SUNDAY 20 JULY 1997
I paced the kitchen of my mother-in-law’s home. Audrey picked up the discarded dummy, rinsed it under the tap, and reached for the jar of honey. In my arms, eight-week-old Bethany, distressed and clammy, refused to settle into an afternoon nap. I was sticky, frustrated. Bethany was wailing, flailing. The heat of the relentless sun was becoming unwelcome. As was the well-meaning input of mothers. And the unanswered phone.
Where was he? Why is he always late? Will he never answer his phone?
I had been to church earlier, with a more content Bethany and my visiting mum, Doris. David had been working, so was to join us for lunch at his mum’s spacious bungalow outside of the city. Bethany and I had shared an enjoyable meal with both grandmothers, but an absent father. He had not turned up. He was not answering his phone.
Audrey drew up a spoonful of the honey and extended Bethany’s dummy to meet the gloop, hoping to console the relentless post-lunch crying. But I nipped the well-intentioned act in the bud. In the perfectionism of early motherhood, I felt it to be unhealthy and inappropriate. Bethany quietened a little but refused to yield to sleep. With still no sight or sound of David, Mum and I thanked Audrey for the lovely lunch, descended the steps of the elevated bungalow, secured Bethany into her car seat, and headed home.
Home was a modest historic cottage on a village green on the outskirts of Leeds, sitting against the unexpected backdrop of an urban council estate with high-rise tower blocks. We turned the corner, past the steepled church and alongside the open Green towards our home. A hive of activity greeted us as we drew nearer the little row of cottages. In fact, was that a police van parked there? And a police car? Had some petty squabble between inebriated and overheated mates outside the adjacent pub drawn them here? Not so. Soon I realised the focus of the activity was our cottage.
Not another distressing burglary, surely?
On the occasion of Mum’s first visit to see our freshly refurbished home, two years before, we’d turned the same corner to see our cheeky little Lhasa Apso in the middle of the road, when I was sure I had left her secure inside. That day, I approached our stable door to see it distorted, kicked open, and realisation had dawned. Heart racing, I’d nudged the door to reveal a trashed living room, muddy footprints, emptied drawers, and gaps where TV, stereo, and guitars had been. That day, I could not present my visiting mother with a perfectly decorated, clean home as intended.
This day, in the hubbub outside Fay Cottage, I spotted a familiar face. Nigel, a family friend and neighbour, greeted us as we left the car. He, unlike us, had seen recent news bulletins. He, unlike us, had an inkling of why the police were there. Bemused, we entered the house alongside Nigel as the young policemen ushered us in to talk with us in private. Still clutching the weighty baby car seat, heart quickening, I rooted to the spot, stunned, silenced, sickened as the tale emerged and Nigel’s fears confirmed.
Earlier that morning, a commercial passenger-carrying hot-air balloon had crash-landed on the banks of the Humber Estuary, near North Ferriby. The Yorkshire Air Ambulance had airlifted the critically injured pilot from the accident site to intensive care in nearby Hull. The pilot, a sober officer confirmed, was my husband David Farrar. And I should come with them to see him.
Mind in shock turned to mind in overdrive as questions and concerns tumbled out. The passengers, were they ok? David, alive? Thank goodness. How serious? What had happened? Why? Did Pete, the business owner, know? What about John, the retrieve driver? Was he ok? Had he seen what happened? What was the address of the hospital? How quickly could I sort some childcare for Bethany?
Did I say all that or just think it?
They planned to move David to a more local hospital in Wakefield, someone said. So, I made plans too. I would leave Bethany with Mum and drive to Wakefield to meet him when he arrived. But then, what to do about Bethany’s next breast-feed? What about collecting David’s stranded car (well, his Dad’s borrowed car) from the launch site? I knew David, he’d be worried about the car. He’d want to have it accessible when he was ready to come home….
A calm police officer interrupted my train of rushing thoughts and no doubt flow of rushing words. No, I needed to see David now, in Hull.
Really? Surely it would be more sensible if….
‘No, now’ the officer insisted.
They would drive me so I could get there quickly, and before they moved him. Yes, it would be a good idea if my mother and daughter came with me. The penny dropped. I thought I might pass out. David’s life was in the balance. There was no time to lose. I was nauseous, dazed, fearful. Thank God the speed with which we had to act meant I stilled my shakiness and entered efficiency mode. Just like Mum had done the day of the burglary. She had parked her upset and shock, rolled up her sleeves, and helped clean up our mess with proficiency and calmness.
I gathered up baby bag, handbag, keys, phone, car seat, baby and mother. Nigel assured me he would contact necessary friends and family; get people at church to pray urgently. Prayer? Yes. Prayer changed things, I knew. But the only prayers I could manage at that moment were single words, deafened by the thuds of my rapid heart. Others would be able to find the words that I couldn’t. The smallest of weights lifted from the tonne I was carrying.
