Last weekend was a very emotional one.
It was the anniversary of the fire that killed my ex-boyfriend.
I went back to our house for the first time since 2012.
The first anniversary after the fire, in 2013, I went and stayed with my parents and felt miserable.
After that, I was with Matthew for three years. I knew he didn’t like a big deal of the anniversary. One year, I just went into work and tried to pretend it was a normal day, but it felt like I’d swallowed an enormous black cloud and it was sticking in my throat.
One year we went on holiday over the anniversary and we did have a good time, but I felt miserable on the day. I really wanted to do something to mark the day, like throw some flowers into the sea, but I was too scared to suggest it.
The first year I was single again on the anniversary, it was 2017. It had started miserably – the Whippersnapper, who I had been dating for a few months, and was crazy about (and who, in some ways, reminded me of Balthazar) broke up with me a few days earlier. Two days before the anniversary, I went on an ill-advised date with Whippersnapper II, and got so drunk I was sick on the way home. I woke up the day before the anniversary, fully clothed, hungover and crying.
I decided to handle the anniversary differently that year.
Instead of blocking out the sadness, I would run at it, for the first time. It felt so much better. I felt peaceful as soon as I made space for the sadness.
I went back to my old city and met up with a friend of my ex-boyfriend’s, who I hadn’t seen since the funeral. I walked around the city and listened to songs he used to love, which I normally avoided.
I went back to my old street, and saw my old house in the distance, and it felt good. I decided that one year, I’d like to go back inside the house.
In 2012, I went to the house four or five times, after the fire, to get my things, and it was horribly traumatic. The first time, the day after the fire, it was awful because the lovely home we’d made together was destroyed. Fire and smoke can damage things in ways I’d never imagined. Everything was melted and black.
But at least that day, things were in the same places where he’d left them, less than 36 hours earlier. And I was still numb. Each time I went back, it was worse.
In some ways, the most traumatic visit was the last one, several months later, when the building work, to repair the house, had just started. I had to go back to get my bike.
I was devastated to see loads of our things, like crockery and cutlery, were just left out on the street, like rubbish. Other things were piled up in a skip.
I do feel like I’ve mostly come to terms with the fire and his death, but the memories of going back to our house still feel quite raw. It did help to write the post after the Grenfell fire – writing that part of the story did help make it feel less fragmented and more in the past. However, those memories can still knock me sideways.
When I work with a patient with trauma, a lot of the therapy is helping the traumatic memories feel like they are in the past, instead of the present. There are techniques we use to process the memory and move it to a different part of the brain. There are also things to help update the memory with new information, to help the brain to understand that the trauma is over.
A really effective way of showing the brain that the trauma is over, is to physically go back to the place where the trauma happened, and see how much it’s changed. We call this a ‘site visit’.
I know people who’ve worked with refugees, who haven’t been able to physically go back to the actual site of the trauma, because it happened in another country, but they’ve looked on Google Earth and seen that, years later, what used to be a war zone is just overgrown fields, and that felt very healing.
Going back to the my old house has been in the back of my mind since the 2017 anniversary. I didn’t get around to arranging it last year.
This year, around Christmas, I was thinking about the New Year approaching, and how that meant another anniversary was coming around. I told Andrew that I was thinking of going back to my old house, and explained why.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
“Yeah, sounds like a good idea.”
“Why does it sound like a good idea?”
“For the reasons you just said.”
“OK, do you want to come with me?” I asked Andrew.
He said he would – he just needed to make sure he had the weekend off work. As it was a month or two away, I assumed I’d have to remind him a few times, to check. But then, as soon as he was back at the Police Station, he texted me saying he did have the weekend off.
As 9th February came nearer, Andrew was very earnest about it, asking lots of questions. He seemed to be taking it very seriously, which was lovely.
I wrote a letter to the people to live in my house now. I didn’t know their names, so I addressed it to ‘the Resident(s)’.
It was an unusual letter to write. I wasn’t sure if they knew there had been a fatal fire in their house. I assumed it might come up in a survey, but I wasn’t certain. I explained the situation, and how I felt, and I enclosed a journal article about PTSD site visits, to prove it was a real thing.
