SWD-I-1. The Journey Home

Waking up had become problematic. Not because my body was shattered or my brain had started to filter out my alarm clock. Neither was it because the room was often spinning, my head thumping and my mouth dry – these were problems I’d become accustomed to solving.

The problem that was becoming increasingly hard to solve was working out where exactly it was I had woken up. This was starting to take a worrying amount of time too. The conclusion that ‘it had happened again’, that I’d been abducted by aliens and deposited in a strange bed, was getting hard even for me to believe in.

On one unforgettable morning in April 2012, I woke up alone in what, this time, looked distinctly like a hospital room. My second season as a ski bum in the French Alps had been completed without significant injury, despite some seriously kamikaze skiing, but that morning I’d woken up in a hospital in Reims – a very long way from the Alps.

After the usual morning roll call – phone, wallet, keys, shoes, coat, dignity – and noticing that all but the last were present on the chair next to my bed, I started the now-well-practiced mental debrief, to figure out what had happened the night before.

I asked myself the usual ‘W’ questions. What had I been drinking? Who had I been drinking with? What had I done and said? Who might my inappropriate behaviour, which I always took as a given, offended? What, in my drunken bravado, had I agreed to do – usually ski some impossible slope. Most importantly, where had I left ‘Landie’ – my battered Land Rover Defender?

I pulled an IV drip out of my arm, thinking it a bit excessive for a hangover, and wondered if I’d been out with my medical student friends again? A young woman entered the room, I recognised her face as that of the nurse from the night before, and it all came flooding back to me.

She’d insisted that I stay in the hospital overnight. I’d argued with her, in my pigeon French, that my injuries were no worse than I’d previously incurred on a rugby field and that my English skull was made of thicker stuff. She’d summoned the other staff to block my exit and told me she would call the gendarmes if I attempted to leave. When I protested further, she made me stand in front of a mirror. I peered into it and a bulky, unshaven, bald man looked back. He was somewhere in his late forties although facial abrasions, a black eye and a broken nose prevented more accurate dating. He was wearing a blood stained T-shirt that had the words ‘Powder to the People’ written on it around a symbolic clenched fist. The skiing pun obviously didn’t work in French and he looked like some sort of militant you’d cross the street to avoid. After wobbling my head a couple of times to confirm the reflection was mine, I’d agreed it was not sensible to let me loose on the good people of Reims until I was sober.

I’d stopped for the night in Reims while returning from my winter residence in Morzine, a town in the Haute-Savoie department of the Rhône-Alpes region of France. Spring had sprung and I was heading back to my home in Birmingham where I knew I had left a lot of trouble in store. I had managed to alert my long-suffering wife, who was resident in Birmingham all year round, to my unexpected delay in Reims by txt. She’d wanted to send a rescue party but, before my phone battery had run out, I’d convinced her I was capable of making it home under my own steam. I just had to convince myself.

‘The Chalet Project’, as I liked to call it, had been my latest attempt to escape the rat race, the latest in a sequence of midlife crises that my wife had vicariously endured. Over the preceding winter we’d become even further estranged. The previous morning, I’d loaded my ski gear and enough red wine to last a summer (or so I thought) into the back of Landie and had started the long journey home. The night before, I’d had a farewell drink with my Morzine crew and had mercifully woken up in my own bed. The journey had been uneventful despite Landie not being the trustiest of steeds, especially on long motorway journeys.

It had become late and I’d diverted into the centre of Reims for the night and found a hotel. That night, being my last night in France for seven months, I’d decided to venture out on foot to seek some local colour in the historic French city. I’d found a cosy bar, not far from the hotel, and ordered ‘un plat de charcuterie’ and ‘un verre de vin rouge’ to wash it down. But by the end of the evening I’d added my own colour to the town, that of claret, to its pavements.

Reims is famous for Champagne, not Claret, and I had been persuaded to drink a fortified derivative of the stuff by some locals who’d attached themselves to me. My new friends had suggested I try their local hooch but warned me it was a mind-altering liquid. I wasn’t the sort of person to shirk an international drinking challenge so I agreed to try some. Besides which, I’d had a lot of drinking practice during the preceding season so I felt match-fit. After that, my recollection of the evening got a bit sketchy.

