It had been 40 years since I’d spent a night in hospital - an appendectomy at 18, a couple of months into my first marriage. Travelling in the ambulance this time, it didn’t even look like it would merit an overnight; I hadn’t lost consciousness, there was no broken skin, just a steadily swelling knee. The police had spent only a minute with me and the paramedics seemed unconcerned, until I told them the morphine (“This’ll sort ye out pal”) wasn’t reducing the pain.
Half an hour earlier I’d taken my big blue touring bike out of the garage. Sunny days in the west of Scotland are rare in late September and I thought I’d do a 25 mile route threading through farmland, woods and ponds on very quiet roads.
I was cycling uphill on an easy incline doing about 5mph. I’ve driven, ridden motorbikes and cycled for many years and I’ve built up this vanity about my road sense. I’ve always used the roads, even as a pedestrian, on the basis that every other user will do something stupid very soon. It’s stood me in good stead more than once.
At a junction on my left, a car was waiting to turn right about 15 yards ahead. I did my usual and tried to make eye contact with the driver, only then can you be pretty sure you’ve been noted. He smiled and nodded. I rode on cautiously past the front of his bonnet, conscious there was a space on his inside up which something could come at me. I squinted. A taxi was moving into that space but he was slowing, coming to a stop; he’d seen me. I carried on, he accelerated, ‘“Here goes my faultless road record” I thought as he T-boned my back wheel. A second sooner he’d have got my left leg, and hip.
The impact flipped me off and I landed on my right knee. When I heard myself shouting “Ow! Fuck!” I knew I’d done some damage. I was on my back in the middle of the road. The taxi had come out only about six feet from the junction. Another car was parked, blocking the view of oncoming traffic. I thought there was a fair chance that the line of cars behind could not see me properly and that one might decide to break out and whizz my way so, half-sitting, half lying, I began hauling myself into the side of the road, damaged knee dragging uselessly.
This was the cue for a posse of passers-by to hurry over. Half told me not to move. The other half started trying to grab my head and my leg. “Don’t touch my leg!” They looked upset. “Sorry”, I said, “I’ll be fine, just don’t touch my leg”.
The taxi driver stood over me and I knew I was about to join what bikers call the SMIDSY club. “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you. Sun was in my eyes.” I said nothing. I knew that in accidents you were supposed to keep quiet. Someone rolled up a jacket and put it under my head. The woman in the house over the road brought a blanket. A drunk offered to sort out the driver for me.
Twenty minutes later, as the ambulance pulled up, my phone rang. “Is that Joe? It’s John Cobb here from the Racing Post, I just wanted to talk through a few things in that article you sent us.”
Glory be. As I lay in the gutter, The Racing Post, horseracing’s one and only trade paper calling about a speculative piece I’d sent them the previous week. They wanted it. Fate was taking the piss.
I lay on a trolley in A&E, my leg like marzipan in a bed of red foam and yellow straps. Staff were very good at asking me if the doctor had seen me yet, but hopeless at actually getting a doctor to see me. An hour later they sent me to X-ray. Behind the protective screens I heard the staff trying to lower their sharp intakes of breath. Trundling back along the corridor, the upside-down face of the porter told me “Your leg’s a right mess mate”.
But the doctor thought I’d get home if I could manage to walk on crutches. My first attempt at that left me with a green face, blurred vision, all-over sweat and a heart rate of 19. “Mmm, maybe we should keep you in overnight and I can consult with colleagues in the morning.”
The first of his colleagues that I saw the next day was a mad Austrian - a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Cleese - 6ft 7 and 180lbs of eccentricity. His first words to me were “Your knee is mush”.
A CT scan showed injuries way beyond those revealed by the X-Ray, but I’d have to wait till after surgery to learn the full extent of the damage. For five days I fasted from midnight, hoping for a space in theatre next day. On Monday they wheeled me in. Joanne said she’d be ‘looking after me throughout’ and I felt a VIP-type flush of pride. Niall, a Kevin McCloud lookalike, offered me a spinal injection and the chance to watch their three-hour version of Grand Designs with my knee as the project.
I opted for the spinal: “Are you feeling warmth on your left side yet, Joe?”
“Erm, is it a bit like peeing yourself?”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
I chickened out of watching and they put me into a ‘light sleep’. The surgeon came to see me next morning. “When we opened it, the damage was much more severe than we’d thought”. He used both sets of knuckles to illustrate how the knee had twisted free of ligaments, dipped to ping off a triangle of tibia before grinding like a glacier down the inside of the shin leaving an area of 20cm ‘powdered’.
“ We've used pins and screws and packed it with artificial bone in the hope that it will support a knee replacement. The surfaces remaining are all pitted so it is unlikely you will ever be pain-free and the ligaments might never re-tighten themselves”.
“Thanks Doc”. I know all these consultants are Misters but it seems awkward saying “Thanks Mister”.
I’d planned New York City marathon entries so that I’d be assured of a place in 2013 (a case of three strikes and you’re in). I’d be 60 that August. I crossed it off my bucket list. The long-dreamed-of trip to Everest Base Camp also got edited out of the rest of my life. The physio and her assistant (favourite word/verb ‘pop/to pop’) showed me the technique for negotiating stairs. Once I’d told them about our stairs, their health and safety protocol meant I couldn’t be discharged without passing the ‘stairs negotiation’ test.
Two of my ten brothers collected me in a wheelchair and stood close behind me as I used my newly-acquired stairs negotiation skills to hop to my eyrie, where I will remain for eight weeks, my view of the world coloured by Lucozade, pain-killers and a one-litre pee bottle.
I sleep on the ‘wrong’ side of the bed now as I don’t trust Margy not to kick my sore leg. The drugs help me day-dream of Manhattan and the Himalayas until I reach the blissful border with sleep, at which point I have that little involuntary shiver of pleasure as my muscles close down. But the shiver sets my leg vibrating against the cast and I howl and bite my lip and say ‘fuck’ again.