Cover

Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Dedication

Introduction

Day 1: Thursday, 24 June 2004

Meeting Jessica

Make or Break

The Flat

Day 2: Friday, 25 June

Proposal and Marriage

Pregnant with Harry

Move to Southfields

Flying Solo

Day 3: Saturday, 26 June

Day 4: Sunday, 27 June

Day 5: Monday, 28 June

Day 6: Tuesday, 29 June

Day 7: Wednesday, 30 June

Day 8: Thursday, 1 July

Day 9: Friday, 2 July

Day 10: Saturday, 3 July

Day 11: Sunday, 4 July

Day 12: Monday, 5 July

Day 13: Tuesday, 6 July

Day 14: Wednesday, 7 July

Day 15: Thursday, 8 July

Day 16: Friday, 9 July

Day 17: Saturday, 10 July

Day 18: Sunday, 11 July

Day 19: Monday, 12 July

Day 20: Tuesday, 13 July

After ‘Where It Starts’

Investigation – Part One

Friends and Weekends Away

If It Wasn’t for the Nights

Nativity

The First Christmas

Jessica’s Tree

Emily’s Christening

A New Nanny

Jessica’s Birthday

Letter to Harry and Emily, 1

Investigation – Part Two

Starting School

Inquest

After the Inquest

Assessments

Letter to Harry and Emily, 2

Counter-schedule

The Priory

Settlement

High Court Approval

Looking Forwards

Letter to Jessica

About Childbed Fever

Acknowledgements

Copyright

About the Author

Ben Palmer runs an information technology business from home, where he lives with his six-year-old son Harry and three-year-old daughter Emily. This is his first book.

www.jessicastrust.org.uk

About the Book

In 2004, Jessica Palmer died suddenly of septicaemia, just six days after giving birth to her second child. Distraught, her husband Ben struggled to comprehend his loss and to care for their two young children. It later came to light that Jessica’s condition can usually be easily detected and prevented but in this case nothing was done until it was too late. Ben and his family successfully sued the NHS for negligence in 2007.

This is Ben’s heartbreaking story of dealing with his grief while raising two small children as a single parent. As he tries to accept the idea of life without his beloved wife, he battles shock, grief, despair and guilt, before finally finding hope in the future, thanks to the love and support of his friends and family. It is a devastating story of living with a cruel and needless loss.

Friday’s Child

The Heartbreaking Story of a Mother’s Love
and a Family’s Loss

Ben Palmer

Day 1: Thursday, 24 June 2004

AT 6.26 P.M. Jessica gave birth after a short and uncomplicated delivery and our world was made. The midwife held up 9lb 13oz of baby with dark, matted hair and a roll of fat around its neck, for Jessica to see.

‘It’s a boy!’ she exclaimed. The midwife and I looked at each other in surprise.

‘Look again, Jessica,’ the midwife said.

‘It’s a girl! It’s a girl!’ Jessica laughed. She had so desperately wanted a daughter. It meant so much to her that she had given me a son three years earlier, and she now wanted a baby girl. Both of us would always have been happy with whatever children we were blessed with, but with one of each, we couldn’t have wished for better.

The baby was lifted by the midwife onto Jessica’s tummy for a first cuddle.

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It had started earlier that morning when, already three days past her due date, Jessica had complained of abdominal pains. I’d looked at her as though she was mad. ‘So that’ll be you in labour, then?’ I teased her. She insisted that it wasn’t, as it didn’t feel the same as the early stages of labour with Harry. I shrugged my shoulders and we got on with our respective activities; Jessica with her feet up on the sofa and a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek and me working on a website proposal for a client in the first-floor third bedroom used by us both as an office.

A few hours later, Jessica conceded defeat and called Kingston Hospital, still insisting that it didn’t compare to her experience with Harry. Predictably, because hospital staff do not want every woman turning up as soon as the contractions become a little bit uncomfortable, she was told to hang on a bit longer and to call back if the contractions became stronger or more frequent.

After an hour Jessica felt she could take no more, and this time she was allowed to come in to hospital. Her mother, Christine, was at home to look after Harry, armed with a sheet of Jessica’s instructions. As I drove Jessica to the hospital I felt a knot of excitement inside me.

Once she’d been checked in and taken to a delivery suite at about two o’clock in the afternoon, Jessica was hooked up to a foetal monitor and we were left alone for half an hour or so to watch television and wait. On her return the midwife examined Jessica and looked at the chart that had been spewing out of the monitor and towards the floor. She started to explain that Jessica was still a long way off and that she should go home. But Jessica let out a cry and begged not to be sent home. Seeing her distress, the midwife agreed to let her stay.

