Earlier today, thanks to the internet, I was speaking with a friend and former colleague who now lives in France. He and I attended many interesting, exciting and downright traumatic incidents together during our police careers in England. Our conversation - prompted by him making his way through 'Signs of (a) Life' in between his artisan projects - fluttered around and landed upon what proved to be the most emotionally significant incident that I ever dealt with during my service. The conversation, which took the form of comparing notes against a background of us both having been there, seen that and bought the tee-shirt to prove it, was ordinary enough.
Afterwards, however, for some reason (which will become more clear shortly), I decided to use the Google Street View service to, for the first time in more than twenty years, cast my eyes over the location of that particular incident.
It was twenty three years ago. I was twenty seven years old, but already an experienced police officer, having grown up very quickly in the preceding eight years. My partner and I, working a night shift, witnessed and dealt with the most complex incident of my career. Since then, I've often jokingly referred to it as an examination question. The incident had so many elements:
A drunk driver who nearly hit our patrol car, A brief pursuit, An accident, Two fatalities, Providing first aid to injured parties, Controlling an angry crowd, Managing a scene for forensic analysis, Conducting a 'death message' at the scene, Beginning the investigative process...the list goes on. I have often shared the stories with the police recruits that I taught at the very beginnings of their careers, for the simple reason that it was the best example I had of what might happen on any given day - of how the universe might conspire to present any of them with a task so complex, they could not yet imagine how they would begin to deal with it.
With hindsight, on that night, I was at my best. I am more proud of what I accomplished that night than of anything else that I did during my service. I was operating - probably because I had no other choice - at a level that I have rarely touched since then. It was, without a doubt, my best night's work, ever.
Today I revisited - albeit only remotely - the scene of that night, for the first time in over twenty years. Even today, some evidence of what took place there is still visible - I wasn't prepared for that. With my wife alongside me, I moved the images through the scene of the carnage that I had dealt with - the carnage that I had once been surrounded by, and had made sense of. I wasn't prepared for, and was surprised by, the powerful wave of emotion that overtook me as I stared at a repaired brick wall behind which I had found a dying man, and then at the house inside which I had broken the news to a wife that she was, in fact, a widow. As I looked at the pavement where another man had died in my partner's arms, time became irrelevant. Tears filled my eyes - tears from yesterday, for those tragic people, in my today.
I wasn't expecting to cry, but cry I did. Sitting there, with my quietly shocked wife holding me, I cried for Michael and Peter, and for the senseless waste of a random act of recklessness which caused their deaths. Even now, the emotion is still within me - something that is still raw in a way I'd thought was impossible. Surely, I thought, I've already dealt with this? Surely, my bout of PTSD is in my past? I'm over this, aren't I? No - it seems that I was mistaken, and today I discovered something about myself which I had felt was a cliche, and could not be true about me.
I'm writing at least in part, because I need to. I'm writing - among other things - to deal with some parts of my past which remain unresolved, despite my beliefs to the contrary. Somewhere inside me, for example, is Peter's story. He died with me lying next to him, listening to him, talking to him, holding him and in the end, praying over him. His story - in some way, our story - is still with me; in me.
I must set it free.