From Friday 26 February, roll forward exactly a week to Friday 4 March 2016.
Although it’s difficult to skip over that week, Week 1. A week of barely living, of seeing and feeling the world from inside a thick, soundproof bubble and hearing the world muffled, distant. A week of reality, of gravity itself, shifting.
But, exactly one week after Beth and Izzy died, I found myself in the back of a marked BMW X5 Police car on a cold, sleety Friday, at first light. I had asked Cagney and Lacy, our Family Liaison Officers – now firmly entrenched as part of our so recently shrunk family – if I could go with them to Manchester Airport to collect (‘repatriate’ is the correct term) Beth and Izzy.
To bring them home.
In one of Trace’s bags, we’d packed Izzy’s teddy (I bought Teddy from M&S on Fargate, the day Izzy was born) and Toby, Beth’s childhood scruffy teddy dog, who was permanently in a laid out flat position (Trace says she was about 2 years old when she randomly started calling him Toby).
We set off and, after Cagney had been caught with a speeding camera on the outskirts of Sheffield and with the sleet turning to snow over the Pennines, we arrived at Manchester Airport Police station. Lacey went inside to report in, whilst Cagney, sat in front, called in her speeding camera.
I’d assumed we’d be escorted to the familiar glaring ambience of an arrivals lounge and that we’d head to a Costa or the like. Instead, we were told to drive behind an Airport Police car. We headed back out of the terminal building, over a dual carriageway and into what looked like an industrial estate. It turned out to be the freight terminal. It seems that Manchester International Airport has nowhere for families to meet deceased loved ones.
We were greeted nervously by an airport representative in a high-vis jacket. Apologising profusely for the state of the welcome, he led us through a cramped, communal office, where we were starred at, in silence, by all. He ushered us into a disused, dishevelled conference room and asked us to wait. Minutes later, he returned with instant coffee and a plate of stale, own brand Jaffa Cakes, accompanied by a further flurry of apologises.
We sat and we waited. We filled the awkwardness by talking about Police work, about cases Cagney and Lacey had worked on, why they’d joined the force. We nibbled the edges of the stale fake Jaffa cakes. We aired the myths and legends about coppers, their lifestyle, their dress sense. We read yesterday’s tabloids and the Manchester Evening Post. We sipped lukewarm instant coffee. An hour and a half or so past.
Every now and then, I forced back a wave of tears, something that had rapidly become part and parcel of my everyday life. ‘This isn’t happening. I’m not here. I’m somewhere else. This can’t be real.’
Eventually a nervous Singapore Airlines representative knocked and came through with the airport staff member. They were so sorry. So sorry for my loss, so sorry for the delay. They had…cleared customs. So sorry, but what did I want to do? I could see them in a little while at the undertakers van outside or, sorry, I could see them now, in the freight building.
I nodded ‘Now, please’. Sooner rather later, I thought. I wanted to see them, I wanted to know for sure. I still had some vague hope this was all a terrible, terrible mistake.
My throat tightened as I was led back through the freight terminal office, people now lowering their eyes. We were back where we’d come in. To the side of the entrance door was a large, warehouse like doorway I’d not noticed before. The airport and airline representatives positioned themselves on either side and apologised again. There was nowhere else to see them. This was a freight hanger, they were so, so sorry. There was nowhere else. They opened the doors, and I stepped forward.
I drifted past them into a huge, cavernous airline hanger and was met by cold air and the smell of aviation fuel. In front of me were two large coffins, wrapped in thick, pale purple plastic. The coffins were raised on platforms of some kind, I can’t remember what. Someone had placed wilted daffodils on top of each.
I moved towards them, my chest tight and tightening still. I was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe.
I moved closer to the nearest coffin. Taped to the top was a colour photocopy of Izzy’s passport photo page. I moved round to the coffin next to her. There was the same taped picture, but this time of Beth’s. A few months ago we had renewed their passports for their travels.
Behind the coffins was a wooden pallet with two grey backpacks on. With a jolt, I recognised them as the bags Trace had bought them for Christmas. Tied to the zippers were travel trinkets, and on one, an unmistakeable pompom that indicated this was Beth’s bag.
And that was the moment. The shock of the truth. This wasn’t a mistake. This wasn’t a dream. These were their bags and that meant these coffins were them. This was Izzy and Beth. They were home.
I didn’t stay long.
I walked quickly back out, nodding thanks to the airport staff and went as far away as I could from everyone there, to a window overlooking the freight building entrance. I starred out at the snow settling and fought back tears, grimacing in an attempt to lay them off. And failed.
Cagney touched my arm. ‘Shall we go?’
We moved outside and I got back into the marked car. Noises around me were muffled, distant – the bubble was closing in. Sleet was turning to snow. I sat in the back, trying to breathe, as Cagney told me Lacey was dealing with the undertaker van drivers and we’d get going soon. A while past, I don’t know how long, maybe it wasn’t long, when Lacey returned and got into the driving seat. ‘Ok?’
We pulled off and I turned round to see an anonymous red van driving close behind us.
‘Do you mind if I listen to music?’ I asked, more to let them know that talking wasn’t really a option for me right now. I wanted, I needed, to be alone.
I pushed my earphones in hard, and ‘Give Life Back to Music’ started. I turned it up loud.
“Let the music of your life, give life back to music.”
We sped through the settling snow, the wipers sweeping away wet sludge in muted silence.
And my tears rolled.
I tried to be quiet, tried and failed to let Cagney and Lacey not hear me crying. (‘You grieve in private’, Cagney told me a few days later). I tried to contain my tears, to gag my throat, to breathe.
But the tears rolled and rolled and rolled. And the snot dripped.
“There is a game of live. And it was you, the one that would be breaking my heart.”
(The Game of Love)
I cried none stop from Track 1 ‘Give Life Back to Music’ to Track 7 ‘Touch’. 42 minutes of heart and chest pain, tears and snot and sobbing. Daft Punk’s optimistic, lovelorn lyrics cut through the sleet and my pain and represented, seemingly word for word, the gaping hole in my mind and in my heart.
“There are so many things that I don’t understand. There’s a world within me that I cannot explain. Many rooms to explore, but the doors look the same. I am lost, I can’t even remember my name. Please tell me who I am.”
The chords, the strings, the Moog synthesizer, the bass lines, took on a new depth of meaning. So deep and so ever present, from that day on. That 42 minutes, sat in the back of a speeding marked car over Wintery Pennines.
“A little time with you is all that I get.”
With lights flashing, we sped through the snow and sleet and cold winds of the M62. When the traffic slowed down, Cagney and Lacey pressed a button on the dash, the lights and sirens combined, and we sped up.
Later, when I’d had enough, when I decided I couldn’t cry anymore, Cagney told me the combination of lights and sirens is known in South Yorkshire Police as ‘The Full Monty’. There’s even a button on the dash for it.
We arrived at the Sheffield Medico Legal Centre (a place I never knew existed, despite not living far from it when Beth and Molly were toddlers) and the red van passed silently inside garage door shutters.
We parked up and I was ushered into the centre reception and introduced to Maxine, a woman who looked at me intently and promised me she would look after Beth and Izzy for us. She held my hand. I pulled Teddy and Toby from Trace’s bag and handed them over to her, my eyes unfocussed with tears.
“If love is the answer you’re home.”
Ever since then – now, a year and one week since – I still cry to the first 42 minutes of Random Access Memories by Daft Punk.