Saved by the Lizard
What greater bliss could there be than a weekend near midsummer in the Black Cuillin of Skye, surely one of the most spectacular places in our country? It was early in June and I was whirring back to Crieff in the evening on my beloved Ariel, the freedom of wheels after the years of hitching.
Most of the way it was snowing (for Global Warming had yet to be arranged), and I was shudderingly cold as I came down from the Rannoch Moor and approached Bridge of Orchy, hotel one side of the road, petrol pumps the other side, grey van at the pumps, so I slowed to around 70 mph (no speed restriction back then) in case anyone should suddenly cross the road. A man finished fuelling the van, parked the pump nozzle, came round to the driver’s side, opened the door, paused, looked back along the road in my direction. “Good,” I thought, “he’s seen me coming” and I began to accelerate to get out of his way.
But he drove straight out in front of me, and there was no chance at all of avoiding him.
Time, as it does in such moments, went into slowmo, and the lizard brain, the amygdala, woke from its reptile doze and came to the rescue. There are many scenarios where you do well to switch off all conscious effort and let the lizard look after you: coming down a steep rocky heathery hill in the dark, if you try to watch where your feet are going you will almost certainly stumble and fall, but if you let the lizard guide the feet you’ll probably get down safely; as you stroll along a heathery track, the lizard can stop you in mid-stride, one foot in the air, when you were just about to tread on a snake. Cherish your lizard, for he’s your best hope of staying safe: he sees things that you haven’t noticed, and his reaction-time is lightning swift because he doesn’t have to do all that big-brain thinking stuff that makes us humans often too slow.
My youthful years were spent in Perth, where we lived on a road which ran steeply downhill until it came out onto the Glasgow Road, and in the winter we used to sledge down there; to avoid hurtling out on to the traffic-rich main road we had to roll off the sledge, holding its reins, and so I had perfected a kind of shoulder-roll to come to a stop without injury. The lizard remembers this kind of physical expertise (it never forgets how to cycle, swim or skate), and even as the bike slammed into the grey van I was already launched into mid-air, preparing for a main-road-avoidance shoulder-roll landing.
Mid-air seemed to go on for quite some time, during which, while the lizard was busy organising injury-reduction, I had time to recollect that we also sledged down a hill called Necessity Brae, which was great for roller-skating as well, and not far away was another good roller-skating place called Needless Road, after which we would go for a bag of chips, and what Perth bureaucrat humourist had decided on these names, and which came first in time . . . ?
Yes, there was heaps of time, it must have been two, maybe three seconds before I landed on the opposite side of the road, soaking up the impact with the technique learnt all those years ago, leaving my beloved Ariel to be smashed into a write-off.
The lizard had done well, I was not a write-off, but I couldn’t get up and walk. The memory flashed through me of a friend whose bike had had an argument with a truck, and was still in a wheelchair – what would that be like?
People came and carried me into the hotel and sat me down in the bar. “We saw it, we’ll be witnesses,” they said, “we’ve phoned the police, they’re coming up from Oban, they’ll be a wee minute yet.” (Oban was about 40 miles away, it’d likely take an hour.) The man from the grey van came into the bar, a bit white; “I never saw you, I didn’t know you were there, I was drunk.” The witnesses drew in their breath, though at this time there were no drink-drive laws, and you could drive on country roads at any speed you liked, completely blootered.
The bar was fine and warm, but as the minutes passed I got the shakes, and the witnesses in their concerned way offered me a tot of whisky “for the shock”. I imagined the police writing down all the details and smelling whisky on my breath, and tried to express simultaneous gratitude and refusal, but found that the words would not come, I could only stammer “c-c-can’t” and the effort of doing it was so great that I began to cry. In public. Oh, the shame!
Eventually, the police came and asked their questions and wrote down whatever it was that they needed to, and went away again, and I wondered what to do now, and more importantly, how to do it.
The owners of the Bridge of Orchy Hotel were brilliant: they gave me food, they took me upstairs, carrying the luggage they’d retrieved from the mashed Ariel, they gave me a bedroom and ran a hot bath. By this time the ability to move had come back, clearly no limbs were broken though movement was slow and stiff.
