Purple Rain, for sure.

‘I only wanted to see you…
Bathing in the purple rain’

It’s the refrain that gets me. The perpetual guitar refrain, the chord sequences, repeated over and over. I barely listen to the lyrics tbh.

I was well aware Beth would periodically plunder my CD collection.

It was either via a candid ‘Can I borrow this?’, usually when I was in the room at the same time, or more often when I’d find a disc missing, (as a former meticulous CD collector, I instinctively knew when one of my many was astray) or when I wanted to listen to something and she’d fess up and say  ‘ah, yes, think that’s in my room…’.

She was a squirreler of music, a hoarder of tunes. She’d hunt and gather from multiple sources, illegal download, dad’s CD collection, whatever. Decades didn’t define her collection, neither did musical genre. She liked what she liked, and she assembled and compiled it so.

For sure, I knew she listened to Prince and I knew she had a think for 80’s power ballads. But then, Before, it wasn’t like the tune was a thing for me and her (not like seeing Mr Hudson together many times or missing out on The XX in Leeds, because it was a Sunday night and I couldn’t be arsed). It didn’t resonate or resound. It wasn’t a thing, Before.

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But now, After, for sure it is.

Today, I’m in the gym, where I’ve not been for a while. In the middle of my ridiculous routine, over the communal speakers, the 80s playlist shifts to Purple Rain. It’s background music at first, and then, I dunno, a couple of minutes in, maybe more, an icy wave smacks my face. I have to stop what I’m doing, because I’m shuddering. I rest my hands on my knees and I close my eyes and well up. Refrain, refrain. It’s the refrain.

Maybe it’s the sadness and some kind of hope, combined. The Purple Rain of some adorable lost love. The bitter sweet nuance of something intimate, deeply human, that’s inexplicably gone awry and set adrift.

You know, the funniest thing is, when you’ve lost 2 kids, you have to do this all over again, for the other. There’s no ‘2 for the price of 1’.

But this one’s for you Bethy.  I miss you so much.

The Secret Life of a Zoo

From the single digit days well into the teens, there was a constant stream of people visiting the house.

During the day, it was anonymous, uniformed couriers arriving with signed-for or simply handed-over flowers. Our regular postie came twice a day, bearing envelopes of condolence. One day, as she delivered another bundle, she stopped and said, ‘I’m sorry’.

After work hours, it was friends, familiar or long lost, that would appear on the door step, shuffling awkwardly, bearing their flowers. Occasionally I’d be the one to open the door. They’d stand there, ashen-face, staring at me. Sometimes they’d remain in a state of fearful shock, or sometimes they’d burst into floods of tears.

And, in the first few days, in that first, news worthy weekend, it would be journalists who’d come knocking. ‘They understood, no really, they did really understand. They just wondered if we’d possibly like to talk. To make a statement’.

On Day 1, The Sun arrived home before I did.

The house began to well up with flowers. After the mantle and heath was filled, then the kitchen, even the hallway and stairs. Everywhere, in our Before tidy house, there were bundles of flowers. Every day, Trace’s closest friends would arrive with begged, stolen or borrowed vases and make careful arrangements of the old and add the new arrivals. We’d be handed the notes and cards that came attached to each.  Later, we put them all in a box. Saving them for? For later, I guess.

And as the flowers came into our lives, so our familiar family evening TV routine abruptly stopped.

We watched nothing. Nothing at all. In the days that turned to weeks (whilst I continued to count days) our TV sat, black and silent, in its corner.  Given it had been such the centre of attention, I’m sure it was sulking.

Over that first weekend we avoided the news completely, but not consciously. We just didn’t watch the news. Consequently, I have literally no idea of the media coverage that first weekend, Day 2 and 3, Saturday 27th February 2016 and Sunday 28th February 2016.

Then, one night, as the After days turned to double digits, someone picked up the dusty remote and put the TV on. Purely and simply to gain some glimmer, some semblance of normality.  After all, TV had been our family antiseptic to any day’s scrapes and scratches.

