It's February 2017. Rutland is cold and quiet. The days are short. I've been rostered out of my work at the call centre, so I've had the last two weeks off.
I've been chauffeuring my son Freddy to and from college in Stamford. It's a twenty minute drive from Oakham, on a road that winds around the side of Rutland Water, Britain's largest inland lake. Picture perfect. I steal glances at the glittering water as we drive by, the surface is vast, a mirror for the endless grey-blue winter sky. At the top of Burley Hill, falcons wheel and turn, looking down for prey, high up in the air Ospreys arch their wings and circle.
Freddy's in charge of music in the car, so these journeys are generally made to a soundtrack of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Jake Bugg, or Elbow. For a 55 year old man like myself, this represents a welcome musical re-education, so we usually turn the tunes up loud. I've quickly come to associate those journeys along the Water's edge with majestic voices and searing, intelligent lyrics. It adds to what is an already strong connection to my surrounding landscape.
I love to look out over the lake to the Hambleton peninsular. That's where Nic and I were living when Sepsis nearly took my life so brutally in December 1999. The village on top of the hill there, rising up out of the water, somehow symbolises my own resilience. I feel a huge affinity with this place, a deep emotional connection.
This geographical rooting in my surroundings gives me enormous satisfaction. It's quite odd really, because I grew up a hundred miles south, in Essex and London – but Oakham was the place Nic and I chose to set up house together, in 1996. It was a magical time for us, when we fell in love, and we found a place that was equally enchanting to hide away together.
Living in Hambleton, right out in the middle of the lake, was just that – a hideaway. The nights were silent, time passed slowly, there was a delightful preciousness in everything that surrounded us, intrinsic value in everything we did. I was so proud and happy. I planted a magnolia tree in front of our tiny cottage when Grace was born.
Snap back to now. To the present. We must try hard not to dwell on the past. I know that by now. Each of us has the power to choose how we think and feel about the past and I believe I have a duty to do that for myself both kindly, constructively and intelligently. My body has been through so much trauma, so I am increasingly careful about the way I speak and classify my experience. Put simply, I feel like I need to be gentle in my mind, generous to my soul.
Resilience. Lately, I've grown attached to that word. It's defined as an individual's ability to successfully adapt to life tasks in the face of social disadvantage or highly adverse conditions.Well, adversity and stress can come at me in the shape of family or relationship problems, health problems, broken prostheses, or financial worries. But my resilience allows me to bounce back from negative experiences with what they call 'competent functioning'.
It hasn't come easily. Actually, I kicked up rough about my situation for a few years after my Sepsis and it took me all that time before I worked out that unless I learned the process of developing reasoned, structured responses to all my challenges, I would lose everything I had left.
Let me give you an example.
Just a few weeks ago my local Disabled Services Centre made me a set of new legs. This was a big event for me as my legs are only revised once every five years or so. But I had to take them back after only a week because the legs proved to be extremely painful and had resulted in wounds on my stumps that continuously bled. I can deal with pain, but this was just too much.
When the technician examined the legs I had been given she told me that:
Well, what to do. In times past, sensing I'd drawn the short straw, I'd have had a row about it. I'd have made a real fuss, taken a formal complaint right to the top, demanded an explanation, reported the story to the local media. I'd have been combative about it, and I would have devoted a big chunk of my time and energy in letting everyone know.
But now, I'm calmer. I no longer take these things personally. I saved myself the bother of complaining, got a new set of legs that fitted perfectly and moved on. In the process, the prosthetist and I had a bit of a laugh about it, and while she got things fixed, we kind of bonded in a way that I know will help me with future repairs. Job done, no drama. The blood pressure has not risen, and my wounds have healed now.
I like this new world I live in. Words like balance, understanding, respect and forbearance have real value to me now. I've started to speak in public about my experience of Sepsis, the drama and the outcomes, and this has given me a much more profound perspective.
We all have pressing challenges. You, reading this, will have one or two issues causing you great concern. I know you will. But remember, there's always more than one way of looking at every situation, and by drawing on your inner resilience, you can manage anything.
I know I can, and although I am lacking in some departments right now, that makes me feel strong.
