My husband and I were feeling a bit stressed. You know how it is, too much to do and never enough time: things piling up, blood pressure rising somewhat alarmingly, so we decided to have a day out and relax. We packed a picnic, loaded our cycles into the van, and took off for Brecon, about two and a half hours away from our home in West Wales. It’s an area we love, and we’d been thinking about buying a small boat on the Monmouth and Brecon canal and getting some quality ‘down-time’. A ride along the towpath was just what the doctor ordered, and we could look for boats for sale while we rode.
Now, my husband, James, is tall: six feet four inches to be precise, so finding anything to fit him, be it boat, bike, or clothes… a 34 inch inside leg, hands like hams, size 13 shoes and, to use his own words, 17 stone of unsightly fat… is a problem. His cycle was the biggest he could find and then he had to buy a taller seat-pillar and handlebar stem. Fortunately, he’s handy at altering things: has spanners, welder, chainsaw, lathe – you name it he can use it. Anyway, he’d fitted bits to make the bike more comfortable to ride and had added a half jerry-can to the crossbar, lined with carpet, for our small mongrel, Kes, to ride in if we cycled further than she could easily run.
It was a lovely sunny day, August, if I remember correctly, and we set out hopefully from Storehouse Bridge in the direction of the Ashford tunnel. I can still smell the damp earth and feel the gentle breeze. I can see the leaves rustling and the ducks gliding past, catching flies from the air. Fish sent rings spreading out across the still surface of the water. My shoulders relaxed, and I began to breathe more easily; I could almost feel the pressure dropping away. The day out was definitely a very good idea.
We stopped for a picnic, and a Wilderness Beaver chugged slowly past. We waved and the owners waved back: it was the exact make and model of boat we were considering, and we followed its progress along the canal enviously. Picnic over, we continued our ride and noticed the Beaver moored near a bridge. Eager to learn more about the little boat, like what the headroom and bunk lengths were, tall-husbandwise, we stopped and talked to the owners, who invited us aboard. No boat was likely to be tall enough for James to stand perfectly upright, and this was probably as good as we would find, at over 6 feet, with beds of 6’4”. We thanked the owners, promising to meet up with them sometime should we ever find a boat of our own.
Kes had run quite a way by this time, so James popped her in her half jerry-can for a rest and pedalled off ahead. Disaster, when it struck, came without warning. One second James and Kes were riding in front of me, and the next second, the bike collapsed and James was on the ground. I remember seeing Kes jump clear, but that’s all. The whole thing was so instant I barely saw it happen ten yards in front of my nose.
It was immediately obvious that this was a life-changing moment. My husband lay on the towpath, twitching, with blood coming from his mouth, totally unconscious. Was he even alive? He was, for now: he was twitching, wasn’t he? An ugly red swelling on his forehead suggested a severe bang to the head: concussion… brain damage… death… These were the things jostling for position in my mind. Oddly, I was an oasis of calm: if he had to die, I thought surreally, he’d died doing something he loved, happy, with no warning of his demise. He’s a proud, independent man who would hate to be brain-damaged: trapped.
I reached for my mobile: it switched on and immediately went black. Flat battery. James’ mobile was in his pocket, the one he was lying on. Have you ever tried to move 17 stone of unsightly fat when you’re only 5’ 4” and weigh 8 stone nothing with muscles like peanuts? For all I knew, he’d broken his neck, but I had to get that phone. I shook him (gently, honest). ‘James, for f***’s sake, help me out here. I need your phone.’ I hadn’t expected an answer but saying it made me feel better. I grazed my knuckles prising the mobile from underneath him. How did the thing work? I flipped it open and thumbed 999.
‘Which service do you require?’
‘Connecting you now.’
‘Ambulance service. Can you tell me what’s happened?’
I described the accident and the state of the patient as far as I could assess it, like out cold and bleeding. A pool of dark blood was coagulating in the dust. At least he didn’t look anaemic, like he had after his heart operation when his blood went orange because of the Warfarin, I thought stupidly. The lump was huge and he looked pale.
‘Is he breathing?’
‘Yes, but not well.’
‘Where are you?’
How the hell should I know? ‘On the canal towpath.’ It was thirty miles long. We’d just passed a village. It was called… ‘Pencelli. We’ve just come past Pencelli.’
There was a pause as if the operator were looking at a map. ‘Are you near Storehouse Bridge?’
A light came on in my brain and I dashed towards it. ‘Yes. We’re south of there, not far.’ Actually, I think we were east, but the operator seemed to know what I meant.
