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Hacktreks 2

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The Deep End
James Skinner is the Honarary Consul
...there she was, with a broken leg and all bruised up staring into the wilderness

A friend called me the moment he heard that I had been named Her Majesty’s rep in this north-western corner of Spain. ‘Congratulations. I’ll now be able to renew my passport over a pint of beer’ he said cheerfully.
I must confess, I hadn’t thought about the personal side of this job at all. Being in an honorary capacity, you don’t really have an office, nor a secretary let alone a chauffeur. You’re on your own Jack! On the other hand what would the taxpayers think if they thought that I blew their money on frivolities like outings with the boys in order to stamp their passports and the like! Good gracious, I had to think twice before I answered my friend and put him straight. Here I was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea as I opened the first chapter of instructions on how to behave as a diplomat, albeit an amateur one. However, no sooner had I settled down with book in hand that a phone call from my boss, the Consul General set the pace and dropped me directly in the deep end. A nasty car accident in my area had claimed the lives of three members of a young British family. A small two-year-old was the sole survivor. Despite being a world traveller and connoisseur of life, one of the most dramatic moments of my life had just begun.

It was all over the British and European press. The vice-consul flew from Madrid to help me in the massive work that lay ahead during the next few days. My three phones plus fax didn’t stop ringing. ‘Can you tells us, in your view, who’s to blame?’ ‘Are the Spanish police co-operating?’ ‘Is the little girl all right?’ were typical of some of the questions bombarding my ears for hours on end. Even most of the television lot was hammering away at us for interviews and shots of the aftermath. My first thoughts were to tell them all to go fly a kite, but then we’re all human aren’t we? They have a right to know what’s going on. ‘Viva le democracie and all that jazz.’ The worst was yet to come. I was the first Brit to visit the hospital to see the baby survivor. I wept!

Despite the incredible humanity displayed by both hospital and Red Cross volunteer staff who had spent the first twenty four hours, round-the-clock watch over the child, there she was, with a broken leg and all bruised up staring into the wilderness, not knowing what the hell had happened! Sucking at her dummy, she looked at me. I walked away. I wiped my eyes for the umpteenth time. I composed myself and together with my vice-consul colleague we approached her again. ‘How are you?’ we said in unison. What a bloody stupid question! But then again, what would you do trying to undo the bulging knot in your throat as the idiotic question found its way through your windpipe! She said nothing, just continued to stare.
‘Next of kin,’ whispered the v-c as we left the ward. ‘The kid is in good hands. It’s taking care of the relatives that are the hard part. Better brace yourself from now on.’

The following day, as I waited at the airport for the grandparents and an uncle to arrive, after having paved the way for them to sail through customs and immigration and avoid the awaiting press, my thoughts were running wild. What do I say to them? How do I greet them? ‘Had a good flight?’ I never felt so humble in all my life. These people could be me! I have children and grandchildren. What would I do in their shoes? You read the daily press and it’s full of nothing but horror stories, terrorist attacks, guerrilla shootouts, and Middle East Ping-Pong bombings. Switch on the television or go to the movies and what do you get? Van Diesel in ‘Shoot out in the shopping mall.’ Yet when you actually witness and feel the aftermath of a daily human tragedy and you can reach out and touch it, you realise how far away you really are from the news and media frolic. An elderly couple and a young man were being escorted through the back door of the airport. The lump in my throat came back.

I came face to face with them. They were tired but calm. A strange feeling came over me. It was as if I was sharing their grief. And yet I suddenly felt at ease. I was shaking hands, offering sympathy, explaining the arrangements, ushering them towards the awaiting limousine, and without realising it taking command of the situation. They were literally in my hands. A word of thanks to the airport public relations manager, a nod at the police escort and we were on our way to the hospital. I closed my eyes for a second. ‘This is just not for real,’ I thought. ‘I’m not here, I’m somewhere else, aren’t I?’
Although the next couple of days were traumatic, my initial psychological pain had eased. The paperwork had taken over. Despite the efficiency and professionalism of the undertakers in organising the repatriation of the bodies, it was new to me. Filling out the various forms, making sure that the authorities were on the ball, was all part of my new consular chores and I was learning by the bucketful! At the same time I was in constant contact with the doctors at the hospital to make sure that there were no impediments to transfer the child back to the UK. The next of kin were by her side, day and night. Finally, the day came when they were all able to fly back home. The reverse took place. Ambulance plus police escort, airport authorities and immigration all in tune and ready for action. A hug, a kiss on the cheek to the departing relatives and a last look at the little girl who looked at me and said: ‘mummy’s sleeping.’ My lump came and went, yet again.

As I look back on those first forty-eight hours of my initial role as consul I couldn’t help feeling that I had somehow done the most useful thing in my life. Having held the hand of a small child who had survived a horrible car crash and knowing that she was going to be all right was an indescribable experience beyond my comprehension.

© James Skinner. November 2002

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