Half way down finals for runway 24 at Fairoaks today I handed back the controls to Alan. “You do it,” I said. I just knew I couldn’t land the aircraft today, despite the fact the wind was straight down the runway, he had set it up for me perfectly (though I was in the right hand seat) and I really, really want to land a Cessna 172, which is somewhat heavier than my usual steeds, the C150 or C152.
But today is different. We got a beautiful morning for our little sortie from Thurrock to Fairoaks, flying at around 2,000ft over the glorious London surrounds with near perfect visibility. London was sparkling beyond the Thames, and the view of the river around Tilbury was stunning. Coming back with a 30kt tailwind and bumping from the clouds above I feel just about as peaceful as I can do, drinking in the landscape below.
But I’m near useless as a copilot today. On the outward leg I’m okay experimenting with the plethora of technology Al’s got stuck around the cockpit – trying to figure it out and flying to the lines unravelling themselves on the electronic charts in front of me. I have a little difficulty with the height and trim, but am already aware my head is closing down from the skull inwards. Al takes control for the entire flight back – I can just about muster changing the frequency on the transponder, which is right in front of me.
I’m enormously grateful to be airborne today. It is exactly the right thing for me to be doing. Client and friend Alan Peaford can’t know how important it is. I didn’t even know myself.
The drive home is interesting. I turn the wrong way down a one way road on a busy intersection in Southeast London and feel the rest of my body, shoulders first, pressing in from the outside in, gradually compressing me, muscle by muscle, sinew by sinew, cell by cell, until I am spent. I get home, exhausted and crash out on the couch for an hour.
And then it comes – the thing I’ve been swerving for weeks now, that’s been coming out in strange ways – tears, tiredness, enormous sadness. And I know I have to live it again tonight.
On January 2nd 2013 I drove up to the Wirral, my hometown, to celebrate a belated Christmas with my sister, niece and brother. I was looking forward to seeing them. Last time we’d been together was at my mum’s funeral on September 3. It’d been a harrowing summer waiting out her death – she’d been ill for years, and the end when it came was a relief, though, of course, terribly sad. We’d all had peaceful holidays and were feeling positive and excited that at long last we’d been able to let her go and move on. There’s something about a significant loss that does that – makes you reflect on your own mortality and what to put into your life, these precious few years we have to explore the world we’ve pitched up in.
The drive was tiring – around 5 hours thanks to grotty London traffic at the start of it, and I deliberately would not eat, knowing my sister had been cooking up a storm to welcome me over. I stopped en route for coffee and picked up a couple of daft gifts from a service station to accompany the desired, but practical duty free offerings I’d bought for them all in Dubai a couple of weeks previously.
When I arrived, pretty knackered, we drank tea and she expressed concern that she hadn’t heard from my brother for the entire day, that he’d felt ill and may have gone to the doctors and got some antibiotics. Unusual. I felt grumpy, convinced he’d been up all night drinking and was sleeping off a hangover with some strong pills, but agreed to go round and see if he was okay & if he needed me to drive anywhere to get him anything.
Fortunately she had a key – which didn’t work in the lock, since it was shut from the inside, and we could see the lights were blazing. We started to knock, ring and bang. The neighbours came out to see what was happening, and told us that it was possible the door had just caught. That it had happened to them, too, the week before. They also gently suggested we call the police. We were reluctant, but eventually agreed to do so. I texted him to let him know. Didn’t want to fall foul of his wrath if he was just sleeping off a heavy night, or had gone out with his mates.
The police promised to come as soon as possible, and told us to make as much noise as possible to rouse him. I went downstairs to keep the front door open, which was accessible by entry phone. My sister remained upstairs with the neighbours. She banged and hollered, I called both his phones – incessantly. I rang my niece. Would he be with pals? She burst into tears and said she knew something was dreadfully wrong. I rolled my eyes, irritated by the drama and wanting to be at Ginny’s tucking into roast beef and yorkshire pud.
Blue lights screamed past. For the first time I felt fear. Was my poor brother lying upstairs unable to get help. I called the police, once, twice, ten times? I dunno. After an hour they arrived. Two jolly young folk, a man and a woman, who discussed whether they needed to go away and get a battering ram. In the end the guy just lifted his boot and kicked the flimsy door right through. They both went in. And there was screaming silence.
