Out there on their own
Isolated on the English savannah
Fresh back from Africa
Feathers shiver in the wind
Haughty beaks and fierce eyes
The ospreys suffer their proud
alliance to feed their young.
Majestic we watch them on camera
Male and female aligned in mission.
Do they love? What do they love?
If someone brought them fish each day
What would they do?
Isis are coming!
The robots are coming!
Turn off the radio
Turn it off
Go on, now
But we need to hear...
Turn it off.
You are not really there. You are talking, shouting, talking on and on – but I can just turn you off thus, closing the laptop lid, and running away to the hills. You are still talking but I am halfway to the hills, driving through quiet valleys, next to lakes, parking the car and walking, walking, running, skipping, gazing, breathing breathing, panting red endorphins rising from the heart to the brain infectious magic and I can take on the world because I can always do this. I always have a choice. I always have power.
Testing the Server
“Try pinging it again.”
“Same response. It’s quick, but it’s only sending back one packet.”
Lucas sank his head into his hands in resignation. It had been 32 hours since he had been able to grab a power nap and still they were getting nowhere. He forced a swig of his cold brew.
“Did anyone know it was even possible to hack a ping response? Has anybody ever seen that before?”
Pinging a server to test the response time should be as straightforward as it gets, as simple as shouting in a cave and waiting for the echo.
“I’m seriously asking, has anybody ever seen that before because...”
Finishing the sentence required more effort than Lucas had left in him.
Across the room, a nervous looking intern raised his hand. Once the scale of the crisis had become apparent, the situation had changed to all hands on deck. Every qualified member of staff, regardless of experience, was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement and pitch in. These were desperate times. Lucas gestured weakly for him to speak.
“It looks like the packet it’s sending back is larger than the ping sir.”
Lucas rubbed his eyes and squinted at his monitor. He could barely make it out:
pinging yangtze.shop with 32 bytes of data:
reply from 220.127.116.119: bytes=38 time<1ms TTL=127
ping statistics for 18.104.22.1689:
Packets: Sent = 4, Received = 1, Lost = 3 (75% loss)
The echo was longer than the shout.
This revelation prompted Lucas’s body to finally surrender its last shot of adrenaline.
“Fresh eyes eh? That’s a really good spot kid. Way too small to be malware, any chance we can take a look at the contents of that packet?”
Without a word, the room buzzed to life with the sound of keystrokes. Each coder and engineer driven by their curiosity, striving to restore some pride by completing this simple task first. Lucas pondered what they would find. 38 bytes was just enough for a line of text. It could be a signature, maybe a ransomware demand. It could also be nonsense. Lucas needed it to be a clue. They had inspected countless lines of code looking for an explanation, scoured the architecture of the entire site and found nothing. It defied all logic.
“It’s a URL sir. For a YouTube video.”
Lucas was impressed to note that the same intern had beaten his senior staff to the punch. He was about to respond when he was interrupted by a quiet, familiar voice.
“Cheer up Brian! You know what they say…”
He had heard this before, he was sure of it. His brain went into overdrive searching for the reference. He got there just before the video did. He couldn’t help but laugh as Eric Idol sang.
“Always look on the bright side of life.”
Some of the staff whistled along.
Macallum - 18 year old Triple cask whisky
Three times I’ve placed this order and three times you’ve sent a kid’s bike. I returned it once (at great inconvenience), refused to accept delivery on the second attempt, and on the third time of asking it was left behind my shed. I’m not sure how you mistake a bottle of whisky for a bike once, never mind three times! The incompetence is genuinely staggering. I will not be returning this again and I want a full refund. At least my son is happy.
Teagan & Co. - Milk Chocolate Brazil Nuts
Ordered these as a present for my GF. Sent a box of truffles instead. Turns out she is allergic to brazil nuts and the truffles were nice so thanks lol
A4 Lined Notebook, Wirebound
Thank You! (Whoever You Are)
I don’t know who was responsible for adding the textbook to my order but I owe you big time. It’s never in the library and I could never afford it. I don’t know how you did this but you’ve taken a huge weight off of my shoulders, thank you so much.
2011 Chateau Del Mar Bordeaux
I bought this (rather expensive) bottle of wine as a wedding gift for my daughter to make up for Covid. Sent the wrong bottle (1982!) but too late to do anything about it. Daughter says it’s the nicest bottle of wine she’s ever had. Really appreciate the free corkscrew (she couldn’t find hers!)
LM38624 LaserJet Toner Cartridge
I ordered this for my home office and it was delivered right on time. I thought the box was very heavy for toner so I opened it on my kitchen counter. Imagine my surprise when I found that I’d been sent a fire extinguisher instead.
