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For the Love of Nadia
My Daughter was Kidnapped by her Father and Taken to Libya. This is My Heart-Wrenching True Story of my Quest to Bring her Home.
By Sarah Taylor
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2013 Sarah Taylor and Andrew Merriman
All rights reserved.
In a Little Wigan Garden
Funny when you think about it, I come from an ordinary family in an ordinary town in Lancashire, but my life has never ever been exactly ordinary. In fact, it's been quite the opposite. Even my arrival, on 10 July 1976, was dramatic – my mum had been in labour for thirty-six hours; she needed gas, air and Pethidine, and was desperate to give birth, but I didn't want to face the world until I was good and ready. The doctor needed forceps to drag me out. It seems I've always been independent and had a stubborn streak – lucky for me, lucky for Nadia.
After a few days in hospital, Mum and I came home to 17 Chatham Street, Wigan. A two-up, two-down terraced house that my parents were buying from my mother's stepfather for £5 per week, it was small, but cosy, and in a working-class neighbourhood that was incredibly friendly and supportive. Everyone knew each other in the street and they were always in and out of each other's homes.
Mum and Dad met in a pub in Wigan and were only in their early twenties when they married. My dad, David, was in full-time employment as a welder, but money was still very tight. We couldn't afford to send our own car to the garage, so out of necessity Dad taught himself how to fix it. He then repaired other cars on the side to earn a bit extra. Mum, who worked as a seamstress, was equally resourceful. She bought herself a sewing machine with some money bequeathed to her by a distant aunt and made clothes for us. She really loved doing it, but she mostly did it as a way to save money without spending a fortune on clothes from shops.
When I was small, we used to spend a lot of time with my paternal grandparents. My dad was born in Wigan and his parents lived nearby. I remember spending many a happy hour helping my grandma, Betty Taylor, to make her famous currant cakes. Granddad Bill had a red Bedford van that he used to go to work in, and I used to stand up in the back and knock on the roof. Granddad would make me laugh by saying there was someone on the roof of the van.
My mum, Dorothy Bibby, was one of seven born in Singapore. Her dad, who was in Royal Air Force, died when she was just fifteen years old, so I never met him. She had a tough upbringing, and her mum struggled to bring up the family on her own.
Three days before Christmas 1980, my baby brother Andrew was born. Dad drove us to the hospital in our bright-orange Reliant Kitten and I remember seeing a doll in the boot of the car, all wrapped up in a big bag. Having sneaked a look, I wondered why Mum and Dad had bought a doll for a baby boy! I was quite jealous, but Dad gave it to me in the hospital and said it was from Andrew to me. I was really pleased and I remember thinking that having a baby brother was going to be fun. When he was about eighteen months old, Andrew moved into my bedroom and I remember feeling really excited about it. As the big sister, I wanted to be in charge of looking after him – it felt great to have this 'responsibility'.
Mum and Dad both smoked, and when I was a bit older they used to send me to Patterson's, a little shop across the road, for packets of Player's No. 6 – I think they were the cheapest cigarettes you could get in those days. The street wasn't busy and the shop was opposite our house, so my parents felt safe in letting me go there. Mr Patterson was an old man, who co-owned the shop with his wife. If Mum and Dad were strapped for cash, they allowed us to put any purchases 'on the slate' until we could settle the bill – I don't suppose there are many places where you can do that nowadays.
There also used to be another shop around the corner called Agnes's. I wasn't really supposed to go there as it was on the main road. The trouble was, this shop had a better selection of sweets than old Mr Patterson and it stocked my favourites – Jaw Breakers and Cola Bottles. Luckily, I used to persuade Mum to let me go as long as I got back before my dad came home from work because he was much stricter about those things. I had to run there and back before he got home and caught me. He never did find out – well, until now that is. Sorry, Dad! There was another old man – Arthur – who lived across the road, and every time he saw me, he would give me a handful of chocolates, including Galaxy bars and Smarties. Sounds a bit dodgy now but it was all quite innocent, although I do blame him for making me into the chocoholic I am today! Looking back, it's surprising I've got any teeth left.
There wasn't any money for holidays when I was growing up, and I can only remember one trip abroad. When I was quite small, we were invited by my uncle Harry and his family to tour Europe in his motorhome. I remember the blazing-hot weather – Dad even got sunstroke in Switzerland – but, despite this, we all had a great time together. A few years later, Dad bought an old ambulance that he spray-painted beige and converted into his own form of motorhome. The vehicle had two beds, which converted into tables, a sink and cupboard space. We went camping to Flamingo Land in North Yorkshire, and Andrew and I would take ourselves off and play on the woodland park and the small theme park, which wasn't so extensive in those days.
