Manoeuvring the Aprilia inside the small front garden was tricky. It wasn’t difficult in a way that was likely to convince the smiling woman in the doorway that I was any sort of bike god; nonetheless the Caponord was a tall heavy bike and the tiny concrete yard in Finsbury Park was decidedly short on space.
It may have required a seven-point turn, but the execution was none too shabby, so once it was pointing the right way, I bumped down the step and onto the pavement, hitting the starter as I rolled. Snicking the bike into first, blowing Hannah a kiss and pulling away all in one feet up movement, was hardly difficult for a rider with 28 years experience, but I was glad it all looked smooth and seamless, because I was keen to impress.
At the junction ten yards to my right, the road was closed off with bollards and fire gates, so I trickled along the pavement. I paused at the kerb with my boots still on the pegs and looked both ways before easing into the road. Glancing back over my right shoulder, I enjoyed the briefest of glimpses of Hannah’s waving hand and broad smile, before grey bricks sliced off the vision like a masonry guillotine.
Accelerating away, I felt a powerful urge to stand on my pegs and punch the air. An image flashed into my head of an aftershave advert that was running back in the eighties. In the ad a man walks out of a street door into the quiet of a very early morning and gently shuts it behind him. He’s wearing the disheveled clothing of the night before and as he walks away he looks wistfully up at a window above, takes a few steps, then jumps in the air and clicks his heels, before sauntering off down the alley with a wry happy smile. That’s precisely how I felt at that moment.
When I’d met Hannah less than a week earlier at a party in Co Claire, our mutual attraction was largely fuelled by alcohol and lust and while it was undeniably fun, it was hardly the sort of thing to have me behaving like a teenager. But now we’d transferred our relationship from the beautiful fantasy world of Western Eire, to a more mundane short hop across the capital and the journey didn’t seem to have harmed it at all.
Waiting at a red light at Green Lanes, I saw a TDM and a Transalp cross ahead of me. I caught them up by the time we reached the Balls Pond Road, then followed them along the Essex Road as they dashed briskly down the middle. They were pretty good sport, so when we arrived at the lights by the station and they stayed on the outside to go straight on, I almost stuck with them; but I’d intended taking the New North Road and I was feeling so content that unusually for me, I resisted the temptation and turned left.
I’d just enjoyed a wonderful night and morning after and I was on my way to work with time in hand. Everything was so hunky dory I decided that just for once I wouldn’t push my luck and risk blowing the whole feeling by getting nicked for something stupid in the Angel – or worse still having an accident on a press bike I should have returned the day before. Besides – relating back to a conversation we’d had about the route I’d taken to get there the evening before – the last words Hannah had said to me as I mounted the bike were: “Don’t forget to take the New North Road.”
Rolling up to the Texaco garage, I saw the vehicles ahead were crawling and it was gummed up all the way to the hump back bridge; but what the hell I was chilled and in no hurry, so I trickled patiently up the outside at low speed. Ahead of me a car was in the middle of the road indicating right but I knew I could comfortably pass at least another half dozen or so vehicles before gently cutting back in. I still had three or four to go and I was boogying along beside a white Mercedes van at around 5 or 10 mph, when suddenly without the slightest warning, it veered sharply to the right and nudged my bar end. There was none of the usual slow-mo while my mind raced for an escape route. One moment I was poodling along with a warm glow inside, and the next the front wheel had turned in on itself and the bike was toppling.
I got my right boot on the ground just in time for the Aprilia to drop its considerable weight on top it. “Fuck!!!” The pain in my ankle was unbelievable. “Can somebody please get this fucking bike off my leg!” For once I was pleased there were plenty of concerned bystanders and the bike was lifted almost immediately. “AAAARGH! FUCK! FUCK! FU-U-U-UCK!” As the direct pressure was removed from my foot and leg, the leg was left to its own devices and the agony from my ankle – which had seemed so unbearably intense just a few seconds earlier – faded into insignificance as my leg muscles locked tight and scrunched up whatever damage I’d done to my knee.
