The unfamiliar sound of Mario’s indicator as I turn left at the mini roundabout at the end of our road. Click click, click click. Metallic but oddly comforting. This is Mario’s maiden voyage on a so routine, 10-minute road trip to my parent’s house.
A well-worn third of a turn of the steering wheel to the left, followed by a routine gear shift from second to third, to make steady progress up the slight gradient towards the traffic lights that separate a small collection of local shops. Then, with the fortune of a green light, Mario goes straight on, and I make a nonchalant glance at the oncoming traffic in case of someone’s unexpected decision to turn right in front of my right of way.
Mario cruises up the hill, taking naturally to this habitual road routine.
At the next left turn, I make only a cursory glance to my right towards the potential oncoming traffic. I know, I just know, that, nine times out of ten, I can turn left and accelerate without any opposition from the right. After all, these are slow, suburban S10 roads. And its only early afternoon on a Friday – no need for other road users to make haste.
Almost every school day Friday, I’d make this same, routine journey to pick Izzy up from my mum and dad’s, who had in-turn routinely picked her up from school and taken her back to theirs. Here at granmas, from single digit primary to double digit aspiring teen, Izzy would play Monopoly with my mum until she won and have my dad blow raspberries into her neck to make her squeal with delight.
Today though, I take this well-trodden path for the first time in Izzy’s Mario, not to pick Izzy up but to break the awful, unspeakable news.
Today, I change gears in the same familiar places, I accelerate, turn the wheel left, then right, then left, then right. I take the same short cuts, the same side streets I’ve taken for years.
But today, I need to do it with haste. I need to do this right now because the clock is ticking. I know my mum spends her days looking at the world from her iPad seeing its comings and goings from the BBC homepage. And I’m in a race with global news operations. I simply have to be there to tell her myself, so she doesn’t get to know from the Internet.
Finally, the last right turn and I indicate to pull up onto the curb in front my parents’ driveway. I turn off Mario’s engine. I take the key out. I reach for the door handle and step out onto the tarmac. I press the key to lock the car.
I walk up to my parent’s front door and go straight in without ringing the bell.
We were late for our flight. We were cutting it fine, but we were there. We’d made it.
Trace, Izzy and I hurried towards the expectant final call checking desk and as we neared, I pulled out of the top pocket of my jacket our three passports. At the desk, I fumbled in vain to open all three passports on their respective photo page.
But then I stopped trying. An overcoming sense of calm swept me. We’d made it. We were there, there was no need to panic anymore.
I laid our passports on the counter for the checking desk clerk to deal with.
She smiled with a steady professional ease and scooped them up in a flash of pink polished fingernails, from the beige vinyl of the check-in desk.
It was then that I noticed that Izzy’s passport, sandwiched between mine and Traces, wasn’t, in fact, her passport anymore. The dense, red and gold embossed official document that, split seconds earlier I’d pulled from my pocket and placed reassuringly on the check-in desk, had been replaced by a piece of folded up, crumbled at the edges A4 paper.
The check-in clerk unfolded the sheet of paper and looked down at a black and white photocopy of Izzy’s passport, open at the photo page.
I stood back for a moment, unnerved and unsure of myself. I’d just handed her all three passports, right? Out of my top right pocket, where I’d put them earlier? To make sure of a speedy check-in?
I glanced at Trace and Izzy stood beside me, to confirm my reality. They were both stood right there, both panting for breath from the anxiety of our late arrival as much as I was. And I’d just given her all 3 of our passports.
The check-in clerk smiled. ‘It’s ok’, she said, ‘as long as there’s two, it’s all covered’.
I didn’t question it. It was a massive relieve. We would still be on our way. We all thanked her, gathered our baggage and headed for security.
It turned out we were flying from a tiny airport, really no more than an airfield. A handful of small propeller planes sat stationary, as we were escorted at pace onto the runway by a nervous looking besuited male airport assistant towards our awaiting plane, its propellers already fired up for take-off. Trace was just ahead of me, striding towards the aircraft and Izzy was just behind me, ladened down with the stuff she’d wanted to bring with her, clutched to her chest, as well as rammed full in her backpack.
