The First Chapter – Chasing Rainbow – The Stolen Future of Caroline Ann Stuttle
The call that changed our world
It was the end of another amazing winter season in Meribel, my third in
The Three Valleys. I’d first visited in 1999; it was now April 2002. I’d been
working as a chef, alongside a host, and ski guide, running a chalet for
eighteen guests. It was hard work and it felt like it had been a long season.
The snow had turned, making it very wet and slushy; the lower runs were
muddy and, in many places, unpassable. I had packed up my knives and we shut down the chalet. Our boss was happy, and we had all finally finished work.
I loved Meribel. It ticked all the boxes: stunning surroundings, wonderful snowboarding, like-minded people and cooking for a living. It was a completely different lifestyle to anything I had done before. My picturesque five-month escape from everything that was really happening in the world. The beauty of the French Alps was completely inspiring, and I enjoyed the instant connection between seasonaires (people working during the ski season). We all worked the winters out of choice, everyone had a deep-rooted passion for the mountains and a love for extreme winter sports.
This season was no exception. Some of my best days were spent riding around the mountain with friends and hitting the snowboard parks. Once we had our fix for the day, we would jump on the final lift of the day up to the top of the Saulire, which was one of the main summits in Meribel. We would ride down the short distance to a place we called The Hut; the views were breath-taking. We could see for miles in every direction, straight down the valley to Moutier or over towards Saint Martin and Les Menuires. To our left was Mont Vallon, with the peaks of Val Thorens far beyond. The Hut was a happy place for many seasonaires. We used to chat about the day and watch the last few people making their way down the piste, like ants following each other trying to find their way home. We’d enjoy the changing colours of the mountains as the sun slowly made its way towards the jagged horizon. It felt like paradise. When we saw the ski patrol riding down, it was our cue to move. I always enjoyed the final run, before either heading back to get ready for work or calling in to the Rond Point, a bar just off the piste, for après-ski.
Though the season was over, I was in no rush to return to reality. I was looking forward to a few quiet days relaxing before driving down to the south of France, where landscape painting and time on the beach awaited. Painting was in my genes thanks to my father who is an artist. My watercolours and oil paints were ready and I was looking forward to painting the wonderful colours and landscapes of the Côte d’Azur. I was craving the sea, especially after five months in the mountains, and I yearned for sand between my toes and the smell of fresh salty air. This love stems back to my childhood, family days out at the seaside and holidays abroad. My sister Caroline and I would spend many hours building sandcastles on the beach and splashing around in the sea. It was always a magical place for us. Every time I sank my feet into warm soft sand and closed my eyes something was triggered inside; it took me back to those special memories and put a smile on my face.
A lot of friends had already started to leave the resort, some going home, others onwards for their next adventure. It was exciting but at the same time sad to say goodbye, although I knew many of them would be back next year. Life was good and chefs were always in demand. It was one of the reasons why I got into hospitality, restaurants and hotels were always looking for decent chefs, I could get a job anywhere.
The end of the season was a time of contemplation, I was thinking a lot about what the rest of my twenties was going to bring: travel, different experiences and finding out what I actually wanted to do with my life.
It was 4:30 a.m. when my mobile rang. I was in bed, but answered. No one I recognised, their voice hesitant.
“Yes?” I replied, snapping out of my sleepy haze.
“I am from the police and I am afraid I have some bad news.”
A thousand thoughts flooded through my mind in that split second, but even if I had another 614,962,476 seconds to guess what he was about to tell me, I would never have got it. At the time, my naive mind knew bad things happened in this world, but never to us or to people we knew.
“It’s about your sister, Caroline.” His voice was now solid and very serious.
Caroline was on a gap year in Australia with one of her best friends. What had the kid got herself into now? Probably arrested for something stupid or ran out of money.
The officer continued, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but Caroline has been involved in an incident and she is dead.”
I sat bolt upright. Surely, I wasn’t understanding this correctly. “Are you joking? What the hell are you talking about?”
