So tell me…
What was life like, ‘Before’?
So tell me…
So tell me…
What was life like, ‘Before’?
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.
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 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)
I was supposed to go out with friends for a friend’s birthday. It was all going to plan, until I had a bath.
And then it came.
A massive wave that lashed harshly, hurtfully over me, over and over again. Quiet tears at first. Then, laid on the bed, gentle, ebbing, slow, but increasing, like the shipping forecast, increasing, becoming variable.
I decide, strewn on the bed, not to go out. I just can’t face normal life. Not right now. I thought I could, ten minutes ago. But no. The dogs, sensing something is wrong, come and lay with me, licking and nose nudging for attention, distraction, consolation, and an ever stranger sense that they know I’m upset and that they even know that it’s because I’m missing them. The ‘missing ones’, the ones they can still smell and sense and wonder about in their bedrooms.
I text my friend to say sorry, l’m ‘tired’. It’s like the tabloid ‘tired and emotional’, meaning drunk as a stunk. It’s so much easier to say ‘tired’ than say I simply can’t face leaving the house.
Then, with the release of not going out, I put my PJs on, put a wash on, mix a gin and tonic and begin to relentlessly cry.
The tears accompany me at first, like a supporting actor, a side to the main story. Then they come stronger, closer, as though circling around me, before lunging in for the kill. For sure, I’ve got used to them coming now, 925 days later. The rushing waves, the incessant pounding of the salty, cold water on my face. I carry on making my solo tea (Trace is away, it’s just me and the dogs) and the waves continue to come inland. Steady, but increasing, relentless. Becoming unwelcome.
I eat my tea (Ikea veggie meatballs) in front of X Factor. The dogs hanker for their share and the tears continue. They’ve gone to force 9 now. Every little, tiny moment of the Saturday night TV dinner remind me of them and the tears stream.
Then Izzy comes in from her Starbucks shift and slumps on the sofa. Minutes later, Beth comes back from her shift at Bill’s. I look for them, I search for them. I look at the empty, silent sofa.
And then the tears become angry. A rage of tears, like a roaring pride of lions. I’ve gone beyond crying. I weep. Surging, painful thrusts from my abdomen up, tears streaming down my face, i thrash out. I punch the sofa repeatedly, then the hard floor.
‘I don’t want this, I don’t want this,I don’t want this’.
I shout this out-loud, in the genuine hope, that, if I shout it loud enough, it will stop, and I’ll find zen like peace.
The dogs retreat to their kitchen bed, as though they know they can do no more and that they need to leave me alone with my raging grief and X Factor.
Eventually, slowly, the rage passes, releases me. I get up, unload the washer, put the dryer on. I cry softly throughout. Gentle, not angry tears, but somehow harder tears to bear, because they acknowledge the permeance of this situation.
I press play on Sky again, skip the ads and carry on watching X Factor, series 5 billion, still through watery teary eyes, a bleary lense effect on Simon Cowell and the new series judges.
Izzy’s sat on the green sofa next to me. She laughs. She likes the latest contestant. Probably because she fancies them. Beth yawns.
And I carry on crying, gently sobbing.
Maybe I should made myself go out, see my friend for their birthday, rather than lying in a pool of tears?
I write this up through Jonathan Ross.
Beth, then Iz say ‘night night’ and go to bed.
I guess I’d be making breakfast. Grinding coffee, poaching eggs, maning the toaster.
I guess you’d still be in bed and we’d be shouting up for you to come down. For your cards and presents – the birthday ritual rolled out every year for you and your sisters.
I guess by now, Izzy would have gone up to your room and jumped on you.
But this assumes you’re at home. This assumes you’ve come home and that, to all intents and purposes, time has frozen.
This is the third birthday you’ve missed. Two and a half years of you not being here. Two and a half years of changed politics, changing plans, changing temperatures, of shifting sand. Of friends moving on, falling out, getting jobs, of getting on with their lives.
And that’s the hardest thing, you see.
For me, time is frozen. And really, if I’m being honest, I don’t want it to unfreeze, to thaw out, to ease.
Because that means that you, and your little sister fade a little. As if time displaces you. Time means I can’t imagine what you’d be doing or where you’d be. It means you’ve lost your place in the world. Your slot. The time slot you should be filling right now. The piece of life and the piece of this world that is yours, by rights.
Happy Birthday Bethy. xx
I have Izzy’s tortoise shell frames. They sit still and motionless, their arms crossed over in uncommon silence, on my bookshelf.
Glasses were part and parcel of Izzy.
From a few weeks old, it was obviously her eyes were shot – we should have known, given both her parents eye defects – her eyes were as wonky and random as her baby grimaces and grins.
At about three months old, we’d taken her for her first opticians visit (Birds, on Surrey Street) to measure her little head for her first glasses. Mr Bird suggested a ribbon tied round the back of her head to keep her from wriggling them off. She was a wriggler.
