A moment that changed me: My body was wedged between the train and platform – and my mortality rushed towards me | Life and style

The first feeling was embarrassment. What had happened was yet to catch up with me. All I knew was that I was looking into an open carriage, my body wedged into the gap between the tube and the platform, while strangers were staring from their seats in shock.

It was 2015. I was 20 and on my way back from the airport, having been on holiday in Barcelona with some friends. My final year of university would begin in a few weeks. I was travelling to Waterloo station to get a train home, freckled and wearing a sundress. I was changing tube lines and time was tight, so when I saw the train at the platform I ran the last few strides.

The doors were closing as I approached. I would have held back, but my feet had other plans – the grip on the soles of my shoes was nonexistent. I skidded forwards and suddenly found myself falling down between the train carriage and the edge of the platform. I had heard the announcement “Please mind the gap enough times. I knew the gap as a space to step over; I hadn’t realised it was a space I could fit into.

Rebecca Watson’s leg after the accident. Photograph: Courtesy of Rebecca Watson

The platform was empty. As I fell, I threw my arm through the closing doors. My memory turns strange here. It is as if I am high in the carriage, looking down at the passengers and myself in the gap. We are frozen – and then the scene jumps into action. People rush towards me. The doors had rebounded; my arm’s presence had stopped the train from leaving. My right leg had slipped into the gap. I can’t remember what happened to my left leg; I think it was stuck, too, but it could have been behind me. I couldn’t move. Then I am pulled up, people’s arms under my armpits.

The passengers rescued me and marshalled me into a seat on the train. As we began to move (the driver presumably oblivious to what had just happened), I pulled my dress away from me. A woman sitting opposite let out a gasp as I examined my bloodied legs – that sound articulated what I was not yet able to feel. If the first feeling was embarrassment, the second was disembodiment. I focused on getting where I needed to be.

When I arrived at Waterloo, I limped my way up to the main railway station. But instead of boarding a train, I sat down and returned to studying my legs. It was beginning to feel like a miracle to see them there.

I sought out the information desk and asked for first aid. Only as I spoke did I begin to cry. The man who unlocked his office and examined me could barely understand what I was saying. “You fell up the escalator?” “No, no … in the gap.” As I said it, it felt ridiculous.

I calmed down and explained. He told me that he was a former tube driver, that it was astonishing I was alive. Putting my arm through the carriage doorway had been pure instinct – and that instinct was what saved me. If the tube train had left, with me in the gap, he said, that would probably have been the end of me. It was only as we spoke that I realised the extent of what had happened.

I was so young, although I didn’t recognise that then. I was yet to meet the man I love more than I knew then was possible. I hadn’t graduated. I hadn’t moved to London. There was so much I had not begun to imagine for my life.

That sliding doors moment changed me in ways that are difficult to map. There is a scar, but you have to know where to look. Sometimes, my knee twinges. Apart from that, there is little to show – the miracle of barely being marked by what could have been a decisive end.

It still hits me with a cold shudder. I will be laughing with a friend, standing in a crowd at a party or stepping over that very gap to get on to a train when suddenly I will remember. It attaches to moments at random, searing me with horror and relief. That experience gives me a perspective I cannot peel off. What would I have been like if it hadn’t happened?

What I know is the experience charged me with an understanding of the flimsiness of life. How easily it can disappear. At 20, life is endless, solid, indestructible. But after that day, it no longer seemed so. Almost all of my 20s have passed since then. Yet I am still struck, at unexpected times, by the clarity that I might not have been here at all.

I Will Crash by Rebecca Watson is out now (Faber, £14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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