It’s Friday, Day 8, one week After. They’ve come home.
Beth and Iz are, right now, housed safe and sound at the Medico Legal Centre. A rather unobtrusive red brick building, nestled between a tower block council estate, a growing portion of the city’s student accommodation and a dual carriageway. A rather dull dual carriageway, if it has to be said. I doubt anyone’s ever been bothered to muster up the speed to be caught out on the inconsequential uphill between Neepends and the University roundabout. (On a more personal note, the Medico Legal Centre happens to be just a few blocks away from our first family home in Upperthorpe. Back then, I’d no idea whatsoever it was there. Until I had to, now).
Earlier that Friday morning, Day 8, after I’d been (just about ‘been’) taken in the backseat of the Police escort that tailed the anonymous red coffin carrying van, from the soul-less Manchester Airport freight terminus, over the snowy, wind swept Pennine hills, I’d left Beth and Iz at the Medico-legal Centre.
There, in the corporate furnished reception, I’d fumbled out of an unimaginably painfully packed shoulder bag, their two most cherished childhood teddies – Teddy and Toby. To leave for them. To look after them. So they knew they were home. Maxine, the beating heart of this awful place told me she would make sure they got them. And that they would always stay together.
Then I’d gone home.
I guess Cagney and Lacey must have drove me back in the same marked BMW Police car that had just drove me, fragile as millimetre thin glass, listening to Daft Punk in my headphones and weeping, weeping, all the way over the Winter Pennines. I got home somehow, but I don’t really remember how.
What I do remember is that, later that evening, after an evening that was, to be frank, a complete blur, I got a call from Cagney.
It turned out, she said, that we still needed to ‘formally identify’ them.
We’d talked about this before. She’d said we probably wouldn’t need to. That there was enough evidence. I guess, then, amidst the horrors of the first hours that turned into the first few indelible days of ‘After’, Cagney was softening the blow. Seeing, knowing, that we simply weren’t ready for this.
‘I know, it’s…well…’, she now explained softly, so, so carefully, ‘…someone needs to… formally identify them’.
I guess, deep down, I knew this was going to happen. I’ve seen enough TV cop series to know that formal family identification is part and parcel of the process of ‘unforeseen’ death. And I guess she knew all too well that we’d have to face up to this, at some point – but that, in the first few Days, we just weren’t ready for it. Cagney explained it with heartfelt compassion and the tact and timing gleaned from years of FLO experience.
Meantime, in my world reality, I’d been thinking, well, come on, after all, we’re not actually in some TV cop drama, for real. This is now, this is real and my life, happening now. This ain’t some story arcing moment, dreamt up by a TV script writer, when the obligatory white-sheeted body gets wheeled out on a steel-plated platform in a clinically clean, florescent lit morgue. It doesn’t really happen like that. This is real and happening now. This ain’t the moment when a ‘loved one’ stands over a shrouded shape of a body, and a white coated Morgue assistant pulls back the whiter than white sheet.
No. I mean, ffs, they had their passports.
And we’d already told the Police about their identifying features – about Izzy’s scars – the one on her arm, after her Geography school field trip ‘argument’ with a barbed wire fence. About the scar on her knee after a ‘gardening incident’ with me and a spade (that I’d denied) when she was a kid. And we’d painstakingly described the eternity tattoo on Beth’s torso, inked to mirror her childhood friend. And we told the story of her missing front tooth, lost in a toddler chase with her sister Molly, when she’d crashed into a toilet seat.
And more to the point ffs, Christian’s friend James had already identified them in Vietnam. He’d had to reenact that TV cop morgue scene – and with his childhood friend.
And, after all, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had, on Day 1, minutes after I got home, asked to check their credentials and to ratify that they had travel insurance – the FCO’s dull diligent ‘repatriation’ – their pressing, assertively stated, first priority.
And their bodies had been flown home from Ho Chi Minh City to Manchester International Airport. They had been ‘repatriated’.
