A year into my first job, my wife and I, along with our two-month-old daughter, set off for a week's holiday. It was a five-hour drive to the remote beauty spot where we had rented a caravan. Halfway there, we turned left at a junction. We got about 30 yards along the road before a car appeared from round the bend ahead, travelling at speed and on the wrong side of the road. It hit us head on.
Both cars were wrecked. My wife and I had no significant injuries. A retired GP came from the line of cars that had accumulated behind us and had a look at our daughter. He advised she be taken to a hospital without delay. Another motorist dashed off to the roadside phone box we had passed about half-a-mile back and dialled 999.
An ambulance and a police car arrived half-an-hour later. They had come from a small town about 30 miles away. The two policemen set about sizing-up the scene. Meanwhile, the ambulance crew, after a brief talk with the GP, took my wife and daughter off to the cottage hospital in the town from which they had come.
As they left, one of the policemen came over and said not to worry: once they had finished their investigations and arranged for the wreckage to be removed, they would take me to the hospital to be with my wife and daughter. He added that the other driver had been drinking.
In the back of the police car, the other driver and I were taken to the police station. I was very anxious, not just for the obvious reasons but for immediate practical ones too. We were at that time living from hand to mouth. All the baby things (all second-hand by the way, including the nappies) and all our clothes were in the car which was about to be dumped in a scrap-yard. I mentioned this to the policemen as we drove along. One of them responded saying that once they had completed the necessary formalities at the police station, they would drop me at the hospital and then go back to wherever the wreckage had been taken, empty the car
and bring its contents to me. The other policemen added that he had a baby at home and that he had lots of stuff for them. He would bring some to us at the hospital to keep us going until they managed to get our own stuff to us. The other driver said nothing and neither of the policemen said anything to him.
After making a statement at the police station, I was taken to the hospital, on the way stopping at the policeman's house to pick up nappies and a selection of baby clothes. Being a cottage hospital, it was some time before a doctor could be found to have a look at our daughter. During that time, the policemen managed to retrieve our belongings from the wreckage and bring them to the hospital. In the interim, they told us, the other driver had scraped through a blood alcohol test. They reckoned the delay had allowed him to get away with it. But their anger was not to go entirely unaddressed: they were going to have him for dangerous driving.
A doctor duly arrived, looked over our daughter and specified an urgent need for paediatric neurological assessment. The nearest such specialism was, however, in a hospital about four hours away, and no ambulance was available. Fortunately, I was able to hire a car. Thank goodness for the credit card which we were normally too frightened to use. On arrival at the hospital late that night, our daughter was seen at once and admitted into a room which included en-suite accommodation for one parent, which in this case was to be my wife.
I spent the night in a waiting room downstairs, joining my wife the next morning to wait for the consultant to come along. The tiny little soul in question lay asleep in a bed with a tag on the headboard bearing her name and the fraction 2/12 to signify her age. The consultant came along with two other doctors, and, as he was to do on each of the days we were there, studied his patient for a moment or two before going into a whispering huddle with his colleagues. Various other specialists came along and did the same. None ever said anything about what they were thinking, and our alarm escalated accordingly.
One day, my wife and I went out for a walk. When we returned, a young doctor was examining our daughter. With our tolerance of the doctors' secrecy now stretched beyond breaking, we asked the doctor if she would be frank and tell us what the current thinking was. 'We can take it,' I added, somewhat theatrically, as you do when on the verge of hysteria – it was also untrue. The young doctor then told us everything. They were not quite sure what it was, but it was probably nothing, maybe small bit of a bruise on the brain that would go away in time. Anyway, they would like a few more days to have a look. She paused and pointed to a corridor. 'My room is third on the left. Come along anytime if you want to ask anything.'
Somewhat relieved, I now had space to think of other things. I called the office to tell the boss, Roland, that my return from holiday would be delayed. He wasn't in and I left a message to that effect. About an hour later a nurse came hurrying along to say that there was an urgent call for me. It was Roland. I have no idea how he managed to get a nurse running around the huge hospital to look for me. He wanted to know if we had everything we needed. If not, he would bring it to us – even though we were a considerable distance away. And, he said, there was no need to hire another car because he would come and collect us and then we could have the use of one of his cars when we got back. It was an offer we didn't take up. But that he had made it, and meant it, was in itself more than enough.
It took about a year of regular hospital checks, but in the end our daughter was fine. She remains fine to this day. For me, this single event represented a concentrated dose of just how astonishingly and selflessly kind people can be – even total strangers like the policemen. And there was something else I learned, something obvious, but which, like many obvious things, is only obvious once it is shoved in your face: the emotional investment people have in their young children should never, ever, be underestimated.