Ginny and I instinctively held back, with our audience of old people, getting high on the drama. We weren’t. There was no noise whatsoever coming from that flat. The police were in there a beat too long. And then we knew.
“I’m really sorry, he’s passed away in there.”
The young policeman looked grim. And our worlds imploded. I sank to my knees and howled a howl I never even knew lived inside me. Ginny collapsed sitting on the stairs. The young man tried to soothe me. I shook him off violently and sobbed at him not to shut me up. Ginny held my shoulder. After how long, again I dunno, we asked could we go in and see him. An anxious glance between them – a quick check – and then yes, yes we could, but mustn’t touch anything as it was a crime scene. Too right it was a crime scene. Our beautiful brother had been robbed from us, suddenly, unexpectedly, devastatingly.
He looked so peaceful sitting there in his computer chair – a little smirk playing on his lips. Apparently it would have been so quick he wouldn’t have known or suffered. Such a blessing.
The paramedics arrived almost immediately, so we were ushered to his front room to sit on the couch, surrounded by his airing washing, and my christmas present, ready to wrap with scissors and sellotape next to the fire. I wanted to drive us home, but was absolutely not allowed to do so. I asked could I go in to see him one last time. Yes, but I mustn’t touch him. I did/didn’t want to. Wanted to shake him back to life, like he’d just left the room for a minute and I could just bring him back. Yet repulsed by the mask of death on him.
We went back to Ginny’s to deal the body blows to our sister Alex, and Ginny’s daughter Sarah. It was awful to hear their pain.
And now it is almost exactly a year to the minute of that awful first shock of the policeman walking out the door. And I understand why my body and soul shut down today. I feel so sad. Ginny and I have spoken twice already. The only people in the world who lived that harrowing two hours. And I want so badly to write it out. Have had so much of my professional writing to do, which has got harder and harder over the last few days. But this is the writing I need to do. It doesn’t even feel optional today. The story I want to tell, and have felt afraid to do, though it’s broiling inside of most of the time.
The two hours in particular are drawing to a close. I’ve been dreading them for weeks and didn’t even know it. And now they’re passing too. And I’ve survived – and with grace for the most part.
My two sisters and I were magnificent in the following weeks. My nieces and brother in law, too. A hard time. Then another sad postscript in March when an old friend couldn’t take being in the world anymore, and took herself out of it. God love her, and thank you, too, Karen. You, Kev and mum taught me lessons I could get in no other way – and I love you all fiercely.
2014 has already started brilliantly compared to 2013. No one I love died. I’m feeling quietly positive about the coming months. My secret is out, and like Kev would have said, it can be just a paper tiger if I let it be.
Last year showed me strengths I didn’t even know I had. 12 months is not long, but it’s a big cushion away from the rawness and agony of this time last year.
I found out how much my brother loved and championed me. And learned how to let my loved ones know that while we’re all alive, sharing this crazy journey together. Things that would have been major issues before have become trivial, leaving me free to focus on what really is life affirming. And have been blown away by the kindness of family and friends. Truly humbled by just how wonderful people really are. And my curiosity for life is sparked again – fired in a way that had stagnated. An awareness of my own mortality and how much exploring there is to do is another big, big gift. Plus compassion for myself and others. And my God I’ve got fabulous family and friends – I’ve been so held for the last twelve months.
I needed to say this. If you’ve stayed with me this long, thank you for your time.
Halfway down finals for runway 24 today I handed the controls to Alan. “You do it,” I said. He took charge willingly without question, landed the plane and didn’t push me for an explanation. Back at Thurrock I explained why I couldn’t fly any major phases of flight today – I simply wasn’t fit. Any sensible pilot knows their limits, and I am a sensible pilot.
And a good friend will step in and help out without asking why. If I’ve learned nothing else this year, I’ve learned how to let them.
So happy new year, I hope it’s a good and peaceful one for you. There’s a lot to celebrate in this world of ours. Most particularly each other.