Time it is a precious thing, time brings all things to your mind,
Time with all its troubles and time with all its joys, time brings all things to an end.
From an English folk song.
My sister was burned to death on a lovely, sunny morning in May, 1990, while I was getting on with my life. I was at a friend’s house where we were preparing a garden party for a Belgian choir we were hosting. It was unusually mild and my children, four and six years old, were playing loudly in the garden with others. The sun was shining with an almost Mediterranean intensity. Hawthorn blossom lay like snow in the hedgerows, filling the air with a rich, heady scent.
Our host ambled to the kitchen and told me: ‘Your mother just called. She said that someone is coming to see you. She was a bit blunt.’
It was obvious he didn’t take kindly so someone being blunt to the point of rudeness to him, on his own telephone, in his own house, and what he said didn’t make sense. I would be seeing Mum later, and she wasn’t the kind of person to be rude. I wondered if he’d got something wrong. ‘Did she say who?’
He shrugged. Although surprised, I didn’t intend to let his short-lived annoyance, or my mother’s as yet unknown reasons for causing it, to spoil a glorious day. I laughed at the strangeness of it, and carried on making sandwiches, wondering, with increasingly unlikely suggestions from my friends, who could be coming to see me, and why. From time to time I glanced out of the window, then eventually I saw my brother’s car pull up outside. I ran out to greet him. To my surprise, David, my sister’s boyfriend climbed out of the passenger seat. I glanced in the back to see if Marion was there, but she wasn’t. There was obviously a reason, but who thinks of the possibility of tragedy on a beautiful sunny morning? Instead of wondering what on earth they were doing there, I smiled a welcome and told them to come in and join the party. They had both smiled in greeting, as one does. Then Richard put his hand on my shoulder, a universal gesture that signifies a sharing of some heavy load. It was only then that I guessed something was wrong. He didn’t prevaricate, but told me straight out.
‘I have some bad news. Marion’s dead.’
How could something like that really register? I thought about it for a second, and I remember my first word was, ‘No.’ It wasn’t a question; it was a statement, a denial. They waited while the words solidified, and finally I asked, ‘How?’
‘A car accident,’ I was told.
‘David,’ I said. ‘I am so, so sorry.’
We stood there, the three of us, arms linked in a circle as though we were about to break into a folk dance. David knew what I meant. The long struggle he would face to re-adjust his life, the long hours of loneliness that were her legacy to him had already made their mark. He’d had several hours to get used to the idea that his partner of ten long years, was gone, that life would never be the same again. I was given a few small, pertinent facts before they drove back to my mother and father. Marion had been going to work and had crashed head on into an artic. I wondered, how do you tell parents that their first child is dead? No one can quite understand that, I think, until they have held their own first child in their arms.
We carried on and hosted the choir for a long, hectic weekend. We went to various venues, we danced, played music, and they sang, and somewhere in the back of my head was this strangely unreal knowledge that my sister was dead. I learned then that grief doesn’t have the blunt impact I once supposed would be the case. I now know what people mean when they talk of grief numbing the senses. There was no blinding flash of comprehension, no tearing of hair and wringing of hands, because I simply couldn’t believe what I’d been told. My mind could not accept the fact; it was a cruel joke, and for a long time after this I subconsciously expected my sister to turn up in the wake of her boyfriend.
The mortgage company and my employers weren’t bothered that my sister had died, however, so I carried on going to work and being the person my family needed me to be. Those necessities meant dividing grief into a separate channel in my mind, one that stalked silently alongside my day-to-day activities. For a while I was not wholly in the present. My past experiences with my sister compressed into a kind of montage of memory-bytes, cut out and pasted into solidity, because that store was now finite, there would be no more memories to add. I wish I had taken more note of each moment, so that I could recall them now in greater detail. I wish I hadn’t allowed my marriage and circumstance to keep us apart so much.
Despite the rifts life had wedged between us, we were still a family, in essence. News passed like Chinese whispers: if I told Mum something, my siblings, Richard and Marion would know soon enough, and vice versa, and when we met the time between dissolved. Now there was a gaping hole in the flow of information.
The days which followed Marion’s death were surreal. My parents aged before my eyes and I saw my father cry. On the telephone he said, she was my first baby. My father had never spoken to me so openly, and I had never thought of my ‘big’ sister like that; she had simply always been there. I know from experience that the first child is always a bit special. It doesn’t diminish the ones that follow, but something changes within you when you first view a child that has come from your own union. There is a sense of wonder which stays with you forever: did we really create that baby, that new life?
