And After began.

The dishwasher slurps. There’s a chill in our rented-but-for-free-from-a-mate newly refurbed Soho apartment. Not sure how to readjust the heating. So feet will have to stay chilled. Coffee’s on. That’ll warm me up. Trace is in bed. Dozing. Not quite ready to face the day.

London is getting up to a Monday morning again. A new build next door is having its aluminium fire-escape stairs delivered, unloaded by gloved hands from a fleet of flat-bed white vans. From the window, more white vans, more high vis vests. Deliveries for the start of another new week.

It’s snowing. In London. Carefree, drifting flakes at first, then a steady stream, as though joining the white vans and behooded walkers on their way to work.

About this time two years ago, I remember feeling normal.

I’d been to the gym, I was on my way to a kick-off meeting with a new client, I’d discovered a new album, the weather wasn’t so bad. I was driving Mario-the-Mini to collect points on the young drivers black box, for Izzy’s return. A Friday, I was thinking about what to do at the weekend. I called Trace.

 

Part of the day’s excursion was a boat trip.

Then, later that morning, on a Virgin train to Leeds central, around noon, my world came crashing in.

And After began.

My last conversation with Izzy (Part 1)

The sharp shingles dig into my ribs and smack me awake.

There are smaller, softer monochrome pebbles that ease the pressure of the larger, sharper, blackened rocks, as though, by age, they have lost their sharpness as well as their colour. The gentle sound of the ocean’s undulations surround me. I’m wet through and half submerged in water.

I crawl out, barely able to lift myself. Exhausted. Confused. On terra firma, albeit a bed of black and grey shingles and jagged rocks. How long have I been here? Where have I come from to be here? Where is here?

After a while I manage to lift myself out of the water and onto the shingle shore, so that only my feet and shins are still immersed in the blue black sea.

I take a moment to rest my cheek on the rocks and then strain to lift my neck and look behind me, from whence I’ve come. All I can see is a faint line dividing the blue black of the sea and the blue grey of the sky. Nothing else. No boat, no wreck, no sign of life, nothing other than an endless line of ocean and sky.

I pull myself up onto my hands and knees, edging upwards, dragging my knees and the rest of me up to standing. I wobble, find my balance, and stand still.

I look ahead of me. And then up. And up. And up.

In front of me is an immense tower, a block of grey white cylindrical concrete rising out of the shoreline of grey black shingles and rocks. It has a tip, high above me and, as I try to focus my tired, sea salted eyes, I see the shimmer and pulse of a light.

A lighthouse.

I slip and stumble up a gentle incline, my feet sinking in as the pebbles shuffle and rearrange, making way for my weight. Not far up the monochrome beach, I come face to face with the lighthouse and I joyously plant both my hands firmly onto the comforting, man-made concrete.

I press my cheek against its cold rough surface and breath in. Whatever this is, wherever I am, it has to be better than an endless ocean and sky.

I start to edge my way around the outside of the lighthouse, not letting either of my hands off the gritty surface. As I manoeuvre around, I look around me and realise the lighthouse is standing alone on it’s own tiny island, surrounded by sea and sky and nothingness.

Then my hand comes across a sharp vertical edge. A frame. A door frame. I stand back for a moment, letting my hands go of the surface of the wall. I stare at a wooden, meticulously painted panelled door. Its hinges are brass, as is its solitary, round handle.

I move my hand towards the handle and grasp it. I turn it and it loosens the frame and I feel the weight of the door pulling towards me.

I step inside.

me&iz

There’s an inner space, a sort of outer casing to the building that surrounds an inner, pure white wall. Directly ahead of me is a steel door, a lift door. There’s a button. I glance to either side and see the inner wall running around the core of the building. I take in the smell of chilled, stale air, of a space that’s not been opened for a long time. I press the button.

A shift, a buzzing and a whirr of movement above me. The lift descends, pauses for a moment and the door slides opens. I step inside a tiny steel lift. There’s only one button. I press it.

A repeating buzz and whirr and a jolt and the lift ascends.

A shudder and the lift comes to rest. The door opens and I step inside a room, in the top of the lighthouse.

There’s only one object in the room. It’s the familiar wooden frame of Izzy’s bed and her brown duvet, ruffled, dishevelled and slept in. My eyes begin to feel with tears as I edge closer to her bed.

She’s there. Curled up in her pillows. Asleep.

I sink to my knees.

 

My last conversation with Beth (Part 1)

It felt like she’d been in her room too long. She was napping, as ever. And I couldn’t gauge her mood, as ever. Too quiet, at the very least, too sleepy – she’d miss the takeaway and the shit, slumbersome TV we always shared and laughed through.

Both Beth and Molly were home for the weekend. In my dream, I was looking for some shampoo I didn’t want her to take away with her.

