What first came to mind was David Malouf’s book The Great World. The scene when the mother of one of the characters begins to go mad. In a moment of desperation, she rushes from the house and bounds up the hill. Briars tear at her legs, but she keeps running until she reaches the summit. She stands there gazing out over Broken Bay, ‘chewing over the bitterness of things’.
The phrase came back last week as I listened to Frances Lawrence on the radio, trying to describe her despair on learning that the boy who killed her husband 12 years ago is now a man whose human rights will enable him to stay in Britain. Her soft voice, her frustration, her despair as she chewed over the bitterness of things. But when the Today programme ended, I thought, have 12 years passed since Philip Lawrence died trying to stop a fight? Twelve years of this articulate Every-woman, bringing up her four children without their father?
And I began to do an inventory of those years. My own father died here at Wyken. Not of the cancer that stalked him, but of a gentler mercy: heart failure. On the eve of his funeral, New Labour had a land-slide victory. The next day, while the Blair family posed outside No 10, my own small family gathered in the ecumenical pews of the West Suffolk Crematorium, reading the prayer by John Donne that my father could recite by heart: ‘Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening, into the house and gate of heaven… where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light.’
Three months later, an early morning phone call tells us that The Princess of Wales has been in a car crash in Paris. This tragedy is also segued with another trauma, smaller on the scale of sadness, but a cause for grief: my only son, not quite nine, going off to boarding school. As I sew on name tapes, I watch two other little boys walking across the bridge to the small church at Balmoral. A few hours before, they had been told of their mother’s death. For the next nine years, the Sept-ember ritual of packing trunks will feel like a bereavement.
Another September day, the kind of day when the earth seems like it’s just come back from the laundry: clean, smooth, made new. A day when two planes flew into the World Trade Center. As I watch the towers crumble again and again, the image is placed inside the safe-deposit box of my brain, tucked beside a mushroom cloud over the Pacific; Jackie Kennedy’s bloodstained suit; a sombre Princess of Wales going through a revolving door into the Paris night. So many images. No wonder Philip Lawrence’s death falls ever lower on the scale of terrible events. Except in the Law-rence household, where it is still the worst thing that ever happened.
Philip Lawrence was 48 when he was killed. The morning I heard Frances Lawrence on the radio would have been her husband’s 60th birthday. If Learco Chindamo hadn’t stabbed him outside St George’s Roman Catholic Comprehensive, this day might have begun with coffee and croissants in bed. Instead, she is on her own, trying to explain the bitterness of things: a decision based on European law that has nothing to do with human rights. I too chew over the bitterness of things, trying at the same time to remember the rest of the Donne: ‘No noise nor silence but one equal music… No ends nor beginning but one equal eternity.’