In memory of Charlotte Lund Andersen

I woke up this morning to hear of the rail crash in northwest Spain. As I write this (on Thursday) the numbers of dead and injured are large and rising. It is a terrible tragedy. I can’t imagine how the families of those affected must be feeling, but I have an idea of the friends. You see, whenever I hear of a tragedy like this, especially a train crash, I’m immediately taken back to the beginning of October 1999.

It is the 6th October, me and my girlfriend (soon to be wife) are on a flight back from holiday. As we board the plane we are offered a selection of newspapers. On the front of each paper is a photograph of train carriages scattered across a busy rail junction, some ripped apart, others still smoking from the fire that had raged through them. I take one and read that the day before, on the 5th October at 8:09 am, the shuttle service to Bedwyn leaving London Paddington railway station crashed head on with the Cheltenham to Paddington intercity train. I turned to my girlfriend and said “Oh Christ! That’s the train Charlotte takes.”

Charlotte Lund Andersen had moved to my company’s Slough office from the US and we’d hit it off immediately. A proud Danish American (she would often go to visit family in Denmark and tell us all about it), tall, slightly gawky as if she had never become used to how much her limbs had grown (watching Lindsay Davenport at Wimbledon years later reminded me so much Charlotte) – Charlotte was both fiercely intelligent and very, very funny. It took her a few months to get used to the British sense of humour (she was coordinated enough to pack a hefty punch to the shoulder if she had thought you had gone too far) but before long she became a surrogate big sister to me and I became her unofficial cultural ambassador to those weird Brits. She had thrown herself into her new life in London and despite the danger of becoming anonymous in such a large city, had formed a good group of friends, both in the Danish ex-pat community and, more surprisingly, at a salsa class.

I called my manager as soon as I arrived home, even though I wasn’t due in until the next day.
“I’ve read about the crash in the Newspapers. Is Charlotte OK?”
There was a moment’s silence. “I was hoping we’d have this conversation face to face. Charlotte left home yesterday morning and never made it into work. We’ve tried contacting her but there is no answer. She’s officially missing at the moment but it’s not looking good.”

It took a few days before the worst was confirmed. Charlotte was in the front carriage of the shuttle train, which bore the brunt of the impact before being engulfed in flames. She was eventually identified by her jewellery and some items of clothing. My memories of that time are pretty vague, a cycle of shock and grief. The one thing that I do remember clearly was being taken to an office on my first day back to be updated on what had happened and what was known, though not much had changed from the day before. Afterwards I went back to my desk and sat staring at my computer, wondering what to do. I eventually realised I couldn’t do anything other than wait, so to pass the time I decided to catch up with my work that had built up after my holiday. The red, blinking light from my voicemail caught my eye so I picked up the phone.
“Hi Dylan, I know you’re on holiday but I’d really like to speak to you as soon as you’re back. Something has come up and I’d like you to hear from me before anyone else. Hope you had a great time!”
It was Charlotte’s voice. I can still feel the echoes of the shock I’d felt then, the confusion as at first I thought she was OK, followed by the slow realisation that it had been left days before. I found out later that Charlotte had been told she was being made redundant, part of a cost rationalisation following our takeover by another corporation. I never deleted that message.

A memorial service was held and a number of people spoke about Charlotte and what she meant to them. To my regret, I didn’t speak. I don’t know why, though I was probably still trying to hide from what had happened. It didn’t work. I cried through the whole service and I can still feel the tears pressuring my eyes, looking to well up again as I think back to it now.

In the weeks following the accident, those of us that knew Charlotte dealt with our grief in different ways. I chose to suppress it, to avoid thinking about it, to hide away. Charlotte’s then manager, Simon Walters, was the complete opposite. He not only took it on himself to find out what had happened, but worked as the family liaison to Charlotte’s parents and sister, both before and after they arrived from the US. He had always been my friend, but I have nothing but respect and admiration for what Simon did, off his own back and in his own time, to help support Charlotte’s parents and sister in what was a horrendous time.

So why now? Why write this blog now when the events took place nearly 14 years ago? Part of it is anger; anger with the news broadcasters that whenever there is a disaster they depersonalise the event by concentrating on statistics. I know that in these cases it is impossible to show the full cost to every individual affected, but reducing the story to numbers and images of people crying – or even worse jumping with glee on increasing death tolls as if desiring to see the numbers increase so that it will be a bigger story – is both a betrayal of those affected and a betrayal of those watching. Those who have died and their families and friends deserve more. Much more. Part of it is through guilt; guilt that I didn’t do more for my friend’s family at the time, that I never said anything at her memorial service, that I shut myself away.
Mostly, though, it is to right the wrong that this beautiful, wonderful, awkward, hilarious, and above all compassionate soul, with her quirky lopsided smile and a handy punch to the shoulder, had an online memorial, talking about who Charlotte Lund Andersen was as a person, at least from this friend’s point of view, so that if you google her name you will find more of her than just a footnote on a list of those killed on the 5th October.

We’ll never know what would have happened if Charlotte hadn’t have died that day. Given that she was going back to the US, we could have lost contact as our lives took us in different directions. I like to think that we would have stayed in touch, though. As it is, I’m 42 years old now, ten years older than Charlotte was when she died and not the callow 28 year old I was then. While I don’t think of Charlotte daily like I used to, I still think of her often. I’d agreed with my wife that if we’d had a baby girl, to name them Charlotte after my friend, and one day tell them about their namesake. Instead we had two beautiful boys, though I wouldn’t change that for the world. I just wish they could have known her.

So this is it, my memorial to Charlotte, which will be here on the internet as long as the internet exists.

