When my phone rang I almost ignored it. It was
I didn’t recognise the number, but something made me answer it. ‘Is that Peter’s wife?’ a woman said, her voice muffled behind shouting in the background. ‘There’s been a terrorist incident. Your husband’s been hurt. He fell from a height. He can’t move . . .’ Then her voice vanished as the signal faltered.
I felt dizzy. A terrorist incident? Was that really what she’d said?
But there wasn’t time to think because the phone rang again, the first of several garbled messages from different people, struggling to communicate what was happening due to the faltering signal. Someone said possible broken back, possible broken neck, possible broken pelvis. Another voice said, possible head injury.
Clover Stroud (pictured) recalls the desperation she felt after receiving a phone call on Black Friday 2017 stating her husband Peter had been injured in a terror attack
Because I didn’t want the children to hear the increasing desperation in my voice, or the words ‘accident’ or ‘terrorist’, I ran into the garden, barefoot, my brain beating like a bird caught against a closed window.
I remember thinking how dark the night sky was, how cold the frozen lawn felt beneath my feet, as a policeman told me Pete had been caught up in a major terrorist incident on Oxford Street.
Later, it turned out this was simply a scare, after an altercation at Oxford Circus tube was misconstrued as a terrorist attack, causing thousands of people to flee, charging into shops and barricading themselves into offices. Pete was caught up in the stampede in a department store.
He hadn’t really wanted to go out into the heaving crowds of Black Friday, but I’d persuaded him: I needed a bag for the party in Paris, I pleaded.
I’d spoken to him moments before he stepped on to an escalator that led down to accessories on the lower ground floor.
The escalator Pete stepped on to was broken, and in the crush and pandemonium of hundreds of terrified people pushing to safety, he fell a storey from the edge of the escalator, landing on, and shattering, both legs.
Other people caught up in the panic helped Pete until the paramedics arrived (which took some time, as the area around Oxford Street was in lock-down.) Several off-duty nurses helped staunch the bleeding as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
‘His injuries are serious. You should go immediately to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, who are trauma specialists,’ the policeman told me.
When I heard those words, I remember thinking: Is this the moment I’ll recognise as the time our lives changed completely?
Because I had been here before. There was a horrific and spooky sense of history repeating itself. Twenty-six years earlier, almost to the day — on November 25 — my mother had an accident. Aged 52, she fell from her horse and was left so horrifically brain damaged, she never spoke or recognised any of us again.
Clover’s husband Peter shattered both legs after falling from the edge of an Oxford Street (pictured) department store escalator and was told that one may have to be amputated
She died 22 years later in 2013. Her fall, and the long-term effects of her injuries, devastated my family and altered the course of my life.
The anniversary of her accident has always been difficult. I vividly recall what it felt like, aged 16, to drive to intensive care to see the person you loved most in the world altered beyond recognition. Was it possible this was about to happen again?
Suddenly, I was forcing the children back into their clothes, and hastily arranging to drop them with my cousin in London so I could get to hospital to see my husband.
When you’re traumatised, your brain can also have irrational thoughts. Because as I piled the children into the car, I was also thinking, should I pack my dress and heels and Pete’s suit, just in case it was a mistake, and we can get to Paris after all?
During the five hours between that first call — ‘your husband’s been hurt in a terrorist incident’ — and standing beside his hospital bed, my mind scuttled down a dark labyrinth of traumatic possibilities of what lay ahead.
As I drove, distracting the younger children with chat about how exciting it would be to see their cousins, my mind flicked through the possibilities of what life might look like if Pete was paralysed, or, worse, brain damaged. Brain damage was the thing that changed Mum beyond recognition, and the thought of it changing our lives again was grim.
After dropping my children with my cousin, my older brother drove me to hospital. He repeated that it wouldn’t be like Mum’s accident, but we were both terrified it was happening again. So when I took a call to report that Pete had serious injuries, but that X-rays had revealed his spine and brain were unharmed, we both cheered and burst into tears.
When we arrived, Pete was bandaged and bloodied, but, crucially, sitting up in bed. That was a relief, but it was clear his legs were horribly injured.
He’d lost a lot of bone in one leg where it came through his skin, and his foot was held on by a thread of cartilage. We were also told he might need to have one leg amputated.
Clover (pictured right with Peter on their wedding day) chose to withhold her fears and remain optimistic while Peter was in hospital
His leg pain was so intense that it wasn’t until two weeks later that further X-rays showed he’d broken his hand, too. He was facing multiple complex operations over the next few weeks, with no guarantee he’d stand again, let alone walk.
We live more than two hours away from Paddington and I was torn between being with Pete, which was what I wanted, and being at home with our children, helping them enjoy the end of the Christmas term.
Occasionally, I took the children to visit Pete in hospital. Explaining to the younger children that they should not hug him, or jump on the bed, or even, really touch him, was complicated, as they were too young to understand.
I told them they could kiss him very gently on the hand, but they were used to huge cuddles from him, and I could see they were upset.
The uncertainty of what lay ahead was frightening.
Over the next few days, we learned Pete would be immobile and unable to bear weight on either leg for several months, and possibly indefinitely, so I needed to reorganise our house for when he could come home. Rather than putting decorations up or buying presents, I was suddenly reconfiguring our life, from ordering a wheelchair and fitting ramps, to hiring a hospital bed and learning how to use a wheelchair-accessible vehicle.