Jessica and I had once spent a happy hour discussing a list of old wives’ tales we’d found on the Internet about how to tell what sex your baby is, marking a score against each one. Foetal heart rate is said to be an indicator as well. On one antenatal visit the baby’s heart rate was recorded in Jessica’s notes and my mother had asked again and again what it was, but we wouldn’t let on. She said that if it was over 140 it would be a girl. The heart rate recorded had been 143! On balance the old wives’ also pointed to a girl, but Jessica never counted her chickens. It was evident to all that, had Baby been a boy, she would have been equally ecstatic. She was always a brilliant mother, the best. Ask her friends. Ask Harry.

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Minutes after the delivery Jessica said to me, ‘Now I’ve got my perfect family!’ Then, after a pause, she added, looking at me with her Labrador eyes: ‘Can I stop now?’ I hugged her. It was such a Percy thing to say. I was so proud of her. We were so happy – a wonderful three-year-old son and now a beautiful daughter for Jessica to clothe in pretty dresses and play dolls with. The future looked fantastic. We had everything we had ever wanted. As Laura, my sister, said to me on the telephone later on when I rang from the hospital car park, ‘A designer family’. Nothing could go wrong now. We felt we were invincible.

From: Minette Palmer

To: Multiple addresses

Date: 24 June 2004 20:39

Subject: Midsummer baby

Dear All,

Just to let you know that Ben and Jessica had a baby girl this evening, 9lb 13oz, dark hair, no name yet. Mother and babe both very well.

Lots of love,

Minette xxx

Later in the evening, having ensured that both Jessica and our daughter were settled in the maternity ward, I went home – exhausted, but over the moon.

From: Ralph Lucas

To: Minette Palmer

Date: 24 June 2004 22:03

Subject: Midsummer baby

Pass on congratulations and sympathy — must have been one huge push!

Ralph

Meeting Jessica

ON FRIDAY, 12 February 1993 I was at a loose end.

‘I’m meeting Andrew and Graham in the Hollywood Arms. Why don’t you come and join us?’ asked my cousin, Ed, on the telephone in the early evening.

‘I’ll see you there,’ I told him.

Little did I know that a quiet drink (inasmuch as any Friday night in the pub was quiet, back in our twenties when carefree weekends meant late nights, lie-ins and breakfast at the greasy-spoon café) would so dramatically change the course of my life.

Pushing past crowded tables and a two-deep line at the bar, I located Ed and the others at the back of the noisy pub. I pulled up a stool and someone went to get a fresh round of drinks. The evening was a typical Friday night wind-down; we weren’t particularly talent spotting, as we might sometimes have done.

A couple of rounds into the evening, Andrew started talking about his recent exploit, Saving the Whale, and I had to stifle a yawn. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a totally admirable cause, but while he was talking I was thinking about a holiday to Cape Cod, New England when, together with the family friends I’d been staying with, I had taken a day’s boat ride off the coast to watch whales. Aged only twelve, I was fascinated by the experience, watching the whales jump, roll and blow, pointing and laughing with admiration along with my friend Zander and his younger sister (who, like mine, was called Laura). I snapped photos of the whales happily with my simple camera, and only later discovered the disappointment of capturing a whale after it had jumped and was below water again.

I never saw Zander again. We grew up on opposite sides of the pond, and on the one occasion he came to London in early adult life with a college rowing eight, I was out of town. A short while after that he was tragically killed on his way to a fishing expedition when the light aircraft he was a passenger in crashed into the side of a mountain in low cloud.

Brought back to the present, and realising that I was bored, I offered to buy another round. I squeezed my way to the end of the bar and, as I waited my turn to catch the barman’s eye and get my order in, I scanned the opposite end of the pub where I caught sight of another group of friends.

They were my more regular crowd of weekend pub companions. There was Henry Harries who was in my house at school, known affectionately as Jabba to his mates, due to a supposed resemblance in his early teens to Jabba the Hutt from the Star Wars films. Calling him by that name was once guaranteed to get you a punch in the ribs, but it had stuck. As I looked about to see who else was there, I noticed a new face – long, brown hair and large, dark, smiling eyes. She was wearing a black leather jacket and she smiled when she turned and caught my look. She was lovely.

I paid for the drinks and delivered them to the table before making my excuses. ‘I’m going over to say “Hi” to Jabba,’ I told Ed. Pushing, squeezing and apologising my way through the pub, I got to the fruit machines in the screened area beside the door and found that my friends were playing a pub quiz game.

‘Bezza!’ Henry greeted me with a friendly punch to the arm. ‘You’d better be good at this.’

I positioned myself next to the leather jacket and joined in the heated argument about correct answers.

