Saturday, 26 July 2014

Posh crutches.

In 2003, I had double knee surgery. For those of a squeamish disposition, I promise I won’t go into lurid details but suffice to say, for keyhole surgery, it was fairly invasive. There were ligaments cut, knee caps re-aligned, a lot of scraping, a bit of sanding, bone fragment extraction and then a pretty intense recovery period. Two weeks flat on my back unable to walk, and then 8 weeks of crutches and physio.

The reason both my knees were operated on together, rather than one at a time, was simply because my private health insurance was about to run out. The company where I worked was being sold, so I had to have both knees operated on within that time, therefore, I had no good leg to stand on! Don’t get me wrong, the NHS can do no wrong in my eyes, and I have probably used their amazing services more than my fair share, but when time isn’t on your side, and you do have the insurance or very deep pockets, then having procedures done privately is sometimes the way to go. The NHS waiting list for surgery, of any kind (unless it’s a life or death situation), usually starts at about 3 months. Privately, you may have your initial consultation with the surgeon, follow-up appointments, pre-op assessment and surgery, all within a few weeks. So luckily, I managed to get into the Lister Hospital in Chelsea, for double knee surgery, within 18 days.

The Lister Hospital is a beautiful red brick building, built in the late 1800’s, on the banks of the Thames. It has incredible views over both the river and Battersea park and when I first saw my room, I was utterly gobsmacked. It was, in fact, a 3-room corner suite, consisting of bedroom, sitting room and en-suite bathroom, with large windows on both sides, looking straight down the river and beyond. All the staff told me it was their favourite room in the building and how lucky I was to have it, so I was quite sad to learn that I would only be there for a few days. My Mother, however, undeterred by my short stay, took full advantage of the beautiful sunny room, its stunning location and its facilities, as I was soon to find out. Even thought I was unable to eat or drink before my operation, it did nothing to stop my Mother from making full use of the 5-star service. She quickly found herself on first name terms with all the nurses and found them all very obliging when she needed a cup of coffee, a sandwich, or the like. When I returned to my room post-op, groggy, dry-mouthed and in desperate need of food and liquids, I found my Mother having tea, in the sitting room, with my Godmother. The sun streamed through the window onto the china-laden coffee table, and in my slightly sedated state, the vision before me looked more like high tea at the Ritz, rather than a cuppa in a lowly hospital room. I honestly think my Mother would have preferred me to stay there a little longer as she was quite enjoying entertaining her friends at such a prestigious address. However, reality hit, and we were out of there and back home to Hampshire for my recuperation. 

As well as a very successful surgery and a fine stay in a leading hospital, the Lister did leave me with another gift… a rather fine pair of state-of-the-art crutches. Now, I imagine you are all thinking, what on earth was so special about these crutches, they surely are all the same, aren’t they? No, no, no, lovely people, for there are bog standard crutches out there, and then there are special, magic crutches, and these were those. NHS crutches are grey affairs, heavy and rickety, with hard plastic handles. Private health insurance crutches are blue, lightweight, with soft ergonomic hand grips and thicker squoodgier rubber stoppers on the ends, that make hobbling around sooo much easier. And it wasn’t just me that noticed the difference… people commented on them everywhere I went! Oooh, like your crutches! is not something that you normally hear every day. I found it quite incredible that a simple pair of crutches could be the basis for so many conversations with strangers. I also found them in great demand from friends and family, over the years. In fact, in the last 10 years, I have leant them to 7 different people.

Two friends sprained their ankles and borrowed the crutches for a few weeks each; I also leant them to a work colleague who broke his leg whilst skiing; Another work colleague had similar knee surgery to mine and borrowed them for a couple of months; A broken toe also required a friend to accept them on loan; My father, too, found them very useful after his hip surgery last year; And finally, one of my best friends borrowed them after a terrible bike accident in which he’d badly broken two femurs. I am also about to have knee surgery for the second time (I like to call it a patella facelift), and so will be in need of them once again. Booo. But these simple blue sticks have come in very handy for a lot of my friends and family, and it is such a shame that the NHS can’t work out some sort of lending or rental scheme to their patients, because they do make such a difference. 

