The Grief Bubble (Day 2)

Saturday 27th February 2016. The first morning of ‘After’.

On what has become known as After, and now a slow motion, blurry unreal version of real life. An unrecognised, inexperienced, unwanted, hazy daze. I believe it’s called ‘shock’ or ‘trauma’. The first tremors of. The aftermath.

The house was heaving with grieving bodies –  the semblances of people who’d been kinda average just a handful of hours before. Now, all cast adrift, unanchored, alone in each others skins, either starring at or sharing in the heightened emotions of the others who came together in an uncommonly full Edwardian house in Sheffield.

Normality, the mundane had been cast out in an instant, and replaced by an unprecedented collective anguish. From the cigarette strewn back garden, the neighbours must have heard the wailing.

Clearly, I needed to get out of the house.

‘Shall I get anything? A few bits?’ Jim asked, as ever, and especially on Day 1, a rock.

‘I’ll come.’ I slo-mo replied, my words getting slower, as though my brain and my mouth weren’t talking to each other, so my words had to travel down a long lost underground tunnel to come out.  ‘No really, I want to come’.

We got in Jim’s car. He drove, I sat.

The car passed slowly ( I assume we drove hearse like slowly) down Rustlings Road, round Hunters Bar roundabout, covering the posh Sheffield references in that Artic Monkeys song. We would take this same route again, a few weeks later, but sat in Mario the Mini, following two horse drawn carriages.  Now, we turned down Ecclesall Road.

I watched from Jim’s car. It was like watching some ambient scene in an art house movie, as the camera pans slowly.

People. People. There were people. People were walking about. People were going shopping. People were sat in Starbucks (Izzy works in a Starbucks. The thought was followed by a new stabbing, shooting pang of pain in my chest, so unfamiliar on Day 2). People crossed the road. People drove cars. They indicated, pulled out, slowed down. People were pressing the pedestrian crossing button, carrying their shopping home.

This was, to my amazement, everyday life and it was carrying on. But now, After, I was watching it from a distance, looking through my blurry, grief bubble lens, my mind camera on permanent slow motion. Muffled audio of everyday life tangled up with the new sensations of constant crying, aching chest pains and shortness of breath.

Waitrose car park. Safe from harm supermarket shopping, surely. We got out. We must have got out. I think I picked up a hand basket. In we went through familiar sliding doors.

To the left of the entrance, if you skip the fruit and veg isle, there is a low display stand for the papers.

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Waitrose, Ecclesall Road (10am, Saturday 27 February 2016)

And there was Izzy.

Izzy, my Izzy. Spread out, a repeated wall of The Times, with Izzy on its cover. The selfie she’d taken on my phone the night of her A Level passing out prom – a ‘proud dad’ comment in a moment of sincerity in our usual comedy of faux love.

I must have managed to stay standing. (There can be no drama in Waitrose). I took a picture. You can’t see the tears, but I couldn’t really see if it was in focus.

We got milk, biscuits I think, more wine for later, I’m sure. We must have paid, we must have stood in a queue. I must have put a copy of The Times on the check-out conveyor belt. We must have left, because how else could we have got back home, to continue with Day 2 – to reporters camped outside in their cars, to the bodies of people in our house, to the constant stream and flowers and cards and family liaison officers.

To begin After.

An Accidental Soundtrack to Grief (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of the story of how 7 songs by Daft Punk have become the soundtrack to my grief.

I liked Daft Punk, back in the day.

I’d bought their compact discs (for anyone under 30, that’s how music used to be streamed). They adorned my CD collection with quiet pride. Homework was one of those ‘of an era’ albums – tracks that defined a time and a place. But the album and the band had faded with time for me. Homework lost it impetuous and relevance and lay on the CD shelf, stacked away in the funky/house/electronic section – Groove Armanda, Underworld, Fat Boy Slim, you get the picture.

Then in 2011 (was it really that long ago?) ‘Get Lucky’ was everywhere and Trace bought the ‘Random Access Memories‘ album. Sure, I gave it a listen, but wasn’t impressed. Nothing stood out for me. It seemed like a album of mediocre tracks sandwiched around ‘Get Lucky’, a defining funk track, albeit played endlessly and to death.

