The last time I ran was for a train.
It was a warm August evening and a slight breeze fanned my face as I strolled into the safe, suburban railway station just outside London. A few straggling commuters huddled at the ticket kiosk. Realising the train was pulling in, I hurried across the bridge, scurried down the stairs, quickly and evenly, dashed across the platform and raised my leg to get on the train.
The door was open, I was on the running board and aware of people inside the carriage. Suddenly the train jerked and I lost my grip on the inside of the door. The train jolted again and I lost my balance. The weight of the heavy bag on my shoulder tipped me backwards and I dropped.
With a wrench, the sudden movement twisted me round and crushed me down. As I became wedged at chest-height between the train and the platform, the train picked up speed. I screamed and screamed and grasped desperately at the concrete. But the train dragged me along, gaining momentum, crushing my ribs against the platform, until I fell into the darkness and the wheels below.
One of my legs was ripped off, just below the knee. Beyond saving, my other leg was amputated above the knee later that night.
In 7 seconds I went from busy girl about international town businesswoman with everything to live for to a double-amputee, my life in ruins.
What could be worse? Could there be anything worse?
Seven days after my accident as I lay in a hospital bed traumatised and heavily sedated with painkillers, I learnt in the most underhand way imaginable that British Rail were going to interview me with a view to prosecution for trespassing onto their railway line.
It was unfathomable. I couldn’t yet believe what had happened.
That a train would move off as passengers were still getting onto it?
That the train would then not be stopped immediately by the Guard?
That I had just lost both of my legs for crying out loud. It simply couldn’t be true. But it was, and so the parallel nightmare began.
An indicator as to how British Rail would be behaving came just days after the accident. Their chosen method of communication was not by any letter or phone call to myself or to my dear, traumatised relatives, but, whilst we were all still in deepest shock, via the newspapers. There it was in black and white for all of London, and then as the news spread, the nation, to see: British Rail were going to employ a 100 year old bye-law and prosecute me for trespassing onto their railway line.
This was the first aggressive tactic by British Rail to throw the authorities off the real scent. They then chose to fight me. In every undermining way their highly-paid team of lawyers could possibly conjure up. There followed an exhaustive mission by myself, my family, friends and lawyers to follow this repugnant trail and clear my name. The legal battle that ensued took away five years of my life at a time when I was trying to learn to live again in the most painful ways imaginable.
When I look back on those years I can say with all honesty that my fight with British Rail is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Yes, even worse than having both my legs stolen from me. This attitude, of a public corporation towards its passengers was, at first, hard to fathom. But as, along with learning to live without legs, I embarked on my legal battle, the reasoning behind their inhumane methodology soon clarified.
After a busy morning, I’d left my business partner, Sarah, in the West End to tie up the details on another Primetime meeting, and had raced back to our office to prepare paperwork needed by a new client that afternoon.
MediaVision was based in an attic bedroom in Sarah and Justin’s Wandsworth semi in a safely suburban street 4 miles or so from central London. An arrangement we kept carefully hidden from the majority of our clients with their palatial, glassy offices in downtown New York, LA and Paris.
I was due to meet fellow PR Barbie back in town for pre-dinner drinks and moved speedily around the office, darting backwards and forwards between the filing cabinets and my computer. Yellow Post-it stickers littered the circumference of the screen – messages from Max, a tall, blue-eyed blonde American I’d met at the annual MIP Media Conference in Cannes and fallen for in a big way. When I discovered he was taken I’d finished it but he was still in hot pursuit. So far I’d been fortunate in that Sarah had been there to pick up the phone when he’d called. Though I’d finally moved on I didn’t want the temptation. Even his voice was dangerous – heavy in maturity and sexuality.
Typing furiously, my eyes drifted out of the window to the sunny day. I thought about ice-cream, wondering if I’d have time to grab a cooling cone to eat on the train. I bounced my way down the narrow flights of stairs, stopping off at the hall mirror to reapply my eye-liner and lipstick. I was looking good, lean and healthy with a sexy real-tan glow, attained from a quick week away to Greece with best friend Dinah and her family at the end of July. I gave myself a little smile before slamming the heavy door behind me and setting off for the station.
Heat warped the afternoon air and I could hear a distant cooing from a summer dove. An endless chorus from twittering birds added further song to the radiated atmosphere of that hot, sunny afternoon. Dawdling by the post-box, I rummaged in the over-sized bag slung over my shoulder, ferreting for my rail-pass and letters to shove in the slot.
I walked quickly. My Walkman, attached to my trouser waistline, bumped slightly with each step. The headphones were around my neck. I preferred birdsong whilst I was out and about and didn’t usually wear it until I was travelling to relieve the boredom of the long train commutes. I produced home-made tapes in my flat. The best songs from favourite albums got me frequently dancing around my home, the volume on the stereo turned up high.