Almost the hardest part of this time was a sense I couldn’t share my life outside hospital with Pete. The challenges he was facing were so intense, he needed to focus purely on that.
I missed him. We are one another’s best allies. We’ve been together for eight years, but he’s also my closest friend. Processing what was happening was emotionally draining, but I knew I had to withhold my fears from him and remain optimistic, at least when I was in hospital.
Clover (pictured in Oxford Street) was mindful to accept all the help offered by friends including to look after her children
Outside, alone, I felt battered. After leaving his bedside, I’d stumble on to a train home, sitting in the carriage weeping silent tears that needed to be dry before I got home to the children.
We were also lucky, though. Pete had brilliant surgeons and nurses at St Mary’s, and I’ve never felt so grateful for the unconditional support of friends and family.
A couple of days after the accident, my friend, Raffaella, texted to say she was arriving to look after the children. ‘Don’t say no,’ she said simply, and I didn’t.
I was mindful of the advice an older friend gave me, which was not to be too proud to take all the help I was offered. ‘You’re going to need it,’ she said firmly.
It was a relief to know that while I was in hospital with Pete, Raffaella was home, essentially ‘being Mum’, helping the children with their homework, going to their school play or making mince pies with them for the Christmas fete. When she left, the daughter of a friend volunteered to help for a few days, which became weeks, then months. Neighbours unexpectedly turned up with food or to play with the children. All of our family visited Pete in London or the children and me in the country, and Pete’s closest friends set up a visiting rota, to make long days in hospital waiting for operations more bearable.
Pete came home just before Christmas after a month in hospital, but was immobile, and still in a terrifying amount of pain. His prognosis was unclear, since his ability to walk would depend on both how well the bone grafts and metal pins of his operations took and an indeterminate combination of, physio, diet, will-power and luck.
Clover (pictured with her children) says Peter’s progress was slow and she often felt haunted by the memory of the months after her mother’s accident
It was an intense, unreal time. Pete continued to work from his bed and I learned how to change his wound dressings, operate the ramps and winches of a wheelchair vehicle and when to take a deep breath and leave the room when frazzled by caring. I cried a lot, but always alone, wary of infecting family life.
It’s probably no coincidence that a couple of months after the accident, I completely lost my voice for six weeks. It was as if my body was literally telling me I needed help, and after that we started paying someone to drive Pete to meetings, until he could use a car again.
But through this we also laughed. I’d take him to clinic appointments or business meetings, pushing him down the pavements in a wheelchair as we giggled about how this was training for old age.
When he went to San Francisco for a week of business meetings, I went too, and we laughed, hard, as I pushed him up some of the city’s hills. It tested us, made us stronger. I have come through this year loving Pete more than ever for his bravery in the face of his injuries, his ability to laugh about it all — and his absolute determination to walk again.
Progress was slow and I was often haunted by a memory of the months after Mum’s accident, when, after coming round from a coma, we would convince ourselves she’d made progress when she hadn’t. And never did.
But slowly, in the spring, Pete did make progress. Four months after the accident, he stood, for a few seconds, bolstered by an inspirational physiotherapist at St Mary’s who played Led Zeppelin to motivate him.
As spring melted into summer, Pete started taking tentative steps across the kitchen using a Zimmer, then crutches. In late summer, he walked slowly, painfully down a beach in France on crutches, into the sea, as our children and a crowd of holidaymakers cheered. In the past couple of months, almost a year after the accident, he can walk without crutches.
He’s still in pain if he walks any distance, and his movement is stiff — there are still months of physio ahead of us.
Clover (pictured in Oxford Street) says she often feels guilty about having sent Peter to Oxford Street last Black Friday
He also is having an operation on his hand, which refuses to heal, but I’m allowing myself to feel optimistic.
He’ll always have scars, and may well have to have more operations on his legs in the next few years, but at least he can walk.
The fact that our lives were affected so dramatically by a fake terrorist incident still confuses me. Strangers who were with Pete after the accident have since told me that everyone around had a very real sense that a huge attack was under way. They all believed they were about to die and it was truly terrifying.
Often, I feel guilty, too. ‘Do I really need to do this, Clover?’ was one of the last things Pete said to me, jokingly, before I sent him down Oxford Street and into a department store to buy that bag.
I’ve often wished we’d never been invited to Paris, or that I’d been better organised and had already had a bag in my cupboard. I could have bought a bag in Paris or decided to go without one that night. What did I really need it for, anyway? To put my lipstick in?
I’m aware this time of year is the anniversary of Mum’s accident, but now it’s overlaid with my memory of that day last November, and what it did to Pete, too. The darkening nights and colder weather trigger flashbacks. When one of the children was watching a news report about Black Friday, I had to switch the TV off.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself more tearful than normal, my mind flying back to those first few weeks Pete was in hospital — the pain he suffered, the tense time I spent outside theatre waiting for him to come round after operations, the challenges he faced learning to walk, the hours and hours we’ve spent in clinics, and the X-rays on my phone of his smashed-up bones.
I’ve regularly woken with a strange, upsetting sensation that I must be able to reach back through time, and pull Pete out of that store and away from Oxford Street to safety.
Sixteen people were injured in the Black Friday false terror attack and so many more have been traumatised by it.
And yet if people remember it now, they’ll often laugh and say ‘But it was just a scare. Nothing bad happened.’ The truth is so much more complicated.