Freya Lewis was like any normal teenager when she went to see Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena in May 2017. Yet in one split second she was robbed of her best friend, her innocence and almost her life. This is her unflinching story of grief, survival and love.
Nell and I looked at each other, our faces glowing with happiness. She pulled me towards her as Ariana Grande sang her last song of the night, ‘Dangerous Woman’. We were both hot and sweaty from all the dancing, but we didn’t care. We screamed out the lyrics, really going for it, as if it was the last song we’d ever sing.
‘This is incredible,’ Nell said. ‘I’m going to remember it for ever.’
A shower of bright, fluorescent balloons floated down on the stage, such a magical end to a truly magical night.
Neither of us wanted to leave, but as we made our way to the foyer, Nell gave me a big smile.
‘That was the best night of my entire life,’ she said.
‘Really?’ I beamed. ‘I’m so glad.’
She linked her arms with mine, like we always did at school to keep each other close.
I was writing a text to Dad, telling him we were on our way, when I looked up and saw this guy. He stood ten metres away, dressed all in black, with a cap and glasses and a backpack. I could see the side of his face and thought his deadpan expression seemed a bit strange.
‘I love you more than anything in the world,’ Nell said.
‘I love you, too,’ I replied, smiling and pressing send on the text.
In that exact moment, everything went wrong. There was a piercing sound – the loudest thing I’d ever heard.
I was flown forwards into a giant bright light, everything was in slow motion, and then Nell’s arm slipped out of mine.
A barrage of noise crashed through my consciousness; clanking, shouting, murmurs of conversations. I couldn’t move my body and a creeping fear slid over me. My eyes felt so heavy – like they’d been zipped shut – but I forced them open, and through my smudged vision I could see half-shapes floating around the dark room. Everything was blurry, making me feel dizzy and sick. I could make out drips, tubes, wires. A monotonous, high-pitched beeping rang in my ears. Dad sat next to me, his head in his hands. I felt a strange sense of emptiness, like a part of me was missing. ‘Dad, where’s Nell?’ I croaked.
He held my hand, his face pale and drained, his eyes red.
‘Nell has died, Freya,’ he said, his voice choked with tears. His words sunk into me so hard it felt as if I’d been stabbed. Sinking into the sheets, I started to cry, patchy moments from the night terrorising my memories as I groggily tried to make sense of what was real and what was not.
I would never see my beautiful friend’s smiling face again. I scrunched my eyes tight shut, trying to block out the horrifying reality I had woken up to.
There had been an explosion, and life would never be the same again.
In May 2017, I was 14 and in year nine at school. Studying for GCSEs began the following year, so life centred on friends and family. My biggest passions were music, make-up, writing and drama, having been brought up on an intoxicating mix of noughties pop music and Coronation Street.
We lived half an hour’s drive from Manchester in the small, safe village of Holmes Chapel in Cheshire, where nothing bad could ever happen to you.
When Mum and Dad gave me tickets to the Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena for Christmas, I knew straight away I’d take Nell. We’d first met on day two of secondary school when she came bobbing up to me, all smiles and shiny brown hair. She was, for me, one of those rare people you meet and instantly feel as if you’ve known for years. Full of warmth and affection, she’d give me a hug in the mornings and grab hold of my hand as we lined up for lessons. We bonded over our love of acting, fashion and our mutual hatred of PE.
She was an even bigger fan of Ariana Grande than I was, and when I gave her the ticket for her 14th birthday just weeks before the gig, she screamed with excitement.
We went shopping for clothes and make-up, and spent our lunch breaks and hours after school planning every little detail.
The night before the concert, we’d chatted on FaceTime as usual.
‘Do I look grown-up in this?’ she’d asked, posing in her new outfit, hands on hip, adjusting the frills on her pink top.
‘Yes!’ I’d shouted enthusiastically. ‘That looks great on you.’
‘I’m not going to be able to sleep!’ she’d squealed. In a flurry of goodbyes and ‘I love yous’, her smiley face flashed off the screen.
I had no idea it would be the last FaceTime chat we’d ever have.
