Pain and injured pride

Park Life
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The Independent Culture
EACH TIME I lace on my boots for a game of Sunday league football, I know I could be doing it for the last time. It's not that I have a morbid fear of some terrible, career-ending injury: nothing happens fast enough at my level to cause that amount of damage. But my wife, Ginny, has made it plain that absenteeism from domestic duties on the grounds of a sports- induced injury will not be tolerated.

Women can be very hard-line on such matters. When an acquaintance of mine shattered his jawbone in a freak accident during an innocent weekend kick-around in the park, his wife (considerably younger than him, as it happens) showed no sympathy at all. He was not allowed to join the family for meals until he could chew properly again, and for weeks afterwards, every time he moaned, she would berate him as a silly old man who should know better than to play boys' games - and he must have been all of 37 years old at the time. Ginny may not go that far. But she has declared that now I am over 40, my next injury will be taken as notice that it is time to retire from contact sports.

She had been working away from home for a few days the last time I injured myself, a year or so ago. Early in the game I chased a through ball at top speed (don't laugh) with an under-veteran-age full-back in hot pursuit; he caught me, and my right ankle buckled under the two of us. My first thought in the split second before the excruciating pain registered was: "Ginny will be furious."

As I lay moaning on the turf, my mind calibrated my chances of hiding the injury. If I get to the hospital quickly, I thought, and they put on a lightweight cast, she may never notice - although I never quite worked out how I'd maintain my secret when we went to bed. A kindly team-mate said he'd give my two sons pizza for lunch while I struggled to the hospital; if I arrived there early enough - before the other Sunday league football injuries - all should be quiet in the accident and emergency department.

I made it to A&E by 11.30am, but there was already a long queue of patients - most of them, by the look of it, casualties from the night before who had slept through their pain in various states of inebriation, and discovered their injuries only on waking. Realising that a whole afternoon spent waiting for an X-ray would be regarded as a dereliction of domestic duty, I headed home again and collapsed in front of the television set, propped my foot up on a pillow, and balanced a bag of frozen peas on my ankle to ease the swelling. But by the time Ginny walked in at 6pm, I was hobbling around the kitchen on one foot, brandishing a frying-pan and pretending that nothing was amiss.

She was not fooled. "Why are you hopping around like a mad kangaroo?" she inquired. Then her face fell: "What on earth have you done to yourself?"

"Oh, nothing much - it's just a slight sprain, and look, I'm getting the boys their tea," I flannelled, adding "DON'T TOUCH!" as she made to prod my ankle, which was by now distended and a strange shade of blue.

Needless to say, Ginny took over the boys' tea and kindly dispatched me back to A&E, from which I emerged, five hours and a clear X-ray later, on a pair of crutches.

I managed to negotiate an extension to my football career on the basis that nothing was broken, and anyway - as I pointed out - sport is not the only hazardous activity. The only chronic injury I have ever suffered was the result of sleeping in an awkward position on the Southern Aurora overnight train from Sydney to Melbourne. The next morning I could barely move my neck, and there was little that medicine or physiotherapy could do that would make it better. The pain and stiffness wore off, only to recur at random intervals over the next 10 years until the sports physiotherapist at my squash club straightened the offending vertebra.

So I knew what to do last week when Ginny called me home from work, and I found her flat on the bed, unable to move, with an acute pain at the base of her spine - caused by bending down at an injudicious angle to pick up her handbag. I rang the squash club and asked for the physio, who diagnosed it over the phone: "Slipped disk - come in and I'll fix it up tomorrow." And he did.