A bad back is a pain in the arse.
Actually, to be technical, it’s a pain a few inches above the arse and, in my case, over to the right. It is nevertheless a pain in the arse, and one that I have had to live with all week, and for the last thirty years.
It’s all my own fault, or rather it’s my mate John’s fault. If he hadn’t served that next-to-unreturnable ball to me in the backhand court whilst playing squash one Sunday morning in 1984, I wouldn’t have tried to return it by stretching high and wide to my left, turning my even then not exactly slender body to try to reach the ball as it descended into the corner. And I wouldn’t have felt that massive spasm all across the small of my back, just below the waistline that has been making life awkward and uncomfortable for me all week.
Just one mistake, thirty-odd years ago, and I’m still paying for it. It’s not fair.
On the other hand, that’s what happens with backs. Do them once and you’re a martyr to them all your life.
The first effect was more or less immediate. My Great-Uncle Alf, the immediately older brother of my Grandad, had recently died at his home in Bootle. This was not the Liverpool Bootle, but the rather less famous Cumberland one, through which we had passed innumerable times on the coast road to Ravenglass, where Uncle Alf had been born.
Though we had never been close, I was Uncle Alf’s executor, since Grandad’s death two years previously, and attendance at the Funeral was more or less mandatory. Since I would be handling the Estate via my then firm, there was no trouble about agreeing the day off to attend, the following Friday.
There were a number of problems associated with this. The Funeral service was arranged for 9.00am in Bootle. At the time, I still lived at home, with my mother, who was also attending. A lifelong smoker, she was already suffering from the early effects of the emphysema that would contribute to her death less than a decade later, but its early morning affects on her meant that she would drive up on Thursday, stay overnight and go directly to the Church.
Therefore, I had to drive up and back on the Friday, leaving home in South Manchester at 6.00am, to arrive on time. With my back still so painful that I could only stand to sit in one place, such as behind the wheel of a car, for no more than an hour.
This led directly to an experience that demonstrated to me exactly how odd life can be. The first leg got me as far as the Lancaster services on the M6, and I was pushing it a bit to last that long. I arrived about 6.50am, gingerly unwound myself from the car, and went in search of a newspaper. The shop was on the other side of the motorway, so I hobbled across the bridge to the southbound side, only to find it closed, open at 7.00am.
Time was a little on the tight side: when the shop opened, I would have to grab the Guardian and run back to my car (not run, but you get what I mean). Until then, there was nothing to do, on a Service Station bridge, above the M6, at 6.50am. Or rather there was. There was one thing, exactly one, with which to while away the slow-passing time until I could resume my journey.
Which is why I found myself playing a video pool game on my way to a funeral.
The rest of the journey was eventless. The second leg got me as far as Broughton-in-Furness, where I pulled up in the square, swigging from my flask of coffee, letting the new kinks unknot themselves, whilst schoolgirls were wandering around before going to school. You wouldn’t imagine there could be as many of them as there were in a place as small as that.
I was at Bootle with a quarter hour to spare. I remember nothing of my stops on the way home, though they were in the same places and my back was still extremely uncomfortable.
Incidentally, though it has nothing to do with my back, my mother and I had to repeat this exercise twelve months later, when Aunty Marion followed her husband to the grave at Muncaster. I was not an Executor this time (Aunty Marion was a Parkinson, an altogether higher form of life than mere Crookalls) and this time my much older cousin Robin came back from Australia for the Funeral. The Funeral was also set for the much more civilized time of 2.00pm, but despite that my mother and I still went in separate cars, from the same house.
This was decidedly unsound ecologically, but the only possible solution. Quite apart from the fact that neither of us could have stood six hours driving listening to the other’s music, there was the practical aspect of my mother’s smoking. I wasn’t prepared to sit in her car for three hours each way with her cigarettes, and she wasn’t prepared to spend the same time in my car without them. In the end, personal ecology prevailed.
That first spasm took about three weeks before my back felt normal again. There was no squash during this period, and no five-a-side football, for me at least. I was the organizer of games for our office and just because I couldn’t play, it didn’t let me off booking pitches and getting together match squads: I just needed to provide for one more guest than we were used to.
Funnily enough, I was ok for about a year before my back abruptly went on me again. And there was another spell about a year after that, as if I were now prone to an annual bout of back back-itis. The Doctor basically advised me there was nothing to be done. Ray, an ex-Army PTI married to one of my oldest friends, confirmed that once a back had gone, it had gone, and I would have to put up with it all my life.
Being generally overweight didn’t help: I carry a full stomach before me which has never helped the burden my back has to put up with. On the other hand, I have never had any issues with my back when contorting myself to pass obstacles on the fells, nor has it ever kept me from starting out on another expedition, for which grace I am eternally grateful.
That it was completely and utterly unpredictable was emphasized in the mid-Nineties. I had been problem free for some time until, one lunchtime, I stooped to get into my car. It was a move I’d made hundreds of times before, and this particular day was nothing different, but it spasmed on me and this time I was screwed, good and proper.
It was the longest and worst burst of trouble I ever had. Getting into and out of a chair, especially at work, left me sweating and aching, but getting into and out of bed was a nightmare. To get up, I had to roll myself onto one side, push myself upright and then try to straighten up, knowing that there was one point where my body was bent forward in a way that was absolute agony.
Getting into bed was just as bad, though it was slightly easier. I would lower myself to the point just before the serious pain started and then have to let myself fall onto the bed, passing through the agony angle as fast as possible.
It was so bad, I went back to my doctor, who once again spread his hands and disavowed any ability to do anything about it. Then again, my doctor at this point was very good at diagnosing leaving things to work out for themselves. I had a bad case of an intermittent sore heel that, in the thinking of the time, was described as being a ‘bone spur’, which was cripplingly painful when active, for which I was recommended to ‘live with it’. My doctor also made a point of telling me that, despite the incredible stress I was under from my them employers, he would not sign me off for stress, because it wouldn’t help me (if it had got me off for two weeks, that would have been something, though it would have cost me in income: partner in a law firm, gets only Statutory sick Pay if off ill).
I got through it and, as if in compensation, had several years of trouble-free back. On the other hand, when it reared its ugly head again, it was as a permanent, low-level backache, of which I was conscious but only in minor discomfort from, that lasted for something like three years unchanged.
It wasn’t a pain, it didn’t hinder me doing anything, it was just there, as much a part of my life as my right hand, or breathing. It just went one and on and on, to the point that, when it actually stopped one day, I didn’t even notice. When I finally realised that my backache wasn’t there, it had to have been at least a fortnight before it had vanished. I’d just taken it so much in my stride that, most of the time, I was virtually unconscious of my problem back.
Since then, it’s been a case of now-and-again outbreaks like the current one, which has now lasted six days and, whilst it is easing – in the sense of my now having the pain all concentrated into the exact spot that suffered the original pull/tear/spasm/whatever as opposed to being across the whole of my back, a job in which I spend hours at a time in a chair waiting for unhappy customers to call me is not best suited to speedy recovery. Or easy locomotion when I stand up (it takes me the best part of ten yards to straighten up sufficiently to look as if I’m not a hunchback).
Still, weekend’s coming and I’ll be trying to relax my muscles as best as possible. At least it doesn’t stop me writing, though you may quibble as to exactly how that is beneficial…