Looking at the strange shape my leg made it was obvious that I’d done quite a job on it and in spite of (or perhaps because of) the excruciating pain I managed to persuade myself that thrashing about would only make matters worse. I’d been unable to do anything about the original collision so the best I could do by way of damage limitation was to stay where I was on my left side and grit my teeth until help arrived. Adopting the recovery position, I rested the screaming agony of my right knee on the tarmac with the minimum of pressure but as the large muscles in my leg continued to spasm, I struggled to keep my teeth clamped and alternated between swearing and wailing wretchedly.
The van driver was close to tears as he crouched over me desperately apologising. Looking up at the distress in his face, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him and thinking how lucky I’d been that none of my momentary lapses had ever resulted in someone else getting hurt. I told him to forget it – that I knew it wasn’t personal – but I knew he never would, and that seeing me in the road like that would leave a more powerful impression on his brain than a thousand “Think Bike” ads on the TV.
The good citizens of Islington had been quick to react and Mark McKenzie (the owner of the first and most commanding voice I heard on the scene) took control of the situation admirably. He quite correctly insisted that I shouldn’t remove my lid but it was getting on for 90°F and I was certain my leg was the only part of me that had suffered any real impact so I politely overruled him. Same with the cold water a kindly soul brought to pour over my head. I knew I shouldn’t drink any in case (as seemed likely) I needed surgery later, but it was hot and I needed to wet my whistle before I had a fag. I apologised for ignoring his sound advice on that one too, but what the hell, whenever John Wayne was lying all shot up on some Pacific sand dune, he always had one.
I lit up, inhaled deeply, then reached into my jacket pocket for my moby and started hitting nines. I knew there were probably dozens of people doing exactly the same thing at that moment, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I didn’t want someone with a stutter giving crap directions, when my brain felt pin sharp and I was able to tell the telephonist exactly were I was with the kind of concision and precision you’d expect from an experienced courier.
It also gave me something to do aside from running though my entire vocabulary of swear words in a vain attempt to express just how indescribable the pain in my leg was. Once I was certain the emergency services knew where to find me and that I’d really appreciate it if they’d hurry, I phoned work to let them know that they’d need to cover my sleep-in that evening. Next I called Dave Newman to ensure the bike would be sorted out before rounding things off with a quick one to Hannah. Her machine picked up, so I left a message telling her that I’d followed her advice and taken the New North Road – where I was currently lying awaiting an ambulance.
The nice Arab guy who’d given me the water brought a cushion for my head and after I persuaded Mark that it wouldn’t do any harm for someone to help me out of my jacket, I got “comfortable”. I tried to keep it to a whimper so I didn’t scare the kids in the audience but the nice Arab guy’s wife was so distressed by my pain that she kept clutching her hand to her head and wailing loudly – and frankly it was doing my brain in.
I was in the middle of the tarmac and I was going nowhere so Mark set up a contraflow to keep things as clear as possible for the rescue services; but I knew the road was well clogged in both directions so I ground my teeth some more while I waited for the pain relief to arrive.
My mind went back to a natural childbirth tape I’d listened to when my son Nick was due. As she had a choice, my partner’s understandable response was “bugger that – gimme the drugs”, but a lot of it made sense – particularly when that option isn’t immediately available. The principal of not resisting or fighting the inevitability of the pain, but thinking through it, seemed to make a lot of sense in my situation and at least it gave me something to do while I listened out for sirens. Trouble was my leg had gone into one almighty contraction and showed no sign of offering me any breaks to pant in.
I knew my muscles weren’t cramping out of spite – that it was simply my body’s way of creating a splint to limit further damage – so I tried reasoning with whatever part of my brain was responsible for automatic emergency responses. I tried to reassure it that I’d got the point and had absolutely no intention whatsoever of moving my right leg. And at some level I think I might have succeeded as the stranglehold on my knee seemed to relax fractionally. Or perhaps it just moved further back in my consciousness because my thoughts were as clear and stark as the scorching midday sun that blazed above me and they seemed to be queuing up in a surprisingly orderly fashion for an opportunity to run through my head.
