Looking up at the Sky/Antidote

On Tuesday, March 1st 2016, I looked up at the sky, took a picture with my camera phone and posted it on Instagram.

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Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

The last picture I’d posted had been on Thursday, February 25th, 2016 – a punch bag hanging in a private members club in London. I liked the way it had been hung and lit, like a piece of art – maybe it was a piece of art?  It was my last picture Before.

I’d taken pictures between Friday, 26th February and the following Tuesday, 1st March, but I’d not posted any of them. I  don’t remember making a conscious decision to abstain from Instagram. I guess it simply didn’t cross my mind at the time.

Today, Wednesday,  26th February 2020,  I looked up again and took another picture of the sky,  standing on pretty much the exact same spot I’d stood, 4 years previously.

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But now I know
There is no antidote for you
(Mr Hudson, 2019)

What happens after?

The plot was, I’d admit, pretty darn predictable, nothing to write home about. The lumbering, stuttering script didn’t help and the casting was pretty obvious and somewhat contrived, with a smattering of B list Hollywood names, no doubt paid over the odds to draw the audience in.

But, it was still a film and a film that we’d paid good money for. So, I for one was willing to forgive its failings; put them to one side, concentrate on what there was of a storyline and, well, see it through.

Izzy, on the other hand, was much less forgiving. She yawned loudly and stretched out on the green sofa, rather elaborately raising both her arms and legs simultaneously whilst sighing loudly. She curled in her knees to her default sofa, fetal position and checked her phone, gathering as if from nowhere. In my peripheral vision I could see the blue white glare illuminating her face, her eyes scanning the screen rapidly and her thumb moving in fluid, well rehearsed flicks and occasionally dashes.  I tried to focus my eyes on the TV screen, willing myself to concentrate on the film’s dubious storyline and not to get distracted by Izzy’s counter screen activity.

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14 November 2015 (taken by little Ellie I think)

 

‘I mean, really…’  Izzy piped up.

She lowered the arm that held her phone, so that her face, illuminated by her App interface, was cast into shadow. She stretched out her phone arm languidly over the living room floor, as she laid curled up on the green sofa and starred intently at the TV screen.

‘It always starts off well, then there’s some kind of disaster but this actually turns out to pull people together, then there’s a battle or a chase or fight that seems to end well at first, but then something bad happens again that needs defeating, before you finally get to the end, that ultimately makes you happy.’

These weren’t Izzy’s exact words, nor is it an accurate analysis of any specific Hollywood genre story arc.  But it represents well our familiar, nay, ritualistic TV dinner tableau – Izzy in her PJs, stretched out on the green sofa with her iPhone in hand, yawning and critiquing.

She could pull apart the story arc of all the TV and films we watched, with the exception of ‘Made in Chelsea’ which was sacrosanct, beyond analysis.  Maybe it was her A Level media studies that did it? Maybe it was because she watched alot of TV? Maybe it was just that she was gobby – comfortable in her own skin. Strangely, she could offer her acid criticism whilst at the same time being utterly engrossed, like she knew she was being carried along a story arc, but wanted to be taken along with it.

But no matter how poorly the story was told, how predicable the plot, or how overpaid the actors, it would always come to an end. There was always a conclusion. Always an end. The credits would roll. And time for bed.

No one tells the story of what happens after.

We still watch TV.  We still eat our supper in front of media channels and streaming services. And we still watch the good, the bad and the binge worthy, as well as the utterly forgettable and unfathomably shite.

But there’s less criticism, less critique. And the green sofa lays bare, pillows puffed up. Still and silent.

Hey! Happy Birthday!

Hey Iz. Happy Birthday. Hope you’re OK.

We’re not doing much today. Mooching about really. Bit of online retail therapy, cups of coffee, answering the door for deliveries. Made us egg and soldiers for breakfast. Molly rang when we were still in bed.

I took Lillie for a walk in the woods. She’s our new Minnie – you’ve not met her yet. Hope you’re looking after Minnie btw?

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The path wasn’t too muddy and the leaves were dry and crinkly, which Lillie loved.

There was a stillness in the air. A quiet. I could hear it in the trees. A crow cawed somewhere nearby. I looked up above me.

