On murder suicide, desperation and communities ripped asunder


I wrote this post six years ago, on the eve of the 25th birthday of a friend of mine who was killed – along with her mother – by her father, who then took his own life. It seemed (sadly) relevant to repost. Some blog posts are made for the daylight. For when people are up, in work, at home, checking emails and updating themselves on the goings on in the online world. But others are made for the dark, when people are awake, but dozing, and there's a haze over reality.

In a fortnight's time, two of my closest friends are having a joint 25th birthday celebration. We're going for drinks - and, if I have my way, for dinner - and we'll toast their lives so far, the fact that they've made it to 25 without getting married, and bemoan the inevitable truths of ageing and growing cynicism. The group is wondering what to get them. I'm wondering what to wear.

In fact, there should be three of them celebrating - there should be three birthday girls, three quarter-centuries, three mid-twenties to lament. But one of them is gone, and has been gone for so long, and shouldn't be gone at all.

We were in the same class in school - she loved sucky sweets and coloured hair bobbins, and carried a host of used scratchcards around in her schoolbag. To me, this was the most exotic thing of all; I wasn't allowed to have scratchcards as they have something to do with gambling, and they cost money, and your odds are slim. But Sarah-Jane had loads of them, even though they were scratched out and crumpled and some, I remember, weren't even legible. Is that three £5s? We weren't sure.

She also carried around a nebuliser - a huge, hulking device that reminded me of goldfish, or doctors' offices - so, when she didn't come to school that day, the assumption was that she was in hospital again.  She'd had an asthma attack, most likely; it was a common occurrence, and not something worth writing, or calling, home for. But, and this has less to do with me and more to do with circumstance, I knew that she wasn't sick, and that she wasn't coming back.

When I was getting ready to go to school - sandwiches in tow, full of enthusiasm for grammar (little has changed) and colouring and our teacher who had told us that there were babies asleep in the room above ours, and that, for their sake, we had to be quiet - my mother would listen to the radio. In my childish way, I would only pay attention when there was something of relevance, and it wasn't a regular thing. That morning there was a report of a mother and her daughter having been killed in Saggart. I remember this so clearly, and it seems so perverse - I looked up from my breakfast, from my colouring, and said to my mother: "That could be Sarah-Jane and her Mum."

There are certain things that haunt me about that day, about that time, and that's one of them - as if, had I not uttered the words, things could be different. But the passing of time is irreversible, and facts are facts (at the end of the day and other clichés).

My sister then called my Mum into her room and, when they emerged some moments later, they were both crying. My sister, 14 at the time, and my mother, much older and, really, too old to be crying. I'm not sure how someone breaks news like this to an 8 year old, but in the chasms of memory the moment is clear: they just told me. Sarah-Jane and her mother, who had just taken us to Bray for Sarah-Jane's birthday and driven us back to Rathcoole with sand in our shoes and a car full of shells, were dead.

After that, it's all a blur: I went to school, with instructions not to say anything until we were told, as a class (how do you tell a class of 8 year olds that their peer, their friend, is dead?). I remember that my friend C was due to go to her house that day, so when Sarah-Jane didn't turn up to school, she wasn't sure what to do; should she just go home? Would Sarah-Jane's mother turn up at the school gates to pick her up?

I can't remember the exact moment when I caved, but I know that I did. I told them what I knew - that she wasn't coming back, that C wasn't going to her house, that she was never coming back. It turned out that the teacher had known all along, and hadn't been sure when - or if - to tell us. We were all a bit young, you see, to process this information, and nobody knew quite what to do with us. We took an unscheduled break and went out into the yard; I remember crying, I remember holding hands, I remember a kind of silence and grey skies.

Outside the school that evening, there were reporters waiting to ask us questions: Did we know her? What was she like? What was her dad like? (We didn't make the link, really; there was never any question of where her dad was. He was obviously at work, and didn't know - or he was at home, and did, and neither option was a particularly positive one.) Our headmistress "ran them", as my Mum likes to recollect; it wasn't for us, this interrogation, this adult questioning.

I wonder, sometimes, how things would be different now, for us. Would we have got counselling? Would someone have come in to teach us about violence, and desperation, and right and wrong? As it was, we lit candles and we prayed - we talked about what she was like and, in that immature, childish way, we fought over who was a better friend. She was my best friend, obviously, because we had shared those sweets; or she was yours, because you'd been over to her house last weekend and you'd played board games and you'd let her win at Monopoly.

If it's details you're after, the internet will, I'm sure, provide. For me, the details are in tears; in quiet moments; in the fact that her Girl Scouts class turned up to the church and made a guard of honour; in the house that lay empty for years before becoming a doctor's surgery; in wondering how she had felt and whether she had known what was coming.

Now, of course, the details are in the what-ifs. Would we still be friends? Would she have moved to some faraway locale and communicate with us only through Facebook? What would she have done with her life? What wouldn't she have done? And the details are in the loss - of a life that should still be here; of a smile that I can envision, bizarrely, more clearly than I can envision that of my family; of years and years of memories and experiences; of love, given and received.

I've never written about this before because I never knew what to say, and then I realised that I don't have anything to write about other than the facts, other than the reality, other than her memory - and I want to share it, because I loved her in the truest of ways (the way only a child can), and when I think about her now I remember it so well. Because I want to know that I knew her, and to wish her a happy birthday - although if we're talking wishes, there are others I could proffer.

I wish she was here, almost every day. I wish I could bring myself to visit her grave. I wish I'd talked to her more. I wish I'd talked about her more; I wish I could talk about her more now. So I'm talking about her here, in a space that will never be erased.