And doubly, surely, I‘d seen their passport photos pinned to the purple plastic wrapped around their in-flight coffins. I’d seen their backpacks laid out on wooden pallets at the vast, yet strangely airless, Manchester International Airport freight terminal.
That was enough. Surely. We all knew it was Beth and Izzy.
‘We still have to do this,’ Cagney gently explained, and, moreover, ‘It had to be now’, she said. ‘They died a week ago. They’ve been flown from the other side of the world.’
‘Every day will make it worse… make it harder to see them.’ she said.
‘And’, she said more softly, ‘you have to know, Beth’s injuries…have left half of her face purple… You need to know’.
I stood in our back garden, where I’d gone to take the call. And I wept.
Cagney and I talked a while longer, my phone pressed tightly to my ear, as I stood starring at the suddenly stark distance between the firmly rooted trees behind our house and the ever shifting, endless evening stars above.
Then I manned-up.
And I came up with a cunning plan.
Cagney and Lacey would come round tomorrow, Saturday morning, Day 9. Cagney would explain to us, that, unfortunately, they needed ‘formal identification’ and that this needed to be done immediately, straight away. Then, like a shot, I would volunteer. Minutes later, I would be in the back of a Police car on the way to the Medico Legal Centre.
It was such a simple, straightforward plan. Devised to cause the least hurt, the least pain. A plan designed to get the necessary job done and as quickly and painlessly as possible.
On Saturday morning, 5th March 2016, uncharacteristically punctual, Cagney and Lacey knocked on our door – now so familiar visitors that even our dogs didn’t bark – and came in with their congenial Police platitudes, before perching themselves on the edge of our sofa.
We sat and talked for a while.
Then Cagney explained ‘I’m really, really sorry, but I have to tell you, we do need someone to formally identify them. Could one of you… come now? It’s all been arranged at the Medico Legal for 11am. We could go…we need to go…Now.’
I waited, 1 second, maybe 2, before blurting out, ‘I’ll do it. Let’s go’. I was getting out of my seat to go….
‘No, No. NO. ‘No fucking way. NO fucking way.’
No way,’ Trace repeated over and over, ‘No fucking way. No way are you doing this.’
She was wanting to spare me the abject horror, the unbridled, life numbing memory of doing this thing. This thing, that I felt instinctively was my duty, and mine alone, but that I knew would literally tear my soul apart.
As part of the cunning plan, I should have known this would be her instinctive, heartfelt reaction. After all, I’d had the whole of the previous evening to come to terms with the stark realisation of what I saw as my parental duty. A whole restless, sleeping tablet-infused night to try to come to terms with it. Whereas Trace’s reaction was instantaneous, immediate, from the gut. And absolutely adamant.
I sank back into our sofa, not sure if I was relieved or quietly frustrated that my ‘manning up’ had been so decisively thwarted.
We talked it over with Cagney and Lacey. ‘Is there anyone else?’
It was Cagney, I think, who said ‘If your family doctor can’t do it, what about Dave?’
Dave was a family friend, his kids had grown up with ours. But he also happened to be a Police Officer. I called him ‘Copper Dave’, not to his face, of course. Dave was a senior investigating officer (an ‘SIO’, if you’ve ever watched Line of Duty and googled Police abbreviations) and an SIO Cagney and Lacey knew well.
The next day, Cagney called Dave. I didn’t call him. I couldn’t man up enough.
It was the Sunday, maybe Monday, when Dave called me. He wasn’t his usual self.
‘Squizz, I’m so sorry. I’m, so…so, sorry.’ A stuttering, semi incoherent, trying to be professional, but also a friend’s phone call.
‘They both looked peaceful. Really peaceful.’
Later, I found out that Cagney had gone to meet Dave with Maxine, the surgically scrubbed matriarch of Sheffield Medico-Legal Centre. Maxine, the loving receiver of Teddy and Toby, Izzy and Beth’s childhood teddies. Maxine, who’d promised me, when I brought them home from Manchester Airport, that she’d look after them and always keep them together.
Apparently, Cagney and Maxine had sat down with Dave and told him, firmly, ‘You’re not a copper now’. ‘This is different’.