It’s nearly half past ten in the morning and I am in my counselling room with a client. Although I am focussing on him, I am suddenly dimly aware of the curtain behind the doors leading into the rest of the house being drawn slightly apart by Keith. He is standing there, phone in hand, staring at me as if willing me to interrupt my session and come to the doors. I am conscious of a slight irritation, followed by a frisson of anxiety. He knows that the counselling session is sacrosanct and I am never to be disturbed during it, so what is he thinking of? I deliberately turn my head away and focus once more on my client for the remaining twenty minutes of the session.
In hindsight, it’s a good thing I didn’t interrupt the session. When I have seen my client out, I go through the dining room into the living room. “I’m sorry, you know I can’t interrupt a counselling session,” I start to say, but he interrupts me.
“You have to brace yourself,” he says. What is he talking about? What can possibly have happened that’s so bad?
“Hugh’s killed himself,” he says quickly.
And so the nightmare begins.
No answers, little detail, few facts. A feeling of disbelief but tucked into a tiny corner of my mind, a certain lack of surprise. Maybe this is because I had had a bad feeling about his forthcoming tour in Afghanistan but this isn’t news of him being killed out there. This is about him taking his own life. A flood of questions. Why? How? What could possibly lead to him being in such a frame of mind that he would see this as a solution?
Keith fills me in with what he has just learned from my elder daughter, Kathy.
At about 8.30 last night, Kathy, in Sheffield, her sister Claire, in Newcastle and Hugh’s friend, Sean, in Bradford, see a worrying comment posted by Hugh on Facebook. It thanks everyone for the good times and tells Debbie, his ex-fiance that he is ‘doing this for you.’ Kathy tries to talk to him on his mobile, but he cuts the call and from then on, none of them can contact him. At that time, they don’t know where in Bradford he is; possibly at any of three addresses they have for Debbie, possibly at his now empty house. At various times during the night, they ring the police to ask them to check out these addresses but for whatever reasons, the police don’t break into Hugh’s house until 8.30 on Thursday morning.
By then, it’s far too late. He has hanged himself.
I speak to Kathy and Claire on the phone. Kathy is calm. She has gone into ‘doctor’ mode. She needs to do this as Hugh named her as his next of kin and most of the tasks of the next few days and weeks will fall on her. Claire is devastated. As well as dealing with this through the night, she had spent several hours at her local A&E as she had fallen off her horse that day and now sports a black eye.
Once the police have given Kathy a time to go to the police station in Bradford, we arrange to meet up there, Kathy and her partner, Mark, Claire and her partner, Chris, Keith and myself and my other son, James, who has been estranged from me since I met Keith.
“If anything good can possibly come from this,” I thought during the journey over to Bradford, “James will surely start speaking to me again.”
It was not to be, but that was the least of our concerns that day.
The fact that the police have given us the post code of the old police station to feed into our sat navs does not help, but eventually we find our way to the new building. Kathy and James are already there, as we are shown into a tiny interview room and more chairs are brought. Mary, our police liaison officer proves herself to be a sterling support during that and the following days. At this stage, she tells us, they do not know why the police on the night watch didn’t respond as expected but an investigation has already begun. She tells us that she and a colleague had been the ones to break into the house and find Hugh. She tells us how he had removed his boots, tied a rope to the upstairs banister and, although one foot had been resting on one of the stairs, with all that he had apparently drunk, it was enough. There was an empty vodka bottle on the floor.
An hour later, we are taken to the mortuary, where we are able to see him. A slight rictus of the mouth is all that betrays the fact that he is not simply asleep. I can just see perfect, white teeth. Although he never looked after them very well, he never needed as much as a filling. One eye is very slightly open and he has that sardonic expression which he often wore, as if he sees it all as a bad joke. I trace the sign of the cross on his forehead and gently touch his cheek. I am told I can have more time with him if I wish, but I shake my head. There is no point. Hugh’s body is there, but Hugh is not.
We have a brief interview with the coroner, during which he explains what will happen next. I am dimly aware of talk of a post mortem and then an inquest will be opened and adjourned to allow for further investigations, including an examination of how the police dealt with things. During this, Claire’s mobile rings. She takes the call and it is Debbie, who has been told by a friend what has happened; not by the police as they have still not been able to trace her. James, realising who it is, snatches the phone from Claire and pockets it. Mary, the policewoman intervenes and says she needs the phone number so that she can speak to Debbie. The three of them go out of the room to sort this out. He has so much anger, this other son of mine, about anything and everything and he only seems able to deal with it by lashing out.
Back to the police station and a meeting with the police superintendent and an inspector. Claire and James are angry about the night’s events but these two seem very honest and open about the failings of the police to respond adequately and promise a full investigation. It seems that they are genuine, especially as the superintendent discloses that she has been through a similar situation with her brother some years previously. However, when she also says that she blamed herself, Claire and James take that to mean that she also feels they are to blame for Hugh’s action. I try to explain to Claire afterwards that she had been talking about herself, not them, but she is not convinced.
The WPC hands over the belongings that were found on Hugh – his watch, wallet, a little money and some cigarettes. Later, Kathy gives the watch to me to keep.
Soon afterwards, we part, Claire, Kathy and James to Liverpool to see their father, Jim, Keith and I to go back home. The headache which began that morning and gradually got worse during the day, is like a metal band around my head. I take more paracetemol. Eventually, exhausted, we go to bed.