All around were sights and sounds of an overcooked summer. Trees wilted with heat, leaves drooped with dust. An ice-cream van tinkled gently in the distance. I turned quickly into the station entrance, a blast of hotter diesel air greeting me from the hissing, squeaking train standing at platform one. When I got to the top of the stairs I saw through the bridge railings that my own train was trundling its 400 ton weight into the station. My cream, cropped top stuck slightly to my back as I re-adjusted the heavy bag on my shoulder and began trotting over the bridge.
A crowd of passengers hung around the glass box that caged the ticket collector. This was the fourth time I’d passed him that day. He filled the cubby hole, a black mass of shiny face and uniform. He seemed both distracted and sleepy. I didn’t bother to flash the pass that was in my hand. I had to struggle through a crowd of dawdling, chattering passengers who appeared to have all the time in the world.
I knocked one of them with my bag. Sensing she was cross, I muttered a hurried apology, intent on catching my train. I quick-stepped down the stairs and across the platform. The door of the train wasn’t fully closed and opened easily. I had my right foot on the running board and was raising the other when the train jerked ferociously. I made eye contact with some of the other passengers sitting inside the train. The train pulled away from me violently. I mouthed OH!
Then my right foot slipped, my hands scrabbled. As I clung to the wooden sides of the doorframe, the train jolted again. My left leg dropped below the running board. I struggled and was twisted down, down until I was wedged, crushed, between the train and the platform wall. Four hundred tons of metal began to roll against my back. The force rolled on, my feet were in the platform well, my stomach and chest pressed hard-up against the platform. I raised my hands, waiting for it to slow down and stop.
But the train didn’t stop.
Instead, it speeded up.
Through fear rather than pain I screamed, ‘Stop, stop the train!’
In a typically English way, I felt embarrassment. WHY didn’t they see me?
A red terror gripped as I realised how much worse my predicament was becoming. I was pinned, a butterfly with all limbs mentally flailing, my feet were with the wheels, massive, heavy crushing wheels and the train was moving faster, faster. I was still relatively safe with the wall and, although flattened, I hugged it still closer to me. I thought very clearly, “Keep your head away from the train”.
A metallic fear hit my nostrils and flooded my brain.
I felt a tugging and then – nothing.
My memory of the moment I fell beneath the wheels, thank God, does not exist.
I came out from the black pit of nothingness.
The train had stopped and I was trapped beneath it.
The smell of evil permeated the air, fumes of dust and black grimy coal. I breathed the gagging fumes of diesel and electricity.
A dull thud, atrocious in pain level, reached up from the track and held my body deadly still. I did not breathe, I did not move as the thud hit me again. Electricity was holding me down, claiming its route through my body, the fragile vessel. It made a sound, the deepest lowest buzzzz.
I raised my head from the ground, thinking, ‘I’ve got to get up, I’ve got to get out of this.’ A strange object came into focus, it lay away from my body at a distorted angle. A sliver of something attached it to me. What was it? It didn’t look human. But I recognised the shoe. It was mine.
No. It couldn’t be.
This is not me.
A wretched agonising pain filled all of me instantly. If there was a Richter scale for pain, this would be a tornado, a major earthquake, shuddering through my body. A sickening weight was crushing my left leg. I couldn’t see what caused it. My hands raked at the wall, my nails clawed the brick, I HAD to get up.
‘Help me,’ I mewed. ‘Help me. This is not me,’ I called from some primitive survival base in the back of my throat. I didn’t recognise the voice. ‘This is not happening to me. ‘Help.’ It was depleting my energy. I fell quiet. Too frightened to speak. But then came the surge of adrenalin, the adrenalin of fear and flight, my energy hopelessly boosted.
But there could be no flight. The fear accelerated.
A kind face appeared, warm black in colour. Soft eyes, sad eyes. He bent down. ‘I’m so sorry, someone will help you. I am so sorry.’ He straightened himself and left, walking backwards, his eyes registering horror.
Train doors slammed and banged. Panic rose. I sensed no one until Maggie appeared. I knew that was her name because I asked her and, even in fear and panic, one is polite.
‘Diana, hold on. Don’t worry.’ She was desperately trying to give me some security. Some semblance of hope. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t me she was speaking to anyway. I didn’t know where I’d gone. She held my hand. I gripped her life-force, unsure of where mine was.