I was face down on the floor. I don’t know how long it took me, but I dragged myself to my feet. I felt completely numb and there was a huge weight on my arm pulling me down. I looked at my left shoulder, and I could just make out my whole bone as my arm hung off my body.
Dark patches were blooming all down my clothes, and although I couldn’t see clearly I could sense that it was blood – lots of blood.
A high-pitched noise rang in my ears like a continuous car alarm going off inside my head. It was dark; I looked into the shadows and could see smudgy silhouettes of people standing, and some large, disturbing objects on the ground. I tried to call out, ‘Help me!’ but the words wouldn’t come out right.
My thoughts were jumbled, and I wondered if it was all a dream. Then I remembered Nell. I tried to say her name, but it came out as a noise. Strangers were helping me, their faces filled with horror, trying to stem the blood as I screamed out for Dad.
I was lifted on to a merchandise table, a makeshift stretcher, the pain unbearable.
Then, suddenly, my Dad’s voice. He was crying as he took my hand. ‘It’s all right, I’m here,’ he said. ‘I love you.’ I could tell by his face that he was horrified by what he saw. I really thought I was going to die.
I later learned that doctors at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital spent more than ten hours intricately bolting, drilling, sewing and bandaging me back together.
They had no idea what state I’d be in when I woke up from surgery, whether I would be left brain damaged or able to walk again.
In total, I had 29 separate injuries from head to toe. These included a shattered left arm, two broken legs, a shrapnel wound to my left eye, a perforated eardrum, a broken nose, a busted mouth, the loss of several teeth, whiplash, bruising to my left lung, nerve damage in my left hand, and multiple lacerations and burns all over my body.
A bag I’d been carrying had melted in the blast, the plastic seeping and melting into my hair, the drawstring stuck in my arm like a piece of cheese wire slicing through a wedge of cheddar.
As I drifted in and out of consciousness, Nell’s mum dropped off a small fluffy owl, Nell’s favourite toy from her childhood. Dad gently put him next to my cheek. I instantly smelled Nell and her home and felt the first cold slaps of guilt, which would haunt me for a long time to come: that I was here and Nell wasn’t.
After 11 days I’d had 23 hours of surgery over five sessions.
One day, blurry from another general anaesthetic, I was told I could expect a special visitor – Ariana Grande herself, who had come back to Manchester to visit the victims of the bombing.
‘You’ve got to tell her our favourite songs!’ my older sister Georgia suggested, launching into ‘One Last Time’.
The rush of sadness came at me like a steam train. The last time I’d heard that song I was with Nell on the night of the concert.
I could picture us so clearly, the scene replaying in my mind as if I were watching a film.
As the track had picked up pace, Nell and I had held hands tightly, moved to tears by the sheer beauty of the moment as we belted out the words into the glimmering darkness, not a care in the world for who was listening.
The silent tears streamed down my face and seeped into the neck of my hospital gown.
When Ariana arrived, we both sat together sobbing quietly. ‘Nell would have loved to be here,’ I said.
‘What are you talking about?’ she smiled. ‘Nell is here. She’s saying ‘‘Oh my God! It’s Ariana Grande!”’
I started to laugh as I pictured the look on Nell’s face. That’s exactly what she’d say.
Later, I thought about how strong Ariana was for returning to Manchester, and putting on another concert, One Love, for the victims and their families.
Her fighting spirit had filled me with hope and I thought, ‘If she can do it, so can I.’
I fell asleep happy for the first time, a feeling which, if I’m honest, I never thought I’d properly have again.
As time went on, I had the chance to see how many heroes there are in the world. Well-wishers from my school and total strangers had sent cards, which lined my hospital room, and cuddly toys, which filled my bed, as if they were building a force field of strength around me, with Nell’s owl nestled close to my head. With each day that passed, I became more and more desperate for those messages. They were my window into my old life, reminding me that I went to school and drama classes and flute lessons.
The simple sound of another envelope being opened, releasing the kindness within, became a soothing antidote to the constant high-pitched beeping of the monitors, the doctors coming in four times a day for various checks and wound dressing, the daily excruciating ritual to clean the pin sites fixed into my arm, and the physios trying to make me do the simplest yet most impossible movements.