She was shorter than I was, but enormous in personality. With her biker jacket she wore dark red jeans and brown leather ankle-length boots, the type with a metal ring near the bottom. She was drinking from a pint glass, yet she was so feminine and bubbly with a sparkle in her eyes. I thought she was totally gorgeous.

‘I’m Percy,’ she told me over her shoulder as we continued to call out answers to the quiz. She was ‘Percy’ (short for Percival, her surname) to her friends, ‘Jessica’ to her family and ‘Jess’ to her work colleagues. She didn’t like being called Jess, but was used to it. She much preferred to be known as Percy.

‘Ben. Bezza to this lot,’ I said into her ear, over the noise.

Several times the back of her shoulder pressed into my chest. Partly, it was the pushing and jostling of the crowd around us; partly, it was us. Neither of us moved away too quickly.

All too soon, the landlord rang his bell for closing time and a move to a club – Crazy Larry’s – was suggested. We all spilled out of the pub and Percy offered a lift in her car. It was a ‘handed-down-from-her-mother’ blue and white Citroën 2CV, with a mossy canvas roof that leaked in the rain. Joss – an old school friend – Jabba and I piled in after Percy, someone else squeezed in as well somehow, and we crossed Fulham.

The club was crowded and so Joss and Percy agreed to my idea of a quieter drink back at the dilapidated corner town house where I was then living (in exchange for doing some decorating prior to its sale). It overlooked the grass and tennis courts in front of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and was a short hop from my Fulham stamping ground.

After a while, Joss got bored and left the house, leaving Percy and I chatting away like we’d known each other for years. Eventually, Percy made a move to leave as well, so I got up. We kissed. I held her slight frame in my arms and felt carefree and happy. ‘Stay the night?’ I suggested through Dutch courage. Slightly tempted, she then recoiled, ‘No! I can’t. My mother. I . . .’ She gave me her home telephone number and I kissed her goodnight.

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The following morning, I looked at the number written on a scrap of paper and thought about calling it. Too soon? Too keen? Was she really interested? Several times during the course of the day I picked up the telephone and replaced it. Finally, mid-afternoon I dialled. ‘May I speak to Percy, please?’ The seconds ticked by like minutes before she came on the line. We arranged to meet up later, and I smiled. I was happy, glad not to have been rebuffed. How little I knew!

She came over later in the afternoon, and we went together to dinner at Joss’s brother Alex’s house in West Hampstead. After dinner, Percy drove us back to Chelsea, where we chatted, laughed and cuddled. It felt like we had known each other for ever. We explored the house together, and I showed her the rickety lift carved through the centre of the house that the now deceased mother of the house’s owner had needed to get from top to bottom. I showed her the cramped 1950s-style kitchen, the quirky Formica-covered bathrooms and the view from my attic room.

This time she stayed the night with no protestations. Both of us were in a whirlwind. In the morning Percy admitted to me that she had waited the day before within earshot of the telephone, wishing – willing – me to call.

The thirteenth of February became the date that we counted as the official ‘start’ of our relationship, and one that we always celebrated as much as the next day, St Valentine’s.

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After the weekend I was due to go to West Sussex for the week to help a friend who was working on a Royal College of Art student production of The Miller’s Tale as an Art Department Assistant. I don’t know quite how I got roped in, but they were a fun crowd and while there was no pay, food and board were provided and it was something new to do. I promised Percy that I’d see her the following weekend, and drove myself and a couple of the crew down to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum of historic houses where filming was due to start. It was a lively, young crew – mostly unpaid except for a handful of professional actors: Vincent Regan, Charlotte Randle and Ken Parry (who always had a story about playing in the BBC’s Children’s Hospital). It was hard work but a great laugh. We were all, some thirty odd, billeted in an empty seven-bedroom house where we slept, three or four to a room, on the floor in sleeping bags – there wasn’t a stick of furniture.

Midweek, I was chatting to some of the make-up and costume girls, saying how I was going to head back on Friday to see my girlfriend. ‘Bring her down here,’ they said. ‘Everyone else’s boy/girlfriends are coming. It’ll be fun.’ Convinced that she’d be welcome, even if she’d have to help out, I called Percy and suggested it. Equally persuaded, she agreed to get a train after work on Friday night. I would drive her back to London in my Golf on Monday morning, in time for work. I was elated; I really had a girlfriend and was proud to say so.

Friday night came and I drove to the nearby train station. But there was no Jessica. This can’t be right, I thought to myself. I was sure she’d wanted to come and that she did like me. Didn’t she? I couldn’t have been stood up like this. I waited and waited, then called her mother’s house. ‘Mrs Percival? It’s Ben. Percy is coming, isn’t she?’ Worried, Percy’s mum replied that yes, she was, and she confirmed the train times. ‘Maybe she missed the train; I’ll wait,’ I told her, promising to call back.

