dark-haired version of Brooke Shields - the blue eyes, the finely chiseled features. In her red-and-blue flannel shirt and blue sweatpants, she exudes style down to her long, gold-lacquered fingernails.

In the short space of 15 minutes, at least three other couriers on bikes pass the scene. Seeing one of their own supine, they stop. Talia, who is speaking perfect English to Sandy, switches effortlessly to French. "Salut Luc, je suis correcte."

The Urgences Santé technician, who has been speaking English to her, asks whether she prefers that he speak to her in French. She opts for English. He asks her whether she has any medical condition he should be aware of.

"Minor asthma and a major back problem," she says with a smile. Everyone is taken with Talia's courage, humour and charm. The Urgences Santé technicians reassure her as they immobilize her neck with a cervical collar and apply three black straps binding her to a stretcher for the journey to hospital.

"There is a 99 percent chance that everything is alright and that you're going to go home after they check you out in the emergency department," one of them tells her. His reassuring words bring a smile.

As they lift the stretcher, she turns to Sandy and to one of the businessmen who had stayed by her side during the 20-minute ordeal. A wan smile creases her face. A barely audible "thank you" tumbles from her trembling lips.

The businessman, his financial statements and Friday deadlines forgotten, has a tear in his eye.

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.