Adventures on less than two legs

Apologies for the radio silence from the Emu blog. Like most people, I’ve had a rubbish 2020, followed by a rubbish 2021 and I’m not sure that sharing any of that is going to be of any help to anyone.

However, what I have noticed over the last 18 months or so, is that everyone has been able to derive some sort of enjoyment from other people’s misfortunes. So here’s a blog about misfortune, disaster, stupidity, weird cows and stagnant water for you all to enjoy. Here goes:

Like many other people with time on their hands during lockdown, I decided that I was going to do something exciting once I was allowed to be properly outside again. What I had in mind was a really long run over quite a few days. I’d been talking about this for a while with Mrs E, who approved of the project on condition that a) I didn’t do anything stupid or injuring and b) it didn’t cost too much money. So b) put the idea of running between luxurious B&Bs across the country into the long grass, and I started planning a more spartan event, involving a small tent. I started training properly, and planning routes between campsites, which were beginning to open up in May. And, most excitingly, started ordering all manner of ultra lightweight equipment. As each piece of lightweight gear arrived, I unpacked it, held it gently in my hand, and marvelled at its delicate being. It didn’t strike me until much later that combining lots of lightweight gear in one place would make for something that was actually quite heavy, and that may well count as my first school boy error.

I planned a route over six days, which roughly covered the perimeter of Norfolk, on long distant paths. By the start of July I had all of the routes downloaded, all of the kit bought and paid for and all of the campsites booked. By the start of July I was ready to go – I tried out the tent, albeit in the living room with unwilling volunteers pretending to be tent pegs, because it was raining, and it seemed to work. I could even just about sit up in it. On the 2nd July it had just about stopped raining, and at first light I was ready to go, just managing the time so that I could bring Mrs E her morning cup of tea. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she looked me up and down; the first time she’d seen me in my new lightweight gear.

“Those trousers are ridiculous”, she said, instantly putting me at my ease before my big expedition.
“They look like the sort of thing that Lionel Blair would wear. And they woke me up.”

To be fair, they were a bit ridiculous. Alongside an elasticated waistband that was straight out of the Damart catalogue, they also boasted a roomy nylon fit with long side zips to allow for speedy changing without shoe removal. This was the first time they’d been worn, and she was right, they really did make quite a noise, a sort of shushing, swishing noise that I could only avoid if I walked like John Wayne. I wasn’t really sure about the Lionel Blair reference. Somewhere on the internet there is video evidence of our band playing on TV with Lionel Blair introducing us, and dancing along as we played. I suspect it was more memorable to us than to him, but I have no recollection of him wearing noisy lightweight running trousers. Anyway, armed with this peculiar insight into my wife’s waking thoughts, off I went.

I hopped noisily onto a train to Cromer about half an hour later, with my lightweight/heavyweight bag on my back. Got to Cromer, walked down to the sea, removed the Lionels and started to run, keeping the sea on my left. The plan was to get nearly to Caister-on-Sea, then turn inland to Martham, and then on to Clippesby, where a pitch with my name on it would give me a well earned night’s rest.

Day One was relatively uneventful. Even by keeping the sea on my left I managed to get slightly lost, and had to circumnavigate Bacton power station, which I can report is a good size bigger than it looks on the map. And as I was on the the Norfolk coastal path, unsurprisingly a lot of the running was on sand, so quite a bit of this soon turned to walking. No matter though, and 29 miles later I jogged into the campsite, bought an ice cream from the reception area, found my pitch and (you’ll have to forgive me here, cos I’m new to this camping parlance) ‘set camp’. The campsite even had its own bar, where they were showing Spain vs Switzerland on the TV and serving food. So, one veggie burger, a caramel slice, three pints of Guinness and one penalty shoot out later, I staggered back to my very small tent, and negotiated with my sleeping bag and inflatable mat. The three pints of Guinness were probably my second schoolboy error, as exiting your way out of sleeping bag and very small tent several times during the night is not to be recommended, particularly if your legs are complaining about a long run the day before.

Refreshingly though, I found that I could move fairly freely in the morning, and I’d (apparently) ‘broken camp’ well before my fellow campers had changed out of their jim-jams.

