“I’m going to be an owl, Mummy”.
My daughter, Pippa, informed me that this was to be her role in the school’s nativity play. An owl. I ask you. She was a donkey last year. How do I begin to make an owl costume?
“Lovely dear. That’ll be fun” Secretly, I had hoped that she would have been centre stage this year. Mother Mary, perhaps or a shepherd. Is that really beyond the realms of possibility? Perhaps next year.
I bought two brown pillow slips and some brown crepe paper and spent several evenings –and days- cutting out leaf-like feathers and sewing them onto the pillow slips. After cutting four holes in one side so that at least she would be able to see and breathe, I then cut two large black rings from card and sewed them on to make large eyes. A brown pair of tights would finish the ensemble. I felt quite pleased with myself.
It was trying on time. I had butterflies in my stomach. What is she didn’t like it? Get a grip, girl. This is a fantastic owl costume.
“Hello, Mrs. Owl” I said as soon as she had donned her outfit. “’Owl are you today”?
Thankfully she laughed at my effort at humour. Then she removed her owl mask.
“What’s wrong? Don’t you like it? You look fantastic.”
“I need a ladybird”.
“Ladybird? Why do you need a ladybird?”
“Mrs. Carter said so.”
Well, who am I to argue with Mrs. Carter?
I am ashamed to say that I used google. I read on one site-yes, I did go on more than one- that the ladybird was named after the Virgin Mary. Perhaps that’s why they wanted one in the stable scene. I decided on seven spots, six legs and two feelers.
One red painted ping pong ball with black felt tip permanent pen spots, and black pipe cleaners later I had a ladybird look- a- like in my hands.
The day of the nativity play arrived. My mother and I joined the throng of parents and carers battling to find best seats in the school hall.
The play commenced and Joseph and Mary eventually came to the stable. I looked anxiously for Pippa. No sign. I knew it. She couldn’t see through the holes in the pillow slip, she had fallen, she had missed the play. It was all my fault. Shepherds and various cuddly toy sheep arrived. Where was she? Finally the three wise men entered stage left and, to my astonishment, so had Pippa. She was one of the wise men.
The play ended with rapturous applause and we were all encouraged to stay for tea and mince pies whilst the children were getting changed, Mrs Carter came up to me. She handed me the owl costume.
“Mrs. Randall. I think there was a tiny, little bit of a hiccup with communication. Pippa was chosen to be a wise man carrying incense. Not a wise owl carrying an insect. Lovely costume though.”
I was somewhat embarrassed but that was soon forgotten as I realized that it had been within the realms of possibility. My daughter had, at last, made centre stage.
Our men glitch
by sixty, hearts freeze
pump, our mothers
metastasized, errors passed
womb to womb, eyes to breast.
Our family is fixed in closed loops,
mourning routine, in cycles.
swallow the tail end of life
and cheat death / cheat code / cheat
this failing body, an inheritance
never asked for.
An embryo sculpts limbs from blunt mass,
snarls to sparse circuits - is half dead
before birth - flesh shed
cells at a time; form carved
I’ll respawn with worn versions of self
sloughed like loose skin, refreshed,
a man emerging
Note: GodMode is a common cheat code in video games, conferring invulnerability or unlimited 'lives'.
Mermaid Watson set up her stall with posters of naked bodies on either side of laminated certificates qualifying her as a tantric sex educator, cuddle therapy facilitator and sexological explorer. She added a liquid lamp oozing electric yellow in a wine-red fluid. She reviewed her fingers each with a ring from the karma sutra. She pouted in the mirror and adjusted her frosted blue eyeshadow. She rearranged the crystals, dusted her buddhas and added another video from world-renowned psychic Magda Haines. She had mantras, affirmations and tiny prayer stones, guardian angels and cosmic orgasm guides. This new age holiness also co-existed peacefully, at least in her stall with statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It was day three of the Body and Spirit festival. Muszak whined out a tinny Django Rinehart to the crowd. People were starting to gather around her stall. The usual giggling Japanese tourists, men with the look of a Thai holiday in their eyes, and middle-aged women shyly asking questions about the right gemstones for low libido.
She was explaining how a specific crystal could act as a love potion on a reluctant partner when nearby a loud male voice started preaching.
‘ it is ALL bollocks. Life isn’t magic. Let’s get real. Science is the only basis for knowing how the world works’
Outraged she rushed over to a stall three rows behind. The large sign in black and white proclaimed the stall as the Sceptics Shop. A tall, tanned guy with stylish glasses shoved a pamphlet on the benefits of scientific thinking into a young man’s hand.
‘Bros lets keep it real hey! ’ he joked with the teenager.
‘How did you manage to get in this time?’ she demanded ‘THIS festival is absolutely only for New Age businesses’
‘got a permit just like you did Alison ‘
‘So what promise fooled the organisers this time? she asked
‘I told them I would promote the benefits of meditation. Now get out of my stall’.
‘when was the last time YOU had sex you piece of cerebral stagnation!’
‘my body is none of your business. I’m calling security right now. ‘
Tod the security guy scowled in their direction and then decided to come over .
‘He giving you trouble Mermaid’
‘I can deal with Mr Bird’
‘Can I see your permit please?’ Tony Bird slapped the permit into Tod’s hand ‘She is asking me about my sex life’ he complained loudly. 'She's harassing me!'
Tod winked at Mermaid and then tried to descalate their standoff ‘Well she does include cosmic sex in her stall mate. Why not just lie back and enjoy it…?
‘You think you’ve got this place sewn up Mermaid. Well you haven’t I’m calling the Police !’ Tony hissed.
Of course Tony Bird would never call the Police. He had seen it all before. She was the one who was stuck. And it was inside her ‘New Age’ cult. No one in their right mind would call their child Mermaid……. this was a self inflicted name.
All he wanted was for her to revert again to Alison Mueller research assistant at Neuronics. Alison had a sharp mind for science and facts she had a fantastic bullshit detector. She was always offered promotions. And then one day in the middle of cutting up a brain, she crashed,walked out and never returned. Since then she wanted nothing to do with him. He ran back through their time together. It was full of Tedex dates, scientific conferences and papers. Why? Why Alsion? Why commit ‘intellectual suicide? Why leave me?
Alison rushed into the toilets. Inside she looked at herself in the Mirror. Mermaid had emerged from a sea of pain. She saw Tony, heard him, understood his message but she was not going back to being Alison. The laboratory might be ‘reality’. Humans probably are just conglomerations of chemicals and particles but this was no longer enough for her. Life was subjective and she could believe what she wanted!
His stalking her had to stop. Consulting her ‘Guide to Crystals’ she noted: 'Alexandrtite Can cause obsession or over-focus on something the person who enchants it chooses. The person can become delusional'.
Back at her stall she called Tony over and placed an Alexandrite ring on his finger. ‘Here take this as a peace offering’. Sure enough, months later she heard he had become engaged after a whirl wind affair with a woman at work.
'Rural communities twist and turn like so many roses and ivy bushes. As you discover who built each house, who cut down each tree, who constructed each dry stone wall, you find out who loved who, what children were produced, where they are now. The rules are organic regulations of nature. The plant grows, sometimes falters, sometimes thrives. When love ends the consequences are natural and not legal and shocking. One can enter something without the false-godly input of everlasting ties that thou shalt not. Like a seed, one does not know even if it will germinate.'
You say to me I have
no idea of real people’s lives
I blink, wonder where your vision
of me comes from. Clouds.
All my pinched youth
I don’t remember, just shreds of it
come back. The yellowed man who gave
me a foreign chocolate each week
to bring us both luck.
The lady whose ankles swelled
on the plane, like walking on balloons,
flying to her daughter in Canada
twice a year while we went nowhere.
Cabbage smell billowing
from our frog-cave hall
as Dad croaked at me
this was the week he’d win
the pools and I imagined
blue waters, pure air.
I imagined towers of learnt facts
taking me storey by storey
out of this suffocating hell,
tiptoeing away from being nothing
up to where the air was pure
but you're born right, let's get real
I have no idea.
CLIMBING TO THE MOON
The moon lived in our home. It never moved. I could see that it was hanging from a thick golden thread. In vain I had attempted to reach it but I just couldn’t jump high enough. I practised trying from all angles. Every day my waking thought was - this is the day. Today I will jump so high that I will reach the moon and climb over it to see what was above. It never happened. Until one day a few weeks ago. All was normal until suddenly our home was filled with a bright light. I and my family cowered in the corner. We heard a loud, winding noise. We were scared. I looked up. The light went out. Something was different though. I looked up. The moon. The moon had started to move. From side to side, side to side it went
almost touching the walls. TOUCHING THE WALLS?! This was it. My chance. My courage returned. Before my parents could to stop me, I ran and climbed onto the ledge halfway up the wall. When the moon came near I knew it was now or never. I leapt.
Phew. I made it. I clung on tightly and managed, by scrabbling and using previously unknown athletic, gymnastic type moves to reach the golden thread above the moon. I was about to shin upwards when there was the most awful sound. BOOM! It deafened me. I, the moon, our home, shook with the vibrating resonance of the sound. I ran down as fast as I could, joined the rest of my family and left that home never to return. We made our way to the kitchen
cupboard where we knew we would be safe. Safe from moving moons, scary, loud deafening noises, and the house cat. Let’s get real - Grandfather clocks definitely do not make good homes for mere mice.
They say, in the therapy sessions, that I should have a place to go to, a favourite place I’ve been to that I can remember. Somewhere I can go to in my imagination where I am safe, relaxed, at ease. Then, when things become too much and I am in a terrible place, I can mentally withdraw to that safe, favourite place and ‘regroup’ as the current fashionable phrase says.
So I say to them that, well surely, if I go again to that lovely place for real, I will be sent back to my terrible place. In the same way that you can look through a window both ways, you can walk through a doorway both ways, look down a toilet roll tube both ways.
But they say no, it doesn’t work like that.
So I tell them my secret place. I share with them my lovely place that I already do go to in my mind when I am stressed, and together we, my therapist and I, go there, in our imagination.
Months later I am near that secret place, for real.
I am walking up the hill, the air is warm, heavy with the scent of pine, the gentle breeze silent except for its stirring of the trees above me. I can feel its coolness on my skin: the pine needles underfoot are soft, like walking on a thick carpet. As I approach the top of the rise, I anticipate the view and sure enough a last few paces bring me out into the open, a small clearing with the view of the great valley opening before me.
I breathe deep, feel the freshness coursing through my veins, the tingling in my very tissues of this wonderful place. I close my eyes to savour my senses, then, after a while, open them again to wonder at the majestic view. The hills are before me, marching into the distance like great hump backs of whales, rough hewn and magnificent.
But as I look, the restless shifting of the breeze becomes mingled with the sound of traffic, car horns, the erratic stride of feet along the pavement, the sound of rain on the window, the smell of the stuffy office, the humid heat of a room closed against the outside world, the cold winter streets of the city outside the therapist’s office grey with rain sheeting across the steamed window.
And it comes back, the stress, the fear, the panic, the sweat, the trembling.
I look at the view unseeing for I am in that therapist’s office again, trapped, trying to rid myself of the torment I am struggling to cope with. And then with a shudder and a gasp of breath I am back, back in my terrible place, with horrible things happening around me, I’m on the point of having a panic attack and I cannot cope any more with being there. I need to get to my imagined place. But I am in that lovely place already, not in my imagination but for real: but I am not here: I have returned to my terrible place.
They lied. The toilet roll tube of my therapy was two way.
Creases and cockroaches
Roaches and shake
Sleepless nights and naked bodies
Flashing lights, nuggets and lines
Lies and dreams
That orange blanket
Pillow and pillow talk
Guns and blow up dolls
Mornings and nights, leading to mornings, leading to nights
Suffocation, intoxication, dread and death
Tarrantino, Del Torro, McDonagh
Meat Pizza and Potsickers
If we consider the body crudely as composed of liquid, solid and gas, then, my apple, my lamb, it is this that I love: your viscosity, every drop of you. For surely, of these three states of matter, it is liquid, the essential; the fat tears that spring from you are a marvel.
Your face, aged almost two, is plump and dewy, water-rich; an ad for moisturiser - all chubby babies are; deep crinkles in your wrists like joined sausages. Compared of course to old age, the great withering, skin turning to paper, muscle to powder... our waters drying up to leave us open-mouthed, parched parchment, our histories written on our perished scrolls of flesh. Although indeed you can die of wet rot as much as dry rot - my grandmother, fatally, had water on the lung; she drowned from the inside.
You're sick, sweetheart, a passing thing; and when you hugged me earlier I smelled the faint, day-old tang of vomit on your neck. And then you fell asleep, and I lay an inch away and smelled the thick fug of mucus, your breathing labouring wetly under a heavy tide.
It is this that I love, your essence, your humours, sweet or foul; and this I cannot hold, for as water runs through fingers we we cannot ever really hold another. We are two streams running together for a while before the flood rushes us on. What can we do but savour, savour, even as we turn to vapour, what can we do but love...every...drop; and every drop of you, I love.
The Modern Curse
Drop down through the drizzle
through heaving salt into a horseshoe bay
a line of foam frothing from the mouth's of whales
mixing beige at it's edges
But this world here is without portents
(being of the common era)
no sagas sung for the love of gods over it's waves
here everyone is tightly measured, weighed
& all the old idols smashed & fallen
speckling broken forts
strewn in abandoned gullies
staining sheer granite cliffs
but their old spells are still
woven deep in our wild valleys - unbound
There should be more ceremony
before, not after, especially
with your kind of death,
a tortuous withdrawing
your now snail-like brain
creeping into its thin shell.
I try to create a rite
here you are, thumbing your nose
at life’s power to beguile you,
forsaking all you once were
those laughing, dancing fools.
I yearn to conjure them back
but this room is solid dust,
abandoned good intentions.
Your elbows, always everywhere,
nudge you now,
out, not in.
A ritual of so nearlys,
an inch from the safety net,
an ounce more self-belief
and you’d have had fanfare.
Perhaps I didn’t miss
you marking your card
each of our mirrored sips
your little liquid goodbyes.
Tilts the bottle one final time. Saturated.
Marinated. Later she will smash
her grandfather's accordion for its judgement.
A healthy person drinks until drunk. She until
the drink is gone.
Every Last Drop
Orgasm interrupted. Distance knocking broke
his concentration, yet forth the fluid flowed.
Now he wipes sticky semen from curling
stomach hairs, trying to dispel
lingering dissatisfaction, vague
residue of Catholic shame.
Every Last Drop.
Shoe shine boy for fifty years.
Bankers and judges have sat
in that chair. No, it's true what you
heard; even the Dalai Lama.
Creaking knees. Aching back. He will retire
today. But first he opens one last small tub
of Kiwi Black Gloss,
and uses it with industrial relish.
Every Last Drop.
Two deep breaths. Final heave.
Triceps screaming. Unclip
your safety rope as you lie
panting. This life. This great fat lemon awaiting
your clench and squeeze. Wrangle
all its bittersweet juice.
Every. Last. Drop.
Her eyes are mostly closed.
She lies, these precious days,
Not many heartbeats from the hand of God.
Before those final breaths,
I pray she loves each drop
That whispers water from the pressed on sponge.
And every touch and voice
That speaks of dearest love
Will soften pain ; I turn to weep alone
This laughing girl grown old,
Who held her friendships close ,
Delighted by a meadow filled with flowers...
I try to stop my dreams;
My prayers must be for light-
The miracle won't happen for her life.
A myriad angels wait to guide her soul,
Unfurl the dark she leaves
And show the ones who’re left the constant stars.
A cold crisp day
I feel a chill slice through the air
The sun electrifies the ends of my hair
The surface of my skin changing its texture to meet the wind
Here is where I find the desire
For a life lived to its best
Soaring upwards to fly the crest
Waves of pleasure, joy, happiness
The pool of water glimmers
Through the patient trees
Waiting, watching, at peace with all it sees
It speaks to something that glows bright within me
I know this place
It restores me
It reminds me
To savor the hours I am given, whether sweet or hard-bitten
I must fill this life made of fragile glinting glass
Fill it up to the very last
You must have heard of Nymphs and Satyrs,
Romping around in the nude in Greece,
The goaty boys bent on sexual matters,
The girly ones determined on peace?
Lots of artists depicted us, a good reason
To paint ladies naked in a summer season,
Bathing to show off their manifold charms,
Running away from the hairy lads arms.
All that mythology offered a chance
To show those females in graceful dance.
Ogle each lovely cushiony breast,
But don't neglect to relish the rest:
What can you see as they go and come?
Lots and lots of beautiful bum.
And don't forget our salty sibs,
The Nereids with well-covered ribs,
Who balance and bounce,
Frolic and flounce,
In the froth and foam
Of the ocean, their watery home.
And what about the ones who are dry,
The Dryads, living in the trees who try
To foster the forests, preserve their health?
For they, like us, are Nature's wealth.
We look so carefree, in arc and antic,
But inwardly we are fearful, frantic,
Not just in Greece but through the Atlantic,
And all the oceans and rivers,
For we are the joyous health-givers,
Those whose precise, perpetual prancing,
Whose ceaseless cavortings, doughty dancing,
Infuses all animals, birds and plants,
So each butterfly and bee may advance
In vigour, harmony and zest,
Preserving Life in perpetuity, lest
You humans permanently poison
The Planet, finalise the foison,
And madly murder what we feed
With our divinely ordered need
To perform our endless ritual ball,
Gathering in the Harvest of us all.
For every fibre of our fabulous flesh
Is full of the creative forces, which mesh
Within our gallops and gambles,
Our choreography and ambles,
And you, the wreckers of the World, all must
Before you destroy it and reduce to dust
The bounty, beauty, sacred trust
We all our bound within. Our lust
Is the life-force, so when we mate
We add vitality, reinstate
The glory and the pleasure,
The sweetness that is the Universal Treasure.
Your artists have understood that desire
Is the essence, the embers of the Fire
Which blow and glow within the heart
And activate each limb and body-part.
So, come with me, your brother Faun,
Join the ballet on every lawn,
Swim with Mermaids in swirls and twirls,
Become simply in your spirits boys and girls.
Sufficient to move your little finger,
So long as your lascivious love can linger
Somewhere within your heart and soul,
For we can cure you, make you whole.
But you must seek, as we do, to embrace
Each insect, leaf and lizard,
The kids, the kids
Love in every drop
Treacle turned to tar
Black out in a bar
On visiting the UK post-Brexit to congratulate the strong and stable Theresa, he steps out of the aircraft and stands there waving to his imagined supporters. However, since Brexit the specifications of the steps have been changed and do not fit as well as they should. They suddenly come unfastened, whirling around in the 90mph wind, throwing him onto the tarmac - smack! - where he dies instantly on impact.
Whilst on a tour of the US during the 2020 presidential election, he makes a change in schedule on hearing the oldest person in the state is celebrating her 108th birthday and has always voted Republican. Billboards are hastily erected around her house but unfortunately they are not all secure and the one directly above his head comes crashing down on him causing fatal head injuries.
Vladimir Putin meets with him on neutral territory in Monaco. Putin is in the grip of a virulent strain of Muscovite flu which he passes on. Being older and less fit, your man succumbs to the flu three days later. His dying words are deemed not fit to broadcast, due to a sudden wake up call within the US government.
During a stay at his golf course, he invites representatives from Scotland's finest distilleries to a bourbon tasting evening. One of them suggests he might like to visit Loch Ness and see if he can persuade the monster to show itself. Sure the Loch Ness monster would wish to meet him, he travels to the loch the next day. He stands on the shore, calling to the monster to come out, and is rewarded by Nessie rearing her head. He beckons to Nessie to come closer so he can stroke her. She approaches and swallows him up in one gulp: gone.
Invited once again to talks with Mr Kim, he and his entourage fly to North Korea. The entire entourage is wiped out by a firing squad at the Special Kim Chi dinner. Mr Kim denies all responsibility and claims this is fake news.
He visits Huddersfield, home of the Terriers, Huddersfield Town Football Club, who have beaten everyone in sight and won every football trophy going in the 2019-20 season. As he gets out of his car, a pitbull terrier rushes forward and savages him, causing other pitbulls to follow suit. He dies from his injuries and the state of Florida offers free trips to Disneyland to all Huddersfield residents in gratitude.
During an outdoor speech about the myth of climate change, a freak storm appears in a matter of seconds and he is fatally struck by lightning which hits the metallic elements of his hairpiece.
In a chess move worthy of Bobby Fisher, the cabinet encourage him to come up with a new law against migrants. The small print says,
'Any citizen who does not have American ancestry shall be declared an illegal migrant'. The signing of this new law is on TV so the entire nation are able to enjoy the spectacle of him being declared illegal because of his Scottish mother and arrested by the FBI. He is shown in the death throes of a heart attack whilst a brave young intern tears up the law in front of him and is immediately named a front running candidate as his successor for her initiative.
New technology has been developed to record dreams. He can't wait to try it out and let his fans know what he is dreaming, so he has the machine directly hooked up to a live broadcast. That night, he dreams of Muhammad Ali, whom he insists on calling Cassius Clay, and they argue about who is the greatest. The boxer slugs him and he wakes up, bashing his head on the headboard of the bed, which causes a fatal aneurism.
From time to time he goes to his vault to look at his gold bullion. On this occasion, despite warnings from climate change experts that an earthquake is about to hit Florida, he goes to look at the bullion. The shock waves of the earthquake hit the foundations of the vault and he is swallowed up by a sink hole, along with his gold bars.
Keen to show his love for non-Americans who are not migrants, he goes to a conference on preserving the rights of the Quechua. He gropes the woman representing the Quechua and brushes against her necklace, which is made of poison darts. The poison paralyses him in the position of grabbing her breasts, giving the press ample time to record his final movements before the poison takes hold and kills him. The Quechuans are all immediately granted US citizenship, but use the papers, when they arrive to celebrate a fire festival in the spirit of pride in their identity, renunciation and schadenfreude.
The Saudis invite him to a banquet and offer him steak. He refuses saying he does not eat halal meat. They assure him this meat is not halal. He compliments them on the meal just before clearing his plate, which he then sees bears, in gold letters, the name Jamal Khashoggi. He proceeds to have a conversation about fake news before being dismembered by bodyguards. Naturally, the US administration cancel all arms deals with the country, causing a severe outbreak of peace which lasts for several years.
There could be more, but I think he has probably suffered enough for now.....
Footnote: this article has not been checked at all for factual accuracy and any errors should be attributed to the bias of the author.
every drop is precious, be it whiskey or water or blood; every drop counts, come rain or shine or fire and brimstone. if we are thirsty, the thought of a brighter tomorrow should quench our thirst for betterness today.
do you love every drop of sorrow, of shame and guilt and sin that seeps out, every bolt of lightening that courses through our veins?
do you love every drop of regret and remorse that lingers in the memory to remind us of what could have been?
do soldiers shed tears over every drop of blood spilt in the name of honour and glory- is the name taken in vain too readily?
many a question like this plagues my heart and no matter how many drops of sweet liquor i swallow there still remains a lingering sensation of complex confusion regarding the human condition ... too deep? go back to sleep, sweet child, and love every drop of dream you can get, for when we wake up who's to say which gods or monsters will be watching over us.
love every drop of life, love every drop of dust.