As kids, we got on well. We used to play ball in the street late at night with our cousins, Mark and Michael. As I was the eldest, I would always order them around, although I think I might have done that whatever age I had been. Despite being a bit bossy, I was a polite and calm child, and I took everything in my stride. Mum and Dad were firm with me – they brought me up the right way, and taught me right from wrong. Although very loving and affectionate, they weren't keen on me being a softie. Even when I was sick, they never used to make an issue of it; they gave me the attention when I needed it, but they didn't overdo it. I'm sure their influence has made me the person I am today: they helped make me strong and secure and gave me a strict moral code to follow. Also, they were always honest with me and I like to think that I always try to be truthful and straight with people.
In early 1983, Mum and Dad decided that Andrew and I needed our own bedrooms, so we moved to another part of Wigan. The house at 18 Meadway was a much larger property, with three bedrooms and a front and rear garden. Our previous home in Chatham Street only had a backyard so my brother and I were thrilled that we now had a proper garden to play in. We really loved our new surroundings and felt happy in our relatively spacious setting. Unfortunately, this newfound bliss was not to last very long.
We had only been living in Meadway for a short time when I began to feel unwell. I was seven years old when a number of bruises started to appear on my arms and legs. It was very mysterious because I hadn't hurt myself. Every time someone touched me, another bluish-purple mark would materialise on my skin. At one point, Mum and Dad thought that I was being bullied at school and someone must be hitting me but this wasn't so, and, in any case, I had always been brought up to stand up for myself. I was also sleeping a lot and would come home from school, immediately curl up on the sofa and fall into a deep sleep. The bruises seemed to multiply and now my parents, who were becoming concerned, took me to the doctor. I was referred to the local hospital for blood tests but nothing of significance showed up. Then, one day, I was doubled up with stomach pain and rushed back to Wigan Infirmary.
I had further blood tests and a lumbar puncture. This involves collecting fluid from the spine. It's quite an ordeal for a young child and I remember lying on my stomach while various medical staff around my bed looked on. There was one nurse holding my hand, who told me, 'Squeeze my hand as hard as you like.' The doctor told me what she was going to do but I hadn't realised that the needle was going to be quite so large. I remember saying, 'But I thought it was just going to be like a pin!'
All these nurses and medical students were looking at me and, although I tried hard not to cry, I couldn't suppress my tears. The assembled throng all said how brave I was, and I felt proud of myself but I still didn't know what was wrong with me and neither did my parents.
The following day, Mum, Dad and I went to Pendlebury Children's Hospital in Greater Manchester, which has since become The Royal Manchester Children's Hospital. We were taken to one of the wards, where I was shown a bed and asked to undress and lie down. Meanwhile, Mum and Dad were requested to go into the sister's office. A nurse attempted to put a drip in my arm, but I yelled at her: 'Don't touch me, I'm going home soon!' I wouldn't let her do anything without my mum being there – I suppose I always had a bit of an obstinate streak, but I was frightened. I was even more scared when my parents came out of the office. They both looked shaken and pale, and they were crying.
'What's the matter?' I asked.
'It's all right, Sarah,' my mum tried to reassure me. 'You're just a bit sick at the moment so you'll have to stay in hospital for a while but you'll be coming home soon.'
'But I don't feel sick,' I replied, 'I'm fine.'
'Please, Sarah – just do what the nurse says and you'll soon be home.'
Reluctantly, I agreed to let the nurse carry out the procedure but I was very unhappy. Mum and Dad stayed with me until visiting time was over, but then I was left on my own. I hated the thought of being in hospital, especially so far from home; I was being taken away from my family but, most of all, I didn't want to be ill. That night I sobbed myself to sleep.
At 1pm, on 8 August 1983 – the fateful day imprinted on Dad's brain forever more – the doctors diagnosed me with leukaemia. Soon afterwards, they told me I had cancer. I remember asking Dad the one question that he must have been dreading: 'Daddy, am I going to die?'
He took a deep breath, held my hand and looked me straight in the eye: 'Sarah, you know it's possible that you could die, but if you take all your medicine and do as the doctors and nurses tell you, then maybe you'll be okay.' He could easily have lied to me in an attempt to reassure me, but that was not his way. It's not our way.
He has since told me that it was like putting a sword through his own heart.
Right from the onset of my illness, Mum and Dad agreed that they would always tell me the truth, no matter what I asked them. They felt that it was important to be completely upfront with me, in the same way that my hospital consultant, Dr Richard Stevens, had been totally truthful with us.