After a while I heard a familiar voice and saw Percy crossing over the footbridge. I’d only been waiting on the wrong side of the track, leaving her to think that she was the one that had been stood up on a dark platform in the middle of nowhere. We kissed, both glad to be together. Then Percy called her mother, and we drove back to the house.

It was a fun weekend of long hours and hard work, but Percy mucked in and got on with everyone. We dressed fake window frames, plucked a dead pheasant to put on the set’s dining-room table and covered a cobbled road with ‘rotting’ vegetables and horse manure before sweeping it all up again after the scene was filmed and the camera gate was checked, as all the while we tried to keep a curious viewing public out of camera shot.

One of the girls, Laura in wardrobe, commented to me that Percy and I looked good together. ‘How long have you been going out with her?’ she asked me, her jaw dropping when I said it was just seven days. ‘But you’ve been here for five of those seven!’ Laura laughed. ‘She’s a good girl, and she must like you a lot. I hope you’ll be very happy together.’

In one break, Percy and I sat on a picnic bench eating sandwiches and drinking Diet Coke. We were finding out about each other – checking for chequered pasts and slowly letting our guards down. ‘For all I know, you’ve got children,’ she laughed.

I went a bit quiet. ‘I nearly did have,’ I confessed. She looked at me quizzically. There was no getting out of this one now. ‘It was an accident,’ I told her. ‘It wasn’t a serious thing, and she only told me after she’d had a termination. I’m sure it was for the best.’ The childhood Catholic in me wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, coming from a still strong anti-abortion stance, but Percy was sweet about this early shared secret.

The following day – Sunday – the two of us went to church. So did the rest of the cast and crew, their generator truck, lights, cameras, sound equipment and regalia. Chaucer’s parson was in the pulpit holding forth about lasciviousness and, if you watch the tape, you can just make out Percy and me sitting in a back row in headscarves and smocks playing part of a sleepy congregation.

Make or Break

BACK IN LONDON, Percy and I were happy and inseparable for several months, much to the chagrin of Jabba, with whom I was now sharing a small house in Parson’s Green. He didn’t much appreciate Jessica’s continual presence and, increasingly, he spent time at his girlfriend’s flat. But I missed the laddish camaraderie too. Percy’s once welcome affections were beginning to feel clingy, and I didn’t really know how to balance the two sides of my life. I had become a bit distant and aloof with her, and one weekend morning I called Percy at home. ‘Can I come over?’ I asked her.

‘Why?’ she wanted to know. I wasn’t going to end our relationship over the telephone but she heard it in my voice. ‘Are you going to chuck me?’ her voice faltered.

‘Best I come over and we have a chat.’

When I got to Percy’s mother’s jasmine-covered house in Kew, I rang the bell. Kit answered the door. Kit, or Christopher, Percy’s younger brother, is quiet – monosyllabic, at best. He does, though, possess an overwhelming knowledge of London’s buses, and can direct you from anywhere to anywhere. Brain-damaged at birth, Kit is in a grey area somewhere between severe learning disabled and normal (if there is such a thing) and has mild Asperger’s, but he was always immensely fond of his big sister. Jessica, in return, loved him dearly and never made excuses or allowances for him. She would simply say, ‘He’s the only brother I’ve ever had, and that makes him normal as far as I’m concerned.’ Kit spent most of his time at a Camphill Community centre in Gloucestershire, where he thrived. Percy and I used to make fudge (with mixed results) to sell on a stall at their open-day fête.

Jessica and Kit (when he was in London) lived with Christine – their mother – and their black cat, Tiger, in an end-of-terrace house, with a small but well loved and perfectly tended garden with a fish pond. Christine and Tim, her ex-husband, had divorced when Jessica was in her mid-teens. Christine had taken the children to live with her youngest sister in Blackheath at first, eventually buying the house in Kew.

‘Hello, Kit,’ I said. ‘Can I talk to Percy?’

She came out and we walked around the block, slowly. There wasn’t a lot I could say, other than, ‘Yes, I am ending it,’ as Percy protested and questioned – I had little in the way of constructive argument. I wasn’t going to back down though, and it wasn’t going to be a comfortable walk back to the house. Mostly, there was silence, but I could feel Percy’s anger. We got back to her front door, and I took a couple of her things out of my car: boots and a map. She walked up the short front path, partly obscured from my view by lavender bushes. She stood at the front door, key-less, waiting to be let in again. As I got into my car I heard a cry, a wail almost, that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up; I can still hear it ringing in my ears after fourteen years.