So I climbed up the stairs to the attic rooms shared between her and Molly – the space we’d move to, to give them space.

But as I turned the stairs, banister in hand, it turned into the the banister of the loft room of my parents house. The loft room was my safe place, all mine – the trade-off  for my brother having the big bedroom and me the box room. It was my haven, away from the everyday stress and strain of angst teenage life. A closed door, music, solitude, guitars. Sometimes darkness.

I felt myself speed up in anticipation, double jumping the final few stairs. I so wanted to see her and get her to come downstairs and share the shit TV.

 

I knocked.

me&beth

I expected the usual mess of assorted cutlery and cast aside clothing, remnants of multiple friends sharing pre-loading drinks and after, sharing intimacies and slumber. I was worried she might think I was being critical. I wanted her to know I wasn’t. I wouldn’t tidy up. I just wanted her to come downstairs and share shit TV.

I walked in.

Beth was sat quietly on the chair of my childhood – a cream, padded steel-framed Habitat chair. After I left home, my dad used to sit on it, listening to trad jazz CDs. It’s long gone now.

She was sat there, quietly, doing nothing in particular, but doing something, quietly mending something, sewing, making.

She was still, calm, like she wanted to be alone, but at the same time, happy to be disturbed.

So I thought I’d push through her solitude by messing about, fooling around – my default for changing a mood.

I realised my guitar was there. And there was music playing. Stirring, Icelandic post-rock. I picked up my guitar, but realised it wasn’t mine. It was a right-handed Gibson (I’m left handed, I have a Gibson copy) and its middle two strings were missing, making it doubly hard to play.

None the less, I sat down – I don’t recall where – and started to play.

Beth seemed fine with my intrusion on her solitude and to my musical accompaniment, despite the groans and moans she’d usually make when I played guitar. So I flicked the switch on my old valve amp. I played right-handed, with strings missing, but amazingly, the sound and the chords I made perfectly accompanied the music in the room.

Beth nodded approvingly.

Then she looked up, raised her eyebrows and looked directly, quizzically but playful at me.

‘So…?’

 

The uncomfortable conversation of the imagined knowing

So apparently there’s this ‘Empty chair’ therapy, so my therapist told me. You put yourself in a room with the person you’re ‘dealing with’ (my words, not Gestalt’s) and imagine them, sat in a chair.  You talk to them, as though they’re there. Then you move to the chair and sit. And imagine what that person would say to you…

And there’s the rub.

That’s the biggest barrier I’ve faced. The toughest force to push against. The peak to climb. The ledge to leap. The hardest blog dialogue to write. The most honest, the most vulnerable, the most open conversation with both of them. Imagined.

And I want that moment. Trust me. I want to have that last conversation. I want it to be real, to happen, to not be imagined. But that’s not going to happen, so I have to imagine…if I could have that moment, that precious few moments, maybe to say my peace, to hear them say theirs. To exchange our final words – love, tears, guttural emotional, advice, recompense, just looking into each other’s eyes.

Their eyes. Their tears, as they look at me, as they look at all of us, and then fade.

And with no preparation and no rehearsal, what would I say?

I’ve imagined this final conversation, I’ve dreamt of it. But only to a point of starting the conversation.

And of all the moments I’ve dreamt of, of all the resurfaced memories strung together by my fragmented mind, my unfocussed brain, now closing on 2 years After, and sat now, reading Police reports in a chilly London hotel, I’ve got as far as this…

21 and Counting?

So today is Izzy’s 21st birthday.

Or would have been. She didn’t make it past 19. That’s 2 years ago. 2 years to count or to lose count. But who’s counting?

I for one still count. And every now and then, I get confused. Do I measure time lapsed between now and when they died differently – time Before and After, or simply ignore it, as though they’re still alive?

I lose track of time after 2 years. When Facebook reminds me of something 7 years ago (me and Iz and the family skiing the Chamossiere hill in Morzine) and I think, is that 7 years ago or is it 5 years ago plus 2? And I know, as time moves on, I’ll get more and more confused, as February 2016 locks frozen into the past, etched into Before, when my counting had to restart somehow.

I remember quite early After having a conversation with a friend about the future that would have been. I had this notion to buy a University of Sheffield Geography Dept hoodie – she was due to start her degree in September. My friend said no. No point. You can’t measure the future time that won’t happen. You can’t linger on the future lost. Hard enough persisting on the past.

So today Izzy would have been 21.

Maybe we’d have arranged a party. Maybe hired somewhere to avoid the house getting turned over. Maybe combined it with a close family gathering too, perhaps. Stretched it out for her. Friends would have taken her out for sure. But who knows, who’s counting?

So today, January 8th 2018, we’ll be skiing. And I’ll be on Chamossiere, caning it down the hill, my lenses masking my tears and remembering the moments of powder run and falling over together.