Day Two involved getting onto the Wherryman’s Way, which runs between Great Yarmouth and Norwich – I was going to follow this to Loddon, then pick up the Angles Way, which by the end of day three would land me somewhere around Thetford. I’d decided that today was going to be more walk than run, so had slipped into my Lionels, and made my way noisily out of the campsite, no doubt waking many of the other campers as I shuffled past.

“Did you hear that noise, Brian? Fair woke me up. Any idea what it was?”

“No idea. But it sounded strangely like….well, Lionel Blair, going for a walk”

Off I set along the route, when a voice in my headphones advised me to turn left onto the hiking path. I mentally made a note to write a charming letter to the navigation software company when I finished, as without their help I’d have completely missed the small gap in the hedge which led onto a narrow path.

A few minutes later, and I’d redrafted my note a couple of times, as the path gave way to a jungle of nettles, thistles and reeds which I had to negotiate like an Amazon explorer. Each time I got to a clearing I checked my tedious progress on my phone, and I was still on track – river to my left, field to the right, so there was nothing for it but to press on. In actual fact there was a very clear alternative, which was to turn round, go back to the road and to stop entrusting my well-being with a silly black line on my phone, but for some reason I wasn’t thinking of that as an option. And while I wasn’t thinking of that, a very loud bark was barked from across the field. The weeds and grass were up to my shoulders at this point, so I wasn’t able to see anything that was in there. I’m not by nature a fatalist, but I have read the legend of the Bungay Black Shuck, and I was headed in that general direction. I hoped that me shouting ‘Sod Off!’ very loudly would do the trick. It didn’t, and I was replied with a louder, more menacing, and worryingly closer bark. So I stood as still as I could, like a meerkat, popping my head above the nettles and swivelling around to survey my impending doom….

,oOo.

Meanwhile, about twenty yards away, a frustrated deer put his head above a similar set of nettles, looked in my general direction, barked again, and wandered off. Relieved, I just tried to remember whether deer got particularly aggressive during rutting season, and for that matter, when rutting season actually was. Tentatively I carried on, and finally was rewarded up a climb to a jungle free bank of a field. Checking on my trusty map, I saw that I was still on the hiking path, and off I jogged, with not a care in the world, other than the thought of lunch that no doubt awaited me at some Broadland inn en route.

Crossing the field, I came to a drainage ditch. It was about 3 metres across, and thankfully some kind soul had put a couple of logs across it, and I balanced like a tightrope walker with a bad case of DTs. As I lumped across to the other side, I looked behind me, and saw the log disappear into the stagnant ditch. ‘Ah well’, I thought, ‘no going back now’. It was amongst my more stupid thoughts of the morning.

Along the next field, still no noticeable path anywhere but on my phone, and I got to another drainage ditch. No kind souls placing logs in advance here, and a couple of metres across – too far to jump, even without a ridiculously lightweight/heavyweight pack on my back. What I really needed was some sort of pole, so I could reenact one of those village sports days where they vault across a river. I should confess at this point that I never, for one moment, considered that a ridiculous idea. I found a tree nearby that looked like it had been struck by lightning, and managed to pull off a branch that, to all intents and purposes, looked like something that the Slag brothers from the Wacky Races would carry:

I’m not entirely sure how I managed it, but with a bit of fancy footwork and the help of a muddy island and my caveman club, I managed to get across to the other side without getting my feet wet. Again, the familiar ‘no going back now’ thought rattled around in my head, almost as if it was a good thing.

I strode on purposefully across the next field, still on the path, with a drainage ditch to my left, and still holding my trusty club. I was about halfway across the field when I noticed a cow to my right. And another, and another, and another. In fact, quite a few cows were headed in my direction. I don’t like cows. Never have and never will. They’re gormless, dangerous and the wrong size for their brains. By rights they should be British political leaders, haha. Anyway, several of them were headed in my direction. I tried the tactic that had worked so well with the deer/Black Shuck situation.

“Sod Off!”, I shouted. And to my surprise, they did.

I felt quite pleased with myself, but this was quite a short-lived experience, because as I looked up, I saw many more cattle, all headed in my direction. Clearly the first lot had found my ‘Sod Off!’ so amusing that they’d been to get all of their mates. They were all headed in my direction, and by the time they were a few yards away, I was beginning to panic. I tried ‘Sod Off! and a number of variations on that theme. I tried waving my trusty caveman club around, and over my head. They inched forward, and started to pin me in. Finally I tried.a line that had only previously worked outside a chip shop in Edinburgh, around midnight, about forty years ago, to a drunken charmer who was offering to beat me up.