I headed back to the office to type a sternly worded email, only to discover that my computer was on fire, and not a small one either! I ran back to the kitchen for the fire extinguisher and managed to put out the blaze.
My daughter’s room is above that office, I dread to think what might have happened. I’m not a religious person, but I’m not sure how else to explain that.
I know you probably won’t believe me but I swear to you it’s true.
Derby - Double Edge Razor Blades x 10
Dont want them now anyway
We rode the rickety bus together, side by side; eager for the journey ahead, all the while marvelling at the unseasonably warm weather, as sultry and humid as our fledgling love. My body conscious of the heat from your thigh pressed against mine, even through the flimsy fabric of my skirt, lighting a fire in me as if two sticks of timber had been rubbed together to coax a spark.
Dust particles bobbed and danced in the sunbeams glancing through the window as if putting on a show for our entertainment. The road beyond, cutting a ribbon through the swathes of purple heather carpeting the moor. So wrapped up in each other, we paid little attention to the other passengers aboard, only dimly aware of new people settling into their seats and others shuffling down the aisle to alight at various pauses along the way, the engine noisily idling as it trundled to a stop.
Occasionally, we’d encounter a pothole along the way, bouncing us almost out of our seats. Each time you’d wink as if to say, “ we made it!”, and our expedition would continue in companionable silence. Outside the torpidity in the air pressed down, unabated. Flying ants, wooed by the brewing tempest, crawled out of the dry earth and whirled by the window like black winged harbingers of doom. A pointillism painting against a soft mauve background. No kettle of boiling water here to douse them as my Mother was wont to do when they surged through the cracks in the garden path.
Soon the cerulean skies gave way to a menacing granite grey as the first plump raindrops slapped against the window, the change in temperature making the fine hairs on your forearms stand erect like iron filings seduced by a magnet. I shivered as a sense of foreboding overcame me as quickly as the opaque sea mist rolling over the moor like a rushing wave unfolding on the shore.
At that moment the bus juddered to a halt, the sound of the hissing brakes and spray from the puddles commingling like an almighty sigh. You touched my face and kissed my cheek as you whispered, “I have to go - this is my stop.”
“But it can’t be. We both bought the same ticket.” My shocked tone belying panic and fear as I clutched at your arm, willing you to stay.
“You don’t even have a coat.”
“ I’ll be ok. Be strong and I’ll see you later.”
Then as you walked towards the doors you turned and mouthed, “I love you.”, and were gone.
I ran to the back of the bus and knelt on the back seat watching as you disappeared from view. A grey shape, shrinking with the distance, blurred by the mist and the salty tears rolling down my face. I cried for what seemed like seconds, minutes, hours, until I gave in to fitful sleep. Waking only when the low evening sun touched my face. The calm after the storm - cool air brushing my tear-stained cheeks. Each mile taking me both further away from, and nearer to you.
My journey carried on alone. Many years later, when my hair was white and my face etched with the furrows of life, I rode that ramshackle bus over the moors again. The driver was the same, he seemed not to have aged in the intervening decades and was still wearing his uniform of white coat and stethoscope. We smiled knowingly in acknowledgement when he said, “Next stop is yours, Miss.” Then I heard the familiar hiss of the brakes as the doors opened and you were waiting for me.
WE'RE ALL GOING TO GET ON PURR-FECTLY F-EL-INE
To: Felinerehome@ gforce.ok
From: A Purr-manently placed Puss
Hi. I'm sure you'd like to know I've settled into my new home and it's purr-fect. I knew, as soon as I set paw here, we were all going to get along fine - once I'd licked the residents into shape.
Another feline lived here for a long time. His name was Tinka, so, I'm Tinkatoo. Fine by me. I'll answer to anything.
When I arrived, a Tailwagger scrabbled at Purr-son's legs. 'I've missed you, I've missed you,' TW yapped hysterically. Very undignified. TW also means twit.
I sashayed out of my travel crate. Settled on the carpet keeping an eye on TW. She slowly approached, sniffed me from nose to tail. Sensing my powerful aura she backed away reverently and returned to her bed. Without purr-suasion, she accepted her purr-lace in the pecking order. Shame. I enjoy an occasional battle of wills.
My kingdom is com-fur-table. It was clearly dominated by TW but that's all changed now. There are nooks and crannies to purr-petrate, and windows to bask in the sun. The cosiest purr-lace is next to the computer where it's warm with piles of pa-purr to shred.