“When the sun dies and the stars fade from view, our love will remain real and true.”
(Benjamin Hudson)

Anyway, just wanted to say… Happy Birthday.

xx

Radio 4, on Only Just Day 2

In the early hours of only just Day 2, I’d risen, pretty much sleepless, fretful and utterly, unashamedly afraid to face the day, at 7am. Give or take.

I lifted my feet out of our familiar bed into a newly still, utterly quiet ghost town, an uncertain swaying new found land, that was, it seemed, constantly wavering and wobbling, as though I was getting up still drunk, held in the aftermath of the night before.

Our bedroom carpet had been remodelled, stricken an uncertain stormy sea, opening out ahead of me, torturous, frightening. My first steps from our bed weren’t the usual, reassuring steps that showed me I’d woken from my floating subconscious to my every day’s, tangibly real terra firma. Instead, they felt like gravity was playing with me, toying with me, fooling me, into some new floating, ambient reality that was completely and wholeheartedly unreal, with absolutely no gravity at all. Laws of physics need not apply.

To be fair, I’d not exactly slept much. I had stoically declined the sedative drugs prescribed by our GP, on her maiden visit to our house, around 10pm,  to our wailing, at times screaming, traumatised house, on Friday 26th February, 2016. I suppose I felt like I should be the one to be there in the morning. To hold things together.

So, I sat there, on the edge of the bed and unknowingly, at a purely cerebral level, I counted out my first few steps to the partially ajar bedroom door. 3? Maybe 4, max. I lifted myself up and stood up, my bare feet pressing into the eminently practical woven thread of our bedroom carpet. I paced out the handful of steps towards the bedroom door and then ventured out into the widening, gulf like sea of the hallway. I was taking my first few baby steps into this very real, surreal world, into my now and forever world of  ‘After’.

I guess my left hand must have brushed the bannister as I descended the stairs; stairs felt by my bare feet, as the same familiar woven thread as our bedroom. But I don’t really remember.

All I really remember about the start of Day 2, was that, as usual, at the start of every day, I swept the black slate of our family kitchen floor.

This was my early morning ritual. I’d set the coffee beans to grind in the noisy coffee grinder (too noisy as Izzy complained everyday) and as the kettle boiled, I swept away the previous day’s kitchen debris.

And listened to Radio 4.

On Saturday February 27th, 2016, Radio 4 news announced the deaths of three Britains, who had died at a waterfall in Vietnam. They announced the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were: “providing support to the families of three British nationals following their deaths”. It was a brief news report, no more than a few seconds of Radio 4 airtime.

Beth Anderson and Izzy Squirehttps://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35670529 

And as I listened, I swept our grey black slate kitchen floor – always a bugger to get it to look like it had been properly swept, with all its nooks and crevices, it really did require considerable focus and diligent brush strokes to get at all the bits, especially those bits in between the slates, always tricky. And funnily enough, the usually crystal clear digital audio of our DAB radio had suddenly become muffled and distant, as though it had been intercepted by static interference, or taken over by some rogue radio frequency, distorting its normally digitally reliable quality.

I pressed more heavily than usual on the broom handle.

This was Day 2.

 

Gasping for Beth

OK, ok, I attempt it, I was trying to ‘normalise’. What’s that development cycle I learnt in teacher training? – ‘storming, norming, performing’. I was ‘norming’ or trying my damnedest to. TBH, I thought I was doing pretty well, keeping it all hidden. Success of some kind.

Today, you see, should have been Beth’s 28th birthday. Four years forever 24.

My brother and I got to our seats for the first home game of the season. About 2.50pm it was, minutes counting to the inaugural kick-off.  Whilst he chatted with our regular next seat occupants, I casually scanned the fading blue plastic of our season ticket seats. Inadvertently, I brushed my fingers against the number inscribed on my seat. I looked up to the north stand, then to the cop, to weigh up my predictions for the game’s attendance, a home-game ritual of some 18 years.

Then I chanced upon the sky above.

I don’t remember its colour or hue, nor whether I fancied rain or clear. I just suddenly felt a gap opening, a gulf of a gap, a space, opening up right in front of me. An almost three-dimensional space, a suddenly very tangible, very real void, a space, right there in front of me. Or maybe it was somewhere inside of me – in my chest, in my lungs.

