Monday, 15 February 2016

Freelance nomad.

My new physiotherapist frowned at me as I hobbled towards him. “Walk normally!” he said impatiently. I took a deep breath and began again, concentrating on every step, trying desperately to remember what ‘normal’ felt like. “And stop limping Juliet!” he added unhelpfully. “I’m try-ing,” I said, my voice adopting the tone of a petulant teenager. He made a growling noise and came to stand behind me, placed his left hand firmly on my hip and pushed down. “Now walk,” he said, “Don’t raise your hip, bend your knee and walk through the pain.” I could have slapped him.

This is the nature of the physio/patient relationship. They push you beyond what you think is possible, they shout and get impatient with you, they bend you into improbable positions and cause you eye-watering pain... but they also encourage you, praise you when you do well, and inevitably fix you, so you end up forever in their debt for the torture you’ve had to endure. Dave is my new physiotherapist. Dave is ex-army. He has a wicked sense of humour, is hard as nails but can make you feel as if you’ve won gold at the Olympics when you do something right. This hip walking exercise worked, even though my parents found it rather amusing that I walked around the house for the next week, with my hand on my hip, looking like a 18th century dandy.

The other exercise he gave me – which he stressed was the single best thing for my recovery – was to channel my inner male. He explained that men are programmed to show off what they’ve got to attract a female, so they naturally stand with their feet slightly turned out, their bottoms pulled in and their pelvises thrust forward. From a muscular point of view, this position contracts the inner knee muscles (the VMO’s) which keep the kneecap correctly aligned and it tightens the glutes which strengthen your core, all of which are essential for post-surgery knee recovery. Women on the other hand, have a tendency to stand with their knees and legs together in order to protect their ‘lady-bits’ (his word) from over-ardent males. O-kay. Dave demonstrated this by standing opposite me and enthusiastically thrusting his hips back and forth, “In fact, the best thing to do is pretend you are Lord Flashheart from Blackadder!” he said, “Imagine you have a giant codpiece!” I heard the physiotherapist from the adjacent room snigger and I sighed loudly. “Do you remember what Flashheart said Juliet?” I did, but I was willing him not to say it. Dave thrust again and said, “Woof! Am I pleased to see you or did I just put a canoe in my pocket?” And that was Dave. Just to reassure you, I only perform this exercise in the privacy of my own home, or rather my parents’ home, who again, find Dave’s physio techniques much more entertaining than traditional methods!

Dave has managed to get me off crutches in only 4 weeks. I still walk with a hand on my hip and I still stand like a virile male when no one is looking, but I am walking fairly normally and that feels miraculous. The next step is to build my muscle strength with more intense physio, massage and cycling. I know full recovery is a long way off, but I feel so positive that I have already begun planning trips abroad and visits to friends and family around the country. I have also started working again. Hurrah.

Before I left London and before my knee surgery, I tried to get as much freelance work as possible, in both Bath and Bristol, so that the studios already knew me before I moved down to the West Country for good. This was invaluable because when the call went out that I was ready to return to work, four weeks ago, I wasn’t a stranger. I got booked at a gorgeous studio in Bristol for 2 weeks and immediately rang up the people I had stayed with before, to see if they had a room free. As well as finding studios to work in, you see, I also had to find places to stay. My plan was to recuperate at my Mother and Father’s for the first 2 months, and as soon as I was mobile I would stay in B&B’s, Airbnb’s, Pubs, Inns and Lodgings, near to where I was working. My parents had very generously said I could use their house as base until I got enough funds to move out, which would not only save money on petrol and time spent commuting, but also give me the chance to familiarise myself with different areas of two lovely cities and the surrounding countryside. And so the freelance nomad lifestyle began. During the week I would stay near to where I worked, and at weekends I would return to my parents or visit friends.

