Nearly 8 months before. Teatime, UK. 5 January 2016.
Big game tonight. Well, big-ish. Stoke City will be entertaining Liverpool at the Britannia Stadium in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final, a competition we’ve already won a record eight times. It’s an opportunity for Jurgen Klopp, our newly installed manager of just under three months, to reach a cup final in his first season and, given our dearth of success in recent years, it’s an opportunity not to be sneezed at.
“Alright dad, I’m gonna watch the match in the Unicorn later. Having a few drinks with the lads as it’s my last night. Fancy it?”.
Tom would be starting his Australian ‘adventure’ the following day – spending a few days with Jamie and Claire in Bangkok on route – and was combining his farewell drinks with his farewell match.
“No thanks son. Have a good time!”
“Really? Thought you’d be well up for it” Tom expressed his surprise at my response.
“Nah. You know I don’t like watching the reds with non-Liverpool fans if I can help it. And it’s a Stoke pub too. Definitely not my cup of tea” I explained.
“Oh yeah, I forgot it’ll be full of Stokies. You don’t mind me going on my last night, do you?”.
“No mate, you go and enjoy yourself. Don’t forget we need to be at the airport early in the morning, so take it easy” I ended the conversation, slipping him a tenner to have a drink on me.
Long story short, Liverpool won 1-0 on their way to a final defeat against Manchester City, Tom returned home in plenty of time for a decent night’s kip, and I delivered him to Terminal 1 at Manchester airport in the morning, having made sure he was in possession of his plane ticket, passport and what bit of currency he was taking with him. Rather than just drop him off, as I’d done on numerous occasions before - when he was off on a short vacation and not travelling to the other side of the world for example - I parked in the multi-storey car park and accompanied him to the check-in desk.
A few minutes later, bags checked in and boarding pass in hand, Tom was ready to head through security, our paths about to diverge. As we hovered on the edge of parting, I found myself unexpectedly tearful at the thought of Tom going so far away, for such a long time – at least two years if his plans came to fruition – and Tom clearly sensed my melancholy, indulging me with a long goodbye hug, before almost literally skipping through the security checks.
Other side of the world? It could have been another planet.
1 day before. Lunchtime, UK. Late evening, Queensland. 22 August 2016.
Replete after my sandwich and coffee fuelled lunch break, I’ve a few minutes to spare before my latest teleconference is due to start, when my phone pings. Not a text, but a Facebook message from Tom. He’s just finished a FB conversation with his mum and now it’s my turn. Our communications with Tom are far from regular so it’s always great to hear from him, whatever the medium and whatever the time of day, but our digital chat is necessarily short due to my looming conference call.
After a few months struggling to find his feet, it’s encouraging - indeed a relief - to hear that he’s approaching the completion of his 88 days farm work, necessary for the 12-month visa extension he is keen to earn, and looking forward to visiting the Whitsunday Islands and Byron Bay before travelling back to Melbourne where he has already made friends and been promised more work. Before he can do any of that though, he needs to clear his debt with the hostel owner who, according to Tom, has confiscated his passport ‘for safe-keeping’, pending repayment of the debt.
All too soon our conversation is over:
“Anyway gotta go. Meeting in 2 mins. Stay in touch. Love you xx” I key into my Messenger app.
“Love you too, enjoy your teleconference x” replies Tom.
“As if!” says I.
Tom ended the exchange with a winking emoji.
The day itself
“That’ll do me” I thought, draining my pint glass immediately after the wriggly armed dancing maestro that is Daniel Sturridge had taken a pass from our latest shiny new signing Sadio Mane, and drilled the ball into the bottom right corner of the net.
With less than ten of the 90 minutes left on the clock and Liverpool leading lower league Burton Albion 5-0 in the League Cup second round tie – a welcome, if not completely surprising response to a 2-0 defeat at Burnley in the previous weekend’s Premier league fixture - I reasoned it was time to head home from the Fox & Hounds pub in Stony Stratford near Milton Keynes.
During the week, ‘home’ was a rented semi about half a mile ‘up the hill’ in Old Stratford, which had been my base for the last four or five months while working for Santander Bank in nearby Shenley Wood. Weekends when Liverpool were playing at home would find me with my wife Sandra at Anfield in our seats in the Lower Centenary (now Sir Kenny Dalglish) stand. Kop end, seven rows back, in line with the penalty spot. Great spec. My weekday evening routine when Liverpool were playing, and on the telly, consisted of getting home, getting changed and getting to the pub in time for something to eat before kick-off, and tonight had been no different.
The new season had only been underway for a couple of weeks, and towards the end of the previous season the Fox & Hounds had become a regular haunt when what promised to be a decent match was on the box. It offered a decent bar menu, decent pint and a couple of decent sized screens for the footy lover and I’d struck up a few conversations with the regulars over that time.