I recall chatting to the lead singer of a band called the ‘Bewitched Hands’ – I know this because I made a note on my phone to look them up on Facebook when I got back. His friend turned up, who had much more English at his disposal, although I’d made a good stab at explaining my reason for being in ‘Rans’, as they told me it should be pronounced. It’s amazing how much braver you get at speaking a foreign language after a drink, although, after several more glasses of their hooch, speaking English became the challenge.

The lead singer’s girlfriend had turned up, bizarrely carrying a bunch of daffodils, and I distinctly remember being mesmerized by their colour. She was disgruntled that her boyfriend had not returned home earlier. He’d introduced me as ‘a ski instructor, on his way home from the Alps.’ I could blame my French for giving him the wrong impression or, more likely, I’d embellished the truth just a little. At that stage in my skiing career, I was trying to qualify as an instructor but had not yet accomplished it. I remember thinking ‘what the hell, I might as well go with it and see what it feels like to be one’. This was certainly better than admitting the truth – that I was an online marketing consultant. Ski Instructor was also a lot easier to say in French ‘je suis un moniteur de ski’. Besides which, I was hardly going to be found out in the Ardennes, one of the flattest regions in France, if someone asked me to prove it.

I remember going outside to smoke with my new friends, something I hadn’t done in years and a telltale sign that the evening had, once again, ‘gone large’ on me through no fault of my own. I then vaguely recalled lying on the pavement leaking claret from my face. Had there been a fight? Was I hit? Or did I just pass out and hit my head? Bruises on my knuckles could have been caused in either scenario.

The personal debrief proved inconclusive. I’d had many a UBI before, but had never woken up in a hospital.[1] There hadn’t been any UFO sightings reported over ‘Rans’, so I couldn’t blame alien involvement, as had become my practice in Morzine. One thing I was certain about was that my drinking had become problematic and I made a mental note to contact Alcoholics Anonymous when I got back home. As it turned out, it was a different AA (the Automobile Association) I was in more urgent need of later that day.

spaceshipIt’s hard to tell if you’ve got a drinking problem or not when you work in a ski resort. Binge drinking and skiing are inextricably linked sports. In Morzine, no-one bats an eyelid if you fall off a barstool. Perhaps that’s why we Brits love ‘skiing’ so much; despite being terrible at the actual skiing part, we excel at the après-ski.
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Meanwhile I had a ferry to catch and, first, I had to convince my captor, the on-duty consultant, that I was ‘sain d’esprit’ (sane) enough to leave the building. He insisted I had to wait for a CT scan to make sure, so I hatched an escape plan.

While no-one was looking, I got dressed and made my first bid for freedom. I wandered through a labyrinth of corridors looking for the sortie (exit). I went through an automatic door that closed behind me, preventing me from retracing my steps. I started to wonder if I’d made a mistake and had doomed myself to wander the corridors of this hospital forever – ‘The Ghost of Reims Général’. I bumped into my favourite nurse. Fortunately I’d wandered in a big circle back to the casualty ward. She told me I was a ‘très naughty boy’ and that I couldn’t leave until I’d had ‘my brain checked’ and that the hospital porter was waiting to take me to the scanning machine.

spaceshipI’m not sure why, but apparently it’s international practice for hospitals to ferry patients around in wheelchairs even if they’re perfectly capable of walking. I assume it turns the patient into a more manageable commodity – and keeps the porters in a job. It does have a decidedly pacifying effect, I’ll admit.spaceship

Having had the escape equipment (my shoes and coat) confiscated, I was wheeled off deeper into the labyrinth wearing only a hospital gown and left in a corridor outside radiology. After fifty minutes of sitting facing the wall (which, bizarrely, had a picture of the Mary Rose on it, now indelibly committed to my memory), I flagged down a passing white coat. I explain in pigeon French that I’d been abandoned and needed reuniting with my clothes, and that I had a ferry to catch and was quite capable of walking.

Whatever I actually said in translation, combined with my Rocky VI appearance, only confirmed to the coat that I’d escaped from the psychiatric ward and that maybe my wheelchair needed restraints. The white coat smiled, rotated my wheelchair to face away from the wall and continued down the corridor. I was ignored for a further thirty minutes before finally being wheeled into the scanning room.

