8/ Never gone...
Doug was to go on to tell me more about the circumstances of the accident. I was under the impression that James and Mary had been in a car crash, I desperately hoped that the accident hadn't been caused by a defect on James' car. Were there other casualties? Doug elaborated to explain there was a car, but James and Mary weren't in it. They had been hit by a car whilst crossing the road, a tragic accident. They had gone out for a quiet meal with a couple of friends, to celebrate them both securing job offers.
Mary had told her Dad that "Nick on the Island would know who to contact". He said she was struggling owing to her serious injuries, the fractured skull, concussion, a bleed in the inner ear, cuts and deep shock. I of course agreed to help out in any way I could.
I set about trying to establish contact details for all our friends from College, some of whom had been friends of James since early childhood. Many had moved away from the Island, gone to University and it was challenging to obtain contact details for them. I persevered and rang each number one after another. I felt sick breaking the news to each and every one of them. The reaction was the same from all, total shock and devastation and regret for some that they hadn't kept in touch like they had hoped to do.
I would go on to learn that the car was driven by a young girl. She was drunk. The knowledge of this troubled me. James hadn't lost his life, he had it taken in the most senseless and brutal way. I struggled to see the reason, how could there be a reason for such futility? Why him? With a world full of unscrupulous characters, why was one of the best taken from his young wife, his family and friends like this? He was so excited about the future when we had met only a short few weeks earlier. It made no sense to me, just like with Aaron. Why are these innocent people snatched away so suddenly and cruelly?
Someone said to me it was God's will and all part of the master plan. God's plan? God has a plan to snatch small children and young men in their prime, inflicting the most horrendous grief and suffering on those they leave behind? I'm sorry, I respect your views, but I think that is seriously messed up. It's certainly no God I wish to subscribe to. I was angry, I was VERY angry. This was no accident, this was manslaughter in my eyes.
Mary and James' family kept me fully informed, the funeral was to be held at the same church where they were married only three years earlier. The wedding I now so desperately wished I had attended instead of opting for the family holiday. I passed the details along the chain to everyone, most said they were able to attend.
I arrived at the church early. The building, a picture postcard church, nestled in a small quiet village. It is only a stone's throw from James' old bedroom, having lived right next door. People started to arrive, slowly at first and then they just kept coming as a steady stream, clear indication of how much James meant to so many people. I waited by the church door, exchanging a few words with the friends that were around me, some I hadn't seen since those happy days at college, a stark contrast to where we now found ourselves.
It was then I spotted the hearse arrive. Inside was a coffin. I saw the following vehicle arrive and I watch Mary and James' family cautiously step out. Mary looked so frail and vulnerable as she was helped by family. The beautiful, bubbly girl who represented James' world, his joy and enthusiasm towards the future, looked so broken. My sense of loss and upset could only be a pinprick compared to what they were all feeling. My heart was breaking for her, for all of them. Seeing Mary made me instinctively search out James' face in the crowd, his personality radiating out of him like it always did, he'd be easy to single out. My eyes once again shifted to the hearse, the undertakers removing the coffin.
I entered the church and everybody remained standing. The coffin entered on shoulders and was set down at the front of the church before the assembled mourners. As the service was conducted, I found myself staring at the coffin, it was incomprehensible that James lay within it. Again I look to the family seating to search him out. A moving eulogy read by Jon, James' older brother, asked us if we'd remember James over the passage of time or would his memory fade as the years progressed?
The ceremony drew to a close and the coffin was again on shoulders moving out of the church to the small graveyard to the side. Family and friends following behind, a silent procession. I was aware now of the vast numbers that had attended, many hadn't been able to enter the church for the service.
Jon and Anthony, James' stepfather, cut figures of strength as they supported James' mum Caroline and Mary, her family also providing stability to her legs weak with grief. The coffin was lowered slowly into the prepared grave. The vicar saying her final words, flowers and soil are sprinkled into the grave. Everyone takes an opportunity to say goodbye in turn with a sprinkle of soil. Grown men, trying to remain composed by the swift wipe of a tear they hoped wouldn't be seen. My turn came and I sprinkled the soil onto the coffin. I had thought the right words would come to me at the precise time, to utter to him mentally in my head, physical silence still being observed as a mark of respect.
