Friendship in a time of crisis
Debbie Howells started out her professional life as a flying instructor. She then turned her hand to floristry whilst she brought up her 2 children. And this month, her debut novel The Bones of You is set to be one of the hottest thrillers of the summer.
But it hasn't all been smooth sailing. When her children were young, Debbie's husband (also a pilot), was thrown in French prison for a crime he did not commit. Debbie shares the dramatic experience with us, and how she would not have been able to get through it without the support of her good friend Clare.
When my children were very young, my husband, Bob, worked as a pilot for a small freight airline. His working day began as most of us went to bed, his nights spent flying in and out of various European airports, his working week spent mostly away.
Usually we’d speak in the mornings as I was getting up, just as in some airport hotel, he was going to bed. Until the morning there was no call, which at first I put down to a flight delay somewhere. Until when the call came, it wasn’t from him.
It was the airline’s owner, so I knew straight away something had happened. I wasn’t told much, just that Bob and his co-pilot had been arrested by French police. Customs had been tipped off and on opening the sealed drums of paint pigment that were part of their cargo, found they were full of tobacco and cigarettes.
And that was it. I was left reeling in the knowledge that my husband was being held by the police, that there were smuggled goods amongst his cargo, and without any assurance that action was being taken. I remember feeling shocked. After that, I couldn’t think about anything else.
At first, I’d no idea what to do. Then fortunately I remembered BALPA, the pilot’s union of which Bob was a member, and after I’d found a phone number, called them, which as it turns out, was the best thing I could have done.
Meawhile, as BALPA’s legal team swung into action, I had two young children for whom normal life had to go on. There was breakfast to make, then the school runs. Our menagerie of animals to feed too, but also, over the next couple of days, there were endless phone calls to make, relaying information between the British Embassy in Paris, the airline Bob worked for, and BALPA. I remember getting my children up ridiculously early the second morning and driving them over to a pub where my sister worked, just so I could send a fax.
Bob was held in a prison. Such is the French justice system that he and his co-pilot were treated like criminals. He has a story of his own about that – and it’s not pleasant. At the time, it was unbelievable - and quite frightening.
It's times like that when you need a really good friend, not just for practical help, but to support and listen and tell you it will all be alright, because for a while back then, it didn't feel like it. We’ve known each other years, Clare and I. Helped each other through many ups and downs; probably know far too much about each other! She played with the children, walked dogs and fed chickens even though that’s not really her thing, but she’s the best, most loyal kind of friend, who when I needed her, rearranged her life to be with me.
It took 48 hours of what felt like a battle, that felt much longer, plus the services of a brilliant French lawyer whose calm concern and regular phone calls kept me sane, before Bob found himself on a flight home.
Clare’s calm, bright presence meant the children never knew. We’ve since told them of course, and our daughter’s used it as that icebreaker at interviews! ‘Tell me an interesting fact about yourself.’ ‘My father was locked up in a French jail…’
Thanks to Clare, both my children were oblivious at the time. But then true friends are always there for each other - no matter what.