One such chap, a friendly enough native of Manchester and lukewarm City fan of a similar vintage to me, was there to watch the first leg of City’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, and had been moved to comment on the Hillsborough inquests which were ongoing at the time, suggesting that perhaps it was time for ‘people to move on’. To be fair, he was suitably chagrined when I asked him how quickly he might ‘move on’ if he’d lost a loved one in similarly tragic and unresolved circumstances. Our paths never crossed again.
The following evening, another Champions League night, I overhead a conversation on the same subject between two locals, one of whom professed some, in my opinion unwarranted, sympathy for the police officers in charge on that fateful day, and Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield in particular, adamant as he was that Duckenfield ‘hadn’t woken up planning to kill anyone that morning’.
I pointed out, as politely as my simmering rage would allow, that I found such comments offensive as well as spectacularly missing the point, and that, as he was now speaking to someone who’d been in attendance that day, he might be a little more circumspect in the future when espousing such a point of view – after all, you never know who’s listening, especially when you’re hardly trying to keep a low profile.
Perhaps our paranoia that the rest of the country, or at least a sizeable chunk of it, really didn’t have an issue with football fans – Liverpool fans – being ‘unlawfully killed’, or with the fact that the match commander had been found ‘responsible for manslaughter by gross negligence’, wasn’t actually paranoia after all. Thankfully I never saw him again either.
A week prior to that I’d watched us demolish Everton 4-0 at Anfield in the same bar, where one of my drinking companions on the night was a fellow scouser, albeit an Evertonian. I think it’s fair to say I enjoyed that evening rather more than he did.
But I digress.
The following day would dawn on my 58th birthday and, even though the mighty Burton had been vanquished, long gone were the days when I might have considered staying for a few more pints, perhaps to bask in the afterglow of a comprehensive victory. Besides, and with no disrespect intended, it was only Burton Albion and only the League Cup – or whatever it was actually called these days - and I was nearly 130 miles from the family home in Cheshire and 160 miles from our native and spiritual one in Liverpool. There were only a handful of fellow drinkers in the bar, and as far as I could tell none were Liverpool fans (or Burton Albion fans for that matter).
In days of yore, I’d have phoned my dad Les or brother Alan to discuss the match and we’d have berated or laughed along with each other depending on the performance, the result and whether our opinions on the match coincided or clashed, but sadly they were no longer with us. Most of the rest of the family – wife Sandra, home alone in Congleton during the week while I worked away, sons Tom and Dan, daughter Olivia, mum Jean and brother John - were all big reds, but for reasons I still can’t articulate never fully replaced my dear departed dad or brother as suitable candidates for an immediate post-match phone rant or celebration.
San had actually suggested a while back that there was really no need for me to phone her after a match anymore, as if she didn’t agree with my opinion we’d usually end up falling out. Not for the first time I could see she was right and I’d been happy to concur. So, I was mildly surprised that evening as I started my walk up the hill to my mid-week home in Mounthill Avenue, when my phone rang. It was San calling and I immediately assumed she’d been so impressed with our summary dispatch of Burton that a celebratory phone call was in order after all. If only that had been the case.
“Hi sweetie, how’s it going? Decent win that, eh?” I greeted her.
“Yeah OK. Listen, there’s no easy way to say this. Tom has been attacked and he’s in intensive care in a critical condition” San responded.
“What? What’s happened?”
“Not entirely sure at the moment, but another person was also attacked and has died. They’ve told us to prepare for the worst”.
And there it was. My, our, world upside down in the space of a few seconds. My head was already spinning, my heart racing.
“Well, I’m coming home” I said into the phone, completely unnecessarily. Of course I was coming home. What else would I do? I was already fighting, in vain, to hold back the tears. We are blessed to have a number of very close friends who live nearby and one of them, Steve Nash, was with San when she made the call (it was only later when I checked my phone that I realised I’d had a few texts from Steve asking me to call either him or home. The Fox & Hounds was in a ‘dead spot’ cellular wise, at least for my network provider, and between them they’d been trying for a good few minutes to get hold of me, only managing to do so after I’d left the pub).
Looking back, San and Steve had to try and keep me calm as I faced a three-hour drive back to Congleton, when I felt San and I should really have been trying to comfort each other. Tom’s brother Dan and sister Olivia were both in Liverpool, in fact Liv was still at work and Steve, God bless him, made the near hundred-mile round trip to collect them.