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Now roll forward to Friday 19th February 2016.

I stumbled upon aBBC4 documentary Daft Punk Unchained (BBC4 is what I do when there’s nothing else on and it’s late and I can’t sleep and Trace has gone to bed). It was a really rather good doc explaining the backstory to the album’s tracks, the length they went to in conceiving and recording it, even a bit of an expose of the boys in the band, behind the masks, behind the robot helmets. Muso nerds across the country applauded, and like me I’m sure, dusted down their compact disc copy of Random Access Memories and re-spun it in the morning.

All well and good. No harm done.

The following week, Random Access Memories was on repeat. I didn’t listen to anything else. I work to music and I travel to music, so Daft Punk was there for me, constantly – Monday working from home, Wednesday on the train to London, Thursday on the early evening train home.

Lose Yourself to Dance‘  got repeated, repeat plays. It stuck in my head. It struck an optimistic, upbeat, hopeful chord in me. It sounded way better than ‘Get Lucky’ and that week I bored a few people extolling it’s virtues.

On Friday 26th February I went to the gym around 8.30am – as was my newly found want – morning gym sessions before work. I asked Ben, the gym man, for it on the sound system. I bored him with how good it was. It upped my pace on the cross trainer.

It was Friday. It was going to be a good day.

One meeting in the office under my belt and I drove Izzy’s Mini (she’d named it ‘Mario’) to the train station to my next meeting in Leeds. I called Trace suggesting we had some QT tomorrow, Saturday, unusual, she replied, but let’s. I took my seat on the Virgin train to Leeds, lowered the table, got out my Macbook and cranked up ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ in my earphones to do some prep work for the meeting ahead.

My phone rang. It was Trace.

The signal cut. I started to text her ‘I’m on the train, call u back’ (thinking, ‘she knows I don’t like talking on trains…’). But then she called again, the phone vibrating in my hand. I pulled my earphones out and swiped to answer.

“I need you to come home, now. Right now. Something’s… Izzy and Beth are dead. They’re dead. Come home now, please. Come home. Get a cab. Just come home.”

The Story of Mario the Mini

This is the story of Mario the Mini, a black Mini One, and how it came into the life of a beautiful girl, and how it came to be that the beautiful girl never got to drive him.

There once was a beautiful girl who loved cars and driving and being independent. She loved Top Gear (back in the day, when it was good) and she dreamed of having her own car one day.

When the beautiful girl was 16, her doting Father would take her out on Sunday mornings to learn basic maneuvering skills on disused land (Meadowhall shopping centre overspill car park) near where the beautiful girl lived. In fact, the beautiful girl loved cars and driving so much, that she had her very first driving lesson on the day of her 17th birthday and passed her driving test first time, just 2 months later.

A year or so went by and the beautiful girl, who had been driving around in her first car, a white Citroen C1 she called Sid the Citroen, in which she had only had a handful of collisions (that is, ones that she told her Father and Mother about) decided to go on an adventure.

The beautiful girl (who, although only just 19, was strong and independent and confident) decided to go travelling with her beautiful sister (who was loving and supportive and creative and passionate about the world and funny and sad at the same time). The beautiful girls both worked hard (at Starbucks and Bill’s restaurant) and stayed at home with their Father and Mother and saved up all their money to go travelling to faraway lands. They wanted to see the world and to see life and to learn about themselves and to have fun and adventures. They would see family and friends on their travels and meet up with their beautiful older sister and have fun and adventures with her too.

And so, the beautiful girl and her beautiful sister set off on a drizzly day in January from Manchester International Airport to travel to faraway Bangkok, to begin their travels and their adventures, just like lots and lots of young people do these days.

Whilst the beautiful girl and her beautiful sister were away from home, their Mother had a wonderful idea. They would trade in Sid the Citroen for a better car and surprise the beautiful girl when she came home from her travels and adventures. The beautiful girl’s Mother asked the beautiful girl’s Father to promise not to tell the beautiful girl until she was home, because her Mother wanted it to be a wonderful surprise.