"I know you aren't in there mate"
The mourners gradually melted away to their respective vehicles and we made our way to the venue of the wake a few miles along the coast road, a road James eagerly drove countless times. There was a balloon for everybody with ribbons and blank cards attached. We were encouraged to each write a message to James on the card and we would release them en masse into the evening sky. "I bet this balloon gets further than all your cars put together mate" I wrote. The sky is awash with balloons gently drifting away into the distance. I focus on mine until it is no longer visible amongst the mass of the others.
Inside there are so many photos, very early ones right through to the very last ones. In the hospital. I was right to suspect he wasn't really gone, how could he be, there's barely a visible mark on him in the photos, it's just James relaxing back in the bed. I mix and talk to familiar faces, total strangers, it doesn't matter, we all know James so there is no awkwardness. As the evening progressed I hug Caroline, I shake Anthony's hand, I commend Jon on his strength and the beauty of his eulogy. Mary approaches to speak to me, "James really valued your friendship you know, he thought so much of you". We chat some more and we agree to keep in regular contact, the phone will always be answered. There is of course a court hearing on the horizon and we will all be here for each other for support.
New Years Eve eventually arrived, the end of the nineties and the arrival of the millennium, the night I had been looking forward to, wanting to make it a night to remember, for real celebration. I looked back at the last eight years and just how far I had come, the operations I'd endured and the countless times I'd dragged myself back up of the floor. I'd survived, I'd made it. My heart rhythm and my ARVC (as it is more commonly known these days) was under control and other than the disarticulation taking some wind out of my sails physically, I was alive and well against the odds. Many ARVC sufferers die of sudden cardiac death with no warning, often totally undiagnosed. I thought of all the countless attacks I'd had, how hard I pushed myself physically these past years, to the limit of my endurance, but against all the odds my heart was still beating, I was alive. James wasn't. He hadn't been stupid like me, he wasn't the one pushing his luck with a risk of SCD, time and time again. He just happened to cross the road when an idiotic fool was behind the wheel, it wasn't his fault. The more I dwelled on that the more I rationalised that James had been taken in my place. For whatever reason I survived, but the balance needed to addressed, someone had to go in my place and that person had to be close to me. James paid the price. It was a very real feeling that would stay with me for years.
The chimes struck 12 in the crowded bar, a cheer went up and I just stood and felt hollow. James would have had plans for tonight, he would have partied for sure and I've taken that away from him.
Trips to Oxford would follow, Paul and I would head up for a weekend where we shopped with Jon and Mary, Jon's puffer jacket offering a sense of amusement as chunks of stuffing kept puffing out as he walked about. We went out and we drank, Paul had nightmares of hairy bikers attacking him after too many Red Bulls. We made the most of the unexpected snow and had a late night snowball fight, worrying when one hit the bank window that alarms would trigger and spoil our fun, thankfully not though. These were distractions at best for the court case that was drawing nearer.
There were many people at the court, including from her family. Mary, Jon, Caroline and Anthony were all there and we were there to support them. We filed into the court seating area. We would hear facts about the event, she had been drinking with friends for much of the day. They decided they needed more alcohol so she jumped in the car with her boyfriend to satisfy their desires. We heard how James' shoes had been thrown off by the impact, how he was thrown to one side of the road, Mary to the other. How she didn't even hit the brakes prior to impact, how she fled the scene without stopping, driving with a windscreen shattered by James and Mary's heads and bodies. How she sped the wrong way down a one way street, causing damage to parked vehicles as she endeavoured to get home, away from the consequences of her actions. Caroline is sobbing, "she killed my baby".
