Postcard from Indonesia (1) – Crippled in Bali
There’s nothing like a debilitating injury for reducing oneself to a snivelling shadow of one’s normal good-humoured self.
How, you might ask, did I end up in the beautiful island of Bali, holed up in a hotel, unable to stand up or sit down without excruciating pain?
It all started on the golf course. My wife and I were due to fly to Bali via Hong Kong on Monday evening. Since we would be away for about three weeks, I decided to play a round of golf in the morning – something I do two or three times a week when I’m in the UK. I’ve lost count of the amount of times my inept technique has seriously threatened to drive me insane, but until this week the game has done nothing but good for my physical health.
But this time, catastrophe struck on the thirteenth hole. Well it would be the thirteenth wouldn’t it? I admit that I sometimes fantasise about dropping dead of a heart attack after holing out on the eighteenth for a sub-par round, or maybe after a hole in one, but finding oneself reduced to a gibbering wreck on an ordinary day? Definitely not in the script.
I was bending down to clean my ball on a downslope. Nothing unusual about the movement – I didn’t stretch, do the splits, fall over or adopt an extreme yoga position. As I stood up I felt as if somebody had plunged a knife into the back of my left thigh. I’d never felt anything like this before, not even when at my fortieth birthday party I accidentally opened up the back of my calf on a piece of broken glass and ended up in casualty while everyone else was toasting my health back home. This was seriously painful. I moved forward, thinking that it was just one of those inexplicable aches and pains that afflict the middle aged from time to time. But it got worse. And then worse.
I ended up having to be extracted from the course by someone who rescued me in a cart. I was OK sitting down, so I drove home, but by that time I was unable to straighten up without groaning in agony. I hobbled into the house looking rather like a nineteenth-century agricultural labourer bent double by decades of toil. All I needed was a stick and a long beard.
As I sat whimpering to myself in the most comfortable position I could find, I thought that’s it – no way am I flying tonight. Paradise postponed. Slipped disc, maybe surgery. Physio with a brisk young lady from Latvia perhaps. Weeks of recovery.
I reckoned without my wife.
A nurse in a former life, she has that blend of cruelty and compassion common in her profession (I know it hurts darling, but you have to keep walking!). She’s also a dedicated air miles collector, and thanks to her efforts we were due to fly to Hong Kong first class. No way were we going to cancel our holiday. She took me down to our local National Health Service walk-in centre, and bullied the staff into having a doctor see me within a couple of hours. I looked quite normal as I sat in the waiting room, though a few people looked askance at the golf club I’d brought with me as a makeshift walking stick.
Eventually, a couple of hours before scheduled check-in, I was seen by a young doctor, who prodded my abdomen, poked at my spine and banged my knees to see what was working and what wasn’t. Eventually, after a series of intimate questions (“everything OK down below? Have you managed Number One and Number Two?”), he determined that I had pulled a muscle. No slipped disc, in other words, though it must have been a bloody big muscle. The technical term is sciatica.
It would get better, apparently. My vision of life in a wheelchair faded slightly. With the steely encouragement of my wife, and armed with a battery of painkillers, I shuffled off to get ready for the flight.
The challenge now was to walk through the terminal without anyone noticing that I was probably unfit to fly. At this stage the painkillers had kicked in, which at least enabled me to stand up. Each step, though, felt as though the knife in my leg was twisted afresh. As I slowly made my way towards the lounge, my wife cheerfully suggested that I looked like a cross between Charlie Chaplin as the clown and Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm – feet splayed out, belly forward in an attempt to stand as straight as possible. I can only guess at the impression my contorted face made to the passers-by. Ivan the Terrible maybe, or Frankenstein. Not the kind of guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley.
After a relatively pain-free sojourn in the British Airways lounge, we made it to the plane, only for my wife to discover that she’d left her phone in the lounge. Too late to retrieve it, unfortunately. That rather set the tone for the flight itself. I spent the first few hours counting the minutes until my next pain fix. She fretted about her phone, wondering who at that moment was whispering sweet nothings to his girlfriend in Ulan Bator at her expense. A crisis arose mid-flight when I accidentally took a double dose of the pain medication. My wife was now convinced I would be dead on arrival, and tried to persuade me to visit the loo so that I could violently dispose of the offending medication along with the nice dinner we’d just enjoyed. I refused. I preferred to take my chances with death, which as you can see turned out to be the right decision.
A flat bed seat is pretty useless when turning over feels like you’re on a rack, so I spent the rest of the flight upright in a praying position. Fellow passengers must have thought I was seriously devout, or perhaps afraid of flying, but at least I got some sleep that way.
Things improved a little in Hong Kong. We has an overnight stay in the airport hotel, so not too much walking to get there from the terminal. By now I was getting quite used to my wife doing everything for me. Lifting the luggage, making the coffee, selecting my clothes and helping me into my trousers. A future life of dependency might not be so bad, as long as she grants me custody of the TV remote control.
The next day, no improvement, and a four-hour flight on Cathay Pacific to Bali. The sweet stewardess let us have exit seats, little realising that I would be utterly useless should the need arise to evacuate. But I suppose you forget about pain under those circumstances.
And finally, after a short transfer from the airport, we reached our destination, as the satnav says.
What to say about Bali? After two days, nothing really, because all I’ve seen is a few streets on the way to the hotel. As I write this we’re watching Andy Murray battling Tomas Berdych in the Australian Open tennis. I could do with Andy’s legs right now. My exploration of the surroundings has been limited to a stroll around the hotel gardens, where I was comforted to see a tsunami escape path clearly signposted. Unfortunately I’d probably have to take my chances along with all the other flotsam should a big wave come crashing in.
So what now? Well I’ve noticed a small improvement, though unmediated by the painkillers the leg still elicits groans that would satisfy a torturer every time I stretch the muscle. So no brisk walks through the town are on the cards. The lakes, volcanoes and Hindu temples will have to wait for a while, unless we opt for a series of drive-pasts. Andy Murray trashed Berdych, so we have the final to look forward to. But I’m afraid that a dose of Eat Pray Love self-realisation will be hard to achieve, and for now we’ll just have to content ourselves with the swimming pool, very local eateries and the pleasure of being in a balmy climate as everyone back in England freezes half to death.
But one thing I have realised, and that’s how lucky I’ve been to avoid something like this up to now despite having not the healthiest of lifestyles. Assuming things get back to normal, I’ll never again scoff at the suffering of people with sciatica and back pain. I have felt it and it’s not good.
About my only consolation as I wallow in self-pity is that should things go downhill from here and I end up a shrunken husk in a wheelchair, I can always ask Eddie Redmayne to play me in the movie of my life. You never know, he might be desperate enough by then.
But looking on the bright side, in a few weeks I’ll hopefully be back on the golf course, though I’ll have to promise my wife that I’ll never play again on the day we leave for a holiday. As for the thirteenth hole, I’ll have to figure a way to insure against future mishaps. Perhaps I’ll pay for a defibrillator in its own little hut by the green.
For now though, I’ll have to keep giving a convincing impression of someone on his last legs – or at least his last good leg. Having waited thirty-one years for my wife to pander to my every whim, this at least is as good as it gets.