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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

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A love story, from beneath all the rubble

I had a friend called Lucy. Actually, I believe I still do. She slipped into the past tense for a moment there, only because we haven’t been in touch for more than a little while. Friendships, however firm, go that way sometimes. They ebb and flow as years pass.

She slipped into past tense because Lucy – in spite of all the marvellous things she was and is – will always be lodged in my memory as a lady of 9/11.

They said that 2001 atrocity would change the world. They said nothing would ever be the same again. They said we would never again enjoy the freedoms we had once taken for granted.

And it did change a lot. That grisly day when the Trade Centre’s twin towers crumbled beneath carefully organised terrorist attack, when thousands of lives were lost, when hatred triumphed, some part of life altered fundamentally. Lucy’s life certainly did.

We’d met on September 10 for one of our lunches, she and I. Lucy, always fun and bubbly, was one of those girls who had everything. A fabulous job with one of the world’s largest and most prestigious cosmetic houses, a handsome boyfriend who adored her and she had big news – big enough for celebratory cocktails at lunchtime.

Her boyfriend had secured a fantastic job in New York. She was making plans to join him there. It was to be a whole new life in Manhattan. She would transfer her post and would be Carrie Bradshaw – only prettier and working for Estee Lauder, not Vogue.

She was elated – deservedly so. With the glow only a woman in love can wear, she chattered excitedly about her plans. He was the one. This was the move. Life couldn’t have been better.

Tomorrow, she said, she’d be driving to Newcastle to share her news with more of the journalists up and down the country she counted as friends. Lucy wanted everyone to see what happiness looked like.

On September 11, as a stunned and silent newsroom watched those grotesquely unbelievable broadcasts of vengeful massacre – flames, smoke, dust, people leaping to certain death from high-rise windows – a call came to my desk.

“It’s me,” Lucy screamed. “He’s in there.”

“Where are you?”

It was impossible to know what to say to a young woman whose every fibre of trust in love and happy-ever-after had been shattered by an abhorrent event of hatred half way across the world. An event, we all suspected, would change everything for all time but had hoped against hope not for us. Not for people we knew and loved.

“I’ve pulled off the road. He’s in there, Anne!”

Offering foolish hope with no confidence in comfort, I suggested maybe he’d not gone to work that day, had been late arriving at his office, gone out for a coffee.

Offering straws. I was filling terrifying silence with inane false promise. She was filling what was left with her chilling screams.

None of us knew on that dreadful day what could possibly follow. We’d no idea two wars were now in the offing. One knee-jerk, one not-so, both under the umbrella nonsense of War On Terror. Impossible under any circumstances – as we were to learn when it was already too late.

“Why? I don’t know why.” Lucy screamed. “Where is he?”

In the days that followed, when I was tramping uneasily around Manhattan to report on the aftermath of 9/11, it occurred to me Lucy had been the only person I’d heard ask that question.

“Why?”

No New Yorker articulated it – at least not to me – which seemed very strange. Stunned, angry, grieving, broken, from bartender to president, all vowed the US would bomb the living daylights out of somebody, or some country, for visiting such horrors on mainland America.

But no one had seemed to wonder why. Nobody asked the question that must have been – should have been – key to everything.

Why? What did we do to make these people hate us so fiercely? Only Lucy.

It was a long time – an interminable time to her – before Lucy learned her boyfriend miraculously had crawled out of his tower on 9/11. There had been many miracles that day. But his had been the one she’d cared about.

He was injured and severely traumatised of course. As he recovered he came to want no more of his previous life. No more ambitious career climbing, no more materialism, no more happy ever after. He didn’t want Lucy.

The pain that followed really shouldn’t be detailed. It was her pain, shared by her friends who could do nothing to console her. It continued for years – two ran into three.

Throwing herself into work to dull the other stuff, she was sent in that third year to New York to a marketing convention for senior staff. She admitted at the time, she’d accepted with little of her old enthusiasm.

Slipping out of the conference into a coffee shop for a break and a little quiet time, she was reading a newspaper and sipping a cappuccino when a man sat beside her and spoke.

“I had a feeling I’d see you here today,” he said. “Marry me.”

To cut a long story of tears, phone calls and immense wonder at the impossible becoming real, they married.

Her job transfer to Manhattan was made in short order. They have a baby now – maybe more than one, it has been a while since we last spoke.

Lucy’s husband’s life changed forever in two main respects. He will neither live nor work on any other than the ground floor. And the memory of that day will be with him always.

But while September 11, 2001 was undoubtedly an earth-shattering day of unspeakable horror for thousands upon thousands of innocent people; while the agony and grief it brought will never – must never – be forgotten, Lucy’s story is an important one.

Her part in those terrors is testament that cruel, bloody acts of vengeful hatred and war can only diminish our world for all time if we allow them to do so.

They can suspend the happy ever after. But they can’t snuff it out, however hard they try.

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