After all the excitement that first evening, I didn't feel too purr-ky and catnapped on Purr's favourite chair. She's a soft touch. A few sad meows and I'm purr-mitted to stay there. It's more my chair than hers now.
I had a minor disagreement with TW the first morning. It was purr-plexing. I'm accustomed to sharing food, but TW thought otherwise. She wolfed mine down, then refused to share hers.
Purr realised what had happened. The next mealtime she chastised TW when she purr-sisted in targeting my dish. I tucked in and left a purr-centage for later. Of course, it had disappeared by then. It didn't go unnoticed, and now I eat on the kitchen worktop. I've gone up in the world, in more ways than one.
Purr is highly amused by my eating habits. Wishes she could turn my talent into hard cash. I scoop food from my dish with my paw. I do the same with canned food because my head won't fit in the can. I tried. Got stuck. Purr says I'm a regular comedian.
One day, TW settled down with a bone the length of my tail. Would she share? Later, Purr put it on the worktop for me. I ignored it. Not exactly haute cuisine. I reclined next to it, in full view of TW who cried like a puppy. I feigned indifference. She eventually gave up.
There was a cat-astrophe regarding the litter tray. I was purr-turbed because, as much as I tried, I couldn't get my derriere in the right position. Honestly! A kitten would have had the same problem. Two days later someone called Amazon delivered a larger loo. It's a box with a door-flap. Purr noticed TW had a penchant for eating my poo. No accounting for taste.
Purr has joined the elite club of cat owners who pay outlandish prices for feline purr-a-phernalia. eBay sent a scratch post. I tried to kill it. Now I ignore it. This was followed by purr-fumed powder Purr sprinkled on my scratch mat. I rolled over and over. My whiskers twitched, my tail flicked, my mind went whizzy.
TW inhaled but wasn't im-purr-est. I could take it or leave it. I think Purr wants a spaced out feline. She bought expensive Japanese catnip. I wouldn't recommend it. It wasn't worth my time or energy. Purr said she may have to roll in it herself or sell it on a street corner.
My favourite plaything is a dog biscuit I found under the sofa. TW looked hopeful but no way was I giving it back. Purr sighed, shook her head and said she'd given up.
One day I found a bag of fur. It smelled feline. Hiss! It was a purr-blood's. My hackles shot up ready to fight the fur. Apparently, Purr's friend gave it to her for her hobby. Needle felting? Purr made a felt mouse with the fur. I tossed it around the room. It played dead. I lost interest. It scares the living daylights out of visitors who see it in the middle of the floor. I enjoy the purr-formance. Inside I'm meowling with laughter. Outside, I'm inscrutable.
I'm not a night owl like many of my kind. I don't yearn for nights out on the tiles. I like my comfort. The second night I upgraded from the chair to Purr's bed. TW sulked. The following night TW spread herself out on the bed before I had set paw in the room. I am amazed how a small canine can take up so much space.
Purr kindly invited me onto the bed and rearranged TW, who couldn't argue seeing it was two against one. She gave me purr-mission to stay. Big of her.
TW and I have settled into a routine and go to bed before Purr. We spread out, leaving a space for her. She's far from satisfied with her corner of the mattress. Makes us budge over. In the morning, she's scrunched in her corner, her legs hanging over the edge of the bed.
I'm allowing Purr to stroke me and give me brief tummy tickles but I'm banning any further physical contact for the moment. I don't want to appear 'easy.' I'm a bit of a tease though. One chilly night I explored under the bed covers and licked the back of her knee. She giggled and said it was something that hadn't happened in a long while. Not sure what she meant by that.
My favourite visitor is Purr's male kitten, even though he tried to kill me. He was cooking and dropped a wok from a high shelf. It missed me by a whisker. I set a new land-speed record and remained under the bed for a long time. To make him suffer. I love male kitten and fur-got the no-cuddle rule, allowing him to give me a long hug. Purr's mouth turned down. Her eyes looked sad.
I love Purr. I'll let her cuddle me properly tonight when the three of us are on the sofa watching the noisy box. We are definitely all getting on purr-fectly f-el-ine.
A big thank you, purrs and kitty-kisses, Tinkatoo.
The ships just appeared one night.
We all woke up to giant shadows, one for each continent.
Nobody had seen them coming, not on long-distance radar, or via any of the many satellites up in orbit.
And nobody knew who was in them, looking down upon us from so high above. They sent no message, they revealed no intentions.
Of course, we sent the might of the world’s military up against them but their hulls were impenetrable. No weapon we possessed in our arsenal could render even a scratch.
