WHEN Ian Clayton's daughter Billie drowned in a canoeing accident he faced every parent's worst nightmare. But out of this tragedy the writer and TV presenter has written a beautiful book that celebrates her life.
It's four years since Ian Clayton took his nine year-old twins, Edward and Billie, on a canoe trip on the river at Hay-on-Wye, in Wales.
They, along with the twins' mother Heather, had travelled there for a short Easter break to celebrate Ian finishing his book Bringing It All Back Home, a personal journey through the memories and music of his youth.
But what should have been a happy day out, something the children could tell their school friends when they got home, turned into tragedy when their canoe capsized in fast-flowing rapids. Ian managed to rescue Edward, but despite frantically searching for his daughter in the icy water he could find no sign of her. Rescue teams arrived and found Billie who was airlifted to a nearby hospital where she was pronounced dead.
Ian's world, and that of his family, was ripped apart by what happened on that spring day. At the inquest into Billie's death two years later, it emerged that the company he had hired the equipment from had only opened for business on the day of the tragedy. Ian says he and Heather bear no ill will towards the men from whom they rented the canoe and has sympathy for them because their families, too, have suffered over Billie's death. The coroner recorded a verdict of misadventure and the inquest highlighted the fact that canoe hire in the UK was largely unregulated.
A few weeks after the inquest in 2008 Ian received an email out of the blue from Penguin, asking whether he was interested in writing a book about Billie and his family's attempts to come to terms with her tragic death. He agreed, but admits it was a struggle to begin with. "This was something so profoundly personal and in the cold light of day when I sat down and thought, 'can I write about Billie and how we've been since' I realised I couldn't, or at least I
didn't know how to do it."
What changed his mind was his 49th birthday and an unopened parcel. "The parcel contained the clothes Billie had been wearing when she'd drowned and I'd refused to open it. It was a brown paper parcel wrapped up in gaffer tape and I kept putting it off and Heather said, 'why don't you, it's just Billie's clothes, it's not going to frighten you.' I knew what was in it, she wore this beautiful burgundy-coloured cardigan and I could feel it through the paper.
"As it came to my birthday I thought, 'if I open that and pretend it's a present, it might ease it a little bit.' So I opened it and it was a very profound moment. I didn't know what to do so I smelled the cardigan and I felt its pockets and there was a tissue inside so I held that to my nose. Then I took the cardigan over to Heather and we just held it between us and had a cuddle, and later that day I thought 'I'm going to write about what I've done,' so that's how I started." He sat down and wrote the first draft in just nine days. "It was a book that almost asked to be written, by other people and by myself," he says.
Ian made his name as a storyteller and has written numerous books and made countless TV documentaries about his own and other people's lives. But never in his worst nightmares could he have imagined writing something so personal, and heart-wrenching. He says there are many reasons why he finally put pen to paper. "I had so many conflicting emotions inside me that I had to purge them. I had to get them out, you can't hold things like that in, it's too hard, and if you're someone like me who likes to tell a story then that's the way to do it.
Another reason was to say something about Billie, she was this sweet soul who would have been somebody in the world and having realised that she's lost to the world I've then got to tell the world what's been lost. And I also have this idea that you can take your pain and turn it into something beautiful, and by doing that the pain will go away a bit."
In terms of physically writing it, he says the book is the probably the easiest he's ever written, but telling the story is only part of it. He has dreamt about what happened the day she died, trying to conjure a different ending. "The idea that her last thought was 'why hasn't my daddy saved me?' haunts me. But I can't think that and in my heart I know that wasn't her last thought. I just hope I was a good daddy for her," he says quietly. The fact that anyone survived the swollen, racing river that day is near miraculous and testament to Ian's bravery. He did as much as anyone could and more than most of us would probably have been able to, faced with such an awful situation.
Although there are heartbreaking moments in Our Billie these are outweighed by happier ones. Through his memories of Billie, and the love and warmth that exists between him, Heather and Edward, he has weaved a story of loss, gratitude and celebration.
"There is a lot of beauty in this book, and light and truth, because if it's not true it can't be beautiful," he says.
"If something so horrendous happens on such a beautiful day to a beautiful person, then let's tell the story. I've no reason to shrink back from fear of further pain, because nothing could be worse than what happened on that day, so anything that happens to me now is nothing compared to that," he says.
"I still have my Edward and I know he will go on to be a fine boy. I only had Billie for nine years, eleven months and one week, and they were a great nine years, eleven months and one week. We never fell out, we only ever had lovely times together," he says. "I don't know what fate is, perhaps it was fated that she was only going to live that long, perhaps fate is nothing mystical, or perhaps it's just something that happens."
Since Billie's death Ian has faced hundreds of questions from people in pubs and shops, as well as TV presenters and journalists. "They want me to tell them something, because it taps into their deepest fears and hearing a story like this perhaps helps." It's also been cathartic for him and his family. "It's easy to put people on pedestals and I know I want to put Billie on one," he says.
"I remember going down to London for a meeting about the book and walking along Westminster you see all these statues of dukes and princes and fine ladies and important politicians and I thought, 'if they can be put on a pedestal, then so can my Billie. They've been articulated in bronze and stone, but I've built something that lasts as well, and words are far more important than stone statues."
Ultimately Our Billie is, as Joanne Harris says, a love poem from Ian to his daughter. "It's about a bonnie soul, a beautiful girl who had such kindness and interest in the world," he says. "We were watching the news one day and there was a report about the Iraq war and she said, 'what are they doing, daddy, dropping bombs?' And I said, 'because it's a war, darling.' And she said, 'but they seem to be poor people underneath these bombs.' And I said, 'that's what happens in war.' And she said, 'they need to start dropping medicine.' What a thing for a seven year-old to say, and that's a metaphor for this book. I hadn't thought about this, but now I've said it I realise that I'm dropping medicine on people - to make them better."
Our Billie, by Ian Clayton, is published by Penguin priced 6.99. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at www.yorkshirepost bookshop.co.uk. Post and packaging is 2.75.