Ask someone for their first memory and they will often give a couple of fairly mundane possibilities and not be sure which came first. I have no doubt at all about mine, however. The earliest thing I recall is looking down at my feet and seeing flames coming out of my ankles. It was a Sunday afternoon in July 1981 that I caught fire – just after I turned six. The summer holidays were due to begin the following week and I was in the garden of my family home in Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire, with my dad, preparing for a visit from my cousins, aunty and grandmother.
It was a sunny day but slightly breezy, and I was wearing a gold, synthetic three-piece suit: my favourite outfit at that time. I was standing nearby as my dad struggled to light the barbecue. Eventually he used some sort of accelerant – white spirit, perhaps. It caused a small fireball as it caught, which was propelled towards me as the breeze switched suddenly in my direction. That’s where the vivid memory of my burning ankles kicks in. Everything that happened in my life before has been wiped out. My dad acted fast. As the flames rushed up the highly flammable fibres covering my legs, he dashed indoors, grabbed the large, thick corduroy cover from our sofa and ran back to wrap me in it.
The next thing I remember is sitting on a toy chest indoors, feeling hot and asking for water over and over again; then being driven to hospital by my dad, where I was transferred by ambulance to another hospital with a specialist burns unit. Throughout this, I don’t recall experiencing pain, even as I lay on a table surrounded by people in gowns who were picking bits off me – melted clothing that had fused with my flesh and, I suppose, dead tissue. I’d suffered third-degree burns to all of my right leg and most of my left, which had destroyed my nerves, leaving a sense of numbness – my legs remain less susceptible to pain than the rest of me.
I underwent lots of skin grafts, which left me with hundreds of tiny scars and a stripy bottom. For weeks I couldn’t have a bath, had to use a bedpan and wasn’t able to bend my legs, which had to be wrapped in bandages and held straight while the grafts healed. I adjusted well, considering. It was only when I realised what an exciting summer my sister was having that my situation began to seem intolerable. She wasn’t allowed in the ward, but I remember her being held up at a window wearing a new Legoland T-shirt. I was allowed home just as the holidays were ending. I had to wear compression garments like thick tights for a couple of years, but at school my legs were covered most of the time, and it wasn’t until years later that a girl on my swimming team asked why my legs looked so horrible. I never really wore shorts until my 30s – by then, I’d fully accepted having big patches of hairless skin that never tanned, and felt more self-conscious about the tummy I’d started to develop. Read more