Izzy’s coppers jar and the end of ‘Squiring’

One evening when Izzy was little, maybe 5 or 6, I came into her bedroom to put her to bed. She had a window of pyjama playtime, after her bath, before her bedtime story and snuggle. I opened her bedroom door to find her crouched on the floor under her bedside table, in her PJs, hair still warm and damp from her bath, meticulously lining up her little collection of matchbox cars into neat, precise rows. She was organising them, partly by size, partly by colour.

I called Trace to come and look, but, to be honest, it really wasn’t much of a surprise to either of us.  This seemingly unusual child tidiness was actually inevitable. For Izzy, it was a natural expression of her inheritance, her soul bloodline, her DNA. Izzy had inherited the ‘Squire’ jean.

When I was a kid, I would help my dad hoover and clean our family car. I’d do it willing. I’d look forward to it. It was our Sunday morning ritual – whilst others knelt and prayed, my dad and I would clean the car. Our weekly routine would start with me ‘having a go’, whilst he gave a continuous narration of guidance and instruction.

‘That’s it, get right in the corner.’ ‘Plenty of soap lad, plenty of soap’.

In between the well orchestrated dry and wet stages (lengthy, repeated, inch accurate hovering, followed by fervent floor mat banging, then onto the cold water spray, then hot soapy sponge, followed by a thorough rinse and a final diligent shammy leather dry), he’d basically do it all again. Whatever I’d done minutes before, whilst carrying on with his freely given feedback.

‘Right in here, in the corner, see?’ ‘Soap right round the wheels and under, here, see, always use plenty of soap’.

And that’s how I learnt how to ‘Squire’ a car. When a car has been ‘Squired’, it means it’s utterly, completely spotless. It’s a verb – to be Squired. It means it’s had hours of meticulous dry and wet treatment, diligently applied.

And so, I passed this on, from father to son, from son to daughter, three generations of Squiring. Like me, Izzy would volunteer to help me hoover out the car, and I’d find myself doing exactly as my dad had done.  She’d hoover, then I’d hoover again, whilst offering her highly informative and supportive vacuuming advice. I have a photo of her when she was maybe 7 or 8, sat proudly in the boot of my Jeep, hoover in hand, grinning. I should dig it out sometime.

Even as a teenager, Izzy would tidy her bedroom with zero prompting and no need of incentive or offer of reward. And I’d often come home to find she’d completely rearranged all of her bedroom furniture. I’d find her stood in the midst of  her generically engineered feng shui, proud and giddy with the glee of it, asking me ‘What you think?’

A few months before she and Beth left to go travelling, I helped her carefully hang her favourite eventing action photos in the black rimmed frames Trace had bought her.

So it was no surprise that, when it came to the weeks and the days before they left, Izzy made her room tidy and organised. She folded her clothes neatly in her wardrobe, in style and/or type order. In the Ikea under-bed shelves, she crossed-checked her already organised eventing rosettes and memorabilia. And one evening, she and I sat down together on her bedroom floor and backed-up her iPhone pictures to a hard drive. She wanted to make sure she had enough memory space for her photo travelogue, and at the same time, she didn’t want to run the risk of losing any of her photo library memories.

 


 

After, it must have been around Day 60 or thereabouts, I took it upon myself to make use of a home-alone evening to have a diligent, hearty attempt at sorting out Beth and Izzy’s rooms. We had to face this at some point. We couldn’t just leave their rooms as they were. After all, the ‘Squire force’ is strong in this one.

So, Dyson in hand, I decided to started in Izzy’s room. I knew that this would be the easier of the two. Beth’s room would be, well, much harder to clean up and well, much more personal, much more intimate and closer to her.

