Saturday 10 December 2016

John's text home: Make sure that the house is warm for my beautiful bride

Published 15/01/2011 | 05:00

Just before Michaela McAreavey slipped back to her honeymoon suite to fetch a biscuit on the last journey of her short life, her new husband John sent a text home to a close friend.

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It was Monday afternoon and the newly-weds were in the midst of a holiday of a lifetime. But they were bristling with excitement, too, at the thought of moving into their cosy new home in Lawrencetown, near Banbridge, this weekend, deep in the Co Down countryside where John grew up.

Some might have called them old-fashioned but the pair had bucked the trend of their carefree generation and chosen not to live under the same roof until they had made their vows. The prospect of waking up together every morning, brushing their teeth and sharing breakfast as man and wife held a special novelty all of its own and they couldn't wait to live it out.

But from the moment he would carry his beautiful new bride over the threshold, the 26-year-old accountant wanted everything to be just right.

It was typical of him. The couple's busy social calendar for 2011 already included two seats for the Manchester soccer derby in March.

Both ardent United fans, John had gone to the trouble of buying a team top for each of them to wear.

And even though last Monday they were more than 6,000 miles away from home, basking in sunshine on the sugar-white beaches of Mauritius, his thoughts fell momentarily to more practical matters and the freezing winter they had left behind in Ireland.

After the snowy weather of recent weeks, John was worried that their empty house might be chilly and he wanted to make sure that it was warm for their romantic homecoming on Sunday night.

From the poolside, he sent a text asking his friend to go over and check that there was enough fuel to spare and that everything was in order for when they landed home this weekend.

Minutes later, his world was shattered.

There are so many 'if onlys' in the story of Michaela McAreavey's heartbreaking death.

If only she hadn't gone to fetch that wretched biscuit. If only she had arrived three minutes earlier before her assailant had entered their room. If only they had stayed in another hotel. If only they had gone to the Maldives, Mozambique or Madagascar -- other exotic hotspots that crossed Michaela's radar as she meticulously planned their dream honeymoon.

Mark Twain wrote that heaven was copied from Mauritius -- and that dreamy island, tragically, was their final choice.

And then there are so many whys. Why did the burglary take place in broad daylight when the couple were on site at the Legends resort and could have returned at any moment? Why didn't her killer assume the guise of a cleaner when the young teacher suddenly returned without notice? Why was the attack on this petite, innocent woman so particularly vicious? And why, oh why, did they have to take her precious life?

These are the questions that will haunt Michaela's family and friends in the coming weeks, months and years as they wade through the emotional wreckage caused by her awful death, a death she fought so bravely to resist.

Nothing makes sense now. Maybe it never will. But when those closest to her imagine how Michaela would have coped with such devastation, they are certain of one thing: she would have clung to her faith to get her through the dark times, as she always did.

After all, it was that unshakeable faith and love for the Catholic Church that led her to the man of her dreams in the first place.

A staunch pioneer, who was always the first to jump on the nearest table to cheer when her team won a game, Michaela first spotted John on the dance-floor of a nightclub when they were students in Belfast.

Who's that, she asked a friend. The bishop's nephew, came the reply, and Michaela's face lit up.

She had already fallen for his good-looks, but the devout young Christian who was planning a teaching career in religious studies felt it was an added bonus that his uncle and namesake was the much-loved Bishop of Dromore.

Her heart melted further when she heard that this eye-catching young man was a GAA fanatic on the road to becoming one of Down's best forwards from his home club of Tullylish.

He was not from her beloved Tyrone but his passion for Gaelic football would go down well when she took him home to meet her sporting-hero father Mickey, who led their home county to three All-Ireland titles and she knew John was someone very special from the moment they first met.

The truth is that his Ulster Rose could have had any man in Tyrone, but she chose John. She was so much in love with him that she agreed to move away from her family and spend their future in his home county.

Six years later, they would walk down the aisle together, and stand on the altar under the loving eye of the man who inadvertently brought them together, Bishop John.

It was a winter wedding that lit up the bleak December skies. Ribbon-wrapped lanterns lined the aisle as the bride, linked to her adoring father's arm, walked towards her groom to the tune of a Chris de Burgh ballad 'In a Country Churchyard'.

Hands grasped for tissues when the guests saw her radiant face and listened to the song's sentimental lyrics, which carry such an unbearable poignancy today.

They tell the story of another wedding in a country chapel and a heartbroken guest who returns years later to visit the bride's tomb.

"Many years have fallen on that golden country morning,

The graveyard's overgrown, the church lies in ruins,

Ivy on the walls and ravens wheeling round above me,

As I made my way towards the last remaining headstone,

I fell to my knees, read the lines beneath the leaves,

And suddenly it seemed to me,

I heard the words like singing in the trees . . .

Let your love shine on,

For we are the stars in the sky,

Let your love shine strong,

Until the day you fly away."

On that blissful afternoon, none of the 250 guests present at St Malachy's Church on the penultimate day of 2010 could have imagined the terrible fate awaiting Michaela as she jetted off to the Indian Ocean with her new husband.

Kevin Murphy gazes over the green fields on the horizon when he recalls that perfect day. A close neighbour and friend of the McAreaveys, the memories are still fresh in his mind. A smile breaks onto his ashen face when he remembers the tender moments the couple shared as they embarked on married life.

"They literally skipped down the aisle. They were just a perfect match, such a happy couple. She was always there on the sidelines at games rooting for John. They had a fantastic love for each other."

Another neighbour from Lawrencetown, former GAA president, Pat McFlynn, recalls meeting them at the vigil Mass on Saturday evenings.

"Michaela always spoke to me in Irish. She was so proud of her culture. You'd always have an interesting conversation with her. They were always smiling when they were together."

As night settles over the tear-swept valley where John and Michaela were to start their life together this weekend, their pretty house in the quiet estate of Roeshill stands in lonely darkness today, an agonising sight to the rare passer-by.

A solitary crow keeps watch from an aerial on the roof, cawing harshly to her flock to return to their nests.

The only other sign of life is a flashing alarm on the red-brick stone that the security-conscious couple had switched on before they left.

Like so many of us when we travel to far-flung places abroad, perhaps they thought they would be safer on a paradise island than they were at home.

Nobody could blame them for that.

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