Having promised San I’d be home as soon as possible, while at the same time pledging to drive extra carefully, I ran up the hill in a state of some distress, sprinting into the house and quickly throwing a few things into my weekly bag. I was finding it difficult to think straight but for some reason recalled when my brother had died in the emergency room after being struck by that speeding car in Liverpool nearly six years before. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I remember thinking that perhaps I could have done more that night, in the way of prayer at least, to help give our Alan the best chance of survival.
It was no doubt with that in mind that I immediately called Heather Kemball, a close family friend and local minister. Heather immediately sensed my distress and after I’d put her in the picture, I beseeched her to pray for Tom. As I headed for home, I could not imagine what a rock of love and support Heather would be for us over the coming weeks and months.
About three hours later I pulled onto our drive in Congleton half an hour into my birthday, though that was the last thing on my mind. I’d hoped the journey would be quicker but, considering the time of night the traffic had been much heavier than I’d expected, and I was peering through moist and misty eyes much of the time, praying that there’d be no even worse news when I reached home. Thankfully there wasn’t. San and the kids were there, Steve and the police having left a little earlier after Steve had dropped Dan and Liv off and ascertained that I was on my way home.
Tom had been backpacking and resident at a hostel in Queensland, Australia, and San had spoken to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for an update, as well as to doctors in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Townsville Hospital, where Tom had been operated on, his life now hanging in the balance.
She had also somehow stayed calm enough to research flights to that part of the world and there was one leaving Manchester airport just after nine in the morning which would get me into Brisbane, via Abu Dhabi, just over 24 hours later. San is absolutely terrified of flying but had rightly assumed I’d want to be by Tom’s side as soon as possible, so we booked a single ticket – one-way, who knew when I’d be ready to return? – and thankfully my online visa application was granted immediately, presumably because someone had been primed to expect it.
I headed off to Manchester airport at six in the morning, full of trepidation having said a tearful and emotional goodbye to San and Dan. Steve had very kindly offered to give me a lift, and Liv was accompanying me to the airport before returning home to be with her mum and brother. No-one had slept a wink. After another tearful goodbye with Liv and Steve I joined the queue at the Bureau de Change preparing to be fleeced for my couple of hundred Australian dollars, which would mean I’d at least have some local currency when I eventually arrived.
The journey from Manchester to Abu Dhabi and then from Abu Dhabi to Brisbane can best be described as torturous. While waiting to board the first flight at Manchester airport, I called my sister Stephanie and brother John to put them in the picture and asked them to let my mum know what had happened (my mum was 77 at the time and I reasoned eight o’clock in the morning was much too early for her to be woken up with such news, especially via a phone call), and also managed to catch my manager, Jackie, at work – a lot had happened since I’d left the office the previous evening.
Everything ran on time and the service from Etihad was as good as you would expect. But I was physically and emotionally shattered, frequently in tears, and absolutely dreading turning my phone on between flights. When I eventually arrived in Brisbane, the British Consulate had arranged for me to be the first person taken off the plane and met by local police and Laura Morgan, a member of the consulate itself, for which I was grateful. My suitcase was collected for me and I was rubber stamped through immigration in double-quick time.
The end of my journey beckoned, but not before another plane trip. Waiting for the two-hour flight up to Townsville, I was taken to a private room where I got to spend half an hour or so with Menna Rawlings, the then British High Commissioner to Australia. In more pleasurable circumstances I suppose I’d have relished this VIP treatment, but this was far from a happy visit. Menna was waiting for her connecting flight to Canberra having just visited the hostel in Home Hill where Tom had been attacked.
She was lovely, a proud welsh lady, very humble, understanding, sympathetic and genuinely concerned for my wellbeing and that of the rest of the family. Moreover, the half hour we had in that quiet, private room was a welcome departure from the head swirling chaos of the past 24 hours. She had no more specific update for me regarding Tom’s condition, but assured me that the emergency services in Queensland had been quickly on the scene and that he was in the most capable hands in Townsville hospital.
As I mentioned previously, Tom hadn’t been the only victim of the attack. He had actually been trying to help save the life of 20-year-old Mia Ayliffe-Chung, another young Briton, who had only been at the hostel for a few days (Tom had been there a few months), but tragically Mia had died at the scene.
We would get to know Mia’s mum Rosie Ayliffe, and her partner Stewart, quite well over the next few months, as Rosie campaigned against the often shockingly negligent (at best) practices and customs which appeared to be commonplace amongst many of those employing or providing accommodation for young backpackers attempting to secure a second year working visa extension in Australia. (Her book, ‘Far from Home’, describes her devastating loss and her fight to protect others from suffering a similar tragedy).