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We had no contact for a few weeks, until one evening when I was in Finch’s on the Fulham Road, once again drinking with Jabba, Joss, his brother Alex and a few others. I spotted Percy across the pub, sitting with her friends. I desperately wanted to go and talk to her, and confided in Alex that I regretted what I’d done. Thinking it was ‘beer talk’ he restrained me and convinced me not to do anything, but I knew that I had been stupid, immature and above all else, extremely unkind; and look at her – she was so vivacious and pretty.

On my next weekend visit to my parents in Hampshire, I spoke frankly to my mother one evening, confessing: ‘I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.’

A week or so after this, I heard on the grapevine that Percy was meeting Jason – one of our regular Friday- and Saturday-night gang members – for an early-evening drink after work at the White Horse, and that, probably unbeknown to her, he had designs. My mind was made up in an instant. I knew I had to rectify my mistake before it was too late. I rang my cousin, Ed, and told him that I needed him to meet me for a quiet drink and that we would accidentally bump into Jessica. He would spot her first.

I left Ed sitting at a wrought-iron table in the pavement garden and went in for drinks. When I returned and put the drinks down I sat with my back to where Jessica was sitting with Jason on the other side of the garden. My heart pounding, I indicated to Ed that he should spot them now. He played it perfectly, and soon we were all sitting around their table together, cramping Jason’s style enormously. Ed engaged Jason and I started chatting to Jessica, catching up on the weeks that had passed. Bored and disillusioned, first Jason and then Ed – his services no longer required – made their excuses and left.

Suddenly feeling nervous and ill at ease, I told Percy that I had bought a van. A big white transit van. What a chat-up line! But she did express an interest in coming to see it. Over the previous few years, I had been decorating, originally for friends of my parents and family, slowly progressing to heavier jobs, carpentry, plastering and other repairs. I’m not quite sure how I started on this road; it just took on its own momentum as I acquired new skills through a combination of necessity and working alongside others. My Golf was soon too small to carry the tools and materials that I needed, and was slowly getting dirtier and shabbier than it had once been. The car was a second-hand 21st-birthday present and, when I decided to buy a van, Mum took first refusal and bought the car back off me for my siblings to learn to drive in. I greatly enjoyed haggling between two or three commercial vehicle dealers and eventually bought a short wheel base Ford Transit, with a semi-high roof. I was amused at being White Van Man. My friends always wanted to know how many copies of the Sun were stuffed onto the dashboard, and whether I knew where the indicators were.

We found ourselves going for a ‘test drive’.

‘Where shall we go?’ I asked Percy, but she didn’t know. We drove out of Fulham; I desperately wanted to talk to her – properly – but didn’t know where to start, so we kept on driving. Up the Fulham Palace Road, into the Hammersmith roundabout and on towards Chiswick. The traffic was light and it was still warm in the evening sunshine. With the windows wound down, we agreed to go for a road trip. I hadn’t the faintest idea where to, but as we were already headed towards the M4, I thought of Windsor. I knew it well, having been to school at Eton, on the other side of the Thames.

I still didn’t know how to start saying what was burning inside me as I parked beside the river. I suggested we walk. We crossed over the Windsor footbridge, passed the boathouses and went along the towpath in the evening sun, following the river where I had sculled so many times in the past. We walked under the ‘Motorway’ bridge – as we had called it at school, even though it carries an ‘A’ road – around the right-hand bend, past the long meadow grass and then we crossed the arched wooden bridge over a side water, pausing to watch the swans glide past. A little further on there was a bench. We sat down together and huddled into our too thin clothes against the falling chill. It was make-or-break time. If I didn’t speak now I knew I may not have the opportunity again.

‘What would you do if you knew you’d made a mistake and didn’t know what to do about it?’ I asked.

Percy was bemused.

‘Well, if you actually liked someone, but didn’t know how to start to tell them,’ I went on. But I wasn’t getting the message across. Percy was very quiet, which wasn’t helping.

In the end I blurted out, ‘I finished things between us for what I thought were the right reasons, but I miss you, and I know that I shouldn’t have done it. I regret it and I’m sorry.’

She was dumbfounded. ‘I was about to hit you,’ she told me. ‘I thought you were asking my advice about another girlfriend. And to think that I was nearly over you! Do you mean it?’

I did, and cautiously we hugged and kissed. I knew I was happy again. We walked back, retracing our steps, but with our arms around each other this time. We paused on the wooden bridge to play Pooh-sticks, and kissed again. We held hands in the van, driving back to London in the dark.

With hindsight, we both agreed that the break was, although unkind, a wholesome feature of our relationship, as we reconvened on a much better and stronger footing. Eventually, we stopped counting it and the split was lost in time.

The Flat

AT THE END of our year’s rental period on the house in Parson’s Green, Henry and I amicably moved our separate ways and I rented a first-floor flat in Woodlawn Road, near Bishop’s Park, from the son of a friend of my maternal grandmother.

