Back to Work
As I stood there arms akimbo for the third time I wondered if I had blundered into the middle of a training exercise at Gatwick security. I had taken off everything that could be removed without incurring a charge for indecency. I kept bleating that it was my new knees that were responsible for setting off their alarm but I still had to be patted down thoroughly (rather too thoroughly I thought), checked with a hand scanner and finally told to put each foot in turn on a large block like a trick pony. I was aware that a queue of women was building up behind me all muttering darkly because the men were being called through ahead of them. Next time I would roll up my trousers to reveal the still lived scars on both knees to prove I did not have anything sinister concealed on my person.
And there would be a next time as my job involved travelling all over the world as a tour leader. Ten weeks after surgery I set off to lead a walking holiday in the Dolomite Mountains. It was good to be travelling again and I was looking forward to returning to Madonna di Campiglio a place I knew well. I was confident that the walks would not present any problems as I had been treading the same paths for years. But due to some diversions the routes had to be altered and they were longer and more difficult than before. We had to descend a track beside a waterfall rather than ascending which was much easier. It was too late to change my mind and I had to get on with it. Other members of the group found it more difficult than I did and our Alpine guide had to help them down the steep sections. Every time he looked up and saw I was the next in line and, as the back marker, the last he just grinned and galloped off to get ahead of the others again. I was elated that he did not think I needed any help. We had worked together the previous summer and the only change he had noticed was the use of my trusty Nordic Walking poles.
My knees were very stiff in the mornings and it took a few revolutions of the breakfast buffet to get them going again. The only person who witnessed these early morning gymnastics was the breakfast waiter as he waited patiently for my order for tea or coffee. Several members of the staff had been there for years and were intrigued by my sudden passion for the gymnasium, a place I generally only visited when I took new guests on a tour of the hotel. My room was so small it was impossible to do the exercises with coloured stretch bands that Herbert Trabanino had added to my daily regime without dislodging a picture or smashing a lamp.
My bands went everywhere with me and were especially useful when I worked on the Riviera dei Fiori as I had to be more creative due to the lack of a gym. I climbed up and down the steps between Monaco and Monte Carlo, always used the stairs to get to my first floor room and often took a brisk, early morning walk to the local village to buy bus tickets from the tobacconists for my guests. There was barely time to do this between dawn and breakfast so one day I experimented by taking a possible short cut and was stranded on the wrong side of a fence that enclosed a building site. I had to climb out or re-trace my steps and forego breakfast. Missing breakfast was not an option and already I was salivating at the thought of crispy pancetta encased in crusty fresh bread. I stepped up onto a low wall where I had spotted an opening in the fencing; probably too narrow to get through. I was wrong. All the exercise of the past few months had resulted in the loss of sufficient weight to go down by one dress size and to wriggle through small gaps. The drop from this side was higher and jumping down from any height was an activity I had avoided for at least two years. I shut my eyes and launched myself off the wall. It was a while before I realised I was on solid ground and nothing hurt.
When I finished my season in Italy on impulse I booked a photographic workshop in Iceland. There were plenty of opportunities to exercise here and I scrambled over mounds of moraine, climbed to the top of high waterfalls and strode along black sand beaches. Fine grains of this stuff came everywhere with us, into our hostel, our rooms and our beds. Our accommodation was very basic and the policy was not to sweep the floor if there was anything on it and not to make the bed if any items had been left on either of the small single beds thereby ensuring there was never any need to clean the room at all. We had been provided with one small towel that had to serve all purposes. My only concern was slipping over when I got out of the shower so I carpeted the floor with towels from a linen cupboard I had found. I struggled to find places to use my stretchy bands. One evening I was bobbing up and down on one leg while tethered to a folded single bed stored on the landing when a large group of new guests arrived. As they trooped past me I nonchalantly wished them a good evening as though my behaviour was quite normal.
The only real challenge of that trip was our midnight quest to find the Northern Lights. We trekked over several moraine hills to an ice lagoon. Going there was fine as it was mostly uphill. Coming back, in the early hours of the morning, it was downhill and the ground had a thin covering of ice. My natural braking system was not fully restored yet and every time I slipped it was a while before I could get my legs under control. Martin, our course tutor, came to my rescue and walked in front of me. I would shout a warning when I took off and he would stand still until I cannoned into him. We were both wearing padded jackets and resembled two Suomi wrestlers bouncing off each other. We both thought this was hilarious but Martin’s partner did not. She suggested I should try a more conventional method and offered me one of her ski poles.
In November I took a group to Myanmar (Burma). By then I had progressed to a wobble board but it would not fit in my suitcase so I had to rely on my ingenuity. Using Asian style toilets was good exercise. Ten times a day was probably a bit excessive but I was overjoyed because I could squat without fear of having to raise the alarm because I could not straighten up again. Climbing to the top of the temples also proved a good test and it was pleasing to discover that even the deepest steps presented no problems. There were times I forgot all about my knees as I rushed around soaking up the culture of this fascinating country. I needed to move quickly when I got lost in a huge local market. I had chosen the temple in the centre as my point of reference without realising that there were four paths that led from it to four different exits. Distracted by a stall holder who tried to paint my face with a grey paste to protect it from the sun I took the wrong path - twice. The only sure way to find our bus was to go round the perimeter but by then I only had five minutes to get there. I set off at a trot weaving my way around locals with bulging bags of produce. As the minutes ticked by I had to speed up as I dare not be late. I arrived with seconds to spare and a big grin on my face – I could run!
Ski Day, and my ultimate goal, dawned clear and bright in early December. A sprinkling of snow sparkled on the peaks of the Dolomites when I emerged from the cabin lift. It had not been difficult to persuade myself that I should have a holiday in Madonna di Campiglio to ensure that I could ski well enough to lead a group at Christmas. I knew there was no reason why I should not be able to ski and the only obstacle would be my own self-doubt. I did not allow myself any negative thoughts and mentally rehearsed skiing down the slopes I knew so well. I did not give myself time to think but snapped on my skis and set off down an easy blue run.
It was just how I imagined it would be and it felt as though I had never been off the slopes. The only difference between now and the last time I skied was the lack of knee supports, pain killers and pain. At first I concentrated on my technique and then I began to enjoy a landscape that brought back so many memories. As I skied alongside the snowboard park I remembered having to be disentangled from the fine mesh of the orange protective fencing when I flew off the border cross course while racing a nine-year old boy. I passed the place where I had skied over the edge in a thick mist and dropped thirty feet into waist deep snow. It took me thirty minutes to struggle back on to the piste. My companions were laughing too much to help me. As I tackled my first red piste I smiled as I recalled the time I had been going too fast and failed to notice that half of it was under a drift. I created a magnificent plume before burying myself in six foot of snow.
It was the burning in my thighs that forced me off the mountain that first day. My knees would have been happy to continue. I would be back the next day and the next - creating new memories. And it was all thanks to my surgeon, Mr Skinner, my physiotherapist, Herbert Trabanino and the supporting staff at Spire Bushey Hospital.
By Valery Collins