There were always the two of them,” says Ian Clayton of his twins. "Always the two of them. One of them here ... " He holds out his right palm, "and one of them here." He holds out his left.“It's a strange thing, this, but even now when we're at traffic lights, I reach out my hand for Edward's and then I feel myself reaching out for our Billie.”It's four years since Ian last felt Billie's hand in his; in 2006 when he took his nine-year-olds on a canoe trip on the river at Hay-on-Wye, Wales.
They had hired a canoe from two local men. But what Ian didn't know, was that this was the pair's first day in business.All went well at first. “The kids thought it was lots of fun,” says Ian. Then came a snag; they took a wrong turn, the water became shallower and they thudded to a stop. Ian, realising something had gone wrong, told the children to lift up their paddles while he steered them back to the bend. “I could hear the water running quite fast round it,” he says.
Billie wanted to stop to go to the toilet; Ian told her to wait a second, that they were about to go round the corner, they would stop after that. As they turned into the bend, everything changed. In an instant, the sluggish water became furious and fast. The canoe was caught up and thrown around by it; it was hurled towards the bank then smashed into a fallen tree.
The children were pinioned under the canoe: as Ian came up for breath, he realised to his horror that he couldn't see either of them. He remembers thrusting his arms desperately under the icy water, feeling to his relief what he thought were his children's arms. “I pulled them for all I was worth, thinking I had one arm of each child,” he says. “But I didn't – I was holding on to Edward's arm and leg. He came up out of the water and took a huge gulp of air. But where was Billie?”
“As I was swimming towards him he said, ever so quietly: 'Dad, will you try to save my sister first?'” “I had to make a choice. An unbearable one.” He says he knows the reality of the moment was rather different. “I couldn't even see Billie,” he says. “I saved the child I could see.”Pulling Edward from the river was an amazing feat: but all Ian has been able to think about since, understandably enough, is that he left Billie behind. “It breaks my heart,” he says quietly.
Learning to Grieve
Coming from anyone's lips, Ian's story would be compelling: but the fact is that he is a professional storyteller, a man who has written 44 books Never in his wildest nightmares did he think anything this terrible, this huge, would happen to him.
What got him started was his 49th birthday. He brought it downstairs after breakfast that day, and pulled apart the wrapping. Inside was the burgundy cardigan Billie was wearing on the day she drowned. Soon after that, Ian started to write. “When we brought the twins home from hospital after they were born, we didn't know how to start looking after them,” he remembers.
“In a way, losing Billie was a bit like that all over again. You think, how do I begin to deal with this? How do we survive now? You don't know where to put the grief, you don't know what to do with it.” Ian wonders. “Do you think she'd have been proud of me? That's all I really wanted, for our Billie to be proud of me. I couldn't save her, and it haunts me to think of her dying with the thought: 'Why hasn't my daddy saved me?'”“But I'd like her to be proud of me.”