A narrow squeak and a jolt of reality


It was a glorious August day and life was sweet. The motorway was crowded, as they always are in southeast England, but nothing out of the ordinary. There were five of us in the car, cruising our way towards Canterbury — a city I have never visited but was excited to do so. I closed my eyes to grab a nap and drifted happily in and out of wakefulness until I suddenly felt the car slow down then abruptly grind to a halt.

There had been an incident just ahead. We could see the commotion but there were too many cars between us and the scene of the accident to really grasp what was going on.

My niece turned off the engine and we opened the doors. Canterbury was cancelled, that much was immediately clear. But hey, we were all in one piece and unscathed. Which was a good deal to be grateful for. In fact, considering how close we were to the vehicles involved, it was high time to thank our lucky stars.

People were stepping out of cars, vans and lorries ahead, behind and beside us to try and gain a better understanding of what was going on up ahead. The motorway took on a friendly atmosphere as people exchanged speculation as to what had happened and how long we would be stranded. The motorcyclists weaved closer to the barrier that had been erected to keep the public back. By now the queue of cars behind us stretched as far as the eye could see. We had just passed an exit junction, but the police were preventing any cars from leaving the motorway. That junction was now the route in for the emergency services.

Back in our car, we took stock of our joint supplies: half a can of coca cola and two snack bars. Not much if we were going to be here for hours. We’d have to ration it out. Particularly the drink. It was 29ºC (84ºF) under the blazing sun.

And it was while I was speaking to my daughter, husband and mother, who were seated in the back of the car, that my blood ran cold. My other daughter was currently on a flight from Stockholm to London. We had spoken to her just before she boarded the plane, and she was now winging her way to joining her extended family for a weekend of birthday celebrations, theatre, concert and fun.

What if, what if, what if..?

What if she had arrived in London to the news that her parents, twin, grandmother and cousin were badly injured, or worse? That she would be returning to Sweden to complete her last year at school as an orphan? Or would be staying in London with an aunt who had lost her mother, daughter, sister, niece and brother-in-law?

I voiced my distress.

The car was silent for a beat, then my mother — the oldest and wisest among us — pointed out that as terrible as that scenario would have been, the fact of the matter was that we were not injured in the slightest, and assuming we were eventually rescued from the motorway, we would all be having dinner together tonight as planned.

Yes, but what if?

By now we were also beginning to understand the extent of the accident up ahead. No fewer than 10 ambulances arrived at the scene, plus fire engines, police cars, special cars carrying specialist doctors and eventually a large ominous-looking vehicle that my niece explained contained equipment to treat those who were too badly injured to be taken straight to a hospital and required some form of treatment on the tarmac.

What if. What if.

My daughter produced a pack of cards and we began to play. Sips of warm coca cola were gratefully drunk, and one snack bar was split into five. And even more emergency vehicles arrived.

I continued to ponder. Since becoming a mother, my biggest nightmare has naturally been the thought of the loss of a child. Now I was wondering whether leaving a child behind might be worse. Not because I gave two hoots about my own life being lost in this scenario, but for the anguish she would be subjected to and the huge impact on her life. The shock. The hurt. The tears. The fear. The long road to recovery. The rest of her life.

It took almost three hours before the first ambulances left the scene, their blue lights flashing as they disappeared from view.

Shortly afterwards, the motorcyclists turned around and began to push their bikes back towards the junction behind us. They told us that the motorway was now going to be evacuated.

And indeed we were. Slowly but surely the police instructed us to turn around using the hard shoulder and leave via the junction slip road. One motorist asked whether he could wait as he still needed to get to Canterbury. He was told it would be several hours before traffic would be allowed to pass. We could only imagine the horrors incurred if rescue of the injured was likely to take another few hours.

What if. What if.

It was a perfect summer’s evening. We sat around the garden table and tucked into a scrumptious BBQ dinner washed down with cold champagne and red wine, and rounded off with cheesecake.

My daughter arrived from Heathrow. I hugged her extra tightly.

Later that evening, I asked my sister what she would have done if the worst had happened. What would she have told my daughter?

Without hesitation she said: I would have told her that these things happen in life. And that we would now have to make the best of it.

It was a very reasonable reply.

These things do happen in life. And while we’re all still intact, we have to make the very most of it. And live each day to the full. And say I love you to those who matter while we can.

And be grateful that we were a family lucky enough to be thinking what if?

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