Life through a lens
She saw fireworks light up the sky
in the most amazing display
of colours and patterns
best watched firsthand
though she never noticed
when she watched the video later
She watched monster trucks
huge and relentless as they crushed
small cars and bikes
or drove on two wheels
but the photos left out
the excitement, the atmosphere
She grew up listening to her favourite band
got tickets to see them on tour
but she only saw through her phone screen
and missed the small details around her
that the tiny screen didn't pick up
now the footage is pointless
She sits in the front row
listening to the music
feeling each instrument
as it connects with her
and she wishes to see with her eyes
not through a screen
Wasted sight, waste experiences
she regrets it now
and if she could do it all again
she would live in the moment
leave the cameras at home
and not live her life through a lens
TAKE BACK CONTROL
I want to tell you about an amazing organisation, how it was built, how it has come to the point where it almost folding and how it now needs to be rescued from the brink.
When my husband retired we were living in a tied farmhouse, as he was a farmer for most of his life. We moved to suitable temporary accommodation and began looking for a new home.
In 2009 we went to the Leeds Piano Competition. Because Paul did his degree in agriculture in Leeds and I was born in Yorkshire, the surroundings felt familiar and we decided to house hunt there. We moved into our new home in August 2010, in Huddersfield. Huddersfield was not our first choice, but my husband had never owned his own home before (being always in tied accommodation) so he was very particular about what he wanted: two or three bedrooms, a view (since the farm had a view of fifty miles in any direction and on a good day you could see Hay Bluff), a private outside space, a large garden, a small amount of land, some outbuildings... Huddersfield was what we could afford and the dream home was there, so Huddersfield it was.
After a couple of months, I was looking around for something to do and I happened to see the local refugee website on the day they were having a meeting. When I turned up, there were around forty people in the room and the discussion focused on the needs of refused asylum seekers, who do not have any right to accommodation or government support. Many were thought to be sleeping rough and the speaker at the meeting, Robert Spooner, explained how they had set up an organisation in Sheffield to help with this problem, called ASSIST. It was proposed to create something similar in Huddersfield and my hand went up to become involved, along with three or four others'. I had never done anything like this before, although I had experience of asylum seekers, having lived in Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.
The group decided to call itself ASSURE. Its objects were to provide accommodation through a hosting scheme and in time run a night shelter for destitute asylum seekers. At the time, Kirklees Council ran a centre for new asylum seekers where they were housed and their paperwork processed before moving into local accommodation whilst their claim was assessed. The centre was keen to get a scheme up and running.
My fellow committee members were, shall we say, well intentioned but unable to move things forward. I applied for some money to run a hosting scheme and got it. Then I began making phone calls to try to find hosts. One of my first calls was to my local rector. Not being a Christian, I had only spoken to him once before, but he was very enthusiastic and proposed that a former school building belonging to the church be used as a night shelter.
Through an unfortunate combination of events, the announcement of this proposal did not go as planned. Richard, the rector, called me on Easter Saturday to say he had been summoned to the local pub to 'discuss things' and I arrived at the Beaumont Arms about ten minutes later. A small group of local men were already in heated argument with Richard. Why asylum seekers? Why here in the 'village'? People wouldn't be safe: children would be harassed and abused: life would never be the same. I tried to answer honestly about what we were planning and the tiny scale of it - two people as part of a pilot scheme - but they were having none of it.
Richard and I had planned a public meeting in late May so there could be a discussion about the idea. It was to be a genuine exchange of ideas on how the difficulties facing destitute people could be partially resolved by opening a night shelter. Meanwhile there were petitions in the shops and the Post Office, metal plaques going up saying 'No failed asylum seekers here' and a local councillor going from house to house with a petition which had no information as to who was sponsoring it or why. I was strongly advised to cancel the meeting. I refused.
The police were contacted when we became aware that the English Defence League were planning to attend the meeting in force, and we were provided with full support. Around a hundred and fifty people turned up to the meeting. Probably about a hundred of them wanted to lynch Richard and I. The Chair could not keep order and we were shouted down. In the end Richard asked everyone if they would feel happy with asylum seekers being hosted in local people's homes. They were absolutely nonplussed. Why would anyone object to someone being a guest in a house, they said. They were sure we would have no offers, so it was fine with them.
I've never been much of a leader, although I have certain dug my heels in for what I thought was the right thing to do. To my mind, these people were dupes of the tabloid media, good-hearted yet fearful. I was going to prove them wrong. Big time.
By the following November, Paul and I had hosted an elderly lady from Somalia for six weeks whilst she waited for the support to which she was entitled, and helped her move into the accommodation provided, an upstairs room in a house up a steep hill, shared with three young black women who did not get on with each other, and totally unsuitable for her needs. I could see there was no impetus to put in some hard graft on getting an accommodation scheme going with ASSURE, so I left them and set up DASH: Destitute Asylum Seekers Huddersfield.
I found hosts - Richard and his wife at the rectory, other clergy, a lovely elderly couple from Richard's congregation (who hosted a man from Pakistan in his fifties who had been an international hockey player in his youth and loved to dance: he danced for them with great joy and exuberance), a nurse from another church I visited (who has since gone to work on a mercy ship) and of course Paul and I. Paul was dead against it. He would always say,
'They're not stopping here,'
and I would ignore him. As we had only been married for about a year at the time, this could have been a deal breaker. But as Paul saw a different side of me he gradually began to accept what was happening. He had lost his wife to a cause and he started to see it was a just one. I remember the morning when he asked me how the Home Office could treat someone we were talking about so badly, and I teased him saying,
'Is this Paul who's speaking? I didn't know anyone else was here.'
By January 2012 the hosting scheme was in full swing. Somebody had kindly gone into the back of my car in the previous October, causing enough damage for it to be a write off but not enough for me not to be able to drive it, and for it to pass an MOT. With the insurance money I was able to pay a small hosting fee in addition to bus money to clients to get to their accommodation. Most hosts refused the fee. The local council-run centre referred clients and were very up front about any possible difficulties, but there were few.
The following year, the Home Office announced they were going to award housing contracts to large providers and G4S replaced the council facility. Concerned as to the repercussions of this, housing monitors were trained up to check on accommodation where problems were reported. This was a real struggle in the beginning, with G4S being unwilling to listen to complaints, but eventually there emerged a brilliant team of G4S housing officers who try really hard within the constraints of an appalling system to ensure people have a decent place to live which is properly heated and secure.
Of course, when any asylum seeker in Huddersfield had a problem, they would go to the council centre, who tried their best to help. With the centre clearly destined for closure, the next step was for DASH to open a drop in, at Samaritans. An old friend of Paul's stepped up to the plate and helped enormously with the set up, the running of it, and with excellent advice.
Gradually the drop in grew, moved, grew again, moved again, etc. Around a hundred people attend each week now, with over four hundred on the books. DASH provides not only accommodation, but financial support, emotional support, help with getting children into nearby schools, English classes, lifts for people who are afraid of reporting to the Home Office in Leeds in case they are detained (to ensure they and stay legal), fresh fruit and vegetables for families and destitute clients, support for clients in detention, and a whole lot more. (If you're interested have a look at the website at www.huddsdash.org.uk).
This isn't the end of the story.
The support offered was second to none.
Huddersfield was the only place in the UK where asylum seekers are not sleeping rough. It was the only place where very few people are detained (on average one percent or less).
It was the only place where no-one was deported back to their home country to face death or persecution or disgrace.
It was a shining beacon of love and compassion, of volunteers who wanted to come forward to help (including a volunteer who is now a local MP), of clients who were encouraged to volunteer as cook or cashier or translator for example, a place where people could meet their friends, have a hot meal, be given financial support if they met the criteria (which were pretty broad), where there was hope for a brighter future.
I say was.
Now comes the sad part. Naturally doing all this for large numbers of people took a toll on my health. In the second year DASH employed a caseworker and, in 2017, a finance officer, fundraiser and volunteer co-ordinator. A totally brilliant volunteer, Mike, who had been a head teacher, took on a lot of the work. Although I was able to take long-ish breaks of a month or two, it all became too much.
I decided to retire in November 2017, after six years. Before I left, I had tried to ensure the smooth running of the organisation and had raised a substantial amount of money for them to carry on. In the three months prior to my retirement it became obvious that there were serious differences between two staff members so I returned to try to sort things out. This precipitated a mental breakdown for me and I withdrew completely. Both staff members left - one made redundant, the other left voluntarily - when DASH funds began to run out. (Funds running out was a constant black cloud, but I always managed somehow to come up with more money from somewhere, probably because people could see I was doing a good job with very little support and it was making a fundamental difference to clients' lives).
Now, there's trouble at t'mill and they want to stop doing accommodation and curtail cash payments to clients. Mike resigned last week and so did the finance officer. The others are looking for new jobs. Seven hundred asylum seekers will be left with no real support. Perhaps DASH will fold soon.
I expect I'll think of something.
But for six years Huddersfield was the gold standard. And if I'm caught short anywhere, I'll always be within a couple of minutes of a warm welcome and a loo.
I'm in the Driver’s Seat
Highway out of a city
somewhere hot & oily - Texas?
Yeah that will do
& we're driving fast
wasteland on both sides
lights behind closing into the dirt
you & me in a 80’s Chevy, green with a white top
prefer a black paint job
but you take what you can get
We've no time to stop
all pedal to the metal, as Unc would say
in his rundown garage, under a creaking red sign
his other - “did I tell you about the car!
A Ferrari - yes, stopped where you're standing
…..most exciting time of my…. I nearly wet…..”
I look at you & nod the nod
time to leave this hick town
But things don't work out for us, not like we've planned
you shake your head in the shadows? Or is it the suspension?
& now we’re on the run, you slump on a bend
ah, but at least we’re in control
the new Thelma & Louise!
Well Thelma & Louis
ain't dressing in women's clothes just yet
you mutter something? Or is it the radio?
I brush against you - so fucking cold!
But if we get away with it, or if I do
could be an option
As she steps beneath the lintel, the brisk
bite of new air promising snow forces
her back a half-step and she
hesitates: A moment of doubt
before regaining her strident purpose.
Lonely glow of my cigarette tip would
betray my presence if she cast about. But
instead she comes, bundled in
Superdry and haughty disappointment,
bolt cutters trailing,
appendage of retribution.
Bike racks. Canal’s edge. She pauses
again, intent quasi-formed as
the creeping ice; brittle and cold.
I pull and suck greedily,
eyes and mouth.
Nicotine and spectacle raising
pulse, flushing skin
alive against the frigid air.
Perhaps the steel is weakened, passed beyond
its range of usable temperature. Fatigued.
Or rather, I am conditioned to assume,
and she an Olympic powerlifter beneath
her swaddling judgement.
Either way the links offer little fight.
The ice should try to stop her,
standing there useless in the cold, without even
the excuse of a cigarette.
No such manifestation of will, it surrenders
dramatically, flakes and shards thrown
skyward to splash back around a submerging pedal.
“Residents Only” she mutters, the phrase glinting
in the moonlight. Over and over it sparkles,
cascading doom, as she sets
to chain after chain.
I hold it beneath my fork,
your squirming betrayal,
examine it to see if it shows
signs of having come from me,
if I am its mother.
It isn’t the only one, my eyes
catch dozens of squirms,
a sea of betrayals remembered
in consuming wriggles
Will everybody let me down
eventually? Does the problem lie
in my expectation that they won’t?
That poor, brave expectation
on its last legs. Time to squash it,
take back control.
Toby was literally jumping up and down in his seat with excitement. We turned the corner and in front of us was a great Victorian edifice, a long building, big as a ship, its functional, severe sash windows rendered a little less austere by the decorative brickwork patterns.
We pulled up near the massive front door and as Toby ran up the steps his Mum, my daughter Kathy, was there grinning from ear to ear. It was lovely to see them as Toby ran into her arms, had a great hug, then turned and ran back to me and hugged me too. “It’s super! It’s huge!” he shouted as he stood once again with big eyes sweeping from one end of the building to the other.
His Mum laughed. “It’s not all ours, Toby, we have just a little bit of it. There are lots of people live here, all of us in little houses built inside. You’ll probably see them other boys and girls, so just you keep an eye out and let me know if you see any!”
I don’t think Toby was interested in making friends at that point, he was just in awe of the size of the place. “It’s like a museum” he observed.
Yes, I pondered, it has a history, that’s for sure. It used to be a lunatic asylum, years ago. The nuthouse, it was called in those days. Now it had a more upmarket name, something which sounded as if it had been replanted here from an elegant London street.
We walked in through the great door and into the equally large hallway. Toby ran to the lift and pressed the button for the top floor, for that was where Jackie’s flat was. As we went up in the lift he and I smiled at each other, our secret smile, just between the two of us. Somehow at times we seemed to be the same person. We loved to wind up Toby’s Mum, because we seemed to communicate without words and she would stand there perplexed: “How do you two do that?” she would say exasperated, when we had agreed something to do together without a word being said.
I could feel the electricity sizzling between us strongly as we went up in the lift. I knelt down and we stared at each other, his eyes clear and blue, mine browned with age. He stepped forward and I held him close, feeling him tremble slightly with excitement.
The doors rattled open, the same steel doors from all those years ago, the ancient concertina type where you had to be careful not to get your fingers jammed between the rails when the door opened.
Toby looked at his Mum to confirm which way to go and ran along, counting the numbers on the doors, skidding to a stop outside his new home. Jackie let us in and Toby disappeared, but we could hear him whooping and shouting, his running feet echoing from room to room.
Soon he was reporting back: “It’s huge!” he said again. This was true: the ceilings were high, the rooms were big, the windows were big enough to stand in. Jackie and her boyfriend Sam had moved from a small terraced house in London when his company relocated and had then rented another small terraced house while they looked for somewhere to buy. They had moved in here over the last couple of days and Toby had stayed with me and we had some quality time together. Meanwhile, Toby had settled in well at his new school which was conveniently close. It was wonderful that they had moved here as I had been living nearby too, having inherited an aunt’s house which I had moved to a couple of years back. I used to live here. For a while. But that time was best forgotten.
Toby wolfed down a snack, then went exploring again. “Would you like to have a look outside, Toby?” his Mum asked.
Outside, the extensive lawns were laid with paths criss crossing from one end to the other, which kept Toby amused as he ran up and down them as fast as he could. “Can I cycle on these paths, Mum?”
After a while, Jackie looked at her watch and went in to start dinner. Sam would be arriving back from work in an hour’s time. Jackie’s work she could do anywhere, anytime: the marvels of the internet.
I stayed outside with Toby and he carried on exploring the woods below the lawned areas, hiding then jumping out as we walked around. There were trees to climb, paths circling round and round so he could run as fast as he could but still be in the same spot one minute later, which bemused him. It was lovely to see him, free and fast, enjoying the fresh air, as free as a bird. I felt my tension relaxing.
We went back to the flat, in time for Sam to arrive home. Toby hugged his Dad, then ran back to me and asked where all his toys were.
Jackie served up straight away though, and after a leisurely dinner Jackie got Toby into the huge bath, then afterwards handed him to me, wrapped in a snug warm white towel.
“Story?” she smiled at me. Toby nodded emphatically.
As I carried him along the hallway, Toby snuggled close to me. He was warm, with the scent of a clean towel and clean skin and Toby’s own delicate scent when his skin was close.
I put him down at his bedroom door and left him to clamber into bed while I just popped to the bathroom, still warm and steamy from Toby’s bath.
In the bathroom, it was quiet. Except for the tap. The dripping tap. I couldn’t wait to turn it off fully but in that half a minute the panic had risen. I had so had it under control. It had been a long time. But it started to come back, the forgotten but familiar feeling. I could feel my muscles tense and consciously had to make an effort to relax. I flushed the toilet, and with that came the faint scent of antiseptic that Jackie had used on the toilet. It was not her usual brand. This was different. This was . . . familiar. I felt my hear racing again. I closed my eyes. The smell was strong. My feet were cold on the tiled floor. The room was cold. I shivered.
I opened my eyes. It was Jackie’s bathroom, not the one I had flashed back to for a moment. I breathed deep and slow, calmed myself. Coughed. Walked out and into the hallway.
I could hear the muffled cries of a child in the next flat, through the thick Victorian walls. The hallway echoed as I walked along it. Toby’s room was at the end. The door was ajar. The light was not on. As I walked towards it, there was a slight luminescence and as I quietly arrived at the door, I saw it was from the moon shining in through the tall sash window.
Toby was there, at the window, staring up at the moon. His slim frame was in silhouette, the moon caressing his head and shoulders with its cold light.
He had shrugged off his bathtowel and stood there naked, how he went to bed in the summer.
I didn’t need to see him turn his head to hear him say quietly “Look at the moon.”
He was transfixed. I was transfixed. I was looking at him, at me those years ago. That had been me, those years ago, a little boy, seven, standing at the window, staring at the moon, naked because I had torn off the scratchy clothes they had dressed me in and driven me half mad by the dripping tap, the scratch of branches on the window, the noise of the other people screaming, the crush of smelly bodies in the corridor, the way people did different things to what they said and didn’t tell me, the noise, the touch of everything. They have a name for it now, they know what it is.
But I was proud that it had taken four people – four grown ups – to hold me down before they could tie me to the metal bedframe, still to carry on screaming and contorting and lunging and spitting and biting. Screaming animal screams, louder than any of the other inmates. Somehow, in the end, they got the needle into me though, and for a while everything went quiet.
To look at Toby was a help. He seemed so peaceful and quiet, just gazing up at the full moon.
I became aware of the crying child next door. For a couple of moments it was there in the background. Then, I realised it was me. In my memory. I was sure I was silent but my brain was crying out. My little boy memory.
Tonight, it would have to be a short story for Toby.
Actually it would need to be very short.
I felt my pulse rate quicken, I couldn’t control my breathing. Then, I thought, what if Toby picks up on this? That would be so wrong. I need to leave now, get out this room quick. Then, from Toby I heard a noise, a strange gasp I’d not heard before. I paused. He was still standing there, but I could see the tenseness in his body.
The scream from next door was louder. The scream in my head was louder. I remained quiet though, still. But as I watched Toby he turned, slowly, towards me. I ran towards him. Something was wrong.
Before he even saw me his eyes were wide, tortuous fear contorting his features. He knew. He knew. Or at least he didn’t know, he felt. He felt the horror of the place.
Suddenly I felt so guilty. I had never spoken of this place, to anyone, after we had moved away. Somehow I had managed to get out. Did the things they wanted me to, somehow. Got out. We moved away, never to return, till a couple of years ago. When I married, I never mentioned it. It was in the past, would stay there. I was concerned when I found that this was where Kathy, my daughter and Sam, and beautiful little Toby were going to live, but it was then such a lovely place for them, different. I would cope.
But here I am. And Toby, contorted, stiffened by fear. Finally his eyes found mine but they were unseeing. They looked through me, past me. He stood facing me now, his face in the dark, black shadow from the moon. I could not see his eyes, his expression.
But then, his tiny chest filled, his throat gargled and he screamed, a deep, agonising animal scream that sent icy chilling shivers down my spine and zapped my fingers and toes, made my hair stand up on my neck and then I too was overcome with uncontrollable sobbing and before I knew it I had taken in great gulps, sobbing gulps of air and together we screamed, screamed in the dark room, lit by the full, full moon.
‘May contain nuts’
She hummed along to ‘Silent Night,’ crushing up the nuts and finley and sprkling them over the shepherd's pie like it were seasoning. She took a step back and looked at the pie trying to decide if it was enough poison she sprinkled a little bit more just to be sure.
She looked at her piggy watch, a different pig pointing at the different times. A smile spread between her big round cheeks.Three o’clock was her favourite. The little piggy was holding a beer and looked drunk.
Twenty five minutes and he would be home.
She cut up little Emilia’s carrots and put them on a plate with her lettuce, there was going to be such a to do when Emilia saw it. She was such a tilly tantrum, the last time June had given Amelia a plate of vegetables Amelia had thrown a shoe at her and split her eyebrow open. She definitely had her father's temper. That's why June had made a sponge cake. Emelia had agreed to eat her salad if she could have as much cake and custard as she wanted.
June had seen on one of her talk shows how kiddies picked up things from their parents however much they tried to hide.
That's why June was doing this. She was saving them both. Saving them from a man whose only language was violence and Emilia was picking up the vocabulary. Emilia was such a little brain box. She didn't get her brains from June. June knew she was dumb. Always had been, ‘Dumb as a brick and wide as a house,’ her husband would say. He was right. She hoped it wasn't too late for poor little Emilia.
“Wash,” Emilia shouted from the doorway. June flinched as pile a of clothes came flying in her direction. Emilia slammed the door behind her.
June stared at the clothes strewn all over the floor. What a blinking mess. June used her swollen fat ankles to sweep the clothes towards the washing machine. She used her foot to slide them into the machine.
Twenty minutes and he would be home.
The first time he broke her ribs he broke her heart. His violent streak came out of nowhere and never left. She imagined love to be the colors of pink and red when she was a little girl. Hers had been black and blue. They were married on a beautiful summer's day then Just like summer turned into autumn, and autumn turned into winter her marriage had got colder and darker.
When she met Paul everyone kept telling her what ‘a great man’ he was. June couldn't believe her luck.
Her father and four older brothers were so over protective of her always had been but they loved Paul.
The other kiddies used to be so cruel to June. June never had a mummy of her own. Her father had been a vicar and always told June to pray if she wanted to talk to her mummy. June couldn't wait to be a mother herself.
She could have left him she supposed except she loved him. Getting divorced back then would've made her daddy so ashamed. They were man and wife. Thick and thin, better for worse. Except things only got worse never better. She prayed and prayed. He never changed. She stopped praying a long time ago.
He was such a charmer when in the company of everyone else, cool as a cucumber but behind closed doors he got heated so quick. He was chivalrous, he opened doors for her with one hand when in the company of others but behind closed doors he still hit her with the other.
She knew it was mostly her fault. She was fat. She ate too much. She had the ‘grace of and ape’ he’d say. She was so clumsy and dull. She didn't know how to dress classy like the ladies she saw at the supermarket. The more he hit her, the more she ate.
He always made not nice jokes about her weight. Now Emilia did too. June felt the guilt of passing on her affliction to Emilia. The smarty pants doctor had classed her as obese. June didn't like the way he looked at her. He always asked June too many questions.
June regretted feeding little Meelie all those fatty meals and sweet puddings. June constantly scolded herself for being such a bad mother. Maybe if June had been a better wife Paul wouldn't be so angry all the time. June had never been good at anything.