The recent recipient of my lovely blue crutches took matters into his own hands one night, in regards to charitable lending. A group of us were in town for dinner and drinks, and we’d been milling around outside before being called in for dinner. My friend (now only using the one crutch), had limped inside about 5 minutes after us and, immediately, I noticed something was a little odd. My one, slightly scratched and well-used blue crutch, was now a terribly scratched, and very well-used grey crutch. I tried to comprehend this bizarre magic trick and was sitting there open-mouthed, when my friend told me he had generously given my crutch to a homeless man with cerebral palsy, and taken the man’s grey NHS crutch in return. A very noble and selfless act, I hear you say. Of course it was, and I’m sure I would have thought it far more noble a gesture, if it had been his own crutches he had given away, and not mine. However, to make this long tale (something my friends and I have referred to as crutch-gate), short, I will simply tell you that my poor old battered crutches, a friend to many, had to be replaced fairly pronto, so that I would have them for my upcoming surgery. 

My brand new blue crutches are pretty much exactly the same as the old ones, save for a few minor design tweaks… it has been 10 years after all, so the designer must have though, eh up, these could do with an upgrade. The crutches are now offered in an array of rainbow colours although I stayed with blue. They are more lightweight, and the soft-grip handles are now spongier with a textured surface to prevent slippage. They have even thicker stoppers on the bottom so it almost feels as if they are spring-loaded. And, the piece de resistance, is an added red reflector on the back of each stick. I can only assume this is for when you are walking down the middle of a unlit road in the middle of the night, and as a car heads for you, they see two glowing orbs ahead of them. The same height as a pair of wolf eyes perhaps. If I saw that, I would swerve off the road!! Why on earth do you need red reflector lights on a pair of crutches? Just odd. But, apart from that absurdity, they really are quite something… and so were the thoughts of the people in my office yesterday, when they arrived as a special delivery. 

I am working in a German design studio in south London. It is fairly strict about time-keeping, lunch breaks and office etiquette. Freelance designers are there to work, and work only. I was slightly worried, therefore, that a large box being delivered to a freelancer, might not be all right, so I went downstairs and whispered to the girl by the main door, that I was expecting a delivery of crutches, and could she keep and eye out, and then quietly come and tell me. Now 99% of the people in the office speak perfect English. Unfortunately, I had chosen to talk to the one percent who had very little comprehension of the English language. When I said the word crutch, she immediately looked down at my groin area. No, I said, balling my fists, pretending to lean and limp, ‘Crutch-es, as in the things you walk on when you’ve hurt yourself’. ‘Crotch is… ?’ she repeated in a heavy German accent, frowning. Oh God. I managed to convey that I was to receive a delivery and to come and get me, and she nodded and smiled, seeming to understand. A few hours later, up she came, carrying a huge long box and not so subtlety, and not so quietly said, ‘I think this is your crotch’. Everyone turned around, of course. So, I then had to explain to the entire studio that they were a pair of crutches and why I needed them etc etc. The girl was still looking puzzled, so I tore off the sticky tape and pulled out the crutches, as way of explanation, but it just went from confused to hilarious. When crutches are delivered, they are compacted to the lowest height and arm length, to save on packaging, so when I pulled them out of the box, they looked like they were set up for a 4 foot dwarf! Teeny tiny crutches. The girl just blinked and looked at them. She must have thought they were crutches for my crotch!!! I can see why she was confused, bless her.

So then I had to take the crutches home. Abandoning the packaging, I was now carrying them loose, on public transport. This, in itself, confuses people. They see crutches, they think you need crutches, therefore you must be in need of a seat. It’s embarrassing. If you say yes to the seat and nod and thank them, you then need to pretend to limp or make facial expressions to show you are in pain, to justify the offer. But in doing this, you are a fraud and karma will come back and bite you on the arse one day. If you refuse the seat, saying, ‘Oh no, it’s fine, I’m just carrying them’ (which I did), they think you are a complete weirdo and have taken accessorising to a whole new level. Maybe I should have bought them in a few different colours, and match them to my outfits, then I could properly accessorise.

I’m just relieved I have finally got them home and safe, knowing they will be there for my hobbling in a few weeks time. But please, lovely friends and family, don’t fall off, stumble down or trip over, anything… you can’t borrow them just yet!!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A Deserted Paradise.

I’m slightly reluctant to tell you where I went a week ago. I can tell you there were deserted beaches of white sand, high dunes and clear cool aqua water; I can also tell you there were palm and Cyprus trees, bent slightly from gentle coastal winds; I can share with you a place that is difficult to reach but worth the six hours of travel from London; an undulating land of friendly, welcoming and generous people, speaking an ancient language; a land of green valleys, poets, castles and pubs that evoke a childhood nostalgia to simpler happier times. On our first day, my friend and I lay on the hot sand of a beach backed by lush green trees, only five minutes from the house we were staying in, and we snorkelled and swam, we ate sandwiches and licked ice creams, we laughed and watched dogs chase each other as they jumped in the waves, we read books and picked up pebbles, and we both thought... My god, Wales is lovely.

