I first heard of my uncle’s death on BBC News. It was December 3, 2006. I’d turned on the TV in time to catch the end of a news report about an explosion at a fireworks factory near my hometown of Lewes, in the southeast of the UK. It had claimed the lives of two members of the local fire service. I watched the helicopter footage of the devastated site with appropriate seriousness and indulged in a moment of sympathy for the bereaved families. Briefly, I wondered if my parents had any connection with either of the men who had died. Then, I put my washing on and began making dinner.
When the phone rang later, I wasn’t surprised to hear my mother’s voice. An episode of a TV show we both watched had just finished and, sad to say, it was usual for us to chew over the plot. On this occasion, though, she was in the car. She asked whether I had seen the news. She explained that one of the firemen killed in the explosion was my father’s brother. They had just broken the news to my grandmother.
I was stunned. TV lets us respond to real-life tragedy at a safe distance, reassuringly confined within a box we can ignore or switch off. It lets us experience sorrow at a comfortable remove and feel good about our compassion. Now, however, it was my family in the frame.
The next day was surreal. Upon boarding the train to where I then worked in London, I was greeted by a discarded copy of The Metro, its front-page showing a photo of fireworks shooting out of burning buildings and into the night sky. This image, an upsetting conflation of celebration and destruction, became a staple part of media coverage. When I got to the office, I overheard several of my colleagues talking about the explosion – as I might have done, in different (and previous) circumstances. When I went for lunch, ‘Fireworks Tragedy’ was splashed across boards outside newsagents.
Widowed wives, children bereft of their fathers in terrible circumstances – this was a story everyone could empathise with. The fire service had issued a statement expressing its shock and sadness, friends and neighbours of both men were on TV and in print saying the same thing, and it felt as though the whole country was in mourning. When my colleagues learned that my uncle was one of the men who had died, their condolences were sincere and heartfelt.
And this was a big problem for me. In the face of such widespread sympathy, I felt like a fraud. While I was desperately sad for my father, my aunt and my cousins, the truth was that I hadn’t really known my uncle. Aside from brief conversations at family gatherings, we had had little contact. Where my father had moved away from the village in which they had grown up, my uncle had remained. From childhood, I had viewed our relationship as akin to a formality.
I was also wary of the way in which the press had latched onto the tag of ‘tragic heroes’, framing the deaths of these two men as a noble sacrifice on behalf of the greater good. This felt like cold comfort for those left behind. Besides, my uncle had risked his life every day – as had my father, before he retired from the police force. To me, ignoring this routine bravery until violent death provided a suitably epic context felt both opportunistic and emotionally exploitative.
So, I travelled back to my parents’ house on the Monday evening with conflicting feelings. In the intervening day, my father had been great. Because of his police background, he had the experience to relay information between the emergency services and our family, and he had been doing so with sensitivity and authority. My concern was that, in his determination to be useful, he would not shield himself from facts he should not have to know.
We kept BBC News 24 on for most of that night, as the most immediate way of keeping up with developments at the explosion site. As invasive as it was, I wondered how much more helpless and in the dark we would have felt without the continuous media coverage. Because of the hazardous conditions, it had been impossible to move my uncle. Looking out into the cold and rainy night, I could only imagine what my aunt and my cousins were going through. It would not be until Wednesday that the area was finally deemed safe enough to enter.
My only direct encounter with the press came at 9am the next morning when, bleary-eyed and home alone, I answered a knock on the front door to find a reporter from one of the tabloids standing outside. He looked so serious, so solemn, his hands clasped in front of him, that for one ludicrous moment I mistook him for a Jehovah’s Witness.
Until that point, I had never questioned my assumptions about journalists’ behaviour in this situation – driven by sales and headlines, thrusting their faces into those of the bereaved, only interested in the best quote. Instead, I was confronted by a young man, swamped in an ill-fitting black suit, awkward and out of place. Friends in the profession told me afterwards that one of the worst duties of being a newly qualified reporter is this ‘door stepping’. Having to do it, at all, is bad enough. But being invited in by someone so distraught that all they want is someone – anyone – to talk to is worse still. I declined his stilted request for a few words. Not long afterwards, my father returned home to pick me up. We were going to see my uncle’s wife and daughters.
