It was the mid 1980s and I had spent three years in bed with some mystery ailment. I had had six operations in eight months and the district nurses had to come in every day to dress wounds which would not heal. The weight had fallen off and the district nurses kept on at me to have every cancer diagnostic test available since they were convinced that was my problem.
A Consultant merely said I should resign myself to having the body of an 80 year old. One set of friends desperately determined to bring a priest to see me to exorcise me and were also convinced my problems must be a result of sin. I let them do it since they were so keen and clearly upset for me, but it was a very distressing experience on many levels and really now I am older I would not have let them do that to me. But I was younger then, and cared for their feelings. (Perhaps on some level I did feel guilty for my current state, but more on the line of sinfulness and not having sufficient moral strength to overcome my physical weakness.) But that is all by the way of scene setting, not the point of my story.
However, I spent the time learning the flute, since it one was instrument I could play easily sitting in bed, I had the time, and I had always wanted to play it, and also reading the books by Adele Davis the nutritionist who had cured a cousin in the US from crippling arthritis.
Amazingly, by this stage, I was beginning to recover somewhat, largely by changing my diet completely and was desperate to get out, get away, and have a mental and physical change of scene. I could now manage a couple of hours out of bed at a time. I was absolutely aching for a holiday!!
My kind mother had been left a small legacy and paid for me and her to go on a cruise round the Black Sea (husband decided cruises were not for him): a small Greek ship which ran academic tours with tutors on board from British Universities and the British Museum. Her idea was, that way, there was a doctor on board, I could rest as much as I wanted, and not leave my cabin if necessary, but watch the waves through the port-hole and listen to the lectures which were relayed to the cabins. Wonderful!
It worked beautifully, I could pace myself and managed a few of the day trips too. You can imagine the filip it gave me! One day there was the chance of a helicopter trip over the Caucasus mountains: well, I jumped at the chance. To be airborne, see the earth from above instead of being bound to bed. Only a few of us decided to go: we were driven to a tiny Russian Airport where we waited to go to the helicopter. Nature called and I decided to visit the facilities.
Well! It was The Idiot’s comments on South American loos that reminded me of this lavatory. However, this one was all gleaming porcelain, clean and not too malodorous. No pedestal toilets of course, but white porcelain floors to the stalls with raised footrests on which to squat, over holes in the floor.
That did not phase me, I had become used to those, but one glaring omission did send me out the door without using the facility. The cubicles were built with no doors. The single row of stalls were built higher than the floor of the building with two steps up: so I walked in to see several people using the loos. Only, I could not see their faces because the footrests had been designed for use facing forwards. Obviously to maintain privacy. What met my vision was a line of bottoms already ‘in the act’. Luckily I did not have a stomach upset: lucky for many reasons. Imagine have that kind of mission so publicly! And it meant that wonderfully and instantly my abilities to hold on increased.
I retreated hurriedly, appalled. Oh these squeamish westerners!
Instead I rejoined the group and we made our way to the helicopter. That was another surprise. The first thing we were asked before we boarded was whether our life insurances were up to date. No joke, no smile. Then we climbed up. Some of the seats were loose, not fixed to the floor. The seat belts did not work. It was raining by now and the rain was coming in down the ventilation tubes. And there, slap bang beside us, were the remains of two broken, crashed fellow helicopters. Nothing inspired confidence. However, I remained insouciant. Sudden death from the sky flying over the Caucasus seemed a much more romantic death than further months in bed with no-one being able to give me a diagnosis, so alone amongst the passengers, I was gung-ho and full of anticipation.
To cut a long story short, we took off, rattling and squeaking, and rose higher and higher. When we hit the mountains it was breathtaking: we spent a couple of hours flying along valleys, over peaks, saw great swaths of grassland, huge snowfields, the sun was out in places giving glorious colours, no houses or people in sight just vast wilderness. My soul soared with the height and the emptiness, my heart felt as if it would burst with happiness and my mind soaked up impressions and stored memories for years to come. In some ways I would not have minded sudden death at that point. I certainly did not want to return to earth.
Eventually it had to come to an end and we returned to the little airport, got back in the minibus and returned to the ship. There were more adventures to come and I returned home, rather like The Idiot, with a new perspective on life and full of determination not to be beaten down by physical incapacity. There was a world out there waiting to be explored!!
(Some time I must tell you about the Jordanian soldier who came on board and offered to give me a Jordanian baby: Get out of that with diplomacy!!). Oh yes, and the British Warship whose officers came over to our boat and asked me over to eat with them in the Wardroom, they had seen me through binoculars! Oh yes, and the Camel owner who offered to buy me from my mother for ten camels – she thought it over! Oh yes, and the Greek Second Officer who offered to take me into the city to show me the night life! Oh yes, and …….. and ………