Monday 31st October 1966
It was raining then; itís raining now. I stop trudging in the mud and peer downhill. To where it used to be. To what it used to be. School. Now the only bit I recognize is the top; a battered roof with mud and rubble and stuff all around. Waste. Strange word, that. I heard the grown-ups talking about wasted lives. And itís waste that fell from the mountains. Muddy, mucky, sludgy waste. Slipped down the hills and covered our school. I frown Ė I still donít really understand how this happened. Or why. No-one has talked to me about it, explained it. Not yet, anyway.
I tuck the small bunch of flowers in my pinafore for safe-keeping soís I can now use both hands to clamber downwards. Slip. Slide. As I scramble, I dirty my knees and hands with the black sticky gunge. I donít spose it will matter; nothing seems to be important in our house now. Even food. Iíve had to remind Mam when itís tea-time every day this week, but she just looks at me blankly as if she doesnít know what I mean. Iím not allowed to use the knife Ė too sharp - so I tear big chunks off the bread with my hands. Get a spoon, spread butter and jam on the slabs and place them in front of her. Look at her hopefully. Sometimes she eats a bit. But mostly she doesnít. Itís like sheís not there anymore; I mean, I know she is, but it feels like she isnít. Almost as if her mind has been taken over by aliens or something. Like those daleks in the Doctor Who film we saw a few weeks ago. I hid behind the sofa and only peeked out now and again. But Tommy sat right opposite the TV and watched every single second. Bravely. No fidgeting.
Tommy. Thatís why Iím here: to give him flowers. And all the others, of course. But mainly Tommy: my brother. I know I could go to the cemetery but I donít really want to. Thatís where everyone else goes. Thereís a load of flowers on the ground; loads of people too, wailing and howling. It doesnít feel like Tommy is there, though. But then, I donít know where he is, really. The vicar said that all the dead people are in our hearts forever; that they are angels now, up in Heaven. I donít get that Ė how can they be in Heaven and in our hearts? It doesnít make sense. I wish Tommy was here to explain it to me. He was good at that Ė explaining. Even though he used to pretend that I was a pain when I kept asking him things, I think he liked it really. He liked feeling clever.
I wonder what heíd say to me now? Probably call me a jammy bugger for not being at school the day it all happened. He was cross that I had the day off, even though I had a really snotty cold and Mam had said I should stay at home. But he wasnít happy about that at all. Even said he thought he should stay off too, Ďcos he was sure he was coming down with something. But Mam just laughed and said, ďGet off with you lad,Ē smacking his bum as he left the room. Heíd only gone upstairs though, cos he soon came back with something under his arm. His Beano annual. Pulled it out and gave it to me. ďHere, you can read this if you want, Susie Ė stop you getting bored today.Ē Iíd grinned Ė I knew how much that book meant to him Ė but heíd quickly run off before I got a chance to thank him...
I look up now. The rain has finally stopped and the skyís brighter. Clearer. Iíve reached the edge of the huge hole and I think thatís near enough; I donít really want to get any closer. I bring out the flowers from my pinafore pocket. Theyíre a little bit squashed but not too much. I donít think Tommy will mind. He wasnít really one for flowers anyway. Didnít really notice them, I donít think. Apart from the ones he used to flatten when he was playing football in the garden. Thatís where I picked these from: our garden. I couldnít have bought any from a shop cos I havenít had any pocket money for a little while. Over a week now.
I lay the flowers carefully on a big smooth stone. Staring down, I feel like I should say something now, but I donít really know what. I havenít got the words, somehow. I stroke the petal of one of the blue flowers and think about my brother; pictures of his toothy grin and messed-up blond hair immediately fill my mind. Scabby knees and ink-stained fingers. Loud. Lively. I remember the tricks and pranks he played on me and smile, Ďcos heíd laugh about the fact that Iíll never get a chance to get my own back now. I slowly stand up and take a deep breath. ďBye Tommy.Ē
Tuesday 31st October 2006
Sunshine. A light mist across the valley blurs the hills and grasses into Impressionist paint effects, like a well-remembered day dream. I open the car door and breathe damp Welsh air, familiar even after all these years. Too many years. A multitude of sensations flicker and filter through my jet-lagged brain; sensations which evoke the whole emotional spectrum of my childhood. Early memories... Running across the valleys with a whole bunch of children, screaming in pretend fear that Iíd be caught and have to be Ďití; taking it in turns to roll down the bumpy grassland, head tucked in and arms folded for speed; walking to school with Tommy, tattered satchel on my back and lunch pail in my hand...