Order of service for Charlotte Lund Andersen

Order of service from Charlotte’s memorial

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Ten signs that you are approaching middle-age

Dad, is that you? (source: now.msn.com)

Dad, is that you? (source: now.msn.com)

There is no official start date to middle-age, so how do you know when it hits you. I’m in my early forties but I don’t think of myself as middle-aged, yet recently I’ve realised, how should I put it, that I’m displaying characteristics one could, possibly, associate with middle-age. It got me thinking. Maybe we should produce a checklist to help those of us to realise we aren’t young any more. Here is my first attempt at this list. If you have any others, please feel free to comment below.

1. You correct people’s grammar

You are walking down the street when you hear somebody say “I didn’t do nothing.” If the first thought that came into your head wasn’t “I wonder what they’ve done,” or “What’s going on here,” but “I didn’t do anything. If you didn’t do nothing you did, in fact, do something. It’s a double negative,” you are on the road to middle-age.

2. You don’t know who is in the charts

When I was younger I used to follow the charts avidly. Even though I hated most pop music, I knew who all the bands were and what the latest songs in their latest releases. I remember being thrilled seeing Nirvana on Top of the Pops as it was a sign that I wasn’t the only one who liked this type of music. Moving on to today, I was at a school fayre the other day (a middle-aged activity if ever there was one) which had a DJ to entertain the kids. At one point my wife came up to me and said “Did you know this is One Direction?” I hadn’t a clue. I’ve heard of One Direction and know they are big in the US, but I couldn’t have told you what they sounded like, which is a sure sign that I’m approaching middle-age.

What do you mean, this is inappropriate for my age? (source: webpronews.com)

What do you mean, this is inappropriate for my age? (source: webpronews.com)

3. You start to shop at clothing stores your parents shopped at

It starts off innocently enough. You need some new socks and you just want some that will last. Instead of going to one of the high street fashion stores, you find yourself in a department store, or even worse, Marks and Spencers. As you walk through the clothes section a shirt catches your eye. It’s just the type you like, in the colour you like and similar to one you already own. You then see another shirt, then another. Suddenly you realise that unlike the shop you used to shop in, you don’t need to filter out three-quarters of the clothes because you’d look like mutton dressed as lamb. No, in this shop the clothes don’t make you stand out, they make you blend in, and this feels good.

4. You’ve had the same haircut for at least ten years now

Short at the back and the sides, a little longer on top. I’ve said these twelve words in every hairdresser’s I’ve visited since I was in my mid-twenties. Now there may be a little less hair at the top to keep long, and the colour may have changed slightly, but my haircut is the same one I’ve been happy with for over ten years. The only time I don’t say those words are when the hairdresser says “Your usual?” That’s if they need to ask anymore.

5. You enjoy gardening

I’m not talking about the young tyro’s who have been brought up with dirt between their fingernails. If you’ve always loved gardening this isn’t for you. If, however, you’ve suddenly discovered the pleasure of mowing a lawn, maybe even with stripes, or you find yourself pulling the odd weed from your decorative border when in the past you used to strim down the waist high grass only when you wanted a barbecue, then it’s another sign you are approaching middle-age. If you have rented an allotment however, there is no doubt.

6. You start to desire a simpler life

When you were younger, every evening used to be full, whether it was playing a sport, going out drinking with friends, clubbing, weekends away; there was never a dull moment. Nowadays you could at home watching a re-run of Magnum when a text comes through asking if you fancy going to the pub. If you have to think twice because getting your arse off the sofa and putting some shoes on is too much bother, you’re approaching middle-age.

All ready for a nice walk? (source: belfasttelegraph.co.uk)

All ready for a nice walk? (source: belfasttelegraph.co.uk)

7. You go for a walk for the sheer pleasure of it

Walking used to be a means to an end. The only time you used to walk is if you wanted to get somewhere. That was it. Now, however, you could find yourself looking outside after a good lunch and realising that it’s such a nice day that it would be great to go for a walk. Not to anywhere, but because it seems a nice thing to do. You may even have a regular walk you go on whenever the desire hits you. This is not a young person’s thoughts. You are approaching middle-age.

8. Clubbing is something that happens to the young or arctic seals

Have you had the pleasure of going to a club recently and ended up wondering why you used to think it was fun to stand in a converted warehouse space where young women walked around in semi-naked groups to protect themselves from the meerkat-like packs of young men, desperation in their eyes, hunting for mates in a room where the music is so loud you have to shout in the ear of the person next to you to be heard, and you pay three to four times as much for a drink than the pub next door. Then you realise that most of the clubbers are avoiding you in case you report what they were doing to their parents. If this has been your experience then it’s time to admit that clubbing is a young person’s game, or for Canadians*.

9. Hangovers last three days

There was a reason I was sober in the nightclub. When I was younger I used to drink all weekend, have about four hours sleep, then turn up for work the following week fully fit and able to function. About four months ago I decided to stop drinking alcohol because even one beer would give me a hangover, and a few would leave me suffering for days. If this has recently happened to you, you’re approaching middle-age.

10. You look in the mirror and see one of your parents staring back at you

For the past few years you have only looked in the mirror to check an aspect of your appearance; is your hair OK, or have you got spinach between your teeth? Then, one day, you have a proper look at your face for the first time and to your horror you see one of your parents staring back at you. Unless you are the natural son or daughter of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, this is going to be a bit of a shock.

* Before you shout, yes, I know seal culling takes place in Norway, Greenland, Russia and other arctic states, it’s just most of us associate it with Canada. Sorry. It’s nothing personal. If you want somebody to blame, blame PeTA