It took a couple of weeks for me to get around to printing out the letter and posting it, because I think I was putting it off, but eventually I did, about two weeks before the anniversary. I had included my contact details in the letter, and said, “when you’ve had a chance to think about it, let me know whether it would be OK for me to come and visit the house.”
I knew it was possible that they might not read the letter. I think people assume that letters addressed to ‘the occupier’ or similar are just junk mail. I had written the address on by hand, to make it look less like junk.
I thought it was more likely that they would read it, but maybe would take a while to respond.
But then, the very next day after I posted it, I got a text message.
“Good evening Dater Analysis, we have just read your moving letter. We’d love you to visit your old house. Let us know beforehand if you need to know anything about how the house is currently. We are glad you contacted us. We look forward to meeting you.”
Then they sent another one:
“PS. Be reassured that despite our noisy house (we have young children) we will make sure you have a quiet time and we’ll try not to be in your way too much.”
I felt so happy when I read that message. It was so unbelievably lovely. I loved the way they’d said “your old house” instead of “our house.”
We texted some other details about how they were only free very early on the 9th, but the 10th was fine, so I replied with lots of gratitude and confirmed the 10th.
Andrew and I arranged we would stay with my friend Naomi and her boyfriend, who live nearby. We decided I’d drive us to that city (another major city in the South) on Saturday lunchtime. There’s a hotel with lovely views of a spectacular bridge, which is a major landmark there. Andrew had been to that city before, but only a couple of times, so I thought that would be a nice thing to do. Then, we would have dinner with my friends, and do the more bereavementy stuff on the Sunday. There had been talk of meeting Balthazar’s friends for a drink on the Saturday night, but that didn’t work out in the end.
On Friday, I was quite preoccupied at work, and regretted not booking any time off. I’d had a nightmare about 2012, and kept glancing at words in patient records and thinking I saw the word ‘fire’, when it was unrelated words.
On Friday night, Andrew came around to mine. I was so relieved to see him and have a hug.
He’d had his hair cut and looked really handsome.
We had sex shortly after he arrived. We’ve started doing a thing where we have an extended kiss hello at the front door, and then he takes my hand and leads me into my bedroom.
After that, we had something to eat and then got into bed. We watched two episodes of the Haunting of Hill House on my laptop.
All of Friday night, I felt like my heart was bursting with love for Andrew, because he was coming with me back to my old house. I don’t think I would’ve been brave enough to do it, without his support.
Just as we were turning the light out, on Friday night, I annoyed him. We only had one episode left of the Haunting of Hill House, and we’ve both been really into it. We were trying to guess what might happen in the final episode. I looked up whether there was going to be a second season, and I read something out which I didn’t think was a spoiler, but he did. He said he was annoyed, and I went over to the opposite side of the bed.
Within less than a minute, he came over my side of the bed and spooned me tightly. “Sorry, I was being a massive tit,” he said.
We spent a lazy morning together on Saturday, and eventually set off in the afternoon, a bit later than planned. He wanted to revise for his exam while I was driving, which I only found a bit annoying. After a very tedious stretch of the M4, where there were roadworks and the speed limit was 50, I said “can you stop revising and talk to me now because I’m fucking bored,” and he did.
We finally arrived, and I drove to the hotel by the bridge. It was much windier and colder than in London.
I was happy we were there at last. We had a drink and enjoyed the view, and then drove to Naomi’s house.
We decided to go to the supermarket on the way, to get a bottle of wine and a plant to say thank you the people who live in my old house.
Andrew was directing us to the supermarket, as I couldn’t remember the exact route. I was amused that he was giving me the same kind of policeman directions he would give to a colleague, in a police car, saying things like “stand by!” and “I’ll clear you left.”
Unfortunately, it turned out he’d put the wrong supermarket into the map on his phone, and then I thought I could remember the route and got it wrong, and I ended up driving on the wrong side of the road. I thought I was in the right hand lane of a one way street, but I was just on the wrong side of the road.
I then stayed there for longer than Andrew would have recommended, trying to decide whether to reverse back the way I’d come, or carry on. Eventually I decided to reverse back, then changed my mind and went forwards.
“What does it say about that in your police textbook?” I said, once I was back on the right side of the road. We both kept shaking our heads and laughing, for the rest of the journey.
