Harriet Walker: 'We lose sight of each others' lives'


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The Independent Online

I'm back at work now, after six weeks' writing from the sofa, incapacitated first of all by a plaster cast, then simply by aching joints that had forgotten how to function and scar tissue so taut that walking felt like naughty elves shooting staples into my kneecap. The first day at my desk was, to my mind at least, just like when Jesus arrived at Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, yet without the bell-ringing or the crowds singing "Hosanna".

After a moment feeling miffed, I realised it was entirely a blessing that nobody else had felt my arrival as significantly as I did. This was, at long last, the return to normality that I had craved from the moment my leg snapped in three places six weeks earlier.

Nevertheless, it's frightening when you realise other people's existences don't revolve around your own – especially when you have a column to write. It's staggering to think that the cataclysmic, world-changing event that has happened to you affects precisely no one else to the same extent, and that some people will feel it not even a jot (although I must at this point thank all those who contacted me to wish me a speedy recovery).

That the tectonics of your life should be seismic only in the ground beneath your own feet is not a feeling that we humans, we fragile collections of hair, dust and recycled shopping bags, can get used to.

My pregnant sister took a rug to the dry cleaner's last week. "When do you want to pick it up?" chewed the shop attendant. "Monday?"

"Actually," replied my sister, with a smile, raised eyebrow and pat of her neatly distended tum, "I'm having a baby on Monday, so I won't be able to then."

"Tuesday?" the attendant asked without looking up from the docket she was writing out.

"She mustn't have heard me," my sister later rationalised.

But why should the dry cleaner care about the tiny gestating form only metres away? That's not a rhetorical question: we lose sight of other people's miracles, when they are so few and far between in our own lives. The dry cleaner's event horizon was finishing her shift, just as mine is so often getting home and finding there's a Don't Tell the Bride omnibus on.

If only she could see the tiny person who arrived last Monday. The snuffling cuteness would have restored her faith in the transcendent importance of things that occur beyond oneself. I'm not suggesting everyone should have been more interested in my leg; far from it – I have eked out its narrative for long enough. But it's worth listening when people talk: they're telling you something because they're excited, apprehensive, proud, or simply overwhelmed. And that makes it interesting.

It's a difficult line to draw between chattering away like a lonely fishwife and rigidly keeping your own counsel about the things that are happening to you, but mutual acknowledgement is the communion all life is based on. "Are you really?" the dry cleaner should have responded. "That's nice. Now, when do you want your rug back?"

Other things that can be filed away under "the kindness of strangers" include the many taxi drivers who have helped me navigate around my life since one leg stopped working: from the man who first ferried me home from hospital and helped me into the back seat, manipulating the thigh-high cast as if he were tossing a caber, to the most recent one, who looked concerned and asked in hushed tones whether I had been a victim of domestic violence, each has added a humane glimmer to my convalescence.

It's encouraging to note, especially in London, that some people do care what happens to those around them, and that they don't mind making their own life harder if it helps someone out. (This last to the cabbie who had to drive with his face squashed against the windscreen so I could fit in behind him.)

That said, there has been an embarrassed silence in shops, where being even slightly indisposed becomes something to be furtive about. I had to buy some trainers last week, having not donned a sports shoe for more than a decade. "Oh no, I need to try the left shoe, please," I explained, "as the foot on my broken leg is bigger than the other." The sales assistant looked nauseated.

How different from when I was in Sheffield over Christmas, where two old ladies in a café told me in great detail about their own gruesome operations. It was at this point I realised it was time to shut up about my own leg. So thank you to those who wished me well; who dressed and fed me; who did my laundry; who listened to me moan and wiped my tears. But that's it now: I'm back on my feet and hobbling towards a brighter future.