Marion was fourteen months older than me, and slightly envious that I had children. She really wanted a child and was worried that her time was passing by too quickly. She and David had recently bought a really old house and had been doing it up themselves, a major project. Now there was a bathroom and the house was stabilised, they felt ready to take on that new challenge. There was a quiet strength about Marion, in her idealism and determination. I knew she would be an excellent mother, better than me, probably. I’d fallen into childbirth in the hope that somehow it would add meaning to a relationship that hadn’t lived up to its promise, realising too late that I’d simply added eighteen years to the self-imposed sentence of marriage.
It is the utter, inexplicable nonsense of death which hits you most, the giddy sensation of things being out of sync. As a child you put things into a definite sequence in your mind, and I was still in that space. I expected my granddad or grandmother to be the next in my family to die. I was prepared for those deaths inasmuch as you can be prepared for the death of someone you love, but it would have been in the right order. When my sister died natural order was overturned.
Marion was the second grandchild my grandparents had lost, the first being an even greater tragedy to them as my cousin had been a treasured toddler when he’d been run over in a bizarre set of circumstances. Though I recall the event, I was too young for it to have a deep impact, but they had taken it hard. They had known cruel times: childhoods so desperate I can’t even begin to imagine; Granddad surviving as a soldier through the Second World War; and Gran living through the blitz in Bristol with three children in a bomb-damaged house. Surviving that, moving into comfortable old age, they had then had to deal with life’s further capricious knocks.
Marion had been pretty, though she didn’t think so as her classic Romanesque appearance, an untameable mane of thick hair, a mobile mouth and slightly receding chin, were not fashionable. She was academically able, but not interested in fighting for a place in the corporate world. What made her the unique person she was could mostly be described in the way she actively threw herself into causes. She became a vegetarian and a bell ringer, volunteered when the canals were being cleaned, and joined various countryside groups that were trying to protect environments. She had a great internal strength. Willowy in build, she would stand up to anyone if her moral conscience was violated. She and David were soul-mates in all these things. I became distanced from them mainly because my own husband, John, a controlling and ultimately selfish man, was dismissive of these traits. As it was almost impossible for me to do anything without him, I gradually became isolated from everyone I’d known before meeting him.
That first week after her death I lived in a strangely confused state, with the realisation that Marion’s body was lying in a drawer in an Exeter morgue. We were unable to finalise things because there had to be an autopsy, and she was in the queue, we were told, as if she were buying groceries. I met with David and my parents to discuss the funeral arrangements. We were all aware Marion hadn’t wanted to be buried, that it would be a cremation. She had no religious convictions, yet a service in a utilitarian crematorium would have been in insult to her character, so David suggested a disused church in Exeter. It had been de-sanctified years before (I did wonder how some guy in a black robe could believe he had the authority to evict his God from a church), so arrangements were made that it would be available to us for a non-religious ceremony.
David didn’t go to pieces, at least in public. He took quiet command of the proceedings. We learned that whenever he said Marion would have wanted it this way, that’s the way it had to be. But almost without exception we all wanted the same sort of service for Marion. She had believed in love, life and honour. She had been a pacifist, a conservationist and a humanist. Her close friends came from all walks of life, including people with deep religious conviction. I knew her creed: she hoped that death was a continuation of existence in some way, but as no-one had proved it, the only certain thing is the life we have and how we live it. But whatever our beliefs, funerals demand a sense of pageantry, without which death is just a sordid end to life.
The funeral was fourteen days after Marion’s death, and the guilt was still strong: for being alive, and for not having said goodbye, as though it had somehow been an oversight. It hurts, not being able to remember the last words I spoke to her, not even being able to recall when I last spoke to her. I do remember thinking it was better she died in the accident rather than linger in a coma or brain damaged in some way. David voiced the same opinion at one stage, but said he was sorry she didn’t hold on long enough for him to say goodbye.
Marion had been liked by so many, the church was packed in a way it probably never had been on Sundays. She and David had once been bell-ringers in that very church before God had been banned. Their friend, Tim, a curate, was given permission to lead the service there. Holding the service in this special, ancient building with its carved wood and coloured glass served all our needs, particularly those of my aunt and uncle who had lost their little boy twenty years before. They needed to believe in Christianity, in God and Heaven, because otherwise their little boy would be simply dead. Both were overcome during the service, and we understood that it was not just for Marion that they cried. Tim made his Service a testament to Marion’s character, though he did supplement it with bible readings. He said he believed he was sending Marion off to heaven, that he did not believe his God would turn his back on someone so essentially good.