We arrived at Naomi’s and had a good chat, and then went out for dinner, which was lovely. Everyone seemed to get on well.
We went to a pub for another drink after we’d had dinner. When I was at the bar with Naomi’s boyfriend, John, I asked what they thought of Andrew.
“He seems really cool!” John said.
“I think he might be The One,” I said.
When we got back to their house, we all chatted til about 1am, and Andrew and I went to sleep in their spare room. I had slept there so many times on my own. It felt good to be with him.
I liked the way that, after we’d put the light out, we ended up having a whispered conversation for another hour, despite the fact we’d been together all day. We talked about the Haunting of Hill House, about Balthazar and my friends, and about sex.
In the morning, we woke up spooning. Andrew was pressing an erection into me. We had already decided we wouldn’t have sex in Naomi’s house, as it seemed like unacceptable guest behaviour.
Andrew said sleepily, “if we were in a hotel on the south coast, I’d definitely hump you.”
We both laughed at the word ‘hump’ and hugged.
I had a shower and had some quick breakfast with Naomi and her boyfriend.
We were due to be at my old house at 11.30am.
As I waited for Andrew to finish in the bathroom, I felt like I was about to go into an exam.
I drove us over to my old address. It’s very difficult to park on my old street, because of the amount of cars, the narrow road and the way that it slopes, but I managed to remember my old parking skills.
“So, this is where I used to live,” I said, as we shakily got out of the car.
We went and knocked on the door. It was a different front door and the outside of the house was painted a different colour.
The lady opened the door and we introduced ourselves to each other. She had a strong French accent, which I wasn’t expecting, and made us very welcome. She showed us where to put our coats and we gave her the plant and bottle of wine, which she seemed surprised by.
Her children were running around and she sent them upstairs, and her husband was in the garden.
The stairs and hallway had lovely thick, stripy carpet. We’d had very worn out old carpet, and last time I’d been there, it was melted.
“We will leave you alone,” she said.
We went into the first room. It was the same house, but it wasn’t. This room had been a spare room when we lived there, and for a while, we had a lodger living in it. They now had it as a living room.
I got Andrew to give me a hug and told him how we used to have the room.
We went into the bathroom next. The bath and shower were still the same, but it was painted a different colour. The mirror over the sink was different.
I showed Andrew where I had found the dead budgies.
“That must have been where the least smoke was,” I said.
We came out of the bathroom.
“Do you think we should ask before going upstairs?” I asked.
“No, I think it’s OK. I think they’re expecting that you will.”
We went up the stairs. I paused halfway up, where the window was. “Sometimes I used to stand here and watch him cycling off to night shifts.”
We reached the top of the stairs.
“Oh my god! They’ve put an extra bathroom in! That’s clever!”
I went into my old bedroom. It was different. They had built in wardrobes and had the bed in a different place. I told Andrew about how the lampshade had dripped onto the bed.
I kept thinking It’s not happening anymore. It’s in the past.
It felt good to see the house looking like this. It had recovered and healed. It was full of children’s things, and that felt nice. It was vibrant and busy.
We went into the other bedroom, which had been Balthazar’s room when we first got together and he had two lodgers. He had painted it extremely orange. Now it was a child’s bedroom, and was painted a normal colour, but I was pleased to see there was some children’s artwork on the wall which was orange.
They had also built an extra room in the loft. We went up the stairs and into that room. It felt good that the house has grown some new rooms.
The children ran past – the little girl was playing a recorder very shrilly, until her mother told her not to.
I thought it might feel strange to see my old house full of someone else’s things, decorated differently to how we had it, but it didn’t. It just felt so much better than last time I saw it.
The house had recovered.
I felt like a tiny part of me had been holding its breath since the fire, and now I could finally breathe out.
Next, we went downstairs to the living room and kitchen. Because the house is on a hill, it has an unusual layout, where you come in through the front door and then go downstairs to the kitchen and living room.
I met the husband of the couple, who was English. He gave me a cup of tea. We had a brief conversation and I asked if he had already known about the fire. He said he had – when they decided to buy the house he had researched it online, and read a news story about what happened.
They also got to know the next door neighbours who went to hospital when the fire happened, and talked to them about it.
He looked like he was going to try and make more small talk with us, but then his wife came and ushered him away.