So, yesterday, another big day for this small disabled guy.
An early start from Oakham, Rutland, a journey by private taxi all the way down to London with my wife, Nic. It's International Day of Persons with Disabilities and I have been invited to speak at the law firm Norton Fulbright.
We glide southwards, steady down the A1. I always feel like that road is like an artery back to my old self, having grown up in Essex and London. As I approach the city and see the tall buildings in Canary Wharf rising in the distance, my confidence grows, my spirit rises – I'm coming home, back to the crazy metropolis, where everything is hustle, where Change is a lifestyle goal, where everything and anything is possible.
How I love London. I spent my teenage days hanging out at Capital Radio, I remember singing along to Gerry Rafferty as I was driving down Baker Street, I love the traffic, the pace on the streets, all the crazy sights, all the shops and theatres. I was at drama school in Gloucester Road, I used to travel right across town on the tube to my home in Wapping. From there, in the 1990's, I watched Docklands rise from the ashes of the WW2 bombsites. London is my heartbeat.
What's that other song that's in my head, as we move through London? Babylon, by David Gray. 'If you want it, come and get it, for cryin' out loud...'
This morning, I'm back. Or at least, a different version of me is – there's just two thirds of me left after my amputations, and my face no longer looks the same. Sepsis remodelled me, but I'm way stronger, much more of a grown up, and in many important ways, I'm a happier man.
We arrive at the Norton Fulbright offices on the South Bank. We are in a beautiful, modern glass building, with spacious interiors, everyone around us is smart, moving quickly, with purpose. There are two people I know already to greet us, so I feel instantly at home.
My wife Nic helps me set up in the conference room, there are about a hundred people in the audience, the first slide pops up on the giant screen and away I go. Talk Talk. I am so happy inside. It's not that I'm a show off, or even really an extrovert. But I do love a good presentation, I have an amazing story to tell, lots to say - plus, I really do feel like I am the absolute single world expert on my subject matter.
I talk about my own experience of sepsis, sudden disability, rehabilitation, resilience and recovery. Throughout, the theme I like to return to is Change. Because, I know, although few of my audience will encounter Sepsis, they will all go through unexpected change. They will have to deal with divorce, separation, bereavement, illness, losing work, moving house, growing older, accidents, financial transformation, accidents, fraud, estrangement from children, losing and making friends... The list is endless. Change is one of the dynamics of modern life, we receive no training in how to deal with it, and the consequences can be potentially devastating.
Well, I talk things through. We end exactly where I want to, when I encourage my audience to make sure they develop close allies and strong personal networks that can protect and help them through periods of change. That's my message. Thankfully, we're not alone, and with resilience, we can use Change as a huge positive, helping us to grow.
I feel good. Speaking like this is enormously helpful to me, taking me to new places both geographically and in my own head. Something new occurs to me in my soul whilst I'm talking, a feeling rises within me all in one moment - it's overpowering and almost overwhelming. I have to steel myself for a moment to keep control of my emotion.
I talk about the 44,000 adults and children who die every year in the UK from Sepsis - which is entirely treatable, with the right emergency care. 44,000 is a big number. Then I talk about all the husbands, wives, sons, daughters, parents, grandparents and friends who are bereaved. It's a staggering death toll. And whilst I'm on my feet, it occurs to me that what I am doing is speaking for those people. All of them. I suddenly think, in that split-second, what an amazingly huge responsibility – and what a privilege. They never got the chance to say how they feel, what life meant to them, or even to say goodbye to those who loved them.
Yes, that's the word. Privilege. I survived and I can stand up and tell the story, both for myself and for all those who didn't make it through.
So, how lucky am I?
Nic & I make it back to Oakham, through the London traffic, through a black December night. Mark, our driver, steers a steady course. After London and the big city, it feels good going back to Rutland.
In the evening, my employer, Lands' End, screens our movie Starfish. This is a beautiful film directed by Bill Clark and it's been on general release throughout the UK since November. It tells the story of the romance between Nic & I, my sudden Sepsis, all the drama of my amputations, my rehab, finding a way forward and back to life. It's really nice to be watching in such an intimate environment, and it feels like we're with friends.
