It’s an old saying, Never Tempt fate, but until about three years ago, I never paid it much heed. It seemed like so much superstition to me.
Until I made a throwaway comment in the centre of Derby and had the comment come true, that is.
Reel back time just over three years; doing some Christmas shopping in Derby in late November, I spotted the Derbyshire Mountain Rescue guys collecting money for funds. Like most such organisations, they rely on public donations and generally people are pretty generous. A friend of ours had once served as a volunteer with them and it gave me a kind of insight into the mindset of the people who do this sort of good work. I chatted for a while, as you do, and then put some money in the tin.
“It’s kind of insurance,” I said as the coins rattled in the slot. “Though I can’t really see myself being rescued from somewhere inaccessible by helicopter. Not really something that is likely with my lifestyle!”
The guy agreed with me I was highly unlikely to need airlifting to safety from the heart of Derby and we laughed and I went on.
Three days later, my comments came back to bite me in the worst way possible.
At this time we lived on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and I used to walk my dog along the River Soar, which feeds into the Trent a few miles further on from where I lived. The river is mostly canalised along there and it’s a favourite holiday route for narrow boats. But in late November with frost on the ground, you see very few people and mostly just dogwalkers like me.
I’d gone a few miles along the river when the pain kicked in. Imagine what it might feel like to have a long knife stuck deep in your guts, suddenly and without much warning. I’d had some bad period pains for a few days before but that had eased off and this was quite different. I realised I really ought to start back, so I turned round and began walking back. The pain had me doubled over a few moments later and I knew I was in trouble. You know how you just know something is serious.
The problem was I was a good four miles away from home at this point and maybe a mile and a half from the nearest accessible road. I was on a tow path less than ten feet wide, and I hadn’t seen a soul all morning. A runner trotted past me and asked if I was OK. At this stage I simply said I was fine; just a reflex I guess, to deny that anything was wrong. I carried on trying to walk, but I kept on doubling over, and before long I was stumbling along, half on my knees and half in a strange crouch that befitted a monster in a B movie. I was crying, without knowing it until I saw the tears dripping down my coat.
I found my mobile phone and tried to ring home, but only got the answering machine. By the time I got to the lock gates I was faced with the inevitable: calling 999 and asking for the emergency services. I really didn’t know what else to do by this point. I’d covered a good half mile more or less on my knees; you can imagine the mess I was in. My poor dog kept trying to comfort me but it didn’t work.
So finally I rang 999 and explained what had happened and what was wrong. When I explained exactly where I was, the operator said blithely, Oh we’ll need to send the helicopter to find you, it doesn’t sound like we can get an ambulance to you there. I was horrified. “You can’t do that,” I said weakly. “I’ll crawl to the road!” I was told not to be silly and to stay where I was.
By this point, I collapsed and lay curled in a tight ball in the semi-frozen mud. I could hardly breathe for the pain and I was feeling very dizzy and afraid. A minute or so went by and I heard the distant whup-whup-whup on a helicopter. It came over head and then swung away. If I hadn’t already been crying, I would have burst into tears. I don’t think very many people(unless they’ve served in the armed forces) would guess what it feels like to hear help fly over and away, because you can’t get up to signal where you are.
My phone rang.
“They can’t see you,” said the 999 operator. “Is there a landmark they can navigate by?”
I opened my eyes again. Something wet dripped onto my face and as my eyes cleared I saw a very odd sight. It took me a moment to figure out what it was: a large wet black nose and mouth that moved in a rhythmic chewing motion. Something nudged me and I managed to raise my head a it.
“Yes,” I said. “Tell the pilot I am surrounded by a herd of cows!”
In a rough semicircle, Derbyshire’s best dairy herd had formed up as if ready to dance or keep guard. I grabbed my dog’s collar to stop her seeing them off. She’s not a big dog and cows can get aggressive around canines.
The herd backed away and a voice said,
“Have you seen that helicopter? I wonder what they’re looking for!”
It was a guy I often used to walk my dog with. His dog Jess nosed me carefully, obviously more observant than her master.
“They’re looking for me, Derek,” I said.
He saw me as if for the first time and then clicked I was lying on the ground.
“Oh, I thought you’d dropped something,” he said, a little puzzled.
I explained as best I could and asked if he’d take Holly home for me. I hadn’t got as far as figuring that out until he arrived and so he took her lead. The helicopter was coming down to land now and the cows scattered. My dog didn’t want to leave me so Derek had to pick her up and carry her.
Then the angels arrived, with entonox and kindness, and my nighmare began to end. I didn’t get a ride in the helicopter, in the end, though I’d have not been aware enough to enjoy it anyway. When Derek got to the gate a good half mile away, the farmer had arrived with hay for the cows and could let the ambulance in. The ground was sufficiently frozen to allow a bumpy but safe enough ride out; though a degree warmer that day and it would have got bogged down in thick mud.
After a set of confusing misdiagnoses, I was finally taken to theatre a day or so later and had my appendix removed. It was more complicated than a simple appendicitis but I was glad to get rid of the wretched thing anyway!
I learned a lot from that experience, not least of which is that the very thing you think can never happen is still possible, even if it remains unlikely. I’m a lot more cautious about declaring things impossible. I shall try and stick with unlikely or improbable in future!