The girl cut a pathetic figure in the dock, head down crying. I was convinced those tears were for herself and not for the total devastation her actions caused. She couldn't possibly comprehend what she had done. She was sobbing at the thought of prison, not for James, not for Mary and everybody else. I looked to her seated friends to my left. Which one was the boyfriend I wondered. Which one? Whichever one of you it is, you should be stood in the dock right next to her. Why did you let her drive? Why didn't you grab the keys? A simple intervention on your part would have stopped all of this. You faltered at the first opportunity to intervene and you failed catastrophically at the next one too. Why didn't YOU stop the car? You could have done so. You are equally culpable in my mind.
Three years prison and a four year driving ban, likely out in a year and a half. For causing death whilst drink driving! There has to be a mistake? How on earth is that a suitable punishment fitting the crime? Driving is a privilege not a right, at least ban her driving for life, make sure she never has the opportunity to do this again. I was fuming.
Her family approached Mary outside the court to apologise. "She's very sorry" they said. Mary stunned me when she responded "Tell her I don't hate her, I know she didn't intend to kill him". Mary's level of compassion was incredible, it was at polar opposites to my own feelings.
Back home I went through the motions required for life but James was on my mind constantly. I was still so angry at the sentence. One evening soon after the court case, my girlfriend and I had been to the cinema. The late night journey home took place in a torrential downpour. I was aware of lights approaching rapidly behind me. I anticipated the lights would pass me on the long, clear open road. Instead of passing, the lights came right up close behind me, tailgating the back of my car then dropped away as the car slowed right down. Once the car was a fair distance behind me it sped up again as before, coming right up close to the back of my car, as though they were goading me into a race. The car continued to repeat this cycle for a couple of miles. The conditions were appalling, with lots of surface water and I grew more and more enraged by the idiotic driving I was witnessing in my rear view mirror. This.... This was exactly the type of stupidity that killed James.
As we approached a hill along a straight section of road I could see a slow moving car in front and the traffic lights in the distance on green. Knowing they would change to red before we got to them, I accelerated and overtook the car in front, knowing full well the car following me wouldn't be able to resist, he of course obliged. The traffic lights turned red and I pulled up at the line, the other car right behind me. I watched the car we had overtaken pull up behind the driver and as soon as I could see he was trapped between the two of us, I jumped out of the car. As I went up to his window he wisely locked his door, the rage on my approaching face must have been clear. At that precise moment, him, he was the one. The type of idiot who made stupid decisions that kill people like James. I banged on his window with my fist and demanded he opened the door, he instead opened the window a couple of inches. He sat there with a look of total fear on his face and was visibly shaking, his quiet girlfriend sat next to him.
"What the (expletive) are you doing?" I raged at him.
"I'm just driving" he replied like a mouse.
"That isn't driving, that's being a total (expletive). It's (expletive) like you that kill innocent people" I yelled at him.
"When these lights turn green you come around me and you (expletive) off. I know your car and I know your face, if I ever see you driving like that anywhere near me again it won't end well for you".
I went back to my car as the lights turned green, sopping wet I moved forward a few feet then angrily beckoned him to come around me. As he did so I could see his girlfriend screaming and gesticulating at him. I followed him for about 10 minutes as we were heading in the same direction, he drove flawlessly and safely.
I'm not at all proud of my actions that night. I'm ashamed when I reflect that I lost control of my temper so badly. It is the only time I have fully lost control of my emotions, but that night that lad was a symbol. He symbolised the stupidity of bad choices just as she had done when she killed James. He symbolised her and that lad felt the full force of the anger I felt about the whole situation. If any good came out of that night I hope that lad maybe thought twice in future about how lethal a weapon a car is. His sharp shock, fear and subsequent dressing down by his girlfriend may well have saved his or someone else's life.
Jon had eloquently asked us all to keep James' memory alive and it was a request I would easily honour. You see, I was right on the day of the funeral to attempt to seek him out amongst the faces, I was right to know he wasn't really inside the coffin. James was, and always will be, alive and well living within all of the people who were so fortunate to have known him. When someone special enters your life, it is impossible for them to ever leave, not even in death. James didn't die in 1999, he's been with me ever since in exactly the same way Aaron has. They were there to help me and keep me strong in the challenges I was to face in the future but for now, successful surgery behind me, I was about to take them on a journey with me into the happiest phase of my life.
Marriage and parenthood.