Twenty years ago this morning Sandra Reid, then the Children’s Librarian in Stirling, picked me up from my hotel and took me to my first library visit that day. We drove through Dunblane. I remember Sandra saying that we wouldn’t normally go that way but there was traffic on the main road. She said that she had wanted to take me to Dunblane Library that day, but the children weren’t free that morning so we went on to the next library, which I think was Doune. It wasn’t very far away.
I remember that session well. It was full of fun and cheekiness and laughter. When I finished Sandra led me to a desk where I began signing books.
Then the atmosphere changed. Suddenly there were parents in the room, children were surprised to see them. I carried on signing, joking with the children. I began to be aware of tears and people hugging each other. Pale shocked faces as the news spread through the room of what had been going on down the road.
In the confusion, I must have been the last to get the message.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. We went on to another library, Callander I think, and then on to a school up in the hills. All along the way, cars were parked by the roadside. Shocked people listened to their car radios. I could see the tears in their eyes. As we listened to the news, Sandra seemed to know everyone being interviewed or talked about.
We went through the motions the rest of the day and Sandra put me on the train to Edinburgh for my library sessions there the next day. The passengers were grey and silent. My landlady was very upset.
My proximity to the events of that day hit me properly when I phoned home that evening and heard the relief in my wife’s voice. She’d been worried all day that I’d been involved, only aware that I was visiting schools and libraries around Stirling. She’d been wondering wether I’d been at the school that morning – waiting for and fearing a call. We didn’t have mobile phones or texting back then.
I had nightmares for months afterwards. I’d wake up in a sweat and then not be able to get back to sleep , going over and over again what I could have done if only I’d been there that day and not a few miles down the road. I couldn’t shake off the thoughts, even though they made me feel guilty for freeloading on the real grief of those who were truly affected.
But, I could have been there. If I had, could I have done something? Would I have done something? Our minds play strange tricks on us.
The TV, radio and press were relentless for months afterwards, not letting anyone forget or quieten their thoughts.
Sandra asked me back to Stiling quite a few times. I suppose that day bonded us together a bit. Eventually she took me to Dunblane Library, feeling there was unfinished business. We had such fun that afternoon. One library customer thought I was a drunk and offered to help get rid of me!
But even today, in the still, dark, wakeful hours, those thoughts creep up and take me unawares. I find myself rehearsing the possibilities – maybe fire extinguishers would be the best tools of defence or attack one might find in a primary school? I can feel the heft of them in my imagination.
Twenty years later I wonder where the years have gone. Schools changed that day and have turned into fortresses with electronic gates, bristling with cameras. Children’s librarians have been taken from us and are nowhere to be found.
Innocence and innocents were lost that day.