Jamie Nash, Steve’s eldest son and one of Tom’s closest and longest standing childhood friends – they started school a term apart when they were both still four years old – lived and worked in Bangkok with his wife Claire, and Tom had visited them often during his travels around South East Asia. As soon as he heard of the attack on Tom, Jamie was on a plane to Brisbane and we met up in the departures hall shortly before taking off for Townsville. We hugged our hellos and boarded the flight for the final leg of our respective journeys. I was immensely grateful for his presence, and he would become a pillar of support for me over the ensuing days, starting with our arrival in Townsville a couple of hours later.
We were met by Megan Hunt, the British Vice Consul based in Queensland’s capital, Brisbane, who earlier in the day had been on site at the hostel in Home Hill, sometimes known as ‘Shelley’s Backpackers’, where Tom and Mia had been attacked, liaising with police and other young travellers at the scene, and generally providing consular support and assistance where at all possible. Jamie collected my suitcase while Megan escorted me to a waiting car, which proceeded to deliver us directly to Townsville hospital.
It was late in the evening in Queensland, approaching midnight I guess, and barely 48 hours had passed since the attack. It was still a massive news story, both here and at home, and a number of reporters were still present, wanting a comment on what had happened, while flash bulbs dazzled and disoriented in equal measure. But I was far too tired and emotional to contemplate speaking to any of them at that particular moment.
I just wanted to see and hold my eldest son, my first born, for the first time since we’d said our goodbyes in the departure hall at Manchester airport nearly nine months earlier. At the same time, unbeknown to me, back in the UK the rest of the family were starting to get their own taste of unwanted and unnecessarily intrusive media attention.
* * *
Townsville Hospital is big and clean and gleaming and as impressive in every way as a hospital can appear to the uneducated eye, and its ICU does not let it down in any respect. Its staff were ready for our arrival, and over the next week or so I would experience – and be grateful for - their professionalism, dedication, empathy and compassion.
I sincerely hope that they will forgive my inability to remember names (although ‘Wayne’ and maybe ‘Kate’ strike a chord). I certainly remember explaining the significance of a couple of of Tom’s tattoos to them: “JFT96” alongside the ‘Hillsborough flame’, commemorating those who had died in that tragedy in 1989, and the band of five stars around one of his biceps, each identifying a year (“77”, “78”, “81”, “84”, “05”) of one of Liverpool’s successful European Cup campaigns (to date), and I do recall a young nurse dedicated solely to Tom’s care who was on duty in his room when we arrived. A young doctor quickly joined us to give an update on Tom’s condition, though the poor lad was as white as a sheet and had nothing really new to tell me.
Simply put, Tom might fully recover, might be mentally impaired, or might not recover at all. All possibilities were still on the table and only time would tell. By this time, I had also already met Vera Hemp from the hospital’s Social Work service, and she would also provide tremendous support over the coming days. However, nothing and no-one could have prepared me for my first sight of Tom lying in his hospital bed.
He had been stabbed in his right eye, which was covered by a patch, and was attached to various apparatus which breathed for him and monitored his blood pressure, heart rate and the pressure inside his skull. Tom had also been stabbed at the base of his skull and was in a therapeutic coma, induced to force his brain to rest. The pressure inside his skull was being monitored to ensure that as little stress was put on his brain as possible, though this also meant that his brain activity couldn’t be monitored at the same time (this is my recollection of how it was explained to me at the time, but in truth I can’t be certain), and the doctors were clear with me that Tom’s prognosis could not be determined until the swelling in his brain reduced enough to enable it to be examined via a scan.
I kissed Tom, held his hand and hugged him as best I could. And simply sobbed.
After a brief phone call to San back home to put her in the picture (there wasn’t much to elaborate on, but I think we were both glad that I’d arrived at last, safely, and had at least managed to see Tom), I was allowed to spend that first night in one of a number of rooms which were available for just that purpose – that is, for close relatives visiting patients receiving intensive care. What stories – both sad and uplifting – previous occupants of this room would be able to tell I thought, hoping beyond hope that mine would fall into the latter category.
The room was antiseptically clean and sparsely furnished, with a single bed, toilet and walk-in shower. All very modern, but bloody freezing as I recall due to a combination of the air-conditioning and the scantiness of the bed linen. As tired as I was, and I was so tired after the best part of two days since I last got out of bed at my digs in Milton Keynes, I struggled to get more than a few hours of broken sleep and was grateful for the shower, long and hot, when I eventually decided to bite the bullet and give up trying to force myself to sleep.
While I’d stayed 30 yards along the corridor from Tom, Vera had checked Jamie in to the Australian Red Cross accommodation situated on the hospital campus. This was a short 5-minute walk from the main hospital and was to prove a godsend over the coming days. I would spend the rest of my time in Townsville there, initially sharing with Jamie until he returned to Bangkok and a semblance of normality with Claire, and my daughter Liv would also spend a few days there after flying out from the UK at the start of the following week. And all provided free of charge by the Australian Red Cross. They will always have my heartfelt thanks.
