Accidents well happen

Near misses seem to be part of my life. Around six years ago it was cycling accident. It was raining and I drove into what looked like a shallow puddle. Minutes later, I found myself on my back with a passer-by asking questions, blood coming from my forehead, my crash helmet broken, the bike frame snapped and my confidence seriously jolted. I have rarely cycled on London roads since.

The next jolt occurred some four years later while driving a car. I fell asleep at the wheel and without my wife’s quick thinking, we would have hit a concrete barrier [Après le déluge, moi, 5 September 2012]. A very much revised approach to driving soon followed.

The latest near miss, which left me with cuts and bruises was, as before, an accident that should never have happened. It occurred as I worked on the dry-stone well in our front garden in France [Magic Well, 7 August 2013]. The well shaft is narrow – 74 cm wide –  4.5 meters deep, and dank. Looking down inside was always a bit scary and for safety’s sake we advised everybody to treat the edge with the greatest respect.

For over a year the top of the well has been flush with the surrounding soil. In order to make it safer and looking more like a proper well, we decided to put a ring of coping stones (a margelle) on its lip. Most of the work was done with Jean-Claude, the mason, but that afternoon I decided to work alone, marking out exactly where the stones of the margelle should be laid the next day.

For security, the hole had been covered by a broad sheet of plywood on which were laid two heavy slabs of concrete. To start work, I first lifted off one slab, then the second and finally the more cumbersome ply. With this in my hands, forgetting that there was a gaping hole in front of me, I took a fateful step forward. I had time to think, “Oh ****, there’s nothing to step on,” as I threw myself to the right, across the mouth of the well. The moments immediately after that are hazy but I found myself with my head, arms and shoulders on the stones on one side of the well, my feet on the other side and my behind suspended over the shaft. I got up carefully to find that I had suffered various grazes and bruises and, I assumed, a cracked rib. I finished off my marking before going slowly inside the house for a restorative cup of tea.

The whole event had been pretty scary and over the cup of tea I ran over the events again and again. Some details were clear, others were lost and the question “why?” was gradually resolved, at least at one level. It was, I concluded, not the onset of dementia, not a blackout, just stupid thoughtlessness.

For long periods over the next few days, despite the maximum dose of painkillers, I sat pained, motionless and gloomy. At night, I tried hard to find a position that was comfortable.  Not for the first time, I was reminded how much I hate being immobile and dependent. Nevertheless, I received much help, kindness, support and sympathy, together with the occasional telling-off and solemn warning.  Odd though it may seem, there were two messages that particularly lifted my spirits. Jean-Claude, who had suffered a similar but more serious fall many years ago, told me, “Accidents will happen. It could have been much worse. In the grand scheme of things it is a minor event.” My son Joshua, who had been told of my tumble, phoned to say how glad he was to hear that I was getting “un-welled” so quickly. It is odd how these words of comfort can make a difference.

Soon after the fall, aided by more painkillers, we restarted work on the well. During the day my main problems were physical, with twinges of pain as the muscles in the right side my chest complained. At night, in addition to the pain, there was now the recurring “what if?” question. As I went to sleep, or if I woke in the early hours, this same dominant question arose. At worst, I could have fallen into the water and getting out unaided would have been impossible. Since I was alone it could have been an hour or so before help arrived. These thoughts are the stuff of nightmares and though diminishing they still persist.

After a few days the margelle was finished, with great relief. The project was completed by laying gravel around the well and it is now bordered by three stone/brick walls and an old railway sleeper. As Jean-Claude says, accidents will happen. All’s well that ends well. Even so, I am left ruminating over the fall and wondering how I can avoid such escapades in the future.

3 thoughts on “All’s well that ends well

  1. What a harrowing tale, Joe, and I’m sure there is a lesson in it for us all.

    You conclude your story by wondering how to avoid such escapades in future. May I be so bold as to suggest three things you could do to improve the odds of surviving long enough to enjoy the fruits of your labour:

    Firstly, never undertake dangerous work without somebody else being present in the house and, of course, without the appropriate clothing and protection for eyes, ears, lungs, etc. The definition of “dangerous” work would include anything involving electrics, ladders, roofing, mechanical diggers, hedge trimmers, lifting of heavy weights AND wells. Also, when working outside you should carry with you a means of attracting attention – something as simple as a whistle, for instance. Thirdly, KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS. As we get older it is very hard to recognise (and even harder to come to terms with) our declining physical strength, eyesight and reflexes. Therefore, when even in the slightest doubt, leave it to an expert!

    RoSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) provides useful guidelines on Preventing Accidents in the Home and I recommend them to you and to your readers.

    Andy Ince

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  2. I was happy to hear that you recovered from your accident. To reassure you that such accidents are not age related, here’s mine: I was walking backwards carrying a flat back wardrobe with my teenage son, then tripped over an unseen obstacle behind me…and went flying. The fall was not as painful as yours sounds, and the final product, although also practical, was not as good looking as your lovely well. Judith

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