“There has been a serious situation in Australia, and I am so sorry to have to tell you. She has lost her life. I am here with your mother, Marjorie.”
I could hear uncontrollable sobbing in the background, which sounded like my mother, but I had never heard anything like it before. In those few moments my whole world shattered, and our lives were changed forever.
“We are here at your home. Please don’t worry, we will make sure we do everything we can for your mother. One of my colleagues is with your father in Scarborough.”
“I don’t understand. What’s happened to Caroline in Australia?” I asked.
“I am afraid I don’t have many details at the moment. All I know is that there has been an incident on a bridge, Caroline has gone over the railings and unfortunately lost her life. Her friend Sarah is safe and with the police in Bundaberg.”
“OK, I will be home as soon as I can.”
Hanging up the phone, I just stared at it. I had no idea what to do with myself, no idea what to think. I was stuck in a French ski resort and it was still the middle of the night. Absolutely nothing I could do until morning. I felt completely powerless.
After a few moments my mind caught up, still trying to process the conversation. There was no way this could be true. What the hell had just happened? I slumped down on the edge of the bed, numb and in complete disbelief. I couldn’t feel anything. Looking down at my fingers, they had no sense of touch, nothing felt real. I couldn’t comprehend what I had just heard. I felt lightheaded and burst into tears. Just a few hours ago, before I went to bed, the last five months had been some of the best times of my life, but now they meant absolutely nothing.
A feeling of shock took over my body, I took some deep breaths and tried to steady myself. Standing up, I paced the room and kept repeating, “What the… has just happened? What was she doing on a bridge, how the hell has she gone over the railings? I can’t believe this. Caroline is dead? She can’t be dead.”
Hands shaking, I rolled a cigarette and smoked it until it burnt my fingers. It sent my head spinning and my thoughts were immediately with Mum and Dad. What the hell were they going through? Surely none of this can be true. I had no idea what was going on, no details, no way of finding out any more information and no way of being with my family.
In those life-changing few moments, a piece of my heart had been ripped out and I knew could never be replaced. If you break a china pot, it’s possible to piece it back together but you will always know it’s been broken even if you can’t see the joins.
At that time, I was relatively innocent to grief and loss, seeing but not truly understanding the cruelty and pain death can bring. Up until that point, 1985 had been the worst year of my life with both my grandfathers and my uncle dying. I was eight years old and took it very badly. I remember crying and being comforted by Mum as she tried to explain, they were old and had enjoyed a full life. Over time, I was able to come to terms with it, although I still felt that childhood sadness sometimes. This was completely different, something I knew instantly that I would never get over no matter how much time passed. Caroline was just a girl with her whole life ahead of her; she was my little sister.
I had no Internet access. I was completely cut off from the outside world; originally that had been part of the appeal. I stood on the balcony, looking out at the silhouette of the mountains. It was deadly quiet. There were still a couple of hours to go before the sun would break the horizon. I felt like nothing was real any more; I was in limbo with only time to think. I just couldn’t believe she was dead; how could she be? She was a strong and feisty young lady. How could she have been taken away from us? I replayed the phone call in my head, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but Caroline has been involved in an incident and she is dead.” This couldn’t be right, maybe the officer might have meant something else, he might have been mistaken? It could have been some other poor girl; deep down though, I knew it was true.
Chain-smoking cigarettes, I thought about our lives as brother and sister. I always believed we had been brought up the right way, loving parents, a traditional family with a normal life. Never wanting for much, we took pleasure in the simple things. We didn’t deserve this happening to us. I now realised, just like in the rest of life, ‘deserve’ has nothing to do with it. I always thought of our childhood as special, we were lucky as a family. Living in Huntington, York, our primary and secondary schools were both within walking distance and many of our friends lived just around the corner.
