It was August 2011 that I decided to make the trip again. The pain stabbed through my left foot like one of those squared-off Victorian iron spikes being driven into it with a club hammer. It went right between my second and third metatarsals like some kind of crucifixional nail. But this was no stigmata, because I am no saint. I know that much.
As the pain seared its way up my shin, my left hand clenched itself into a white-knuckled fist. I squirmed in my chair, trying hard to keep my attention on the strained pronunciation struggling through my headset from the French insurance lawyer who was trying to learn to tell the time in English on the other end of my Skype connection. With every muscle in my shoulders tensed against the pain, I held my breath and pushed my mouse fast and hard across the surface of my desk and clicked the mute button on the screen, shutting myself off just long enough to mutter something blasphemous before reconnecting and offering some appropriate encouragement to my student.
‘Yes, Claude, twenty-five to eight is the same as seven thirty-five. Well done. Now, using the twenty-four hour clock, how would tell someone that it was an evening train?’
‘Excellent. Well done. You’re really getting the hang of this.’
‘What do you mean ‘hang’?’
‘Oh, don’t worry, it means you have the right idea. We’ll do some more idiom work next time.’
I’d had warnings before, of course, and this was just another one, but a very sharp one. Last week it was a cramp in my neck and left shoulder. It’s always on the left: there’s definitely something amiss with the left side of my body. When I was seventeen I’d smashed a wrist, fractured a radius, broken a rib and a tibia, imploded my eye socket and cracked my cheekbone in three different crashes in the space of one mad year – all on the left. Youth, alcohol, testosterone, motorcycles and a non-existent survival instinct is a heady and dangerous mixture. Now the pipework was decaying.
Four years previously a smart and expensive surgeon had rammed a stent into my common ileac artery to try and keep my left leg alive. As he did so, the pain sliced so completely through the Valium veil they’d given me that I’d gripped the attendant nurse’s hand so hard I thought I’d break all of her fingers; but she was very sweet about it. That little episode had enabled me to go dancing in Kiev with a fiery-tempered, red-headed Ukrainian accountant on International Women’s Day, and cycle from Prague to Krakow the following summer – and I was truly grateful – but it only took two years before the stent gummed up; the almost inevitable result of smoking too many fags and eating too many pigs.
Six months later, a team of unimpressive and uninspiring surgeons – led by the rudest and most arrogant registrar you could ever dread to meet – had threaded a length of Dacron tubing under my pubic bone and spliced my femoral arteries together so that the right would irrigate the left. That ill-timed intervention only lasted two weeks before it failed. The surgery itself, so I was told, went well, but the aftercare was appalling: the ward staff were paralysed by a flu epidemic; two of the other five men on the ward were terminal; one was deranged and stood urinating in the middle of the floor and spent the night shouting at his hallucinations; another had suffered an emergency leg amputation and was in deep shock; there weren’t enough bed-pans to go round and I was the only patient who could walk, so I shuffled about emptying bed pans for my comrades whilst the registrar in his pin-striped suit, followed by his sycophantic and sheepish entourage, complained that I was keeping him waiting. Nobody was sleeping because one of the surgeons, who’d been given night duty, sat resolutely reading the Daily Mirror while the phone rang continuously. It clearly wasn’t in his job description to answer the phone or take it off the hook, and he must have been away from medical school the day they explained that sleep is essential to healing. It was no surprise, then, that infection set in and compounded the undiagnosed glandular l fever I already had. It took more than fourteen hours from a nurse diagnosing the infection for some antibiotics to make their way from the pharmacy to the ward via a tortuous paper-trail, by which time my freshly shaved and stitched gentleman’s area was glowing like coal at Christmas. Not good for the new plastic plumbing. And God help the NHS.
January 2009, when all this occurred, was not a good time in my life, and the karma just kept on coming. I’d just left a lucrative consultancy position in local government to take up the directorship of a Buddhist meditation centre, been almost immediately and unceremoniously sacked without due process for being far too ebullient for the centre’s solemn self-importance, and having a greater affinity with the volunteers – who actually did most of the work – than with the paid staff and management committee who talked a lot about it and wrote little emails to each other about guilt and forgiveness; discovering, in the process, that the compassion that they ritually espoused applied more to spiders and field-mice than to red-blooded men with livelihoods to maintain. And it was that very red blood supply that was now a perennial problem.