I’ll leave my swiftly thwarted attempt at sorting Beth’s room for another time. I’ve  discovered that, when you lose 2 kids at the same time, you have to sort of, well, separate one from another. Dealing with both at the same time, trying to comprehend grief in double is frankly too much to bear in one sitting. Your brain and your heart learns to separate them. Suffice to say, I lasted mere minutes in Beth’s room, before I had a meltdown and called Cagney, to hear her say ‘What the f**k are you doing?’. At the time, in some deranged sense of sober Squire stoicism, it felt like the right thing to do. After all, out with the old, in with the new.

But back to me, Dyson at the ready, in Izzy’s room.

She had indeed left all her room tidy  – her shoes lined up on shelves in style and/or height order, her make-up boxes and girly paraphilia organised and arranged. And on her neatly laid out desk, that sits next to her bed, she’d left her ‘coopers jar’.

When she’d started working, at 16, in Otto’s, a local restaurant down the road, Izzy commandeered a clear glass, kilner style jar from the kitchen, to collect her tips and her coppers. After a few break-ins, she’d secured the wiry metal clasp with a tiny padlock, to prevent any further wandering of Beth’s hands – she had a habit of ‘borrowing’ bus fare.

And here’s my confession now – just between you and me – I too sinned. I’d occasionally dip into Izzy coppers jar. Only of course when I was desperate, mind, when I was in abject need of pound coins for parking fares. I learnt to carefully clench together the wires that held the lid together, so I could unlock the jar without damaging the padlock. It was easily done. And Izzy was (I’m sorry Iz) none the wiser.

Now, nestled just behind her desk folders marked ‘personal’ and ‘equestrian’ was her coppers jar. And it seemed, as I put the Dyson hose to one side, entirely logical for me to empty out the jar’s contents, count out the coin bags therein and take them to the bank. The money was, well, let’s be frank, pretty useless to either of them now.

With my (now newly confessed) adept jar opening skills, I pinched the wires together without affecting the baby-like padlock and lifted open the glass lid. I plunged my hand into the jar’s open mouth, like the artificial claw reaching down for toys in a fairground attraction, and came out trumps.

I dumped the contents of my claw hand on Izzy’s desk. There were maybe 6 or 7 clear plastic coin bags, the ones you get from any high street bank, the ones you fold over to seal. I picked up each bag, one and one. In each, in amongst the coins, was a tiny, hand torn rectangle of yellowy Post-it note. On each little note, written in blue biro, in her stingingly familiar handwriting, she had written the exact amount contained in each bag. Counted out, secured and kept away from prying hands, safe for her return.

I fumbled the plastic bags back into the jar and clumsily pushed back the wire clasp to reseal the jar.

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Now, her desk sits poised, pretty much as she left it, ready for her to come home.

We’ve added her travel journal and the rip-off Beats headphones she proudly told us she’d bought for a few quid in a Vietnamese market. And the certificates for the two stars named after her and Beth, given to us by Luke, Beth’s friend. And Mirelle’s blue and white ribbons. And some scented candles, as yet unused.

Izzy’s coppers jar sits intact, just as she left it.

There’s no more Squiring.

Glaciers, by John ‘not to be taken for granted’ Grant

So, there’s this bloke. John Grant. He’s been through some shit. He lives in Reykjavik.

He writes brutally honest music about himself and other stuff. You can Google him if you like and find out for yourself.

His album ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ was one of my soundtracks for 2015. It backdropped my train journeys and pitch writing, as I worked and half listened, loving the mix of electronica energy and bitter sweet melodies.

Friday November 2nd, Day 980. 

I’d not seen him live before. It was Ses’s idea, who, jet-lagged and knackered as she turned out to be, had bailed at the last minute. Chris her hubs and my muso friend (he mixed the music for their funeral, so forever grateful) collected us in a cab. We missed the support act, favouring a drink and a catch up and a bitch at the bar.

And now, somewhere through the gig, we’re stood, behind the mixing desk, for the best view, hot and sweaty. Not uncomfortable hot and sweaty, just at that point of thinking, ‘wow, this is getting warm, especially compared to the nip in the air outside’.

