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… was a stick.

A hazel wood stick, gnarly and crooked like something out of a fairy tale.

It turned out to be a real magnet for a certain breed of male, but that’s a side note.

I found the stick — a branch that had broken off from a nearby tree — in the underbrush on the edge of the meadow that runs down to the River Cam.

That’s where I swim most mornings.

I was looking for a stick because it was mud season and the path to the bit of river where I swim was unaccountably slick, much worse than it’d been the year before. I kept stumbling, skidding off the slippery track. My left foot dragged in the mud, my knee buckled and there I was, side lined into a clump of bramble weed, the kind with all the thorns.

I blamed the path. More than that, I blamed the people who were supposed to be maintaining the path. It was their fault I kept stumbling and losing my balance.

Or it was the fault of climate change. Warmer air meant more rain, which meant more mud, which meant more hazardous walking conditions, which is why I kept skidding off the path into a clump of bramble weed, the kind with all the thorns.

It certainly wasn’t my fault, my body letting me down. How could it be? I was the walk anywhere, swim everyplace, dance anytime kid.

So this recurring slippage — the foot that dragged, the knee that buckled, the stumble that embarrassed my daughter when we were out together – was a problem not of my own making. It was an anomaly, a temporary glitch I could resolve with the use of a hazel wood stick.

It was a debonair solution.  When I wasn’t using the stick to stay upright during mud season I twirled it like a baton and pointed it at interesting objets and phenomena: Look at that spire, check out those storm clouds — that sort of thing.

I discovered it was a talking point for a certain breed of men. These were the kind of men, varying in age but unified in their commitment to long coats and odd headwear, who grew up reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy (many times) and watching the Peter Jackson films (many times) to the point of being able to quote, unprompted, great chunks of dialogue when they encountered a woman carrying a hazel wood stick.

Who knew?

I also discovered the pains that coincided with the stumbling, dragging etc. — pains that stabbed my lower back and ran down my leg like an electric current were, according to my doctor, nothing more than a pinched nerve. Sciatica, he said.

Brought on, no doubt, he said, by exercise, the wrong kind of exercise.

How was my backstroke? Was I over-extending my arms? Maybe that’s what was seizing the nerve and holding it hostage. He took a medical book off the shelf in his office and showed me a series of explanatory diagrams: strands of angry red nerves criss-crossing a field of muscles and tendons, like a map of the New York subway system.

What I needed, the doctor said, was more exercise, the right kind of exercise. That would address the pain and my funny walk. I was relegated to the sub-world of physical therapists: the pilates guru, the gait analyst, the acupuncture king and the osteopath who pinned me down in a sumo hold and merrily popped my joints.

They were as fit as whippets and brimming with optimism, these physios. Give it six months, they said. We’ll have you sorted.

That was in the spring.

In July, I was walking along the coast with an old boyfriend, our arms linked in the spirit of nostalgia and flirtation. A sea breeze ruffled our hair and made the long grass undulate and it was all very idyllic as long as I ignored the fact I was using his arm as a pulley device, the means to haul me up the hill.

A month later I went to visit my father in New York. I had packed summer dresses against the August heat, but had left the stick behind in England. It was part denial, part instinct that my increased reliance on it (even out of mud season) would shock my father, would result in questions I didn’t know how to answer.

Three days into the visit, walking on the broad expanse of 12th Avenue in lower Manhattan, I suddenly came to a complete halt. My left leg, like a balky toddler, refused to move.

It had turned to stone, just frozen solid on the pavement.

Whatever it was that I and the doctor and the cheerful physios had labelled minor had simply, and finally, reached tipping point.

How to describe the shock, the jolt that shoots through you when you realize you are imprisoned by your own body? It was like coming face to face with the devil, with true evil – a concept you might not have believed in but that has manifested itself in front of you as a force, an entity that is literally blocking your path.

It felt like the end of all possibility.

If I couldn’t walk, how was I to live?

More immediately, if I couldn’t walk, how was I going to get back to my father’s apartment? Would I have to beg for help from a random stranger, grab someone’s arm and say, like a five-year-old lost in a shopping mall: Can you take me to my daddy?

As it was, people were already starting to stare as they swerved around me, giving me those furtive over-the-shoulder looks that said, why is this person in the middle of the sidewalk? What is she, having a vision?

I told myself, you have to do this, and by half-dragging, half-carrying the dead leg, I managed to heave myself into a taxi.

Once I was back in Britain, the stick and I clumped off to the specialists: the sports doctor, the X-ray technician, the neurologist and, finally, the radiologist with her coffin-like MRI table.

An hour after the MRI, they called me. The facts were stark and irrefutable. There was a tumor, a beast of a thing, in the middle of my spinal column.

It was pressing on my spinal cord.

That’s why I couldn’t walk.