We locked up, and into the awaiting police car we bundled, Mum and I in the back, with Bethany in her rear-facing baby seat between us. On a normal day, the M62 eastbound is a much quieter stretch of motorway than its westbound counterpart. But today it seemed all lanes were uncharacteristically full; painfully slow. The skilled police steered with ease through the parting traffic before them, the intermittent siren shocking unaware drivers into submission; the speedometer barely dropping below 120 miles per hour. It took my breath away. My mind flitted between fears for my critical husband, concern for our own safety, rapid prayers, and gratitude for the police’s tenacity in getting us there in the shortest time. In between, I determined that this was NOT David’s time to go; can’t be, surely? I can’t remember whether it was before, during or after this traumatic journey that more facts — albeit still sketchy — emerged about what had happened. I suspect a bit of all.
There were power lines involved; a serious fire; the flaming balloon envelope severed from the basket; major fall injuries; one death (No? Please, no); other injuries. David had been attached to the basket by a safety line, required for commercial balloon pilots to ensure they didn’t depart the basket during landing. Hence, he couldn’t escape the enveloping flames and suffered severe burn injuries. His planned transfer to a West Yorkshire Hospital was not a positive sign that he was well enough to travel to a more convenient location. No, it was to get him as soon as possible to the specialist regional burns unit at Pinderfields for urgent treatment to his life-threatening injuries.
We made it to Hull in time — he was still there, and he was still alive.
The hospital felt cavernous and bewildering, but the caring policemen escorted us to where we needed to be. I had no idea where that was, I just went where I was told. After an interminable walk, we entered a vast room. Only I was permitted; Mum and Bethany waited in the corridor outside. There must have been a doctor or a nurse who escorted me, and told me what to expect, but I recall nothing of them. I was on a mission. I was in shock. Strength and fear jostled for pre-eminence. The clinical room must have been full of machines, no doubt attached to David. There must have been people, surely?
All I recall is him and no one else.
A flat, clinical, slab of a bed and nothing else.
My first thought was relief — he was breathing. He was just about recognisable. Then I took in the fullness of his appearance. Stripped of most of his clothes, cling film wrapped his entire body. His unwrapped face and hands and the glimpses of body beneath the cling film revealed red-raw angry skin. He was deeply unconscious and had been since the accident. But he was him, his face was him — just. His hands were him, certainly, although his wedding ring and watch were removed. Whether it was there, or at Pinderfields, I don’t recall, but at some point, someone handed me his ring and personal effects. But not his phone. That phone I had been dialling and cursing all morning had been lying in a field near the banks of the Humber, a molten mess of burnt plastic. Nevertheless, it had been retained by the police.
The Humber Police.
HULL ROYAL INFIRMARY / Accident and Emergency / 20.07.97
Unknown male…. David Farrow… David Farrar? / Multiple trauma / Head injury? / Intubated and paralysed on way / Sedated and ventilated / Morphine / CT scan - head / Rigor collar / Chest drain.
The considerate police officers, whose names and faces I have no recollection of, drove us back to West Yorkshire and on to Pinderfields Hospital. David would arrive before us in an ambulance — his journey, the speedy, blue-lighted dash this time. We travelled, thankfully, at a more normal speed. The journey was accompanied by moments of stunned silence interspersed with bouts of talking, unravelling my hopes and fears to an ever-patient Mum. She had nursed dear Dad during his liver cancer and until his dying day, some 6 years before. No doubt her own thoughts were whirring, but she didn’t burden me with them. During those long few hours on Sunday 20th July 1997, Mum helped and supported me and my family, with the practical efficiency and loving kindness that I hope I have inherited. She would do so again on many occasions in the days, weeks, months, and years to follow. Baby Bethany’s presence during those hours and days also continued to ignite my maternal instincts and capabilities. These upward filial, and downward paternal bonds kept me, at least a little, grounded and focused.
We arrived at Pinderfields Hospital Burns Unit at last, as dusk was approaching. The parking areas, wards, corridors and grounds of the aged hospital were to become very familiar. But that night it was all new. We arrived at a cramped and dim waiting room; entering to the unexpected overwhelm of serious, concerned faces and muted conversation. News of David’s accident had spread, and others directed straight to Pinderfields, rather than the large round trip via Hull we had made. Why hadn’t I anticipated that? Eyes turned. Voices quietened. Amongst the faces were Audrey and Dennis - David’s Mum and Dad, Tony and Brian - longstanding friends, others — all a blur.
