A mother whose 18-year-old son died in a car crash is campaigning for greater safety on the roads. She talks to Rosalind Whistance
“Actually I’m lucky,” says Wendy Newnham. “My son died, but he wasn’t responsible for the death of anyone else. I haven’t got to live thinking he caused the death of any other person.”
Wendy had passed her old car on to her eldest son Martin – confident that the little Metro was hardly boy-racer material – only a few days earlier. With a car-full of friends from Carisbrooke High School, he took a bend too fast, over-steered when he met a car coming the other way, and ploughed into a parked 4×4. His passengers were injured but no-one else lost their life. That is the luck Wendy talks about.
And the consequence was, he cast his family into the abyss that is bereavement. He has gone but they are left with the wreckage. “I am still angry with him for being so thoughtless,” Wendy says. “If he walked in tomorrow I’d knock his block off. Then I’d hug him.”
She doesn’t cry when she says this, but then she has said it many times. The positive of the negative of her son’s death, as she puts it, is that she has joined the Road Safety campaign to educate others about driving safely – to cut deaths and injuries on the roads. With Family Liaison Officer PC Clive Richardson, she has become the human reality check for all of us on the Isle of Wight who take risks on the roads.
You may have seen her at the Garlic Festival, the short, brown-haired woman who came out at the end of a horribly graphic reconstruction of a road crash, in this case caused by a drunk driver. She is the woman who stood there while her own words were broadcast to the public, in which she tells how an ordinary afternoon – she’d just got back from shopping in Newport – built up and up into her own, everyone’s, worst nightmare.
Usually the demonstration – police sirens, fire brigade cutting open a smashed-up car, a body dragged out and put into a body bag – is a reconstruction of her son’s crash. For the Garlic Festival the scenario was deliberately changed to reflect the demographic of that event. “Dads will have been in the beer tent trying out the garlic beer. Kids are concerned about their safety driving home,” says Wendy. “So the scene in this case was a drunk driver.”
Sometimes, when Wendy’s story is broadcast at events, she cries at the memory of her middle son, Ryan, who was just a scant two years younger than the brother he’d just seen crash his car, walking down the path, sobbing.
Other times it is the memory of watching her son’s heart monitor slowly weaken that causes her to break down.
Coping, as a word to describe Wendy, is inadequate, almost uncharitable. Six weeks after Martin’s death she started campaigning for safer roads, having been invited by Road Safety to record her story with Isle of Wight Radio: a hard thing to ask of a grieving mother. She grins at Clive, who, in his capacity as family liaison officer had supported her from almost the first hours since the accident, and who came with the request. “You knew I’d say yes!”
Clive Richardson describes himself as an ordinary PC. As a family liaison officer his role is not to counsel but to see families through the due processes – the inquest, the criminal court, and any possible appeals. But he is available to his assigned family at more or less any time. “My biggest regret,” he says, “is knowing so much about Martin without having met him.”
He is pragmatic about this aspect of his work, but it must take its toll. Why else would he and fellow liaison officers have a monthly debrief, to offload the impact the bereavement of others has on them? He is matter-of-fact about it, and says he doesn’t use the proffered counselling service. “My wife puts up with me going on,” he shrugs.
It is hard to dispute Clive’s opinion that Wendy is heroic, though she denies it – profusely. Wendy, telling her story in the lovely gardens of Afton Apple Orchard where she works, is not the empty shell you would expect, or a lantern in which the light is extinguished. She joshes with Clive, who teases her – they have become firm friends through all this – and rocks with laughter at his expense when our afternoon tea is interrupted by a chap asking his help to do up his trouser zip. “When in difficulty ask a policeman!” she hoots.
It is of course because she remains so normal that she has so much impact in the campaign. “People need to see how it affects you. When you can hear the emotion in someone’s voice, it becomes real,” she says. One of the events she took part in was a day for convicted dangerous drivers to attend instead of having points on their licence. “They all came in thinking they were going to hear some blooming woman moaning. They walked out like lambs.”
But being emotionally raw she is torn apart when she hears of other accidents. “You feel the enormity of other people’s losses. Even if you don’t know the people, you think ‘Oh my God, that poor family.’ It is emotionally exhausting feeling for other people. It churns it all up again. You think ‘I know what they’re going through and I can’t make it better for them.’”
She rides the agony of those words with admirable serenity. What she can’t make better for others are the changes to family life. Wendy says she doesn’t know what is going on in the minds of her other two sons, Ryan, now 18, and Kai, nearly 11. “I can’t imagine what Ryan thinks or feels, guilt for seeing it, for being there? Kai, when asked recently who lives in his household, said, ‘Daddy, Mummy, Ryan, me and Martin.’ I said gently, ‘Not Martin now,’ but he said, ‘But he does a bit, doesn’t he?’.”
“He was thrilled when he found a little yellow pellet from Martin’s BB gun, saying ‘Can I keep it?!’
Martin’s death has even had an affect on Wendy’s grocery shopping. “My son was a really good eater, he loved his food. There are things I don’t buy now, favourite foods of his I can’t bear to cook.”
All of his personal things are in two cardboard boxes under the bed. “Not much for an 18-year-old,” she says, with a hard note in her voice for the first time. Ryan couldn’t bear to see his brother’s things, so she cleared them quickly. “But I’ve told him they are there, should he want to touch them, smell them, wear them.” A pause. “You think you’ve dealt with things, but there’s still that to go through. That’ll be a tough one. Every step takes you through it all over again.”
The words are desolate, the face serene. Clive talks of the burden Wendy carries in attending the campaigns and bearing her soul: but she denies it is a burden. “I’ll carry on as long as I can. Sadly there’ll be someone else who will step into my shoes at some time. This is a part of my life that will come to an end. It’s quite frightening. You build relationships with the campaign team. But I’m going to have to leave them.”
Then she voices what you can’t help fearing for her. “I’m not absolutely sure that I’ve accepted it. I’m waiting for it to bite me on the backside. Because I think I’ve been very good – but I’m not sure I’ve done all the grieving. This campaign is my coping strategy.”
Wendy and Clive are adamant that their work is not aimed solely at young people. Clive quotes the police drivers manual: “There is nothing urgent enough to justify a collision.”
And Wendy’s message is to just think. Wear your seatbelt, slow down – think of the consequences. You are the person behind that wheel, if you decide to drive badly your family are the ones who suffer.
“Sometimes I look at Martin’s photograph and I think, ‘I’m never going to put my hand of that face again. I can’t believe I’m not going to be able to do that.”