In the distance, beyond the windows, there is a faint yelping.
You enter your daughter’s bedroom in the darkness and see a letter she’s composed on her iPad. It’s addressed to you.
Outside, more yelping, a kind of horrid screeching in the night. The iPad rests on her stomach as your daughter rests on her bed. If you can call it rest. You notice the charge left on the tablet: 49%. Something is strange.
Normally (you’ve seen it a thousand times before) there would be the screensaver – an old photo of her sprinting across the sand with her favourite dog, a beagle she used to have called Cindy. But that was a long time ago, and so much has happened. For such a long time you’ve had to look after her. But now the fact that you can read these two thick paragraphs of text can only mean one thing: she’s deactivated the screensaver. She wants you to find what she’s written.
It is a starry night. The yelping, fox cubs in the distance – there has been a new litter – gets worse. The night air carries an unmistakable chill. As you read, as your eyes pass with mounting horror over the words, a chill of a different kind seeps through you.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I know you love me, perhaps more than I deserve – we all know I can be a right misery guts. But I hope you also know that this is not – not really – me. It hasn’t been for a long time. I’m the girl ripping wrapping paper off presents under the Christmas tree too fast, with both of you laughing and saying hold your horses. I’m the girl inside the slightly naff costumes you made, Mum, for school concerts and Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat (but I loved them anyway). That’s me. This is the illness. We all know it’s ruined my life and yours. You know the pain I’m constantly in, in every little part of my body. My fingernails hurt, my scalp hurts, my heart is broken up and hurts. I can’t have children. I can’t give life. I don’t have a life, not one to speak of. I still don’t understand why someone, anyone, has to suffer like this for so many years. I want to get free of this pain, and think I’ve done it. But pls help me if I messed it up like last time. I need this time for it to work. So I have injected all the morphine. If it doesn’t work, I need you to give me some more M. I’ve used everything in the syringe so it’s my responsibility. But if it’s not enough, if it comes to it, pls, pls help me. I hope it won’t and when you read this I will be free.
I’m sorry for not saying goodbye, but it was too hard. Don’t you ever stop thinking of me, okay? I know that’s selfish but I want you to keep thinking of me because I will be thinking of you. But now you can stop worrying and have your lives back. I’m really sorry to have taken up so much of them so unfairly. I can’t live with the illness anymore, and I don’t want you to have to. I love you both and know we will all see one another again, only not in a place with so much pain. And then when we meet, you will see that I was right all along and I will be with Cindy. Because this is not me. I’m the girl paddling on the beach in Cornwall and finding that seahorse. Pls never forget that me.
Love you always, B xx
The syringe which held the morphine is entirely empty. The plunger has been pushed right in. Your daughter went through with it. She injected it all. But.
But she is still alive. Her breathing is shallow, horribly strained. She is still alive and not yet free of the pain. You can help her. You have it in your power to help her. To help her in what she has discussed many, many times and now is on the brink of succeeding in doing: getting free of the pain. Your beautiful daughter. The girl on the beach in Cornwall, who found that rarest of seahorses. Only a dozen have been found in Cornwall over the past 30 years. The mesmerising name: Hippocampus hippocampus. That minute snub-nosed creature, delicate and proud.
In the medicine cabinet, safely stored away, out of direct heat and light just as the doctors directed, is the morphine. Enough to end your daughter’s life. It is impossible to contemplate. And yet this is what she wants. She has tried before, and did not succeed, and her life was so much worse afterwards. You have no doubt – none whatsoever – that this is what she wants: an end to the years of suffering, to be with her beloved Cindy again, not just to be with her adored pet, but to be restored to a time, a life, unclouded by pain. And yet it is your daughter.
People speak about mercy killing. What is merciful about any of this – either way? This would be the taking of a life you helped create. And yet you are consumed with terror. Terror that she is suffering even more now. Terror that you will let her down. Terror that you will not help her bring that suffering to an end.
Slowly, some part of you grasps the smooth metal handle of the medicine cabinet. The door glides open silently. Your mind spins dizzyingly with competing thoughts: your daughter running unrestrained and unharmed on the beach … your daughter lying on her bed with a devastating quantity of morphine coursing through her veins. You see the tide coming in on the beach. You see the dangerous drug seeping through her body. You secretly always knew this day would come. That you’d be put to this test. And you have prepared your answer. Only now, there appears to be no answer. Or rather, there are two.
The fox cubs scrap and yelp in the night chill.
Your hand reaches for the morphine bottle. Drops.
Reaches for the morphine bottle. Drops.
First, there was Tony.
On the Internet you will find grainy video footage of him floating. He hangs in the air from the tenuous tendrils of a parachute. It has a corrugated yellowish canopy and a little pilot chute, neon pink and cupcake-shaped, above it. Tony wears a lime green jumpsuit. The sky above him, all around him, is unblemished cobalt blue. He waves to the camera.
‘It was somewhere over the Emirates,’ his wife Jane says. She has collar-length chestnut hair in a no-nonsense get-on-with-it style. She used to be a nurse, too busy to waste time on irrelevancies. A faint warm burr is just detectable in her accent, revealing her Dorset roots. Now in her mid-fifties, she’s back working in the NHS, but not as a nurse. She’s done enough nursing. Enough, she tells me, for a lifetime.
‘Yes, that was taken when we were in the Middle East,’ she says. ‘If you’re going to skydive, that’s the place to do it. Perfect blue skies, see for miles. It was a birthday present. Tony got it for himself. He liked experiencing all sorts of things.’
She paints a picture of perfection in her Dorset burr. But something slightly unbalances me. I realise and ask, ‘He liked skydiving?’
She laughs. ‘Oh, loved, loved it. Diving for him was freedom.’
A third type of diving: Anthony’s fear, Marian Wong’s fun, Tony’s freedom. ‘Would you do it?’ I ask her for the first time. I knew I’d have to ask her the same question – would you do it? – in an entirely different context again later. I didn’t want to ask it – the crucial question, the only real question – now. It didn’t seem right for either of us. Jane is direct and tough, but there are limits.
‘Would I dive out of a plane with a parachute?’ she says. ‘No chance. You wouldn’t get me up there in a million years. What’s the point?’ More irrelevancies; she was unimpressed. ‘But Tony, he loved doing mad things like that. He was fun and loud and a real show-off. It was a wonderful, mad world with Tony.’
On the footage, Tony falls through the Emirates sky, waving to the camera, doing just that – joyously showing off.
Jane and Tony met, of all places, on a blind date in Dubai. That was in 1984. It was at, of all things, a Dionne Warwick concert. ‘I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but it was love at first sight. He was this tall, dark, handsome guy. Very funny. The life and soul.’
He was indeed tall: 6 foot 4½, a keen rugby player (in fact obsessed with rugby), a dabbler in extreme sports. You may have heard of him. His name was Tony Nicklinson.
About the Tamer of Terror: here.
Where to get the book: here.