“I’M NOT FROM ROUND HERE!”

Maybe it was the volume of the voice, the anxious tone, or the combination with the caveman club wave. Or maybe they understood every word, and decided, as did my Edinburgh opponent all those years ago, that if those were the best words that I could offer, then I really was a pathetic specimen that deserved to be left well alone. Whatever it was, they turned on their ridiculously tiny heels and stampeded off in the other direction.

I wandered on towards the edge of the field, still holding onto the club, just in case. Gently stepping on to some reeds, I lost my footing and fell directly into a drainage ditch. By the time the water hit my waist, I’d managed to use up almost all of the swear words I knew, and was cursing on repeat as I threw myself across the reeds to the other side. The bottom half of me was covered in a sludgey mess from the ditch that absolutely stank. As I scrambled up the side of the bank, still cursing, I thought again that at least today’s hike couldn’t get any worse than this point. On reflection, this was a hopelessly optimistic thought. By now, the route had mysteriously disappeared from my phone, as had any mobile signal. So even if I’d wanted to call my wife I’m not entirely sure what I could have asked her to do. My cheery optimism started to peter out.

Seeing an abandoned windmill a few fields away, I decided to head for it, on the logic that there still ought to be some sort of path to it that didn’t necessitate diving gear. I navigated a couple of further ditches semi-successfully, although by now I wasn’t overly worried about getting a bit wet.

.oOo.

I can’t remember the sequence of events that led to the next disaster. One minute I was finding my way towards the edge of a field, looking for a way across the widest ditch I’d seen so far. The next minute, I was in it – I’d fallen through the reeds, I was literally up to my neck in drainage, and my feet weren’t touching anything other than water. The lightweight/heavyweight rucksack was pulling me down, and I wasn’t able to turn around, so I kicked as hard as I could against the reedy bank and launched myself across to the other side. Fortunately I managed to keep my head above the sludge, grabbed onto the reeds on the other side, and hauled myself out. It doesn’t sound too bad written down like that, and it was over very quickly, but I was as scared as I think I’ve ever been in my life. A couple of other thoughts struck me. Firstly, that I’d exhibited astonishing levels of stupidity – if any of my children had been half as idiotic on an adventure as I had in the last couple of hours, then I’d have sounded off at them for being ridiculously irresponsible. And secondly, that if I were to have any say over when I got to meet my maker, then it definitely would not be in a Broadland drainage ditch, dragged out goodness knows when and in goodness knows what condition.

Away from the ditch, I did my best to assess the situation. Mentally, I was now, by a country mile, the most stupid object within a five mile radius. Including the cows. Physically I was tired, and I’d managed to knock my back and left knee so that neither was very keen on any further movement. Stylishly, I had rather lost the edge. My lionels had lost their jaunty swish, and, like all of my clothing was now clinging to me unhelpfully, under a carpet of slime and small-leafed greenery that until recently had been laying peacefully on top of the stagnant ditch. And pungently…well , I was in another place altogether. If every farm animal in the county had shat on me from a great height for 24 hours, I think I would have smelt slightly fresher.

‘Ah well’, I thought, ‘I’m not sure it can get any worse’.

And naturally, it did, but fortunately only for a bit. After climbing up the bank, I found myself in a very large field, fairly close to the windmill. I wandered around the perimeter, peering into the drainage ditches that surrounded it on all four sides. Thankfully there were no cows, but that was probably because, other than airlifting them into position, there was no obvious way to get them onto the field. I considered the situation as best I could. Despite the submerging incident, the waterproof rucksack had lived up to its billing, and everything inside, which included a tent, sleeping bag, two chewy bars and a bottle of water, was all usable. My phone had been in an unzipped pocket but had miraculously not disappeared into the drain – it was complaining of being wet, and was still functional, but without any signal. So things weren’t exactly desperate, but there was still no obvious way to get out of this miserable field.