John Grant plays on, his candid songs coming alive when played live, here, in front of us, in this little, time bound moment on Planet Earth. Everything notches up a level from listening to him on Spotify. His booming baritone is backed-up by deep, resonating synth bass, then, almost mercilessly, is followed by heartfelt piano ballads, lit by a misty spotlight. I love his tone of voice, I love his turn of phrase. I love his brutal honesty, followed swiftly by his twisted, sweary sense of humour.

I’ve no real measure of the man, who I am to? Google says he’s been through some shit. Depression, addiction. And that, in writing music, he finds himself, getting closer to the bone every time he does. At the gig, we find out  he’s 50 something, a ‘taken man’ and that he likes adventure park rides.

Glaciers

I stand sweaty, my over-shirt tied round my waist, listening properly, not casually, and singing along to the melody, getting the odd word right here or there.

‘This pain
It is a glacier moving through you
And carving out deep valleys
And creating spectacular landscapes…’

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From Izzy’s phone, Da Lat, Vietnam, 26 February 2016

 

And as he plays ‘Glacier’,  it’s like a submarine surfaces, gently nudging the stillness of the water. As it rises, periscope first, its metallic bulk of pure war machine emerges from beneath.

Trace sees I’m crying and we little finger hold hands.

I weep in the half light of Sheffield’s red brick Octagon theatre.

‘…And nourishing the ground
With precious minerals and other stuff’

….

The next day, a Saturday, after watching a dismal 4-0 drumming by Norwich at Hillsborough (lest said the better), I sit on the edge of our familiar green sofa, drinking a weekend G&T, trying to figure out how to add two Sonos speakers – one commandeered from my study and one from Izzy’s bedroom – to the living room TV.

It’s a tech thing, but apparently, I need to walk around the room, waving around my iPhone to ‘a-tune’ the speakers to the room.  Then I need a track to test the sound quality.

‘…So, don’t you become paralyzed with fear
When things seem particularly rough’

I sit on the edge of our familiar green sofa and I weep again. Quieter, deeper.

John Grant has a beard. So do I. Maybe it’s a beard thing?

 

 

My Self-Inflicted ‘Hi’

When I come home, and I know Trace is in, I shout up ‘Hello’.

When I come home, and I know Trace isn’t in, I shout up ‘Hi’, to Beth and Izzy.

And then I pause for a second, in the hallway, the front door still ajar. Maybe for less than a second, as the door closes behind me, I listen intently. I crane and strain, in some idiotic, ritualistic hope that I’ll hear a nonchalant ‘Hi’  from Izzy or Beth. I stand, frozen in fanciful, perpetual expectation, for a reply.

Sometimes I even go upstairs and open Izzy’s bedroom door and stride in with a repeated, but more bombastic follow-up ‘Hi’. I blink, then blink again, seeing her strewn on her bed or sat at her dresser in just a towel, putting her mark-up on, getting ready to go out.

Sometimes I even go upstairs and knock overly loudly on Beth’s bedroom door and barge in and forcefully sit on her as she lays in bed, napping, snoozing, now groaning and moaning as I sit on her.

Am I being cruel to myself? Am I inflicting this self-made torture on myself, when, let’s face it, there’s more than enough pain to go around?

I do it because I don’t ever, ever want to forget the casual, every day, commonplace tone of my ‘Hi’  and the sound of their couldn’t-care-less reply. The abject normal-ness of life Before, when I’d shout up, get a reply, and simply carry on with my day.

I do it to remind myself of Before.

I do it because I want to feel irritable about crumbs. When I’d take off my shoes in the hallway and check the state of the kitchen. When they’d made toast and not wiped the crumbs away. When they’d used pans and ‘left them to soak’.

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Beth at the door again.

I wish I could still go to bed knowing they were out, and that they’d return in the wee small hours with clunky going-out shoes, strutting on wooden floors, at well past the witching hour.

When the dogs would jump out of our bed to greet them at no matter what time. Or when Beth, unable to find her keys, would be rapping insistently on the front door and I’d reluctantly raise myself out of bed to let her in.

