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Spinal column: a road trip to France

‘How many bottles of Lidl champagne can we fit in the van’s fridge?’

I emailed a tetraplegic mate to say that I was off on a road trip to France. “You’re braver than me,” he replied. “Next time I go abroad, it’ll be Switzerland. One way.”

Even as we bantered, we acknowledged that it’s a bold plan. Bold verging on foolhardy, but this is something I’ve dreamt of doing for ages. After you become disabled, you can far too easily talk yourself out of trying things. Sometimes you have to go for it, take risks, stretch yourself. Only you can find out what you’re capable of.

Many months ago, a couple of close friends offered to be our minders if we wanted to plan an adventure. He fancied driving my van; she spoke French. We sold the idea to my I-want-to-stay-at-home-I’ve-done-enough-bloody-travelling-in-my-life husband on the basis he would have no responsibility for anything except making us laugh.

Then I took a very deep breath and booked the ferry. As of now we are a rock band on tour, a travelling circus. We sail to Spain – yay! A mini-cruise! – then turn left and meander our way up western France, visiting various relatives and friends, and catch a ferry from Normandy. Working on the theory that both fish and house guests go off after three days, we are not lingering with anyone. I don’t want to be a burden. Besides, as hippies used to greet old friends: “Brief and deep, man.”

The whole expedition feels like the sort of thing we did as students or easy-going twentysomethings. Now, with an elderly Mercedes Sprinter – not street-cred white, disappointingly, but bland airport-transfer silver – we are regressing to those days again: happy campers, childless chalet-mates, carefree, lightened. We even have a tiny fridge that plugs into the cigarette lighter, and are discussing how many bottles of Lidl champagne will fit if we take out the shelves. Four codgers fully intent on having fun in our old Merc (although truth be told, it’d be a good idea to search something like “mercedes leeds” to find a newer model that can reliably get us to Paris and back).

Unstated but implicit is the fact I’m the weak link. My vulnerability could bring everything crashing down. I just have to hope that my body stays stable: no blockages, emergencies, infections. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. But, oh Lord, that means mountains of stuff. And a spare wheelchair. The paraphernalia of paralysis. Two weeks’ worth of overnight bags, tubes, wipes, gels, gloves, drugs, bed levers, transfer boards … And what if something happens? Better take three weeks’. I’m not bringing a carer; I’m relying on girlfriends to wash and dress me. My GP eases my mind by giving me some antibiotics to carry, just in case I need them.

Dave goes reluctantly to buy some summer clothes and comes home with a thick, long-sleeved rugby shirt (“But it suits me”) and neither chinos nor light shoes.

Aside from stuff, there are all the other intangibles. At two of the houses we’re visiting, there is no bedroom suitable and we’ve booked accommodation nearby. But how low will the beds be there? And how accessible is an accessible ship’s cabin? We can get travel insurance but, laughably, any claim that relates to tetraplegia is not covered. The pressure is on me to stay fit, keep smiling and manage. Which I’m good at.

One serious hiccup comes when I take the van for K to test drive. I drive this vehicle from my wheelchair, with an electric headrest that swivels out from the side. But when the car seat is swapped over to the driver’s side and I’m in the front passenger position, I have no neck support. My friends, having legal minds, point out the danger.

“The odds of breaking my neck for the second time are minuscule,” I bluster. “I’ll be fine.” But they give me that unflinching courtroom stare. I consider taking my electric chair, because there’s an attachable headrest, but it’s too big; it will take over the van. Then, a brainwave – a spinal collar.

Long ago, I threw out my detested hospital collar, in the visceral way you burn your school uniform when you leave school. I ordered a substitute from Amazon, express delivery. And messaged K: “While I sit and doze beside you, in my huge, flesh-coloured collar, dribbling gently, and the other two are in the back lolling around drinking and misbehaving, you will just have to grit your teeth and pretend you’re the driver of the local Sunshine Variety minibus.”

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