FEATURE: New regular at Sudbury market reveals how she survived against the odds to cook up new career
Nicola Littlejohn was happily looking forward to the birth of her son when a brain haemorrhage left her fighting for her life.
Baby William was delivered by emergency caesarean, but Nicola was so ill that husband Marc and her family were told to prepare for the worst.
Against the odds, she survived. But the effect on her memory meant that years later – when she felt ready to work again – going back to an office job was not an option.
It was only when she made cupcakes for her son’s school fair that she found an ideal new career. Now, with a successful business baking and decorating cakes, she has started another venture.
Violet the Vintage Caravan – a mobile tearoom decked out in 1950s style – is destined to become a familiar sight at fetes, fairs and markets this summer.
It is named after her beloved nan – a keen baker, whose bread pudding was legendary among family and friends.
Violet was launched with the help of her close-knit family, who pitched in to restore and convert the 1970s caravan.
Nicola, who also has a 26-year-old daughter, Emily, has been married to Marc for 17 years. They were living Halstead and both working for an east London council when she fell ill.
“We had been trying for a baby for four-and-a-half years, so, when I fell pregnant, it was all our dreams come true,” she said.
Everything went smoothly until five weeks before the baby was due. “I don’t remember anything after the Sunday before William was born, when we were having a barbecue.
“I’d been due to go on maternity leave at the end of the week, but, on the Tuesday, Marc brought me home early because I had a headache and felt sick.
“We thought I had a stomach bug, but then my vision went and I couldn’t see. I had developed eclampsia, which happened very suddenly. My blood pressure was ridiculously high, which caused the haemorrhage.
“He called an ambulance and I was having seizure after seizure when it arrived. I was taken to Colchester Hospital and William was delivered by emergency caesarian.
“They said I had suffered a massive brain haemorrhage, and I wasn’t going to make it through the night. All my family were told ‘just get to the hospital’. William was put into special care because he had breathing difficulties.”
Nicola clung to life and was sent to the specialist neurological unit at Queen’s Hospital in Romford, where she remained in an induced coma.
“At Queen’s, they felt I was probably going to come round, but there would be major physical and mental disability,” she explained. “When I did wake up, I was hungry and I was talking and they couldn’t believe it.”
But when she realised her baby bump was no longer there, she began to feel frightened and confused.
“I could tell people had been crying. We’d known I was having a boy, and I kept saying ‘where’s William?’ I thought something had happened to him.
She became so stressed that the neurologist agreed to send her back to Colchester. “When we got there, they were able to take William off the breathing machine. The nurses said it was amazing ... I’d come back and he’d perked up as well.”
Less than two weeks later, they were able to go home. But chunks of Nicola’s memory, including her job in customer services, had been wiped out.
“The year after William was born is a little hazy,” she says. “Luckily, my mum, Carol, was retired and living nearby and I relied on her.”
Her illness also affected William, 11, who has autism after being starved of oxygen before birth. He needs constant care but is now doing well at a special school.
“I do all my baking in our kitchen at home,” said Nicola, who now lives in Sible Hedingham. “I can work while William’s at school.
“I wanted to go back to work but I knew that memory issues, going back to an office wasn’t right for me, and special childcare for William would have been expensive.”
She never thought of herself as a baker, or especially artistic. “When I was young, my mum baked, and everybody said nan’s bread pudding was the best in the world,” she said.
“Then there was a spring fair at William’s school and I decided to make some cupcakes. I did Alice in Wonderland cake toppers and other parents were saying ‘could you make a cake for my child’s birthday?’.”
After that, she followed online videos until she was skilled enough to decorate wedding cakes with cascades of delicate flowers.
“My brother is a photographer. I made dummy cakes and he took pictures of them and built my website. I started doing wedding fairs and it all took off,” said Nicola.
“I’d thought for years it would be lovely to have a tearoom but, after looking into it, I’d put it on the back burner.”
Then a fellow wedding fair exhibitor, who used a vintage caravan as a photo booth, told her she had a spare 1970s Sprite model that she was willing to sell.
“We bought the caravan in February. I knew straight away I’d call her Violet because my nan was the world to me.
“My uncle Bill, with auntie Diane as his assistant, cut a hole in the side for a serving hatch and did all the work inside. Mum made the curtains.”
Inside, pride of place goes to a framed photo of Violet, who died in 1986, in her wartime uniform. Nicola can also set up tables outside.
Her calendar is rapidly filling with events. She is at Sudbury market on Thursdays and also does private parties.
Life can be hectic as she and Marc combine working with caring for William, helped by Carol and Emily.
Marc has also changed careers and is now a charge nurse at West Suffolk Hospital. “His dad was a paramedic, his mum was a nurse, and it was something he always wanted to do,” she said.
“He got a first class degree, and when he graduated, it was a very emotional day for all of us.”
Find Nicola online at www.njlcreations.com.