It felt like a vacuum of molecules, a buzzing collection of micro particles that should, by rights, have been there, in tangible form. I felt like I could actually touch it, put my hand out now and touch it. It was an irregular shaped thing with soft, rounded edges, beautiful and random, made up of intricate intertwining patterns of pure space. It hovered just in front of me (or was it inside me?). It was there just as soon as I had noticed it was there, as soon as I clocked it.

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Beth, from Izzy’s phone, 25 February 2016.

It took my breath away. Gasping. Just for a moment. A split second, a molecule of a second, in amongst the sea of fellow football fans and a derby home-game opener.

2 minutes in and we were 1-0 up. We won 2-0.

Later, in the pub, as Molly went to get scratch cards (in honour of Beth’s not so secret pleasure) we stuttered through how we’d been today, and I gave Trace a scant description of what happened at the football. It seemed to me that we were all in the same boat, all of the same mind, all trying to normalise the 10th August. But maybe that was just me justifying myself.

The next day I took the dogs for a mid-morning walk behind our house. As we emerged from a cluster of trees onto an open grassy bank, the wind picked up strength and rushed through branches and leaves, gently pushing an aftermath breeze against my face.

And I felt Beth’s gap again.

The Story I didn’t tell Hawley: My Attempts to Make Sense (Part 1)

I stand at the bar, scanning the line of locally brewed beers, squinting without my glasses, trying to check their names as well as their alcohol percentage before the barman comes my way.

The pub clock said 25 past, or thereabouts. I‘m due to meet my friends at half past.

Tugging at my wrist, their leads now stretched taut, Minnie and Lottie pull me away from my scrutiny of ales to their own intimate inspection of potential scraps by a nearby barstool.

As their leads remain taut, a tripwire for passersby, a gentlemen arrives, clearly intent on the bar. I jerk their leads to reign them both in, so as to let him by. He thanks me as he passes and then stands next to me, also waiting to be served. I order myself a pint, around 4.5%, and he orders a round.  As I wave my phone at the contactless terminus and I feel their leads tighten again, I realise the gent is Mr Richard Hawley.

We stand at the bar and he enquires about my dogs – their names – ‘this is Lottie, this is Minnie’, and their breed – ‘both miniature schnauzers’. He tells me he has two of his own – a cocker spaniel and a sheep dog, and how his kids are growing up now. Then, as if wielding a sharpened knife to the thin veneer of a casual pub conversation, Hawley asks me if I think a dog’s personality changes over time.

I start to tell him how Lottie has gotten more and more anxious over… then I stutter here…’the years’, whilst Minnie has gotten more and more chilled. I want to say it’s as if Minnie knows that we need her to be loving, adorable and needy, to fill an aching, cavernous gap, but I don’t. He says how chilled he thinks they both are, compared to most dogs out in a pub. But, that said, how, even if there was a fight going on in the pub, his two dogs would lie asleep, under his seat.

Then my friends arrive and greet me with Friday night hugs. And as Hawley bids me goodbye, he gently touches my arm, as though he knows more than he’s letting on.

We find a quiet corner and the mid summer Friday evening sets as we laugh and catch-up. After a couple, we head home via the sinking twilight of Bingham park, so Minnie and Lottie can stretch their salt and pepper legs.

A little later, as my home-alone supper warms itself in the oven, I water the sun drenched garden and listen to  Hawley’s ‘As the Dawn Breaks’ through open kitchen doors, Minnie mooching around the garden, Lottie decamped to the sofa.

You see, the story I really wanted to tell Hawley (and that I only thought of after, as so oft is the case)  was how I’m convinced that Lottie has gotten more anxious because, even after 3 and a half years, she’s still waiting for Beth and Izzy to come home. She’s anxious because she senses their absense in our house and she doesn’t know why. She smells them, but they’re not here. She misses them. Misses their adoration, their snuggles, their bear hugs, the treats and the titbits – like when Iz famously fed Lottie a whole slice of pizza just to herself. She misses the game where I’d call her and Izzy would call her back – the sweet stupid competition of who loved her the most.

The story I really wanted to tell Hawley is that I think Lottie is still waiting for them and doesn’t understand why they’ve not come back home. That she doesn’t understand where they’ve gone or why they’ve not come back. That she’s increasingly anxious because she’s still waiting, still holding on, for that moment when they finally do come home. That moment when she runs to the door to greet them, to paw them and leap on them, squealing with doggy delight.