Before long, an important-looking doctor took charge. This burns specialist consultant was telling us what to expect, what they were planning, what the risks and hopes were. I listened. Took it all in. Yet the information swam around my mind like laundry in a washing machine. It settled in random order at the end of the cycle later that night for me to examine piece by piece in an attempt to bring some order, some sense, some clarity.
PINDERFIELDS HOSPITAL REGIONAL BURN UNIT / EMERGENCY TRANSFER FROM HULL INFIRMARY / 20.07.97: 7.15 pm
Intubated, ventilated, fully sedated / Arterial line in situ / Urinary catheter in situ / Neck collar in place / Lungs clear except for few expiratory crackles / Chest drain in situ / Burns 35% - see attached Lund and Browder Chart.
On that first evening, Mr Phipps — as I came to know the consultant — looked at a photo of David that I had with me.
David was a handsome man. He was bearded, with longish highlighted hair, and always tanned. Someone who managed to be both a little flashy and somewhat rough about the edges at the same time. Someone who could be both self-effacing and the centre of attention. A man with a unique sense of style.
Whilst our first date had involved a muddy fishing trip, where I was persuaded to handle live maggots; our second comprised a motor boat cruise upriver towards the centre of York, steered by David. Wearing tight black jeans and a zipped blouson black jacket over a sleek, high-necked white top, David disembarked first. He climbed the metal steps up the sheer river wall to fasten the boat to shore. He’d picked one of the busiest spots in the centre of this historic city, near a popular pub, infamous for being half submerged under York’s frequent winter floods. On this early summer evening, however, the river level was low, and the pub’s clientele spilt out onto the cobbles of the riverside. David’s groomed head and smart torso slowly came into view to the light-hearted crowd. Amongst the cheerful chatter and chinking glasses, a man’s voice could be heard calling out in amusement, ‘It’s Bond, James Bond!’
‘We’ll get him looking like that again, don’t worry,’ Mr Phipps said, on viewing David’s photograph.
I trusted him. I believed him.
Audrey and I were the only ones permitted to visit David in his intensive care bed, that surreal, warm July evening. Mr Phipps told us to expect swelling.
Audrey was quiet, pale, and shaken; apprehensive about seeing him. It felt like days, weeks since I had been in her kitchen avoiding honey-coated dummies. That seemed so petty now, and I felt ashamed. ‘It’s ok, Mum,’ I said. ‘I’ve seen him. He doesn’t look so bad. I’ll come in with you.’ I could be the strong one for both of us. We followed Mr Phipps in silence along the long corridor, off which high-dependency rooms contained critical patients. David’s small room was the last on the right.
Now, I know that the swelling Mr Phipps was referring to kicks in a few hours after a severe burn injury — caused apparently by a fluid shift from circulating plasma. I also know now that this swelling can be excessive. I didn’t know that then.
My legs crumpled, my stomach dropped; colour drained from Audrey’s face as we entered David’s compact hospital room. Later I had to apologise to my mother-in-law that his appearance was so much worse than I had warned her. He was now almost unrecognisable. His head had swollen to what seemed to be three times its normal size. The red-raw was turning darker brown on parts of his face and hands. Patches of red, exposed, angry, weeping, and bleeding skin could be seen on the deeper burn areas. Grateful that only a few of these were visible, I scanned the dressings now covering much of David’s torso, arms, and upper legs. The skilled staff at Pinderfields had already been hard at work assessing and attending to his burns as soon as he’d arrived. Acting with speed and skill could make the difference between life and death, I learnt.
Essentially, we only recognised him from his feet.
We stood in silence. Except for that deafening thud of my heart again. Mr Phipps informed us of what they had discovered so far.
David had sustained full-depth burns to much of his frontal upper body, including his chest, stomach, both arms from mid-upper to wrist, upper thighs and to half of the right side of his face. There were lesser, although still serious, burns to the rest of his face and other parts of his body and legs. David had also incurred fall injuries, including a broken collar bone and a potential head injury. Whilst Mr Phipps could offer hope that David might one day look again like himself; whether there was any brain injury from either the fall or the aftermath of the burns, he could not yet give any assurance. He also was honest about the severity of the burn injuries and the immense dangers that lay ahead of life-threatening infection to David’s exposed body.
‘Six to eight weeks’ he said. ‘If we can get him through the early weeks, he may be out of danger and we may even have him home by then.’
Looking at David’s enlarged head, grotesque facial burns, extensive bandages, deep coma, considerable wires and the machines supporting his breathing, fluid and medication intake, I didn’t dare hope Mr Phipps could be right. Nor, in that deeply private moment, did I dare consider the wider implications and impact of that day’s very public events.
Meanwhile, that evening of the accident, I took David’s discarded wedding ring — a simple two-gold band that matched mine but several sizes larger and somewhat more scratched - and placed it on a chain around my neck.