I’m writing a text message to my husband:
“Just rear ended. I’ll be OK in a while. Just at Starbucks getting over shock.”
I look at the clock and it’s 2pm. It’s the 2nd of June and the memory floods back of fighting shock – Leanne’s shock to come – in the West Cumberland Hospital – at 2pm on June 2nd 2010. A gunman had been on a rampage through the tiny Cumbrian community and had shot a lot of people. We knew that the car James was driving had been seen on its side under a tree next to the road, but not much more. When Leanne arrived back in the office, I told her what I knew and said that I would be with her no matter what. So, on the police’s recommendation, I had driven Leanne to the hospital and they had led us to a large open ward where all the families waited. Some waited for operations to be finished – and then a lot of us just waited.
Time becomes an odd thing during these events. If you’ve read Dune there is a scene in which Paul Atreides is fighting and can see all the possible outcomes – and a lot of them have him dead at the end of them. Well, as I sat there with Leanne, James’ fiancé, showing me her planned wedding dress and keeping her full of sweet tea and cookies (shock prevention food), the minister with his bicycle helmet with a bible tucked into it looked at me and slowly I realize that there are less and less outcomes in which James lives. The more the police asked us questions, the more I know that they’ve dug through his pockets in that overturned car and are simply asking you to confirm an identity.
I am aware now that no ambulances have been in for a very long time. The Air ambulance has long since left Cumbria with whomever they were rushing to hospital. And I am sitting here with sweet tea and biscuits and endless patience and calm waiting for the slow internet connection to deliver the picture of a dress that Leanne will never, ever wear. And I can’t show any emotion other than hope. Not one little hint of the horror that is to come can cross my face. It’s all in the glances that the nurses, minister and I share as we listen to her talk about the love of her life. At that moment I’m not really sure what it will be like, but it will simply end in death and I am the only friend this 21 year old girl has – this girl whose whole life has been built around James for many years. In all the time I’ve known her, she can’t finish a sentence without talking about him. I hold her hands and we talk quietly.
They actually tell you in a small consultation room – it’s a clinical version of the Annunciation. I know the policewoman who speaks the actual words. She’s an old landlord of mine. The room is crowded with two police, two nurses, the minister and the two of us perched on the consulting table. I find it unbearable to remember her agony and pain. “Pam, tell me it isn’t true.” I can’t do what she asks – and will never be able to change this news. As I tell her that I can’t tell her it isn’t true, I too, break down. It took me months to even admit to anyone that I had fallen apart at that point. I’m not sure I forgive myself even now. So, we cling together on the table and all I can do is hold her and protect her so that someone in her life is there for her.
Later on when both families have the thick stone walls of our house to contain their grief, we put out food and make beds available and go into the practical side of death. The days, weeks and months follow with funerals, memorials, inquests and the many breakdowns. I have gained a semi-daughter to shepherd through university and into work. There are no secrets between us . Her father never lets us forget that we were there for them in that awful time. It’s a bond of debt and tears and horror – and slowly finding the light of day again.
Until today, the 2nd of June 2012, when someone didn’t slow down and hit the car behind me to push it into my bumper – and I’m back into shock – mine. Pain au chocolat and iced Cappucino are the anti-shock food of choice today. After all it’s California, not the UK. But it’s still shock and the tears that I couldn’t let fall at 2pm on the 2nd of June 2010 – fall now.