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I stand in the midst of our thirsty Friday night garden and spray it much-needed water. I listen to Hawley’s ‘As the dawn breaks’ and I cry.

I cry, not knowing that, about the same time the following night, I would be watching the life ebb away from Minnie’s glistening black eyes and start to question why I even try to attempt to make sense of Before and After.

Formal Identification and ‘Manning up’.

It’s Friday, Day 8, one week After. They’ve come home.

Beth and Iz are, right now, housed safe and sound at the Medico Legal Centre. A rather unobtrusive red brick building, nestled between a tower block council estate, a growing portion of the city’s student accommodation and a dual carriageway. A rather dull dual carriageway, if it has to be said. I doubt anyone’s ever been bothered to muster up the speed to be caught out on the inconsequential uphill between Neepends and the University roundabout. (On a more personal note, the Medico Legal Centre happens to be just a few blocks away from our first family home in Upperthorpe. Back then, I’d no idea whatsoever it was there. Until I had to, now).

Earlier that Friday morning, Day 8, after I’d been (just about ‘been’) taken in the backseat of the Police escort that tailed the anonymous red coffin carrying van, from the soul-less Manchester Airport freight terminus, over the snowy, wind swept Pennine hills, I’d left Beth and Iz at the Medico-legal Centre.

There, in the corporate furnished reception, I’d fumbled out of an unimaginably painfully packed shoulder bag, their two most cherished childhood teddies – Teddy and Toby. To leave for them. To look after them. So they knew they were home. Maxine, the beating heart of this awful place told me she would make sure they got them. And that they would always stay together.

Then I’d gone home.

I guess Cagney and Lacey must have drove me back in the same marked BMW Police car that had just drove me, fragile as millimetre thin glass, listening to Daft Punk in my headphones and weeping, weeping, all the way over the Winter Pennines. I got home somehow, but I don’t really remember how.

What I do remember is that, later that evening, after an evening that was, to be frank, a complete blur, I got a call from Cagney.

It turned out, she said, that we still needed to ‘formally identify’ them.

We’d talked about this before. She’d said we probably wouldn’t need to. That there was enough evidence. I guess, then, amidst the horrors of the first hours that turned into the first few indelible days of ‘After’, Cagney was softening the blow.  Seeing, knowing, that we simply weren’t ready for this.

‘I know, it’s…well…’, she now explained softly, so, so carefully, ‘…someone needs to… formally identify them’.

I guess, deep down, I knew this was going to happen.  I’ve seen enough TV cop series to  know that formal family identification is part and parcel of the process of ‘unforeseen’ death.  And I guess she knew all too well that we’d have to face up to this, at some point – but that, in the first few Days, we just weren’t ready for it. Cagney explained it with heartfelt compassion and the tact and timing gleaned from years of FLO experience.

Meantime, in my world reality, I’d been thinking, well, come on, after all, we’re not actually in some TV cop drama, for real. This is now, this is real and my life, happening now. This ain’t some story arcing moment, dreamt up by a TV script writer, when the obligatory white-sheeted body gets wheeled out on a steel-plated platform in a clinically clean, florescent lit morgue. It doesn’t really happen like that. This is real and happening now. This ain’t the moment when a ‘loved one’ stands over a shrouded shape of a body, and a white coated Morgue assistant pulls back the whiter than white sheet.

No. I mean, ffs, they had their passports.

And we’d already told the Police about their identifying features – about Izzy’s scars – the one on her arm, after her Geography school field trip ‘argument’ with a barbed wire fence. About the scar on her knee after a ‘gardening incident’ with me and a spade (that I’d denied) when she was a kid. And we’d painstakingly described the eternity tattoo on Beth’s torso, inked to mirror her childhood friend. And we told the story of her missing front tooth, lost in a toddler chase with her sister Molly, when she’d crashed into a toilet seat.

And more to the point ffs, Christian’s friend James had already identified them in Vietnam. He’d had to reenact that TV cop morgue scene – and with his childhood friend.

And, after all, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had, on Day 1, minutes after I got home, asked to check their credentials and to ratify that they had travel insurance – the FCO’s dull diligent ‘repatriation’ – their pressing, assertively stated, first priority.