The chronology of the rest of my stay in Townsville is somewhat hazy to recall with utter certainty but if I remember correctly, Vera (the social worker) met me early on that first morning, as I was required to vacate the room after the first night, and transported me and my suitcase across to the accommodation I would be sharing with Jamie. Jamie meanwhile had already had a busy start to the day and informed me (or was that Vera?) that the detectives working on the case would be travelling down from Home Hill to meet us later that morning and bring us up to date with any progress they might have made.
Detective Inspector Kelly Harvey and Detective Constables Nick Bach and Gavin Neal introduced themselves as they joined us for a late breakfast at the popular little café situated on the hospital campus, where my toasted egg and bacon sandwich and café latte provided much needed sustenance. They explained to us what their enquiries had managed to uncover so far.
The simple cold facts were that Smail Ayad, a French backpacker who had been resident at the hostel for a number of months, appeared to have attacked and killed Mia with a large kitchen knife, and had subsequently attacked Tom with the same knife, leaving him in his current critical condition.
As the story unfolded it seems that Ayad, a trained UFC fighter who had fought professionally in Thailand, had been acting strangely throughout the day until he eventually started shouting and screaming unintelligibly before dragging Mia from her bed in a room they shared on the top floor of the hostel (there were only two levels, one of which was the ground floor) at knifepoint and stabbed her in the chest.
Mia had somehow managed to escape from him and stagger into the bathroom, before Ayad performed a swan dive from the first-floor balcony to the ground floor – possibly intending to end his own life? – but ultimately managed to perform a back flip before hitting the ground. He had injured his back and neck in the ‘fall’ and my Tom, who had been working on his laptop in the room he shared with five other backpackers and, having heard the commotion outside the room but unaware of what had just transpired, ran to Ayad’s aid.
At this stage, another young backpacker Dan Richards, who had witnessed the attack on Mia and initially tried to calm Ayad down, called to Tom that Mia needed urgent assistance and Tom then immediately ran upstairs to provide what help he could in the bathroom. (It is a source of pride to us, though absolutely no surprise and indeed little comfort now, that Tom appeared to be the backpacker’s ‘go-to guy’ in the circumstances).
As Tom and Dan were doing their best to help Mia, Ayad had picked himself up and run upstairs, confronting Tom at the door to the bathroom. Apparently, CCTV footage shows Tom attempting to calm Ayad at this point, asking that they be left to tend to the stricken Mia, before closing and locking the door. Ayad then kicked the door in and attacked Tom in a frenzy, stabbing him repeatedly in the head and torso, before turning on one of the hostel managers, stabbing him in the leg, and also fatally stabbing the owner’s German Shepherd dog.
Mia’s travelling companion, Chris Porter, had raised the alarm and warned fellow hostel dwellers to lock themselves in their rooms, before falling from a drainpipe and breaking both ankles. He narrowly escaped with his own life when a passing motorist stopped to help him as he was being chased by Ayad.
As all this was happening, the police had been called and pretty quickly arrived on the scene along with the paramedics. While the paramedics attended Tom and Mia – we later learned that Mia had initially been their priority as Tom appeared to have been a hopeless case, such was his loss of blood – Ayad was eventually apprehended after attacking and injuring a dozen or so police officers. (Nick Bach, the arresting officer, intimated that Ayad had demonstrated almost superhuman strength and aggression, and continued to display that same level of aggression in the days immediately following his arrest, to the extent that his initial court appearances – having been charged with Mia’s murder and Tom’s attempted murder – were facilitated via video link to avoid any possible risk to the general public and members of the court).
Other information regarding Ayad’s state of mind – his obsession with Mia after only a few days of her being there, and his paranoia that members of the local farming community were planning to kill him, for example – and the effect of his long-time addiction to smoking marijuana, would come to light over the ensuing months, culminating in his appearance at the Mental Health Court in Brisbane in April 2018, nearly two years after the attacks took place.
But on that first morning in the little café on the Townsville hospital campus, my only concern was the condition and survival chances of my son. Jamie became my personal carer, assistant, secretary, general dogsbody and basically go-to man for everything during those first few days. It was now the Friday morning after Tom had been attacked on the Tuesday evening and, while we waited for the pressure in Tom’s skull to subside enough for a definitive scan to be performed, we had to look after ourselves. More accurately perhaps, Jamie had to look after both of us.