In early 1994 I decided to buy a flat with help from my parents and a mortgage making up the difference. I liked the area I was in and so looked locally. Most of the flats were out of my price bracket, but I found a ground-floor flat in Langthorne Street that was slightly cheaper than average, but close to the park and the River Thames. The flat needed a lot of renovation, but it was in a nice house and had a decent-sized, unplanted garden. Sometimes when you drove down the street you would see a sailing boat’s mast passing the end of the road, and as the river itself wasn’t visible this sight had a surreal quality.

I spent a lot of my working time with a plumber with whom I got on well and who had taught me a great deal about the trade. With his help, I was planning to move the kitchen from the middle of the flat to the rear bedroom, which led out into the garden, and to replace the bathroom, boiler and central heating system. The work would take about four to six weeks, working around our other jobs. Jessica had taken over the rental of the Woodlawn Road flat, and so we shared it and the limited cupboard space until I could move in.

I took possession of the flat on a warm June day, and was incredibly excited. I opened my front door and walked through the flat. With no furniture or curtains it seemed much more desolate than I had remembered and dirt showed around the edges of where pictures had hung. I looked into the kitchen and was glad it would soon be ripped out as it was cramped, with very tired wall and floor units. Then, I went to look out of the window, and standing where the fridge had stood, I noticed the wall at my knee level. The plasterboard was bubbled and stained, so I prodded it. My hand went more or less straight through and on into the bathroom with very little effort. A hundred thoughts raced through my head in a flash, but I felt cheated and conned, very angry and stupid to have bought a total lemon. Quite why a small amount of water damage from the bath mattered when the two rooms were going to be stripped back almost to brick in any case, I do not know. I just wanted it to be perfect, and I was angry with myself for not having noticed the damage.

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By the time the flat was refitted, working around my other projects, I was exhausted. I was also becoming tired and disillusioned by the long hours with early starts and back-breaking work, followed by paperwork in the evenings, doing job costings and quotations.

Using paints, chemicals, cement and plaster was also causing continual skin irritation. My GP prescribed a steady stream of steroid and barrier creams, but once remarked ‘Isn’t there another career you could follow?’ I started to think that maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.

Jessica had, before and after going to university, worked for a classic car auction house, Coys of Kensington as Auction Administrator. One day, she came home and told me that their computer support man was becoming slower and slower to respond to their requests for help, and that they had a problem. ‘For goodness sake,’ Jessica had said in the office, ‘my boyfriend could fix this quicker than he can.’

‘Well get him in then,’ her boss told her. So this was my introduction to classic cars and information technology as a career, and for several years Jessica and I worked alongside each other at Coys. Much as I had with building work, I learned my skills through demand and the fledgling World Wide Web. In time, Jessica moved on to work for other classic car auction and sales companies, but I continued working freelance for Coys, as well as other clients who needed a database, website or new computer network, many of which were also classic car businesses. It is a competitive but close-knit industry.

Day 2: Friday, 25 June

From: Liz Bryant

To: Minette Palmer

Date: 25 June 2004 06:58

Subject: Midsummer baby

Thank you so much for letting us know — and congratulations to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else who feels glowing pride in the event!

Simon and I hope to be at Temple on the 11th -so may see you then.

Have fun with it all.

Liz

From: David Legh

To: Minette Palmer

Date: 25 June 2004 08:02

Subject: Re: Midsummer baby

Congratulations! Please give very best wishes to both happy parents. Big girl!

Lol

David and Jane

From: Anthea Palmer

To: Minette Palmer

Date: 25 June 2004 08:21

Subject: Midsummer baby

How lovely. Are they still at the same address in Southfields?

Love to hear when you know a name.

CONGRATULATIONS GRANNY!!!!!!!!!

Love from Anthea

In the morning, Jessica telephoned me at home from the television/telephone device beside her hospital bed, saying that she and the baby would be discharged at ten o’clock. Thrilled, I dropped three-year-old Harry off at his nursery for half-past nine and drove straight to the hospital.

When I arrived on the ward, Jessica was gloomy. ‘My blood pressure was low, then they took it again and it was normal, but they might not let me out just yet.’ She looked so tired. She told me that Baby had been crying for food all night, and that she had only managed to get one hour’s sleep.

The sister came over to us with a bottle of milk for Baby, to top her up and take some of the pressure off of Jessica. Then she started to discuss the blood pressure issue and Jessica was not at all happy that she wasn’t going home there and then. An anaesthetist came to see her, to check she didn’t have any post-epidural side effects, and the sister asked her to check Jessica’s blood pressure, explaining about the previous contradictory readings. The anaesthetist was not pleased to be asked to do this – she may have thought it a job below her station. She did check it, however, then said that Jessica was borderline tachycardic. I think she was surprised the sister hadn’t realised. And they both commented that she was looking a little flushed as well.