Mum and Dad had always pushed us to be active; Caroline was a member of the local gymnastics club and I thought she was really good at it. Mum and I would go to pick her up and watch as she effortlessly jumped and span around the floor. We both loved swimming and would go to the pool a few times a week for training. When we went on holiday, we were water babies and loved snorkelling in the sea or splashing around in the pool.
These memories all came flooding back like an incoherent movie playing in my mind at double speed. My emotions were all over the place. I didn’t know what I should be feeling and couldn’t work out what I was actually feeling.
I remembered our lives growing up. Dad was an artist by profession and loved showing us different animals and insects that lived in our garden. Butterflies were our favourite. The life cycle from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly was extraordinary and fascinated the pair of us. I remember Caroline and I being amazed by how this transformation took place and we desperately wanted to see a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. Dad in all his years had never seen it happen. One day, Caroline came running into the kitchen. “Dad, Dad, I’ve seen it.” We rushed outside and saw a red admiral butterfly sat flexing his wings on its empty chrysalis. She was always the lucky one, so I just couldn’t understand it. Why hadn’t she been lucky this time? All the scrapes I had gotten into over the years and I was still here. It just wasn’t fair.
She had such a caring nature which she got from Mum, who’d been a nanny in her early career. I had never met anyone who gave so much love so willingly to everyone she met. Sometimes we could both be very naughty, but for us it was of course always unconditional love, no matter what we did. Sometimes Caroline would go and see Grandma for dinner and chat incessantly about everything that happened at school and with her friends. They both loved spending time together and Grandma used to joke, “I love Caroline, but she has worn my ears out and I need a rest after every visit.” Sundays were always our family day. Mum used to cook the best Sunday roasts with all the trimmings, apart from the beef, which was always overcooked. I never realised at the time but when I trained as a chef I understood, medium rare and well rested. That’s how beef should be cooked and that was the end of it. It became a long running family joke.
Grandma, Grandad, my aunties and uncle all lived locally. Dad would go to work in the morning but was always back in time for lunch. We would eat early afternoon and catch up with the week’s news, Caroline always liked to be centre of attention and would tell us everything that she had been up to in excruciating detail. After lunch, and fully stuffed, the older family members would have a little rest and could be heard snoring in the living room. As Mum always managed to use every pan, bowl and plate in our kitchen, it always looked like a bombsite. It was mine and Caroline’s job to wash up. A worthy trade as Mum’s food was amazing, despite the beef. We would do it together, we were a team, and the kitchen would always be spotless after we had finished.
Still waiting for the sun to rise above the mountains, I remembered these times, it pulled on my stomach and made me feel physically sick. Of course, we weren’t perfect and like most brothers and sisters when we were younger, we sometimes fought like cat and dog. Deep down we always loved each other dearly. My head was spinning, tears brought me back to reality as they streamed down my face. I needed another cigarette.
There was still an hour to go before anyone would be awake. Taking a long drag, I thought about how over the last few years we had become great friends. When I was in the UK, we would regularly meet in York for coffee and were never lost for conversation; we could talk to each other about anything. I would give her advice like a good big brother should. It was one of Caroline’s big dreams to go travelling and I remember when she and Sarah were planning their Australian adventure. She was so excited and had been organising everything for months down to every last detail. When we discussed all the things she was going to do, her face would light up. She could hardly contain herself and looked so alive. Why didn’t I talk more about staying safe instead of just making jokes about how the hell was she going to manage without her hair straighteners? I am sure I said, “Be careful, make sure you look after yourself and each other.” I now felt it was nowhere near enough, but Australia was considered a safe place to visit.
I would have done anything to have had one more coffee with her. I loved her so much and kept getting flashes in my mind of the moments we shared. Once I accidentally trapped her fingers in the car door and never properly apologised. I was only a kid, but it haunted me now that I could never say sorry or apologise for anything I had ever done. She was gone. It hit me again like an avalanche, she was dead. We wouldn’t share anything again in this world… ever.
For more information about Chasing Rainbows and to purchase a copy of the book please visit www.carolinesrainbowfoundation.org
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