It must have been one of the hardest things Dad has ever had to do, but his reaction and raw honesty actually helped me to come to terms with my illness and now, in later life, it has fashioned the way I relate to my own daughter. I am completely honest with Nadia and will answer her truthfully, whatever she asks me.
Anyhow, I was now in hospital and this was just the beginning of two weeks of intense medical treatment. At one stage, I spiked a temperature and was put on the critical list. My mum came to stay in special accommodation nearby. Kept isolated to avoid infection, I felt all alone and very miserable too.
The chemotherapy had many side effects; I was constantly vomiting, didn't eat and was being fed through a drip. I remember waking up and seeing a clump of hair on my pillow. Mum and Dad had talked to me beforehand and warned me that I was going to lose my hair, so I was kind of prepared for it. All the other children on the ward had gone through the same thing, so I expected the same outcome. Very self-conscious about losing my hair, I was concerned about what my school friends would say – I was really worried that I would get teased, too. Would I be bullied for the first time in my life? I was just hoping that, by the time I went back to school, my hair would have all grown back again, but it hadn't and so I had to wear a headscarf. (In fact, when I did return to school, some eight months after my initial diagnosis, the complete opposite happened: I wasn't bullied at all and I gained a lot of new friends, who were inquisitive about my look. I think maybe the school had warned them before my return, so they knew what to expect.)
One day, after two weeks of hospitalisation, my mum was in the kitchen preparing my meal, as she always did (I wouldn't eat the hospital food because it was always cold), and Dad was at my bedside when a nurse approached us. 'Do you want to go home, Sarah?' he said to me.
Before I could reply, my dad reacted joyfully: 'Do we? Do we? I should say so!'
I was so happy about being allowed home but, as I quickly discovered, I still had to attend Christie's Hospital (also in Manchester) for radiotherapy as a day patient. As it was too far to travel, Mum and I stayed with a family who lived in Manchester and had a son the same age as me. Jonathan also had leukaemia and was a day patient at Christie's. During this crisis time, our families supported each other and became very close. Tragically, Jonathan contracted pneumonia a few years later and passed away. He was just a young man – I don't know how his parents ever got over it.
After I was discharged as an outpatient from Christie's, I had to return to Pendlebury but this time as an outpatient. Once a week, under general anaesthetic, I had a bone marrow test to search for abnormal cells. After a while, the tests were reduced to once a month, then once every two months and eventually once a year. I remember the doctor telling me that, if I was clear from abnormalities six times in a row, then I was officially 'in remission'. It wasn't until ten years later, when I was aged seventeen, that I finally received the all-clear, although even to this day I still have an annual bone marrow test.
After five years of my being in remission, Mum and Dad decided to try for another baby and, on 28 July 1989, my sister Stephanie was born. I was so happy that Mum had a girl. This time I didn't need to be given a doll – I had my very own living doll to play with! I could help dress her up and give her lots of attention. I don't think Andrew was best pleased that Mum had a girl – he definitely wanted a brother.
Everything started to look up: I was in remission, Stephanie was healthy, my parents were happy, and I was enjoying Rose Bridge High School, my new secondary school. I was regaining my confidence, making new friends and doing quite well academically. Growing up, I was very confident – I would speak my mind and always stand up for what I believed in. I liked to be liked, too, and I had a few friends who I really relied on – I always tried to fit in with the popular kids.
I was in my last year at school when I met my first love, Robert. I was fifteen and he was two years older. My brother Andrew played rugby and Robert's father was the coach. We had another connection in that our dads were work colleagues. Although my dad approved of Robert and his family, the thought of his little girl having a boyfriend was difficult for him. He didn't want me to start dating properly until I was sixteen; he also insisted that I was always home for 10pm and warned, 'Not a minute later, or there'll be trouble.' Dad wanted to know where I was at all times and, although it was frustrating, I knew it was for my own good. I'm sure that my being so seriously ill had affected his attitude and made him even more protective of me.
Right from the beginning of our relationship, Robert and I spent a lot of time together. In fact, we were inseparable. Looking back, I think we might have been a bit too devoted to each other and alienated many of our friends, who probably couldn't bear to be with such an exclusive couple. Eventually, it was only my younger sister Stephanie who would put up with our constant smooching – but only if it meant a day out in Southport or Blackpool!
Excerpted from For the Love of Nadia by Sarah Taylor. Copyright © 2013 Sarah Taylor and Andrew Merriman. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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