Fifteen minutes and he’d be home.
She tried to remember what she was supposed to be doing next. Don't get all Milly muggled now June. She had to focus. She had such a wandering mind. Sometimes she’d sit down to watch one of her chat shows and before she knew it the whole day had run by. It made Paul so cross. She hated being so lazy. It was too late to change now. Time machines weren't real if they were she’d go back in time and try to be a better mother and a proper wife.
This was her only option he’d never let them go. There was nowhere to go. He’d kill them first.
The cuckoo clock announced the arrival of five o clock. Ten minutes and he would be home
It was more of a pig cuckoo clock. It was June’s bestest thing. Instead of a cuckoo shooting out, a pig dressed as a ballerina came out and oinked. She’d bought it at a boot sale with the pocket money that Paul gave her. She was terrible with money. He managed it all. She tried to imagine how she'd cope without him.
June loved pigs. Paul said it's because she looked like one. June used to laugh because she loved Pigs paul just thought she was trying to be a clever clogs. She didn't laugh anymore.
She watched the pig shoot in and out five times. Chuckling and snorting with laughter every time. Her body suddenly tensed up when she realised she was laughing and she stopped immediately. Nothing made Paul lose his rag more than her laugh.
“Cutlery,” she said aloud. She often talked to herself she didn't have anyone else to talk to.
June found herself staring at a calendar little Emilia had made. A different photo for each month. Emilia had used picture’s of herself June and Paul. Emilia with her big round freckled cheeks and beautiful red curly pigtails. Emilia had ripped it up three times time in a temper but June always taped it back together. . Emilia had scratched June's face out of most of the pictures. Typical blinking teenager thought June. June liked how happy they all looked in the pictures. Pictures couldn't talk.
Emilia had put a stone since the picture. The doctor had her on a strict diet now. Like mealtimes weren't enough of minefield. She'd bought a food timer so she didn't burn things but she always forgot to set it. She was such a forgetful Freddie. That's what her daddy called her. He always had funny names for things. He called June and her brothers the Famous Five like the books!
She wasn't allowed to sit at the table with Mealie and Paul or watch T.V with them at night. Paul said her face made him feel sick. She had to stand at the counter on the other side of the kitchen and face the wall. Paul said it might help her lose some weight.
Meelie hated the healthy food. June would find cake wrappers in her bedroom when she was being a little snooper. She wasn't allowed in Emilia's bedroom so she pretended she didn't know. She wasn't allowed to watch her chat shows but she did then changed the channel back to Paul's documentaries. She felt a grin spread across her face at the thought of how could be.
Her and Paul had gotten married in June. It was the same month as her name! It was the best day in the world - ever. Happiest day of her life. She didn't know what a terrible wife she'd turn out to be. Her dad gave her away and made Paul promise to look after his special girl and keep her safe. Paul broke his promise.
They girls wouldn't let her in the acting club when she was a nipper if only they could see her now. She acted all the time. In front of other people, at the hospital, doctors. She pretended not to be in pain when all she wanted to do was scream. But her best performance was yet to come.
Five minutes and he would be home.
She’d seen the poison story on one of her American talk shows. The lady's husband had been a Timmy temper just like Paul. She’d poisoned him with things you could find around the house. She told everyone the truth about her husband and she and her daughter were so much happier. She didn't even go to prison or have to lie to God in court. June had thought about the most severe beating Paul had ever given her. She had made him food containing nuts and it had nearly killed him. Paul had a severe allergy to nuts. Deadly. Amelia too. June had to make sure everything she bought and cooked didnt contain nuts. June couldn't get her hands on poison like the lady on the talk show but she could get nuts. but nuts nuts were everywhere. She been secretly hoarding as much as she could for weeks and she had them all in todays dinner
She took a few steps back so she could see into the oven. Nothing could go wrong today. The shepherd's pie looked perfect. She got Mealies bowl of salad and carrots and placed them on the table mat and laid out a plate for paul and some cutlery for them both. The cake sat nicely in the middle of the table.
He’d be home any minute.
She started to feel her heart thud and sweat. Her pulse raced like it did at this time every day. She never knew which Paul would be walking through door. She tried to regulate her breathing not for it to be loud. She was master at holding her breath.
The key turned in the lock. The sound of his muddy boots being thrown off echoed into the kitchen. She remembered she hadn't put one of his beers next to his food. She waddled quickly across the kitchen grabbed one of his bottles and placed it next to his food. That could have been it he’d broken her arm for less.
She scuttled back to the kitchen counter and faced the wall. He pushed the door open and plonked himself on the wooden kitchen chair. She heard the usual grunt he made every time he looked at what she had made. Sometimes he ate it sometimes he threw it the wall, or at June.
“Mealie dinner,” June called. She heard the thump of her getting of the bed and the heavy clip clopping across the landing and down the stairs.
“Don't call me mellia. I'm not a baby. Idiot. Hi daddy”
“You're a grown up,” said Paul and made a high five gesture which Emilia reciprocated.
“How was school my little brain box.”
“Erghh,” grunted Emelia.
June faced the wall and listened until she finally heard paul's fork touch the plate.
“What's this,” screamed Emilia “I'm not not eating it.” She picked up a carrot and threw it at junes back.
Emilia started making piggy noises and Paul chimed in. They both laughed and continued making oinking noises at June. They did it every time they saw June eat they found it hilarious.
June picked up her for
This is not how he expected to feel
finding himself further from shore
that he can correct.
It’s almost a relief to be inside
this grey-water washing machine
on the spin cycle.
Its warm, dark clutches have him by the throat,
He’s a village drowned beneath friends’
better lives, mute taunts.
Trivia of his past days whizzes by
like strangers cars, rigid lines melt
nothing stays contained.
He’s shreds of being, piled thin strips upon
popped balloons, papier mache,
undone by water.
Knives scrape plates,
coffee machine whirs,
I am 'grounding',
but I can't.
I have no roots.
I'm still drifting.
I laugh out loud,
reading to distract,
"may contain nuts",
feels like an attack.
Doesn't every room,
Yet I'm still drifting,
Only closer to midnight did David manage to solve the conundrum that had been confusing him all day. The funny realization brought him great relief, as well as anger with himself and still more confusion, this time about human psychology.
He was standing outside a bar, snow covering his hair and clothes as if to help him keep cool head. Nevertheless, he was sweating.
“What a fool! A complete, stupid, unbelievable fool!” He whispered to himself as his fingers were hastily dialing her number. “Hi... I missed you,” he said in a singing tone trying to cope with all the goosebumps that appeared out of nowhere the second he heard that sleepy voice on the other end of the line.
Okay, it’s pretty cold. I should have put on that warm sweater, I admit. And still the weather these days is not quite what I expected. Anyway, that couple over there – David Richardson and Regina Greenwood. Been together for how many? About four months now. They try not to show their feelings in public. It’s almost funny how pathetically they fail. See the way he holds her hand sort of caressing it with his thumb? Pay attention to how she almost jumps every time he speaks to her. And then of course there are the radiant eyes and the – Just look at them! I guess now I should take back what I said about their not showing feelings in public and all. Damn it! It’s mid January! How long do I have to wait for snow?
David woke up a bit later than usual. It was Sunday - no work, just rest, hanging out with friends, spending time with his girl-friend. All week he’d been planning to take Regina to some place nice on Sunday. He’d been so excited about it. He counted days. And now it was Sunday, but somehow the enthusiasm was gone. His phone rang. Regina. He thought for a while. For some reason he didn’t have the heart to talk to her right now. Decline.
David looked out of the window. For the first time that year it was snowing.
It was a little after 11 p. m. when David entered the bar in which he’d agreed to meet with his friend Neil who at the moment happened to be sitting at a small table aside, tete-a-tete with his beer.
“And where is your girl?” He asked almost immediately after they exchanged greetings. “I mean, you guys go everywhere together. You quarrelled or somethin’?”
“Oh no, it’s all okay,” was David’s response, although his voice and his mood pointed to the contrary.
“Come on. Be honest with me, man. Somethin’ happened?”
“Why do you think - Okay, maybe. Actually, it’s all pretty strange. Today something is just not the same. I can’t quite put a finger on it. But yesterday everything was fine. When we saw each other last time, everything was fine. We said good-bye until today, exchanged passionate kisses… Yeah, it all was pretty much amazing! Damn! I love this woman. I’m gonna call her. I have to call her.”
“Sure as hell, you gotta call her.”
“You know what?”
“As you wish,” said Neil shrugging his shoulders and drinking up his beer.
Just when David was about to split another beer with Neil, a tipsy man at the next table ruined this brilliant plan by approaching a group of ladies who sat nearby and shouting insulting obscenities in their address. Obviously, it was time for David to defend the honour of the womanhood. At once he ran up to the man, grabbed him and dragged him away.
“You don’t understand!” screamed the man making attempts to free himself and even, it seemed, put up a fight with David. “All women are like this. They cheat on us and we don’t even suspect!”
David’s fist stopped midway as his adversary pronounced the word “cheat”.
“Thank you, buddy,” he said, tapping the visibly puzzled man on the shoulder and headed towards the exit.
It’s Saturday night. Regina decided to prepare some kind of surprise for me. And so I’m standing on top of a sky-scraper, watching the moon, or rather what is left of it. Astonished at first, now I seem to remember it’s lunar eclipse tonight.
I know she’s about to show up and sheer excitement is flowing through my body. Here she is. My girl. Grace and simplicity. She’s chose to wear a dress. This is totally not like her. She’s done it for me and I more than appreciate the effort. Oh, and of course here is the silly pink lipstick she never stops wearing. I hate it but on the other hand it’s often a reason for light banter, and flirting, and kissing…
I can’t take my eyes off of her. I find myself gazing in her captivating green eyes, tonight of some unnatural green tint, greener than usual if that’s possible. Why wouldn’t it be? Everything is possible. “Follow me,” I see her plump scarlet lips whisper as she steps off the roof. “Wait!” I cry out, not able to bear the thought of losing her. She’s hovering in the night sky,
her features illuminated by the enormous circle of the moon that has moved from the shadow although I don’t remember when. Thank God she’s alright. I sigh with relief, but not for long as her eyes encourage me to do the same. I’m scared of falling. It doesn’t suit a man to be scared. On her face appears a smile, alluring but with a hint of disdain. She flies away from me. Although I lose her sight, I know where to find her and seconds later I’m running down the corridor in a hotel. I know she’s cheating. I open one of the doors and have the proof before my eyes. The scene is too heartbreaking to watch and I fail to hold back the tears.
Psychology of Dreams
– So, what are you trying to tell us, doctor, dreams reflect reality?
– Well, not exactly. And not always. You see, dreams are the place where there practically isn’t anything impossible. In dreams our suppressed fears, hopes, desires etc. come to life. But as I once told in one of my lectures and as you may have already noticed yourself, dreams are an exceedingly subtle matter. Even professionals in this field frequently fail to figure them out completely. Some say they are the natural outcome of our daily experiences and obviously one could hardly disagree with that. Others, however, argue that dreams have more to do with what’s to come, rather than with the past. They are confident that dreams are given to us from above and for a reason. You probably heard of the so called prophetic dreams?
– Yeah, sure. I think I even had one myself. So dreams are a way of giving us a warning?
– Or they can simply mean nothing. Sometimes you’ll never find out. But there definitely is some sort of connection, no matter how little, between dreams and reality. You couldn’t just cut them off from real life. I mean they inevitably draw pictures from the everyday experience. And on the subconscious level they may remotely influence our mood and thoughts as well.
– Wow. That’s interesting to know. Thank you again for agreeing to talk to us on such, I dare say, universally important issue.
“Hi…I missed you”
“Oh yeah? Then why have you been ignoring my calls?”
“Actually, it’s a long story.”
“Well, since I’m already awake and you say you missed me –”
“I guess my reality is too good to believe in. I guess my brain can’t manage my happiness and tries to block it by inventing non-existent problems and presenting me with unlucky possibilities in relationships. But don’t worry, I’ll never listen to it again.”
“I haven’t understood a word you just said, but that was the most original excuse I’ve ever heard. And since you refuse to listen to your brain, how about meeting? Right now! I’ve missed you too, you know.”
Could you trace the path of that pulse in your heart
in your brain that makes you fall in love
as we track muons and beta particles in cloud chambers
their trails fizz with energy, passion,
seek attraction as close to magnetism as the human body allows.
Or is this matter and antimatter, elusive and evasive
opposites attract with power to destroy each other,
like love, the effect is too complex to understand
yet theory tells us that it must, beyond doubt, exist.
Will we ever understand? Will we be able to reduce
to a number of pathways, in the same way
that science mapped the human genome,
to say to ourselves, there is so little difference
between how animals and humans feel love.
I think of you gone just for a while
light engulfing you on the train to Dublin
or sitting in the Imperial, drinking cocktails
waiting for your room
your eyes consuming every moment
you've decided to extend your stay
you've got a great deal
but you'll be back soon
As I lay my life out bare
in the gloom of your absence
You lay your head
your last breath felt
an end to pain
they take you away
for public display
I’m numb for months
no appetite - heart irregular
My doctor says, sorry for your loss
but the stress, you know
can mess your brain, you know
your body, (my soul she doesn't mention)
adrenaline eating through the oxytocin
& you're self medicating John
you've really got to look after what's left of yourself
Cold it is in spots
cold like old ice
dark teeth protruding on one side
through you & me dissecting
in this bunker we called home
sweet sweats building into a tsunami
Look now it's ten feet tall
it wanting everything to be invisible
but (defying gravity)
a conjuror on his rope high (umbilical)
looks down on me
pacing endlessly underneath
without your oxygen
Neurobiology of Love
Do not suggest that one cannot feel the longing
For another individual.
Do not imply that neurons simply navigate and transmit
signals to modestly control our ability to move, breathe, see, think.
Do not offer me that rash rhetoric of equivocation
Defending the notion that love is not ingrained in the very depths of our being.
No. The winding, twisting, interlacing tubes of intensity
Trap the very core of what it is to love.
Inside is like a spring, crystalline pool heated by the tender rays of sun.
Coiling all around and leaving no area unmarked.
The intensity runs boundless like water plummeting south
Against a creased face of a mountain edge.
Nerves, carving out their path, staining all around
Without hesitation chooses for you.
No democracy in sight but a struggle for power that you will surely lose.
No choice in who, nor when, nor how long, nor how much, nor how little.
Relinquish all thoughts of conscious control and leave
It to the dictator.
So phenomenal it is to love.
So phenomenal it is to be loved.
Yet, how preternatural it is when the desired equilibrium is not present.
When red, bloody flesh is torn away, revealing those woven tubes. You see.
There it is.
Harassing your every moment of clarity.
Screaming at you.
Forcing you to listen.
Usurping your composure.
Stabs you with jolts of intense burning.
Stabs you with piercing sensations.
Stabs you with eventual numbness.
The pain clings to you tenaciously like poison ivy.
Its grip tighter and tighter.
Love is mellifluous music on repeat.
Love is a somnambulist in which you never escape.
Love is beyond limerence.
Love is lachesism.
Love is ethereal, almost ineffable.
How does love provoke such a plethora of endless definitions?
None right. None wrong.
And still. Why is humanity bound in an endless stream, condemned to follow
The stains and paths set out for us by those interlacing tubes?
Because, to put it plainly, that’s what it is to be human.
So, be scared; be terrified, if those nerves merely control your ability to move, breathe, see, and think.
you claim, you’re just
a stain on my nervous
tissue, what colours do you make
I use talking
about you are blooming,
fresh, exaggerated orange
between us shows
black, I suck, it implodes
in a crimson tide, dissolves us
social assessment dulled
networks detached, sulking grey voids,
up yellow bulbs, zingers
of unbearable happiness,
Neurobiology of Love
I want to wade back into the moment
Paddle up to my knees in the feeling
Experience the sensation in waves
lapping at my body
Close my eyes
Lift my face
to the sun that shines in celebration
I remember why
You were happy
Jeeten, his bloated blimp of an uncle, always said he'd never make anything of himself. Maybe he was right. What is a bus driver, after all? In the day, an enabler for the elderly to reach their fix of bingo or afternoon tea. Like driving a giant mobility scooter, innit? At night: a chauffeur of chavs. Like tonight. Davs looked in the rear view at the assortment of punters strewn throughout his ride. Either lobotomised silent scum, absorbed into the obviously more compelling world of their phones, or deviants with the vocal chords turned up to eleven. There is one figure on its own, nearer the front, he thinks it's a girl, but you just can't tell these days, with the huge variety of haircuts and similar clothes. Not like when he was a boy.
Bad business, a bad business, what happened on the X34 the other night. Being threatened is one thing, but assaulted? That new driver, Billy something, hadn't even been out of his seat ten seconds before the evil buggers stomped him good and proper.
Suddenly uncomfortable, Davs sticks a finger inside his collar and loosens his shirt away from his hot skin. It's drenched in sweat. He's not feeling great; it must be the unusually warm evening. He wipes his face and tries to concentrate on the road.
Marsha shifts uneasily and tries to concentrate on the small writing nestled in her lap. She knows the book is the answer, the key, the portal out of this shrieking nightmare. But it's not an easily digestible fantasy or an absorbing detective story. It's Dostoevsky, The Brothers bloody Karmazov. She reads the same tiny sentence five times, while wondering if Fyodor had to put up with this level of noise while he was writing the thing.
On the sixth time, the words begin to crawl across the page like minute spiders, leaving glistening trails of spider-blood which somehow make as much sense as what she's tried to read so far. She used to be able to read in the midst of a worse din than this. She smiles as she recalls a distinct memory.
The lounge of her youth, on a winter night, her bedroom far too cold to sit in. Her brothers are throwing toys and cushions at each other, telly blaring away like a unstoppable public service announcement, ma and pa arguing over god knows what. And yet she rests, curled up in a corner of the sofa, surrounded by this unholy racket. She's in the world of Cooper, or Garner, or Le Guin, she can't remember the exact book. The point is, it's not actually their world any more, it's hers. So utterly, completely hers, that she's climbed into this psychic equivalent of a hazmat suit and is able to block out all extraneous threats.
Back on the bus, she shakes her head, smiles. The smile fades as she considers who she's going to see and what she might say to him. If her boyfriend knew about this...but she was going to end it with Ivor, she was determined.
Jayden loved to touch women. Well, girls, in practice, but in theory, he'd poke any female form, clothed or unclothed. Again, in practice, to be fair, it was mostly clothed. But occasionally, like now, he can see expanses of bare smooth midriff around him as the girls jump in and out of each other's seats, swing round the orange poles with the ding-y buttons on ("I'M FACKIN POLE DANCIN, INNEYE?" shrieks Denise as she wildly pitches around). He manages to smack his hand on her exposed haunch, a lovely swell of tanned flesh above what, he imagines, are the two perfect globes of her arse.
"Hey gerroff you perv!" yells Denise, but he can tell she likes it really. He scans around for another girl he can poke, prod, or - even better - cop a feel with. Nothing. So he slams his elbow hard into Danny, who's been morosely looking at his phone for like, ever. Danny drops his phone on the floor of the bus and shouts that he, Jayden, is a daft cunt. He alleges that the elbowing is more like assault, but Jayden just laughs, getting his mate in a choke hold and pulling him back so he can't get his phone. Danny splutters and thrashes, making strangulated noises loud enough to get the attention of Denise and all them.
Jayden shrugs off their protests and all the yelling for him to stop. He looks up at the driver in case he's clocked what's going on.
He is therefore only one to see the driver slump over the wheel. Jayden's scream is cut short as the bus smacks into the oncoming traffic...one, two, three cars, and then oblivion.
A Daily Observation
As I sit upon the clashing colours of emeralds and sapphires,
Dull, minuscule, particles jolt reaching across
To the other side:
A mixture of decades longing to escape
That tiresome journey they make each day.
Watching the condensation on the omniscient glass
Rise and fall rise and fall. I wonder how many others breathe
Their existence, their being, their woes, their memories
On that same spot as I do now.
Waiting for the right time to push
The tight squares of red stare intently in this direction
With the faded letters forming that imperative verb.
Commanding not just the driver leading this journey
But glaring back at me with ostensibly egalitarian authority.
I try to push back this intrinsic inspection.
A surplus of shapes surrounds my seat: a disjointed amalgamation.
From the right, a diminished beat of RnB straining to keep in time
With a cacophony of coughs and splutters with differing pitches.
In front, two bodies interlaced, knitted together with the wool of love.
Behind, a fierce foot tapping against the smell of stale tobacco.
My daily observation never fails to teach me.
We are together; we are separate.
We are the same; we are different.
We are constant; we are erratic.
It is easy to define us as a collective – what about the individual?
I am a dull, minuscule particle.
But do I jolt
To reach across to the other side?
I am a mixture of decades longing to escape
This tiresome journey I make each day.
We were both on the same bus
but one of us wanted to get off
and the other was clinging on and crying.
It wasn’t me, but you.
You were on a bus and my bus
went past and our eyes met
in a detonation of desire
but we were going in different directions.
Too stubborn to change our minds.
I was on a bus and I saw you
from the top deck
I couldn’t get the driver to stop
in time and you’d gone.
Again. You’d gone again.
I missed the bus I’d meet you on.
That was my last chance.
We travelled on the same bus
our whole lives but never
spoke to each other.
Didn’t even touch with our eyes.
I’m not on any bus anymore.
Its been a while since we have had need to catch a bus. Living, as we do, in the countryside necessitates us having a car, but here we are, renting for three months in the city. It feels like we're on an adventure.
We feel intrepid. We laugh at ourselves for being so careful, so middle-aged, middle class. We recognise how inured we are from the everyday experience of the city. We've rented a nice flat in a smart part of the city. You have a meeting in town and I need to get some essentials - well, essentials for us - to make our stay more comfy.
We check carefully the bus timetables on-line, identify options. We're going to get separate buses back to the flat later. To allay any anxieties, we memorise street names of possible bus stops where we can alight.
We trace the bus company's map with our fingers millimetres from the screen of your lap top. We never touch the screen. When others unwittingly or unawarely do so it makes you wince and me hold my breath. We recite bus numbers and street names to one another, agree which bus and which route to take.
We're all set. Breakfast things cleared away, teeth brushed, lipstick on (me), briefcase packed (you), twenty minutes before our scheduled departure time. We have the correct change ready. We will need to change a note later for our return trips. Bus drivers don't give change nowadays we've been told. As one, we agree to leave the flat and get an earlier bus. Daring!
The walk to the stop takes us just eighty four seconds, not the three minutes anticipated by the bus company. We allow a number twelve bus to go past. You check the information at the stop and indicate, with a wave of your hand, the bus stop on the corner opposite where I am to get off when I come back. I nod, check the street name. It is as I remembered.
