The other day, for no discernible reason I found myself tapping out this little true-life anecdote. I enjoy writing stuff like a fitness addict likes to exercise. It is pleasantly challenging, and at the end of it you are left with something you can share, though less enjoyable than my wife’s loaves and cakes, the making of which is her hobby. Copy begins:
“Let me tell you about the day I died.
I recently related how I once pretended to be dead, so as to spoof some colleagues. Let me tell you now how I came so close to death that ever since, I have felt myself to be continuously on the threshold of that state.
About 25 years ago, on a Summer Saturday, I met up with some old school friends from 12 years before. We picnicked the afternoon away in a sunny meadow in north-east Oxford. The food was plentiful, but the wine was more so. We were near the river Cherwell, and by the evening we all decided that it would be great fun to take a punt on that river.
In Oxford, a punt is a shallow bottomed boat propelled by pushing a long pole against the river bed. It does not mean “a gambling bet”. Punting has inspired some truly awful jokes, such as: Question: “What is the connection between punting and Watneys beer?” Answer: “They’re both f**king close to water!”. etc.
So, the whole party, with vine-fuelled alacrity, trumped off to the nearest punt-merchant’s premises, which was the Cherwell boathouse in north Oxford. We hired a couple of punts and sailed north against the stream to the Victoria Arms in Marston, a famous riverside pub, (featured in the Inspector Morse TV programmes, if you are interested).
“Much Guinness zooms down past lips now” (MGZDPLN) – that is a mnemonic for the branches of the maxillary nerve btw- accurately describes what happened there. We suddenly realised we had to get home while the sun was still in the sky. Dangerously stocious, we all boarded our punts and set sail to the south to reclaim our deposits.
Although I couldn’t swim, I was tremendously proud of my punting technique. Instead of lifting the pole clear out of the water with each stroke, I merely flipped it over by 180 degrees at the middle point and plunged the other end into the soggy riverbed advancing towards me. This technique had worked for me for years before, but not this night.
The pole hit a very adhesive bit of sediment, got stuck, and I held on too long……
I fell in, with a quiet plop, because I was too chilled to scream for help.
My drunkenly preoccupied friends coasted on downriver, regardless of the fact that I was suddenly in mortal peril. It was by this time after sunset, and the afterglow in the sky was rapidly diminishing.
I sunk far into the chilling murky deepness of the Cherwell. During my rapid traverse downwards I even thought about it’s infestation with Weil’s disease, which was something I had read about at medical school. I’ve always had a problem with paying attention and ordering my priorities, especially in the present moment.
Everything was occurring in slow motion. The viscosity of the water helped make this reality. My feet eventually touched the squidgy river bottom, about seven feet down. Fortunately my lungs were already filled to their vital capacity, but I knew from experience that even so I wasn’t capable of floating passively to the surface, my being of a rather dense construction.
I crouched then leapt upwards with all my strength towards the dim light above. I broke the surface and my uplifted hands touched some drooping twigs from the overhanging trees, but failed to grasp them. Back down I sank, a little disappointed I must admit.
I tried again but didn’t even touch the trees this time. As I submerged for the third time, I remembered how in folklore drowning persons only come up three times. Panic began to introduce herself to me. With a grim resigned inner smile I remarked to myself “What an utterly facile and silly way for me to die….”.
By now, after all my strenuous efforts and no effective ventilation of my lungs, my carbon dioxide levels were high, and my blood was probably getting blue. As a result my adrenal glands did their thing and bolused my bloodstream with a pre-terminal dose of adrenaline. My circulation ramped up and my feeble musculature prepared for its final desperate offices. I pushed upwards again, despairingly this time. The light above me was now completely gone.
Lo! Behold! My fingers touched upon a solid hard smooth-ish thing that was passing along the water’s surface above me. Quite by autopilot my hands explored this thing and found an edge that could be gripped. I pulled hard and brought my head above the surface and my exhalation was like a bull’s roar. If there had been any cliff faces nearby, there would have been some impressive echoes.
Look you, my friends’ flotilla of pleasure craft, now a way off downstream, were not the last ones afloat that evening. My salvation came in the form of another punt that had been just behind mine. It was full of young Japanese tourists, male and female. My sudden noisy appearance from the realm of Neptune, in that setting, obviously disquieted them greatly. It must have resembled a scene from a horror movie as my muddy and be-weeded head noisily popped up in the quiet gloom. My ears were assaulted by their screams and curses shouted in an unknown tongue. Then I thought I was seeing stars and supernovae, but in fact they were just camera flashes.
As my rapid gasping restored my blood gases and my head cleared I began to see everything as it really was. This worthless bogger’s life had just been saved from certain death by complete strangers, working unknowingly.
My new incomprehensible friends also began to understand the situation. I was too heavy and the punt was too unstable for me to be brought aboard, so they carried me like a grateful limpet with them downstream to the boathouse’s wharf a short distance away. My friends were already there, wondering cluelessly where I had got to. As I gripped the wharfside boards and said farewell to my saviours, my chums noticed me and helped pull me up and out of the water. I immediately began to drip dry and shiver in my sodden muddiness. I really wished I could do that spin-dry thing that dogs do. There was insufficient privacy for me to strip off my soaked clothing, but someone found a towel from somewhere, which helped a lot.
Still chilled to the marrow, I audited my situation. Though earlier intoxicated by alcohol, I now felt as sober as a judge on an adrenaline high. My pupils must have been dilated as I found the night quite bright. I also had an enormous appetite for food, which my friends thankfully shared. We retired to an Italian restaurant nearby and feasted mightily. As my stomach filled, my consciousness began to resume normal proportions. The last thing I remember perceiving with heightened awareness was the casting-central machismo Italian waiter making a great show of his mastership with his enormous pepper grinder 😉
I fell asleep as I was driven back to London but woke enough to get back into my Acton flat and fall into bed. Busy day the next it was, as Yoda might say. In those days you see I was an “Acton Man” – geddit?
Verdict: A grand day out!”