Shopping lists were made and acted on – we had access to a kitchen in the Red Cross accommodation – local police were liaised with, and even my Aussie family members, half a dozen of whom travelled up from Melbourne to see Tom, engaged with. Just like his dad Steve, his mum Angie and his brother Daniel – what a great family to be able to call your friends – Jamie is a natural leader and took all of this in his stride despite the fact that Tom was one of his closest friends from childhood and was obviously dealing with his own feelings about what had happened.
Tom was taken to theatre on the Friday to be examined by one of Australia’s leading ophthalmologists, as I was informed. After the procedure I was called to a meeting with the surgeon and his assistant who explained that they had assessed the injury to see if the eye could be saved. His sight in the eye had gone but they had been hoping they could at least avoid the need to replace it with a false one.
The news however was not good, and they were visibly upset when informing me they could do nothing to save it. It is perhaps an indication of my state of mind that the news barely affected me. I shrugged my shoulders as I told them that I didn’t care if Tom wouldn’t be able to see out of one of his eyes, I just wanted to be able to take him home with me at some stage. We could work through anything with him as long as he survived.
A consequence of this attempt to save his eye however, was that I reasoned they wouldn’t even be trying to save it if his was a hopeless case. All things being equal, the following day Tom would be getting taken for the scan to assess the extent of the injury to his brain. My hope sprung eternal. Back home, they were ten or eleven hours behind Australia Eastern Standard Time, and I phoned to update the family with these latest developments. Their reaction was similar to mine. At this stage, nothing else mattered but Tom’s survival.
The next day, Saturday 27 August, dawned. Back in the UK Tom Goodhew and Rachael Glover, contemporaries of Tom, Dan & Liv and who our relationship with over the years had matured from being friends of our children and children of our friends to simply being our friends, were getting married. We had all been invited and Liv was due to be one of Rachael’s bridesmaids. At Townsville hospital in Queensland, I sent Rachael and Tom a message of goodwill for their wedding day and implored them to put Tom’s situation out of their minds, while Tom was taken for the brain scan which would determine the extent of his head injury and his prognosis.
At some stage during the late afternoon or evening – I honestly cannot remember which – me and Jamie were called to a meeting with two of the doctors who had been looking after Tom. The meeting room was situated just outside the ICU, no more than five metres or so from its entrance, and was accessible only by entering the correct access code into a keypad attached to the door, a mechanism no doubt designed with more than a nod to the potential privacy needs of friends and relatives of ICU patients receiving news about their loved one’s conditions.
It wasn’t our first time in that room – the ophthalmologist and his assistant had delivered their assessment of Tom’s injured eye to us there, we had greeted Tom’s friends visiting from the hostel there, and we would go on to greet more of his friends in the days to come, not least Kay and Ryan, particularly close friends of Tom, to whom we would deliver the same news we were about to receive – but I still can’t describe it in much detail. My hazy recollection is that it was small, no more than three or four metres square, sparsely furnished with a few reasonably comfortable chairs and perhaps a small coffee table, or similar, and with a muted colour scheme of maybe cream or grey. An unremarkable and easily forgettable room. Tragically, the news we received was neither unremarkable nor ever likely to be forgotten.
I sat with my head bowed, Jamie’s arm protectively around my shoulders trying in vain to shield me from the pain of the medic’s words, while at the same time providing what little comfort was possible, as Tom’s future was laid out in front of me. In short, he didn’t have one.
The scan had revealed that the knife wounds to the back of his head had severely damaged his brain stem and the senior doctor explained the best-case scenario was that he would be in a persistent vegetative state. Brain-dead to use the vernacular. Even with the ventilator continuing to breathe for him, ensuring that blood and oxygen continued to circulate around his stricken body, neither would be sustaining Tom’s brain and it was very likely that his heart would eventually stop beating of its own accord.
I was heartbroken - devastated, distraught, grief-stricken, all the words you can think of that might be used to describe your emotions at times of loss and distress, but never come close to conveying the depth of your despair. However, Jamie and the doctors who delivered the news would be forgiven for not necessarily recognising those emotions in me, reacting as I did quietly with a resigned acceptance (as far as I am aware). Certainly, there was no wailing or outpouring of grief.
Looking back, I think I’d been preparing myself for losing Tom since San had first uttered “prepare for the worst”, and certainly after I’d seen him for the first time in his hospital bed. Ever since I’d been deluding, perhaps protecting, myself with false hope based on little more than wishful thinking. Now I needed to let his mum know.
Like most other males with a family I guess, as a husband and father I have always felt an acute sense of responsibility for providing and maintaining the safety and wellbeing of my wife and children. As illogical as it may seem, that sense of responsibility does not diminish – or at least not for me – as our children mature into adults and leave home.
