Today I had what I hope is a benign lesion removed from my leg. As a result I have a couple of stitches, and have to refrain from my usual exercise regime. As surgical procedures go, undoubtedly about as mild as they come. That didn’t stop me entering the doctor’s surgery with some trepidation partly as I’m but a scintilla away from hypochondria anyway, and also because I’ve managed to reach my existing advanced years without ever having been brought into intimate contact with a scalpel and there is always some nervousness associated with doing anything for the first time. I was told that I shouldn’t drive, so I came in a taxi. And then hung about for 15 minutes in a cold Manchester wind afterwards whilst waiting for another taxi to take me back to work. Excessive caution as it turned out, as I’m pretty sure I could’ve run back if I’d needed to, but there we are. As the local anaesthetic has worn off so of course the discomfort has begun to set in, and despite my immediate after-event bravado, I shall be keeping to the “no-sports” ban.
As I thought about my current enforced cycling restraint, I remembered that I’d been in the same situation 22 years ago when I’d last had stitches in, as it happens, the very same leg. Those erstwhile stitches had been occasioned by a very different set of circumstances. In 1988 I decided to cycle from London to Cannes, and in preparation was embarking on a series of longish rides in Kent to get my fitness up, and to see if long-distance cycling was for me. On one of these jaunts I was descending at speed down a steep hill, hurtling with exhilarating abandon towards the A25 not far from Sevenoaks. Exhilaration was soon transformed into something a little more trouser-soiling when my front tyre blew out at what must have been not far short of 40mph, and I began unwillingly testing out my right shin and buttock as substitutes for skis. It was one of those strange experiences when everything seems to be happening simultaneously at ferocious speed and leisurely slow-motion. Eventually I came to a stop, and the huge advantage of it being a very quiet road, which had prevented me from inadvertently inspecting the radiator grille of an on-coming vehicle, turned now into a serious liability as I waited, blood dripping freely, for at least 20 minutes before any fellow traveller came along. When one finally did, he took me off to the nearest village of Brasted, and turfed me out by the local doctor’s. This was a Saturday afternoon, so that was of limited help.
And so it was that I began to hitch-hike towards Sevenoaks. I must have cut a pathetic figure, with torn cycling shorts revealing just a little too much right buttock for comfort – mine or that of any unfortunate observer – and blood still forming garish rivulets down my calf. I’d just reached the outskirts of the village, and was wondering how far Sevenoaks was, and whether they had an A&E department, when my Good Samaritan arrived. He stopped, and asked me what had happened. I told him, and asked him if he was going into Sevenoaks, and would he mind awfully taking me to the A&E there. There was a slight problem with that plan, he explained, as there was no A&E department at the local hospital. And anyway, where was my bike? I’d left it securely locked in a field, I assured him, so that was the least of my worries.
“How far have you come?”
“Er, well, from Wandsworth!”
Wandsworth was a good 25 miles away.
“Look, I know the best thing to do. We’ll go back to the scene of the accident, collect your bike, shove it in the back of the car, and then I can take you to your local A&E.”
“What?! But that’s miles from here! I can’t possibly expect you do do all that. No, please just take me to the nearest A&E, and I’ll sort something out from there.”
“I’ll do no such thing, and you’re hardly in a position to argue, are you? Get in, and shut up!”
He took me to collect the bike. He drove me to my flat to deposit it. He took me to the local hospital. He waited there for 3 hours whilst I was stitched up and cleaned up. And then he took me back to my flat. And with a cheery, “My wife may be wondering what’s happened to me!” (this was long before mobile phones were commonplace) he was gone. I never even found out his name other than his first, and he’d waved away my proffered petrol money with something not far from disdain.
I’ve never forgotten this man’s extraordinary kindness, and my spectacular luck in meeting him in my hour of need. And there was another lesson for me in this remarkable episode. Back in those days I was a fiery lefty – some say that I’ve not really changed – and this was the zenith of Thatcherism, still fresh from her Falklands adventure, and if there was one thing more likely than another to stimulate me into mouth-frothing diatribe it was anything to do with the military. One of the foolishnesses of youth is the tendency to categorise people into one-dimensional goodies or baddies. So for me soldiers were simply bad people who’d chosen a career that enabled them to kill their fellow human beings. So they must be heartless, callous psychopaths. I did find out one thing about my Good Samaritan. He was a serving marine and a Falklands veteran. And if I’m honest, that affront to my naive and simplistic attitude has done me more good than having my leg stitched. It’s certainly lasted longer.