Our bus arrives. As the doors open, you gesture for me to get on first and follow immediately behind proffering our exact money to the driver asking for two tickets. He looks somewhat bemused. We realise we have broken some protocol. There are people waiting to get off.
I apologise, about to step back to the pavement, when a young woman barges past me and proceeds to shout obscenities and bang something hard against the side of the bus. I am not sure if the swearing is intended for me or the driver. You are worried about me, check I'm alright. I'm fine I say. Other passengers get off, walk away quickly. The driver gives you our tickets and we move down the bus and sit.
The young woman is still yelling and swearing and hammering at the bus. Everyone else is silent, keeping their heads down. It is like every movie I've ever seen where something is threatening. All of us trying not to draw attention to ourselves. She is wildly aggressive in her behaviour. And unpredictable. She's at the front of the bus now hammering with something on the windscreen. It is very loud and all the while she is screaming obscenities.
A youngish man who was at the bus stop with us tries to reason with her. The bus driver talks to her through his cab window. She proceeds to lie down in the road in front of the bus. Yelling and screaming. Cars swerve to avoid her.
I am frozen; rooted to the spot. I feel scared for her. I feel scared for all of us. This is not normal behaviour and I have no experience to call on to help or defuse the situation. As well, I feel guilty. We got it wrong. Did we unwittingly cause this with our too eager, gauche entry onto the bus?
Another passenger, an older woman, gets off the bus and persuades the girl to get off the road. I am relieved when, with more hammering down the length of the bus, the girl moves on. The driver pulls away from the bus stop at last.
Breaking habits of lifetimes of silent, solitary travel, the other passengers engage with one another. Off-loading their tension, making surmises about the young woman. They concur the poor wee lassie has some kind of mental health issue, they are universally compassionate, kind. The woman who intervened was praised for her bravery. She says she thought, being an older woman, the girl may take more notice of her. The younger man who had tried to reason with her acknowledged he had been a bit scared she might hit him. They chatter all the way into town, say goodbye to one another as they disembark at their various stops.
You and I hold hands. Silenced. We're the last off the bus. I ask the driver if he's okay, not shaken up. He tells me he's used to it. He's seen it all before.
We don't talk about it once we're off the bus. We find a lovely coffee shop, order our flat whites. You have an almond croissant and we talk about where I may pick up the things we've agreed to buy for the flat and our plans for the evening. Then it's time for you to go to your meeting so we leave the cafe and you walk with me down the road a bit to show me where I can pick up the bus for my return journey.
I spend a couple of hours enjoying being in the city, wandering round the huge department stores. I buy some placemats and a few nice mugs, a casserole dish and a knife sharpener. The knives in the flat are good quality but blunt. I can't be doing with blunt knives.
I have wandered away from where you suggested I get the return bus, but easily find a stop. I read the information and when the driver comes, double check by asking him whether it is the correct side for my part of town. I notice the street you've pointed out to me and the nice driver tells me it is my stop anyway.
When I get back to the flat I text you to let you know I'm home. I'm relieved when a few hours later I hear your key in the door.
We'll take a cab next time I expect.
ON A BUS
George sat on the top deck of the bus. His seat was level with the windows of a pub. A woman in a scarlet dress leant out of the window peering down into the street. He could see into the room beyond, lit by a bright glow, as if a party was in progress – music played and couples flitted past. Before he could make sense of it, the bus moved on and the incident was over. He slumped back in the seat and rubbed his eyes feeling all of his forty-two years at the end of another workday. Next evening, he took the same route at the same time but the bus went past in a second and the pub window was shut. He put the scene out of his mind.
When he got home, his mother put the tea on the table as usual and sat down opposite him. She wiped her wrinkled hands on a tea towel and looked across at him.
“Here we go” he thought, “another bleeding lecture.”
“Why don’t you go out a bit more Georgie? You’re always under my feet and yet you’re earning a good wage. Enjoy yourself!”
Her voice had a piercing tone and it grated on his nerves.
“Do you think a packer gets a good wage? Working from eight a.m. to half past five in a grimy warehouse? It’s a treadmill, I tell you. I’m fagged out by teatime.”
She rumbled on for a few minutes but he didn’t listen anymore. He read the Evening Standard, and switched on the telly. But when he went up to bed, he found himself thinking back to the mysterious window and the lady in the scarlet dress. What was going on that night?
The following Tuesday, he decided to find out. He jumped off the bus a few yards down the road from the pub. It was the Wheatsheaf, one of the big Victorian pubs with Assembly Rooms upstairs. Outside the Saloon a notice read:
“TANGO CLASSES TUESDAY 6 PM”.
He climbed the stairs and heard unfamiliar music. Dazed a little by the noise and the swirling couples, he stood in the doorway wrapped in his old mac and holding his cap in his hand.
The music stopped and a little woman came bustling over to him and took him by the arm. Her black hair, obviously dyed, was pulled back into a bun. She wore a tight blue dress and very high heels so she tottered as she led him in.
He could see the lines round her mouth wrinkle up like parchment as she smiled. Her body was as fragile as an old china doll in an antique shop. George had no time to explain that he was just curious. Everything moved so fast he couldn’t keep up.
“Just sit down, dear. Take off your coat and Doris will be over presently.”
He wondered what his mother would say when he got home late for his tea. He pushed the thought out of his mind.
The class was reforming for another dance and the little woman in the tight dress clapped her hands and shouted:
“Now change your partners and let’s try a little harder – just glide – glide.”
Her thin voice rose high above the chatter. The beat of the music began again and George watched as the dancers gathered on the floor. The male dancers clasped their partners tightly and it seemed like the women were trying to keep them away. Some of the men gleamed with sweat as they shuffled about. The women struggled along as if pushing a heavy load.
Several untidy old men sat round the room looking on expectantly, their knees spread out as if claiming a space. It reminded him of musical chairs when he was small and everyone waited for the chance to grab a chair when the music stopped. Eyes scanned the women hoping for the slightest hint of approval.
Then his attention was attracted to a younger woman who came over to him. She was the girl in the red dress he had seen the week before.
“Have you been here before?” she asked.
“Well no, not inside,” he said.
He realised it wasn’t the right thing to say because she frowned and cocked her head.
“What do you mean?”
He stood up and muttered the first thing that came into his head but she paid no attention and took his hand. He felt the warmth of her touch as she guided him onto the corner of the dance floor. At close quarters he reckoned she was about his age yet had worn well. He was amazed at the way she propelled him about like a parcel.
“One – Two – Slide. One –Two – Slide.”
He moved awkwardly. His partner scarcely reached his shoulder but she kept up the chant as they ploughed through the other couples. One or two avoided them with a quick change of direction but most suffered the crunch of his foot against their heels or toes as they moved around.When the music stopped she dropped his hand and wiped her palm against her dress in a furtive way.
“That’ll be enough for one session,” she said firmly and walked away to the other side of the room. He called after her, “Doris!”
She turned and seemed puzzled. He stuttered, “I just want to say thank you.”
She walked back. “For what?”
“For giving me a dance,” he blurted.
She laughed and he noticed for the first time that she had a nice smile.
“You’re a funny one! I dance with all the newcomers.”
“Well I mean...” but he couldn’t say what he meant,so he stopped. She smiled again and her eyes smiled too.
“Maybe I’ll see you next week then.”
During the week he wondered if it was worthwhile turning up the following Tuesday. He felt embarrassed by his clumsiness and the way she had to push him round the floor. Besides, the other men in the class depressed him; it was like joining a queue at the Job Centre. They were a sad bunch and he would be just the same if he went back. But as the weekend arrived, he kept thinking about the woman in the scarlet dress and how she smiled at him. On Saturday he bought a new shirt in the market and came home with it hidden under his overcoat. He told himself one last go would be OK, if he kept himself away from the general group of old losers.
On Tuesday, he left home with the new shirt still in its wrapper. He put it on as he left the factory at the end of the day. At six p.m. he was there. The room was empty. He sat for minutes before he heard the sound of high heels tapping their way upstairs.Through the door came Doris and she seemed surprised to see him.
“O hello! Wondered if you would come back.”
She went to put her coat away, not expecting any reply. He stood up but couldn’t think of anything to say, so he sat down again. As she came back he saw she wore a different frock – a bluish colour but it looked good on her. The music began and she danced with one of the younger men who showed off as he whirled her in an extravagant way. George hated the look of him, all shoulders and smarmy grin. The music stopped and before the dancers had moved off the floor, an old man was up and walking over to Doris to speak to her.
She stood for a moment and glanced at George. She gave a wan smile and George leapt to his feet pushing the older man aside.
“You said I could have the next lesson,” he lied.
“Yes, that’s right. Do you mind, Tom?”
The bald old man grunted but George grabbed her hand and stood waiting for the music to start. He forgot about the handkerchief. Then they were away, moving together to the beat.
He held her close, feeling her body moving with him to the rhythm of the dance. The soft warmth of her back and her lithe movements sent a surge of excitement through him. He couldn’t believe it when the music stopped. It seemed unfair.
“That was much better,” she said letting go of his hand. “You are relaxing more now.”
“It’s only because of you,” he blurted out.
She looked away and didn’t smile.
“Maybe you should dance with Alice next time.”
“No! I want to dance with you!”
His outburst startled her and she drew back a pace.
“You can’t,” she said, “it’s the rules, I only teach the new ones.”
For an instant, he wanted to protest. He wanted to tell her that he had never felt so happy in his life when he danced close to her. Then he saw her turn and smile at the old man she had rejected and take his hand for the next number.
He got his mac and walked to the door. Doris whirled by, turning the old man in time with the music.
“See you again next week?” she asked.
He didn’t reply but pushed through the swing door and went out into the dark. Outside, a drenching rain had begun, seeping inside his mac and soaking the collar of his new shirt. He felt for his cap but he couldn’t find it. He waited for the bus and when it arrived, he sat upstairs as usual. He saw his reflection in the glass, a damp figure with his scant hair plastered down across his forehead.
But he was smiling.
ON A BUS
A rural bus-shelter late on Tuesday 31 October in the year of our Lord 2017.
In these times of austerity, council cuts have blackened whatever lighting there used to be and I’m a small, cold figure surrounded by a depth of darkness the like of which hasn’t cloaked our village since the war. There’s fog, a dense pall of it, and I draw my coat tighter around my shivering body and am grateful for my thick black tights and fur lined boots.
It’s early evening and I’m waiting for the 350 bus into town, where I’m meeting friends for Halloween drinks. You would think we’d have grown out of it now we’re in our 30s, but life being what it is we all try to punctuate its drabness with the usual yearly round of revelry, don’t we? And I perhaps more than most. I who have closed off doors in my mind; locked them fast so that they should never be prised open to let what’s behind them see the light of day. I need the distraction that Christmas, Easter, summer holidays and all the rest of it provide. And I need the oblivion that’s to be found at the bottom of a glass.
A little group of five or six children passes by the shelter laughing and whooping and carrying pumpkin lanterns. I think how sinister their surely innocent little faces look as the light shines on them, and I’m stamping my feet on the ground to try and get some warmth into them when I hear the thrum of an engine in the distance. My mood lifts, hoping it’s my bus. A heavy goods vehicle is passing by the shelter on the other side of the road. I look up, and a double-decker bus is indeed making its way with unnerving speed towards me. The children’s voices are fading into the night as I bend my head and try to see the time by my watch, but the night is too dark. I have a torch in my pocket and I use it and look a second time. 9.00 o’clock. My watch has stopped this morning. I lift my head again and begin to raise my hand to request the stop. Then in shock I watch as the bus swerves sharply and disappears from view. There is no sound other than my heart, which is pounding in my ears. The bus must have suddenly run up against a wall of fog, and I feel a dread in the pit of my stomach as I wonder whether there has been an accident. Do I need to ring the emergency services? But before I can fumble with my gloves to rake my phone out of my coat pocket, the fog suddenly clears and all thought of the bus and its passengers leaves my head.
Because, walking out of the fog, towards the shelter, towards me, is Matthew Hodderton. Hodders. I had forgotten him over the years. But it is him. It’s been a long time, but now I see him again I would know him anywhere. There’s an awkwardness in his gait, and no wonder. He’s not wearing a jacket and it’s his white shirt against the black night that makes him visible to me.
“Hi Jessica,” he calls as he approaches me. “Do you remember me? We were at school together.”
He recognises me instantly, and, of course, I do remember him. He was in my class, and there was a time I’d hoped we might get together, be an item. But he was very young, and sporty. He only thought of football and cricket. He had no time for girls and that felt like a rejection. And so I handled that the best way I knew how. By paying back in kind.
“I’ve always so hoped we might come across each other again,” he says, “and now we have.”
He’s standing close to me now and bends to kiss my cheek. I let him kiss me, as I wish we had kissed when we were young, when we were still able to. In the distance I am aware of shouting and screaming – and I remember the last time I saw Matthew. His image comes to me now out of the depths of my fragile mind, where I had thrust it and slammed the door shut, all those years ago, rather than face the truth of what happened that monstrous, tragic day.
I look through disbelieving eyes and in turn I see him staring at me. We are caught up in time and hang frozen in the moment. Then the fabric jolts and I see a young boy, small for his age, but wiry and athletic, and his story is unfolding as my mind unravels. He was fourteen years old. Found hanged in the school gym, while the rest of his class were at school assembly. 9.00 am. “He who would valiant be, ‘gainst all disaster……..” we sing. I hear the words, and there is no escape for me as the door in my mind is flung open and I remember.
Unable to turn my gaze away, I watch you, Matthew, as you position the chair and string the rope from the cross beam to take your own young life - your life that had so much promise in it. You are so brave. You choose that brave way rather than face me day after day.
Now, forced with all the class to go to your funeral, I see your parents. Your mother is sobbing uncontrollably and your father is trying to hold her up, see her through this day and all the empty, tortured days to come. I hang my head as if in respect, but the truth is I cannot look anymore. I am not to blame for this, I tell myself. I raise my eyes and look straight ahead of me at the future. I will be OK. I am not to blame. And I see myself back in class, but I can’t see you there, not even your empty desk. There is no place for you. I have erased you entirely.
Then I know at last, and with a jolt of clarity that tears at my very being, that you were never going to be mine. Fate always had quite something else in store for us. And on this Halloween night fate delivers. And I scream inside as I hear the worst sound in all the world. My own voice, ugly and jeering,
“Matthew Hodderton, you stink. You’re so thick. Everyone hates you. You’ll never have a girlfriend. No girl would even look at you. Why don’t you just give up, you loser.”
We are queueing outside the main hall for school assembly, and I push you roughly out of line, as I have so often before. This is the last day of our story, Matthew. This is where it ends. And I dismiss you from my mind, as you make your way to the gym.
Time bends and warps itself into hideous shapes, and I hear ambulance and police sirens. A man’s voice pierces the darkness,
“Are you there, love? Stay with me. Stay with me.” But I cannot.
And then I understand.
There are no breaths left for me. And I watch myself leave the shelter, climb onto that 350 bus, pay my fare and take my seat, seconds before it hits the fog and veers onto the other side of the road into the path of an oncoming lorry.
Then I hear a voice, and it is your voice, Matthew. I hear it spit out its dreadful words at me,
“What goes around, Jessica.”
And the voice goes on and on against the backdrop of my fractured, dead soul. Endlessly. Down all eternity. And that dreadful, vile, accusing voice is mine too.
The universe first holds its treacherous breath and then hisses at me “What goes around comes around, and around……. “
On a bus
In the rain
Such a shame
I'm stuck in traffic.
On the bus with a guy to my right
Whose music pierces my eardrums.
Lord knows what is happening to his ears!
Still not going anywhere.
The bus has moved
But not so far.
I was lost in my thoughts...
Shopping. Petrol. Pack bags.
Dreaming of my holiday.
I can not wait.
The bus is slow tonight.
I'm going to be home late.
"Sorry Darling, the bus is slow."
I hate talking in public on my mobile phone
But needs must and I have to share
The fact that I am on the bus to nowhere!
Off the bus.
I have arrived.
Am I home yet?
Only an hour late!
Thank goodness. We are becoming aware of all the plastic getting into the wrong places. It is in our seas, our oceans, in turtles, in birds, in us. It is everywhere.
There is a cycle: as people become galvanised to do something, that need is expressed in numerous, countless ways. Some turn to art: art created from plastic rubbish, to draw the attention of the people who still seem to be blissfully ignorant. The supermarkets that still package using plastic: the consumers who happily chuck it on the ground when they have finished with whatever the plastic had wrapped.
It has to be acknowledged that, in creating awareness of the problems of plastic, the most significant art of recent times has been created by the video camera and the operator behind the lens, who may be an individual or part of a larger, concerned, organisation. You will have seen terrible images of all species suffering at our hands, in places as far from ‘civilisation’ as you can imagine. The most memorable of these is in documentary form: Blue Planet. I was at a conference about the oceans a couple of weeks ago and Blue Planet was mentioned several times. Many people there had been galvanised into action by the images they saw.
If you class the medium of video as art, then video truly is turning art into action.
Looking ahead, how will this progress?
What the next concerns will be?
It will be interesting to see when we start panicking properly about the rest of the junk we tip in the oceans. Radioactive waste? Heavy metals? It is acknowledged that it is dangerous to eat many species of fish because of the high levels of toxic matter in their flesh.
Had you noticed that we tend to think of ourselves? If we eat the fish, it may not be good for us. How about the fish? Is it ok for them to suffer too, in these days of animal welfare. Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t suffer. Will the medium of video teach us more about what we can’t see within the sea?
The unseen fish have sensors by which to be aware of their surroundings, just like birds. They swim in shoals, like birds fly in flocks.
I don’t believe it is acceptable to eat birds? I’ve not heard of folks eating blackbirds and starlings, except in nursery rhymes – though these songs were founded in fact. Many years ago, flocks of birds were caught in nets to be consumed. Would that be acceptable now? Perhaps in the future folks will reduce their consumption of fish when more is learnt about these unseen species, in the same way that many people now are vegetarians and – surprisingly to many, they function as well – in fact probably better – than those who eat meat.
Whatever your views, it will be interesting to see how the messages develop: what the messages will be and how they change. And how they will be conveyed. If a picture paints a thousand words, art, probably in the form of moving images, will inevitably be the way to convey that message to call us to action.
I was quite amazed to see the piano on the beach. The tide's foamy fingers had already lapped around its legs which were slightly sunk into the soft, grainy sand. From where I was standing I could see that it was a baby grand. Its top was open, as if to embrace the warm, sea breeze, ready and waiting for the pianist. I could see him; tall, bronzed, with teeth gleaming in the last of the sun’s rays. He is barefooted but has not bothered to roll up the trousers of his evening suit. His bow tie is undone and nestles on his crisp, open necked, white shirt. The sudden breeze lifts the quiff of his blond hair and he smooths it down with long, tapered, fingers. He seductively smiles as he passes me, sits down on the piano stool and starts to play ‘Love Changes Everything’. I sigh. My favourite song.
I start to sway with the music. My long gossamer dress flows and caresses my legs. I am nearing the piano. I put my hand on the back of his neck. He looks up at me, takes one hand from the ivory keys and…..
“Absolute rubbish!” The words cut across my daydreaming.
“What?” I asked “Sorry. What did you say?”
A rather large lady was standing next to me.
“This picture of the piano. Rubbish. Why, the legs would rot in no time and how would it get there?”
“It’s only a picture.” I managed to say before she started again.
“And they call it art!” Her voice went up an octave. “My six year old grandson would have more sense than to paint a picture of a piano standing in the sea. Where are the vases of flowers and the country cottages? That’s what I came to see.”
I looked again at the picture. It was beautiful. I looked at the woman again. I wanted to ask her why she couldn’t see or feel the beauty and the calmness that it portrayed but, she was already moving on to the next room. I looked at my brochure. Oh dear. It was the abstract section. I wondered what she would make of that.
“How ridiculous!” came the cry.
I had not had to wait long.
You sit in a Parisian cafe
newspaper in hand
the click click click
showing you the bleak, the incendiary
the carpet of steel falling
on women & children (on a clear market day)
pushing humanity into a small space
a 20th century stable
three hours turning into a bloody century
turning into a nightmare of supermen marching
eating the dew off the meadows
eating the yellow stars
Then your brushes explode
toppling those false gods from their pedestals
exposing the disjointed, (ignited in suffering)
cradling the pain of war in their arms
as a fist’s shattered blade begins blooming
in this tight grey/blue room
holding inside itself, all Spanish bullrings
holding all torches, rising towards all small windows
holding inside, all the broken pieces of humankind
to hang together, on a free Spanish wall
They waved the bedsheet in the air and yelled over the truck engines and closed windows. The car in front of me rolled through the stop sign as I drove up to the intersection, the motley band of protestors on the grass to my left.
I hazarded a glance toward the small group through my car window. One of them waved at me. I turned my head forward, quickly, but then felt guilty. Cranking the window down, I glanced back at the man who had caught my eye. The thick Florida heat spilled into the car.
"That's Morty," I said aloud.
"You know him?" Della asked from the passenger seat.
I nodded, waving back.
"He goes to my church."
"He looks ancient."
I looked from Morty to the rest of the group and counted about nine of them with my eyes. Five women, four men, all over eighty years old. The woman in the back rested one of her arms on a walker and raised her other one in the air with an angry fist.
The car behind me honked.
The group cheered, waving their bedsheet enthusiastically. I looked at it for the first time, seeing the words brushed on it with blue paint.
HONK IF YOU PROTEST THE WAR IN IRAQ
The car behind me honked again, sending another wave of cheers. I grinned and lay on my own horn, then put the car in gear. Della hid her head in her hands.
They discussed their little protest on Sunday after services, and Esmerelda tallied the number of honks to a total of thirty-eight, convincing herself and the rest of the small congregation that public opinion was pacifist in nature.
I sat at the metal folding table, cradling my Styrofoam cup of coffee with my hands, wondering when I could gracefully duck out of the building.
"I wish we saw more folks your age out there holding signs," Esmerelda said, lowering her reading glasses and looking straight into my eyes.
If ever there were a time to discuss my fears on such matters, now would be my chance. These seasoned activists had seen their labors come to fruition through the sixties and seventies. I wanted to know how many of them had been arrested.
Morty shook his head at me, his earring glinting in the fluorescent lights above. I stood.
"I have to go. I have a petition to sign," I said, smiling at the group. I did not mention it would be anonymously.
"That's the spirit!" Morty said, his face breaking into a beam. "And, we'll be at that corner again on Wednesday if you're available."
I smiled at them all again, dumping my coffee into the trash as I left.
Smells of curry wafted in from the small apartment kitchen as the group of five young men tried to peel enough eggs to feed all of us. I walked into the kitchen and grabbed an egg.
"You boiled them for too long," I said to Ravin as I cracked the egg's shell. He smiled.
"I'll get it right eventually," he said.