The cards were also a lifeline for my parents. I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face when he had to tell me about Nell – the pain it cost him.
Dad had spent a frantic hour searching for me and thought I was dead. He’d had terrible flashbacks to what he’d seen in the carnage.
Mum was haunted by the smell of explosives in my hair every time she went to kiss me.
Their lives were on hold now, for me.
I made a silent vow to get better for them.
It wasn’t easy. I’d been in hospital for three weeks and the most I’d managed to move my destroyed body on my own was lifting my right arm to scratch my head and shuffling to the edge of the bed. I’d lost so much weight I felt like a shell. I was so angry at the bomber for doing this to me, for taking Nell away, for destroying the lives of so many people.
My nights were filled with terrifying hallucinations and, when I wasn’t asleep, guilt. I kept torturing myself with thoughts that Nell had only been at the concert because of me; that I’d let her down, let her parents down. I became convinced Nell’s mum must hate me because I’d survived.
I wished it was me who had died and not my beautiful, funny, sweet friend.
One night, sleepless yet again, a nurse called Jenny sat down on my bed at 3am and asked me if I’d talk about what Nell was like. It felt like a type of therapy, a tentative step in my healing process, though the wounds were still very raw.
I realised I needed to stop thinking how unlucky I was. Because it meant the terrorist would have won. And I was determined I wasn’t going to let him rob any light from my life.
After five-and-a-half weeks, I was allowed home. Thanks to my new physiotherapist, Carol, I was becoming more confident walking around without my wheelchair – enough to go back to school.
Just before I was due to start, our family liaison officer, Dave, emailed to say he thought they had found the tan brown bag I had lost on the night of the attack. Inside was the red Mac lipstick I’d bought on the shopping trip with Nell.
I had a flashback to the concert, remembering how I’d got it out for a re-touch. Nell had asked, ‘Can I use some, too?’
‘Of course,’ I’d replied. She dabbed some on her lips and smiled. Now, as I looked at the lipstick in my hands, I realised it contained a small part of her and I vowed never to use it again. As I prepared to go back to school, it seemed like she had sent me a sign that she would always be by my side.
Before 22 May 2017, I was not strong. I was scared of needles, I hated exercise, I lacked the confidence to stand up for my beliefs. I wanted to conform, follow the crowd, blend in. But everything I’ve experienced since the attack has, bit by bit, changed my perspective on life.
I could either give up and allow myself to be consumed by fear and anger, or see it as a second chance in life, to grab hold of every opportunity that came my way, to understand how lucky I was – how lucky we as a family were – that I survived when others didn’t.
I chose the latter.
The moment the attack happened, I was engulfed in love – from the strangers who helped save my life and subsequently became my close friends; from the people of Manchester who all pulled together when the city was at its lowest ebb; from my community in Holmes Chapel, which rallied around us; from the hundreds of donations and messages from around the world; from my friends who showered me with their support; from the kind gestures from Nell’s parents even though they were nursing their own heartbreak and from my devoted family, who never left my side. People make us stronger: community, kindness, love.
My memories of Nell are so closely linked to these sentiments. I’ll never forget our final moments together, as she linked her arm in mine, her face full of so much joy, as she said, ‘I love you.’ She was the happiest I’d ever seen her, and I’m honoured that I was able to share that with her. There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t miss her immensely and think about how different life would be if she was still by my side. I will, however, take her ridiculous sense of humour and resilience with me everywhere I go.
I’ll continue to learn to accept what has happened to me, and to not let it define me, but instead shape the way I live.
This is an edited extract from What Makes Us Stronger by Freya Lewis, to be published by Seven Dials on 7 May, price £14.99.
Here’s how you can help Freya Lewis’s fund
Since the bombing, Freya has raised £60,634 for the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. As part of her fundraising she completed the junior course of the Great Manchester Run, which led to her winning an NHS Hero Award. A year after the attack, on the 70th anniversary of the NHS, she was invited to Westminster Abbey to give a speech, and she was later made an ambassador for the High Sheriff of Manchester. To support Freya’s fundraising, text FREYA to 70085 to donate £5. This will cost your £5 donation plus a standard rate message charge. Or you can give any whole amount up to £20.