Walking back around the field again, I noticed that a corner had been fenced off with barbed wire. Behind the wire was lots of reed bedding, which I assumed led to the connection of two drainage ditches. I didn’t have much option but to try it, to see if there was a way of getting across, but I was very nervous about going into an area that was fenced off, given how precarious the unfenced area had been. I said a quick prayer before passing my bag across the barbed wire. Thankfully the bag didn’t sink, and neither did I, as I tiptoed through the reeds. After about twenty yards, I came across a brand new galvanised five bar gate, and beyond that dry land which seemed to lead up to a path. It suddenly struck me that the gate and the barbed wire were there to stop idiots like me going into the field, rather than stopping idiots from getting out, and I fair skipped up the slope, as well as my left leg and lower back would allow.

I realised that I’d managed to get myself onto the Wherryman’s Way. I realised this partly because I knew that the path follows the river Yare, and beyond the path was a huge river. And in the river were the sort of pleasure boats that you only ever see in summer in Norfolk. There were quite a few of them, many piloted by cheery souls in captain’s hats, and they merrily waved at their fellow nature lover standing on the footpath. I waved back, trying to forget that I looked like Stig of the dump, and hoping that they were upwind of me.

I couldn’t run any more because my knee was still complaining. I checked my phone and was delighted to see that I had a signal. So I phoned Mrs E, who was slightly put out to have her Saturday morning dog walk interrupted. I don’t think I’ve ever actually cried down the phone before, but the threat of this must have come through to her, and she said she’d come out to Acle to meet me. Optimistically I asked her to bring a change of clothes and some wet wipes so I could carry on.

I made my way to Acle, found somewhere that sold coffee, and even better let you drink it outside, and waited. Mrs E turned up in a cloud of dust in the car park. She said she had the clothes ready if I wanted to change and carry on, but by then, I was completely fed up and my left leg had given up the ghost. I asked if she could take me home so I could get a shower, lie down, and forget about the last few hours.

On the way home, I asked if she wanted the window open.
“That’s alright”, she said, “you don’t smell too bad. Those bloody trousers were a mistake though”.

My Left Foot (Part Two)

One of my New Year Resolutions, alongside the trusty favourites of losing a stone; writing a song that people would be interesting in listening to; and generally being harder on Jr Emu#3 (a NYR shared by four other members of the family), was to write 12 blogs that people would actually read during 2016.

So far, so not so good, as the score currently stands at: Year Expectations – 4, Emu – 1.

As ever, I’m keen to blame others for my inadequacies, and in this instance, I’m placing part of the responsibility on the ever fragrant Mrs E, who imposed something of a super-injunction on my last draft. I’d spent a reasonable chunk of February preparing what turned out to be a combination of an open letter to Jeremy Hunt, and a love letter to Mrs E, who, as a nurse, is one of his most long standing and long suffering employees. As it turned out, putting the blog in front of her before pressing the ‘publish’ button was definitely the right thing to do, as it received a response along the lines of:

‘There’s no way on this earth that I’m letting you publish that. I’ll lose my job, you twat’

There are few things I really fear in life, but being married to an unemployed nurse who bears me a major grudge would definitely be one of them. Mrs E is already making noises about a third dog to continue her child replacement therapy, and had this episode gone wrong, I could just see her going down the ‘attack-dog’ route.

Anyhow, that was the blog you didn’t get, which was about as negative a read about the NHS as you could experience, and this, by contrast, is the blog that you do get, which, happily, is about the best experience ever, yesterday, also at the hands of the NHS.

For a bit of context, my left foot has been something of a burden to me in my efforts to be a vaguely adequate marathon runner. The big toe, in particular, was hurting like seven shades of hell when I went to my GP at the end of last year – he had a painful poke about and diagnosed an ingrowing toenail. An ingrowing toenail is one of those conditions that you think is way down on the minor list of ailments, but it’s not until you have one that you realise what all the fuss is about. It’s like having a really sensitive part of your foot constantly tattooed by a degenerate biker, so when the doctor said that I needed to have the toenail removed, and that it was a simple procedure, I could have jumped for joy. Obviously I didn’t as I had a fair idea of what landing would feel like, but you get my drift.

‘Can it be done quickly?’ I asked. ‘It’s just that I’m going into a sixteen week training plan, so I need to fit it in with that’

My GP has what I believe is called a ‘lazy eye’, and it’s often quite difficult to tell if he’s staring at you intently or looking up at the ceiling in a a state of disbelief. I like to think that in this instance he was doing both. Anyway, we agreed that I should save the NHS the bother and get booked in for a quick BUPA procedure in February.