"Abi can't get back into the country," Della said, plopping herself onto the sofa.
"What?" I asked, looking up from my mutilated egg.
"Yeah," said one of the other men, pulling eggshells from his fingernails. He was a friend of Ravin's; I hadn't yet caught the man's name.
"Well, why did he leave?" I asked. "With everything that's going on right now...."
"Wanted to see his folks over break," Della filled in. "If they don't let him back in within the month, he's going to lose his scholarship."
Half of my egg fell into the trash.
"That sucks. That really sucks." I threw the rest of the egg away.
We heard voices on the sidewalk outside the apartment walls. I paused, listening, as the outside conversation wafted in through the window glass.
"That's a lot of shoes, man."
"Shit, do you think? Should we tell someone?"
Their footsteps receded on the concrete. From the parking lot, a pickup truck engine revved.
During church, we took up a small collection for Douglas. He had attended the same art school as me, but he was in worse shape.
I lay a ten dollar bill in the basket.
"This means so much to me," Douglas said after services, hugging me in the open doorway. The heat gnawed at our necks, sending trickles of sweat down my back.
"Shut the door and save the planet!" one of the parishioners yelled from within. I pulled Douglas by his sleeve to the covered sidewalk and let the heavy metal door slam.
"I don't suppose you have any work you could pass my way?" Douglas asked, his eyes pointing to the ground.
"I wish I had something I could give you," I said. I had just enough illustration work to pay my part of rent. My one remaining client—the local bank—could drop me without explanation. Just like the last one had.
The door handle squealed, and Morty squeezed through the heavy metal onto the sidewalk.
"I wanted to give you this," he said, pushing a photocopied flyer into my hand. "We're marching next Saturday. You should join us."
I looked at the flyer as if giving it significant thought.
"It's local? Here in town?" I asked. Douglas took the flyer from me.
Morty nodded. "Yeah, you got no excuse this time."
"I'll consider it," I lied. Word traveled fast in small towns.
"Count me in," Douglas said, smiling at Morty. Of course Douglas should march. He had nothing to lose.
Morty reached out and took Douglas' arm.
"I'm glad at least one of you young folk is willing to defend what we worked so hard for."
I smiled at them both as I turned toward the gravel parking lot. And I felt my soul crumble under Morty's gaze as I drove away.
The artist’s pencil swept back and forth across the page, spidery lines appearing on the crisp sheet of paper. On the other side of her easel, the land stretched out across rolling hills, divided into neat squares with hedgerows and low walls. Dotted across the fields were flashes of bright stone where farm buildings and ramshackle old shepherds’ huts interrupted the hillside. She began with the easiest lines, working quickly to form the outline of the landscape.
As the walker stood beneath the shadow of the hill, he could feel the earth around him shifting to accommodate his presence. It was a low feeling, deep in his bones, whispering that the land had yet to settle. Here in the shadows, everything looked incomplete. The fields were devoid of life. The trees he could see from the corner of his eyes stretched as bare spindles over the land. The sky overhead was grey, and the grass at his feet washed of its colour as though the world had become an old sepia photograph. Ahead of him, an ill-defined path ran along the length of a low wall at the boundary of a field. He set his feet to it, and began to walk.
The artist scowled down at her sketch, and selected her eraser from the box at her feet. With small, gentle motions, she rubbed at the line of the wall until it disappeared, and blew away the curls of eraser left behind with a short, sharp puff of breath.
The dry stone wall began to disappear. Only from one end at first, tiny pebbles clattering to the floor and rolling away down the hill, then the larger stones began to sift away, all along the line of the wall. When the walker reached out to try to catch one of the stones, it crumbled to dust in his fingers and swirled away on a sudden breeze.
Perhaps a hedge instead, the artist thought, sucking on the softened end of her pencil, flakes of paint coming off against her tongue with a bitter tang. Something more organic amongst the rolling fields. She took her pencil from between her lips, laid the point flat against the paper, and began to ruche a line of bushes onto the page.
The walker stared. Along what had once been a wall, hedges erupted, spreading at speed from where he stood at one end of the vanished wall right along the edge of the field. They did not grow slowly up from their roots with their branches spreading out and tiny leaves unfurling in careful order. One moment, he had been staring at where the wall had been, and the next he found himself facing thick bushes standing as high as his chest. When he stretched his hand out to touch the leaves, he found them fresh and sticky with sap.
The artist paused with her pencil poised at the dip of the hill, and scanned her gaze along the curve in the landscape before her. Just a small change, a new lift to the earth. She drifted her pencil along a lilting line, pulling the slope of the hill up more sharply to drag the eye upwards.
The walker staggered. The ground beneath his feet shuddered, groaning and creaking like the bones of an old giant. Then the earth began to rise sharply, knocking him backwards off his feet. He found himself sliding down the hillside as it rose ahead of him, scraping his elbows and knees against tufts of jagged grass and thorned twigs stuck in the soil. His fingers scrabbled at the ground, snagged around the stump of a tree, and clung to it until the ground had ceased to shake. When he raised his head, he saw ahead of him the new slope, climbing steep into the sky.
The artist wet the tip of her paintbrush and began to sweep colour onto the page. Glimpses of sky became blue and grey and a gentle lilac. The grass washed through with sunlight-tinged green. Gentle dashes of a creamy white the colour of old bone coaxed the buildings from the hillside. The trees were picked out as sharp scratches of brown.
As he lay on the ground, catching his breath and slowing the rapid thud of his racing heart, the walker noticed a flicker through the blur of his partially closed eyes. There was a warmth suddenly suffusing his body, and he cracked open his eyes to find overheard the clouds had cleared away to reveal a summer sun, and with it the flush of colour returning to the land.
Her work complete, the artist set her paintbrush down and leant back, framing the painting against the hills beyond. While she had been working she thought she remembered making changes, but looking now at the painting was like holding up a mirror to the land. Hadn’t there been a wall somewhere that she had changed to a hedgerow? Squinting out at the hills, she could see nothing but hedges running among the fields. She had not thought that incline so steep before either, but looking at it now she wondered if she had imagined the change. Every detail of the land before her had been captured exactly on her canvas, each tree in its place, the fields all in line, even the grazing sheep seemed to be frozen as they had been painted.
There was only one small difference, she noticed, as she began to tidy away her materials. In the distance, the tiny figure of a moving man fled down the twisting path to the base of the hill.
He looked from side to side, eyeing up his enemies.
They were surrounded.
His companion shuffled nervously.
"I don't think this is the right place." His companion said, gulping.
"Stay focused Forthen," He said to his companion, and then to his enemies, "So... You've come back for another fight eh?" The chitter and squarks of the hideous birdmen hybrids responded like laughter.
"You will die this time. We have you surrounded. There is no escape." A hulking ugly hybrid had stepped forward as it spoke this, it's head violently jerking as it snarled at him.
"Not this time you filthy beasts" He said under his breath as he took three furious strides towards the hybrid.
Lifting his hand behind his head he drew out his long sword and with a yell that held all of his fury, brought it down upon the beasts neck. The head fell with a thump.
The chitter stopped.
Then from somewhere else came a horrible, gutteral cry. Then another. And another joined it until all gave voice to their hatred and malice.
The battle began.
Immediately three hybrids rushed towards him, others following. He faced them head on, swinging his mighty sword and felling his foes. He parried the first one, knocking its beastly clawed hands away and driving his sword straight into its chest. He had no time to watch his foe fall to the ground, for he quickly side stepped the second, turning his body as he did so and bringing his sword round to meet the creatures neck. It's head rolled away cleanly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his companion, Forthen, fending off two hybrids with his daggers.
He brought himself back to the fight.
He thought to himself.
'Avoid the blue'
Again he side stepped out of the way of the third hybrid and slashed at the beasts arm. Those that had lingered behind had edged closer, eagre to get their taste of blood and battle.
Each step was calculated in his mind. Move. Stab. Avoid. Parry. Parry. Stab.
He was running out of breath. Behind him a loud cry called up.
The man turned, and saw Forthen being felled by a hybrid.
"FORTHEN!" He screamed. With all his energy he slashed his way through the hybrids that had encircled him.
'Come on!' He thought.
As a hybrid raised its sharp clawed hand to attack him, he tucked himself in and forward rolled onto the ground. Dodging the attack.
He felt a pop. And heard a clatter.
Standing he looked down. His shin guard was missing. He turned his head and saw it lying on the ground behind him.
"CUT!" An exasperated voice sounded. A gentle bubble of voices rose up as people made themselves busy. Resetting heads, adjusting the lights, cleaning the ground.
The man swung his arms down and relaxed.
"Can someone fix his damn costume please." The voice shouted over the noise. "Michael that was great. Roger could you give a little more pain when you fall. We need it to sound nasty."
"Sure thing." Roger replied.
Michael made his way back over to Roger. The two of them shared a brief chuckle and conversation while the rest of the crew carried on with their jobs. An assistant hurried over to Michael and placed his fallen shin guard back on to his leg.
The stunt guys positioned themselves back to where they were. Michael felt for them. It was hard in his armour, but was probably even harder for those guys in full suits.
"Alright everyone places please." The voice shouted again. "Lets try and finish this before lunch."
Michael gave a quick stretch of his arms as he settled himself beside his friend Roger.
"Alright and ready in three. Two. One. And Action!"
It had been a long, stressful day. My new boss was turning out to be less than supportive, and my team was way behind due to being short-staffed. I finally managed to leave the office and made my way to the tube station. Severe delays on the Victoria Line. Perfect. When the train eventually pulled into the station, it was wall-to-wall flesh but I crammed myself on anyway. And spent ten minutes stuck in a tunnel in the semi-darkness with my nose practically pressed into some other bloke’s armpit. Gotta love London.
I fell out of the carriage onto the platform at Highbury & Islington, jogged across to the national rail platform and looked up at the display. 19:18 to Stevenage - cancelled. 19:33 to Letchworth Garden City - cancelled. 19:48 to Hertford North - cancelled. Seriously? My head dropped to my chest and I felt like just sitting down right there and giving up. But it was back across to the other platform to wait for another delayed Victoria Line train. I switched to the Piccadilly Line at Finsbury Park and waited through the long haul all the way up to Oakwood.
As was traditional, I called home from Arnos Grove to find out if my wife would be willing to drive out and pick me up, but there was no answer. So I had to wait fifteen minutes for the bus and at last arrived home at about half past eight. I dropped my bag right inside the door and trudged into the kitchen, hoping to find a meal waiting for me, but instead found a folded note on the counter.
Gone out for an impromptu girls’ night - hope that’s okay. Feed yourself and don’t wait up.
Also, see below list for everything that needs doing round the flat tonight - have fun!
Food shopping - Vicky completed
Laundry - Vicky completed
Feed the fish - Vicky completed
Empty the bins - Art to action
Change the air filters in the fish tank - Art to action
Wash up - Art to action
See you tomorrow!
I sighed heavily, took off my jacket and set to work.
Pilgrimage to the End of the World
Sun-scorched and parched
I mouth my last prayer to Sun Ra
Crossed by mankind
The joke now on them
With us pitifully caught in the crossfire
Light years pass in a shimmer
Just like they say
Before I expire
I muster one final burst of energy
And inch my brittle body to the kerb’s edge
From here I admire
A stream of diaphonous pearly moisture dance
Upwards into nothingness
Just like they say
And the psychedelic swirl of oily moonstone
Atop the all but depleted Holy Puddle
A fitting trip to go out on
I saw you out there, that place we don’t trespass,
framed you as a work of art. Little old boy,
all back bones and slow descendings, drooping
oil paint on paint as my perspective altered
and a skin of my heart ripped off
because you’d forgotten our kind don’t go there
or you didn’t care.
Little painting of yourself that you’ve become,
dried colours, such texture that tears
at my feelings flailing like tentacles,
no, jellyfish tendrils, sting.
Sting. How did you turn to such hurting me, without meaning to?
I am over, without you. I will be done.
Image turned to wall
by you being out there, unprotected,
but you are mine, I’m yours, and surely
that’s a force-field against this life,
a hand-knotted blanket, soft, worn, softer,
we are each other, the oxygen in our bodies
drawn from shared breaths so deep, so long.
I run across
the frantic highway
and I pluck this image
of you from the harsh roadside,
stride back, you pinioned to me
too heavy, too heavy
but I’m invincible. Dissolving inside,
imploding as I lie down beside
you, muttering, crooning
please want to live.
Sheila picked up the receiver reluctantly, it had been a challenging day in the editorial office, the sub-editor had surpassed himself with raising idiotic objections to points of layout that Sheila had already approved of, had even sunk to querying the odd comma or full-stop, delaying the production of the final draft until Sheila had explained to him at length why she wanted things as she had directed.
When the phone rang, she had just got home and was in the kitchen, thinking about making dinner for herself and her husband Geoff, who was putting his briefcase away. She had been trying to relax and put work out of her mind and now she had to go out to the hall and listen to her poor old aunt going on.
Sheila sank down on the telephone seat. Rene, nearly 91, was still valiantly compos mentis, just about, but how tedious, Sheila sighed, composing herself to listen, her aunt could be, jawing on and on, telling Sheila things she already knew or had told Rene herself in the first place.
Rene considered herself a writer, having had a handful of short stories published in the '50s. She often asked Sheila if she could use her position as assistant editor to publish this or that story, written and laid aside years ago as inferior, and now discovered in a drawer as she constantly rummaged through her possessions.
Rene often invited her, but to her shame Sheila didn't visit her aunt very often. She was Sheila's mother's eldest sister, and the only one left now of a large family. She had outlived all the young'uns, as she called them, including Sheila's parents.
And here she was, Sheila reflected, spending her golden years sifting through old bits of paper from the past and reading her collection of Thomas Hardy novels over and over. Sheila could see Geoff through the kitchen door, starting to lay the table. She took a breath and told Rene once again how she worked for an engineering journal that wouldn't be interested in fiction stories, though she was sure they were excellent. She suggested two or three titles of popular women's magazines.
Geoff picked up the teapot and waved it at her inquiringly. She nodded. A cup of tea would definitely help but she ought to be getting on with the dinner. She tried to wind up the conversation as she always did by asking at the end, 'Have you found any photos of Mum yet, Rene?' As time went on since her parents died and as she got older, Sheila found herself missing them and wondering about their early lives.
Rene murmured in a vague way and Sheila could feel her impatience getting the better of her. Before her aunt could launch into another long story about relations between Thomas Hardy and his first wife, Sheila reminded her sharply, 'You know, you're always saying there was one day when the whole family went to the studio. I would love to see that photo!'
But her aunt hemmed and hawed. Sheila's exasperation was such that she very nearly came out with a curt, 'Sorry, got to go now, goodbye', when suddenly Rene became articulate.
'No, I'm sorry, Sheila ... but talking of your mother I found hundreds of letters between your parents the other day. Your mother left them with me when she was evacuated and couldn't take much luggage. She was going to have them back after the war but they had no room once you came along in that small flat. And in the end I suppose she forgot.'
'Letters - between my parents?' Sheila was stupefied. It had never occurred to her (she wondered that it hadn't) - of course there would have been letters! She wished she had asked her parents more about their lives. It was too late now and she would have to find out about the 40s in history books. Or was it?
'Your father wrote to her from the front, you see,' Rene was explaining laboriously, as if Sheila hadn't known he had gone to war. 'He was in the forces in Italy and Africa, he won medals, you know, he was mentioned in Dispatches!'
Sheila sat still. She no longer felt any compulsion to end the conversation and felt suddenly guilty at her impatience with the old lady.
'I'll come and see you tonight, Rene, straight after dinner,' she promised, her fatigue leaving her all at once. 'Perhaps we could read through them together and have a nice chat about the old days.'
I see you on a salt shelf
surrounded by mountains
surrounded by sea
your breath heavy, thick
your speech gurgling
Your hands held high
your braided hair, the only thing holding
& down from unclimbable cliffs
a darkness seeps in on everything
I morse code, can you turn
can you change your orientation
can you jump from greenish rock to greenish rock
over unctuous pools
& navigate tiny gaps (in teeth filled reefs) to freedom
She walked. I followed her. I nearly lost her, in the crowd. What would I do if I lost her? I would never see her again. I followed closer. I was behind her. She strode quickly, purposefully, through the crowd. I could barely keep up. I was right behind her, this unknown woman, as she reached the platform for the metro. There was a clatter of steel on steel, a blur of speed, a flurry of stale air and I caught a hint of her perfume as the front of the train surged past, pushing the air, her air, past me in a rush.
A squeal of tortured brakes, a rattle of doors and we surged forward, her in front of me, close. As the bodies surged, she stopped, in front of me. Motionless, she turned, faced me. Looked at me. Eye to eye, she looked at me face to face, in my eyes, unblinking. I didn’t notice if she had turned her whole body. I didn’t see her body. Only her eyes, unblinking, penetrating. I didn’t see the expression on her face. Only her eyes.
Then she was gone. I glimpsed her as the train left, a figure amongst the others, trapped within the steel tomb of the metro as it sped towards its terrible fate. My head told me I would never, never see her again and I felt a loss, as if indeed the train had fallen over an imaginary cliff, or plunged into an imaginary bottomless hole in the ground. I foretold I would never see her again. But I was wrong.
He played. He played and sang at the same time. I was captivated. Yeah, ok, you get plenty of guys who will play a guitar and sing at the same time. Thousands, millions. In fact most people would just love to be able to sing and play a guitar at the same time, even if they couldn’t: and there are as many people who just think that they can. But this guy did, he did, and in such a way that mesmerised me. The combination of chords and crooning which magically gave way to choral and classical then rock and pop and piercing, heart-rending lyrics. I had never heard anything quite like it. I moved forward, squeezing through the crowd, squeezing, sliding between bodies, large blank backs, sharp elbows. Somehow, I was at the front, he was in front of me. I watched his fingers as they stroked the strings, hit them, abused them, plucked them, drew artistry and life out of their coldness.
Then, suddenly, he had finished. I looked up. He was looking at me. Eye to eye, he looked at me, face to face, looked in my eyes, unblinking. I didn’t register his body, I couldn’t tell you whether he was wearing jeans, a shirt, or no shirt. Only his eyes, unblinking, penetrating. I didn’t see the expression on his face. Only his eyes.
Then he was gone. I caught a glimpse of his back, disappearing between the others in his group.
I saw her again. A couple of times. On the metro. A silhouette, a figure amongst the others, flashing past unseeing in the speeding window. A shadow on the platform, a brief glimpse. Then other times, and I wondered if I was imagining things. Everywhere I looked, she was there, on street corners, walking into shops, waiting at bus stops. I chased after her a few times but never was it she, this person, the girl I had seen. Maybe I hadn’t seen her at all.
He was there again, at the same small bar, playing his bewitching music. Each time, I watched, quietly from the back, spooked by his piercing gaze that first time. The mesmerisation of the music never changed. Why was he here? He should be playing to thousands at some sort of concert. But he was here, just feet away. I felt honoured, so lucky. I felt he was playing just for me. Then from the stage, far away the other side of the room, beyond the surging, dancing bodies, he stared at me, held my gaze. How did he keep on playing, and singing, while he stared at me. For me the world stopped. I could feel my synapses, my mind, shifting as he gazed at me.
Then, one day, out on the street, he was there. I didn’t go to him. He came to me. Somehow, I felt he was there before I felt his gentle hand on my shoulder. He was behind me, I could feel him breathing. I turned and as I looked at him, his was the same direct gaze as when he was singing and playing. But now he was silent. He smiled at me, a crooked, self-conscious smile.
“So” he said, “You like my music?”
I couldn’t at that moment frame a reply, too busy gazing in his eyes.
“You’re always there” he continued, “At the back, watching.”
“Listening. To my music.”
I nodded again. He looked sad.
“You’re the only one who does”, the disappointment in his voice touching me.
I wanted to say that I thought it was the most wonderful, powerful, soul-touching music I had ever heard and why wasn’t he the most famous musician I had heard of. But still I couldn’t speak.
“No-one else listens. They’re all busy moaning about their day at work, or sucking up to their boss, or trying to impress the girlfriend or boyfriend. I can hardly hear myself think. Or play. I just have to block them out.”
I finally replied, surprised. “I can only hear your music”, I said. “I’ve never noticed the crowd.”
He was pleased.
“You fancy a drink?” he asked.
Would I? Who cares about the drink, he was asking me to go with him, he was going to spare me time, all to me, just him and me.
So, we went to a quiet bar.
Later, when we parted, and he walked towards the metro, he reminded me of someone I knew, but could not quite think of at that moment.
She was on the metro, I saw her ahead of me. Was it her? Probably not. But I had to find out. I was behind her, and with the fewer crowds this Friday morning, people taking a long weekend, I was able to study her and see her, not just her eyes. Slim, boyish figure, neat hair, beautiful posture. Alert, intelligent. As she walked forward toward the train as it came in, I watched her move, graceful and lightstepped. I was sure this was her.
I was right behind her. I wanted to say hello, say hi. But what to say then? Couldn’t quite make it, make that brave step.
As the train stopped, the doors opened and she paused, she turned towards me, again. Met my eyes, gazed eye to eye. And smiled, grinned.
“Hey, you! How you doing?” she laughed.
I was confused.
“You getting on or what?” still laughing, smiling at me.
I was rooted to the spot.
“Waiting for the next train? See you tonight?” With that the doors shut and she mouthed “Bye” through the glass, then the train was gone and I was standing, stunned into immobility.
That night I saw her again. She played, and sang, at the same time, the mesmerising music, while she smiled at me, gazing at her, from the back of the room. Somehow, then, I was at the front, gazing up at her. Then, somehow, I was up next to her, facing the crowd, singing with her as she played.
We saw more of each other. Spent time together. Sat close together on the metro, explored the city, then out to the country. A couple of hours somehow stretched into a couple of days. It seemed so natural to sleep over at each other’s places, or simply together if we were away for the weekend. And, I do mean sleep, not in that clichéd way that seems sadly to be passe for more adventurous, carnal pursuits. I could not somehow abuse our relationship by even thinking of this aspect.
After a while, we knew each other better and in the sun and shorts her slim, svelt figure moved even more gracefully than on the metro platform.
After a little longer, with a smile, he turned and faced me when I accidentally burst into the bathroom when the door was unlocked. He had just showered, the room steamed up, his body moist and glistening. As I stared, confused, he just smiled and waited for me to say something.
Finally, she gently placed her hands around my neck and drew me to her, held me close.
For me the world stopped. I could feel my synapses, my mind, shifting as he; she gazed at me.
I held her tight, close, his damp, warm body soaking my t-shirt. I could feel her chest, her breast pressed against me, his taut stomach against mine.
Them, we were on the bed in the apartment.
So are you a guy or a girl? Man or woman? Do you decide one day to the next, each hour, or even each minute, which you will be? Or are you either? Or neither. How do you make up your mind?