Minutes ticked away, every second a tortuous hour of horror. A female policewoman type was there, on the edge of the platform. Her voice annoyed and distressed me. Two ambulance men arrived. They had difficulty getting to me. The train had to be moved. I could hear them talking. They’d have to switch the electricity on again to do that. It could give me an electric shock. The driver, sweating, heaving, tried to squeeze his way to me. He couldn’t. I let go of Maggie’s hand. I didn’t want her to be there when they moved the train off me if that electricity hit again. I knew I wouldn’t survive a third jolt of 650 volts. I put my head down on the track and scratched my nails deep into the black coal, perfect shiny pink against black. I remembered painting them that morning so they’d look beautiful.
That was a time long distant. Another, parallel, universe had taken me over.
Oblivion, that’s what I craved and that was the vision before me. If I turned my head away from the platform, to the left and to the tracks, that was all I could see – oblivion, an all-enveloping sense of being nothing. Not existing in any form. If I turned my head to the right, and raised it slightly I could see Maggie. I could reach my hand up to her. I chose to take her hand as they rolled the train off me.
I heard the engine of the train and buried my face into the stones of the track. Give me that oblivion. I was groaning and the sounds I made frightened me.
‘Don’t do this. Don’t do this to me.’
‘Diana give me your hand. Please Diana, give me your hand.’ Maggie ignored the wishes of the forces around her. They were concerned about the amount of electricity required to move the train. I couldn’t bear it. I turned my head to the left, away from the platform, away from Maggie. But the oblivion I faced seemed too deep. Too uncomprehending. Was this death?
I heard Maggie’s soft voice again, pleading with me to turn to her. I obeyed and took her hand as they rolled the train off my left leg.
With trembling voices and gentle hands they put, what seemed to be, plastic bags on my legs.
‘I’m sorry love, we need a doctor for painkillers,’ said one, his voice so low, so timorous, I could barely hear it. But I hadn’t asked for painkillers. I pleaded for a direct blow to the head from a sledgehammer. I whimpered the request, like a puppy in severe pain.
When you are in pain, a pain that obliterates everything else, you don’t scream, you squeal quietly, conserving energy.
A policewoman stood over me, looking in my bag. Her voice, strangely, got on my nerves. ‘Who should we contact?’ she asked. My first thoughts were my mum and dad. I couldn’t do this to them, not after Dad’s accident.
‘Sister. Helen. Drew. Drew,’ I whimpered half of Andrew’s name twice.
‘An… Drew. I need him. Please. Sur Name Palmer.’
I couldn’t breathe. My parents, oh sweet Jesus, Mum and Dad. I couldn’t think of anything. Such pain obliterates most thoughts, my brain didn’t work. My eyes couldn’t see anything.
‘Contact lenses. I wear contact lenses. Tell the surgeons I wear contact lenses.’
The ambulance men moved fast, attaching drips, which I could see, and doing something with my legs, which I couldn’t. Their breathing was heavy, I pleaded again to be knocked out. ‘Sledgehammer’ I muttered, over and over.
I could smell the sweat on them, it reeked of distress.
Somehow they got me onto a portable stretcher. Somehow they got me across four tracks and into the ambulance. I was shivering with shock, my teeth chattering and clacking with a fearful shuddering.
‘They will sew it back on again, won’t they?’ I asked the poor sod who had to travel with me in the back of the vehicle.
‘Don’t worry about it love. Not now,’ said the ambulance man, his words shaking away the enormity of the truth. I remembered the same cadence of voice from inside the ambulance that had taken Dad to hospital, a few weeks previously.
The kindly lie. A lie is kinder than the truth. For everyone.
I lay face down and remained face down when they took me out of the ambulance and through the swing doors to Accident and Emergency. I’d seen this on television. I was in an episode of ER.
White coats flapped. There seemed to be a room full of them.
Voices asked about my back. Scissors sheared material off my back. A slight piercing of indignation hit my senses. I like that shirt! What are you doing? I called again for a sledgehammer. I pleaded for the big hit over the head that would overrule all pain which had moved me from the real world into who knows what this was.
‘Your back, Diana, does your back hurt?’
‘No. Please knock me out, Doctor. Please.’
Still face down, I lifted my head slightly and looked straight ahead. There was one of the sweetest faces I’d ever seen. Another angel, looking distressed. A nurse with soft eyes. Deepest compassion.
‘Breathe into this Diana.’
‘Am I going to have a baby?’ I muttered, ironic to the end. I gulped at the mask and I was gone.
I came to and Andrew stood at the end of the bed, looking at me, his pale face shadowed in gloom. I felt I must say something, sensing my last words had to be said now. It was not just him I delivered those three words to, they were for everyone close to me.
‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’ His words, reluctant, hoarse with fear.
I felt I could go, aware of my last exhalation as I fell away to the darkness.
c. Diana Morgan-Hill 2014
Love & Justice: A Compelling True Story Of Triumph Over Tragedy by Diana Morgan-Hill
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