Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Lyra McKee really was that 'bright, shiny button of a person'... but we couldn't save this light from being extinguished


Lyra McKee
Lyra McKee
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

All day Saturday the sun beats down, unseasonably strong for April. In the garden the sound of birdsong as the wood pigeons hurry in and out of their nest in a tree, high above the head of the oblivious, dozing cat. The daffodils sway wearily; in a week they'll be gone, giving way to the first flowers of summer. Somewhere not far away, the persistent thrum of a lawnmower, a child's shouts of excitement.

This weather is an unexpected Easter gift, full of hope and the promise of warmer, better days to come, and I still cannot believe that Lyra is not alive to see it.

But I want to bring her out into it, into this blue sky brightness; to reach in and pull her out of that dark, grainy PSNI footage - what on earth is she doing in that? - to grab that little figure by the back of her sweater and get her out of the way of that bullet. Because everything about Lyra was about the light.

The light she shone into dark corners, as an investigative journalist. The light she brought into the lives of those who knew her. The light her laughter splashed across a conversation on the phone, or through messages on social media.

I first met Lyra through our mutual friend, Ruth, who had spotted her indisputable talent straightaway. Our friendship began as a professional one, but, as was typical of Lyra, became something I'm glad was more personal. A quick phone call about work would inevitably turn into half-an-hour's chat.

"Okay, missus, got it," she'd say when I'd ring to commission copy. Lyra was an editor's dream. Always ready to write, no matter how tight the deadline, or tricky the subject matter. "No probs, missus, I'm on it." She was gifted with a forensically sharp mind, a curiosity that could border on the obsessive and an ability to compose the most beautiful sentences.

Sitting here with the sun glinting off my iPad, reading over her work, I'm struck by how the force for good that was her personality radiates out from so much of it. Empathy, love - and a wisdom way beyond her 29 years.

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Her age strikes me forcibly now because when talking - whether through sheer enthusiasm, or just all those "missuses" - she often seemed even younger.

Lyra was always generous and occasionally would thank me - as she did other journalists - for their support. I'd tell her I admired her writing so much.

From a working-class background and uncomfortable in the world of education, nothing was handed to Lyra. She was making it on pure talent.

Coming to terms with being gay forged her personality, too - she knew what it was like to feel she didn't fit in - and when she found acceptance, sometimes among Christian friends, whom she wrongly thought might have rejected her, she cherished the shared common ground of being under attack, misunderstood, laughed at. She gravitated to the underdog and was interested in people who were "different", on the margins. They mattered to her.

Last week I was at the Lyric to hear Booker winner Anna Burns read from her novel Milkman and had half-expected to bump into Lyra there.

A couple of months ago we chatted for an hour on the phone, a conversation that had started off about her friendship with Anna. I was at home ill and had time to talk. I'm grateful for that now.

I did a few tweets at the event, saw Lyra liking and retweeting them and realised she wasn't there. As it turned out, she was due to have dinner with Anna last Friday, a night out she would never make.

Now, I'm haunted by how the amazing Milkman seems to be Lyra's story, too. Both women had grown up in Ardoyne; the novel is about a bookish girl who struggles to find her place amid the violence of the Troubles. It describes the grim death cult of paramilitaries and what drew them to eradicate anything that didn't fit with their world view. "They" couldn't "bear it. Had to kill it... could not, at the drop of a hat, be open to any bright shiny button of a person stepping into their environment and shining upon them just like that."

That's Lyra. That was Lyra.

Ironically, just as her cheeky, open, bright, young face was leading the news bulletins and weekend newspapers across the globe, so, too, the prancing, grisly, egomaniacal gang which condoned her murder were showing their sour, ghoulish faces in Dublin.

No greater contrast was possible. One face we wanted to see so much again, vivid and smiling and with us; those others, we never want to see again in any context bare their teeth in our shared culture.

What else should I write here? I'll miss her online badinage with her great friend Ann Travers. And I know I'm echoing those tributes from those who knew her better than me, but she was ferociously loyal. She'd been bullied online, so if she saw you being targeted by creatures from the social media swamps, there she'd be, riding over the Twitter hill to publicly stand by your side and send private messages, too.

Which reminds me... I start to scroll through some of the messages we shared over the years and it's a roller-coaster: checking details of commissions; conversations about our cats; a string of photos and updates when by pure chance she found herself on the scene of a major story; concern about her adored mum; the excitement of meeting her partner, Sara, more chit-chat about settling her cat into her new home in Derry... It's a kaleidoscope of her dazzling personality.

Lyra would be so upset that this has happened to her and that she can't be there for her mum. I'd often tried to persuade Lyra to do shifts in our newsroom. I thought that once she was through the door, she'd love it. I'd tried again a few months ago, but as always she graciously declined, saying looking after her mum came first. She was also spending much of her time in Derry with Sara. In every way it's possible for a life to be transformed for the better by meeting someone and falling in love, Lyra's life had been changed.

The last piece she wrote for us was for Valentine's Day. I asked her for a photo of them together, but hugely apologetic she said, no, that she wanted to protect Sara's privacy. I thought of that as I watched poor Sara last Friday give her brave and moving tribute to the world's media.

Beyond the absolute outrage of Lyra's senseless death, it's just very cruel that Lyra should have been murdered at a time when everything was falling into place.

And it's so unfair. As reporters during the Troubles, so many of us covered riots, bombs, deaths, but made it through. Why Lyra? Why now?

It was all meant to be so different. Maybe this is what happens in Northern Ireland? Maybe each generation finally gives up the way its parents did before them? You stay here, you stick it out, but only a lunatic would chose our news bulletins as the soundtrack to their daily life.

Oh yes, I know, I know... it's immeasurably better compared to the "old days", but not for Lyra's family and loved ones. And, let's be honest, it's not that great.

Lyra embodied the future, but she was snatched away by what should be the past. Our party leaders were right to go to Derry on Friday, but gestures and words don't stop people being killed. To borrow an old election slogan "sectarianism kills workers" and this place is mired in toxic bile.

Lyra was one of the few who rose above it. She just didn't want to find out more about "the other side", she walked over to it, got to know it, tried to see it from their perspective, liked it.

But then Lyra was what Anna Burns called "a truly shining person", "intolerably extra-bright and extra-shiny".

Right now, I want to bring her out, away from the darkness, into this bright sunny day, into the one she deserved for herself.

Belfast Telegraph


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