I wish they’d come back. Come home and disturb me. Irritate me. Annoy me.

I wish they’d shout down a nonchalant ‘Hi’.

The kitchen blackboard, a cardboard Police folder and a Bombshell Day

I have good days and bad days.

Good days are when I just get on with it. When I bury the hatchet. When I focus on that day’s proceedings. And I get on with it – I’m focussed at work, I remember what I need to get from the supermarket, I’m happy that I’ve been to the gym, happy that I put a wash on.

Let’s call these days ‘Kitchen Days’. Put the kettle on. Normal, as is.

I also have days that start badly and get worse. These are bad days. These days usually begin with a vivid dream that I don’t want to leave, that mash up my memories, recent or from their childhood, with flights of fantasy that they’re alive and well, and here, still here.  When I wake, the residual wave of my night brain lingers and lashes against the shore of daylight. I do my best to adjust to wakened reality, fresh coffee always helps, but the lapping of the shore continues throughout the day. I’m irritable. Grumpy. Agitated. Distracted. Now, often sleepy. I just want to go back to bed and start again.

Let’s call these ‘Night Days’. Day’s best to forget. 

And then, every now and then, come day like today, days that simply take my breathe away.  They catch me off guard, they come out the blue. Like a below freezing wave that smacks and smarts. They stop me in my tracks.

Let’s call these ‘Bombshell Days’. 

The following describes one of them.

I’m having a pretty darn chilled Saturday morning. Trace takes the dogs out the back for their morning wee, and makes the coffee. I get out of bed, bleary eyed and come down to the kitchen to watch and wait for the coffee to brew.

Whilst I hover by the coffee plunger, I take a iPhone picture of the kitchen blackboard that’s been recently exposed, as we strip things back for a kitchen refit, from the months of leaflets and notes pinned to it. The change is a purposeful re-habituation of our domestic space. A chance to at least renew downstairs, without affecting upstairs, and their bedrooms.

A year or so Before, we had painted a blackboard on the kitchen wall so we could all write up where each other was. Well, so that Iz and Beth could chalk their work-shifts on the makeshift week-plan, so we knew where they both were.

Not long after the family habit had been instigated and they had both reluctantly and partly complied with the rules, it had become a place for a spot of banter – an expression of scribbled messages, mainly between Beth and I. I’d write, she’d comment. I’d comment back.

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Blackboard bants

And now, as the coffee stands, I trace the faded curves of Beth’s handwriting on the kitchen wall. And I take a picture. I just needed to document it. I’d look at it later, the coffee was ready.

As Trace and potted around in the kitchen, we had a row. I was distracted, withdrawn. On my phone. I didn’t clock it, but I should have. It was the beginnings of a Bombshell Day.

A little later I drove Mario to the station to pick up our friend who was coming over for brunch. A friend who happens to know the inquest process inside out. We wanted to pick her brains. She wanted to help.

When we got back home, I made brunch for the three of us. Some avocados were harmed in the making of eggs, avocado and hollandaise sauce on toast. We talked, we shared. We caught up, it was a Saturday after all. But then we got down to business. I learnt  that inquest outcomes have boxes.  Box 1 to 4. That the coroner completes on an official form. I didn’t know that before.

And we stood in our kitchen,  next to the faded blackboard work shifts and the handwritten ‘bants’, as we thumbed through the pale yellow Staples budget cardboard folder that holds our copy of the South Yorkshire police evidence, gathered from Katie Sloane’s diligent early reconnaissance on Facebook.  And the circa 200 page Vietnamese Police interviews. And the summary post mortem reports. About 3 pages. One for each of them. The ones I’ve only ever skimmed. As I glanced at the san serif pages, the word ‘bruises’ stood out. And then a bulleted lists of injuries. I said out loud ‘It includes the post mortem reports. But I can’t read them’.

