First Time Back by Sheila De Courcy
I walk slowly up the narrow path to the cottage. Sodden grasses, spilling over the boundary banks, brushoff my thighs. The ground is slippy. Beneath the overgrowth lurk shiny cobblestones and with each footstep the scent of wild garlic explodes in the air. There are thistles as high as my waist which I pull with ease from the wet ground, laying them aside for gathering later. Sparrows dart from gutter to bare hedge, chirping in the thin sunshine. Across the bay below waves are rolling for miles, their white froth vivid against the grey sea. Out on the horizon linger heavy rain clouds waiting for their turn to play on the shoreline. Such are December days on the south coast of Ireland when nature performs with exuberance and beauty. I have arrived.
I last took this bumpy path five months ago in the quiet hours of a summer’s night. That time I was leaving. I can still hear the paramedics chatter as they pulled the front door closed and see the light of the ambulance pulsating as it waited for us on the lane. I have no idea how I got there however. In a wheelchair? On a stretcher? A fireman’s lift?
In wintertime the heavy wooden door swells, needs a hefty shove to open it. Later I will soap the wood but first the electricity and water need to be turned on and the cottage scanned for weather damage and the presence of little creatures who might have taken up residence. Then the stove must be lit. This cottage, a ‘two up two down’, was built in the 1820s to house coastguards. For twenty years now it has housed my family for stretches of time. In winter the walls are slow to warm up. In summertime they carry the heat of the day.
When travel restrictions were lifted in late June I relocated here from Dublin to research routes in West Waterford taken by solo female travellers in the nineteenth century. I planned to stay for a number of months. Each morning I plotted out on maps the journeys described in original texts. Then in the early afternoon, with a flask, binoculars and notebook in my backpack, I would go exploring. My rambles took me along ancient tracks into the hills and secluded pathways along rivers and shorelines. I crawled through mud under rhododendron thickets, bruised my shins clambering rocky coasts, got soaked in boggy streams, lost in overgrown forests, and ambled old roads dotted with abandoned cottages, pictures of a pope and JFK still on the walls. Along the way I found evidence of the landscapes our solo travellers would have encountered almost 200 years ago.
My interest in female adventurers stretches back decades. From the youngest age, coastlines, fields, cities and hills were my playground. Sometimes I took a sketchbook with me but mostly the purpose of the expedition was simply to learn more about the world. It wasn’t consciously a solitary pursuit, but I loved the freedom that comes with walking alone and would take every opportunity I could to explore. Over the years my work in television took me to unusual places. When work finished for the day there might be a whole new city to discover but often solo rambles just involved slipping out from a sleeping house at dawn to follow a local stream, before making breakfast for the family. It worried people who I care about that I would walk alone. I sought language and role models in books about expeditions and adventures that might help to reassure them but in the end it was often easier to say nothing.
These two hundred year old walls are almost two feet thick. Built to protect their residents from the extremes of the weather. Outside, in the quickening December wind, I listen to sea rushing the cliffs and the long shore. Inside, the stove has been lighting for 24 hours and the cottage is warming. On a crackling radio signal I listen to the Dublin - Mayo All-Ireland final, a match delayed by several months due to CoVid. These days the world is in a dreadful jumble but here, in Carthy’s Cove, the bright-with-stars sky wraps this small cottage in beauty.
That summer night in July I was tired. I had spent a frustrating afternoon criss-crossing fields unable to find, on the ground, tracks which were clearly marked on maps. In the early evening, sitting outside the cottage with a big mug of tea, I listened to my daughter talking on the radio from her life 10,000km beyond my skyline. As twilight came I revisited the nineteenth century, photographing the ruins of a protestant church on the hill above an old ferry point.
That night in July I wanted a good sleep. Insomnia has been my friend since the menopause but still I yearn for the deep sleep of teenage years so I wore an eye mask to block out the sunrise which wakes me each morning.
That night, when I felt the need to pee in the middle of the night, I was on automatic, I didn’t want to waken fully. And so I rolled out of bed, with my eyes closed and eye mask on, and decided to feel my way along the wall to the bathroom. The bathroom lies in the opposite direction to the open stairwell.
Then it went something like this: Flashes of colour. Spinning. Try to grab the baluster. Moving too fast. Wham. At the bottom of the stairs. My right foot is going in a different direction to the rest of my leg. There is blood. I need help fast. My nearest neighbours are 500m away. My phone is upstairs by the window.