We did not ask people to sing. How can you sing when your throat is closed? Instead, we asked people to tell stories, and chose music we knew she had loved: the theme from Thomas Tallis, a pan-pipes tune from the Andes, and others I can’t now recall. During the ceremony the roof beams thrummed with the rushing wings and soft cooing of pigeons that had moved in, lending a sense of all the things Marion had loved. Tim finished his service by asking us to let Marion go. I know she’s gone, but it’s easier to say than to do. She was with me then, and will shadow me till I die. It was hard to believe it was her inside the coffin. My memories of the service are that it was like a distant, vaguely distressing dream from which I kept expecting to wake.
I was dry-eyed in the church until the coffin was actually brought in. I remember the sudden hush and the uncontrollable trembling of my mother. It dawned on me finally that Marion’s body was inside the casket, under the flowers. I had picked some flowers that morning, and Dad put them on the coffin for me. My little posy looked incongruously out of place, disrupting the formality of the professional display. It contained poppies, snapdragons and wild purple toadflax, and was wrapped in a piece of green Christmas paper. But I knew that posy would have meant more to her than the commercial hothouse flowers that scented the church.
All through the service the casket commanded half of my attention. I wanted to lift the lid to make sure it was really her. I had a picture postcard image of her lying there with a faint smile curving her mouth as it had hovered during life. I was surprised we had not been invited to see the body, to say our goodbyes, for closure. I vaguely supposed David must have identified the body after the accident, and wondered whether she had been too damaged to view. That worry stayed with me for many long nights. It was impossible to disassociate the character of a person from the shell in which it had been encased during life, hard to accept that the still body no longer held the essence which made it Marion. I discovered although I was sorry for the years which had been stolen from her, I was also sorry for myself and my family for having lost her.
Grief is actually a very selfish and personal thing.
I wonder, for a moment, whether I should be writing these things, but writing helps create logic out of tangled thoughts. I remember sitting on the grassy slope with my sister at the back of our School in Harlow, discussing our joint desire to write. At that time we both loved fantasy and science fiction. We used to recall snatches of dreams and write them down in notebooks, now long lost, hoping that we could one day use them as inspiration for stories. She had a recurring dream of going through to another world which I can only recall her describing as ‘red’. She had many dream-episodes set in the same place. In the years following our move to Devon, new schools, college, growing up, and the tiring business of earning a living, contact between us diminished. I never had a chance to find out if her dream continued, but I now wonder if it had been her own way of escaping a childhood which had been, in many ways, traumatic for both of us.
As far as I know she never did write, but poured herself into her busy life. I had put my desire to write on hold, thinking I’d start when the time was right, but when Marion died I realised I might die suddenly, as she did, and never discover if I even could write. So in a way her death jump started many things inside me, including the decision to live my own life, not the one which had sneaked up on me when I was too young to notice. So writing became my reality, my buffer in a lonely world.
Marion was envious of my marriage, my family life, she had told me so, but I’d never let her know how unhappy I was, about the struggle to keep sane, the loss of my dreams and my very self. She never knew how I saw my youth fade towards middle age, and sometimes even thought of taking my own life. She never knew that I was envious of her freedom, her happiness with David, her many weekends away doing interesting things; that I’d swapped all that for a stability that was crushing. It’s true that you don’t know what you have until it’s taken from you, and I ended with something Marion no longer had: life itself.
After the funeral we went on to what can only be described as a wake. My brother had hired the functions tent at the ‘Double Locks’ in Exeter, which had been Marion and David’s favourite pub. There is a single track road which leads alongside the canal to the pub. At one point it crosses the canal via a tiny bridge, no more than a line of railway sleepers, set at right angles to the track. It was never designed for cars. One could look down into the water through the gaps, and every time we drove over I wondered whether we would make it to the other side. The pub is three-quarters surrounded by water: on one side the canal, on the other, the river Exe leads to the estuary. It had a reputation, back then, for real ale and wholesome food. When we arrived, the publican beamed a welcome at David and asked where his ‘pretty girlfriend’ was. David had to explain. Until that moment the publican had not realised that the funeral was for the girl whose photograph was still pinned on the wall, being silly at one of the pub functions.