As I gathered the papers together that our friend had offered to read, she went to the loo. Trace and I retreated to the living room, not deliberating, but as soon as we were alone, I tried to breath it out. But to no avail.

The bomb had landed. We held each other and cried. Stillness, together, softly and quietly,  in front of our memorial mantlepiece.

Our friend came back down and we changed the subject, this time deliberately. We talked living room furniture and dog petting.

A little while later, I dropped her off at the train station. ‘I have no idea’ she said ‘how you cope. But you both look much better. The last time I saw Trace, she couldn’t even look me in the eyes’. We hugged and kissed and said our goodbyes.

I drove Mario in oddly unsettling silence (for some reason I didn’t want the radio or music) to Waitrose to get a few bits for our Saturday evening in front of X Factor.

As I picked up a hand basket near the flowers, I realised I’d completely forgot what I’d come for.  I wandered up and then back down the fruit and veg isle, racking my brains, as my tears started to build steadily,  consistently. They were contained enough for my fellow shoppers not to notice. Although one woman did look at me directly and smiled sincerely. Not something commonly overseen in Waitrose.

I cried in each isle, even in the cleaning and domestic one I don’t normally go down, as it’s cheaper in Aldi.

I had to ring Trace twice to remind me what I’d come for.

All the week after, we both continued to feel the aftermath. A brutal, jolting reminder made worse, like a thriller narrative arch, by its unexpected and unwelcome entrance. We slept more, we drank more, we were more restless. we both stayed in and cancelled seeing friends.

This Saturday was a Bombshell Day.

 

New York, on repeat. (I promise).

New York was a thing, for sure. We’d taken Molly first.  5th avenue, Times Square, bright lights and TV show yellow cabs. The macro of soaring Manhattan skyscrapers, like an ever familiar film set. And the micro of Pokémon and Nintendo Gameboy Advance. Molly’s excitement of pre-release before the UK. We needed a UK adapter, clunky, cream plastic.

And then we were there again, a few years later, with Beth. Lower Manhattan this time. The Soho Grand. An evening at the Balthazar, French food served with New York nonchalance, but with white aprons and black waistcoats panache. An impromptu limousine ride to and from the restaurant. Living like rock stars. Lapping it up.

And the promise to Izzy, it’ll be your turn. Albeit, let’s face it, the money we spend on your horse…

So, it was delayed. Repeated requests would come, from time to time, until, I guess, she submitted. She had to wait for the invite.

But it never came. The final grains of sand drained through. Time ran out.

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About Day 56, or thereabouts, I was wheeling a trolley around Sainsburys.  In the not so often visited clothing isle, I spotted a t-shirt. It said ‘New York’ in white letters on speckled blue cotton. I added it to my trolley. And I cried.

I wanted to say ‘Sorry, we didn’t make it’. ‘I would have, I promise’. I wanted the t-shirt to remind me of my New York promise to all 3, and to Izzy, the last in line.

…Roll forwards, to Day 950.

I’m starting to give St Vincent some time, in my headphones, as I work. Masseducation is the album. I wasn’t sure about her. I couldn’t quite connect. But one track was familiar, maybe from car airplay on Radio 6, maybe from Later…with Jools.

The album stays on my Spotify repeat. Day 951. Day 952.

Then Day 953.

I lay on the squidgy grey vinyl matting of my gym cool down area. ‘ New York’ plays and suddenly, unexpectedly, I connect with the lyrics, the chorus, the refrain. And I shudder gently, hoping no one notices.

New York isn’t New York
Without you, love
So far in a few blocks
To be so low

I have lost a hero
I have lost a friend
But for you, darling
I’d do it all again

They don’t die. Not completely.

They don’t die. Not completely. They live in your mind, the way they always lived inside you. You keep their light alive. If you remember them well enough, they can guide you, like the shine of long-extinguished stars could guide ships in unfamiliar waters. If you stop mourning them, and start listening to them, they still have the power to change your life. They can, in short, be salvation.

Matt Haigh, from ‘How to stop time’ (2017)