My first lodgings were with a family in Bristol. They live in a beautiful 5-bedroom Georgian house and rent out their spare room, not for the money (which is a pittance) but in order to broaden their daughter’s minds! Haha. Both parents are surgeons, you see, and according to their 11 and 13-year-old daughters they only ever brought boring doctor friends home for dinner, so a few years ago they decided to put an ad on BBC Bristol’s noticeboard, offering accommodation to creatives. They thought the girls would enjoy having artistic people around and they would enjoy conversations about things that weren’t medical! My friend at the BBC put me in touch with them and so began a beautiful relationship. I have stayed there half a dozen times already and absolutely adore them. The girls are confident, curious, funny and sweet; the parents are brilliant, warm, welcoming and kind. They are fast becoming friends rather than landlords and I end up spending more time in the huge basement kitchen, chatting away, rather than upstairs in the 3rd floor bedroom! I must admit, this is no ordinary set up. I have a huge bedroom with floor to ceiling window overlooking Bristol, my own bathroom with monsoon shower and giant jacuzzi bath and an oversized King bed that would fit my whole family! Spoilt? Yes.

My second place of residence, two weeks ago, was in an old 17th Century farmhouse, a mile from the village of Mells, where I was working for a studio in a gorgeous converted barn. The directions to find the farm, however, covered an entire side of A4 paper and blatantly requested me not to use my satnav or google maps because I would end up in the quarry! Satnav, as if! So I made my way there after work, the first day. What hadn’t been explained in the directions were the numerous farm gates I had to open and close in the pitch black, whilst avoiding foot-deep potholes, gargantuan granite boulders and wandering sheep. I always forget how dark it is in the countryside after living in forever-amber London, and had no torch apart from the faint glow of my iPhone. My headlights were just as useless, so each time I approached a new gate, I would emit a load groan, followed by a 5 minute fight with chains, padlocks and ropes. The shitty weather just added to my misery. America’s East coast storms had finally reached our shores and were now battering our tiny island, and me, to a pulp. By the time I reached the farm’s front door, 20 minutes after leaving the main road, I was covered from head to toe in mud-splattered leaves and other unidentifiable vegetation, my hair was stuck to my face in rather unattractive clumps, my cheeks were ruddy and my eyes were bloodshot... I basically looked like I’d escaped an asylum.

My hostess didn’t seem at all phased by this grinning, dripping monstrous thing on her doorstep, and opened the door wide, kissed me on both cheeks, and beckoned me in. Her sheepdog Nilla, walked by my side as she led me through the house. Big open fires roared in the kitchen and sitting room as I followed her in an exhausted daze, down long hallways and up creaking stairs, to the attic room where I was to sleep for the next 3 days. I was the only guest so had the whole of the top floor to myself; an enormous beamed room with windows overlooking stunning green hills and valleys (which I only saw the next morning), a sofa, two armchairs, an old fashioned dressing table laden with silver trinkets, and an en-suite bathroom with one of the longest and deepest baths I have ever seen. The Bristol house has the biggest bath, but this had the longest. I immediately ran it, got in it and lay underwater, fully stretched out with neither my head or toes touching the ends... it was brilliant. I slept like a log, woke to brilliant sunshine and went downstairs to have breakfast. The table was in the ‘morning room’ and laid for a Queen! Silver everything, white starched linen napkins, 6 homemade jams and marmalades, 2 homemade chutneys and a ketchup, crystal bowls full of peaches, prunes and plums (again home-preserved), and thick creamy yogurt (yup homemade). It was frankly ridiculous. I was overwhelmed and slightly embarrassed when I told my divine hostess that all I would really like was a poached egg on toast. She looked utterly crestfallen and completely ignored my request, heaping my plate with additional sausages, mushrooms, bacon, tomatoes and, of course, more toast. I had to sit there and eat the lot... it would have been rude not to! I then visited her beautiful and very affectionate chestnut horse, Geekee, and got my neck nuzzled for the next 10 minutes. Guests are allowed to ride him for free and if I had owned my own horse, it would have cost only £10 a night for stable fees. Good to know. If it wasn’t for my damn knee not bending to a full 90ยบ, I would have been up and off for a canter in a flash too! Next time. I drove to work and got a text about an hour later, asking if I would like a fire that evening? Ooh yes please, I wrote back. I returned that night to a blazing fire, a table full of magazines and a pot of tea. Honestly, at this point I was thinking of asking if she wanted a housemate. The sheepdog Nilla was also very entertaining. I sat on a low chair by the fire and noticed her sitting on the threshold of the room, whining and straining. I cajoled, I whistled, I patted my knees but nothing would entice her to come into the room. My hostess looked on amused and then said, “Nilla will only enter a room if she has been formally invited.” No way! So I looked at her, and said in a deep serious voice, “Nilla, would you please come in the room and sit next to me.” And she did.

