Head over heels
At 19-years of age, I was brimming over with excitement about to spend a week on a “liveaboard”. Buoyed up by the prospect of exploring warm, crystal clear waters for six days, on a diving safari off the Red Sea Coast. Luring you to what lies beneath—my kinda bliss, adventure and absorption. What I couldn’t have envisioned was meeting the love of my life while almost costing him my own life into the bargain.
It was the year 2000 and as the university’s dive chairman, I’d organized the trip among club members. Jason constituted the last minute extra, enabling me to charter a full boat. Intelligent blue eyes peering from a shock of blonde hair fixed me with a disarming smile. “Hi, I’m Jason,” smiling while shaking my hand at Gatwick Airport. Heat rising from my neck, I blurted out a response, silently cursing my reddened cheeks.
Out of convenience as much as personal intrigue, I buddied up in a dive pair with Jason. Praying he could handle himself in: choppy waters with sizeable swells; fast descents in stiff currents; greeting a frenzy of sharks; and diving at night. Fortunately, he grew gills quickly and stayed comfortable in every scenario enveloping him. The aqueous sights were a kaleidoscope of colour, generated by the fat fusiform bodies of fish gliding past each other. Sleek dolphins appeared, swimming parallel with the vessel, leaping out of the water as though to get a look at the curious creatures above.
Every night was alive with postprandial contentment and people, but there was nobody where we sat on the upper deck but light and warmth—and each other. No nearby city veiled the sky with light, the stars were held undisputed dominion over the night. Stretched at length, I watched the moon on its slow voyage. Not yet full, but a promising luminous white flooded the sky.
Like all great trips, this one had gone too quickly. F’underwater over, the ensuing 24-hours gave rise to one more vacation day and the time to release a diver’s nemesis: the build-up of nitrogen in one’s system from breathing but not utilizing the gas at depth. Someone suggested four-wheeling in the Hurghada desert. Sun blazing out of a bleached muslin sky, I took the precaution of wrapping a turban across my face to keep the sand whipping to a minimum.
From the outset, I couldn’t stop stalling the machine; intent on showing me that it was quite prepared to go nowhere if I wasn’t prepared to give it some gas. After a painstaking half hour, finally, I was away. Growing confident by the mile and throwing all caution to the desert wind. Hot on my heels, Jason kept pace over the undulating terrain. Emitting shocked little whoops, was all I could do not to scream in unbridled joy. Namely taking on bigger sand hills and getting away with it. Adrenaline racing, getting more air and bouncing back down in crazed delight. I admit, I was amped!
But enthusiasm began to outweigh skill. Both exhilarating and frightening, I stayed within a hair’s breadth of control. Out of nowhere, I came bounding towards the biggest sand dune confronted to date.
I could feel every single atom of my body, blood charging to carry round the sweet stuff to every cell and muscle fibre. I told my backside to brace up, which on its own accord, began to lift off the seat. In an involuntary handstand, I started to arc over the handlebars as my legs were launched above my head. As I proceeded to hurl through the air, my mind somersaulted in a spectacular parabola of emotions. Consciously acknowledging that I was flying, to calmly assuming I’d roll onto the sand, dust myself off and jump back in the saddle.
Jason foresaw the incident in his mind’s eye and watched as it transpired in slow motion. I had barely cleared the first mound and failed royally on the second. He had no choice but to follow suit. With presence of mind, Jason abandoned ship, lest he hit me astride the four-wheeler. Landing in a heap, he was forced to watch his machine come raining down on me.
Upon impact with the sand, I blacked out. Blessed with no idea of having been kissed by a 400-pound quad bike. Erupting a series of gasps and moans, I opened my eyes. While the group assembled to conjure some sort of evacuation plan on my behalf, Jason had the shocked look of a fish pulled out of the water when I reached consciousness. The realization struck that I wouldn’t be brushing myself off, raring to go again. Our Egyptian guide took one glimpse in my direction and within half a heartbeat, left me marooned and sped off from whence he came.
A sand storm soon descended, burying me alive. Much as I tried, I couldn’t suppress my grizzly outbursts, which stopped Jason in his tracks. Striving to keep my spine unmoved, me hydrated and my head above sand, was all the aid he could administer while help remained well out of range.
