Your first-born is special,” says Julie Nicholson. She recalls how, in the first moments after her daughter Jenny’s birth, she felt remade by motherhood – no longer an individual, but a parent whose first and fervent vow was to protect her child. “Symbolically,” she says, “your first-born defines your position in the universe.”
When Jenny died, aged 24, in the 7/7 terrorist attack in London in 2005, Nicholson, a Church of England priest, felt everything she thought she knew slip away. Her daughter was killed at Edgware Road Underground station by the bomb planted by Mohammad Sidique Khan, the bombers’ ringleader from Dewsbury, and Nicholson was forced to reappraise her convictions. “When protecting your child becomes… not possible, that is not something that can be got over,” she says. “You are changed and you will carry it always, like a wound inside.”
A Song For Jenny is a tenth-anniversary tribute to all 52 victims of the London bombings. Adapted by award-winning screenwriter Frank McGuiness, from Nicholson’s 2010 memoir of the same name, the film stars Emily Watson as Nicholson and tells the story of Jenny’s last morning and the days that followed. Watson’s portrayal of mind-altering grief is terrible to see and can’t have been easy to play (the actress wept at the Bafta screening of the drama). For Nicholson, who had no expectations of catharsis, much less of closure, watching the film was “mainly uplifting”.
“That first time, watching Emily, who was just extraordinary, I lost track of whether I was watching her or watching me. I felt this mix of being quite objective about it, as if it were someone else’s story, but at the same time feeling that this whole narrative was somehow in me.”
The content of the drama reflects Nicholson’s unrelenting, visceral need for facts at the time of her daughter’s death; her need to see for herself the bomb site in the immediate aftermath of the explosion; her decision, against official advice, to see her daughter’s mutilated body.
There is an indescribably sad mortuary scene where Nicholson anoints with holy oil her daughter’s arm and hand – the only part of Jenny recognisable in the undertaker’s swirl of muslin – and prays for her. Nicholson has written in her memoir that she believes it was for this moment alone that she was ordained as a priest. A year later, however, she resigned her position at the Church of St Aidan with St George in Bristol to work in community theatre. Her decision provoked headlines about “the priest who lost her faith”, or “the priest who couldn’t forgive”, but the truth was not so simple.
“Faith, to me, is not like a shopping bag full of stuff that you can pick up and put down,” she says, carefully. “It’s something that is woven through me. It’s a mysterious thing, and sometimes I engage more with one part of it than another, but I think what I rejected absolutely was the easy language of faith that, actually, just doesn’t measure up when times are tough. I could stand up as an Anglican priest, with my dog collar on, and speak those words of forgiveness and reconciliation. And then I would go into my house and close the door, and know I didn’t believe them.”