Then, one morning in February, the beautiful girl was talking to her Father on Skype, telling her Father about their travels and what they’d been doing and where they were going next and about the future and about coming home and about plans of things she wanted to do. She asked her Father about her car and whether he thought she could get a better one, like a Fiat 500 or a Mini or something and, well, the Father couldn’t stop himself from telling his beautiful daughter about the Mini he and her Mother were about to buy her.

The beautiful girl started to cry and laugh and cry because she was so excited and so happy and she kept thanking her doting Father over and over again. The beautiful girl asked to speak to her Mother, who was still asleep. So her Father carried up his iPad to their bedroom and had to confess to the beautiful girl’s Mother that he had told their beautiful daughter about the car and that it was a black Mini One. The beautiful girl cried some more and thanked her Mother over and over again.

In fact, the beautiful girl was so happy about her new car that she decided to name him Mario the Mini. This was despite the text conversation that the beautiful girl had with her Father about age old naming conventions for cars and that cars are always female, not male. The beautiful girl even used a rude world when she texted her Father. But her Father didn’t mind, because he loved her very much and liked to wind up his beautiful daughter, even using rude words himself sometimes.

And, as if by magic, just as the beautiful girl named the black Mini One Mario, Mario’s chrome grill broke into a smile. Now that he had a name, he had come alive! He was ready and revved up and shiny, despite the February frost. Mario was so looking forward to being driven by the beautiful girl when she came back from her travels in faraway lands.

A few days went by and the Father and Mother went to the car showroom to pick up the black Mini One. The beautiful girl was now in a faraway landed called Vietnam and was trying to stay awake because it was late in the evening in the Vietnam land. Her Father sent her texts with pictures of Mario, who the nice people at the car showroom had decorated with ribbons, and the beautiful girl was excited and happy, despite being very sleepy.

But then suddenly, something very, very bad and very, very sad happened.

The beautiful girl and her beautiful sister and a handsome young man were all killed in an unexplained accident in the faraway land called Vietnam at a waterfall park in a place called Da Lat where lots of other young people were travelling and walking and sliding in the water.

And Mario’s bright, chrome grill faded and his smile drooped and went away, because he was very sad. He was so looking forward to being driven by the beautiful girl. Now he knew he would never meet her and have fun with her and go over the speed limit with her and be ram-packed with the beautiful girl’s friends and filled with her songs and her laughter and her KFC and Maccy-D boxes.

And so, the beautiful girl’s Father drove Mario the Mini instead, knowing Mario was sad and because he was sad too.

He drove Mario, sometimes too fast, and, most of the time, played ‘Random Access Memories’ by Daft Punk very loud, crying and shouting at how sad he was and how much he loved his beautiful daughters.

He spent time sat in Mario talking to Cagney, the Police Lady who was trying to find out how the beautiful girl, her beautiful sister and the handsome young man had come to die so suddenly and so quickly in the faraway land called Vietnam.

And the Father kept Mario clean, inside and out, because he’d promised his beautiful daughter that he would, until she came home. Although he knew now that she never ever would come home.

And the Father and Mother and their oldest beautiful daughter drove Mario to the church behind the two funeral carriages that took their beautiful daughter’s coffins to the church so that all their family and friends could say goodbye and cry and wish it wasn’t so.

And that is the story of Mario the Mini and how he came to be called Mario and how he came to never meet his owner, the beautiful girl, who loved him and life so much.

So, if you see Mario, the black Mini One driving around, give him a wave and wish him well, because he’s still sad and still misses his owner, the beautiful girl, who he never got to meet.

Music Triggers

Music triggers emotions. Music triggers memories. Music triggers and begins associations of time, place, touches, sensations, smells.

I knew that Before.  Ever more so, After. (My Daft Punk association will follow in a couple of weeks – cheery one though it is – deep breaths, bereavement blogger followers).

There are obvious ones, ones associated with Beth and Iz, together or individually. Bands we’d seen together (Mr Hudson, Glass Animals), bands we’d planned to see but didn’t (The XX). Bands I ferociously took the piss out of with Iz (Macaroon 5, Both Directions, Ed Sheridan – they never ever failed to annoy her). My on-going (and ever funny, may I say) shout of ‘Band?!’ to Beth, whenever a soundtrack came on.