Do you change your mind? How often do you change your mind?
Does it matter? All I care is that it is you, like everyone else, unique.
You are you, with your eye to eye gaze, your mesmerising music, your graceful girlish figure, your boyish curves, your beautiful, warm smile, your vulnerability.
Whichever you are, girl, or boy or it doesn’t matter: don’t change your mind.
Change Your Mind
“And five and six and seven and Change!”
The céilí band segued into the Tara Reel and two lines of eight dancers followed the call. Rod, at the head of the Boys line skipped a perfect dos-i-dos to meet his new partner Eileen, hitherto second in the Girls line. With crossed wrists they swung energetically for the next four bars to reach their new position at the tail of the line.
The Caller, Eamonn, wasn’t satisfied. He silenced the band with a brusque slash of his left hand.
“No, no, no! Y’r dancing like sacks o’ praties! Ron, Eileen, come back to the top of the set, at least there’s the one couple with a flicker of rhythm in their feet!”
Rod’s cheeks flushed as his name was mentioned. Backhanded compliment or not, Eamonn wasn’t known for fulsome praise and this was likely the best he could expect. As they returned to the head of the set he felt the lightest of pressures from Eileen’s hand. Technically (and by convention) they should have parted and returned separately to their start positions but Rod sensed Eileen had chosen to hang on to his right hand for those precious extra seconds. He’d always liked Eileen but had never had the confidence to tell her. Was his luck about to change?
St. Michaels set dancers weren’t just good, they were very good. This was entirely down to Eamonn’s demands for perfection. They’d won every award and competition worth winning in the county and nationally. Rod had enjoyed every minute of the three years he’d been with the team, but there was just one thing he regretted. The very nature of Set Dancing was that everybody danced with everyone else. It wasn’t like ballroom or Latin, where you had a regular partner. Some girls – Eileen, for example – were much better dancers than the others. The constant Change Partners was the one thing Rod didn’t care for, and he couldn’t see a way out of his personal dilemma.
“Dancers, you can take a break while I have a word with the band. Stay loose, don’t let y’rselves stiffen up!”
Because he and Eileen had been sprinkled with faint praise Rod had allowed himself to ‘zone out’ for a few seconds and the crispness of Eamonn’s last words brought him back to the real world. As the other dancers headed for tables dotted around the hall or the snack bar in the corner he felt Eileen’s fingers brush as if by accident against his. With a toss of her auburn curls she headed for the door, which opened onto a flagged outdoor patio. He risked a swift glance around the hall. Nobody appeared to be paying the slightest attention. He followed her lead, trying desperately to avoid attracting undue notice or ribald comment.
“We’ve not much time ere someone comes looking f’r us” Eileen began almost before Rod was through the door “So I’ll say my piece and hope you’ve time to answer.”
Half a dozen conflicting thoughts chased through Rod’s mind, but he was conscious of the fact that their absence would soon be noticed. He nodded, not daring to waste a second.
“You’re by far the best Set dancer I’ve partnered. Don’t ask me how I know this but I do, and you feel the same way too. I’m right, amn’t I?”
Rod blinked his agreement: he’d no time for more. Eileen’s hazel eyes sparked as she continued without pausing for breath:
“I love the Set dancing, the competitions and everything, and that’s not going to change! But if we were a Team of Two as well as being part of a set of sixteen …”
Rod found his voice.
“You mean like on Strictly Come Dancing …?”
“Yes! Now I saw you last week coming out of the Dance School with three or four other buachallí, and not a cailín in sight! And please don’t try to tell me none of yiz have found a girl to dance with?”
“Sure, the class only started a few weeks ago” Rod protested. “They said we should use the first lessons to change partners all the time …”
“Change your socks, change your mind, change partners …”
“ … and dance with me” Rod crooned in a passable tenor, eerily close to Fred Astair’s film version of the song.
“Oh, you great lump!” Eileen mock-scolded, with a genuine smile in her eyes. Sounds indoors suggested Eamonn had finished roasting the band, who were tuning up to continue.
“I don’t want to change the Set Dancing,” Eileen stated “but if you’d like to introduce me to the school next time you go, a few other things might Change. D’you mind?”
I just want to take that little girl and love her; look after her and tell her how special she is. Tell her what a wonderful life she’s going to have.
Except on the inside she didn’t have a wonderful life. Once she grew up she spent most of her adult life trapped inside a hell. A hell she created herself because she chose to switch off and live in denial.
But oh what a gorgeous and brave woman she became. She locked herself in a tower and built a moat around herself. This little princess grew up to be a knight in shining armour. She slayed her dragons by becoming successful at everything she did. She even won awards in her chosen field.
It didn’t matter how much she strived and strived to create this world where she was the best at what ever she did. The dragons just kept coming; breathing their fire on her. The higher she built her walls the stronger the dragons became.
Then one day this princess decided she’d had enough and she did the bravest thing of all. She decided to tear down this wall, brick by brick, and as she started to remove these bricks she noticed that one of the dragons, the fierstist and scariest of them all, was just standing there watching her. She stopped and looked right into his eyes and she just saw pure love staring right back at her.
You see; she always thought that answers were in the doing, in the achieving, but what she discovered in that moment was that the answers are in the being and that nothing is as scary as it seems.
When you stop and take a breath you discover that the very thing that you were afraid of is the very thing that will help you learn to love, grow and accept yourself for what you are
Dual twinlkes in the distance turned to a thundering scars out their driver's side window.
He didn't see any of their faces - the flimsy yellow dividers standing at attention allowed him to ignore the stalled horde to his left. Headlamps blinked on, horns blared out, as if announcing his arrival - and immediate departure - with a discordant and unprepared fanfare. He could only see the world coming at him as if through a pinhole, growing clarity at the center, smudges and smearing around the edges of the image. Sweat stuck to the steering wheel, his grip tighter than he intended it. Lines, cars, sidewalks, asphalt, pedestrians, all melted together.
She sat there, here arms folded, her legs crossed, looking at the ground. The air was getting colder, the people warmer and warmer. Chills slalomed down her back as the wind grazed her neck. She stood up, hoping to catch a glimpse of what she was expecting to see.
His vision was still blurred as he approached the intersection. He slowed. Oncoming traffic continued forward. Three cars in front of him waited patiently, as if for their curtain call, oblivious to the bolt of lightning tearing their way. He thought there was a chance to get around them - no. He held his momentum. He found an opening a split second later. The tires brayed as the engine roared through the corner, foot on the floor, sweat turned to glue.
A light fabric, navy blue with small white polka-dots - her friends had all encouraged her to wear that dress. "Guys'll be HELPLESS when they see you" they'd said. She didn't think they were right. She was just cold. She rubbed her hands on her knees to warm herself.
He hooked another right, weaving into the wrong lane to avoid a stopped car and some skateboarders. One of them almost didn't make it out of his way. He recognized the skater, but couldn't stop to apologize. The engine deafened his mind to the unimportant.
"Where is he?"
This time it was a moving truck. He pushed into reverse. A couple pedestrians stopped to stare as he fishtailed his way back onto the main road. They looked at each other in disbelief as his taillights disappeared around the corner.
A crowd was gathering nearby. A jazz band struck up some standards. The air filled with the light breeze, leaves rustling, harmonizing with the band as the people talked and laughed, their words mingling with the saxophone's tenor drawl. She stood up once more, this time on the phone. The sounds around her drowned out the conversation. As she pocketed the phone, her eyes darted to the sound of an engine wheezing over the solo, glimmering again with anticipation.
He could smell something - like chalk, cooking oil, and plastic - was it the transmission? No time!
The wind carried the piercing tones to the back of her neck, now covered with a thin brown coat. Her eyes darkened. One more look - to make up her mind.
The supercharger screamed with the throbbing cylinders over the beat of his heart, the tires squealing to a halt just as the band called the song. There was to be no encore.
Can you change your mind?
My mind's a hoarder's house,
the general waste bit of the dump,
land revealed when the flood recedes,
carefully planted ideas sprout up
like bulbs, bloom, brown, die away,
so fast without you.
Peopled by forgotten faces sailing past
echoes long after tongues were stilled,
the evolving swamp of my perception,
you and me over-printed by encounters,
we're Russian dolls, selves inside selves,
yet once we used to fit so tight.
Can you - please?
My mind's now a search engine
focused on you, searing, your name
brings up your freezing hands
that day you gave me your gloves,
you redoing all my lopdiddy tiles, mouth
framing long months you don't take
my calls: here's what I did to you
buried on page four.
He roots through the rotting mound of
for half an hour in a smurr of rain,
hands burning with the cold,
stomach clenching with emptiness,
the stench of decay and failure
The booty after this shit-tip treasure-hunt?
A maggoty apple;
the near-flensed carcass of a fowl and
a hunk of damp bread, mottled with mould:
he intends to share this with his kin.
But he can always change his mind.
He's been in the freezer aisle at
Waitrose too long; still hasn't seen
anything he wants. He considers
scooting outside to the Range Rover
to grab his gilet, but at that moment
spies Massaman Prawn Thai Curry
and Smoked Salmon Risotto.
Chucks them both in the basket.
He takes a shortcut home which
aims him past their favourite
takeaway. On the approach he
fancies he can smell cardamom,
garlic, onions and coriander. He glances
at the shopping bag in the passenger seat,
then indicates left - before it's too late.
He can always change his mind.
His chest may heave and legs burn,
but that fades when juxtaposed
with the vigour
which sears from toe to scalp
as he jinks, swerves, feints and
draws back his foot...
to shoot? No, it's a pass, a neat-one-two
with Jimmy and then he's free to score.
He smacks the ball towards two girls in goal.
One, a shrieking, dirt-faced urchin, avoids it
but the other is
and it hits her
on her perfect nose.
She gives him a withering stare
over her cupped hand
as if to say
"I'll get you later."
And he's sure he will try to escape.
But he can always change his mind.
"Give me the controller!" is bleated
for the fifth time
but it is an older sibling's
right and pleasure to hold coveted
things always out of reach.
Tears threaten. Face contorts.
His laugh just gets wilder.
Even when trusted with childcare
duties for the first time, at sixteen.
Perhaps because the power has risen
to his noggin, or maybe promises
in the style of an adult, do not add up to
don't come home
huffing and still
He peruses the choices:
GTA 5, Fifa 19, Spiderman.
In the end he plumps for Fortnite.
Puts on the headset and sees Thomas
is already playing, on the other side of town.
But he can always change his mind.
Dad tells us why climate change is bullshit.
We eat and watch him teeter
along the edge of Occam’s razor, his faith
in the simplest explanation.
Climate change is too many things
for my father to believe in it.
He watches ice caps crack
like knuckles against palms,
while weathermen warn of record summers.
Papers print pictures of dead coral
and polar bears, but icons
soon turn cliché.
One hundred species die each day.
My ancestors fled from famine
from Ireland to London,
only to run again, to be Blitzed
I wonder where my children will flee to
and what from.
I wonder if there will be forgiveness
for a father’s sins
cast to his son.
You make my problem yours
Taking the complexity of my feelings
Describing them to me
So I no longer recognise them
My desire to be strong in your eyes
Makes me weak
Trying to shrug off your understanding of me
Like an old coat
Worn and heavy
It doesn’t fit
It never did
Standing in front of the en-suite’s shaving mirror, Gavin Standall flicks his hair first one way, then the other. It looks wrong whichever orientation he chooses. Sighing, he moves to the bed of the guest bedroom, giving his laid-out new clothes the once-over. He shakes his head. They’ve been selected by Ash in the latest ‘Dressed By My Wife’ range. Smart but utterly inoffensive. No flowers. No alarming splashes of colour. Clad only in boxers, he considers himself in the free-standing, full-length dress mirror. He doesn’t get the chance to see his body in its entirety, as it were, not in what he considers to be his normal life. He stands a bit taller, sucking in his stomach. Not bad, he thinks. You’re not a bad-looking chap, Gavster. Donning the anodyne shirt, he feels itchy; something around the back of the collar is irritating his skin. It looks smart though, and that is the main thing, tonight. Clothes maketh the man, said the bard, after all.
He wishes it were true.
A woman in her mid-twenties and a lemon cocktail dress appears over his shoulder in the reflection. “Are you coming down or what? You’ve been up here an eternity,” she says, pushing on to the doorframe so her chest is thrust forward. The pose is unsexy though, confrontational; her black hair coils on her shoulders with serpentine menace and she makes no effort to conceal the irritation on her face.
Gavin turns and looks at his wife; cracks a lazy grin. “Sorry babe. Got carried away with my reflection.” He smooths an eyebrow, pouts. “Can’t blame me though, can you?”
Aisling Standall, née Sable, rolls her eyes. “Narcissist. Come on.”
He walks over to her, ignoring the fact that she’s half-turned away from him and seems to be pointing at the floor as if he’s a wayward puppy that needs to be brought to heel. He casually grabs her by the waist and spins her round, pressing her close to him. She seems annoyed at first, tense, but quickly regains her poise and smiles a wicked smile, one eyebrow raised. Waiting. Waiting for a line.
He looks around the back of him to where her right hand is resting on his left buttock. He raises an eyebrow. Meets her eyes. “If you want to sample the goods, sweetheart, you have to ask nicely.”
“Is that what you tell your female students?” she asks, smart as a lash.
“That’s classified,” he jabs back. But he said it without thinking. It doesn’t really make sense, or connect with anything previous, and she’s not impressed. He blows out his cheeks, pretends to consider. “To be honest…as long as their parents have signed the blanket consent form at the start of the year…I don’t see the problem.” He stares at her, straight-faced. He’s pretty chuffed with that. It bodes well for later on.
Aisling pretends to be disgusted, but he knows she’s secretly pleased. If he’s on this kind of form, there’s less chance of brooding, jaw-clenching, inexorable silence over dinner with her family. She flicks her head towards the door, that snake-hair seeming to move independently of the action. “Come on,” she says again. “We’re all waiting.” She extricates herself.
“Can I at least get my trousers on?” he asks. “That is, providing I fit into them. You picked them, after all.”
“Of course,” says Ash, ignoring the jibe. “You also need to brush your teeth.” And with a brilliant smile, she twirls out of the doorway and down the stairs.
Gavin waits until she’s out of sight before cupping his hand around his nose and smelling his breath.
The first person to greet him downstairs is not his wife, but Jeremy, Ash’s eldest brother. He is in his early thirties, with a pinched face and thin, brushed back hair that’s a colour somewhere between dark grey and brown. Gavin suspects he dyes it. Jeremy’s not unfriendly, but considering he’s probably sunk about three beers already, he’s not exactly brimming with bonhomie, either. They talk about inconsequential things while the rest of the family bustle around them: where Gav went on his earlier run, what Antonia has cooked for dinner. It’s best to keep Jeremy on these small talk topics. Anything to avoid him mentioning how much he earned last year. Gavin also wants a beer, and as if summoned telepathically, Jeremy’s latest partner sashays over with a couple of drinks for them both.
“Thanks Patsy. I’ll have to add mind-reading to your considerable list of talents,’ Gavin says, taking his first delicious swig.
“It’s not difficult,” says Patsy in her cut-glass RP accent. “You’re a man. He’s a man.” She spreads her hands. “Beer. It’s not like I’m choosing which wine to go with Vincisgrassi. Here, have a beef-flavoured crisp.” And with that, she’s away, and Gav is left clutching a bowl of snacks she grabbed from a sideboard. He offers one to Jeremy, who declines. Gav mulls over a quip about Patsy, but all that comes to mind is a comparison to Jeremy’s ex-wife, and that will go down about as well as shitting in his beer.
A silence spreads between the two of them, like a bloom of algae in a cold lake. It’s all the more awkward for its juxtaposition with the braying and festive banter from the rest of the party. Gavin can see Marcus Sable, Ash’s dad, through in the distance in the lounge, pairing his anecdote with some quite raucous gestures. Gavin thinks, not for the first time, how is such a flamboyant man partly responsible for raising such staid, ossified sons? Lucky that Ash inherited at least a bit of his sparkle. There she is now, raising her eyebrows at him. It could mean, are you behaving? Or why aren’t you helping? Or how long does it take to brush your fecking teeth?
Gavin has managed exactly four beers by the time Antonia orchestrates them all around the giant oak dining table. He is larger, somehow. He feels crafty, pugilistic. For once, he reckons, he can take on this entitled collection of Sables, and win. As he seats himself, Ash on his left, Jeremy on his right, his attention is occupied by the table before him. It is immaculately and tastefully laid. Ranks of gleaming cutlery flank designer plates; shining tureens and earthenware bowls contain the evening’s many dishes, and three bottles of red wine are uncorked and sit at equal intervals down the spine of the table, like funnels on the Titanic. Gavin gratefully accepts Jeremy’s offer of the nearest. He loves the glock-glock-glock as it pours into his glass.
Spirits seems high from the outset, matching the magnificence of the table and the food. Wine is sunk. Crispin, a naval officer and Ash’s other brother, sits opposite Gavin. He is quietly working through his tapas methodically, almost surgically. Crispin does not allow two dishes to co-exist on his plate. Gavin, pretending to listen to Jeremy’s explanation of hedge-fund investment strategy, is fascinated and amused by Crispin’s strategic approach to dinner. Gav knocks back the wine, shovels in his own, varied feast and gawks at Crispin even wiping the paella-juice from his plate with some flatbread, cleaning it completely before spooning on some patatas bravas.
Suddenly, as happens at these occasions, all the conversations limp to a halt simultaneously. Just as this happens, Crispin snaps his gaze up to Gav. “Have you got nothing better to do than watch me eat? You’ve been at it for the past fifteen minutes at least.”
Gavin chortles, looks around the table as if for support. Can you believe this guy? Everyone seems to be waiting for Gavin to respond. Nettled, he decides to change the subject. “So, Crispin. Have you been up to much on ship these past few months? Any brushes with death?” Gav knows he won’t get much change out of Crispin; the chemical reaction when they met several years ago led to an inert substance akin to stagnant pond water. But the alcohol has made him bold. This time, he’ll get somewhere. Make a crack. Volunteer an interesting fact he saw in a National Geographic documentary once. Something.
Crispin chews slowly, reaches for his wine glass. He’s in no hurry. Nobody has resumed their conversation, but he doesn’t seem to mind the silence. In contrast, it screeches at Gavin’s brain, clawing his attention onto the void he seems to have created. “No,” Crispin says eventually, and places another forkful of chorizo and pepper salad into his mouth.
Gavin snorts, throwing a look at Ash. Can you believe this guy? But she isn’t playing; instead has a neutral expression on her face. Mild boredom, perhaps. He turns back to Crispin, but before he can challenge this arid response, Marcus Sable, now on his best behaviour, clears his throat. “Surely there some high-jinks in Morocco, Crispin? Thought you were looking forward to that?”
Crispin shakes his head. “Didn’t make it there, in the end.” Chews, sips. Stares impassively at his dad. At Gavin. As if to say, it’s not my fault there’s silence here.
“No? Did Sandy take on different orders? Charlie end up somewhere else?” This from Antonia, his mother. She looks as immaculate as the table, does the Professor of Egyptology and part-time wondercook. Alexander ‘Sandy’ Collingbrook is the captain of Crispin’s aircraft carrier, the Prince of Wales, affectionately known as ‘Charlie’.
Another head-shake from the terminator. “Nope. Charlie went to Africa, but I got…called away.” Now he looks down at his plate, suddenly the awkward one.
“Oh?” says Ash into the silence. “Another ship?”
“No,” says Crispin, and spears an olive. He’s not meeting anyone’s eye now. Bloody hell, thinks Gav. It’s harder than lighting a fire by rubbing sticks together. “I, er…got sent on a mission.”
“Cool!” explodes Gav. Everyone looks at him. “What?” he demands. “It’s cool! Ethan Hawke, Jack Ryan, all that.” Ash grimaces, but Gav careers on, picking up speed. “A mission. So, where was it? Did you get parachuted into Iraq? Have a refresher on your sidearms training? Ordered to take someone out?”
Crispin is looking at him now, barely concealing his disdain. He takes a long drink from his glass before answering. “It’s classified,” he says quietly.
Gavin erupts into laughter. “Shut up!” he roars. “Wait…good one!” he says, pointing at Crispin’s deadpan face as if to say, ‘aww, you got me!’ “Classified. Classic. All that Call of Duty Black Ops you’ve been playing on the ship – got you thinking it’s high stakes, yeah?”
“High stakes?” asks Crispin, frowning.
“Yeah! You’ve been in the Navy what, two years? You’re telling me you really can’t tell your own family about some desk-job mission in Baghdad? What are you going to do, single handedly take out the remains of Al-Queda?” Gav slaps the edge of the table.
“Gav!” hisses Ash.
“What?” Gav says, smiling at her, then looking around. Everyone is looking murderous, or incredulous, or just plain offended. It’s then he realises how far he’s gone.
“Ah. Right, right. Sorry. Sorry, Crispin. It’s just…it was funny from earlier. When you said, ‘it’s classified’, I realised that I’d said exactly the same thing to Ash upstairs. Funny coincidence, no? Except she was talking about me shagging some of the girls I teach. I mean, what’s going to be classified, if not that…”
From the Cold...
He tries to come in - betrayed
he lines his pockets with worn petals (daffodils)
renders (in the finest stone)
uneven shadows of buildings, he has passed for years
filling his old hiding place, with wisps of red stamped documents
He knows, that canines wait outside
knowing his smell
his gait, his furtive face
his undesirable friends
re-educated or dead, before this year ends
he will face them
unable to climb the wall
his handlers & enemies have built
cult like effigies swinging from it's parapets
their flags eating each other in the darkness
He was a secret
Black with pleading eyes
and a sniffling nose
he had to be hidden
Classified they called him
and it stuck
even as she saw him for the first time
and wept tears of remembering
he's so like Sammie'
she had said smiling and crying
'It's my Sammie'
Funny how she could remember the name of her first dog
but not that of her first born son
but he didn't mind
not any more
For now his only worry was how to get
Classi in and out
without the others seeing.
No pets they had said
He didn't care though
to see her smile
to see her eyes shine
and the dogs tail wag
was all that mattered.
His wife squeezed his hand later in the car
as Classi slept
in the back
worn out by all the fuss.
And his mother slept
in the home
with a tennis ball under her pillow
and the faintest of grins on her ninety three year old
paper thin face.
This is a classified window
For all of us who value the truth
Of democracy not dictation
By the bureaucrats
Of days gone by.
And yet, what are we to be
If not classified
According to race, creed, religion
And of course gender or otherwise
Disability or otherwise, surely.
Why not we?
Why do we not rise up in arms?
Awakened and free
Today and forever more
Together more? Not we.
Why now, not together more
Not just classified
Like our forefathers
Imprisoned in buildings
Or our bodies, forever more.
An Apology at the End of a Relationship
So I am lonely and wrong,
my mouth forms the words
like whales breaking the surface
of water, pink inside grey caves.