Jessica complained and protested, saying she was only flushed because she felt hot from the waterproof mattress protector and that the best thing for her was to go home for some rest. She could be quite determined when her mind was made up and she repeated her argument several times. However, they agreed that there was no way Jessica should leave, although she could discharge herself. I assured them that I wouldn’t let that happen; I would overrule. She wasn’t leaving until they were entirely happy for her to do so, much as we both wanted us all to be at home together.

I took Baby for a walk along the corridors in her hospital cot, to allow Jessica some sleep. I think she managed about 45 minutes to an hour while I wheeled Baby up and down and rocked the cot to try and settle her, but she would not stop crying.

A midwife passed me and said, ‘Pick her up and rock her in your arms. Just don’t sit down. They like it when you’re standing up, and they do know!’

She was absolutely right, of course. The moment I tried to sit down with her, Baby would start crying.

‘Rock me until your arms ache and your legs are numb,’ I think she was saying. I stood and watched banal daytime television, rocking her all the while. Anything I can do for you is fine, my little one, I thought. I love you.

I collected Harry from nursery and gave him some lunch at home. After his rest, we drove to the hospital, chatting animatedly in the car. We bought juice and snacks from the shop inside the main hospital entrance on the way in and, full of excitement, we walked to Jessica’s room. As we had arranged, I peeped around the curtain pulled across her bed and signalled for her to put Baby down so as not to make Harry feel sidelined.

Jessica welcomed Harry with open arms. ‘I’ve missed you so much, Harry,’ she said. ‘I hear you’ve been such a good boy!’

Harry embraced her while looking over his shoulder at the small, blanketed bundle. ‘Is that my baby, Mummy?’ he asked. ‘Will she want to play with me?’ His curiosity and pride ran as high as his expectations of her.

We’d hoped to drive home together, all four of us, as a family. But it wasn’t to be. After an hour or so of telling Jessica what we’d been doing at home, what he had done at nursery school that day, and having eaten his snacks, Harry grew tired and irritable in the warmth of the ward. There was still no sign of a doctor to see Jessica and hopefully to discharge her, so, downhearted, Harry and I headed home for his tea.

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At around eight o’clock, I left Harry at home with Christine, who’d come over for that purpose as she had done the day before, and returned to the hospital to find that Jessica had been discharged by the doctor, who had finally turned up. She’d be ready to leave as soon as they had printed the letters to midwife, GP and health visitor.

‘Where have you been?’ she asked me. ‘I’ve been ringing.’ I explained that I had left as soon as I could after getting Harry to bed, and before I’d heard that they were ready to come home. She was cross and short-tempered. We said our goodbyes to the staff then I packed Jessica and Baby into the car and brought them home. We were all worn out, but now elated to be finally home and together.

After a steak, baked potato and salad for supper, which Christine kindly cooked for us all, but of which Jessica ate little, she suddenly became very tired and started shaking. It seemed that everything had caught up with her, so I helped her up to bed. When we got upstairs, she was cold and shivery and her lips were blue. She checked on her sleeping baby, beside our bed – in the same Moses basket that Harry had used – then climbed into bed, fully dressed.

‘Come on, silly, you can’t go to sleep in your clothes,’ I told her. I helped her to get changed and into bed where she soon warmed up and started to feel better. Only a bit too hot to the touch now, I thought. I took her temperature using a digital thermometer and was alarmed; it was nearly 40°C. ‘Shouldn’t we call someone?’ I asked, concerned about her state.

‘Fuck off. Let me go to sleep. I’m so tired. I didn’t sleep last night. I’ll be fine.’

Don’t argue with a pregnant or hormonal woman; and certainly not when she’s sleep deprived. Years of experience had taught me that. So I told Jessica that if she felt at all unwell in the night I would call an ambulance for her. Then I checked on Harry next door, tucking him up in his junior cot bed before retreating back downstairs.

As far as I know – being fast asleep throughout the night myself – Jessica slept soundly, bar the night feeds. Our young family was just tired from the excitement. Everything would be all right in the morning, wouldn’t it?

Proposal and Marriage

AFTER A FALSE start a year or so earlier, when I had nearly plucked up courage to ask Tim for Jessica’s hand in marriage – over a pint in a quiet country pub – by the New Year of 1999 I knew that I couldn’t imagine not spending the rest of my life with his daughter. We had been together for nearly six years and to some of our friends it seemed as though we were already married.

In early February I visited an old-fashioned, family-run jeweller’s in Gloucester Road, around the corner from Coys where I was still working, and told them what I was looking for. Perusing a tray of rings I had a good idea of what I wanted, but didn’t see it at first. Then they brought out a single ring – it was not new, but sparkled as bright as any I had already seen and was much more what I had in mind. Slender and delicate, with three diamonds set in white gold, I could see it on Jessica’s finger and had to have it.