At about eight, I’d held her hand as the anaesthetic took effect, for her first eye surgery. As an early teenager, she was self-consciousness. She didn’t want glasses that marked her out as, seemingly, different. A photoshoot at a ball was uncomfortable for her, with or without her glasses. Then, as a late teenager, a young adult, she began to accept her glasses and her eyes, as part of her, of who she was.
For me, I used to wash and clean them for her. She never seemed to keep them clean. Maybe it was a throwback to her younger years and bathtime, when it was my duty and my pleasure to ensure she was washed and dried, along with her lenses. And my dad, her grandad, did the same. He’d run them under the tap in soapy warm water and carefully towel them dry. It was his weekly ritual with her, that seemed as though she smudged her lenses deliberately, just so her Grandad could clean them for her.
And then, whilst they were away, sometime in early February 2016, in a meaningless, meandering, elongated conversation over Skype, she talked about getting herself new glasses when she got back. Darker frames. ‘Maybe, sort of, like yours? What d’think?’ She was planning, scheming, daydreaming. And we suspected, missing home a little. April was going to be special.
And then, the time came to dress them for their final journey, their ‘passing’.
We were asked about their clothes and things we wanted them to have with them, with metal and certain plastics a parameter. This is a ritual that all bereaved families go through, but that I’d no idea about. After all, we were beginners, this was our first time. No one warned us.
Trace wanted her to wear her riding clothes and her cross country colours and to take her Teddy, the beloved yellowy thing I’d bought her on the day she was born. Beth was easier to dress in her glittery finery, her unique, quirky style, laid out by Molly. Accompanied by her childhood teddy dog, Toby.
But Izzy needed to wear her glasses. It seemed reasonable, entirely rationale in the state we were in then. She’d need to be able to see and she’d want her childhood comfort toy, that had soothed her to sleep so, so many times.
But, with neither glasses nor Teddy, I would, in my mind at the time, be left with nothing. I wanted to keep Teddy, but I also wanted to keep her glasses too.
So, we compromised. Teddy went with her but she wore her spare pair of glasses instead.
And so, her frames lie here still, on my study shelf, on top of a single dollar bill I took from her travel bag, that lies on top of a book that Beth had banged on at me to read. That I should really, really read. It’s still unread. It’s a stand for Izzy’s glasses now.
It’s called The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle.
Day 857 was, to be frank, a catastrophe of unexpected, unintended, ill-timed and poorly performed remembrance.
BTW, I have to confess that, as an almost complete innumerate, I had to look up the days/date thing to work out the number of days since February 26 2016. (Where’d we be without Goggle, eh? – other search engines are available).
Today, Monday 2 July, was no different a Monday to any particular Monday. After all, like most people, I’d have preferred not to have to end a weekend and restart a week. Doubly considering that the 2018 summer heat wave would probably mean well over 100% of the UK population, statistically speaking, would be thinking the same thing as me.
I’d slept pretty well. Nothing unusual. The familiar 3am probing of the mind, as unforgiving wakefulness trod over drifting dreams of long distance, slowed down reunions. But, after a routine round of mobile sudoku, amid the early calls of our feathered friends outside, I fell back to sleep, perchance to dream.
In the actual morning, the summer light, long since opening and warming, I lay in bed, put my glasses on and read a chapter of a new novel. Perhaps I was avoiding my attempts at daily 15 minute morning yoga, but it was nice none the less – to be back to reading fiction after a fair few months off.
A chapter in, I nudged the bookmark in and pulled my tee-shirt on to go downstairs to make the coffee. I checked the weather conditions from the back yard, wary of any spurious App predicts. It felt and smelt like another hot day ahead.
Coffee in hand, I sat and opened up my daily bread of mobile-friendly social media. Flicking upwards, there came the familiar blue bar of a Facebook ‘reminder’. This time, it warned me, it was from 3 years ago. For a moment, I had to think, innumerate or in denial of passing time, was this Before or After? I pushed my thumb up to today’s reminder.
Izzy was there, staring at me, at the camera, at the phone, my phone, that she’d taken, logged herself in, and held in her hands to take this selfie, in July 2015. She looked beautiful – but I’m her adoring father, so she always looked beautiful (except when she pulled ‘that’ face). It was the eve of her sixth form prom.
In retrospective, the strangest thing was that, for a handful of seconds, I sat there, coffee in one hand, phone in the other, thinking, convincing myself, in a series of staccato false realities ‘I’ve seen this picture before.’ – ‘I’ve seen these eyes looking at me before.’ – ‘I’m coping with this.’- ‘This is actually OK.’.
Then seconds on, it came, as if Day 857 was Day 1. The permanence. The forever-ness. That that digital playful, lovely look would never again be matched by a real, living breathing, alive look.
And today was supposed to be a Monday of intended reclaimed happiness. Of a considered purchase, a real Fender Jazz Bass, not just a copy, part ex’ed and bought, ahead of a series of back to back meetings and conference calls.
I cried driving to the music shop. I cried driving to work, my new bass, boxed up, sat beside me in the passenger seat. I performed at work and in meetings and conference calls. Then I cried in the car home, and rang to cancel seeing a friend. I went home, and I cried. And we cried, and we watched the football.
Here endeth Day 857.