Dunblane: The florist's tale

The tragic events of 13 March last year shattered a small, close community. Irene Flaws was born and bred in Dunblane and runs the town's flower shop.This is her story
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT WAS so cold that morning, I didn't leave home until half past eight. On Wednesdays I work in the shop on my own. Outside in the town it was just a normal Wednesday. Folk had dropped the kids off at school and at 9.15 it starts to get busy.

I didn't really take notice of the first couple of sirens. It was about 9.45. Then they seemed to be continual. It was the intensity of it, my immediate thought was that there had been a crash on the bypass. The school didn't even enter our minds. Why would it? Then the police helicopter arrived. We knew then that whatever was happening, it had to be serious. By that point we knew there was something very far wrong.

The town actually went quiet then. There was just this strange silence. Then at ten o'clock someone came in and said there had been an accident. About 15 minutes later the phone rang. My brother was calling from Aberdeen. He'd heard something on the radio. Charles just said: "What's wrong at Dunblane? There's something up but they don't know exactly what." Five minutes after that someone came in and said that there had been someone shot at the school. I was in shock then. I think I was serving somebody, either that or I'd have been sorting out the plants.

I went next door to ask if Margaret had heard anything. She turned on the radio and at that point it was one killed and others injured. There was a customer in her shop and she just let out a scream. It was obviously a pupil's mother. She just ran out of the shop, but she left all her shopping, her bag, everything.

The chap who owns the fruit shop next door came in - he had two children at school. He went away and left his wife in the shop. I tried to keep an eye on her to see if she was okay. Then it just got worse and worse. Outside the town was just so silent. There was an eerie feeling. I turned up the radio, but you were only getting little clips. We were standing around in disbelief. We were told one child was killed, or one person, and then I heard it was definitely Dunblane Primary School. No, that's not possible.

I decided to head home. The roads to the house were all sealed off by the police. As I came up the street, there was only one person. That was our minister with his son who was in Primary Five at the school. He was just shaking his head. The minister had taken school assembly that morning. All he said was: "It's just unbelievable. I just can't believe it." You saw the shock. He told me my brother-in-law Ian who teaches in the school was fine.

Back at home we sat down to have lunch, but we couldn't eat. Outside at lunch-times the place is normally buzzing. The school playground lies right behind our house. The noise is always there. The school bell rings. There was no noise that day. The bell didn't ring that day.

That first night I sat in the house and at one point was aware of a car leaving the school grounds. A couple were inside. I just knew they were parents. They'd probably just been told the news that their little one had died. At ten I went to bed but couldn't sleep. I just kept thinking about the horror of it all. Why? Why? Why?

I got up at 5am and was in the shop an hour later. When my brother came in from the market, he brought a newspaper with him. The photograph of the class was an the front page. I scanned over it. Then I realised out of the 16 children who died, I knew 13. I also knew the teacher.

I knew some of them because I take the Sunday school class. I knew some through their mums and dads, because I had done their weddings, done their flowers when they were born. But Dunblane is not a huge place, you know. I am Dunblane born and bred as well. My thoughts when I saw it in black and white were, that I didn't want to read about it. I opened the paper, but I didn't want it in black and white, I didn't want to read it at all.

We busied ourselves in the shop. Then a couple walked in and he asked for a dozen red roses - he was one the fathers of the dead children. At that time I didn't know who he was. It was just the tears. He said: "I want a dozen of your best red roses." I sort of swallowed, and thought what will I do here? My brother looked at me and I looked at him. We just gave the man a cuddle. That's all you could do. He wanted to write a card and I think he had about three attempts at writing it, before he could get what he wanted on it.

I think you go into automatic pilot. The day just got busier and busier. There were people coming into the shop in tears. Most wanted a bunch of flowers for the school. The phone rang, rang, and rang. Victims' relatives were phoning up and saying would you take some flowers to my niece that I've lost. And it was the men with the hard hats and the big boots and the bunches of flowers in their hands. Off they'd go. To the school. That was what got to you. I remember trying to take the Mother's Day decorations down. All the posters. I just wanted them away.

