Michael Palin was under doctor’s orders to relax and not do very much. But the universe had other ideas for him
Last September I had open-heart surgery to repair two valves in my ticker. No adverse reactions, though I felt a bit queasy on Valentine’s Day, and couldn’t honestly bring myself to eat either of the heart-shaped chocolates in the M&S Romantic Evening assortment. What I most looked forward to was fulfilling my surgeon’s instructions to take it easy for at least three months. Despite being an idler at heart, taking it easy is one ambition I’ve never yet fulfilled so, armed with a doctor’s note, I relished the prospect of getting down to some serious time off.
I sat at my desk, and instead of immediately checking emails or trying to cancel my Sky Premium Auto-Refundable Discount Care Protection Plus All-In Package Policy which I’d purchased in order to get them off the phone, I simply stared out of the window and watched the birds in our little garden.
It didn’t take me long to realise that these birds had clearly never had a day off in their lives. They rushed about in a state of chronic activity, sharpening their beaks, flicking their heads, twitching their necks, swooping, darting, preening, feeding, pecking, alighting and fighting each other. After a minute or two I was exhausted and decided not to look out of the window again.
Time instead to start reading all those books I’d accumulated. But which one? An “unmissable” novel or an “imperative” forecast of the collapse of capitalism? A thumb through The Gothic Treasures of Strasbourg, which I would not be able to lift for another six months, or one of the many interesting books I get sent because I’ve travelled a bit? Was now the time to dip into Cycling Past Dover With My Uncle, or Across Yemen on a Segway?
I felt my newly-repaired heart beating dangerously fast as I wrestled with indecision. I decided then and there to do just what it said on the packet and simply take it easy. I lay back on my work-room couch (after I’d unplugged the phone, washed the cups from the night before and cleared all the files off it) and just let myself relax.
That’s when the doorbell rang. We have an intercom but people never speak clearly into it, and “Delivery!” never sounds like it’s meant to. So as the bell sounded a second time, followed smartly by the crack of a door-knocker, I had to race uneasily downstairs only to find that it was a package for my wife who, leaving me to take it easy, had gone out for the day.
Holding it awkwardly under one arm, I signed for it with my fingernail. A tiny indecipherable squiggle that looked like a pile of twigs. I handed the terminal back to the humming man.
“I’m supposed to be taking it easy,” I told him with a self-deprecating laugh, but by then his van was three streets away. The package was enormous and I lowered it with some difficulty. It turned out to contain a travel clock and two batteries.
I decided at this point that it might be easier to take it easy downstairs rather than upstairs. I searched for the newspaper and settled down to read the day’s news in more depth than usual. I eventually found enlightenment on page eight, after the lifestyle pages, sandwiched between “Elastic – the big comeback” and “Dogs are human too”, in an article which instantly caught my eye. “Taking it easy – the silent killer”.
I was beginning to perspire quite visibly now and resolved to sit quietly in the kitchen, make myself a comforting mug of soup and do some deep breathing exercises. Unfortunately on one of my long exhalations (“count to ten”) I created enough of a down-draft to send a stray piece of kitchen roll towards the lighted gas. It caught the flame and, though not a major conflagration, was enough to set an adjacent Sainsbury’s receipt ablaze. I leapt up and grasped a hand towel, which briefly smothered the flames before itself catching alight.
In some alarm now, as flames licked up towards the ceiling, I dialled the emergency services – but the moment we connected, the smoke alarm went off and I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. Just caught something about washing my hands which made me realise that, without my glasses on, I’d rung 111 instead of 999. But I washed my hands anyway, and by a fantastic stroke of luck, the loose tap that we never had fixed finally came apart, dousing the ceiling and partially extinguishing the fire.
At this point my neighbour, who’s 86 and had a sextuple by-pass last Wednesday, wrenched up the window and pulled me to safety.
Thank God he’d been told to take it easy, otherwise he’d have been out playing golf and my house would have been a write-off.
The above piece appears in the May/June 2020 issue of the Idler. Buy a copy or subscribe here.
On 2 May 2020 Michael’s surreal ramble was reported as fact by various credulous newspapers. The Daily Mail said: “Sir Michael Palin, 75, reveals he accidentally set fire to his house while resting after heart surgery… and was pulled to safety by his 86-year-old neighbour.” The Guardian, Daily Mirror, Yahoo News, The Independent and others were similarly duped.