Thursday, 3 June 2010

Your own private hell

I saw him walking along the Seven Hills Road as I drove to Guildford at 5am a few weeks back. He wasn't hard to miss. He was tall (at least 6'2") and wiry, wearing black lycra leggings, black trainers, a black top, a black rucksack, two reflective armbands and a black beany hat.

He looked like a cyclist who didn't have a bike. And he was walking hard.

The Seven Hills Road is nearly two miles long. It links Walton and Weybridge to the A3, and skirts St George's Hill, the most expensive private estate in the country (The Beatles lived there, now it's more for Russian oligarchs). Pedestrians are few and far between.

Thirteen hours after I saw him, I saw him again. In almost exactly the same spot, the same man, dressed in the same clothes, was walking back towards where I had seen him coming from at 5am in the morning.

"Surely he's not...?" I thought to myself, and then decided to find out. I hit the brakes, pulled into the side of the road 20 yards ahead of him and buzzed the passenger window down.

"Excuse me!"

The man stopped, and lowered himself to look in through the open window.

"Do you want a lift?" I asked.

He didn't want a lift. He was happy to walk. He was "happy" to be alive. He used to cycle along the Seven Hills Road every day until he was hit by a lorry around this time last year. He spent two months in a coma. The lorry driver never stopped. He nearly died. He has severe epilepsy. He's not allowed to drive, and isn't really that keen to cycle any more. He has memory loss, problems concentrating, and spent the latter half of 2009 in a hospital bed, trying to find a way to function again.

He works at Air Products in Hersham as a production manager. After his accident, they kept his job open. So, yes, he now walks 6 miles to work every day and 6 miles back. From Hersham to Byfleet, where, at the age of fifty-something, he is living with his mother, who can monitor his health and be there to alert the emergency services if he has a fit.

I ask him what it's like walking past the spot he was nearly killed, twice a day, five days a week. He looks bitter.

"Well..." he says, "you know..."

I ask if he's had any luck tracing the driver of the lorry, or any damages, or any support from an epilepsy charity or any assistance at all in his recuperation. He shakes his head.

He doesn't know the extent of his brain injury, and so can't claim for damages for 3 or 4 years. He's had all the physio and help he needs from within the NHS, but now he is back on his feet, he's on his own.

I ask him if it's sustainable, walking 12 miles a day, every weekday, whilst putting in a full day's shift.

He isn't sure. I tell him what I do, and ask him if he wants to talk about this on the radio.

"Sure." he says, dispassionately, "apparently it's quite helpful to the recovery process to talk things through like that."

I ask for his contact details. He has them all written on a post-it note inside his wallet in case he blacks out.

He hands it over. I look into his eyes for a moment. Fucking hell.

The exchange has lasted about three minutes. It's starting to spit with rain. "Are you sure you don't want a lift?" I ask.

"No. I'm fine." he says. I wish him goodbye, put the post-it in my pocket, and pull back onto the road.


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