On the Thursday we had phone calls from all our suppliers and other florists offering help. At that point, we knew nothing about funerals, nothing about what was going to happen. That night we delivered a vanload of flowers to the school. It was about 9pm. People were still milling around laying flowers. The road up to the school gates was carpeted with flowers.

By the Friday we had an idea when most of the funerals were scheduled. We knew we had at least six floral tributes for each one. Whenever parents or families came in we served them in the back of the shop, then there would be a bit of privacy. It was hard. I coped with it by trying not to look at them straight in the eye. It was a case of a mum saying, "My son liked the Power Rangers." I'd say, "Do you want a Power Rangers wreath? I've never done one in my life, but we'll try one." If they wanted something we'd try it. But the worst task was writing the kids' names in flowers on wreaths.

On the Saturday night I took flowers to Dunblane Cathedral. I also had more for the school. By then there was just a massive sea of flowers. It was unbelievable. I came home that night and I sat down and I cried.

A Sunday is normally my day off, but that day I knew I had to work. We started doing the wreaths about ten o'clock that morning, and it was 20 minutes past four the next morning before we got finished. On that first night we made more than 200 wreaths. I did flowers for all 17 funerals and in total we made up almost 600 floral tributes in just over a week.

When I went to Abigail's funeral, the whole enormity of what happened really hit me hard. She was in my Sunday school class. She was one of these little girls who was bright and breezy. She had wee red shoes, you always saw the red shoes before you saw Abigail.

I had a half-hour to sit down. I settled into the church pew and the white coffin was right in front of me. I just went to pieces. I was in a real mess. An undertaker came over and asked if I wanted to leave, but I had to pull myself together. I had to be there. We sang Abigail's favourite hymn. It was so difficult to believe what was happening.

I returned to the shop and people were asking: "Are you okay?" I just replied: "Fine, fine, fine. Just let me get on." I knew we needed to concentrate on the next funerals coming up. I didn't get home on Monday night at all. I worked right through; I can go on for more than 24 hours at a time when I know work has to be done. I slow down and the work pace slows, but soon the tiredness passes.

I had a Power Rangers wreath on order and there was one I had a problem with. It was in the shape of a plate of Tunnock's tea cakes. The little boy called them Tea Pies. I found it hard. I shouldn't be having to do this. He should be eating his Tea Pies.

Calls were coming in at an alarming rate. At one stage I simply had to unplug the phone. From Sweden, Norway, Hong Kong, South China Seas and France - lots of them had no connection to Dunblane at all. Some came from Aberfan. They got to me. They lost so many more children in that tragedy. The boys from the rugby club in Aberfan called to order flowers. You know, I can remember sitting in Dunblane Primary School as a pupil when Aberfan happened.

At one stage some of the children's families had 20 or 30 bouquets ready to be delivered in addition to the flowers they already had. Some had to borrow buckets from us to keep the flowers in the house. It seemed stupid sending up any more. I decided to draw up a list for each one. I called them and explained that whenever they needed fresh flowers I'd deliver. One mother told me she had so many she had to hide some of them under the dining-room table!

After all the funerals were over Dunblane started to change. No longer was it a black and white town. Colours started to appear. People out in the streets had changed their black funeral clothes for coloured clothes. There had been this sea of black. Everybody you saw was either going to or coming from a funeral.

Twelve months on and Irene admits the tragedy has changed her life. She knows what happened will remain etched in her mind for ever.

I live with the tragedy every single day. I see the school every single day. I reverse the van out of the drive and I can see where the gym used to be. You can't get away from it. We've had 17 birthdays to cope with, making up flowers for their birthdays thinking, they should be getting a toy or some other gift. This should not be happening.

I can tell when the mums and dads are having a bad day. Because you get the silent treatment, when they are having a really bad day.

We're hoping that once 13 March 1997 passes folk will leave us alone. We know they will never forget us...

This article is an extract from Dunblane: Our Year Of Tears, published on 13 March by Mainstream Publishing at pounds 12.99.

In The Sunday Review today: 'From Morning Into Mourning, The Broader Picture', page 36

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