Aged 19, Paul Unwin survived – but only just – a car crash that killed six others. Three decades on, he recalls how he slowly came to terms with his lucky escape.
When I was 19, I survived a serious car crash. It was the extremely hot summer of 1976, I had just left school and was convinced I was an adult. I was, in truth, a privileged teenager. I have a vague memory that summer of feeling I was standing on the edge. Life and everything about it seemed there for the grabbing.
I played drums in a band and we had decamped to a fellow member’s house in Lancashire to rehearse. This was meant to be our big moment. The snippets I remember of those days are happy and heady. We played in an old garage, or was it a barn? We jammed and goofed around. On the day of the accident, I went to clear some pigeons from a field with one of my friends. He knew what he was doing and during that afternoon I shot – and killed – something for the first and only time in my life. I was elated and have felt, illogically, that what happened that night was retribution for shooting that pigeon.
The light late that afternoon is photographically clear in my mind: the hillside was burned ochre yellow and the trees looked as if they were gasping with thirst. As we walked down the hill, clouds started to form for the first time in weeks.
My friend would die that night along with five other people. I would survive. Somewhere in my memory is a teenager with jet-black hair, smiling at me as we carried our dead pigeons home. Later, there is a flash of being in a pub. I think I recall a conversation about a photograph, or photography, and then nothing.
What I know of the accident is that too many of us clambered into a Mini after leaving the pub and collided with another car on the way home. As I understand it, the two people in the other vehicle were killed, as were four of the six people travelling with me. Truthfully, I never had the courage to go back and find out exactly what happened that night. It was certainly dumb that so many of us had got into the car, and even dumber that we had been drinking, but I think the accident was caused by a downpour on oil-covered – but bone-dry – roads.
I was banged badly on the head and crushed my pelvis and various other bones. I was knocked into a coma and only came to – oblivious to the tragedy I had survived – when my catheter blocked and the pain forced me into screaming consciousness. My mother was beside the bed, holding a wet flannel to my head, and I was at the intensive care end of a ward I would get to know as Male Surgical One, the Royal Victoria hospital in Accrington, Lancashire. It was a long Victorian ward with rows of white enamelled beds.
I have quite a strong sense of the ‘unconscious’ time. Although I had no idea what had happened, I realised something terrible had occurred and that I was in danger. Bizarrely, but specifically, I remember my grandparents on my mother’s side – whom I had never met as they had died before I was born – being at my bedside and, I felt, encouraging me to live.
Nothing was easy about this time. My elder sister, who lived in Liverpool, was told that I had died and relatives of someone who had been killed were told that he was alive.
When I was finally told what had happened, I felt detached. With no memory of the accident, and only threads of memory taking me to it, I could not possess the death I had been a part of but which, through some extraordinary twist of seating (I was in the back left-hand corner of the car and probably protected by someone on my lap), I had escaped.
I also felt uneasy. I became convinced that for friends and relatives of those who were killed, I must be living evidence of their bad luck. My guilt as a survivor began on that bleak enamel bed.
The heat defined hospital life that summer. I sweated, staring at the magnolia ceiling, and had an oblique view of everything that went on. I spent months strapped down. I could move my head up, down, left and right but my hips and legs were covered in sticky bandages and pinned in position. Early on, my head had been shaved and tubes drained unwanted fluids away. Visitors came and went. No one really knew what to say to me. I remember my father’s parents being very gentle, though. My grandmother sat beside the bed while my grandfather stood. He was – I’m sure – dressed in a khaki suit and V-neck sweater during one of the hottest summers on record. She smelled of talcum and stroked my hand.
There were moments that were horrible, disturbing and awful in their macabre comedy. One night a man who had survived the first world war – and days earlier had told me moving but incoherent stories from the trenches – staggered up to my bed. He was dying, riddled with cancer, but convinced I was his wife, Doris, and that we were going to have one last night together. Suddenly he was naked. A flash of purple erection was the last thing I saw before he jumped on me. In shock and pain I screamed, waking the 60 other men in Male Surgical One. Many of them started shouting – and some, confused, leaped from their beds. Lights went on and as the old man slavered all over me, a nurse came running up the ward. Before he was pulled off, he became very tender and kissed me on the cheek.
He died that dawn and I watched the nurses cover him gently before his body was wheeled away. Death was a regular occurrence on the ward and it was a hard place to recover. After several weeks I was put in a wheelchair and, now stick thin, was wheeled out into the sun. There was a rose garden behind the ward and behind that rows of red-brick terraced houses. Beyond were the Pennines.
Sitting there alone among the roses, I felt something give deep inside me. It was physical – like a string snapping. Then, suddenly, I was whimpering and shuddering in a place of such profound despair that I thought – in fact, I knew – that if I couldn’t control the storm I would have a breakdown. The feelings were coherent and incredibly robust. Life seemed the flimsiest thread. Nothing made sense. Desire, ambition, were just diversionary tactics to protect us from the real horror of being and then not being. That afternoon, the dead seemed enviable to me.
But with equal clarity, I realised these feelings had to be gone through and could not be denied. I understood then, for the first time, that the accident had really happened. I also knew, in the next thought, that somewhere ahead I had to pick up all the pieces and make sense of putting them back together.
I soon began to feel that no one could help, though people tried. I realised I was lucky to be alive, but also knew that part of me felt I was condemned to feel an unbearable responsibility for my luck.
I left hospital about four months after the accident and spent the best part of a year “recovering”. I knew I was on the road to a better place when in New York the following spring a hooker leaned out of a darkened doorway and said: “Hey, you want a good time, cripple?” I left my crutches at the next bus stop.
The accident lives with me still and rarely a day goes by without some part of the experience being in my mind. I have no physical scars. But inside I sometimes bubble with anxiety and have a shocking memory of that rose garden and truly being alone with my own mortality.
However, I have moved a long way from the crash and have gone on to live an enchanted existence. I have a happy marriage, two wonderful children and a career I love.
What became of those feelings that overwhelmed me in the rose garden? Gradually, I realised that my rage at life had to be directed and I became fiercely ambitious. I was going to prove my worth, no matter what. And only in recent years – the accident was 31 years ago – have the voices that challenged me whenever I stopped trying grown quieter and friendlier. As they stilled, I have become aware of the obvious. The voices were only ever in my head. No one ever, I am certain, cursed me for surviving – except myself.
I learned a lot by getting so close to death so young. The fragility and arbitrariness of existence sometimes seems so absolute that it is overwhelming; at other times, the experiences of that summer give me a taste for life that some people never acquire.
And while I wish more than anything that we hadn’t got into the Mini that night, I have learned over the years that for me there were gifts in the tragedy, and survival was only one of them.
First published by The Guardian in September, 2007.