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Harry Dunn: Parents' grief on hold after US trip

Harry Dunn Image copyright Justice4Harry19
Image caption Nineteen-year-old Harry Dunn died on 27 August

The parents of Harry Dunn are returning home from the US, where they hoped - but ultimately failed - to persuade the US woman suspected of involvement in the crash that killed their son to face justice. BBC journalist Duncan Kennedy, who travelled to the States with Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn, reflects on their harrowing trip.

Grief is hard, like a downward ride in a lift which never find its floor. Imagine, then, facing that grief in front of the cameras of a dozen TV studios, 100 microphones and a 1,000 questions - it's harder, still.

But that's been the experience of a family that journalists often call "ordinary" people. Except the family of Harry Dunn are not ordinary.

Regular, unflashy, normal? Yes.

Ordinary? No - the events of the past week have proved that.

On the surface, Charlotte and Tim have been the personification of patience, modesty and dignity. Inside, it's been turmoil. For them, their grief is on hold.

Ten days ago they were an anonymous couple in their own world of sadness and anguish. They were just two people who, together with their respective new partners, Tracey and Bruce, had seen their lives in Northamptonshire brutally inverted into heartache by Harry's death on 27 August.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Tim Dunn and Charlotte Charles (centre) and their new partners went to the UK Foreign Office to ask why Anne Sacoolas was allowed to leave

But, unlike others who lose loved ones, their grief is on pause, because they had learned the person involved in Harry's accident had left the country.

Under the protective cloak of diplomatic immunity, Anne Sacoolas had made herself unavailable for inquiry or explanation. In those circumstances, it must have been tempting as a parent to rush headlong from heartache to anger.

Except that Tim and Charlotte haven't made that journey in their thoughts about Anne Sacoolas. Instead, they travelled to the United States to try to get her to answer questions, not seek retribution.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn have given dozens of interviews in America

In the days since their arrival in the US, I've been struck by their paucity of malevolence towards Mrs Sacoolas. I've heard them say, repeatedly, that she too is a mother, a wife a person, not some caricature of evil that needs punishment.

What they do feel towards her is pity.

They feel they shouldn't have been forced to cross the Atlantic to persuade her to return to confront the consequences of her actions. For them, this is as much a morality tale as it is one of criminal justice.

You will hear Tim and Charlotte say Mrs Sacoolas should "do the right thing" and come back.

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Media captionHarry Dunn suspect 'should do the right thing'

That's what makes all this so disorientating for them. After a lifetime of viewing the world as right and wrong, black and white, Harry's death and its aftermath has taken them into a zone of ambiguity.

As they leave America with their goal elusive, their questions unanswered, they can't understand why. All week they have staggered up a learning curve so steep it has left them in a state of incredulity. They have become gaunt through lack of sleep, sapped by repeated interviews, depleted of energy save for the endless offers of TV studio coffee and fizzy drinks.

Image copyright Aiken Standard Archive
Image caption Anne Sacoolas, pictured on her wedding day in 2003

"Why," asks Tim, "should I have to keep re-telling my experience of seeing Harry lie on the road, bloodied and with his bones exposed out of his broken skin, if it doesn't lead to results?"

"Why," says Charlotte, "should I have to keep talking about my cherished, adored son, if no one is listening?"

One person did listen. He, too, isn't ordinary.

When the call came through that Tim and Charlotte were to go to the White House, they had no idea they were going to meet President Trump, only "senior officials". It was only when they stepped inside the Oval Office that they fully realised who they had an audience with.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption President Trump asked the couple if they wanted to meet Anne Sacaloos, who was in the next room

For 15 minutes or so, a GP surgery worker and maintenance engineer had the ear of the world's most powerful man. Disbelief doesn't come close to explaining their state of mind.

"I saw the crest on the carpet and it looked like all the films and TV shows I'd seen," says Tim.

"He's not like you see him on television," says Charlotte, "he's not a buffoon, he's courteous."

But then came the bombshell, a moment of theatre so unexpected it could only have been choreographed by a supreme ringmaster: the president revealed Anne Sacoolas was waiting in an adjoining room.

"We were horrified," says Charlotte."We had no idea she was there."

"It was wrong, just wrong... we weren't ready for that," adds Tim.

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Media captionCharlotte Charles: "Meeting Anne Sacoolas wouldn't have brought any healing to her or us"

The president asked the couple several times if they wanted to meet her. Never forceful, just persistent.

I asked Tim and Charlotte if it was hard to resist an offer like that from the President of the United States in the imposing splendour of the Oval Office?

"Not really," says Tim. "This needs to be handled with care, we are so vulnerable right now."

"That's not what we came here for," says Charlotte, with the nonchalance of someone used to turning down offers from heads of state.

"It was a stunt, pure and simple," says Radd Seiger, the retired American lawyer who lives near Tim and Charlotte and has become their trusted confidante. "It was a circus, the president wanted a photo opportunity to lay this matter to bed."

"To sweep it under that crested presidential carpet, perhaps?" I ask.

"Exactly," he says.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Charlotte described her son as a "loving boy"

"His goodbye hand shake at the end turned into a hand-hold," says Charlotte. "As he took my hand, I gripped it and looked him in the eye and asked him if he would do the same as we were doing, if it were his son".

The president replied that he would, only it didn't matter. The meeting between two parents and a mother both staring at human devastation from different sides of the same shattered prism, never happened.

"We need her to come back to Britain," says Charlotte, "that's the only way this will end."

Later, I ask them: "What was Harry like?"

"He was lovely," says Tim. "I can't remember ever having bad words with him. We loved our football together, now that's gone."

"I wish you had met him," says Charlotte. "He was a loving boy. He was so kind and gentle. I can't bear that he's gone, that I can't talk to him, or laugh with him. I won't be able to share life experiences with him, what I call 'mum moments'."

With her eyes now fully moistened by the impact of her own words, she says: "I am dreading going back to my normal life, as all this emotion hemmed in by our journey to America will become unpicked."

As they pack their bags and return to the UK, they are buttressed by thoughts they have at least tried to do their best for Harry, but accept this doesn't yet appear to have an end.

Much like their grief.

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