It turned out we were walking through unkempt, dry long grass, rather than the usual pristine tarmac of a runway. There were no painted yellow lines on a smooth grey surface to guide us, no orange plastic barriers to heed our way. And what made matters worse, with all the baggage I was carrying, (as with Izzy, I too was laden down with baggage) I had to loop my foot around one holdall bag and drag it along the grass.
I was thinking, why isn’t this guy helping me? Why’s he not offering to pick up the bag I’m having to drag along the ground with my ankle? Why’s he not helping Izzy with her luggage too?
My iPhone alarm goes off. It’s a slow, pulsing ring tone, designed to gently wake me up from sleep.
I breathe, then I breathe again.
I look at the window blinds and clock that the sun’s up. It’s light, it’s mid-May. All the environmental signs confirm my iPhone’s previous assertion. It’s 7am and I’ve been dreaming.
I lie in bed and carry on breathing. Breathing.
It’s like my day brain is still processing things, still coming to terms with the reality of a mid-May morning. It’s like it needs a little more time to adjust before my dreaming brain shuts down.
In the few minutes it takes for one brain to handover to the other, one to clock-off and the other to clock-in, I lie in bed and hold on dearly to the few precious moments I have left of being awake when it still feels like Izzy is really here. I cling onto that feeling, that momentary proximity, not ever wanting to let go, as my sleeping brain begins to shut down and my day brain takes over. She’s here. She’s there. She’s stood right next to me at check-in. She’s running alongside me to get on the plane.
I get up and go downstairs to make coffee. Trace is already up, no doubt from another restless night. I take over coffee and lie at opposite ends of the sofa with her, still half asleep. We play with the dogs, both competing for our attention, our fingers running through their fluffy, lockdown coats.
As I tell Trace about my dream, still rich and wooing in my head, I think, is this like brain defragging?
In the early days of having a PC, I’d periodically have to defrag my hard drive. Defragging would shift and reorganise files, bits of code, software installations, upgrades and the like and move them around to make more space on the hard drive. It was a like having a good old tidy up, a clear out and a reshuffle of all that was there.
The defrag programme would take some time, even overnight, to weave its sorting magic. And sometimes I’d sit and watch as tiny square dots moved around and grouped together, opening-up space for new files and new memories to replace them, whilst sorting out and making sense of the old fragments – the electronic particles that had been scattered, moved or discarded. Fragments were shown as red, green or blue dots, shuffling, sorting and aligning themselves.
Until this morning’s dream, I’d never really given their photocopied passports that much thought. But thinking about it…
At a Manchester airport freight hanger, seven days after they died, seeing two coffins with passports photocopied at the photo page, taped to the top of each. Daffodils placed beside by their pictures by a thoughtful member of the ground team.
An airport. Passports missing. A recurring motif. Of course.
This is one of many of Izzy’s spontaneous selfie portraits.
When, in the early days of the investigation and a South Yorkshire Police request to access to Izzy and Beth’s phones (for the record, Beth’s iPhone remains to this day unopened and unaccessed – no-one could guess her passwords and Apple didn’t/don’t help) when we first tapped into Izzy’s camera phone, I said to Cagney:
”They just look like holiday photos”.
“They are.” she replied, bluntly, but softly.
So here’s just one of many from Izzy’s camera phone.
Izzy is her energy infused self, snapping a cheeky selfie, knowing Beth is in the background, having one of her quiet, contemplative moments, as she oft would. It’s just a split second snapshot, a spur of the moment record of just one tiny fragment in time.
Now, and with such uncommonly, unfettered access, the picture encapsulates so much of their relationship, their sisterly bond, their easy, comfortable connection with each other and of their own, so dearly precious personalities.
I so, so wish I didn’t have such unfettered access. But I do.
On Tuesday, March 1st 2016, I looked up at the sky, took a picture with my camera phone and posted it on Instagram.
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.
But now I know There is no antidote for you
(Mr Hudson, 2019)
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.