Followed by later memories; recollections from the bleakest of times. No warning back then as the light plunged to dark, like an unexpected punch in the solar plexus. Chased by silence. Silence where there used to be laugher - pulsating, vibrant, animated laughter. And finally, bleak confusion. Despair... Leaning on the car I close my eyes, remembering the disorientated child that I was back then. But I need to pull myself together Ė to get a grip. I can do this. So I blink my eyes back open, take a breath and retrieve my old hessian bag from the car. Check to make sure that itís still there; drawing it out and running my fingers over the smooth surface. Right.
I slam the car door decisively and begin to walk. Slow, steady footsteps. I know where Iím going. Have confidence in finding my way, even after all these years. Of course, Iím not in totally unfamiliar territory - Mam used to send me photos as the site developed, so I vaguely recognize the path, the signs, the trees - but even if she hadnít, I would still have been able to find my way. Instinctively.
As I walk, I reflect that even now as an adult, I have no wish to visit the cemetery; on returning to my home country, I still donít feel any affinity with the rows and arches of white stone that denote our catastrophe and keep guard over our dead. No. Iíve thought about this; thought about it carefully. I want to go back to where it happened Ė I want to go back to our school. So I follow the pathway purposefully. Down towards the Memorial garden. I remember some of Mamís weekly phone calls years ago, telling me of the plans to re-design the area. Commemorating the quarter-century anniversary. Eventually, theyíd asked what the families wanted to see there. And - in response - reduced the high walls so visitors could marvel at the awe-inspiring views up and down the valley. Planted hopeful young saplings. Grown blue and pink blooms to represent all of the boys and girls who had lost their lives...
On approaching the entrance to the carefully landscaped gardens, I pause, noticing that Nature herself has had more than a tentative hand in the organizing and planting here. As well as the carefully structured arrangement of brightly-coloured flowers and shrubs, there are flashes of wild flowers breaking up the formal positioning; adding a cheeky mischief to the overall effect. I smile, fancying that maybe my tatty bunch of wild flowers had just a little input with these decorations; maybe their great-great-great-great forebears...
A proud and upright foxglove catches my eye. Standing tall in a mixture of smaller, frailer plants, it reminds me of our old Deputy Head in the playground, watching over the smaller, more delicate children and making sure they didnít get knocked over in the rough and tumble ball games of the older children. I nod to myself: yes, thatís right. And those little white, pink and red cornflowers are like the infants Ė delicate, small and with the potential to be knocked over by the slightest breeze.
But not Tommy Ė definitely not! He would be the windflower, feisty and inventive; not afraid to go his own way and make his own choices, whether they proved right or wrong. I walk over now to the Tommy flower and sit down on the low wall by his side. I tell him all about his nephew Ė little Tom Ė and how he loves football, just like his namesake. I tell him of my sonís fascination with history and his particular interest in genealogy. How, despite living hundreds of miles away, he loves to Skype his Nana in Wales and talk to her about his relatives, past and present. How he begged to come along with me. But Iíd put him off and told him he needed to stay and look after his Dad and little sister. I needed to make the journey by myself. This time.
I fumble in my bag and retrieve the old Beano annual from the depths of the hessian. Bending down, I place the book in a crevice of the low stone wall, and then straighten, gazing up at the cloudless blue sky. Iím aware of a wisp of serenity hovering above me; after a few seconds, it stills and then finally swoops downwards. Seeps into my heart. Soothing. Comforting. I take a deep breath before I speak and let the words float and then soar into the afternoon sky. ďThank you for being my brother.Ē