And then people started disappearing. Nobody realised what was going on for days, even weeks. What were a few vanishing every now and then. With the world as it was prior to the arrival, that was happening all over the place anyway.
But the disappearances continued, with more and more of them happening in plain sight of other people. A shimmer would start to appear over someone’s head. And then it would move swiftly down their body to their feet and they would be gone. Even if they tried to run, it would follow them. There was no escape.
Our doom came upon us oh so slowly. The rate increased only until it was a few hundred people from across the world, every day. So few, and yet so devastating, once we realised it was going to keep happening. We had no idea where those people were going. But we knew, deep in our hearts, that we would all be going there. Eventually.
All those remaining of us could do was watch and count and track and wait. Waiting for it to be our turn to disappear. That was the hardest part. Never knowing when that awful shimmer might appear above the head of someone we loved. Or above our own head. It was worse than if whoever they were had obliterated everyone in one go, even if it had involved fire and pain. So much worse just to wait for the agonising slowness of the emptying of our planet to catch up to us.
My husband is gone now. My parents, vanished. My children, one after the other in a single morning, shimmering and fading right before my eyes. I tried to hold onto them, or at least be taken with them. But the shimmer knew its purpose and its targets. They slipped between my fingers, and I was left behind. There aren’t that many of us now. We have gathered in what groups we can bring together, pockets of survivors scattered over the globe. But there is no hope to be found and our supplies are dwindling.
Now, it’s just a question of whether we will be taken, or we will starve or freeze to death first. There are not enough of us left to maintain the systems of civilisation that have kept us in comfort for so long. We stare at each other, hollow-eyed, wondering when each of us will vanish from sight. And if, when we disappear, we will reappear somewhere with all our friends and family, relocated for some reason to a better place. That is the only thought worth hanging onto at this point. As unlikely as it may be. Even oblivion would be better than this endless waiting.
A man at my side gasps and points above my head. I look up to see the shimmer starting. I raise my arms towards it, reaching for my destiny. And, for the first time in a very long time, I smile.
Free from the societal norms
to which the lion’s share conform.
Wanting in fear, conscience and anxiety;
but the greatest dearth is empathy.
He is the psychopath.
Free from ponderous responsibility
shouldered by the likes of you and me.
Brain cracked like a spiderwebbed windscreen;
doped up to the eyeballs blankly serene.
He is the lunatic.
Free from having to remember
events too painful to dismember.
World shrunken to a golden elixir,
self medication the ultimate fixer.
He is the alcoholic.
Free from the weary grind of living
bleak as hell and as unforgiving.
Cold steel kisses him under the chin
a split second before the blowout within.
He is the suicide.
Free to spill imagination’s guts
transcribed on paper as lines and dots.
Words evoke paintings for interpretation.
This flowing outlet the greatest liberation.
I am the poet.
Before the Taking of a Toast and Tea
Do you want to know what I did
Do you want to, really?
Do you want to know how I had
Come home at 4 as usual and
Had a cup of hot Grey tea?
And do you want to know how I had
Sat on the couch in Grey mist of blissed ignorance?
And how I had gotten up and gone to the cupboard,
And reached for the Orange clock -
With a little hesitancy -
Winding back its hands -
And how I opened the fridge to get
My big Brother's Left-over Red carton of milk -
Spilling at the brim - and alas! not
Out of date!
And do you want to know how I was anxious
To pour it into my tea
of spilling - or worse:
Of not spilling?
I have drank tea,
I have made tea,
I have drowned in tea.
12 years a tea-leaf
Dreaming of tea.
Centuries a rebel
Fighting for tea.
6 million times a Jew
Torn away from tea.
Give me tea and I will drink it.
Tear it from me, and I will taste it.
In dreams I climb through glassy air in flight
Above my parents’ sycamore I swim
and drift in joyful sunlit lift,
brush leafy canopies. Below, the land –
my parents’ garden, Tom’s house, orchard – pass,
then flowing meadow,
crossed by walls of stone,
the fertile patchwork quilt of grey and green.
Some swallows arc around me in my dream
six or seven starlings rise,
elated murmuration, winding out
in tight formation;
high in halls of light
I soar and sing
and swim through air in flight.
My mind is a ship, sailing on the open sea. It is surrounded by boundless opportunities, but subject to the whim of the weather and the waves. The endless sky stretches above and the bottomless depths hide potential threats that could rise from below to engulf my fragile vessel and cause it to sink without trace.
The captain is a giant bear in a pirate hat. He is my inner mentor, keeping the rudder steady and helping me stay afloat upon sometimes rocky seas. He is always available for massive 'bear' hugs (oh yes!) and unconditional support to help my emotional equilibrium.