The problem was, as soon as the programme information faded, recalls and reminders flooded in. Every programme we watched was bathed in aching memories, each theme tune an incisive trigger for tears, for pangs of stomach-churning remembering. Of them both, sat on the sofa, with a TV supper or a takeaway. Of their yelps of laughter or grunts of dismay when they wanted to watch something else. Of their constant nattering and quips. Of their messaging whilst watching. ‘I AM watching! …What’d he say?’.

No one in our little extended cloud of a family of closest and newly found friends could stomach TV.  For me, it felt like I was, for a few precious, forgetful seconds, riding the crest of a wave that would then violently pull me under, making me grasp for air and gulp in salty sea water.

I suppose you’d call this ‘shock’. The immediate after effects of traumatic bereavement. One thing was for sure, I wasn’t ready for Saturday night primetime, for comedy quizzes or Sunday night costume dramas.

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Izzy’s photo of her last TV night in, 9th January 2016

Then one evening, whilst someone was casually flipping through channels of the never ending listings of agonising reminders, we happened upon ‘The Secret Life of the Zoo’.

It came with no memory recall. No heart aching triggers. It was new. It was about animals and people looking after animals. It was a quiet sort of programme, meandering gently between stories of zoo keepers and their care for their beloved creatures.

And so, we watched. We sat, we curled-up, a ragbag collection of numb bodies and fragile minds, stretched out on the living room floor or ensconced amongst sofa cushions. We watched in silence. We watched, glad that, for a few precious moments, we were somewhere else, somewhere that wasn’t here.

 

A Sleeping Dream

I found myself in a house, familiar yet strangely unfamiliar. Like a mash-up all of the houses I’ve ever lived in, rolled into one. The house was quiet. Seemingly unoccupied.

I wandered into the living room. I came across the abandoned debris of a TV dinner. I tidied up the dishes.

I walked upstairs into a study. A cross between my own house’s small study space and the larger attic room of my childhood – stretched out, combined, morphed into one.

Izzy came down the stairs from a room upstairs somewhere (I guess the attic rooms of Molly and Beth’s bedrooms) and joined me in the study. She was little, maybe 5 or 6. She was clutching an enlarged, elongated chocolate snack. Something like one of those chocolate assortments you get at Christmas.

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There, in the room, was the cream Habitat chair of my childhood. The same chair where, in a previous dream, Beth had sat, sowing and waiting.

‘Can I sleep here tonight?’ Izzy asked.

It seemed an odd request. Why would she want to sleep on a small chair that wasn’t even big enough to allow her to lie out. She’d have to sleep sat up.

Nevertheless I lifted her into the chair and sat her there. As I did so I asked her ‘Why?’

‘Because’ she replied ‘I’ll be closer to Beth.’

I pulled a duvet from somewhere and wrapped it around her, drowsy and snug.

Revisiting the Central Library, Sheffield

I was 20 years old, touching 21.

Back then, I had floppy, wavy hair, cut shorter at the back, left long and deliberately dishevelled at the front. It was the beginnings of a bob that I’d begin to grow out that Summer. In those heady days, I wore just one, solitary pair of battered, brown DM shoes, perpetually accompanied by baggy 501s. I favoured plain, loose fitting tee-shirts, under a creamy, beige oversized hoodie – bought once, worn a thousand times over.

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This year, this time, was the tail-end of my arts degree, of living and learning about life in Newcastle Upon Tyne. My degree was mostly practical (Izzy would call it a ‘mickey mouse degree’) but that, would occasionally, involve writing essays. These assignments were mostly on social theory and the arts, and we were actively encouraged to write about aspects of arts and culture that we felt, as young, politically and socially minded students were relevant. It was a time of ‘relevance’. It was, after all, the 80s.

This time, February/March 1988, it was the biggy – my end of third year dissertation. The culmination of at least a year of ‘community arts practice’ (don’t ask) and of three whole years spent on a degree when there were degrees that allowed you to soul search and find the references for what you thought was relevant. And when they were paid for by the Government.