My second attempt at freedom, an hour after being wheeled back to my room, was more successful. I was starting to get the lay off the land. I’d found my shoes and coat, which they’d foolishly left in the wardrobe and I actually made it outside. It was nice to see the sky but where exactly in Reims was I? In which direction was my hotel? I hadn’t intended travelling far from the hotel, so I hadn’t really noted its location or indeed its name. The room key was an anonymous electronic one – so of no help. This time I really didn’t know where I’d left Landie!

In a flash of genius, inspired by desperation, I remembered the hotel was next to a train station. I jumped into a taxi outside the renal ward, ‘La gare, s’il vous plait’, I triumphantly requested. ‘Non’ he replied, a phrase I’d encountered a lot while living in France. He explained he couldn’t take a fare unless the hospital had booked him.

Now in France, ‘non’, the default response to any request, really means, ‘I’m thinking about it, so persuade me’. In this case I didn’t succeed. Sheepishly, I returned to the casualty ward where the duty nurse leapt out of her chair, delighted to see me again – the feeling wasn’t mutual – she told me my scans were back and ‘zee brain was intact’ and I could leave after the ‘paperassière’ (paperwork) was done.

The French love paperwork. If I’ve learnt anything from living in France it’s that the paperassière usually takes longer than the work it relates to. I was definitely going to miss my ferry. Finally, after forty or so minutes, I was handed a report to give to my GP by the consultant. It confirmed there’d been precious little blood left in my alcohol system when the ambulance had dropped me off. I had in fact broken my eye socket, an injury that has left me with a permanent lump – which I now put down to a ‘skiing accident’.

When the consultant gave me a judgmental look over the top of his glasses, I felt no shame. These guys and their ancestors had dedicated their entire region to the production of the world’s most famous alcoholic beverage – Champagne – and I was merely an over-indulgent fan. At last, he gave me the all clear. I had a Glasgow Score of fifteen, which was apparently good for someone who’d recently been unconscious. Amused that Glasgow should be the origin of an international system used to calibrate head injuries, I thanked him and the nurse and asked if she would call a taxi. I was finally free.

I sat in the front seat of the cab. The driver, who assumed I had been through one windscreen already that day, insisted I put my seat belt on lest it happen again. He looked at me, a bandage wrapped around my head and one eye partially closed by swelling, and asked ‘d’accord?’(okay) To which I replied ‘J’ai un mal de tête’ (I have a headache). He chortled, presumably at my typical English understatement, and I politely chortled back. ‘You’re not getting a tip’, I thought. He took me to the train station and my hunch was right, Landie was parked outside the hotel next door.

I went up to my room to grab my washbag and clean shirt. They were still lying on the unused bed, having had a less eventful night than their owner. I checked out; it had only cost me €80 to store them there overnight. I jumped into Landie; Calais was just three hours away. She started first time, which was always a bonus, but when I went to depress the clutch pedal, horror of horrors, it lay limp on the floor. Could the day get any worse? Landie was seemingly going nowhere.

spaceshipOver the last two seasons, like many Defender owners, I’d developed an emotional relationship with mine – a blue and white 110 TDi almost as ancient as me. Equipped with old-fashioned bench seats in the back it can accommodate up to ten adults in a tolerable amount of discomfort for short trips. There are few vehicles that make me anthropomorphize, usually motorbikes and boats, but Landie is one of them and despite being a pile of junk by modern standards, Landie has a soul.

Whether it’s a female or male soul is still up for debate. Despite its ruggedness and unrefined strength, Landie does have many female qualities. Landie always plays up at just the wrong time and definitely hates the cold. It regularly needs money spending on it, which soon amounts to more than its original value, responds to pleading and needs to be told she is loved before and after every ride.

Its male attributes include making unusual noises and unpleasant smells from time to time. It’s scruffy and unkempt and belches toxic fumes in the morning when it’s first woken up. It also drinks a lot. But men always refer to the vessels they love as ‘she’ so ‘la’ Landie it is.

She is superbly suited to the job of running skiers around mountains and superbly unsuited to crossing a continent on motorways. I’m often asked why I don’t sell her and buy something more modern that would do both jobs but nothing can do the former in such patriotic style. There’s nothing that symbolises Britain’s former engineering prowess and our nation’s stoic traits better than a Defender – with the exception of a Spitfire perhaps but that would be less practical to park and would have significantly less room for passengers, although the machine guns could prove handy.

