Why visit the Bora Bora crater, when you can stay right where you are and enjoy Netflix and salt and vinegar crisps?
And then something wonderful happened ‒ work itself afforded me the chance to go away. Finally I got to leave my desk with a clear conscience.
In 2013, I was asked if I’d like to make a documentary about the Mekong river, following it for over four thousand kilometres from Vietnam all the way to the snowy peaks of journeys past Tibet. It had been a dark, difficult year. Poor Dad had been sick with throat cancer, and our days were spent bombing up and down the A30, taking him to and from his daily radiotherapy sessions. He was now in remission, but the treatment Seemed not only to have shrunk his tumour but his horizons. Now, he rarely left the house, content only to explore the already- explored, the safe, the pre-experienced – the familiar poles of armchair, bed and dining table. Occasionally his swollen legs would carry him as far as the biscuit tin and back. That would be a good day.
I agreed to the trip. Perhaps, deep down, I felt I would be travelling for him. And for Mum too ‒ who has an adventurer’s heart but a carer’s role, glued to her partner through times, of late, more thin than thick, and certainly more in sickness than in health.
There was another reason. I have a voice inside me, a voice that drives me to darkness. It dims the lights, it drains the colour, it turns the sound down. It calls me in when I want to be out; it tells me to expect the worst, rather than hope for the best. To travel is to quieten that voice, to know that it cannot and will not control me.
I take after my dad: he feels too much and cannot cope. I take after my mum – constantly fretful in times of safety but stoic in a crisis.
We’re all contradictory souls at heart – a mix of intrepid and afraid, outgoing and solitary. The measure of your sanity, I guess, is where you draw the line between those poles. Perhaps this adventure would give me the chance for some much needed recalibration. So, even though I was frightened, I said yes. I will always say yes. I will throw myself into every experience, I will accept every dare, ** I will agree to maddening offers and crazy adventures. Yes.
I’ve said I take after my mum. This seems like a good moment to introduce you to the nine-stone bag of true grit that is Ann Perkins.
I grew up, as is a matter of public record, in the charming hamlet of Croydon. If you’ve not been, and want to conjure the aesthetics of the place, imagine a long scream into oblivion that has been commemorated in concrete. Architecturally, it was a curious mix of brutalism and the worst excesses of 1980s office building – as you approach by train, it looks like the skyline has been designed by a pre-school competition winner.
But I was young: I didn’t care for beauty. I craved the important things in life, like cheap cider, knock-off fags and newsagents with a lackadaisical approach to security. In that regard, Croydon gave me everything I needed, and it was a blissful childhood.
We lived in a house on a bank. The house was called High Bank. I admire the simple, honest pragmatism of that nomenclature. It’s like calling the Houses of Parliament ‘Swinging Dick Palace’ or Trump Towers ‘Look Upon My Gold Toilet And Weep, O Migrants’.
I digress. Because the bank was, indeed, high, it meant that mowing the lawn was hard ‒ unless, that is, you’re my mum. Ann Perkins is undeterred by petty inconveniences like gravity. For her, gravity is just another thing to be Overcome – like stress incontinence and Dr Liam Fox.
Mum had pioneered a revolutionary system for trimming grass on a gradient. This involved tying a long loop of string around the handle of the Flymo, letting the machine trundle down the bank and then pulling on the string to haul it back up.
What could possibly go wrong?
It was a rainy day.
I could end the story there, couldn’t I? I could simply let your imagination fill in the blanks and save us all the horror ‒ but both literary form and the contractual necessity that this book is 90,000 words long mean I should now elaborate further on the scene.
It was a rainy day, and Mum decided that, what with the ground being sodden and extra slippy, this might, indeed, be the perfect day to go out and cut some grass. I watched her from my bedroom window, striding out into the mizzle. There was the sharp stink of two- stroke and a thin plume of black smoke as she fired up the Flymo. Then off she went.
The next thing I heard was a cry – hard and fast – the sort of cry that has gone before it arrives. The sort of cry that lets you know something is seriously, seriously wrong. I found Mum slumped at the bottom of the bank in the mud holding her foot and muttering. I approached. It was then I noticed that the trainer on her right foot had been sliced off, and, by reason, her toes along with it.
‘David!’ I shouted. ‘Call an ambulance!’ thereby simultaneously sounding in charge while not having to actually do anything. This is what is known as Eldest Child Syndrome.