My aunt’s laugh can be heard in neighbouring villages and she has a manner that welcomes you in from the first meeting. Even that day, she retained her spirit. When we arrived, she was making tea for well-wishers and family members, accommodating their grief as well as her own. Her daughters were the same. My youngest cousin, quiet and controlled, took it upon herself to update us all on what was happening at the accident site. Her sister accepted condolences with kindness. All three had the generosity to allow people to fill their home, when being alone with their loss may have been all they wanted.
We stayed for an hour. Neighbours and school friends I had never met and my father had never mentioned recounted stories of my uncle’s childhood. I smiled politely and ignorantly. The room steadily became more crowded with people, flowers and cards. There was talk of funeral plans and how to deal with the journalists who had been leaving messages. One was the man I had encountered earlier that morning. Outside, it was still raining heavily.
I had no idea what to do. I wasn’t even sure if I should be sitting down or standing up.
I was relieved when my father signalled to me that it was time to leave. In a situation where there is no right thing to say, I had somehow imagined I might find it. In practice, my words sounded brittle and artificial. And hanging over everything was the inescapable fact of the cordoned-off wreckage of the fireworks factory. No words could overcome that.
I kissed my aunt and cousins goodbye and followed my father out of the door. In the front garden, we passed a bag of cement ruined in the rain. My uncle had been laying a patio the weekend before.
The journey home was strange. I had always had a good relationship with my father – a kind, sensitive man. There had always been little I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with him. That day, though, I felt tongue-tied, not sure how to talk to him. On the phone, he had been pragmatic and to the point; now, in person, he seemed calm, almost professional, about his brother’s death. I couldn’t work out his feelings.
I presumed that he was in denial, insulating himself against his loss by assuming the role of information gatherer, coordinator and general pillar of strength for everyone else. Cracking this facade would, I imagined, result in the only emotionally honest scenario: a revelation, possibly tearful, of the feelings my father was masking. But, as it soon became obvious, he was not the one with the problem. I was.
Later that night, after my mother had gone to bed and I’d sat through Match of the Day with him (I’ve never been good with football), we opened a bottle of wine and began to talk. Without hesitation or defensiveness, my father spoke simply of his sadness at my uncle’s death.
And it was at that point that I realised why I had been floundering – I had wanted more. I had wanted exhaustive self-analysis and poignant, eloquent expressions of loss and regret, to match my sense of how people were ‘supposed’ to behave following a death. I had demanded the same amplified narrative as the tabloid press I had been so quick to condemn.
And, as my father began to reminisce about his childhood, I realised how much more I had to learn about family relationships. I had heard some of his stories before – the one about accidentally breaking my uncle’s nose with a cricket ball was a family favourite – but others were new. Chuckling, he recalled the shocked silence that followed his then three-year-old brother’s dinner-table repetition of some of the choicer expressions he had overheard at a nearby construction site. He told me about impromptu surgery performed in the dining room after my uncle had toddled over a broken milk bottle in the garden. The big-lunged child’s screaming left everyone deaf for days.
So I sat there, quietly, until the early hours of the morning, as my father re-lived these childhood memories. And the more I heard, the clearer it became – these stories represented a connection, a shared history, that had tied these two men together, even if they had not been close as adults. And now that was gone.
I returned to London the next day.
My uncle’s funeral took place two weeks later, at the small medieval village church that had been the backdrop to my family’s christenings, weddings and goodbyes for more than a century. My surname is engraved on several headstones.
My memory of the day is a jumble of images and episodes: of the coffin conveyed to the church on a fire engine; of hundreds of uniformed fire service members lining narrow streets into the village in which my uncle grew up, standing in tribute as the funeral cortege passed by; of a solemn little boy in a fireman’s helmet, holding the hand of the man next to him; of the air of expectation that greeted us as we emerged from our cars; and of the overwhelming silence broken by the click of a camera from somewhere in the crowd.
Then, the service itself: my father, sat in front of me, motionless, the creasing of his cheeks telling me that he was smiling as he listened to the opera singer who performed at the start; my uncle’s colleagues, at the lectern, promising to ‘take it from here, brother’; and my aunt, tears streaming down her face, never dropping her gaze from the vicar as she held her daughters’ hands.
During the burial: my 89-year-old grandmother suddenly collapsing at the grave of her youngest son, my cosy childhood tableau of cardigans and pink wafers gone in an instant.
Later, at the wake: people catching up after decades of different lives, swapping anecdotes about my uncle; sudden bursts of laughter; my mother, impeccably polite and utterly magnificent, dismissing a woman from my father’s past with: ‘You weren’t always blond, were you?’
Finally: the urge to hug, to be close to one another. To do what we could.