In fact, my latest layer of bad karma had been brewing up a storm since things really kicked off in December 2005. And I hadn’t had a pain-free day since. I’d just come back from a walking tour of Budapest and its environs with Svetlana, the hard-partying Ukrainian accountant, slept long and deep in my own bed for about fourteen hours, but was brutally awoken by pain in my left foot so intense it felt like someone had spent all night battering it with a baseball bat. I’d limped in agony to the local surgery where a dim-witted and parochial nurse had suggested I’d picked up an infection from walking barefoot on the immaculately clean marble floors of the Hungarian guest house I’d stayed in.
‘You can pick up some funny things in places like that,’ she’d said. I wondered if she’d ever been out of Somerset.
Then an over-worked and over-paid locum proclaimed I had a collapsed arch and prescribed a support to wear in my shoe which strapped to my foot with elastic. I told her I’d had flat feet all my life and that was why I couldn’t get into the Army, but she really wasn’t interested. I tried the support-pad for ten minutes, but the lower part of my foot and all my toes turned white downstream of the elastic. Eventually, I got to show this mystifying phenomenon to my own GP. We agreed I had a circulation problem: peripheral arterial disease, he said.
Meanwhile, back in language-learning land, Claude the lawyer confirmed that he would be on leave for two weeks, we set the time and date of our next meeting, said our goodbyes and I shut down Skype, hobbled around my study for a bit and decided drastic action was in order.
With no full-time job, and only a pittance of an income from the intermittent telephone TEFL, there really wasn’t that much to disentangle myself from, professionally speaking. My amazing, new, delightfully sexy and altogether lovely girlfriend was going through the gruesome process of leaving her husband and moving house, and I figured that was her work and it was not my job to be a removal man. I’d fallen for her in an instant some twenty-one years earlier, but after she introduced me to her hunky, six-foot-two boyfriend – now the soon-to-be-ex-husband – I’d thought better of pushing him in the canal and making my move. I’d kept in touch with them both, becoming friends, until she fell pregnant and I made a strategic withdrawal. Then, just a few months previously, we’d re-connected on Facebook after her chap had declared he was “young, free and single again”, so I made my much belated approach and all the stars and fireworks came out to bless us. Leaving her on her own was both hard and selfish. But I don’t regret it, I needed to make other moves right then.
My fourteen year old son was safely tucked up with is mum and her new husband. And me taking off, as I occasionally do, was, again, both hard for him and selfish of me. But I’m like that, so I am.
Whenever he was with me, usually twice a week, he had his head stuck in his X-box and completely immersed in Call of Duty, so I convinced myself that it wouldn’t hurt him too much if I wasn’t there for a couple of months. In retrospect, I think I was right. I also wanted to show him you don’t have to stay put if things need fixing, and that a man has a right to follow his dreams. I also wanted to show him that there was more to life than fantasy games, just as I had taught myself on the first trip. He was too young to come with me, and kids these days are practically owned by the state and the school; after they’ve had their statutory allocation, and mums take precedence over the domestic arrangements, separated dads come a poor third place in line for their time.
When my life had been in a murky mess in 1984, I’d cycled to Athens and done the hippy trail around India and hitch-hiked back overland to sort myself out. It worked last time, and I’d often dreamed of doing it again. Last year I’d been casting around the alternative therapies for an answers to my ‘issues’ and, inspired by another friend and her encounter with Brandon Bays’s Journey-Therapy, I’d tried it. It turned out to be a form of hypnotic analysis during which I’d had a ‘conversation’ with my legs. They’d been unequivocal that they wanted to “do it again, do it again.”
My number one ally and all-weather back-up, my best friend Mark, concurred that my telephone teaching “in solitary confinement” was in no way doing me any good, so the stage was set for another performance of One Man Goes to Greece on Bike. Best friends are good like that; that’s why they’re best friends. It didn’t take long to plan; probably less than a minute. I’d kept my maps and journals from the 1984 trip, I still had one of the Tuppaware food boxes I used last time, some excellent rear panniers my son had given me for a birthday present a few years before and a cheap but sturdy bike. All I needed was an extra pair of panniers for the front and a new tent and sleeping bag.
From the onset of the pain in my foot during my lesson with Claude, to shoving my bike on the train to the coast, only about three weeks elapsed. And I was off down that long and winding road for the second time.