Happy Birthday Iz. xx

Waves, Wounds and then Scars

When you think about it, or have a reason to think about it, like I have, there’s been a lot written about grief and loss.

It gets a healthy return when you Google it or when you search on Amazon, as I did, in the early days, for books about grief. It’s a shame that an Amazon search pings you straight to the self-help section and misses out the pain expressing poetry. They’ll invent an algorithm for that at some point, I’m sure.

What I’ve learnt from ‘After’, is there’s a ton of misconceptions, clichés and supposed ‘tried and tested’ models for grief. It’s surprising really, when you think how close grief and loss is to, well, everyone, at some point or another. You’d have thought there was at least a definitive guide. A Shakespeare, a Bible, or a Koran of Grief. The best seller. The publisher’s cash cow that coins it in.

I searched in the heady, sleepless, aching, bleary-eyed early days of After, and, don’t get me wrong, I ordered and downloaded my fair share on Amazon Prime.

(As an aside, there’s a pale purple covered, standard issue book called ‘Information for the bereaved: murder or manslaughter’, written and published by the Criminal Justice System.  It was handed to us by Cagney in Week 1 – ‘you might find bits useful, at some point.’ Cagney said. It’s available exclusively from your FLO. You can’t get it on Amazon, sorry.)

So, in the midst of this searching, of my attempts to grasp onto something, some intangible, unbearable way of understanding, comes a FB message from a friend (soon to be a close friend). A quote, from a link. For me, this, quite simply, hit the nail on the head. It’s the dogs bollocks. From Day One, til now, long After, as the night rain pours outside the window of our quiet family home.

The story goes that someone posted a message on a web forum “My friend just died. I don’t know what to do.” And a reply came through. Not particularly well-worded, succinct, poetic or even well considered. Yet it’s heartfelt, honest analogy of ‘waves and scars’ shines through.

‘‘My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. Scars are a testament to life.  And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was.

As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you.

In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out.

Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. You learn that you’ll survive them.

And in between waves, there is life.’’

http://www.tickld.com/x/old-man-explains-death-and-life-to-grieving-young-man

Now, After losing Izzy and Beth, may I be so bold as to expand a little on ‘scars and waves’.

2016-02-20 17.53.45_2

Beth swimming, 20 February 2016

Wounds come before scars

Scars are formed from once open wounds. Without a wound, you don’t get a scar.

When a wound is inflicted, it’s shocking and red raw. You’re hit as much by the agony, as by adrenaline. Shock, confusion, disbelief, especially when it’s out of the blue, sudden, decisive, incisive, sharp.

And it’s then,  when the wound is inflicted and you look down at it and see the flesh open in front of you, that you experience your first ice cold, vital wave of grief. There’s no warning of course. No rhythm or reason for the first tidal wave of shocking, freezing cold water of unexpected, emotional dissonance that hits you square on, full on.

It’s not as though you’re stood there at a sea front or something, staring languidly into the horizon, when a wave comes in and you think, ‘ah well, to be expected really’. No, grief waves hit you hard and hardest when you least expect them. The first feels the worst, but they don’t go away, trust me.

The waves come, one after another. Each time a wave hits you, the bitter, salty water smacks against the rawest of your wound and opens it up again, just when you thought it might be beginning to heal, to close over, to whiten and soften into a scar.   But every time a wave comes it stings as raw and as callous as the first day the wound was inflicted – the first violent stab, the angry slash that unexpectedly and inexplicably sliced you open.

But wounds heal with time, right?

I’m sorry, no. I don’t want to lull you into a false sense of security, or into some Hollywood/Bollywood ending.

Sure, wounds soften and whiten and cells combine again and skin grows over, replaced by new, paler, skin with the telling signs of a gentle itch and flesh loses its red rawness.

Eventually wounds turn to scars.

But salty, icy waves still smack you and push at your scars as they try to heal. And the scar feels as though its ready and willing to open up again as fresh as the first ever day.

And you look down at yourself and you see your wounds slowly, slowly becoming scars. They are there, always, a constant reminder of the cause of the pain that was inflicted upon you.

‘Look…’, you pull up you sleeve, you lift up your shirt, ‘Here’s my scars. Where’s yours?’

“And in between waves, there is life.”

Promise

Hi.

I know, I know, sorry, I’ve not properly talked. Just, well, I find it hard, you know what I’m like.

Just a quick one really, to say hi.

And well, to say, I promise to write my conversation with you both. Soon, promise. Hope you understand – it’s not an easy thing for me to do. I know you’ll have a few choice words for me. Haha.

So look, little finger promise. I’ll do it.

2016-02-25 16.04.01 copy.jpg

Last selfie, 25 February 2016

I know where you are Beth, so you first. Sos Iz, don’t get all sister competitive. Love you both.

So speak soon. Ok?

Promise. xx