They are so tired, and they know there is little reason left for hope, but they can't stop looking now. So they continue to post appeals on the internet; they watch news bulletins for a miraculous glimpse of a face they love; they read, again, the lists of survivors put up by the hospitals, and the lists of the known dead. They have been doing this for a fortnight now, the tens of thousands of British men and women still searching or waiting for news of a husband, wife, daughter, son, friend or lover lost to the tsunami.
Some are in Asia, searching among the ruins and the body bags, alongside police officers who say it will take months or years to identify every corpse and name those who will never be found. Others wait at home, wondering how to live. Francesca is among them. The 14-year-old from Fylde in Lancashire has lost her mother, Amanda Britton. She has also lost her grandfather and her uncle, who were celebrating Christmas together on Ko Phi Phi. The beach where they rented a bungalow looks like a war zone now: smoke hangs over the smashed coconut palms; soldiers search among the debris of shattered buildings and boats for bodies.
In makeshift morgues all over the region, teams of forensic scientists from many countries are checking DNA, dental records and fingerprints when the state of the body allows it, in a frenzy of attempted identification.
Francesca Britton chose not to go on holiday with her mother. She was in Lancashire with her father, David, on Boxing Day. They have made internet appeals from home but others are searching in Thailand on their behalf, clutching photographs. "We have had no official word, no confirmation of anything," says David Britton. "We know that Amanda and the others are not on the lists of survivors. They are missing, presumed dead. That is all you can say."
Amanda Britton, 40, is a radiographer at the Victoria Hospital in Blackpool. She is missing along with her father, Keith Lester, 70, from Cleveleys in Lancashire, and her brother, Adrian Lester, who works for a pharmaceutical company in London. Four other members of the family are in hospital with serious injuries.
Despite being exhausted by the trauma, Francesca went back to school last week. She wanted to be with her friends. "We have to be realistic," says David, a dentist. "Francesca accepts that she is unlikely to see her mum again. We have to deal with that. We have to decide that life must go back to something like normal."
But it can't. Not really. Not while there is no body. Not while they have to live with the thought that Amanda may be floating in the sea somewhere, or washed up on a beach, or in a mass grave. Or perhaps, incredibly, lying unidentified in a hospital or waiting in a remote place rescuers have yet to reach. That shred of hope is cruel, it suspends the grieving process.
"I am astonished by my daughter's strength," says David. "We are strong-minded people in our family. We have big shoulders. But you can't bottle it up for ever, can you? It has to break through. I am watching Francesca for signs of that."
They are watching each other, this father and daughter. "It has hit me far harder than I realised," admits David. "Amanda and I were divorced, but after all the harsh words that were said at the time, this has brought a completely different perspective."
Neighbours and friends have been supportive and kind, but sometimes their love feels overwhelming. "They mean well, but you just want to be alone now and then," says David. "We have also had over-emotional, morbid people weeping down the phone. One stupid woman sent funeral flowers. I didn't let Francesca see them, I just put them straight in the bin."
The number of British people whose death has been confirmed or presumed is now 441. The police say another 2,000 have been reported missing, but that many of them are backpackers who may well have been very far from the disaster.
The British police have sent 65 officers to Asia to help with the identification, led by Detective Chief Inspector Graham Walker. He has spent the last week working in the Yanyao Buddhist temple, hurriedly converted into Thailand's largest morgue. "We were confronted with an open space with 1,000 bodies in row upon row upon row," says DCI Walker, who also worked on identifying bodies from the Hatfield and Potters Bar rail tragedies. "We are certainly talking weeks for this stage of the process, possibly months. It's just the scale of it. It's a war zone."
The temple has received several thousand bodies in the last fortnight. Visitors are advised to wear face masks because of the stench. Another 834 corpses arrived on Friday. Many had been recovered from the waters and mangrove swamps along the Andaman coastline and were badly decomposed. It takes an hour for each victim to be tested and catalogued by a team of experts from more than 20 countries, including Britain, the United States, France and Denmark. There are not enough of them, so they work long hours in very hot conditions.
"Sometimes the carriers [of the coffins] get too hot and just can't bring any more," says DCI Walker. Back in Britain his police colleagues have collected DNA evidence, such as hair from brushes, at the homes of holidaymakers who are missing, presumed dead. The information is being sent over in the hope of a match.
Pornthip Rojanasunan, the forensics expert in charge of the centre, says there was chaos in the first week because the Thai government had failed to confront the problem of bodies. "They didn't understand at first how to deal with this disaster. I tried to explain but they just wanted to know about the living and the destruction of the buildings. There is no co-ordination. I'm frustrated."
Thai volunteers continue to arrive, but officials say they are still understaffed. After the testing, the DNA samples are sent to China for analysis. They will eventually be put on a database, but final identification could take years.
Outside the temple, rows of pictures of disfigured bodies are posted on noticeboards lining a busy road. Most bodies are unrecognisable. The number on a tag indicates whether each one is believed to be Thai or a foreign national. With the pictures are pleas from the families of the missing. Another list gives details of 32 bodies found with some form of identification, including engraved rings and bracelets.
Most were found in Khao Lak, now virtually deserted of tourists. "Over the past couple of days they have found 200 bodies," said US Colonel Jack Dibrell as another body arrived on a boat at a fishing village in nearby Bangmuang district on Friday. "They are just going to show up over time because they're in swamps and sinkholes or at sea and they are going to come back."
Thousands who did escape with their lives were made homeless. A few miles from Yanyao temple, a temporary camp has been set up with officials expecting the 4,000 currently living in tents to swell to 12,000 as more people are moved there. Yesterday the tents were being replaced with more solid shelters. They are expected to remain there for some time.
The Foreign Office is offering to repatriate the bodies or remains of British citizens killed by the tsunami. Concerned relatives continue to ring the Central Casualty Bureau helpline in London. The bureau has been criticised for failing to answer many calls, but some staff there have been working daily 12-hour shifts for a fortnight. So far they have received 135,000 calls.
In Fylde, Francesca and David Britton began to ring the number as soon as they saw it under the television news reports on Boxing Day, but they couldn't get through. Neither could their friends and relatives who tried from different land lines and mobiles for three days. "When we did get through they were not helpful, co-operative, or in the slightest bit sympathetic to our situation," says David. "The chap couldn't get his facts straight. It took him about 10 minutes to understand who was who in the family. He did not know where Phuket or Phi Phi island were. His manner was offhand and flippant. As someone manning a disaster helpline he should have had training."
They were not rung back by the Foreign Office as promised, but Lancashire police did call. "They sent two family liaison officers who have been absolutely excellent, to be fair; they have constantly been in touch to check that we are OK. Not that they can do much for us. Nobody can."Reuse content