THE buzzing of the tattoo gun temporarily drowns out the oppressive hissing of the ventilator that keeps the quadriplegic Royal Marine veteran alive. Toby Gutteridge can’t help but smile. This is the one thing the 29-year-old can do to reclaim the body he lost when he was shot in the neck serving in Afghanistan.
Toby refuses to let the moment the Taliban bullet pierced through his spinal cord paralysing him instantly from the neck down define him. Instead, he has chosen to battle back – through ink.
“I feel free,” says Toby pausing as his ventilator exhales for him.
“Tattoos give me strength, and ironically I feel stronger than I ever have.
“Every time I see them or someone comments on them, I feel proud and stronger inside.
“They symbolise a lot to me – determination, focus, pride, all the things you can imagine you would lose if you were paralysed, lost your career, lost your image and identity. I’m not so conscious of my body anymore.
“I know I only have one life and I don’t take that for granted. I have always just wanted to live life, which is the bottom line really. Just live.”
Ironically, that sentiment reminds Toby of the first and only tattoo he got on his back ten years ago aged 19.
It reads: “Don’t let your fears stand in the way of your dreams,” Toby explains after he is hoisted onto the bed at the Southampton tattoo studio by his team of carers using an electric winch.
Following his dreams led Toby to move from his hometown of Johannesburg in South Africa to England to sign up to the Royal Marines two years later, aged 21.
It was November 2009 when that career was brought to the most abrupt end imaginable.
Toby was shot in the arm on a routine patrol of the maze of dusty bomb strewn alleys surrounding Fob Inkerman in Afghanistan.
Though given the opportunity to return home to rest, he decided to stay with his comrades.
He wasn’t to know that in a cruel twist of fate, that decision to stay led to his life changing forever.
Just two weeks after the first attack, he was shot in the neck on another routine patrol. He was paralysed instantly.
A month later, Toby was woken up from a coma in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
He seems relieved his brain is incapable of piecing together the chaotic chain of events on November 13, 2009 which resulted in his lifeless body being airlifted to Camp Bastion as he battled for survival.
His injuries were so severe Toby’s parents, who live in South Africa, were told he was likely to have suffered brain damage.
Remarkably though, he didn’t and the exact moment doctors told him that he would never walk again is one that will never fade from his memory.
Speaking publicly about his injuries for the first time, Toby who received a mention in despatches for his bravery during his second, and last tour of Afghanistan, says: “My first thought was ‘how am I going to cope?’ ‘What’s the future going to be like?’ It’s completely unknown.
“Suddenly life has a lot more seriousness about it and I had to grow up very quickly.
“At first you think of all the things you won’t be able to do, but as time goes on you learn you can do those things.
“Slowly but surely I’ve done the things I have wanted to do, one by one, just by trying.
“If you let fear take over, you wouldn’t end up doing anything apart from existing so you have to get on with it. Life moves on.”
Toby, a self-confessed adrenalin junkie, whose past hobbies of surfing and racing motorbikes can only remain something he does in his head to lift him when the 24/7 care becomes suffocating, admits it has not been easy learning to enjoy life’s smaller pleasures.
“There have been some very dark times. It’s tough not being able to move,” he says.
“I feel very trapped, very claustrophobic. I still feel like I want to just get up and do things on my own. That’s the hardest thing to get my head around but you have to get used to it. Don’t get me wrong the feeling never goes away. Memories never go away. How it used to feel never goes away,” Toby pauses, his eyes darting to the ventilator that has now become part of his shadow.
“But you have no choice apart from to get on with it so I have to try not to think too much.”
That positivity in the face of a catastrophe that could have easily destroyed him has remarkably meant Toby has no regrets.
“I can’t say I would take back my time even though this is the end result. I loved my time in the Marines. I knew the consequences when I joined up so I’m not going to cry over spilt milk, it happens, that’s life. “It boils down to how you deal with a situation and I have to live boldly. I don’t want to settle. Most days I wake up and I’m just so glad to be here. Being shot through the neck is not something most people survive so I feel incredibly lucky to be alive. I’ve got great support from all my friends and from work so there’s rarely a dull moment."
“When you’ve been shot twice you definitely learn to appreciate life a lot more and to love the little things I can still do, like eating. I love steak,” he laughs. “I’m so happy I can do that. I feel lucky to have that perspective.”
But typical of Toby’s determination, despite relying on a team of nurses and carers around the clock, he refuses to settle for those little things.
Instead, he sets his sights on bigger adventures and his motto is ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’
Today he has his sights on dune buggy kite surfing and there’s a list of countries he wants to explore.
Already since the shooting, Toby has carried the Olympic torch, can often be spotted trackside watching motor racing, and last year confronted his anxiety of flying with his wheelchair and ventilator to enjoy a holiday in Tenerife with friends where he was able to get on the beach close to the water and just like before, feel the sun on his face laid out on a sun lounger.
This month not only is he moving from Royal Marine accommodation where he was based at Hamworthy Barracks, Poole to a new specially adapted home near Bournemouth, he is also starting a college course in humanities.
Toby, who plans to complete a degree at university to realise his dream of becoming a sports journalist, laughs as he reveals there’s always a long list of ‘to dos’ which he researches on his laptop which he can navigate simply by moving his eyes.
For now though, it’s all about the tattoos Southampton’s renowned award-winning artist Eugene Rubuls is creating on his arms and chest.
Each one holds a special meaning for Toby.
So far, he has a tattoo of an angel as Toby believes he was protected to survive two shootings and the Greek God Atlas representing that the former Marine feels he too carries the weight of the world on his shoulders yet remains strong.
On his chest and over his heart there is a lion with the writing ‘Never will I die’.
And today Eugene, who is a realism and portrait specialist, is designing the Greek God Zeus which will be surrounded by sunshine piercing through clouds to represent hope.
“He is the God of Gods,” says Toby.
“Without sounding arrogant, I guess I do feel indestructible like him.
“If you believe inside you are invincible, it can go a very long way.”