Yup, you can take your 9-hour flights and you can gently put them somewhere where even a tropical sunset can’t reach because I am converted. I pledge allegiance to the stay-at-home holiday.

I have always been a fan of our amazing British coast. I have talked before of wonderful trips to Devon, Cornwall and Dorset; of the north-east’s stunning Northumberland coastline, the Isle of Wight and the outer Hebrides. I spent many family holidays in these places growing up, so they are familiar and comforting. A cold damp croft in North Uist with an outside loo and a freezing loch to swim in, doesn’t say ‘luxury’, but it is one of my happiest holiday memories. It also, of course, depends greatly on who you spend these holidays with. Family friends and best friends can turn disastrous accommodation and weather into hilarious adventures. It’s who you’re with, that make the memories warm.

Every year, for the last 12 years, I have spent a week in June with my best friend Dave. We usually stay in my families’ house in the Lake District. It’s not coastal but it does overlook one of the prettiest lakes in the area, so there is still water involved. We are both in love with this house. We have had family holidays here for as long as we can remember and I have mentioned it quite often, as a place of reunions and family gatherings, in previous blogs. This year, however, the house was booked and so we had to think of alternatives. My family and I had been to a friend’s house in Pembrokeshire, twice before. Each time it bucketed down with rain and the beautiful Welsh coastline was blurred into a haze of blue and green, but we always bundled ourselves up in layers of waterproofs and headed out regardless. Last September, however, we went there for my Father’s birthday. On the day of his celebration we headed to the beach, and it stayed dry. Hallelujah. It was glorious. For the first time, I could see how Wales might be an absolutely stunning summer holiday destination, if only it would stop bloody raining. So, with the memory of one fine day in September, locked in my head, I decided to take the risk and book it for Dave and my annual June jaunt.

For 5 and a half days the weather was perfect. The sun shone high and bright in a bold blue sky. The light and heat turned the sand white and fluffy, and made the water seem like a snapshot from the Mediterranean. We couldn’t contain our excitement. We smiled, and oohed and aahed with breathless excitement every time we came across yet another deserted cove or tidal river, having driven through high-sided grassy lanes, following fine lines on the well-used ordinance survey map (excellent map reading by the way Dave!). And even though we still would have had an amazing time if the rain had come and the wind had blown, we were very glad it didn’t.

We have had weeks and weeks of rainy holidays over the years. It doesn’t dampen our spirits, it just changes the dynamic. The jigsaw puzzles come out, the comfort food is cooked, DVD’s are watched and red wine is consumed. But when the sun is out, the BBQ appears instead; blackened chicken and sausages are eaten, salads are made, white wine and cider with ice (don’t judge me!) are drunk; flip flops replace sturdy walking boots, and the wind is gentle and salt-laced as it blows around your ankles rather than trying to sweep you off a mountain top!! We drove to calm bobbing-boated inlets and ate fresh crab sandwiches; we visited pubs in remote villages and the staff actually seemed pleased to see us and chatted and laughed (remember I’m used to surly London bar and restaurant staff); we went to galleries and castles and people would recommend other places to go; swimming and snorkelling replaced damp mountain walks, and long al fresco picnics in small sandy coves, replaced harried soggy sandwiches under a rain-sodden hood.

I do understand why millions of Brits go abroad for their summer holidays. They want guaranteed weather. They want to know, for a fact, they can get away with packing only a few bikinis, a kaftan, a pair of shorts and some sandals, and not get caught out. The amount of luggage you have to take for a holiday in the UK, just in case the weather is unpredictable (always), fills an entire car. Before I had Gigi, aka the Golden Goddess, aka my gold car that resembles an 80’s minicab, I had to travel by train. It was a nightmare. Imagine carrying everything in one suitcase, for all opportunities. Packing for a temperature range of 20º to 90º is tricky. Thinking of every meteorological eventuality is a massive challenge. Then add towels and linen to that (if you are in a rented cottage), books (yes, real books… I’m still not Kindle-kind!), toiletries and everything else you want for a comfortable break away and you utterly exhausted before you even get on holiday.

So, you have to be flexible, you have to be willing to take the chance. And when you do, and if the weather Gods are kind, you will not regret staying home and exploring our wonderful country. The Pembrokeshire coastline is truly stunning but I urge you not to all go at once, and please don’t tell your friends, we don’t want to ruin it!