It didn’t quite cost the month’s salary that I believe is the amount a man might well spend, but it was perfect and I felt sure that Jessica would have chosen it herself – except that I wanted the surprise to be complete.

I kept the ring hidden away in my sock drawer for a few days before going out to buy red roses and a red heart-shaped helium balloon, which I stuffed into the wardrobe before Jessica came home on Saturday, 13 February, six years – almost to the day – after we had met.

As we relaxed together on the sofa, each with a glass of wine, my nerves were all over the place; I knew it was now or never. I was terrified that she might turn me down, but I sat up and looked at her. ‘Close your eyes,’ I told her.

‘Why?’

‘Just trust me and close them,’ I said, as I nipped to the bedroom next door to collect the flowers, balloon and ring box. I placed the vase of roses on the floor in front of her, with the balloon’s ribbon tied around it, then knelt down on one knee in front of her with the ring behind my back. ‘Open your eyes,’ I said to Jessica.

She looked at me with wide eyes and opened her mouth to speak.

‘Will you marry me?’ I cut her short.

For one moment Jessica was uncharacteristically speechless, and it felt like an age before she said, ‘Yes. Of course I will, you fool. I thought you’d never ask. I just thought you’d remembered our anniversary.’

I had never felt so safe, loved and wanted as we hugged and laughed. She loved the ring and it was a perfect fit on her slender finger.

‘What do we do next?’ she asked me.

‘I don’t know – I’ve never been engaged. Maybe we tell everyone!’

We couldn’t get hold of Tim and Marian on the telephone, but the next morning we ‘dropped’ in on Christine. ‘I knew that’s why you’d come,’ she said with delight after we told her, and she congratulated us again before we set off for Hampshire to tell my parents. We rang them from a pub car park on the outskirts of Farnham, thinking we’d have a bite to eat before another drop-in after lunch.

‘Where are you? Can you come for lunch?’ Mum asked. So, with Plan ‘A’ out of the window, we walked into their kitchen half an hour later.

‘We’ve got some news,’ I said to my parents. ‘Last night I asked Percy to marry me.’

There was a pregnant pause full of inquisitive looks, before Jessica put them out of their misery with: ‘And I said yes!’

I think Mum would have cried had she not asked my father, Papa, if he had any champagne. We couldn’t have been any happier or more excited. Laura was also at home for the weekend and she too was almost in tears. After a moment, while the news sank in, she suddenly squealed, ‘Oh my God, Percy. You’re going to be Mrs Palmer. That’s so funny!’

The following day, Sunday, we drove to Marlow for tea where, to our relief, we found Tim and Marian. We hadn’t been able to get hold of them by telephone, so had gambled on their being away until early evening. They were somewhat taken aback to see us, despite the cryptic message we’d left on their answerphone, particularly as first I, and then Jessica, walked into the room literally shaking with nerves and excitement.

‘Tim, I hope you’ll forgive the lack of protocol, but I’ve asked Jessica to marry me and—’

‘I said yes!’ blurted Jessica – her enthusiasm clear once again, as was the delight in both their faces.

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The wedding machine quickly spun into action. In a short space of time Christine had found a caterer, florist and photographer. We also learned that because she worked in the House of Commons we were entitled to be married at St Margaret’s Westminster, known as ‘the parish church of the House of Commons’. I was particularly pleased as I discovered that my father’s mother, Granny, and my aunt had both been married there many years before. Even so, we had to apply for a signed and sealed special licence from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The reception was to be held in the City, at Mercers’ Hall, as both my father and I are liverymen or members of the Mercers’ Company – the senior of the City Livery Companies – as are most of the men, and now women, in our family. The hall has a grand entrance and beautiful reception rooms, in some of which hang portraits of my ancestors. Jessica was delighted.

The planning involved several lunches between in-laws – which, with three sets, in itself involves some planning – but all the meetings were happy and excited affairs, except for one at which we had gathered to swap notes on some specifics of the wedding plans.

Jessica and I had wanted to keep a degree of control over the wedding. ‘It’s my day; they’ve had theirs,’ she told me once, obviously not wanting to wait until her day as mother of the bride. I pointed out to her, with a cheeky smile, that it was ‘our’ day, and promised it would be the way she wanted! One of the things we had talked about was whether or not to have a wedding list. Jessica’s instinct was not to, but I could foresee a dozen toasters and fifteen rugs if we didn’t. So, we agreed that we would have one, but that we would try to present it in as ungrabbing a way as possible. We both knew it would be contentious with our parents.