And their bodies had been flown home from Ho Chi Minh City to Manchester International Airport. They had been ‘repatriated’.

And doubly, surely, I‘d seen their passport photos pinned to the purple plastic wrapped around their in-flight coffins. I’d seen their backpacks laid out on wooden pallets at the vast, yet strangely airless, Manchester International Airport freight terminal.

That was enough. Surely. We all knew it was Beth and Izzy.

‘We still have to do this,’ Cagney gently explained, and, moreover, ‘It had to be now’, she said. ‘They died a week ago. They’ve been flown from the other side of the world.’

‘Every day will make it worse… make it harder to see them.’ she said.

‘And’, she said more softly, ‘you have to know, Beth’s injuries…have left half of her face purple… You need to know’.

I stood in our back garden, where I’d gone to take the call. And I wept.

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Cagney and I talked a while longer, my phone pressed tightly to my ear, as I stood starring at the suddenly stark distance between the firmly rooted trees behind our house and the ever shifting, endless evening stars above.

Then I manned-up.

And I came up with a cunning plan.

Cagney and Lacey would come round tomorrow, Saturday morning, Day 9. Cagney would explain to us, that, unfortunately, they needed ‘formal identification’ and that this needed to be done immediately, straight away. Then, like a shot, I would volunteer. Minutes later, I would be in the back of a Police car on the way to the Medico Legal Centre.

It was such a simple, straightforward plan. Devised to cause the least hurt, the least pain. A plan designed to get the necessary job done and as quickly and painlessly as possible.

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Flowers – from Izzy’s camera phone, 26 February, 2016.

On Saturday morning, 5th March 2016, uncharacteristically punctual, Cagney and Lacey knocked on our door – now so familiar visitors that even our dogs didn’t bark – and came in with their congenial Police platitudes, before perching themselves on the edge of our sofa.

We sat and talked for a while.

Then Cagney explained ‘I’m really, really sorry, but I have to tell you, we do need someone to formally identify them. Could one of you… come now? It’s all been arranged at the Medico Legal for 11am. We could go…we need to go…Now.’

I waited, 1 second, maybe 2, before blurting out, ‘I’ll do it. Let’s go’. I was getting out of my seat to go….

‘No, No. NO. ‘No fucking way. NO fucking way.’

No way,’ Trace repeated over and over, ‘No fucking way. No way are you doing this.’

She was wanting to spare me the abject horror, the unbridled, life numbing memory of doing this thing. This thing, that I felt instinctively was my duty, and mine alone, but that I knew would literally tear my soul apart.

As part of the cunning plan, I should have known this would be her instinctive, heartfelt reaction. After all, I’d had the whole of the previous evening to come to terms with the stark realisation of what I saw as my parental duty. A whole restless, sleeping tablet-infused night to try to come to terms with it. Whereas Trace’s reaction was instantaneous, immediate, from the gut. And absolutely adamant.

I sank back into our sofa, not sure if I was relieved or quietly frustrated that my ‘manning up’ had been so decisively thwarted.

We talked it over with Cagney and Lacey. ‘Is there anyone else?’

It was Cagney, I think, who said ‘If your family doctor can’t do it, what about Dave?’

Dave was a family friend, his kids had grown up with ours. But he also happened to be a Police Officer. I called him ‘Copper Dave’, not to his face, of course. Dave was a senior investigating officer (an ‘SIO’, if you’ve ever watched Line of Duty and googled Police abbreviations) and an SIO Cagney and Lacey knew well.

The next day, Cagney called Dave. I didn’t call him. I couldn’t man up enough.

It was the Sunday, maybe Monday, when Dave called me. He wasn’t his usual self.

‘Squizz, I’m so sorry. I’m, so…so, sorry.’ A stuttering, semi incoherent, trying to be professional, but also a friend’s phone call.

‘They both looked peaceful. Really peaceful.’

Later, I found out that Cagney had gone to meet Dave with Maxine, the surgically scrubbed matriarch of Sheffield Medico-Legal Centre. Maxine, the loving receiver of Teddy and Toby, Izzy and Beth’s childhood teddies. Maxine, who’d promised me, when I brought them home from Manchester Airport, that she’d look after them and always keep them together.

Apparently, Cagney and Maxine had sat down with Dave and told him, firmly, ‘You’re not a copper now’. ‘This is different’.