It was only a couple of months since I’d written Barry Sheene’s obituary for The Rider’s Digest and as I lay there attempting to push the vicious pain into a further corner of my mind, I remembered again that the thing that had first impressed me about the man, was the humour he’d displayed from his hospital bed after his big Daytona get off. Thinking about my attempt to make light of the situation when I’d phoned work and the crap jokes I’d cracked when I spoke to Dave, I decided that Bazza might have been proud of me.
That brought to mind the old adage about pride coming before a fall, which segued neatly into the next idea waiting in line. Just before going to Ireland I’d written to Digest contributor Mike James complimenting him on “Artic Antics”. The article had started with an account of his “big one” – the serious accident he’d heard that all motorcyclists have sooner or later – and I wrote saying how much I’d enjoyed it, adding that in spite of having had a few speedy spills over the years, so far I’d been lucky enough to walk away from them all with no more than gravel rash. However, I decided it would be unfair to attribute my spill to conceit because I’d felt no pride or arrogance when I wrote the e-mail. I knew exactly how fortunate I’d been never to have hit anything solid on any of the occasions that I’d street-surfed at speed.
Well I’d certainly run out of luck this time, because it looked (and felt) like I’d just had my big one. My thoughts shuffled along to my friend Paddy, who tore off his left knee – and consequently everything below it on a skip about ten years ago. The thought of that sickening crack, brought my own pain back with such a rush that it took my breath away; but when I looked down along my mangled leg and my toes waved back at me reassuringly from inside my boots, I figured that although it had started with an innocuous bump that had quickly turned into mind-blowing pain, things could still have been a whole lot worse.
I thought I’d imagined sirens wailing faintly in the distance but Mark had heard them too and stood up quickly to check which direction they were coming from before telling the folks controlling the traffic to stop the southbound flow to allow the ambulance a clear run up the other way. The bugles grew louder as they steamed towards me like the 7th cavalry, then stopped instantly as they pulled alongside. Seconds later I was handed an oxygen mask and told – somewhat redundantly I thought – to suck hard and fast. What an amazing effect! Minutes earlier I’d been struggling to keep the agony from the forefront of my mind but after just a couple of bangs on the magic bong, my brain suddenly felt preternaturally light and clear and the pain was happening way off in Hammersmith.
Neville, the ambulance man, got his big scissors out to cut my boot off but I’d only bought them a week earlier so I assured him that my ankle was fine and sucked hard as he eased it off intact. My Levis were almost new too and they’d survived the impact unscathed but the thought of trying to pull them over the mess of my knee brought me out in a cold sweat in spite of the anaesthesia, so I conceded on that one. The paramedics agreed that I’d definitely dislocated the knee and fitted a splint, before telling me that it was time to put me on the stretcher. Seeing the naked fear and blind panic in my face, Neville told me to hyperventilate on the gas and they’d be gentle as they could with me. There must have been half a dozen people lifting me so I rose effortlessly and I was sucking so hard that it felt like I floated onto the stretcher with the far away throb happening somewhere in Bristol.
I was laying face down in the back of the ambulance giving a WPC my details and my account of the accident between sucks on my lifeline, when Hannah returned my call. She asked what A&E I was going to and when I checked I was offered a choice of the Royal London, the Homerton or the Whittington. I didn’t fancy staying in Whitechapel and the Homerton with its high dark walls has given me the willies since I was a kid so I plumbed for the Archway hospital – not least because it would be convenient for my mum. When I put the phone down, Neville asked who I’d been speaking to and I explained she was a woman I’d just met. “Well I guess this is where you find out how much she likes you” he said with a smile.