However, stuck in my upon Tyne, Summerhill Terrace student house, I was perpetually, never-endingly cold. It was not proving a good place to sit and write. And the Newcastle Poly library just didn’t cut it for me (I now blame the brutalist 60s concrete for this cognitive dissonance). So I decided, in order to get the job done, to get this final furlong finished, and typed up by my mum, I needed to return home to Sheffield, for a few precious weeks of solitary confinement. The quiet suburbia of my family home and the loft room that, through my teenage years I called my own, would be the perfect place to put the damn dissertation to bed.

At first, I made progress, don’t get me wrong. I laid out all my research material on the floor around me. I organised and prioritised my reference papers and images (it was about photography, but again, let’s leave it at that). I scribbled pencil notes and I constructed my thinking. But, I had to admit, I found myself spending more time staring out of the loft room window, watching suburban life pass by beneath me, than clocking up the required word count.

So, one day, I gathered all my papers together and I caught the bus into town. I climbed the stone stairs of Sheffield’s central library on Surrey Street, found a seat at a large, communal table, and spread myself out.

The hushed aroma of book shelves and bound journals must have helped. The lofty ambitions of fellow students, alluding to the Victorian ceilings of the municipal library must also have helped. And the fact that I was in public, that I couldn’t put my feet up on the desk, or start drawing, or fidgeting , or yawning, also contributed, alot.

FYI, I got a First. We’re a family of Firsts. Izzy, as I made it clear to her, on numerous occasions, had a lot to live up to, as she started her degree.

And now, I’m 53, touching 54.

It’s February 2019, and I find myself again, needing a place to concentrate, needing somewhere to go to get the job done.

Now, I need to bring 3 years of thinking and rethinking, 3 years of ruminating, of intense researching, followed by months of stalling and avoiding. 3 years of deep, deep soul searching. 3 years of missing and longing and crying. 3 years, all to bear, on one solitary, well-rounded, rational, considered statement – preferably no more than a page of A4, ideally no more than 2.

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So later this week, I’m going to catch the bus into town again. I’m going to climb the stone stairs to Sheffield’s central library on Surrey Street, for the first time since I was 21.   I’ll pull out the beige folders wrapped with rubber bands, and lay out the evidence and the reports, some 200 odd pages.

And I’m going to fire up my Macbook, and I’m going to begin to write.

For Beth and Izzy, forever young.

This is Our Life Now (Christmas #3)

The heights and descents, the ebbs and  flows. The prints and negatives, the sunrise and fall.

The now everyday contradictions and the things I’m convinced I’ll cope with nicely.
The ‘No problems’, the ‘Nothing to see heres’.

These things often turn out to be,
The things that stab and jab and burn and land the hardest, splice the deepest.  They spike and surge and blister up. Opening cavernously, unexpectedly, unashamedly.

Like today’s tsunami, after an undetected under ocean volcanic eruption.
Rising from hidden ancient platonic plates, to cut and divide and devastate everyday lives.

I mean, after all, it’s only a quiet lunchtime drink with some of Izzy’s old school friends.
The ones that remain to this day, framed by her bedside, a group selfie lovingly encased, cherishingly placed.

And later in the day, a visit from her childhood friend, her Nandos and Nachos best buddy, now here with her beloved son and family in tow.

And as the midday breeze chills to an early evening Winter freeze,
I find that I can’t stop crying.

Every tiny, gentle gesture, every knowing expression, every familiar tone, every knowing glance. Every laughed at memory, every iPhone photo recall. Every overheard minor chord change and lyrical turn of phrase.

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These spark and ignite more salt water teardrops, bitter warm, running down my face.  I sit in Waitrose carpark, waiting, as Nick Cave sings to me.
My shivers and shudders turn to common cold like symptoms.
My bow strains, my frown forges, as my consciousness, still, near 3 years on, strives to make some sick sense of this.

Later, in the evening, alone in our PJs, half way up the stairs, Trace and I hold each other.

And she says, ‘This is our life now.’

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?