Poorna Bell’s Debut Novel Will Make You Reassessing All Major Life Decisions

In this section excerpted from Poorna Bell’s debut novel, In Case Of Emergency, our protagonist ventures home after a near-fatal accident outside work.

by Poorna Bell
Poorna Bell's 'In Case Of Emergency'
Courtesy of Century

Poorna Bell latest novel, In Case Of Emergency, follows a string of fantastic non-fiction pieces, including Stronger. But in her fictional debut, Bel Kumar, a successful thirty-something woman discovers she doesn’t have everything quite as “sorted” as she first thought.

With my phone smashed, an Uber ride home from the hospital was not an option. I hailed a black cab, readying myself for the usual chattiness a journey entailed. I was surprised to find my driver was a woman, her brows arching in concern as I gave her the address of my flat in Battersea.

‘Are you okay, love?’ she said craning her neck to look at me after I’d clambered in. ‘It’s just that normally when people look like you do now, they get someone to pick them up. Like a family member.’

Please make her stop talking to me, I silently implored the universe. The last thing I wanted was to have to recount to a total stranger how I’d been in hospital having just fallen ten feet into a beer cellar.

Eventually we arrived and I slowly creaked out of the car, my body growing stiffer with each passing minute. A fresh dose of medication bubble-wrapped me from the worst of the pain. Internally I felt numb. My perspective shrank to the smallest increments of time: making a cup of tea, consigning the cape dress to the bin. A warm shower showed me the places I’d been hurt the most, where even the softness of water was unbearable.

I looked down at my body, covered in the dark petals of bruises that hadn’t fully blossomed yet. I turned off the shower and changed into my M&S pyjamas. Soon after that, I was buried deep within a mound of blankets on the huge, pillowy, L-shaped sofa that took up most of my living room. A double cheeseburger and fries were en-route according to my takeaway app, and the coffee table was covered with Diet Coke, orange juice and a big bottle of sparkling water. Although the sunlight was a shade softer now, by 5 p.m. it was still bright enough that I partially drew the curtains. On a normal day I loved sitting on the tiny balcony bathed in light, watching people walk along the sweeping curve of the Thames. But this was not a normal day. Although the recent racism debacle where I accidentally called out my boss for very blatant favouritism on the company group chat had made me vow to unsync my phone from my laptop, I was glad for it now that said phone was smashed to pieces. I pulled out my home laptop and started messaging people.

My colleague Maggie had been frantically trying to get hold of me. Apparently falling into a pit and not breaking every bone in my body was enough to make my boss Crispin completely overlook my group chat error too. He’d sent me a lovely email, telling me to take all the time I needed and promised that a gift was on its way. ‘I picked it out myself,’ he wrote. Which for him was a big deal since usually he got his assistant to buy everything including birthday presents for his daughter.

My friend Katrina had sent a string of grovelling messages saying that she’d been on a shoot with Dua Lipa and had been horribly delayed hence her no-show at lunch. What was supposed to have been right before I fell into the aforementioned cellar…

Dua Lipa, I couldn’t say no! But she’d called Maggie, and heard what happened, and was extremely sorry, and did I want her to come over? (I didn’t, because as much as I liked Katrina, it would become about her guilt, and my head ached even at the prospect of it.)

There was a part of me, I’m ashamed to admit, that wanted to be fussed over. I scrolled through the first ten chats on my WhatsApp and texted a few people.

No one messaged back. A sense of dejection crept in, but, I reasoned, they were probably still at work. I went a bit further down the list and messaged the next five. My friend Anthony, who had rallied from his failed engagement and now had a baby with a wonderful woman he’d met on Tinder of all places. And Amy, the only lasting friend I’d made through my most recent ex. I hovered uncertainly over Ranvir’s name and decided not to text her.

Waiting for them to reply was agony. I closed the laptop and went back to watching The Matchmaker. I’d got as far as two people being introduced via a woman who looked like an unhappy raisin, with a sour expression, like she was chewing on tamarind. When I couldn’t bear it any longer, I flipped the lid to see a constellation of blue ticks, but only a couple of replies. Anthony said OMG! And that he hoped I was okay, and his daughter Elliot was a handful. My brunch friends said let me know if you need anything and wow you’re so lucky you weren’t hurt.

I realised that most of these people had no intention of prolonging the exchange. There was no way they’d pass up on bath-time or work calls or dinner dates, to come all the way to Battersea. These were stock phrases that once might have rung true, but the older I got, the less certain I was that anyone really meant what they said. My laptop pinged with a message from my mother.

Mum: Bel, you haven’t texted your father in ages. He is worried.

In Case Of Emergency is published with Century, Penguin Random House and is out now.