I stood in the middle of the living room.
This felt different. I hadn’t been able to come into the living room since the fire, as the staircase had been completely destroyed.
After looking around the kitchen and living room, being curious, it suddenly hit me.
“This is where he died,” I said to Andrew, choked up.
We hugged, and when I let go, he looked like his eyes were welling up as well.
I felt devastatingly sad.
“I think the heater and clothes airer must have been over there,” I said, pointing to the back door. That would have been where the fire started.
Then I remembered a dream I had, a few weeks after he died, in which he and I were having a cup of tea in a cafe. I knew I wasn’t allowed to ask him what it’s like to be dead, but I said, “what’s it like to die?”
He said, “it’s peaceful.”
I so hope that dream meant something and wasn’t just random brain activity.
The couple whose house it was came down into the living room.
I quickly dried my eyes with my sleeve, and the French lady said, “how are you feeling?”
I nodded a non-response.
They told us about what they’d done with the garden, and suggested we had a look.
We went out through the back door and it was good to get outside. They had done amazing work with the garden.
After a while, we went back inside.
The four of us sat on the sofa and had a slightly awkward but nice conversation. It turned out that the man used to live in London, near where I live.
We talked about the house and how long they had lived there. I told them about how Balthazar had lots of animals in the house – budgies and frogs in the bathroom, my fish and several rabbits.
“I’m glad the children are not hearing this! They would want to have lots of pets!”
After a while, we said we were going to go. I thanked them again.
“I couldn’t believe it, when you sent such a nice text!” I said.
“No! Thank you for writing such a great letter,” she replied.
“When Balthazar lived here, before I moved in, he tried to sell the house, but it was in 2008, when the housing market crashed? One time, when someone was going to come and look around the house, but the house was a mess, and I told him needed to tidy up.
“He really loved the house, and he said ‘If they can’t appreciate the house without it being tidy, they don’t deserve to live here!’
“I think he’d be pleased that such nice people are living here now.”
We went back upstairs to the front door, and said goodbye.
Andrew and I went and got back in my car, and I drove it up the hill, to where we’d planned to have lunch.
After I parked, we sat in the car for ages.
“Since the fire, you’ve really lived your life well, like, used your talents, and lived a lot…” Andrew said.
I told Andrew more about what the house had been like, after the fire. “Big loops of melted plastic hanging from the wall. They used to be picture frames!”
Then I said, “it was hard being in the living room. I felt so sad, but then I remembered this dream I had, where he told me it was peaceful to die,” I started crying.
We hugged for ages, and when we let go, I saw that Andrew was crying too.
“Are you crying?!” I said.
“Yes! Because it’s so sad. I’m sad for you.” He replied. “Seeing the house really made it sink in, what an enormous thing it is, that you’ve been through.”
“Ah! I’ve run out of tissues!” I said, wiping his tears away with my hand.
Next, we decided to go down to a yellow bridge, which makes me think of him a lot. He called it the Banana Bridge. I had bought some tulips from the supermarket, and wanted to throw them into the river and think of him.
We walked down to the bridge, holding hands. Andrew said that it was making him think about work and how, even in a case involving deaths, he eventually moves onto the next case.
“But for the people involved, it’s probably just as raw, years later,” he said.
When we got to the bridge, I told Andrew some stories about things that had happened nearby. We waited until there was no one else on the bridge, and then I dropped the tulips into the river, one by one.
Afterwards, we stood there in silence for a while.
He asked me how I was feeling.
I said, “being with you, has made me realise that my relationship with Balthazar wasn’t perfect. Like, you know yesterday, when I was telling you about that weekend away in London we had, but he got secretly drunk on the way there.
“Maybe I’m starting to forgive myself for leaving. After he died, I miss him so much and I love him so much, it doesn’t make sense that I left, and it started off this whole awful chain of events.
“But there are some things we didn’t have in common, which you and I do, and… maybe it’s OK that I left.”
“Yes, it’s OK that you left,” he said, emphatically.
“I mean, he even said, right before he died, ‘I understand why you left.'”
I was crying quite hard, and Andrew held me, and again, I realised he was crying too.
“It’s just so sad,” he said.