My third mode of accommodation was a B&B in Bath, last week. Now I knew my luck had to run out eventually... unfortunately it was here. Actually the B&B itself I couldn’t fault. The owners were delightful, the bedroom huge, the bathroom fantastic, and a great location. It was the other guests that were the problem, primarily one particular couple who were staying in the room next to me. They seemed oblivious to the fact they were not actually staying in their own home. They had no idea how to behave, were utterly void of common courtesy, were insomniacs, and to top it off, had the most annoying laughs in history. I knew all this because I was able to hear every single fart and giggle through the bedroom wall! I don’t give a hoot what people do before 11pm, but after 11pm (on a week night) it’s an unwritten rule (isn’t it?), that you quieten things down a little. But oh no, my neighbours from hell decided to cavort loudly, starting at 11:15pm, and in order to cover up their cavorting noises, they turned up the TV. The tinned laughter from their chosen comedy programme accompanied their hideous laughs – the husband’s a staccato Elvis, “Huh, huh, huh!”, and the wife’s a high-pitched Hyena – with awful synchronicity. Then suddenly the laughter stopped and a hair dryer was switched on. If I keep telling myself it was definitely a hairdryer, it will be ok. At 12:30am, with gritted teeth, I knocked tentatively on the adjoining wall and said, “Could you keep it down a bit please?” Muffled voices, then quiet. Ahhh. 30 seconds later, a coughing fit, more giggles, cupboards banging, the kettle being boiled, the electric whine of the power shower (twice), loo flushing (twice), cleaning of teeth (twice), gargling (once... interesting!), and then, yes, you guessed it, the loudest snoring ever. Elvis and his hyena both snored! And yes, I was wearing earplugs!

I was woken at 6am by my neighbours lengthy and thunderous ablutions. For God’s sake. I had had barely 5 hours sleep and looked and felt hideous. I swore loudly and for some minutes, got showered and dressed, and stumbled downstairs to breakfast. The B&B owner looked at me, then did a double take, grimaced and said sheepishly, “Sleep well?”. I just pointed to my face and scowled. He then told me the previous occupants of my room had also complained about the neighbours and he would have another word with them. He was terribly sorry and breakfast would be on the house. Um, but wasn’t this a B&B? Surely the name itself pointed towards the obvious, that breakfast was included? Not in this establishment it seemed! Breakfast was an extra £8! And I wish I could have done it justice... but I was so tired I could only manage a piece of toast and 4 cups of black coffee. Work, thank god, went well. I might have drunk a bit more coffee than would be recommended to a normal person in one day, but it got me through, albeit with slight shakes and an eye twitch.

I got back to the B&B and my groundhog night began again. Same exact noises, same timeframe, although by now my patience and gentle nature (ha) had completely evaporated, and so I knocked on their door at midnight, and said, “Please keep it down, this is the second night you have kept us up, and we really need the sleep. Thank you”. Immediate silence. It’s quite a good trick for single travellers actually, because as soon as you add the words “Us and “We”, instead of “I”, people’s imaginations go into overdrive. They suddenly wonder who you might be with? Could it be a big burly fellow lying in bed, clinging to a baseball bat, just waiting for his chance to have a go? Well, whatever they thought, it did the trick, and from then on there was not a peep. Not a peep until 5am the next morning! Noooo. The B&B owner apologised again when I went downstairs – looking like I’d just come off a long haul flight from the middle east – and cheerily said, “You’ll be fine tonight, they check out today.” Joy. He then added with a grin, “Oh if I don’t see you again, would you mind leaving us a review on Tripadviser?” I gave him one of my looks. “I honestly don’t think you’d want me to,” I replied.

This week, I have lined up an Airbnb in Frome, which is run by two artists and their dog. Well, obviously the dog doesn’t run the place, that’s just the way it’s worded. Unless it’s a relative of the very clever sheepdog Nilla, of course, then nothing would surprise me.