‘David!’ I shouted again. He was nowhere to be seen.
My sister, Michelle, appeared and took in the scene. Rather than moving to help, she felt the best contribution she could make was to scream into Mum’s face.
MICHELLE: Oh, God!
MICHELLE: Oh, no!
MICHELLE: Shit! Fuck!
That’s when I knew things were really bad. My mum hates swearing, and even now isn’t averse to dragging me into the bathroom and anointing the inside of my mouth with the cleansing fire of Imperial Leather. The fact that she was getting a full four- letter fanning without batting an eyelid was of genuine concern. The commotion had, by now, attracted a few local kids who had pulled up on their bikes. My sister responded by rushing down the steps and directing the abuse at them instead.
MICHELLE: No! Get lost! Go on! Piss off!
David had now arrived, and was sizing up the situation.
It was an excellent summary.
MICHELLE: Yes, you! Go on, fuck off!
This carried on for several minutes, after which I decided it might be a good time to call the ambulance myself. It took nearly five minutes to explain to the bemused operator what had happened:
OPERATOR: She was mowing. In the rain. On a bank ?
I returned with some advice.
ME: David, we need to find the toes.
ME: Find them! Find the toes!
That’s a role nobody wants, isn’t it? Chief toe-finder. Toefinder General. I bellowed again.
ME: David! Pick up the toes!
I felt it was more of a boy job, something that someone with a Y‑chromosome should take care of. I was young. I was yet to learn about the toxicity of gender roles. David picked his way gingerly through the grass.
DAVID: Is that a big toe? Is it? JESUS!
While we waited for the paramedics, Mum eased into one of her favourite emotional states – martyrdom: Saint Ann of the Bleeding Feet became calm, a preternatural serenity descending over her
MUM: I don’t know what the fuss is all about. I am totally fine.
ME: Mum, there’s blood pouring out of your foot.
MICHELLE: It’s like a fountain.
MUM: Don’t worry about me, it’s nothing that a bit of Savlon won’t sort out.
ME: Since when did Savlon glue toes together?
DAVID: (spotting something pink and shiny in the grass ) Oh, God! Oh, God. Fuck!
She hopped into the ambulance, aided by a pair of paramedics. They were about to learn that Mum is the John Lewis of chat. Even with a severed foot, she is never knowingly under-talked. Once seated inside, she chose to display her home-economics prowess by randomly listing everything lurking within our chest freezer. She loved that freezer and was the only person on earth who could identify the grey cellophane-wrapped rubble buried in the permafrost.
MUM: (clutching what’s left of her foot as her face turns green )
OK. Dinner tonight. There’s mince. You could do that with boiled potatoes or some pasta.
PARAMEDIC: Ann . . .
MUM: And there’s bound to be a Bernard Matthews turkey roll in there somewhere. Let me think . . .
(Mum consults her Menu Mind Palace.)
MUM: Yes. Left section, underneath the Crispy Pancakes.
ME: Is her face supposed to be that colour?
MUM: Or you could have prawns.
ME: It’s really green . . .
MUM: And there’s that kilo block of Cathedral Cheddar. Mature. But, remember, no broccoli or courgette.
ME: I know . . .
MUM: It messes with your father’s bowel.
ME: I KNOW.
MUM: Viennetta for pudding. That’s in the bottom compartment. Oh, and, Susan . . .
MUM: Don’t, whatever you do, tell Dad where I am.
MUM: He’s not to know.
ME: Well, what am I supposed to tell him? Where shall I say you are?
MUM: Knitting class.
PARAMEDIC: Ann, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m afraid you’re going to be in hospital at least a week with n injury like this.
MUM: Right you are. OK, lace class then, that’s more involved. Say I’m making an intricate bookmark.
ME: You’ve gone away for a fortnight, without notice making an intricate bookmark?
MUM: Do you know, I think I might have some of that gas and air now . . .
And with that, the paramedic, who had been waiting patiently for Mum to pause for breath, popped a mask over her face and whisked her to Mayday Hospital.
* Mum had never been to Spain before, so I’d be interested to know what she was comparing it with.
** Once, in Menorca, I got dared to jump off a vertical cliff face some thirty metres above the sea. I did. As the saying goes, how you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land. I hit the water at an odd angle and shattered my coccyx.