Then I said, “the day after we broke up, I went to get some clean clothes, but he wouldn’t let me in at first, because he was so upset. Then, we were standing in the bathroom, for some reason, and I wanted to give him a hug, but he wouldn’t let me. ‘I can’t, I’ll fall apart,’ he said. Then he said, ‘I don’t want to be another of your exes, that you take the piss out of. I don’t want to be another Rob or the Accountant.’
“And I told him: ‘You won’t be! I’ll never take the piss out of you!’ .
“And now, here we are, seven years later, standing on a bridge, crying about him.”
Some people walked past.
“They probably think we’re breaking up,” I said.
We were hugging each other tightly. I have a new coat with a very furry hood, and Andrew’s face was in the furry hood.
He said that he liked burying his face in the fur.
It meant so much to me that he was crying too. I don’t think he is a big crier, and he’s used to being on the sidelines of very big moments in people’s lives, through his work. He’s even been to houses after fires before. He was crying because he was sharing my pain and sadness.
Andrew and I walked back up the hill and went to the bar where we had decided to have lunch.
As we walked, Andrew said that hearing about how Balthazar and I treated each other, after we broke up, was making him feel regrets about how things ended with Girlfriend One.
“She had said ‘don’t cut me out, if it ends’. And I did! I cut her out. I mean, Balthazar was heartbroken, but you were still there for each other. I wasn’t mature enough to be like that.”
After Matthew and the way he never wanted to talk about Balthazar, and the sense of unspoken, simmering resentment he had for him, I loved the way Andrew was being so open about his feelings and positive about Balthazar.
“It was just a different relationship and a different situation,” I said. I managed to restrain myself from saying, “plus Girlfriend One sounds like a cold-hearted, selfish cunt who deserved to be cut out.”
We had lunch together and it was nice. I so appreciate the completely unjealous, fascinated way that Andrew responds when I talk about Balthazar. I showed him what I read out at Balthazar’s funeral.
“It’s brilliant,” he said.
We went for a walk in the park.
“Do you think Balthazar would have approved of me?” Andrew asked.
I stopped walking for a moment and really tried to think.
“I just can’t imagine it! I can’t imagine you meeting.”
All I could think of, was how Balthazar was a bit negative about the police.
Before we drove back to London, we went and had a cup of tea with Balthazar’s Mum and step-dad, as she had phoned me several times the day before, because it was the anniversary.
Although my relationship with her has been complicated, I knew she would be fine with me bringing another man around, because of the enthusiastic way she’s asked about my love life, over the years.
That went well, and afterwards she texted to say they liked Andrew.
We drove back home and didn’t have the radio or any music on, just silence, as it had been such a big day.
When I finally parked outside my flat, in London, Andrew said, “I think I’ll head straight to the station, so I don’t get home too late.”
We sat in the car with our heads on each other’s shoulders for quite a while, and almost both fell asleep.
I wasn’t sure whether to say how I was feeling, but I took a risk.
“I’m not sure that I want to be on my own tonight,” I said.
“Do you want me to stay?”
Andrew stayed. I made us omelettes for dinner and he did some revision, and then we got into bed and watched the last episode of Hill House.
Afterwards, we talked until about 1am, about the weekend.
Andrew talked more about how visiting the house had affected him. He still felt regrets about not treating his exes like Balthazar treated me.
I reassured him that I didn’t think it made sense to compare very different relationships and extrapolate meanings about your personality.
“I mean, he wasn’t like it with Polly. He never saw her again.”
I told him about how, one time, on the way to get more of my clothes, I’d crashed the car. He’d been lovely and supportive, and checked the car was safe before I left. Afterwards, my Mum sent him a Facebook message saying “thanks for being nice to our Dater Analysis, when she crashed her car.”
He sent her a reply, saying, “it’s the only way I can be with her, when she comes around, all ethereal and unattainable.”
Andrew sighed heavily, and said “I like him.”
“You know what, I think he would have liked you, actually.” I said.
Andrew looked so pleased.
Then, on Tuesday morning, when I was in the shower before work, I had a weird, vivid image, come into my head, out of the blue. It was like a flashback, but of something that had never happened.
It was of Andrew and Balthazar, having a hug that started out very awkward, but then became very sincere.
“Look after our Dater Analysis,” he said to Andrew, and Andrew nodded emphatically.