My biggest regret: I was in a car crash – and I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt

Is it possible to pick one regret above all others? My league table is highly competitive. Recently, I found myself presenting one of my Top 10 regrets to my five-year-old son (albeit under the guise of parental wisdom). We were discussing the importance of seatbelts and – to make my point – I suggested he reach forward and squeeze my face: prod the knuckly ridge of scar tissue in my eyebrow, then explore the blocky cartilage of my nose.

I told him I was 19 when it happened. I was in the back seat and my Australian friend was at the wheel, although it may have been her older brother. We were going … somewhere. Maybe Brisbane? To be honest, that whole day, and the days that followed, is blank. All I know is that we crashed into another vehicle and I was the only one not wearing my belt, as a result of which my face got mashed into the driver’s seat’s plastic headrest. Everyone else was OK. Or did my friend have whiplash? I can picture her in a neck brace. Anyway.

By this point, my son had put on his seatbelt and was losing interest in the story. But I was just getting started. I spent a few nights in hospital, I told him, and a few weeks outstaying my welcome with my Australian friend’s parents, and a few years feeling miserable about my injuries.

My friend and I lost touch long ago. We did not want to be reminded. And now I prefer the big, blank space in my memory

My wife interrupted me to ask if this story was, ultimately, about my vanity. With outrage in my voice, I replied that no, it was not about my vanity, or, at least, not much about my vanity – or not exclusively about my vanity. There was also lasting psychological damage, I said. Because, afterwards, I had these weird, intrusive thoughts.

Whenever I was talking to someone, a part of my brain would be imagining two beach balls emerging from my head and bouncing around the room. In my mind, the beach balls did not obey gravity; they ricocheted off the ceiling, walls and furniture until one of them would come back and hit me, gently, in the face. It may not sound like much, but it made it hard to concentrate.

“Beach balls?” my son said.

“Beach balls,” I said.

We drove in silence for a while.

“But why weren’t you wearing your seatbelt?” he said.

That was tricky. I had grown up in the golden age of devastating government car-safety adverts. Nobody of my generation can have forgotten the one that begins with a teenage schoolboy slouching in the back seat, unbelted. When the car crashes, he flies forward, compressing the driver’s seat and killing his mother. A brutally neutral voiceover says: “After crushing her to death, he sat back down.” So why hadn’t I worn my belt?

Maybe I forgot. Maybe I thought seatbelts were uncool. Maybe, just maybe, there weren’t any belts in the back. My friend would probably be able to fill in the details, but we lost touch long ago. We did not want to be reminded. And now I prefer the big, blank space in my memory. It’s nice to hide in the ambiguities.

I don’t remember much, I told my son, as a result of the head trauma.

There was more silence. Then he asked if we could put on some music.