Partner of bike ace Thompson who lost arm in North West 200 crash tells of fears
I'm so glad Stephen survived but I'm not going through this again; he has to quit,' says Charlotte Pullan
Charlotte Pullan looks across at her partner Stephen Thompson with feelings of both love and relief.
She's so grateful there isn't an empty chair there. She has been in that dreadful place before.
But there he is, her partner of 14 years, full of life and laughter. Both of them looking forward to a long and fulfilling life together, with daughters Fay (20) and nine-year-old Libbie.
A few months ago she could not have imagined this cosy scene at their home near the Lough Neagh shore.
A few months ago she was sitting by Stephen's hospital bed crying her eyes out, hoping for the best, fearing the absolute worst.
Stephen (39) had been in a horror crash, the like of which road racers don't walk away from.
Many breathe their last in accidents such as this, as Charlotte knows only too well, having lost her first husband during a motorbike race.
But Stephen was lucky, if you can use that word for someone who has lost an arm and will endure painful rehabilitation for many months - possibly years - to come. Yet he knows it could have been a lot worse.
When Stephen came off at this year's North West 200 in May the feeling of deja vu for Charlotte (43) was painful and palpable.
"I was watching the race at home and as soon as the red flag came out I had an instinct that Stephen was involved," she said.
"I started ringing everyone - including Fay who always goes to races with him - but no one was answering.
"When Fay finally picked up she told me Stephen was injured but, at that stage, no one knew how bad it was."
All the eye-witness accounts of the three-bike crash point to it being a freak accident.
"The weather conditions were great; it was dry and before the race everyone thought 'this is going to be a good day'," Charlotte, a clerical officer, said.
It all happened so quickly - first Dean Harrison's bike hit a kerb protector at high speed, throwing him onto the road - Harrison's racing leathers and helmet saved him from injury and he walked away.
But two riders in hot pursuit collided with the downed machine. Both were felled and one of their bikes flew through the air, crashing into a garden where it struck and seriously injured a female spectator. One of the riders, Horst Saiger, sustained a broken arm. The other, Stephen, wasn't quite so lucky. Sitting in the bright, spacious living room of their detached house in the Crumlin countryside, Stephen is leaning sideways into the comfortable sofa, his badly damaged lower left leg, which is caged in metal, resting on a protruding part of the settee.
He is just back from a physio appointment in Londonderry and he's in good spirits, albeit a little tired. He touches his left arm - which ends just above the elbow - repeatedly as we talk.
Charlotte is sitting on a matching piece of furniture nearby, sounding upbeat and smiling constantly. She said that when Stephen's step-daughter Fay called to say he had broken an arm and a leg, she immediately drove to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
"I sat at the ambulance bay for 40 minutes until he arrived; it seemed like forever," she said.
"I ran over to him, and although he was completely out of it on medication, he was screaming in pain. There was talk about amputating both his leg and arm. That's when I became terrified that he wasn't going to make it."
Charlotte, an Isle of Man native, had stopped going to races two years ago after Stephen broke his neck when he crashed at the Ulster Grand Prix. At that time the plasterer by trade ended up in hospital in a neck brace, unable to move. He was in a body cast for months. If anything, however, the North West crash was so much worse.
"He was in theatre for nearly nine hours and in an induced coma for a couple of days; when they eventually brought him round I thought he was OK, but then his lungs collapsed. That was probably the scariest part."
For Charlotte, the terrifying ordeal brought back terrible memories of her husband Lee Pullan's death. The 25-year-old was killed in Belgium in July 1996 when his Kawasaki, travelling at 156mph, hit an official who apparently stepped on to the track.
The couple had been married for under two years; Fay was just 15 months old at the time.
"It was three months before our second wedding anniversary..."
Although Charlotte claims she wasn't wary of getting involved with another biker, she now wants Stephen to abandon his audacious plan to return to road racing, despite the rather obvious impediment of having only one arm.
"I feel blessed that he's here to tell the tale, but that's also one of the reasons I want Stephen quit. I've been through it before; Fay has lost her dad and I just wouldn't want Libbie to have to go through the same thing.
"When I met Stephen at the Yacht Bar in Skerries in July 2001, I already knew him because my husband used to race against him.
"But he only did the North West 200. He didn't do much road racing then. He just started to slip road races in over the years.
"I haven't supported him in road racing since he broke his neck and Libbie recently said she doesn't want him to go back on the bike."
Charlotte added: "The past weeks have been unimaginable. We couldn't have got through it without family and friends."
She looks over at Stephen again and he smiles. A smile that, during the dark days of last May, she never thought she'd see again.