Many of my guests feel the same. Especially men, of a certain age it has to be said, who enjoy jumping in and out of ‘the beast’, chests swollen with jingoistic pride. I’m usually wearing wellington boots, another great British invention, and a cloth cap, to complete my man-about-Yorkshire ensemble. In any case, Landie and I have been through too much together, both good and bad, to part now. For better or for worse, in sickness and health, we’ll stick together – ‘til death do us part.
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But that day, my love affair with Landie seemed over. At that moment, I would have swapped her for anything – even a Renault. I was tired and hungry and my head felt like I was wearing an internal balaclava. I gave Landie a piece of my mind. A woman hurried past, averting her gaze, while I ranted in ‘franglais’ at the ‘putain de merde’ (whore of shit).

With hindsight, I suspect Landie knew that returning to the UK meant that she would be locked in a shed all summer and was probably reluctant to continue. What she probably didn’t know, because neither did I, was that I faced an equally grim fate on our return. I would end up living in a box that summer too, a tiny bedsit in fact. But you can take anthropomorphism too far; the clutch had gone and no amount of expletives would fix it. To add to the horror, I then discovered my AA European Road cover had run out the week before. I’d stayed longer than initially planned in the Alps. After the season had ended in Morzine, I’d gone over to Chamonix for a few days. I’d put off what seasonaires call ‘returning to reality’ but had forgotten to extend my cover.

I decided to see if it was possible to drive Landie without a clutch. The answer was ‘almost’, if you crashed the gears and concentrated on never coming to an absolute stop. After rolling through many a red light, I made it on to the motorway, got up into fifth gear and then up to cruising speed, which is about 60 mph in a Defender. ‘Calais here I come’, I shouted. If I could get Landie on the ferry, I could literally roll her off at Dover, where the AA would be obliged to tow me home under my UK membership.

Unfortunately I had to stop completely at passport control before boarding the ferry. Landie spluttered and stalled more or less at the kiosk window. I handed over my passport and explained to the customs officer that I’d recently had a ‘skiing accident’ and that my face bore little resemblance to the passport photograph. He joked ‘nobody’s does mate,’ in a reassuringly English accent. I bunny hopped up the ferry’s boarding ramp willing the car in front of me not to stop. It didn’t and I made it aboard.

Any relief I felt at being back on UK soil was lost when I realised I would hit the M25 at rush hour. That would involve a lot of stopping and starting and, in my case, crunching of gears. While spending three miserable hours on that circular embodiment of hell, I had time to reflect. I remember looking down on some sharp-suited city type, chain-smoking in his Mercedes. At least I was only passing through. He probably had to do this every day to afford that car and his fancy suit. He could keep them both; I’d keep Landie and my jeans. He would probably have a heart attack over the next stock market crash. I’d take my chances with the avalanches – if the aliens didn’t get to me first!

I made it onto the M40 and headed north to Birmingham, from where I’d departed almost four months previously. Landie and I were now running on hope, the gearbox was mashed and the swelling over my left eye had closed in over the eyeball. Having charged my phone from the cigarette lighter, I called my wife to tell her I was alive and a few hours from home and that I loved her very much. An unusually emotional outburst from me, but it was true. I remember stumbling through the door expecting a warm homecoming. I felt like a polar explorer who’d been lost for months in Antarctica, about to be reunited with his loved one. However, she didn’t seem that pleased to see me. After a small embrace, dinner was served. I found it strangely hard to find anything to say, so much had happened and we had so much to discuss but there was no obvious place to start.

The familiar surroundings were a comfort at least and I remarked that it was ‘nice to be home’, the biggest understatement of my life. Although, glad I was safe, my wife wasn’t so pleased. She’d not changed her mind over the winter –  she still wanted me to move out permanently!

The next morning was another problematic one. Once again, it took me a while to work out where I’d woken up – sadly, I concluded, I was in my own spare room.

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[1]An Unexplained Beer Injury (UBI) is usually a bruise, scratch or burn that is discovered the morning after being drunk. The sufferer will have no recollection of how or when the injury was acquired because no pain was felt at the time.

>> Chapter 2. The Chalet Project
>> Chapter 19. Girlfriend Skiing

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