We drank ourselves silly that day, and the atmosphere was high. I spoke to people I didn’t know and relatives I hadn’t seen for ages; we all acted as if it was a Christmas party that Marion had laid on especially for us. We didn’t shun the subject of the dead person in whose honour we all got plastered, that would have been an insult. Instead we talked about her, about us, about the weather, and wasn’t it a lovely service? Looking back I find it hard to believe that I laughed and talked so freely. The party eventually petered out, and the farewells to me, my brother, my parents and David bought us back to earth with a jolt. I saw the strain on their faces, and I suppose it was on my face, too.
A few days after the funeral, it was my birthday. My parents made a token gesture of a present and a card, but after that there was another treat in store. David asked if I would go over to the house and take first choice of her personal things – her jewellery and clothes. I thought it might be easier for me to just take all her clothes and deal with them, but he said he couldn’t bear an immediately huge gap in her wardrobe. He believed it would be easier for him to give her things away in bits and pieces. I doubt it ever got easier.
It wasn’t easy for me to rifle through her clothes; it was traumatic, in fact. I took some, more to help him out than in the belief I could ever wear them. I simply could not take anything else – the whole house was filled with a sense of her: every book, every picture, every piece of precious collected junk, some of which I recognised from our past, but other things belonging to her more recent life with David still spoke of her character. All the little treasures we had quarrelled over as children I would have given to her at that moment if I could. I took her leather motorbike jacket, which pleased David, as he’d tried to give it to one of her friends who had been horrified, not realising that her refusal to accept it was more distressing to David that a casual acceptance would have been.
Marion had nothing of value, but had been a hoarder. Some things I recalled buying with her, some things I made for her, some had memories or anecdotes attached to them. It was a difficult time. David cried over the bits and pieces we were sorting through, and so did I. One item I took was a natural wool jumper she’d brought back from the Andes. When I got home I discovered a little brass broach attached to it, finely etched with a solitary tree. It seemed to stand for everything she held true: simplicity of design, the earth, sunshine, growth, continuity. This one item of hers I still have, as if by my choosing that tatty jumper she had reached out from the grave to give me this one, tiny, parting gift. That night I was ill, with cramping pains in my stomach, and I could only attribute it to the black bin liners on my bedroom floor which contained the clothes I had brought home. It was many weeks before I opened them, and over the following year they all gradually went to charity shops.
I knew David worked for the Exeter Fire Department as a photographer, and it was during this time he told me that it was only circumstantial that he had not been sent out with the emergency staff to photograph the accident where his own girlfriend would still have been trapped in her car under the lorry. She’d driven a soft-topped Triumph Herald, so when the accident occurred the car had slipped under the lorry so far the people on site had been unable to extract her or disentangle the vehicles. I also learned that the press got hold of Marion’s name and blasted it over the news before it was officially released, so it’s a good thing Mum and Dad didn’t listen to local news or they might have heard of her death in that nasty, sensationalist piece of reporting. My sister became newsworthy not by being gentle and kind, but by being dead and inconsiderately blocking a major road for several hours.
Mum phoned to make sure I’d got home safely, something she’d never done before. She asked me how my brother was, and I said I didn’t know. He showed no sign of grief, though I know he loved her, and I wondered how he was coping. He shut himself away and became a stranger overnight.
When I saw Mum again, she told me of a poem by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who I believe was dying of cancer when she wrote it: Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I will remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all. Mum also told me, ‘In Exeter there’s the tombstone of a child, and the inscription reads: thank you, Lord, for the twelve years we had with our daughter. So I’m going to try to do this for Marion. To remember the good things; anything else is pointless.’ I knew then from where Marion had inherited her inner strength. I learned from David, poignantly, that it was Marion who found the stone in the first place and showed it to my mother some time before.
Whenever I met David he recounted anecdotes, too, as though remembering the good things kept her closer to his mind. Sometimes his voice would break in the middle of something else, and he’d say, ‘I miss her so, your sister,’ then he’d carry on. I wish I’d known her better, this older sister he told me about. I sometimes felt I had not known her at all.
I was able to tell David a story he had not heard before. When we were camping in Scotland as teenagers, Marion got up in the morning and clipped herself into a denim bib and brace I’d made for her. Suddenly her face dropped, and she grappled in panic for the buckles, getting the trousers off in a comical pantomime of haste. I was too dumbfounded to react. I shall never forget the look of horror on her face, which changed dramatically to hysterical laughter when an enormous stag beetle crawled out of the leg of the trousers. David wondered why Marion had never told him that, and I said we all remember different moments out of the same events.