By this time of the night, I'm feeling tired. But I have another chance to talk to a new audience of invited guests, and I take it. Every word I speak helps to raise awareness and hopefully to educate.
Occasionally – very occasionally, I suddenly see myself as if from afar – telling my sad, amazing story, catching glimpses of my mangled face and my ravaged body.
In those moments, I remember the man I was before Sepsis, and I shed a tear or two inside.
But Nic is always close at hand, my wonderful children too – and now it feels like I have the whole world to talk to about the precious things that remain in our lives and how important it is that we cherish and value them.
So, I hope I can go on to do more of the Talk Talk.
A day in my life. It goes by at shutter speed, and too quickly.
Car pulls up outside our house, and my wife Nic helps me into it. She has our bags, our clothes for this evening, we’re on the way to London. Actual fact, we’ve only just got home from appearing on BBC Breakfast in Manchester, so everything’s a bit hurried. We’re holding it together, but flying by the seat of.
Driver’s name is Paddy, and he knows where he’s heading. He drives us calmly down through the flat badlands of Lincolnshire, a hundred miles south on the A1, right into the expensive bit of London.
Mayfair. Most definitely, this is not my manor. I’m originally from Essex, Nic’s from Peckham, and now we live in Rutland (where’s Rutland?). So, we kind of don’t belong. We’re intruders, and this is the big time.
Paddy pulls up outside the Stafford Hotel, then helps extract me from the back seat. I’ve got four artificial limbs, so I make my entrance to the lobby of the five star hotel with all the grace of a drunken giraffe. Think, Lee Evans on ice. With luggage.
Inside, it’s beyond posh. It’s quiet, elegant. Cosy bars and niches, exquisite furniture. Impeccably dressed chaps in the corner doing lucrative deals. Hush now. All very Henry James – and have what you want at the bar. It’s late afternoon. How about a whisky, sir?
Our room is a suite with a huge bed, beautiful marble bathroom and a rock star minibar. Our film star friend Jo Froggatt has sent her make-up artist and her hairdresser to help Nic get ready. I loaf. This is bliss.
Our kids are here. They each have five star rooms of their own. Grace, 19, has travelled down first class from Manchester, where she has just started university. Freddie, 16, is busy checking out his flat screen TV and texting on his phone. We all sit together for a moment, on our massive bed. I make them groan when I quote my favourite line from ‘It’s Complicated’: “I love it when we’re all in the same time zone…”
Nic steps out looking stunning. She is wearing a long black jumpsuit and she looks beautiful. I am so proud to be married to her.
Half an hour later, Paddy drops us off at the Curzon cinema.
Can I put into words how it makes me feel seeing the name of the movie about our lives, up on the outside of the cinema?
Massive film poster showing Jo Froggatt as Nic, with a broad, loving smile.
My heart stops. This.
After all we have been through.
Inside the cinema foyer, there are five hundred people. Flashing cameras dazzle and the evening starts to dance in my eyes. A journalist thrusts a mic in front of us, a cameraman films us talking – then, shocked, I realise there’s a line of journalists waiting to talk to us. A line. OK. So, in 60 second soundbites, and pretending this is normal for us, we go along, talking about the drama of my illness. “How did you feel when you woke up and found that your arms, legs and face had been amputated? Quickly now – tell us!”
Audience packed. There are celebrities. Wow. People off the telly.
We all watch the film. Every time I see it, it gets more beautiful. The music makes my head spin. It’s captivating. Rutland Water looks like heaven on earth. So grateful and humbled that Tom Riley and Jo captured that wonderful lifestyle Nic and I had in the cottage by the lake, just before my illness struck. My love for Nic goes so deep and somehow they caught it. It’s there now in film, forever, and I have it. Thank you.
The film ends, there’s a standing ovation.
Thank you for saving my life, Nic.
I don’t know how we got here, but we did. And, now, with a standing ovation.
Starfish - the book
There's an exciting book coming soon that closely mirrors Starfish the film and tells our story. It's frank and it's intimate. It's about love, loss and the extremes we have been through in order to hold on to our family.