Strangely now, as time, weeks, months pass endlessly on, I’ve discovered new ones. New sounds that have no direct or even in-direct association. Fresh with vibrant poignancy, a melody, a refrain, a chord change, a lyric or a phrase, opens up my soul, without it even thinking about knowing there was a connection.

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10th January, 2016, Izzy’s phone

From Week 22 on, one of my hardest, heart shuddering triggers is ‘Life Story’ by Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm.  A new piece of music for me, an artist I’d never heard of. (Give it a listen, buy it, ignore the link, whatever.)

No association, no memory, no recall. No poignant or reinterpreted lyric. Just a gut wrenching, breath stopping trigger. It’s their beauty, their essence,their life, distilled into a few dissonant, improvised piano chords. It releases a deep, deep trigger, that, from the opening few bars, tears away the barriers of my pretence of normality .

It brings with every play an instant hit of streaming hot tears, a severe bout of shortness of breath and the opening and widening of the deep hole that lies permanently in the middle of my chest, the hole that is Beth and Iz.

 

Sleep, perchance to dream (Part 2)

I remember the worst insomnia I experienced ‘Before’ was when work pressures mounted. (We run our own business).

The witching hour, we called it. Somewhere between 3am and 4am when all the worst possibilities lived and breathed and, in the dark, became, real, tangible and all consuming. It meant no sleep and no rest. My mind racing through all the very worst possible outcomes. With the sleep pattern broken, I’d nod off around 6am, and then find it impossible to get out of bed at 8am.

But, at 8am, with the light of a new day came rationale thinking and optimism. It hadn’t happened, the worst was yet to come. It was within our control. Actions could be taken. ‘On with your day, my lad’.

That was Before.

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 3, 2016

The first month ‘After’ was fuelled by chemicals, by sleeping pills, concoctions and herbal remedies. Various experiments to get at least, some sleep, it was like a Harry Potter potions class. Later, I discussed insomnia with our therapist (our Assist Trauma Care therapist) who explained that your mind and body adjust, so sleeping pills only work for a week, max.

Sleep now, sleep After, is very different. I’ll try to explain the subtleties. The physical first.

A restless, seemingly endless stress. Butterflies, like interview nerves.  Hot uncomfortable limbs that no position, no shuffling satisfies. Breathing in sporadic short breaths, like your lungs can’t come up for air. Nausea in the pit of your stomach, that turns to a constant, dull ache.

Then the mental. Mind battles galore, to force yourself to think of something else, to forget, a momentary lapse. Any and all the old proven techniques fail – cast adrift in a boat flowing downstream along a calm river; lying on rocks by the sea, bathed in warm sunshine, the lap of lulling waves. Nothing but nothing works like it did Before.

Instead, sleep brings a haunted head. Like your unconscious mind can’t deal with the reality – of the actual loss and incomprehensible, unfathomable pain – so it attempts to place you somewhere in the past, when they were alive, when things were normal and mundane. Before. It’s as though your mind is trying to erase reality and replace it with fantasy. ‘No, you fool, they’re here, they’re alive’.

Awake is the nightmare, sleep brings sweet dreams.

Beth’s Dream (6th November 2016)
A party, a crowded room, in our kitchen I think. I see Beth stood by the sink, talking to someone I don’t know. She’s happy, laughing, animated. She looks glowing, slim, sun-kissed, relaxed.

I go up to her. I’m crying. I hold her and kiss her cheek and stay cheek to cheek for a while. Relishing being so close to her.

Moments pass and she whispers “You worry too much about this kitchen.” And smiles at me.

I wake.

Izzy’s Dream (1st June 2016)
The house is still full of grieving relatives staying over and the coming and going of friends delivering food parcels, delivery people with flowers of condolence. I open the door of my study to find a place to be alone. Ashley, my niece is there. She moves silently away.

There, on a guitar stand, is a bass guitar. (when I was 19, I played the bass). I pick it up. I can’t play it anymore. I struggle to even hit a handful of notes.

I turn around and look back onto the landing. Trace is stood there looking at me.

And there is Izzy, stood behind Trace, in the bathroom doorway. She’s pulling her ‘Duh?’ face. I stumble and try to point to Izzy, to tell Trace she’s here, she’s just behind you.

I wake.