I did my best to empty the gas cylinder during the quick blues & two’s dash up the Holloway Road but fortunately it was still offering analgesic assistance as they wheeled me into the A & E and as I emerged through the plastic strips I got the answer to Nev’s question. Hannah had beaten us there on her bicycle and was standing ahead of me looking shocked and concerned. For the first time that afternoon I felt I was going to burst into tears but recognising her obvious anxiety, I smiled instead and joked that I wouldn’t have had the accident if I hadn’t followed her directions.
Once I was on a bed they started pumping morphine into me. Never having had any before I expected great things and lay back to wait for the god of dreams to take me for a trip on his magic swirling ship; but I’ve gotta tell you it was a major disappointment. Regardless of how much they gave me, far from transporting me to a lovely place, it didn’t even take me as far away from the pain as the gas and air had. Dave had turned up along with Mick (who’d given him a lift so he could pick up the Caponord) by the time I got to X-ray and after having had it confirmed that I’d dislocated the knee and shattered my tibia, I was in serious danger of feeling a bit sorry for myself so I was glad I had friends there to take the piss out of me. The good news was that my leg had protected the Aprilia and it had escaped with little more than a scuff on the fairing.
Later that evening they shot me full of serious drugs, relocated my knee and pushed everything else more or less into place before bunging a back slab on the leg and bandaging it up. It was only a few days later, after enough Dr’s and consultants had looked from my X-rays to my wiggling toes and back again in complete amazement that I got the message of just how lucky I was to still have them. What with the dislocation, rupturing all four ligaments and all the bits of bone and cartilage flying about, it was a miracle that my arteries had survived the carnage. Once I knew how close I’d come to losing my leg, I spent the rest of the week in a state of total paranoia and it wasn’t until the Friday when I woke up from the anaesthetic with it encased in a full toe to nuts cast that I finally exhaled – then I promptly hobbled outside on crutches, flopped onto the grass, lit a spliff and inhaled deeply.
The same evening my friend Tom came over to celebrate the consolidation of my leg. He brought a bottle of Johnny Walker Black label and a couple of heavy tumblers, and as the sun dipped demurely behind Highgate cemetery, we sat on a bench in front of the tennis courts, toasting my toes with fine whisky and top notch Mary Jane. He wheeled me back to my ward and left me laying on my bed in a warm glow. I reflected on all the friendship, love and support I’d been on the receiving end of in the last week and the glow just kept on growing.
I was just reflecting that once the grapevine had kicked in, some of the most unlikely people had come through, when Barry walked in. I’d known Baz ever since I started at Mercury 25 years earlier, and never at any time in that entire quarter century, had he ever uttered a single word to me that could have been construed as warm, friendly or human. He was a lot more likely to say, “You’re confusing me with someone who gives a fuck!” than “Is something troubling you Dave?”; but there he was sitting at the end of my bed expressing genuine concern. If I hadn’t known he’d have been mortified, I would have burst into tears and hugged him. Instead I choked ‘em back and lay there chatting and joking until the nurses kicked him out.
Rider Support have been on my case and the other party’s insurers have accepted liability, so I guess that one way or another, I’ll get taken care of in the end. I’ve been out of plaster for eight weeks now and although what used to be my right knee is now a funny looking lump with no more than around 35 degrees of flex, I can at least put weight on it and drove a car for the first time last week. Bikes are another story though; with my right foot on the peg and my knee bent as far as it will go, my arse is still a good eight inches above the saddle – so that’s going to take a while longer. But hey, time’s a great healer.
Thanks to Hannah for everything. Mark McKenzie for taking control and doing it right. Neville Day and his partner for scraping me up and delivering me to A&E painlessly. And all the staff at the Whittington, particularly my ‘comrade’ and consultant Ian Baracuse-Hamilton for fitting the puzzle back together. But above all thanks to everybody who took time out to wish me well, whether you did it in person, by card, by text, by phone, or in your prayers, your support made me feel like very a lucky man.
Be careful out there
This accident happened in June 2003 and the article first appeared in issue 75 of The Rider’s Digest in December of the same year.