Come the great day, and I pitched up for the appointment, had a fairly large needle shoved into my toe, then watched on in awe as the toe was cut open, part of the nailbed removed, and the whole thing cauterised with what looked suspiciously like the last soldering iron I bought in Maplins. (And which, incidentally, brought back some shuddering memories of my vasectomy. The smell of burning flesh will, I think, always remind me of that sunny afternoon in a surgery ten years ago, with my wife and the doctor merrily gossiping on the other side of a green cloth screen. I had naively expected her to hold my hand at the customer end of the transaction, but she mentioned something about ‘professional interest’ and that was the last I saw of her.)

Anyway, I rested up for a few days, got back to running, got the toe nicely infected by doing a twenty miler in the mud in March, got some antibiotics and took ‘constructive feedback’ from various healthcare professionals (see above), and by the start of April, all was reasonably well. Not the prettiest toe you’d ever seen, but vaguely functional.

Then, about a fortnight ago, it started hurting again. Then really hurting. Then ohmygodthatissof’ingpainful hurting. So I went back to the GP, who did the whole intense stare trick again, and sent me off with some antibiotics.

‘This will clear the infection up by the marathon’ he said, filling me with optimism.

I tried a run on Tuesday this week and pretty much had to hop the first couple of miles. It was really, really painful, and probably not that sustainable an approach for the marathon, so the next day it was back to the GP. He looked at me quizzically (I think).

‘I could drill it’, he said, ‘but I’m not sure that’s what it needs’.

Well, if he wasn’t sure, I wasn’t going to encourage him to experiment. So he decided to ‘phone a friend’. He called the podiatry department at a local hospital, told them what he was worried about, and said that this was ‘important, as the patient has to run a marathon on Sunday’. He genuinely said that, not because he necessarily thought it was properly important, but because he knew that it was to me. This was after 5, and whoever he spoke to said they’d have to see if anyone could help, and they’d call him back. They did:

‘Can you do 10 tomorrow morning?’

Yes, I very much could. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but anything was going to be better that the current situation, and so I pitched up at the hospital on time the next day.

And was seen, on time. By two lovely people, who, if they weren’t in the podiatry business, could probably have eked out a living in light entertainment.

Within 2 minutes of me taking my socks off and giving them a brief rundown, they’d agreed on the problem – the nail bed hadn’t been killed off and the nail had grown back, in spikes, back into my toe.

They’d also agreed on a fix.

‘We’ve got two options; either we do the procedure now without an anaesthetic’

<pauses for patient to take this in>

‘Or we do the procedure now with an anaesthetic.’

I don’t think it was the first time that the joke had been told in that room, but I guess that’s ok as long as it’s new to your audience. Which it was. Anyway, we settled on the second option, which involved the familiar big needle being shoved in.

‘This is going to hurt quite a bit. We encourage you to swear’

Yep, it did and I did. And then various bits of jagged nail were poked about, cut off, dragged out, and waved in front of me like fishing trophies. The whole thing was over in a few minutes and pronounced a big success.

‘That should be fine by Sunday, we’ll watch out for you’

Hurrah, I thought, quickly adjusting my race plan.

‘But you’ll need to have the nail bed cut out again.’

Uh-oh, I thought, expecting a three month wait.

‘We’ll do the paperwork now so you don’t need to come back for a consultation, and we’ll send you an appointment for May’

Time to take that uh-oh back then.

I know that all of this doesn’t say anything about the resources and the queues and the beds and the cuts and the overcrowding, and all the other awful things that are happening to the NHS at this time. And I know, that, in the scheme of things, removing an recalcitrant toenail from an otherwise fit bloke primarily so he can indulge himself in a running race doesn’t really stack up against the need for ECG monitors, or decent treatment for Alzheimer patients, or reasonable salaries, or meaningful community care, or any other of the big issues.

But, on the other hand, some really lovely and caring and professional people went out of their way to help me this week. They understood the person they were helping, they stopped the horrible bit from hurting, they could see exactly the problem and the solution, and even told a few jokes to ease the pain. When we shout (and we should) about losing what is dear to us in the dearest of our institutions, we shouldn’t forget that the little things define it as much as the big things. So let’s shout about those as well, ok?

 

PS: Had a bit of a setback on Thursday night as I managed to run over my own left foot while taking the bins out. In my profession, we’d call this user error.