I’m an expanse of ocean
away from tipping my sorry
into your warm ear, my tears,
rivulet nose to chin, drop off.
I need to be cold and wet
because this mistake scalded me,
my skin crisped away from my flesh,
everything was rendered down
to spears, blubber, whales.
Just as our feelings
are meant to become
secret from each other, my regret,
this is classified,
not for you to know.
Endings are aggressive things,
seagull shrieks and swoops,
this sorry tears me so, yet
it must emerge
though you won't hear it.
I pass your plaque each morning.
Alan Turing; Code Breaker, Pioneer,
You lived in this country like a bird
nesting in the mouths of gargoyles.
I don’t know where your death is marked.
When a kiss splits my lips,
when a touch bruises skin,
I remember you.
When I feel the love of another man,
when I feel its urgency and joy,
I honour you.
'It's classified, I could tell you
but then I'd have to kill you'
but he's no Tom Cruise
as he swaggers round the bar
thinks he's the big I am.
He takes a call, finds a quiet
corner where he hunches
looks up every few seconds
to check if anyone's watching
because he wants them to watch.
'Every message I get on this device,'
he says to the woman by the bar
that he thinks the most gullible
'every message is encrypted
with military grade security.'
When her boyfriend returns
he snarls as if to say:'I'll get my own
back on you later, mate'
but he'll be sitting alone in the park
eating a greasy kebab
Out of a newspaper with words
that he doesn't understand
that takes a political stance
that he neither rejects nor accepts
because his views are classified.
ATTACK AND RECEIVE
Clicking with weapons and slimed with sweat,
We hurry headlong upon the fortified foe
Swimming through flames of the bog-ablaze peat
Spear-blades glitter in the shimmering heat
We strike: six hundred, seven and score
Plunging knee-deep through the octopus mire
Swarming up ladders at the palisade walls
Enemies pouring from the wattle-daub halls
And fire; javelins and sling stones fly
Zipping through the midges and the dragonflies
We crest the spikes and fall into a murderous scrum
Eleven hundred bodies in the smoke-red sun
Exhausted: sweat-slathered shields and pikes
Twist amid the soldiers with their splattering gore
The terrified, bellowing masses of men
Stabbing and slashing, wavering, then
Collapsing; the enemy is staggering over
My warriors advance upon the village in flames
I seize my foes' prince and kick him from his feet
Begging for his life through his chattering teeth
I accept: his servitude with nine score slaves
Added to my queendom with his sheep-shorn hills
He wails and crawls before me to his wattle-daub home
I receive my reward: his wicker-wove throne.
The Light Within
A glow from the lantern shows a promise of a tomorrow. Tonight, in the darkest of memories, one light exists for me. When I see more faces, I see more light shaping hope for each other. The strength of light from the lanterns in a procession accentuates the love and comfort received. Those paper lanterns mean the festival is once again alive in this town that has survived a mass shooting. I can't put off those ugly memories that eat into my life. But there's a need for me to move on.
Holding my sky lantern slightly above my head, I see its mellow light dancing inside a bamboo frame. But I need to see the light on your face especially in your eyes. I look for you in the crowd. I look for you in the alley, but I only see black cats stretching their legs and yawning under a street light. The darker side of the night is on my back with sombre clouds trying to creep up behind me. Images of you sheltering me keep flashing on my mind. The bloody attack on students in the school cafeteria should not have occurred. I feel an anxiety attack coming on. I just need you to hold me close to your chest. I just cannot find you when I need you the most.
A fortnight ago, he pointed his gun at Christopher who had never harmed anyone in his life, not even a fly. He was not a stranger. He was just another student whose philosophy of life juxtaposed Christopher's candour. He was suspended from school for misconduct. And he came back with a rage that took the lives of my seven schoolmates. He shot Christopher with the first bullet grazing his skull and the second penetrating his heart. It was a bloody sight.
The attack is still vivid on my mind as if it had just happened. I stare at my trembling hands. I was under a table hanging on to my dear life. He had seen me with his cold eyes and he held his gun in both hands aiming at me. Christopher's lifeless body laid behind him. You stood up and faced him. You whispered to me to lie low while you engaged in a conversation with him. You confronted him fearlessly while I was shaking like a leaf on a tree whipped by wind in a storm. I could sense the numbness in my feet.
It was a chaotic sight with students fleeing to take cover with food trays dropping, chocolate milk spilling and corn on the cob being squashed. I caught sight of his smirk smile as he approached you. He stopped a rolling red apple with his soiled black boots. He could have just shot you there wincing from an emotional pain after the death of his mother.
You called him by his name. Both of you belonged to the school computer club. You once told me that he was a geek, rarely engaging with others and that he preferred to be alone. You attended his mother's funeral, and you said that it was odd that he wore a straight face, showing no emotion at all throughout the ceremony. I told you that people mourned differently. We never spoke of him again. When you mentioned his mother to him, he broke down right there at the cafeteria, but the gun was still held firmly in his right hand.
"She was all I had!"
"I'm sure she was a beautiful person."
"Yeah, she was."
"I'm going to see her real soon!"
"Put down your weapon!". I heard a voice of authority. I could not see the face.
"On the count of three, throw down your gun!", said the police officer.
He went berserk.
The police took control of the situation. Officers from the forensic department counted the bodies. After the heartless attack, I received news that you left with no traceable address.
Letting go of my lantern in the night sky, I see it glowing like the other hundred lanterns. I hope mine reaches heaven so that you would receive my heartfelt thanks for saving my life in the attack. I feel a radiant joy in my heart.
In a small town on the northern coast of France, two street performers lean on a rail of clothes two minutes before the start of their show. He takes a bright red dress and holds the hanger in front of his face but his eyes say 'this would look good on you'. She stretches out her index finger and moves it from side to side, and frowns theatrically. He takes a tiny pan and brush and scours the roped performance area for small pebbles and grit, fragments of daily life. She purses her lips and tilts her head because she finds this funny. He's not impressed. He takes a plate of peanuts and hands them out to the waiting audience, reaching as far over the rope as he can without falling. She mimes pushing him into the second row. She taps him on the shoulder and passes him a maroon tie, the sort he might have worn at school, which he knots roughly in a practised manner. She smiles then mouths 'no', loosens and removes the tie, then replaces it on the rack. He picks up a mirror to check his face. She places her hand on the back of his shoulder and pulls her green ballet shoes over her heels, running her finger around the edge of each shoe to ensure a perfect fit. He ducks but she catches herself. She walks over to the record player and puts on an old jive tune. She smiles. He smiles. They go behind opposite ends of the clothes rail and when they emerge they are perfectly in time, mirror images of each other's movements.
Red Poppy Boy (gets what's coming to him)
Out on the streets
keeping your head down
staying hid after dark
until the pain poured through
until you got that street baptism
& seeds fell on you, like holy water
growing a hypnotic sleep in you
Now yeah yeah your like all the rest
an A1 stealer
all state receiver
a total syringe believer
fulfilling everything they said, at your birth
as your mother shook
Tracked forever by those blue flashing lights
your inky fingers spread
reprocessed front & side
attacking attacking, denying denying
A slope they called it
But they weren't running were they.
On and on
Up and up
The last water gone
with nothing left
except blisters, cramp,
tiredness beyond enduring
inch by inch
lamp post by lamp post
until the road levelled
and a sea breeze
cheered as beautifully as the crowd.
So I attacked
with all my 'I can do this'
as the line began to call
and I received a medal
The Great North Run
To die for …......
As I approach the finish line all I can see is Jed. He's shouting something but it's so loud I can't tell what. I can hardly think and I don't want to look to my left, to see if the person next to me is still level or if I've passed her. If we're level, we die. If I've passed her, she dies. If she's passed me, I die. Only One Winner, claims the banner and they mean it. Two winners means nothing. You can fight and fight to the very end but if you cross together... one of you dies. If you can take out the person with the grip on you at the very end... you claim riches beyond imagination. Safety. Freedom from hunger. Everything.
In Jed's eyes I see fear. I see terror. I turn, finally, forcing myself to look. She is exactly next to me, every fibre of her being matching every fibre of mine. Every movement. There is no rule to say I can't still attack her. But we are so close to the end - if I miss, I could fall, and she'd win.
The Guards have their weapons ready.
I fix my Semi eyes on the Guard at the front. His weapon is trained on me. Right on me. His finger, I can see, is straining on the trigger. And I see there is a Guard next to him, with his weapon trained on her, the woman next to me. I fix my eyes on Jed's, and I push myself as hard as I can, harder, harder, reaching for him.
The Guard's eyes are on me.
My life, such as it ever was, flashes backwards, streams out behind me.
For a second, she's ahead of me, but I launch myself at her and drag leg, legs first, to the ground. Every bit of me hurts, every part of me wants to give up. But I bring her down and I get up and I run on. I hear her grunting behind me and I know I am ahead, for the very first time. I turn, and this is my mistake. Something hits me square between the eyes and I feel myself thrown sideways. I believe I'm shot for a second, before seeing what's in her hands: rocks she's picked up from the path around us.
Crowds close in. I fight my way back to the surface, I haul myself up and I stand and I run. We are level. I can feel her breathing, changing the molecules of the air around me. Stealing my oxygen.
The roaring around me intensifies. People yelling, everywhere. Jed's family will be watching this in the bar. They didn't want to be here. Only Jed travelled with me. Jed who I'm doing this for. Jed, who will lose me if I don't win. Jed, who will lose.
The clock changes as I pass underneath. Screaming around me gets louder and I see why - the woman who overtook us (when there was still an us) is within my sight. She is stumbling, but her arms are raised. Celebrating early? Fool, I think. It's just she, and I. She is in the way of me winning. I feel my legs charge forwards, pulling the rest of me. My training has paid off - all of the pain, all of the effort is worth this ability to speed up, right when I need it.
I go as fast as I can, climb the wall, down the other side, over the water crossing, and up the other side. I catch her. She claws the air behind me - I swear I feel her fingers like ghosts as she misses.
I go, faster and faster. I hear her screech of anger and she launches herself after me. This is what neither of us wants. Two of us means-
Lungs are burning. Players have fallen all around and been held down, for one, two, three minutes. What happens is this: You bring someone down, keep them down and when you rise, they stay there. They have to. It's the rules. Then a Guard comes up and shoots them with that weapon; the one that wipes us out. Switches us off. Makes us nothing but a pile of organic scrap. But we all play the game. If you fall or are brought down for more than five seconds, you have to stay there. It's the rules. Only once, last Race, did someone try to run. It wasn't good, what happened. Rules are there to protect us.
And we don't break the rules. Except Jed and I. We have broken the rules. But nobody knows this. As far as the world knows, Jed is my owner. I am his worker. It is for Jed I race. Jed who owns nothing except me, and who is struggling with the payments as it is. Jed who has family in the red zones, who wants to get them out before they die. He clawed his way to the green zone but his time's almost up. Miss one more rental, and he's out. And the rental is due next week.
People say we Semis can't think, you know? Well listen. Listen to my thoughts as I run for my life - whatever it is - and Jed's life. I love Jed. It's not allowed, but I love him. It feels real. It feels like all the people describe.
Semis and People aren't allowed to do what we do. Jed says I am as real as he is. Make of that what you will...
I'm in the middle of the pack. I've kicked off several attackers. Nobody can bring me down because I'm strong. I've brought down several. No remorse, It's them or me. Them or Jed. I'm his only chance. For the last hour it's been a battle over obstacles and a battle over myself. I beat myself and I focus and I run. And I run.
The starting pistol is a foreshadow of the weapons that would take us down. It's a pop in the air, a crack and a pop and a bang, but not innocent like those sounds can be. A gunshot like the ones they hunt with. It's the thing we are most afraid of; a weapon that wipes us out. We begin and I focus on not dying. On staying here. Staying in the Game.
The biggest difference is that we don't sleep. To the trained eye you can tell us apart, but it's subtle, as we look as different from one another as People do. But we don't need to sleep. That's why we were made: we do the jobs that People don't want to do, at night, as they sleep. Only those in the green zones and upwards can own us. We're a privilege, a gift, something to be proud of.
Jed was given me by his employer, for meeting a bunch of targets. Right away, there was something. I felt it and he feels it. I work for him. I do everything he doesn't want or have to do. And if I'm finished, I learn and I train.
Several years ago, somebody dreamt up the Games. We race, and the winner gets everything. The losers die - although they don't say it like that, the games organisers. They say terminated. We are terminated if we lose. But one wins, and if she's the winner, her owner gets everything. That's how Jed described it to me. Everything, for himself and for his family.
Jed has taught me old world words like 'sexist'. It's why you're all female, he says. Sexist. There should be men-Semis as well. But the world developed like this and we 're created female and it doesn't bother me, not at all. It bothers none of us, actually. But it seems to bother more and more of the People.
These are what my thoughts are like before the Race. So that I don't have to think about Jed and what will happen if I die.
People say we can't think, beyond what we're programmed to do. Try listening to my head, I want to tell them. Not only do I have conscious thought, I have the capacity for love. And I love Jed. That's why I'm doing this.
Less than an hour to go til we start.
ATTACK and RECEIVE
Lady Bellamy wore diamonds.
"No well born gel would choose anything else!" She paused, "Of course, if he offered matched pearls that would be nice too!"
Jenny sat mute. How could she tell her mother what Jack had given her?
"But there are lots of other lovely jewels!"
"Such as? "
The interjection stifled any reply. How could a ruby ring match up to her standards? But Jack was so sweet and kind. He looked so dashing in his scarlet unifom and he swore eternal love. Anyway, the ring was the envy of the other girls.
"I hope you bear in mind the family name? Your father was a dear man and died in the service of our Queen. You must never forget he was 'The Hero of Mafeking.'
"No Mama, I think of it daily! How could I forget when you remind me every hour!"
"Go to, you pert child! Such common instincts! You'd do better to emulate the sweet young Dora who is the picture of decorum and virtue. Besides, she's the daughter of an Earl."
That meant a lot to Lady Bellamy, the widow of a mere baronet.
Jenny ran upstairs to her bedroom and sat down at her dressing table. A petulant image looked back at her. What could she do? Her fingers crept unbidden to the secret draw where she kept her most precious things. The ruby ring sat there nestled in its little mahogany box.
She jumped with fright. Dorcas, her maid stood at her elbow.
"Sorry Miss, I couldn't stop myself! It's lovely isn't it?"
"Don't tell Mama! She doesn't know I have it."
'Course I won't! Be more than my place's worth. And he's a lovely young man!"
"Do you think so? Yes, and he admires me so!"
For a moment, Jenny forgot herself and exchanged her inner most thoughts with her maid; the gifts he sent her and how they met secretly. All the while Dorcas smiled and encouraged her to talk. Soon conversation turned to her mother's resistance.
"Her Ladyship is a very firm lady. And she needs to be."
Jenny looked askance at her . "What do you mean?"
"It's no matter." Said Dorcas.
"Yes it is! You must tell me at once! Why should my mother be 'firm,' as you say?"
"Well, I don't know hows to put it," The old lady paused, uncertain how to go on, "mayhap she feels tardy about the past."
"About the past? Tardy? You know something to make my mother 'Firm'?"
Dorcas fidgeted; her fingers twisting her apron strings into a hopeless knot.
"Well my cousin Nancy came with her when she wed
"Yes I know, but this was before my time and the girl never stayed long. I know all that."
"Too true, she never stayed long! Your mother was firm indeed!"
"What do you mean? Out with it!"
Dorcas looked down and the last shade of a blush tinged her faded cheeks.
"Nancy was her dressing maid, like me to you. And she kept your Ma's jewellery from before she married. When she left, she was given all your mother's old jewellery, to be rid of."
" Nancy kept the best bit which was a garnet on a pewter ring. Not even silver!"
Jenny sat mute for a long time, then she spoke in quiet voice. "Who has the ring now?"
Dorcas said nothing but left the room. Within a minute, she was back and handed a small cardboard box to her mistress. Inside wrapped in brown paper sat a steel coloured ring with a crimson stone.
"Happen you might want it yourself?" Jenny nodded and without a word, took the ring and slipped it onto her finger, it fitted perfectly.
That evening, guests were invited. Lady Bellamy enjoyed her reputation as a hostess. The Fanshaws were there and most of the county families were represented at the table. Jenny came down after they had arrived. She looked dazzling in an evening dress of white silk and long white gloves.
"My Dear! What kept you so long? The guests have already arrived. Where were you?"
Jenny smiled. "I misplaced my gloves." She said, and moved to greet Bertie Fanshaw. Her mother's eyes followed her as she drew off her gloves to give her hand to him. The cheap garnet ring glittered in the candlelight.
"My Word! Where did you get this ring?" Bertie held her hand up for all to see.
Jenny smiled and turned to her mother.
"It's a family heirloom, isn't it Mother?"
Earth under siege:
We notice that the meadows grieve
Each summer that the swallows’ swoop
Is interrupted by the new-felled trees
Missing the myriad glint of insects dancing.
Yet we, inheritors, receive
As if the fruits need poisoned by our touch
And would not grow themselves
-Or by the hand of God if you believe-
Fruition may be freely given:
Climb up a northern hill
The constant blaeberries!
Blue fingered fruits sweet on the tongue...
My easy life
Jumped at me
A long year back
First people of the land , Dakota,
Gathering as they need,
Fight water’s safety
For our whole earth’s balance
Held for untold years
Despite the devastation of the plunder
Of an unthinking younger brother...
Oil slides to soil their rivers now.
I weep my futile tears
As they...they fight my cause
A cause they don’t deserve to have to fight
Or I deserve to win...
That was never a fight
Before this measured time
Simply a way to love to serve in safety.
My childhood sacred text instructs
The guardianship of kings
That cares for
We –with our plastic-toys,
Bombs that kill the earth with the children-
We have lost the way.
That in these darkening days
The visioned may prevail-
The earth itself deserves your ways.
Beside the wire the driven fields are stabbed,
A thousand daggers ranked against the soil.
No room for poppies here, or swifts, or voles
To find a shelter in the busy wheat .
An upturned mistle-thrush lies where it lived.
A small child told me solemnly
How caterpillars have no place
“Because I farm and they eat up our food”.
At six ,an eyebrow raised
At thoughts that they might share.
I tramp the barren tracks
The tractors made
And wonder how we turned
The giving earth our slave:
Packed earth admits no green
From this assault comes sweetest bread to share,
The joy of porridge at the winter’s table.
My place is fortunate, is laid.
The aching land keeps yielding harvest home.
And so I get
To walk beside the promised peaceful waters.
We build our hope, our gains are set
Against the famine that we might not meet,
We kill, we pray,
We thank what gods we may
“So hit him back” my Dad said.
I didn’t fancy that idea.
But I was fed up with picked on by Grimes, the tall boy with the pimples and the grey skin like he’d escaped from the graveyard. I suspected the mud on his shoes was from his very own grave.
So, the next day, I faced up to him.
“He’ll respect you for it” Dad said. “You hit him back, he’ll not do it again. Neither will anyone else, they won’t fancy being hit, either.”
Dad’s words seemed far away as I looked Grimes in the eye. He was tall, I was small. I felt even smaller than usual.
His eyes had a strange expression in them, amusement, slight interest.
“So what you looking at?” he said to me, half sideways to his cronies who smirked and stared me in the eye, in a small circle.
Between their sweaty heads I could see the rest of the playground, life carrying on as usual, ignorant of my little world crowded in here amongst these humid beings.
What would Dad say now? So, “You, I guess”, I replied to Grimes.
“You guess? You couldn’t guess your way out of a paper bag.”
Grimes continued mumbling, inconsequential meanderings, the cronies sniggering at his non-clever comments.
Then, the inevitable “So do you know what I’m going to do to you now?”
Whether I answered yes or no was of little consequence.
I decided I would let him hit me first. After all it was wrong to be the one to hit first.
But, I also decided, on the spur of the moment, that I was fed up with being hit.
So I hit him.
I hit him as hard as I could, the way they do in the action films, arm flung back, then follow through on the forward swing with my full weight, crack into the jaw. My fist exploded with pain and for a moment his eyes registered surprise. Then, he laughed. He had not been thrown back through the window of the classroom to fall to the ground two storeys below, outside beyond the shattered glass. He had not even fallen backwards. He had not even given me the satisfaction of just slightly rocking on his feet.
He just looked at me.
He was going to hit me.
So I hit him.
And still he stood there, no reaction. There was no satisfying blood, no terrifying crack of bone.
He was really going to hit me now.
So I hit him again, and again.
I rained blows against his head. He chuckled. His bony chin, his pointed nose, were sharp on my soft fist. My little, soft fist burned and my knuckles shrieked in pain.
I stopped, breathing hard.
He was going to kill me.
He turned to his cronies. He said, “Did you see that, boys?”
They grinned and nodded their heads, silently.
“He attacked me. He shouldn’t have done that, should he boys?”
They grinned and nodded their heads, silently.
No, he was not going to kill me.
No, not him.
He was walking away, hands jauntily in pockets.
I was left alone, facing the cronies.
He didn’t need to hit me, with his cronies there. He didn’t need to dirty his hands, with his friends to do the dirty work for him. His own delicate hands would remain undamaged.
They, his friends, his sweaty friends, advanced towards me.
That’s the last time I take my Dad’s advice.
“Why do you always have to leave crumbs in the butter? Is it really so difficult to remember to scoop them out when you’ve finished making your sandwiches? And can’t you empty the bins when they’re full? I do all the cooking and the washing up and the laundry on a daily basis, on top of my job. Is it really so much to expect you to complete your one chore regularly? Last summer, when we had that maggot infestation because it was so hot and the bin wasn’t emptied, who was it who had to deal with it? Me, of course! The toilet seat was up again when I went into the bathroom just now. You know how much I hate having to put it down before I go. Can’t you just remember to do it? And you left the window open again. If it had rained overnight, the upstairs flat’s overflow pipe would have flooded right into our bathroom. And then the downstairs neighbours would have been on to us to pay for their repairs. It’s not like it’s difficult to shut the window before you come to bed, is it? Speaking of which, do you really have to make so much noise when you finally decided to go to sleep at 2am? You know how light a sleeper I am, and it takes me such a long time to get back to sleep once you’ve woken me up. It doesn’t help that I have to listen to your snoring while I’m staring at the ceiling. And I tripped over your shoes again when I was getting ready for work this morning. Why do you have to put them exactly in my way? Isn’t there somewhere else they could go?
“And speaking of things being out of place, what’s this envelope doing on the dining table? Is it something you’ve forgotten to post? Not a bill, I hope. I don’t want an angry letter from the electricity supplier because you’ve failed to send a payment. Why are you grinning at my like that? What’s so funny about not keeping up with the bills? Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’ll just open it and see for myself, shall I? What’s this? Tickets for something? A two week Scandinavian cruise? Oh my god, really? And what’s this note with it? ‘I know you’ve been having a tough time lately with your brother being in the hospital, so I thought some time away would be in order now that he’s better again.’ Wow, that’s amazing! You’re so good to me! I don’t deserve you, really I don’t.”
