Long, Dark Tunnel by John L. Fear
The impression that I had a toe on the Brethren leadership ladder was confirmed when I received the ultimate accolade of receiving an invitation to a three-day meeting. These occasional gatherings of local Assembly leaders were convened to give a speaking platform to the reigning leader of the Exclusive Brethren. A New York businessman, Mr. Jim Taylor Junior, had inherited the position from his father who had led the EB's for forty years.
This particular three-day meeting was being held in St. Etienne in the south of France. I was deputised to represent our Leicester Assembly, together with the elderly brother (Mr. Burke) who had conducted Robert and Alastair's baptisms. In exchange for the privilege of attending the gathering we were expected to report back any new Assembly Truths propagated by Jim Taylor. In addition to giving two or three major addresses, Mr. Taylor shared his platform with a couple of acolytes. They collectively fielded carefully managed question and answer sessions (Bible Readings). Within a few weeks an edited transcript of these meetings would be published in a book that would be required reading for every family in fellowship with the network of EB assemblies around the world.
The three of us who set off for St. Etienne included Mr. Burke and Mary's father, who represented the Assembly in Kenilworth. We travelled in Mr. Lynes' new car, a French Panhard. About sixty miles south of the Channel port of Dieppe we stopped at a Michelin listed restaurant for lunch. It had been arranged that I would share the driving with my father-in-law. I took over the driving after we had filled up at a petrol station on the main road to the south of France. I will never forget the drama that was soon to engulf us.
The door of the Panhard, which opened from the central pillar of the car, began to rattle as we reached a speed of about sixty miles an hour. It is possible that I attempted to open the door with a view to slamming it shut. In any event the door flew open and, acting like a sail in the wind, caused our car to somersault out of control all over the road. The shock and trauma of being involved in a spectacular traffic accident is clearly etched on my mind. This was before seatbelts were in common use so I was flung violently out of the car.
My first response was one of surprise that I had survived such a horrific crash. Momentarily, as we came to a halt, my life seemed to be hanging by a slender thread as the car threatened to crush the life out of me. During those timeless moments I cried out to God, begging Him to save me and promising that if He would, I would obey the constant pounding to my conscience that had bothered me for the past year. Eventually the battered car rocked back on to its roof only inches away from my helpless body.
As I drifted in and out of consciousness I watched as my two travelling companions scrambled out of the upturned car. Mary's father, who had meticulously planned our journey, instinctively restored calm out of chaos by collecting the regional maps and other papers that had been scattered around the site of the accident. Shortly afterwards I was vaguely aware of the arrival of a siren sounding mini-ambulance and of the excited crowd who helped the driver lift me on to a stretcher.
I next saw Mr. Lynes and Mr. Burke when they visited me in the small rural hospital to which I had been taken after the accident. They were obviously still in a state of shock. I was tearful and full of remorse, but they were behaving like a couple of frisky schoolboys. They were sharing a room in a nearby farmhouse. I had received multiple injuries and the extensive areas that had been grazed by its contact with the road had been liberally painted with gentian yellow and my two visitors even seemed to find that rather amusing.
Internal injuries that had not been diagnosed gave me wave upon wave of excruciating pain. Mr. Lynes asked the ward sister whether I could be given a pain killing drug for my upper chest and shoulder injuries. Within minutes of the first injection of a morphine-based drug I gratefully succumbed to the euphoria it induced. Little did I know, at this early stage, that as further injections were given on request, I would soon become innocently addicted to these powerful narcotic drugs.
In the meantime, news of our plight had reached home and the Brethren at their three-day meeting at St. Etienne. The latter interpreted the accident as an 'attack of Satan' and they assured us of their, 'intercession before the Throne of Grace'. I saw the causes in rather different terms. It seemed to me that my life paralleled the rebellion of Jonah who, because of his failure to obey the word of God, also placed the lives of his companions in peril.
Despite my inconsolable gloom my two visitors always seemed to be in high spirits. They were thoroughly enjoying each other’s company and took every opportunity to explore the towns and villages in the region of the hospital.
I could not speak too highly of the kindness of the doctors and nurses. Beds of the dozen patients in my ward always seemed to be surrounded by numerous members of their extended families. I was an object of their curiosity, especially to the children who showered me with fruit.
Life in the rural hospital was enlivened by such treats as a carafe of local wine with every meal. For breakfast and between the main meals we were served with bowls of strong, black coffee that had been generously laced with Cognac. The ward lady, who served this heady brew, came to discover one day that I was British and promised to bring me something special. She subsequently produced a cup of warm water. A small cotton tea bag that was tethered with string floated buoyantly on the surface. Very soon a sort of brown stain seeped from the little bag and weakly coloured the warm water. The lady assumed, apparently, that all Britons pined for a nice cup of tea. I did not have the heart to tell her that I much preferred the strong coffee. From then on, I always got the tea.
During these days and long nights in hospital I realised in a fresh way that although I had some strengths, I also had plenty of frailties. I was constantly under the lash of a hyperactive conscience and on a roller-coaster of mood swings. I alternated between the confused depression of Job, the penitence of Jonah and the highs induced by the regular morphine injections.
It soon became apparent to my father-in-law that both my physical and mental states were deteriorating. In consultation with the Brethren leaders in London, fresh home from their meetings in St. Etienne, I was flown to Heathrow Airport, en route for home. It must have been quite an expensive means of transit because the stretcher occupied the space of four passenger seats. It was a painful journey, not least because after several days of narcotic injections I was desperate for another fix. On arrival at Heathrow's medical centre the doctor in charge mercifully gave me an injection to keep me relatively comfortable during the road journey to Leicester.
Within hours of arriving home from France our doctor arranged for my admission to the Leicester Royal Infirmary. It took a simple chest x-ray to show that both of my collar bones (clavicles) had been fractured in the car crash. The broken clavicles were tightly strapped up in a figure of eight configuration. These fractures had been the source of most of the pain. The treatment lessened this so that I was soon weaned off most of the pain killing drugs. A further more sophisticated x-ray revealed that a pulmonary embolism had passed through my lung and heart and had become lodged in an area perilously close to my lungs. Had the embolism not been dissolved, in response to a therapy of anti-clogging drugs, it could have caused a heart attack or a stroke. One doctor said that a heart valve may also have been damaged in the crash, adding that this could be investigated at a later date.
After a period in the LRI I had sufficiently recovered to return home. After all the trauma of the past few weeks it was sheer bliss to sleep once again between the white sheets of my own bed. It was also wonderful to be reunited with Mary and the children in a more normal family environment.
There were, of course, major issues still to be resolved.