One TV show I have particularly enjoyed is ‘The Good Doctor’. The title character is a young surgeon named Shaun, played by Freddie Highmore, who has suffered with autism from an early age and, after the death of his brother who he adored, and his rejection of his abusive Father, is pretty much brought up by Dr Aaron Glassman, played by Richard Schiff (who also plays Toby Ziegler, the White House Communications Director in ‘The West Wing’, another favourite show of mine).
In series 3, Shaun is persuaded to visit his dying Father and is accompanied by his friend Lea, played by Paige Spara, and Dr Glassman. Dr Glassman and Lea don’t always see eye to eye, especially where Shaun’s well-being is concerned, Lea believing Dr Glassman to be a little over-protective at times, while Dr Glassman, who had lost his only daughter, is a little wary of Lea’s youth and slightly more care-free attitude.
Dr Glassman sits Lea down and asks her if she is planning to have any children of her own one day. To which she confirms that she’d like to, but, you know, who knows? It’s then that Dr Glassman tells her that if she does have children, she is “…going to be responsible for another human being”. Followed by…
“Your first job, Number One, is to keep them alive”.
It matters not a jot that Tom was a fully responsible 30-year-old man who hadn’t lived with us permanently since leaving for University 11 years earlier and, standing at 6 foot 3 inches tall in the prime of his life, was far more capable of physically looking after himself than I was. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, my emotional state was undoubtedly exacerbated by the sense that I’d failed at my ‘number one job’.
Now, in the space of less than a week I had been ten thousand miles away from my eldest when he received the wounds which would ultimately end his life, and the same distance from the rest of my family at a time when the only worthwhile thing we could do was comfort each other. I felt lost.
Using FaceTime on my iPhone, I called home as the rest of the family were getting ready for Tom and Rachael’s wedding, so I guess late morning on Saturday 27 August in the UK. In a role reversal of the phone call I’d received from San just a few days earlier – though it seemed a lifetime ago – I did the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. My heart broke again giving the news to Tom’s mum and siblings, and at being pretty much as far away from them as it was possible to be. I needed them as much if not more than they needed me. San had sounded reasonably upbeat when answering the phone, at least under the circumstances, but my news quickly changed that, and her face crumpled as she sank to her knees sobbing.
Eventually, her voice cracking with emotion, she agreed with me that we simply couldn’t leave Tom indefinitely on life support, even if that was an option, when there was no hope of recovery. The hospital had already broached the possibility of organ donation with me and the following day we quickly decided, after consulting Dan & Liv, that without any evidence that Tom had ever indicated he wouldn’t want to donate his organs under such circumstances, we would give our consent for it to happen.
That was, is, us to a T. Big decision to make? No problem, bang, it’s done. Ask me to choose between half a dozen parking spaces or San to decide where to eat and chances are we’ll wander around for half an hour and end up falling out over it! We agreed that I’d give the hospital the go-ahead to do whatever preparations were required and we would sleep on our decision before confirming our consent. Not that we expected that decision to change, but there was plenty the medics needed to do before Tom’s organs could be removed, and it made sense to use that bit of breathing space.
As it turned out, Tom had spent some time before he left for Australia working with his cousin Phil and for some reason – probably because they’d exhausted their football talk for the day – they had discussed organ donation and Tom had declared himself very much in favour. And so, the lives of six people in Australia were about to be prolonged or in some way enhanced as a result of receiving Tom’s heart, liver, lungs and kidneys. It felt like the right thing to do, but it offered absolutely no immediate comfort, regardless of any public utterances to the contrary I may have made at the time.
Of course, as time has passed, and we have exchanged correspondence (anonymously of course) with some of the recipients of Tom’s organs, we appreciate how important our decision was to so many people and we are happy that we made it. May they all live longer and happier lives.
* * *
San, Dan & Liv bravely attended the wedding, keeping our heart-breaking news to themselves so as not to dampen Tom and Rachael’s big day celebrations, and I confirmed our consent to the doctors allowing the ensuing organ donation process to click smoothly into gear. Tom was given another scan a couple of days later on the morning of Monday 29 August which confirmed that he had actually died, probably on the day before although his official date of death would be recorded as the 29th.
Thankfully (small mercies) this avoided the need for any decision on my part to agree to turn off any of the equipment which had been keeping Tom alive, technically at least, though many of the news reports which covered his death insisted that I had indeed had to make that ‘heart-breaking decision’.
Over the next two or three days Tom’s sister Liv would arrive from the UK, god bless her, having gamely completed her duties as a bridesmaid; Tom’s close friend Kay would arrive after a long and torturous journey from a work placement in India; Ryan, another close friend of Tom’s and former work colleague on the Scilly Isle of Tresco, who had subsequently moved back to Australia and was about to start making a name for himself in the world of Real Estate, would arrive again having been turned away earlier by the hospital as he wasn’t a relative; and a number of members of our Australian family – Sue, Ian, Sam, Pat, Chris and Tiff – would arrive from Melbourne. They were all able to visit Tom before he was taken for the surgery which would harvest his vital organs on the start of their transplant journeys.