Escaping to Mars
Copy and paste the stars
Coral reef's dead
3 d print one instead.
Attack and receive,
What’s that aroma?
Park after dark
Not hurricane ready?
Get out or hold steady.
Draft dodgers remarks
Only for laughs
From sessions intentions
When shall we leave?
And enter the forest
All that’s forsaken
Ailing capital nation
Won’t pay her workers
Never ending furloughs
Attack and receive
If you're paying attention
Just click donation.
His words are on mine, pushing violently against the screen. The tension is enough to make my phone crack - but it doesn't.
I want you.
All of you.
Lungs feel crushed under miles of arousal. Room tastes of hot stars. We are not allowed.
I receive these attacks, these forceful blasts of passion, because what else can I do? What else can we be?
It's like this for hours, vowels pushing up into the glass, lightning fast. Forbidden.
My thumbs work double-time, pushing hard against the touchscreen that can't be touched hard enough. The deeper I press, the deeper I NEED to press.
I want to ...
... so hard that ...
Glass flies up into my face. Eye whites bleed. Nose stings. Lips suffer.
I wanted this. I wanted this.
His barrage of words strikes like a snake
as she turns her soft ear towards his
list of petty charges, tasks undone,
nods as if giving his complaints weight,
her possessions grasped in an everyday mugging,
she gifts him more.
He invades her space, steps on her toes
she can't match his dance, shrinks at each touch,
his onslaughts are unprovoked but
she has forgotten how to take offence
or shelter from what is now a blitz
her soul shrapnelled before the killer blow.
Little mother, dear sister, beloved daughter,
the kindest of friends, broken, possessed,
he’s made this martyr, this furtive shadow,
a scurrowing thing - his perfect wife.
Mother, you grew me from a tiny seed
You'd sacrifice a meal so I could feed
You gave me the air to let me breathe
The person I turn to in times of need.
Mother, how on earth can I thank you
For all the selfless things that you do
Not giving up on me, seeing this through
Planting a foundation, on which our love grew.
You were my medication
Without any hesitation
My saviour, my salvation.
Never did you give up on me
The good in me you forever see
Just like you, I long to be
You gave to me my heart's key.
If the sky was dark you'd make it bright
When I couldn't see you gave me sight
If I surrendered you'd make sure I fight
When my tears fell you'd hold me tight.
Mother, you showed me right from wrong
Held my hand down the road so long
The bond we share has grown so strong
In the hall of best Mom's you do belong.
When my tears fell like autumn rain
You'd dry them all to ease my pain
Washing my worries down the drain
At times, your own feelings you'd feign.
One fine day when you are here no more
I know you'll be waiting at heavens door
The sunshine in the sky will forever soar
My mother, gave me love from her very core.
Come with me, out
the winter shadows encroaching
but we still have time
ticking ticking, to plant
Let me see your hands, like mine
calloused from previous failures
But we still remember, a fierce scented garden
fruits heavy, lush vegetation
& us, our arms outstretched
touching the endless sun
GONE TO SEED
It was all but a wilderness. Where once grass had grown, pristine and proud, flanked by bordered beds whose obedient shrubs stayed dutifully within their allocated square of soil.
Birds had flocked to feed and children laughed as they had looked for newts and fish who swirled and swam in ponds protected by a heron made of plastic.
Roses rambled carefully against wall and trellis and butts collected water when it rained. Tomatoes never failed and plums aplenty fell in time for jam as runner beans fed family and friends and even won a prize that year when....
When did it go to seed?
When did clarity get swamped by weeds of fear and snails slither over all the leaves of certainty?
When did colours blur, blooms die and fragrance fade beyond recalling?
When did blight begin to bite and bindweed choke and why can't I remember when the garden started failing.
And Dementia dug in roots and thrived.
Whatcha whatcha watcha. Haha. Ha ha.. ha ha!
Get away from there. You don't belong here, you.
His hair was gone from the top of his head, and the grey strands that remained upon its sides were not easily distinguished from the dust in the room. A grandfather clock ticked in one corner, the only thing that still existed from the time before. I had made sure to wind it, it was my only task beside that of the feeding. But now this stranger had come, this dark thing which shone my situation clearly upon me: for how perfectly he fit. I wished he would go away.
'Don't touch the glass.'
His face turned and I pulled back from the sight. He frightened me, and I was no longer in charge of my own room.
He raised his claw and I scurried away, into the dust cupboards left untouched. I began to weep.
'There, there, pal,' he said. I wondered if he wanted to call me large, but that would have been too much a compliment. If he were candy he'd be not the type to say it. If he were candy...
'Ha ha ha! You're pretty deep, and going deeper,' it said.
It did not mind existing here, maybe it was better than the place it had come from. But why did it have to come. Things were becoming worse than before. Things were beyond redemption! Why did I stay so long?..
It wasn't Mary's death that brought me here. I was bad before then, and I didn't get much worse after- I don't think. I stopped going out, I remember that much. I never went out again, not even to her funeral. I feel like I should have gone, but there was no question of it. I gave up, I came into the basement, I went dark far away from the old stuff. I ran away, and I stayed here. The light from the top of the staircase, from the little triangular window, frightens me. The wood all along the staircase if frightening. I don't go near it. I stay in my corner, near the desk where the computer sits and used to work. Behind the meshed rolling chair I hide in the cramped space beneath the desk, sometimes looking at the wood to shield my eyes.
But now that new one is here. He has long claws, and he doesn't mind being here. I think he likes it. He doesn't want to leave. I saw him lighting a pipe, but he looked at me and I pawed up against the back of the desk. I don't know how often he uses it. Most of the time he doesn't move, I don't think. But it's hard to tell when I don't look. He has frightening eyes, and he's a killer. I can't die like this, can I? No, no, no no no. mmm. Why did he have to come? I needed more time...
He ripped me forth yesterday, or the day before. He stuck a white needle in my arm, injected me with drops of his foul mixture. I struggled hard, and the needle pierced deep into my arm, not releasing its content but ripping and twisting inside. I screamed horribly, twisting and flailing in jagged pain. It was horrid, horrid. I'm still out of breath.
The thought of escaping him to the surface is unthinkable. First I would need to escape him, and he would surely lunge at me as I went. Then was the staircase and the kitchen. No... I caught a glimpse of him when his back was turned. His skin is brown and grey, like mine, but he hunches more, and he isn't afraid. He moves in ugly ways, not caring if I see. When he notices me he flings toward me, and oh how I hate the sight. I wish he would go away. I really wish he would go go go away... But he won't... I can't look around, I can only watch the wood of the desk and the bit of grey floor beneath. Noises shudder through me, and when I let me head vibrate against the wood it soothes me.
Winter is coming
We spend the last days, lifting dead things
a sign of things to come
you nod distracted
in the corner cattle gather nervous
their breaths cooling the branches of a dying sycamore
We walk slowly to the house
behind the walled orchard
crows feed on fruit, left too long in the autumn air
In the yard all is oil, grit & old tyres
but we know soon, vast clouds will come
drowning our fierce black soil
leaving us alone, seeded in our own damp thoughts
In rooms eaten dark, by endless winter
The wind blows. The shadows darken. Night begins to fall.
A seed drifts on the breeze, skittering and skirling on its wayward path. There is nowhere here for it to take root. The city sprawls in every direction, offering only tarmac and concrete as a bed. The seed starts to drop, but another gust of wind give its flight new life and it carries on its journey.
The seed had no agency. It is at the mercy of the elements. It can only go where it is taken, land where it falls. It takes each flurry and twist as it comes, never questioning its fate or struggling against the forces that shape its movements. It does not know where it will eventually come to rest, nor does it care.
Nature has a purpose, but this seed is unlikely to fulfil it. That doesn’t stop its progress through the twilight, though. It floats on, ready to burst forth in all its tremendous potential if given the slightest chance. All it needs is a crack in the pavement, a sharp left turn towards the park, a bird to snatch it from the air and deposit it later somewhere life might find a way.
Watch the tiny seed as it wends its way. Invest in its future. For, if such a tiny thing can survive in this hostile world, surely there is hope for us all.
Like Penelope, each home I weave
is soon unpicked.
It is difficult to live young
and uninterrupted in this city
when you are pushed to new places,
your relationships as sudden and consuming
as algal blooms, as delicate
I can’t say we’ll meet again;
a fact we spent weeks with.
We hoped knowing would be enough
to turn our aches lukewarm
like tea left too long to cool.
When I hesitate at the door
you tell me heartbreak is a fever,
that I need to starve
to break it.
You found me at a time I needed to be found.
I found you at a time you were broken.
Two broken puzzle pieces that could not fit until mended,
but where's the glue?
I found mine but my glue cannot work on you.
You found my core and you took a seat.
You left your print with permanent pen and said see ya later.
I tried to erase that pen but it didn't come off.
I tried to erase that pen with another pen by colouring over it but that pen rubbed off.
That pen was weak.
You found my weakness and I found yours.
I read books and my weakness became my strength.
You let your weakness define you to the point of destruction.
You found excuses and I believed them.
I found a way out before I sank.
~ Grown Siblings / Arriving at Everything ~
Your first words were also mine,
Found near the tree, in the mud,
Given up to be polished and smoothened
In our Celtic flesh and blood,
Until moods broke across our rooms,
Thrashing waves, a high bright moon,
Then the floating and sinking,
The cigarettes and the drinking
Raised us up, eyes closed tight -
Oh! Awoke us to horror of the night.
Grown now, I see your knotted face,
Folded in secrets from this unwinnable race,
Our empire fallen, things put up again,
Smiles mounted to reach the other's unknown game,
I want to see you though, by the copper beech tree,
When I was you and you were me,
Just before you caught the butterfly, or did I?
All above us our secret sun-moon sky,
Once more, among the fallen autumn seeds,
Before I went to get a jar as you set the insect free.
Gone To Seed...
I'm looking into the distance, yet see now view,
I am clenching my fists but feel nothing but air escape my lonely fingers,
My strength has filtered through my pores and left me.
What's beating in my chest is cold and displaced,
Broken pieces crumble, rattling around the cage that is my ribs.
A prison of pain and trapped emotion.
I have lost myself. I have gone to seed.
There's an ache somewhere - I cant explain it. Crippling my senses.
I smell only burnt feelings; an ash of a once fiercely burning fire.
I hear only emptiness, the echo of a silent scream.
I taste only regret and bitterness; a self mutilation.
My feet beneath me provide little support to their weeping corpse,
Connected to bones that are weak - brittle.
I am walking into the distance, no path, no direction.
Yet... I am standing still.
Someone She Used to Be
Her parched naked skin
sat helpless like a hapless
torn, tattered brown dress
drooping, sagging worn out breasts
that once a soldier's, husband's
fiery, brooding nest
swung lowly, lonely haggered
without the marked respect they once wore.
Her bony fingers fallen like Autumn leaves
lay wrinkled and lifeless on her unmoving lap.
Fragile, feeble feet barely touch the floor
that once she trod with trying trepidation
and danced daintily with glee
when her husband returned from war.
Eyes once a glistening, glowing grey
now lulled soulless, lost
in transition of a life once lived
to one demising into a diminishing memory,
a glint of someone she used to be.
It seems my ways don’t suit you said
packing your mournful expression
into my old, ripped bag
thrown over your shoulder
both of you familiar but
bolted, gone to seed.
Like the words I wanted to spew out,
embed in your flesh
but I could not mouth them
while they still burnt.
You must have struggled
getting free of me
you aren’t big enough
to make this hole.
Even in the stretched afternoons
when we lay bellies exposed
our needs nestled
like sleeping puppies.
You offered yourself knowing
your core was empty, blown away
only your outside was entire.
Streamed in then out
pledging tidal permanence.
You lay me down
if I struggle at all
it submerges me.
Taking your time decoding/coding every line
url smile is oh so alphanumeric
as you break & infiltrate
slithering down snakes n ladders
talking that machine talk, to your friends
your zero ones
Reprogramming history, the present
relegating voices to still mediaeval forests
de-sending the written Word
You rising are the future
have total control
I test it every day, every hour. The way it responds to sound, light, trauma. The taste of food and sadness. The smell of wine and insincerity. Traffic and souls breaking. Sometimes, red is the colour of him leaving, sometimes rust. Scraping noises can initiate childhood, while buttery textures press heavily on the most unwanted parts of time. All these hours, these responses, these causes. Cores. These sharp cores of memory, reaction. This core is like the core of a fruit, but sweeter, stronger, deeper - distressingly - and shimmers in the gold of night. It goes like this:
suffer in pools of dim light
or flashing darkness
See how it works? I test it every day, every hour. This machine inside that can't be a machine because how can something industrial feel like stars with scalpels set on fire that twist maniacally through every organ with flesh still intact? How am I intact? They say it's the brain so why do I feel it
Songs play at 2am in venues lit with dreams. Dreams are an accelerant. They light the starry sky of consciousness. They accelerate. People rust in private places. I am a person. I am a place. The site is not being tested, it is being lived.
The tests are not tests. They are in-breaths of lash curls and coffee dates. Splinters of sleep and corners of a sentence I'll never recall. You can't test something so unstable.
At 22:37, I feel alive. All these perfect syllables.
TESTING THE SITE
Hushed mutters as the wise woman arrived
Head in antler helmet, wrapped in rags of
Hare skins, feet leather-clad,
The crowd settled and stared
She gestured and a brand of ash,
Smoking and gleaming red in the glooming dusk,
Was passed to her hand
Streaming a line of smoke behind
She hunched, and silence spread
As she huffed breath on the ember, and sparks
Flew from her fingers: white-gold first, then amber,
Scarlet, violet, grass-green fire
That whirled and twisted thrice around her,
Probed the grassy flattened heathers
Tested, tasted, hither-thither
Sought for magic in the rain-damp meadows
Testing the site for spirits
Testing for gods and goblins
(The old farm withered so the family'd moved
To the heathery hills by the gushing river)
The sparks settled and the field fell to dark
But one spark, emerald-bright, sputtered
And the ground shivered, opening dark
A woman’s pallid face peered from the earth
The crowd gasped, but the wise woman stilled
Them with a wave and signalled a huntsman
To approach, a clutch of pheasants by the throat;
She seized one and flicked a blade from her rags
Slashing the dead bird and splattering blood
To the night-blackening grass
She bowed, murmuring in the tongue of the dead
To the peering lady in the earth
The woman within blinked assent, vanished,
And the turfs sealed. The wise woman sighed,
Staggered slightly and steadied herself
The huntsman rushed to spill a cup of water on her
Bloodied fingers and then
She pointed to the soil and spoke:
‘One sleeps here who would not be woke,
Spill blood each new moon and her wrath
‘Will be stilled. Your family are safe
In this heathery field.’
The crowd relaxed like a loosening bow
And chattered, moving to and fro
To their tools of bronze and stone
For the wattle and thatch
And by the rising star-light
They raised the home’s timbers.
In her mind, she was never going to be ready. As the train passed by the estuary, the knot in her stomach tightened, and the earache she’d been suffering from since that morning flared. What was she doing? The eccentric site manager had told her everything was fully prepared, but she was painfully aware that didn’t include her.
A group of teenagers further down the carriage pulled her attention to them with their flamboyant dress and rowdy Ebonics. She wondered where they were going. Was there some Eden for disaffected youth along this line? She glanced at her watch. They probably weren’t heading anywhere productive at 11am on a Thursday. Especially not since two or three of them were wearing elf ears.
Her stomach roiled. She regretted the eggplant lasagne she’d had for dinner the night before. The packaging had looked enticing in the store, but it had barely been edible.
Her phone squawked. The message notification was supposed to be the call of a majestic eagle, but the tinny speakers made it sound more like a constipated emu. She glanced at the screen. It was the site manager, checking she was on her way. She passed the phone from one hand to the other a few times, musing on her options.
It was an important test, and she was an integral part of it. But she was having serious doubts about what they were trying to do. Ever since that construction worker had disappeared the night they first broke ground, she had started to wonder if they were doing the right thing. But there was so much time and effort involved now, not to mention the money the investors had been pouring into the project. She couldn’t turn back now. Not with so much at stake.
She tapped a few keys on her phone.
“Be there in five. Make sure we’re good to go as soon as I get there.”
The Diabetic Dragon
Injections don't burn
as much as others’ reactions;
their faces when they hear.
They think I'm a tethered
maiden, bound to be
I'm learning a
that no one likes, blood
glucose, ketones, hypos
these words keep spilling
into your blanking void.
rejection, your face
as the needle glints.
Have I become
Now I don’t share,
speak, breathe without
checking if it will hurt.
The circle spins.
My call is important.
My patience is appreciated.
Plug the router cable into my computer.
From before he was born; stretching, pushing against, folding himself up, testing the site, the parameters, the womb encasing him, the body.
He stretched, spine uncoiled, arms hung low with heavy hands, now pushing against horizons.
Occupying a body, both internal and external space, muscles and arms, organs, a face To have control and not; heart beating in his sleep, racing as he runs; rhythmically and then irregular. A gash is felt across his hand, tumours and diseases grow pain free.
His body ages, its gorgeous youth -- its wealth, wilts. The body becomes merely functional, to move things from one place to another, a dry mouth to rearrange all the words that he has already said.
How do you test this site? How can you stretch your body beyond your height? Think thoughts wider than the dimensions of a heavy brain? Skyscrapers, taller than giants on the shoulders on giants. Dwarfed, unable even clean the windows of such a nauseating unnatural height.
Limited, his body cannot carry him across distance or water, limited in his inability to exist alone, his inability of photosynthesis. Not sure if evolution has started to regress. His weakened immune system, the promise of old age accompanied with rising tides, levels of dementia.
How can he fulfil, make the best of this body and place, this site? Is there a way to feel the landscape? To feel the body. A kind of irony, only being able to feel the body through the body. Other bodies through his body all sensations through the body. He only knows the feeling of a rock through the feeling from skin, the feeling from skin, through the nervous system. Something calming about the limitation of the site. If cracked, unhinged, he fears the infinity that would ensue.
Miriam gently tapped the side of the glass bottle to keep the three items in a perfect rectangle, admiring her freshly painted
nails, just as the checkout conveyor moved forward. She always used self checkout except when buying alcohol, they're all so young at this store and it takes so long to confirm what she knows, that she's well over eighteen. Of course anyone interrogating her shopping would jump to conclusions. But what they couldn't know was that she had perfected this, maximum pleasure with a cast iron guarantee that it fell short of making her sick. She had a phobia about that physical act, had done ever since her sixteenth birthday.
There was a symmetry to how the items filled the carrier bag too, so when the checkout girl put the crisps in first she involuntarily pushed her hand forward. Wine first, she wasn't fussy, but someone had advised her that six pounds was the perfect compromise between quality and price. It looked French. Then the ice cream. Always the one where you knew the couple were going to have sex back in the nineties. Vanilla. In the space that remained, crisps, but only paprika flavoured. Why were these so hard to find in England?
The film was always the same, the Breakfast Club. She knew all the words. She knew that she would follow the dance around the library with only her arms, her body warm under the green blanket that was already a year or two beyond its useful life. She knew that at the end she would raise her - ah but she always wanted that final scene to be a surprise.
Only then, filled with the four things that gave her the greatest pleasure in life, would she allow herself to check the site - she used only one - to see if her new photo had elicited any messages. It wasn't as if she were trying to be misleading, she just wondered whether she would get more replies if she used her younger sister's photo. Everyone told her they looked the same.
Miriam checked the clock on the dashboard and worked out that she could log on at five to eleven. She pressed her foot hard against the accelerator pedal.
TESTING THE SITE
I turned on the monitor and saw the bulbous face of a Neb appear on the screen. He was reading something with his front feet propped up on the desk.
"Come in Commander. Report your position."
He swivelled two of his eyes towards the screen but I saw his third eye was still scanning the script out of sight below the desk. Nebs are inquisitive creatures and we have to watch them carefully to stop their minds wandering.
"All good here Chief." His voice came through the translator box with a cheery tone. "Just passed Orion and looking smooth."
I hate this nebular slang but the machinery cannot convert it to proper Martian speech so I have to put up with it.
"Give me co-ordinates please."
I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice but who knows what it sounds like at his end of the system? The trouble is, we can't fit in the flight deck of the space craft, so we have to employ these Nebs to fly the thing.
"Well, I reckon we're about half way to Earth at this point of time," --- Where does he get these expressions from--"and may land in a few hours’ time."
"You do realize that this is a vital mission, don’t you? The fate of the Martian race depends on a good landing and restocking with nutrients.."
I hoped that might stiffen it up, but its blobby shape wobbled a bit and I took that for a nod but maybe it was just wobbling. It's so hard to read their minds.
"Pass me to the Supplies Director."
It rolled its upper eyes and leant forward in the control seat, reaching for the transfer button. Another round moon shaped face appeared on the screen, this time it wore a blue earing and I recognized Neb Three.
"Step back from the monitor," I said, "I can't see around you, and stop shouting into the microphone."
His voice was blaring out from the translator and his words seemed slurred. As he moved clumsily away from the screen, I caught a glimpse of a canister he was pushing out of sight.
"Have you been drinking Officer?" There were red patches on its cheeks and the top of its head was pulsating.
"Not a drop, Sir. I was just checking the shtock and slipped - thatsh all."--the voice seemed slightly indistinct but I put that down to the translator box.
He gave a salute with one of his flaps and then sat down suddenly on a barrel of neutrant stacked against the spacecraft wall.
"I am watching you. You realize I will be reporting every detail when the mission is concluded?"
I thought it said “Whatever...” but the transmission cut at that point and the screen went blank.
By my calculations, the ship should have been within two hours of Earth's surface and I sent out the exact co-ordinates needed to bring the craft down on the ground. Then the task would be simple enough even for the least efficient of Neb workers. All they had to do was scoop up as many earthlings as they could find and head back to Mars quick as a flash.
When the screen revived, I saw the shape of the planet looming in front of me. It was bright and mainly blue which meant that there was plenty of water and oxygen on the surface. Just what we wanted, well-nourished earthlings to fill our containers and restore our fading organisms.
I watched as the screen filled slowly with the image of this wonderful planet. I could hear the babbling voices of the crew in the background shouting with excitement in their primitive Nebbish way.
"Now!” I shouted into the intercom, “Activate the landing sequence!"
There was a flurry of action in the space capsule and much shouting and squealing among the crew, but the image of the planet seemed fainter with every minute that passed. Soon the blue orb shrank in size and faded from the screen.
"What the hell has happened?" I shouted into the intercom.
A Nebbish fat face loomed up on the screen. Its blob wore a stupid expression.
"Well," It said, "The Earth moved."