‘Got you. How far are you from the bridge? Can you see it?’
‘I don’t know. No, I can’t see it.’
‘Bloody hell!’ The voice at my shoulder was that of a stranger, a walker. ‘Can I help?’
I pointed, hopefully bridge-wards. ‘See how far we are from the bridge.’ I glanced round, somewhat belatedly, for Kes. She was sitting by the side of the broken bike with one paw raised. I could see a scraped bit of skin but it didn’t look serious. ‘Good girl.’
The stranger pounded off while his partner looked on helplessly, stroking Kes. The Wilderness Beaver sailed effortlessly to the bank, and the owners moored by us. The woman, who I was to find out later was called Linette, brought a pillow and blanket. James began to stir, and I let out a breath. I put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Don’t move.’
‘The bike broke… the front forks. I’ve called an ambulance.’
‘Don need amblnce.’ Typical man.
He hadn’t seen himself twitching, bleeding, unconscious and imagined himself a widow. ‘Yes, you do. Keep still.’
It was at this point, I looked at Kes more closely. A large flap of skin hung from her chest at the top of one leg. I could see skin and muscle. I had no idea where to find a vet. The voice on the phone kept talking. ‘The ambulance is on its way.’
The stranger puffed into view. ‘The bridge is just round the corner.’ I sent him back to stay by the road and direct the paramedics.
I relayed this to the emergency-services lady who stayed with me until I told her I could see the paramedics wheeling a stretcher. By this time, James, still protesting he was ‘prfctly fine’, was fully conscious but confused, having no memory at all of what had happened.
So there I was, miles from home with one bike, a second bike in two halves, an injured husband, an injured dog that couldn’t walk, no idea where the vet or hospital was, and a van I’d never driven before. Oh goody.
We must have looked a strange sight, trudging back to the bridge. James was laid out on a stretcher, with Kes sitting bolt upright on his chest while I wheeled my bike, and the stranger and the boat owner, Stuart, each carried half a bike. We threw them (the bikes not the men) somewhat unceremoniously into the back of the van and the paramedic applied a bandage to Kes’s leg. I lifted her (the dog not the paramedic) onto the seat in the back of the van and hoped she’d stay there. This was when I confessed to the ambulance driver that I’d never driven the van before, and I didn’t know where to find a vet. ‘Follow us, and when we turn into the hospital, carry straight on. There’s one by the garage of the right.’
I managed to adjust the seat so I could reach the pedals, just, and we set off. It was one of the longest journeys I can remember, and I’ve flown to China. Eventually, the ambulance turned into the hospital grounds, and I carried on: the vet was where they’d said. I left Kes in capable hands, praying I had enough money to pay the bill, drove back to the hospital, and parked in a way I wouldn’t normally: apologies to those people trying to squeeze in to a narrow space.
James was sitting up by this time, but his face was a mess, and he was still confused. A CT scan showed no fractures, and after a couple of hours he was discharged. Back to the vet: four layers of stitching into a puncture wound in her chest, (Kes’s not the vet’s) where she’d hit the broken part of the bike as she’d jumped clear, and a course of antibiotics… which is more than James got for the hole in his lip, the source of the blood, caused by him biting the stones on the towpath with one of his teeth. Fortunately, James had his bank card on him.
We reached home late that night, £400 the poorer, and a bit the wiser. Oddly, when I took my blood pressure it was 117/70, which was the lowest it had been for months, so it wasn’t a total disaster of a day.
The moral of this story is… well there are several, some of which are A: If you’re going to alter your bike handlebars, make sure the part that bears the weight isn’t the part that’s weakened by having the thread cut into it. B: Make sure you charge your phone before leaving home. C: Wear a cycle helmet. D: Know where the vets are. E: If you have high blood-pressure, ride along the Monmouth and Brecon canal towpath. F: Don’t put off the things you want to do: life can change forever in a second, and you never know when that might be or how it will affect you. ‘The afternoon knows what the morning never suspects.’
We redoubled our efforts to find a Wilderness Beaver, and for a while owned one and moored her near Pencelli, and we visit Brecon and the towpath whenever we can. Kes recovered completely and has no fear of riding in her jerry-can. The bike was mended with a stronger handlebar-stem. We haven’t yet met Stuart and Linette again, but I’m sure we’ll bump into them one day on our travels. I never did find out the names of the couple of walkers who helped us, but I do remember hugging them, and thanking the paramedics. James still has no memory at all of the accident. We’ve cycled past that fateful spot several times, since, but never without thinking how life might have turned out that day and being very grateful that it didn’t.