It was desperately hard getting the motor-bike leathers off, fairly hard climbing into the bath, but gorgeously soothing to float in the hot water. I fell asleep for a while, and woke to find that the water had got cold – and that I couldn’t get out.
Was I going to lie there, wrinkled like a prune and growing colder by the minute until someone happened along? Was I going to shout, and be rescued? In the scud? Strewth, as my Leader would have said. It was a black moment.
An idea. I wriggled, found the taps with my toes, turned them on, and smoothly and effortlessly, like a yacht in a lock of the Crinan Canal, rose to the rim of the bath and made it over the edge, even managing to turn off the taps and avoid flooding my kind hosts.
It was, I often think, the greatest combined intellectual and physical achievement of my life. The lizard and the higher brain had both done their bit.
* * * * *
Some weeks later, with a new Ariel, I headed off, bound for Greece. But a shoulder muscle had been torn, and there was weakness in the back and one leg, and in order to get off the bike I found that I needed a lamp-post or a wall to lean it against till I could pull it safely onto its stand, for if it fell over I couldn’t get it up again. Once at the Mediterranean, I spent a lot of time floating about in the warm comfy sea, and progress Greecewards was slow. Reaching Italy, on the winding mountain road to Triora, a little hill town only partially restored after the war, an Italian car, driven in the Italian manner (i.e. faster than possible), pinked the Ariel and broke its windscreen and came near to mashing its rider, before roaring away down the valley. Aarggh.
Pressing on down the coast beyond Genoa I reached Levanto, where the ice-cream was amazing, but the road ran out and you had to take to footpaths or else climb up inland. It was my farthest south, for heading inland towards Parma on an unsurfaced zig-zag mountain road where Ariel kept sliding on the gravel towards the edge, with its vertiginous view of dead cars scattered about on the steep slopes below, I began to question the wisdom of trying to reach Greece.
In Parma camp site, the next tent contained a German who was collecting folk-songs of all the countries he was travelling through, had detailed tunes and words in a vast notebook, and sang them, accompanied on his guitar. He was an excellent guitarist with a pleasant baritone voice, and he sang a Spanish song that I still remember: Ya se van los pastores a la Extremadura; about shepherds going away, leaving the place sad and dark. I’ve found several versions on youtube, with footage of awesomely huge herds of sheep and bonny sheepdogs waving curly tails aloft, quite fetching, but nothing as good as the German’s slow, melancholy version. However the songs that he really wanted to sing were German songs about dark birds and white birds; there seemed to be loads of them, and he explained the symbolism: “ze vite birds means dess”, or possibly it was the dark birds that meant death, and I can’t now remember what the other lot of birds meant, life? love? love of life? no matter – after an hour or two of symbolic death I was beginning to be spooked.
Beginning, too, to tire of solo travel in places where communication was stilted and basic.
And tired of all that blue sky and warmth, day after day, missing the rain, wind, clouds, the variety of weather back home; so northwards I sped, into Switzerland, where a view of the north face of the Eiger seemed a more compelling symbol of death than any bird, dark or white; on into northern France, where the enormous war cemeteries reminded me that I was likely travelling over ground that my Dad had fought across in WWI, and maybe only a week in hospital at the beginning of July 1918 had stopped him being killed, so that I could possibly owe my very existence to the flu bug – did that make influenza a dark or white bird? Finally the air ferry took me to Lydd and Biggin Hill, of which I’ve written previously, in Guessing Games,
|sailing and matrimony|
Home again, it gradually became clear that with a shoulder, leg, and back that were no longer reliable, much of the joy had gone out of climbing. What alternatives were there? I had always fancied that a wee sailing boat in which you could cross to an island like Rhum or Soay, not easy to access otherwise, would be a good thing to have – and falling into the water wouldn’t hurt nearly as much as falling onto the road.
Onwards, then, into a future of sailing and matrimony.
So, Mary Hunter, who urged me to write this, you may well owe your very existence to a man with a grey van at Bridge of Orchy, and, at one remove, to influenza.