Some months later David phoned, to say the trees had arrived.
We had asked people not to spend out on cut flowers, but to put some money into a kitty to buy trees. The collection provided a lot more than we had anticipated, and we had enough money to plant a whole copse. The Trust for Nature Conservancy gave us the corner of a field, and there we planted some three hundred trees, and on the top of the hill beside it we planted seven larger evergreens, and put a little plaque with Marion’s name on it. We decided that would be her only monument, for when we are gone there will be no one left who cared. About thirty people turned up to help with the planting. It was tedious work, and rain threatened but didn’t fall till we were just about finished. We finally wrapped the trunks with rabbit protectors, and packed up. As we left I looked back. The churned patch of ground looked like a battlefield, and the white rabbit-shields made it look like a graveyard.
A date was set for the inquest, on 17th July. It’s strange how that date has stuck in my mind. Because it was an accident with a fatality, of course, someone had to determine who caused it. I wanted to go to the inquest, but was overridden. David, Richard, Dad and my husband (who hadn’t even liked Marion) went and wouldn’t allow Mum or I to go. They said it was to protect us, but looking back I think Dad and David were protecting themselves. If Mum or I had started to cry it would have set them all off, and women have less control over tears than men.
While they were away I went for a walk with Mum and the dog. It was better than sitting around just wondering. And that’s when Mum threw the curveball: Marion had burned to death. It turned out everyone except me had known, even my husband. It had been my brother who had insisted they keep this information from me, to protect me, apparently. Mum hadn’t realised I didn’t know. So instead of learning this dreadful fact when I was still numb, I learned it in the cold, analytical moment of the inquest ten weeks later. That’s why Mum had been shaking so uncontrollably in the church. She had known Marion’s blackened body was encased in a body bag inside the coffin. When my husband returned I was so choked I couldn’t even begin to express my anger, so it festered alongside the many other instances of lack of communication that ultimately led to my leaving him.
The inquest reopened wounds. Marion had been doing about 45 mph and went out of control on a bend. An articulated milk tanker was coming down the hill towards her. The driver saw Marion go out of control, drive into the skid, and make a textbook recovery, but on his side of the road. He carried on around the corner and ploughed into and over her stationary soft top Triumph Herald at around 70 mph, trapping her inside. Several people stopped and tried to help pull the car free with ropes, but it was wedged under the lorry, eventually bursting into flames. It was deduced that the bonnet pressed onto the battery, causing the short circuit which started the fire. No mechanical fault was subsequently discovered on her car, so guesses were hazarded that she lost concentration, had a momentary blackout, or swerved to avoid an animal. I can believe the latter, it would have been in character.
The tanker driver was absolved of manslaughter, but I still wonder how that could be. He had time to see her go out of control and recover the vehicle on an almost empty road, but carried on driving his 38 ton vehicle downhill, round a blind corner, assuming she would have driven on by then. To my mind that was manslaughter; gross negligence at the least.
David told me that he had had three premonitions about her death: twice he woke in the night with my sister in his arms, and thought he was holding a corpse; then, a few days before her death, he dreamed she was on fire. He remembered thinking, what a shame this should all be burned, but told himself not to be daft, it was just a nightmare.
Some months later he finally took the plastic urn that held Marion’s ashes and went into the countryside alone. I don’t know where he scattered them, but it was somewhere special to himself and Marion. He said when he tipped the ashes out it was like letting a genie out of a bottle; a big cloud of grey dust that billowed and settled softly. She is out there somewhere, on a wild patch of land, at one with nature.
In time, Richard went to look at the trees we had planted, and reported back that vandals had destroyed the trees on the hill and the plaque was gone. I will never go back to see what further damage has been done, I’d prefer to imagine a thriving copse, perhaps even one day a mature wood. If someone has destroyed it all, I don’t want to know.
David died twenty-five years after Marion, barely sixty years old. He never had another girl-friend, though he had said, in his laconic, humorous way, that he’d tried a few out over the years. I wondered if he’d finally just given up, slipped away quietly because life had lost its meaning with my sister’s death all those years ago.
Writing about Marion’s death is not as hard as I thought it might be, but odd feelings flash out of the blue, sneaking through the cracks when I’m thinking of other things, catching me unawares. When something this horrific happens we assume that understanding will eventually arrive, but it doesn’t. Time allows grief to slide into the archives of the mind, but the door never properly closes. I have learned there is no such thing as closure. I still ask: why her; why that way; why did she have to die on her own on a lonely road with strangers.