Eventually, we heard a distant hum, a murmur of anticipation. A minibus loomed on the horizon making its steady approach towards us. With rampant urgency, Jason hailed it down. An unassuming group of Italians peered out the window to see what was causing the commotion. Derailed by a language barrier, he gestured animatedly for the tourists to step out in order to slide me down the middle, on the floor. The intention was clear to Jason, at least: have the day-trippers return to their seats, and deliver me to the nearest hospital. Rapido!
Misunderstanding, the driver abandoned his guests and bolted like his own life depended on it, with Jason and I holding on for dear life. I felt vaguely disembodied. Jason said something amusing and in the haze of injury, I held tighter to my anchor as the tide of his laughter uplifted me. “Don’t. Make. Me. Laugh—it hurts.” But you should laugh more, it suits you: see how the furrows around your brow vanish and your ears ease back? I thought. I squeezed his fingers, a Morse code to convey what was in my heart. He nodded—You don’t have to tell me anything is what he was saying.
Rudimentary as the Egyptian medical services were almost two decades ago, I managed to get an X-ray. “One cracked rib, some bruising. You will heal fine,” affirmed the medic. Unconvinced, I smiled my paper-thin joy at Katy, who’d insisted on staying behind to help me clean up and dress.
Late evening, the nearly deserted airport gave way to empty wide corridors, dark newsstands, and closed coffee shops. The signboards at the gates were blank and the rows of plastic chairs unoccupied and ghostly.
Right away, a problem emerged. There was only 15 minutes prior to take off. The airport security guard’s cold gaze travelled over me. “You no fly. You too late.” I felt a small shiver pass up my spine, despite the stifling heat. Sweat popping out on my face, I repressed a twinge of fear flapping under my ribs and uncorked a high-calibre glare of my own. Aviation regulations to respect, the guard refused to listen to a word I said. It was dismayingly clear that I was anything but homeward bound.
In need of further medical attention, a light dawned. Whether this next attempt was the result of deduction, intuition, hope or merely stubbornness, I clung to it. I proceeded to summon a mini thunderstorm on my face. Becoming lost in the crying the way a motorboat gets lost in sound and spray. I felt ridiculous. Yet there I was: blubbering in frustration as the precious minutes leaked away. I was a muss of snot, tears, sand and filth.
“Okay! You go. NOW!” Ushering me onto the plane with an expression that beggared belief at my puddle-forming performance, I did so with the utmost dispatch. “Thanks!” I said, with all the gratitude it was possible to infuse into one syllable.
During the flight, a thread of terror needled my chest as I started having difficulty breathing. Seized with alarm, Jason paced the aisle while I assured him that negotiating the passage of oxygen, dispensed by the flight attendant, was helping enormously. The air was charged with invisible cross-currents of emotion. I studied him as I might examine some specimen set before me: I saw the smile that struggled for purchase on his face and failed, and then I saw the haunted and hunted look that came in its wake.
Meanwhile, on the ground, my mother tried her level best to remain calm, having been informed I’d been in an incident but remained unscathed, to involved in an accident and sustained grievous injuries. Meeting me alongside a flashing ambulance on the runway, “drama queen” felt like a weak term against the probable injuries I’d sustained. Likely only a couple of cracked ribs and some bruising—already showing in a map of purples and yellows. Although tender in places, I could still walk and talk.
Multiple X-rays in my local Accident and Emergency department revealed the truth as stunning as the events that gave it birth. Nagging frustration assuaged, it turned out that I’d suffered: three broken ribs, soft tissue damage to my neck, internal bleeding and a punctured lung. Undeniably, I shouldn’t have flown home. One minute I was cock of the walk, next a feather duster.
Had I not have landed in the mercy of sand…a wave of pain made me wince and crashed me out of my reverie. Still, what a reason to stay in touch with the guy of whom I’d grown rather fond. A stinging rush of affection compelled me to start writing him. Six weeks of bed rest and I was still finding sand in my ears. All the while wondering if those stranded Italians managed to catch a break. Seventeen years later, by a quirk of fate, Jason and I are still together.
In all of life, there is nothing better than love. Who was this guy? My soul mate, my best friend. Sometimes my opponent. But always the love of my life.