“Martin, stop!” says Jill, with an air of urgency. But I have seen the same thing at the same time. I slow the car, scanning the scene ahead, trying to absorb the scene before me. “Right, I just need to …”. I am searching the dashboard for that elusive, rarely used button with the triangle on. And I’m checking the road behind me in mirror – I don’t want to become part of the accident too. There. My hazard lights are on now and there is no one else behind me. It’s only just gone six in the morning. It would have been a different story later in the day with the road full of holiday traffic. I open my door; not what I would usually do in the inside lane of a fast dual carriageway. “Give me your phone,” says Jill. I’ll call the police”. I’m not surprised that Jill takes the admin role. She knows she’s no good with blood.
So I’m on my own then. I canter up the road, having stopped about 80 yards short of the other car. I’m searching through my mind for some first aid references that I might need in the next few minutes. As I trot past the broken glass, earth and other debris that litter the road the only things that come to me are about resuscitation and how to stem bleeding. It seems like that is all that’s left thirty years after my first aid course.
The car is blue and has come to rest broadside on the inside carriageway. Both the tires, that I can see, are blown out and it looks like every part of the body is crumpled as if it has been scrunched up and discarded. I can see that both the air-bags have deployed and have already deflated. There is no movement. I’ve only ever seen crashed cars like this hours or days afterwards. This still life scene must have only happened minutes, no, seconds before. The driver is, I think, a middle-aged woman. She is slumped forward, not over the wheel, but suspended by her tightened seatbelt a few inches above it. She is unconscious. Sitting next to her is an old boy with blood dribbling down his face in three of four streams. I can tell these are from minor cuts in his forehead and look worse than they are. No need to stem that flow then. “Are you OK?” I think that’s probably what I said. The old boy is surprisingly ‘with it’ and I am immediately impressed at how the cockpit of the car seems untouched by the impact, apart from having no glass left in the windows that is. It seems like both occupants are covered by a fine layer of dust. The old boy may just look like that normally, in contrast to the bright red of his blood. For the woman it may be that her blood has drained to a more needy part of her body. For some reason I don’t doubt for a second that she is alive. That is probably due to the condition of the inside of the car, the airbag, seatbelt and there being no immediately visible sights on injury. The old boy is starting to talk to her: “Wake up, Lynn”, as if she has just fallen asleep. Is that what happened? Did she fall asleep at the wheel? I gently hold her arm and call to her too. After about thirty seconds her head is rocking back and forward slightly and she is moaning unintelligibly. This is an improvement, but no real use to me. I’m now aware of someone else nearby telling me that he saw the car tumbling as he drove on the opposite carriageway.
He had stopped and run back. I try the door handle and for a moment I wonder if it has jammed shut, but it’s just a bit stiff and it opens with an accompanying tickle of falling glass. Lynn is getting audible now: “Where am I?” “You came off the road, Lynn” responds the old boy with an edge of impatience that tells me he is family. He must be her father. “Does it hurt anywhere?” I interject; keen to establish whether any of my rusty first aid skills will be needed. “It hurts everywhere”. This woman isn’t working well with me, but I’m starting to feel some sympathy for her. It’s still so early and already her day isn’t shaping up well. I’ve noticed that her seat belt is cutting painfully into her left breast and so I ask the old boy if he can reach to unfasten it. This he does.
“What happened?” asks Lynn. “I told you, you came off the road, Lynn” retorts the old boy (he’s definitely family). “We’re calling for an ambulance. Don’t worry you’ll be all right” I say with all the authoritative reassurance of a lapsed first aider. “I’m going to be sick” offers Lynn. Now, in my own mind I’ve decided that she is just shaken and bruised, and with a small cut above the eye that is only now starting to dribble blood down her cheek. But I’m thinking that vomiting over herself is not going to improve her lot, so I ask if she can turn her legs out of the car. From what follows later it turns out that this was not great thinking from me, but thankfully Lynn doesn’t feel like moving, but doesn’t vomit either.
I am aware that someone else is talking to the emergency services on his mobile behind me. And then another man appears saying “I’m a doctor. Shall talk to her?” I’m impressed by anyone willing to make such an offer and relieved too, although just a little displaced having to hand my first-on-the-scene baton over to another man. But
I immediately fall into a support role as Jill calls me over to hand me the phone. “It’s the emergency services” she says “They want to talk to you. I don’t know where we are”. I don’t know that either, but they now seem to have got that information from someone else. He says they are dispatching police, but uses the unexpectedly disconcerting phrase “you are our worst nightmare”! It seems that we are at the furthest point from all of their nearest units. Some are coming from the M5 and some from Wincanton which we had passed several miles ago as we sailed past on the A303. The Doctor seems to be doing no more than asking questions and so has a list of details ready to pass on to the ambulance guys, who arrive shortly after the police.
Now I am just a bystander and respectfully move away from the action to let the professionals do their job. At this stage Jill is handing out cups of tea to the other bystanders. This is coming from the flask that was meant to keep me going all the way to Cornwall. The guy who was next to stop behind us is a breakdown recovery driver bristling with tattoos. Having some experience in these matters he shows me the black skid marks on the road that start behind where my car is parked. Then they are joined by white marks.
Apparently these are where the tyres blew out under the stress of the skid and the wheel rims ground into the tarmac. He points at the broken branches all the way up the bank beside us. And there in the trees, above our heads, is a front bumper. It starts to dawn on me exactly how spectacular this crash must have been. How many times had the car rolled before stopping upright again? It seems to take ages for the firemen to get the couple out of the car. The recovery guy tells me that they will be cutting the roof off the car, so that they can lift the injured up and out, in case they have any spinal injuries. He has some stories of when he has seen this happen before.
Eventually, about one and three quarter hours after we first stopped, the ambulances pull away and we are allowed though to continue our journey. So much for making an early start to beat the traffic! We don’t resent it though. We are just appreciative that it wasn’t us that started our holiday in hospital. We never find out how that couple’s story ended.
One thing has bothered me since that morning. Despite my training, and the all the best advice, it would have still been so instinctive for me to help those unfortunates out of their car. It just seems so instinctive. As an author I myself have written about not going with
the natural instinct, but instead finding the counter-intuitive solution. In one of my parables, The Mackerel, having been hurt, a fish feels justified in holding a grudge, but yet it is the counter-intuitive act of forgiveness that restores him to full health.
Sometimes our instincts can let us down.