As for me, by now I couldn’t wait to leave Townsville. The hospital staff and local police had been fantastic, the people of Townsville wonderfully supportive – I received many messages of sympathy, tangible help including offers of lodgings for as long as I was there with lifts to the hospital as and when required, and gifts which included baskets of food, presents which had been hand made by young children, and even some cash donations (which I passed on to the Australian Red Cross hospital accommodation when we eventually left). But once Tom had gone the place held no allure for me.
I had turned down a number of requests for media interviews – both press and TV – since I’d arrived and had even been approached out of the blue by a reporter outside Townsville hospital on the morning after I’d learned of Tom’s dire prognosis (but before the news had been released to the media).
I politely declined her request for a few words, and even thanked her for her interest before walking off. A few seconds later she was trotting alongside me and Jamie, filming us on her phone while professing her heartfelt apologies for doing so. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry” she kept repeating bizarrely, the footage subsequently appearing on the ABC news website. The whole thing was surreal.
Nevertheless, I didn’t want to appear to sneak away from Townsville without conveying my thanks to the local community so arranged, through the hospital’s Public Affairs department, to give an interview to The Townsville Bulletin, the local newspaper. They sent a reporter and photographer to interview me and Liv at the hospital, with Ryan Groube, the Public Affairs Manager, sitting in on it.
It was a perfectly reasonable interview during which we gave some background details about Tom and our family and his reasons for being in Australia, and after which we agreed to a few photographs being taken. The front page of the following day’s edition of the paper was entirely dedicated to us with the headline ‘OUR HERO FOREVER’ sitting on top of what we considered a pretty inappropriate photo of us, with Liv almost draped across my shoulders.
I accept that we consented to have the photos taken, but we hadn’t seen any of them before publication and let’s just say we were a little disappointed, not to say embarrassed, with the one they selected. Worse still, a headline on the inside pages where the story was continued declared ‘FATHER’S SYMPATHY FOR ACCUSED’.
During the interview I had professed a degree of sympathy for Ayad’s family, his mother in particular, at the same time making it quite clear what my feelings towards Ayad himself were. Although the printed article was faithful to the interview – at least in that it never implied anything we didn’t say, though it omitted much of what we did – the accompanying headline was a complete misrepresentation of what I’d said and caused our family further unnecessary distress.
As the article had not even conveyed any thanks from us to the people of Townsville, including the hospital and ICU staff in particular – my whole reason for offering to do the interview – on my return to the UK I sent a ‘Thank You Townsville’ letter, via email and with a note expressing my disappointment at the initial article and a request for my letter to be simply published in their letters section, to the journalist who had interviewed us.
I received a reply in turn thanking me, apologising for the omissions from the article they had printed, and indicating that the editors of the paper and its sister paper, the Burdekin Advocate which covers the Home Hill area where the hostel was situated, may wish to turn it into a story using quotes from my letter. I was gob smacked.
It was only after I replied with a strongly worded email directly to the editor of the Bulletin refusing them permission to use my letter other than in their letters section, that I then received an acknowledgement from the editor Ben English, and the letter was printed as intended in the letters section. The whole episode left a sour taste.
Liv and I spent a few more days in Townsville, completing formalities with a local funeral parlour for Tom’s repatriation, accepting a kind invitation to visit the Billabong Sanctuary where we were able to hold and have our photographs taken with Koalas and Wombats as well as view some other rescued Australian wildlife like kangaroos and crocodiles, and visiting the hostel in Home Hill where the attacks had taken place. The local community there had already planted a couple of trees in honour of Tom and Mia, so it was nice to see them.
However, the Mayor of Burdekin had arranged to take the majority of the backpackers out on her boat on the same day our visit was organised by the local Ayr police department, so it was a quick visit.
(Coincidence or a convenient way to avoid my meeting them as a group? Mia’s mum Rosie would shortly launch and run the ‘Tom & Mias Legacy’ campaign, which would raise questions at the highest levels of the Australian government about the abuse and exploitation of immigrant workers, including backpackers of all nationalities, and the Queensland farming community, which was served by workers from the Home Hill hostel was – and still is – heavily reliant on immigrant labour.
The dual attraction of keeping the backpackers sweet with a nice little jolly while at the same time ensuring the father of one of their murdered colleagues was kept at arm’s length may have been a temptation easily succumbed to. Or I may just be indulging my paranoia, who knows?).