Harriet Walker: 'My foot's as swollen as a bloated cadaver'

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The Independent Online

You'd be amazed by the amount of non-prescription tat it's possible to buy when you have a broken leg. I don't just mean the potential hazards of being shut in a flat alone all day with your credit card and your laptop equidistant from your itchingly underused hands, and the omnipresent sartorial problem of having one leg that won't fit in your drainpipe jeans.

I mean the technical extras that purport to help out: the eye-wateringly and hand-blisteringly expensive high-end crutches that you can lavish money on should the standard-issue grey ones prove simply too orthopaedic (although what else a matte-black pair could ever masquerade as is anyone's guess); the clamp-ended grabbers to help you pick up your socks from where you flung them (admittedly, you don't need a broken leg for this one); the berry-scented "no itch" fragrance that you spray down your cast to stop it smelling of hospitals and old skin; the floral-print sleeve to wear over your pot so you can match it to your Demis Roussos-esque invalid's kaftan.

I've actually had my cast removed now – they sawed it in half and prised it open like a tiny tomb, and it gave a hot little wheeze like an ancient sarcophagus. So now I'm left with one useless leg – for a while longer at least – as well as all the apparatus of illness that I acquired while I was in traction: a giant airtight prophylactic to protect my cast while washing, for instance, and some DIY syringes full of anti-clotting medicine. The company I bought my leg condom from has just emailed me again, suggesting I might want one for my arm.

All this stuff and all that money, yet no one really tells you what you'll actually need to make your life on crutches that little bit better, easier or more glamorous. Needless to say, nobody ever needed – I mean, really needed, in the same way that Orpheus missed Eurydice or that the tides would stay still without the Moon – a pair of tinsel-bedecked vajazzled crutches and a fibreglass resin cast that whiffs of lab-developed strawberries.

No, what you need, what you absolutely have to have to make life bearable are these: a roomy shopping bag, a Thermos, a strong stomach and a new haircut. The bag is to carry everything else you need (phone, lip balm, codeine; at times, sandwiches and a carton of Ribena) over one shoulder because you can't hold things in your hands as well as move on crutches. The Thermos is because nobody should be deprived of tea just because trying to walk while holding a mug would result in slopping and third-degree burns (thanks here to my mum, a devoted tea-drinker who saw to it from her throne in Sheffield that a Thermos was delivered right to my door in London almost before I was discharged from hospital).

Without the strong stomach, your bag and Thermos mean nothing because you'd just be curled up in a corner, gently rocking at the idea that your leg now contains seven inches of titanium forever and gagging whenever you caught sight of that self-same limb, withered, pointing at a slightly unusual angle, phenomenally hairy and covered in stitches that would make Frankenstein's monster seem a natural beauty. Without a strong stomach, you simply wouldn't get past the fact that, after a night spent sitting on a chair like a normal person rather than lying on a chaise longue like a consumptive, your foot swells like a bloated cadaver and practically starts to thrum a tattoo, so vigorously is the blood trying to get through to it. You'd gasp at the strange hot patches on your knee and heel where the bones are knitting, and wince at the snake-like amounts of skin left behind after any sort of bathing.

And you'd blanch at the amount of hair you can lose after trauma and general anaesthetic – another thing nobody warns you about and which leads nicely to the haircut. I have had all my stringy blondeness cut off, after weeks of it coming away from my head in fistfuls, clogging brushes, carpets, plugholes and social occasions with its static wispiness. And I've had it dyed dark, to hide the patches at the back where great hanks snapped off after weeks of lying in hospital, in bed and on sofas, unable to sleep on my side.

If you have these four things, you'll be fine with your broken leg. So fine, in fact, that were you to see me sitting in a restaurant, you'd just think I'm a woman with dark hair, a Thermos and a shopping bag. And if you saw me tucking into the first celebratory meal I ordered once my cast came off – foie gras, liver, pork belly and meringue – you'd also know I'm a woman with a strong stomach.

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