My dad died in February 1979. I was 12, my brothers were 10 and 8 years old respectively. We had moved to our new home the week before to a small village ten miles from Brighton in Sussex and as a treat on the following Saturday we planned to have a day by the sea. We set off in the morning with dad driving, mum in the front seat and us three boys in the back. The car was an old Vauxhall Victor FC – a very square, early seventies saloon with PVC tan coloured, single bench style seats front and back. These were the days when Jimmy Saville was appearing on our TVs telling us to ‘Clunk- Click Every Trip’. Not possible when most cars didn’t have rear seat belts. Only front seats had them then, and nearly no one used them.
I recall jumping into the back of the car between my brothers and we set off. The lane from our house took us left and to a T-junction where we turned right. That’s the last bit of the actual journey I remember vividly. We were all so excited.
I must have fallen asleep on the journey because someone was trying to wake me up. I also thought that was strange as I didn’t normally sleep in the car, but now I was so unbelievably tired and I just wanted to get back to sleep. There was warm stuff running down my face but I didn’t care (sleep). I heard my brother ‘L’ screaming over and over (sleep). My mum wailing ‘my kids, my kids’ (please let me sleep now). An unknown woman leaning over me, talking to me, words I cannot remember.
Sometimes there are moments in life when time freezes and you get a chance to look about and see what is happening. This was one of those moments. I was slumped to one side. Mum was still in her seat but turned hard to her left, a man reaching in and trying to hold her still or get her out, I couldn’t tell. Behind her the place where ‘M’ my youngest brother should have been was now empty. ‘L’ sat to my right screaming and screaming while another man was leaning into the car over him. My dad in the driver’s seat, his head arched right back (no head rests then) his eyes closed. A lot of shouting somewhere. The revving of what sounded like a chainsaw very close. This strange woman talking to me. My face wet and warm, fluid trickling down my chin and onto my neck.
My right leg was bent under the seat, foot wedged and stuck. The whole leg hurt so bad. More words from this woman, something about an accident and her calling me Sweetie a lot. She was talking and talking when someone else gently pulled my foot from under the seat. The shattered ends of my broken femur grated against themselves and the world filled with searing white hot pain. I screamed and must have passed out.
Flashes of memory. In an ambulance. In a hospital. Being wheeled on a trolley down endless florescent lit corridors. My tongue hurting so much. My right thigh burning.
That night, after my clothes were cut of, my head wounds stitched up, front teeth pushed back into place, right leg splinted, I was taken to an intensive care unit. I later woke up in a darkened ward to the sounds of someone in a bed across from me struggling hard to breath and moaning whilst a team of nurses and doctors frantically worked on him. Another nurse realised I was awake and quickly jabbed a syringe into my left thigh and I blacked out again. My heart tells me the man in that bed was my dad.
The road to the coast was the A23. It’s a fairly straight road direct to Brighton from the village of Albourne. On the morning of Saturday 24th February 1979, a two guys who had been all night fishing and drinking got into their car and, a few miles out, the drunk and exhausted driver fell asleep behind the wheel. The car careered to the right, across the centre verge and into an on-coming Vauxhall Victor FC carrying a family of five on their way to the sea-side, a treat after having just moved to the area. The dad sustained serious head and internal injuries that he would die from later that night. He was thirty eight years old. His wife in the passenger seat suffered trauma to her chest that would cause a series of heart attacks, pleurisy of her lungs and a lifetime of health problems. The three boys in the rear survived the crash but the son sat immediately behind his dad suffered fractures of both of his femurs, the son in the middle had a fracture of the right femur, needed nineteen stitches to his forehead from flying glass and he bit right through his tongue. The youngest son behind his mum had a deep cut to his forehead that remained a bright pink scar for the rest of his life but, maybe because he was the smallest, he escaped any breaks or serious injuries. He had his ninth birthday two days later in a hospital ward, just a day after being told his dad had died in the crash. The nurses bought a cake to his bed, and he cried.
Thirty years later I was a sergeant in charge of a police custody suite in London. A smartly dressed, well-spoken, obviously professional young man stood before me having been stopped and arrested for drink-driving in the early hours of the morning. The legal limit is 35 micrograms of alcohol in the breath and the custody breathalyser put his in the high 70’s, so he was over double the legal limit to drive. Just as I was about to charge him and read him his rights and entitlements, he got very angry, banging his hands on the desk, telling me that we were wasting his and our time, that we should go out and catch some real criminals. He shouted into my face that we were all a joke because he had done nothing wrong.
No, I didn’t hit him.