Leaning forward I place one hand on each side of my smashed leg and spread out my fingers. I push the bones gently from both sides. Millimetre by millimetre they slide towards one another. On the balusters beside me is something black which I unfold and use to bind the limb in wide widths. Then I tie a firm knot. Finally, grateful for once that I have strong thighs, I haul myself backwards up the stairs and drag myself around the bed to my phone to call emergency services.
Now the unlocking pin on my phone will not work. The 6 is not responding. I keep trying. Eventually it works. A woman answers. It is 3.17am. She tells me her name is Hickie. I tell her I need an ambulance. Hickie is calm, and reassuring. I google the location code for her. Although only ten minutes’ drive from a national route, the cottage is remote and hard to find. She stays on the line while I re-tighten the bandage. Then, placing my phone between my teeth, I manoeuvre my way back down the steep stairs and open the front door to wait.
Later I discover that the fall, spinning from about 12 feet, would have taken about 0.8 seconds. My ankle hit the ground with a force of around 32kmph.
Sitting on the bottom stair I can hear the sea through the door but mostly I listen to Hickie. She keeps me up to date on the position of the ambulance. I have to concentrate in order to understand what she is saying. She never leaves me alone with the sea for too long. It takes 24 minutes for emergency services to arrive.
When the ambulance man came in he would have seen a middle aged, red haired woman sitting on the stairs. She is wearing a loose, grey dress extensively bloodstained and an expression of gratitude. There is blood smeared across the floor. Her right leg, wrapped tightly in black cotton leggings, is resting on a bloodied, pale blue bodyboard. She counts earnestly from 10 to 1 backwards, anxious to show she hasn’t hit her head, and then gives details of her name, date of birth, phone number and outlines what needs to be done to close up the cottage before leaving for the hospital.
I know this because a few days later, as I wait in the trauma ward of Cork University Hospital for surgery on what turns out to be a severely broken ankle, I discover two photos on my phone. In the first photo you can see a laced boot and knee. It’s the ambulance man. It looks like he is on one knee in front of me and is assessing my ankle as my injured limb is clearly visible, the black leggings are to one side and there are pools of drying blood on the blue floor. The second photo is a closer photo of the flesh wound where the broken bones tore through the skin. I remember asking the ambulance man if I could take the photos for future reference before he bandaged me.
In the months that followed there were pins and plates and many weeks on my back in Dublin, kitties snuggled in the bed bumps, watching clouds shifting. Through the open windows came the sounds of squeaky trampolines and laughter and the smells of charred vegetables in the late summer breezes, enlivening the tiny world where my partner and daughter took shifts to look after me. Kindness from family and friends was extraordinary. Dinners, messages, cakes, books, music, plants, calls, even soft bedlinen came my way, all helping to keep spirits buoyant while we waited. Then, involuntarily I would scream or groan loudly as flashbacks would rip through me without warning. My daughter, who listened out for me during those weeks, would bring cups of tea and funny stories and sit with me as the trauma receded.
(I had slept uneventfully in the same bed and visited the same bathroom in the dark for almost two decades so how was it that, that night, I fell?)
Eventually, as autumn arrived, I was able to leave the house. Friends drove me to the sea and up on the bog. They walked alongside me as I took my first painful steps. They looked out for me as I began driving short distances on my own and they let me go without admonishment. Up on the Feather Bed, alone but for skylarks and grouse squawking in the heather, my breathing began to deepen once again. Surrounded by damp peat and vast skies, with the valleys of Glencree and Glenasmole falling away to either side, the Sugar Loaf a bump on the horizon, the flashbacks began to fade and then leave.
Full fitness will come in time but for now, five months on, it is enough to be independent and at last to be able to acknowledge the support that got me here. As December dusk falls I call in to the ambulance service HQ in Youghal with a box filled with bags of toffees and marshmallows, jellies and chocolates. The duty paramedic is cheery. In a strangulated voice I ask to pass on my effusive thanks to the team which rescued me. I know I was lucky, got off very lightly. He understands. “I’d love to give you a hug” he says with heartfelt warmth “but, the virus… Can we do a virtual elbow bump?”.
As I settle myself for bed the staircase doesn’t look as high as it has appeared in my mind’s eye for the past 5 months. But just in case I position a chair and huge bag between my bed and the top of the stairs.
In the morning I wake from the deepest sleep in many months to rain drumming on the roof and light following the cloud across the howling sea and in my window.