Another figure who can often be seen walking the decks is Detail-Oriented Debbie, with her clicking heels (impractical at sea), her pencil skirt (no use for climbing the rigging) and her ever-present clipboard. She is the keeper of the to-do list (or lists, as there are several). She always knows what's next, what's important, what's necessary and what can be left to slide (though she hates admitting this is even a possibility). Debbie wants to protect me from chaos and uncertainty but she often strays into adding to my sense of pressure and overwhelm with her insistence on always keeping to a strict schedule.
But I've started having team meetings with Captain Bear and Debbie in attendance. I give them both the opportunity to air any issues they want to raise (I am the notetaker, free-writing my way through meeting minutes) and to offer their views on any problems we are facing. Debbie has recently been persuaded that letting go of the to-do list is something that can actually help my productivity. And Captain Bear is always there to help me (and Debbie) feel valued and safe.
Below decks, the subconscious crew beaver away at tasks that stay out of sight (and out of mind) until they are ready to be presented. I give them assignments sometimes, asking them to work at a particular problem or question and come back to me with ideas at a specific day and time. It's taken a while to train them properly. Early on, they would often either forget about the assignment altogether, or wake me up at 3am desperate to share their ideas. But now they are mostly a well-oiled machine, only coming to me at the appropriate time and regularly exceeding my expectations with their results.
Sometimes it's quite crowded in my head! But it's never boring, and I get a huge sense of freedom and satisfaction from knowing that all the members of my crew are working hard on my behalf and can be relied upon to come up with the goods to help me through the day when I need them.
It’s snowing in Hamburg again, and I’m remembering the night that Michel got stabbed. It was April, and snow wasn’t usual, especially these cold relentless flakes, turning to hail which blew in vicious whirls along the pavement, clogged up cycle paths and floated across rainbow slicked canals before melting away.
I thought that the rainbow was from oil, I even said as much to the Australian girl, Elle Lee, whom Michel and I were both infatuated with. But Michel corrected me, and said it was caused by a layer of algae on the surface of the water.
“Well, I see it at this time, in the spring time, and later in the year I don’t see it, and at this time there is all the algae. One plus one equals two eh?”
We both looked to Elle for confirmation of the fact. Not because she knew anything special about oil, or algae, but rather because she was so clearly out intellectual superior.
“Yeah naw. Could be, but also it’s sort of one word against another right? There’s no way to tell who’s right. No way at all. We could ask and ask, stopping people one by one on the street and say “hey do you know why the canals shine like a Beatles song?” and they’d say “no way mate, or if we do we’re not telling ya. Because you’re not German.” Or maybe they would tell us, but it would be in German. Or else, they agree to tell us, but only if we went on a quest to find their son who disappeared in the 70’s wearing only his uncle’s football jersey. Or maybe we’d have stumbled across their big secret, and the road would be full of like, furtive glances and closed doors, and we’d have to change our names to get away from the secret police.” She went on and on, spinning outlandish options for discourse with elderly Hamburgers on their balconies and we laughed, and no one mentioned the elephant in the smartphone.
I think that was what Michel liked so much about Elle. She was untethered from the reality of conversations and social interactions, but not in the way of our usual peers; Michel’s classmates spouting Tolstoy and Kafka -neither of which I had read- through their turtlenecks or those cockroaches I worked with in PWC, twitching and orgasming over the scent of money and blood in the water, confused animal metaphors aside. But Elle wasn’t like that. She was crazy smart- on two occasions I’d seen her calmly and good naturedly obliterate men who condescended to her because of her easy-going manner- and by all accounts she was great at her job, but she would steer a casual conversation down jungle paths that only existed in her mind, and we would weather bumps and potholes and try to cling and enjoy the ride as she satisfied her imagination, wordplay and performance all at once. That, for sure, was what Michel liked so much about her. She engaged him, fascinated him, pulled him in and pushed him out again, left him tangled and confused and desperate for more.
For me, it was much simpler. She’d seen me.
It was in a business conference, one of those things with infrared smoking areas full of cigar smoke and a catering company. Thus far the worst place I’ve ever fallen in love. She was chatting to my boss’s boss’s boss, all casual and charming, changing the tone of their corporate conversation with questions so simply-phased it was easy to ignore how piercing they were. And she’d looked up and seen me, and said “hold on just a tick” to the partner, and walked over and said “Hey! When I go back over there I’m going to pretend that I thought I knew you so that the bigwigs don’t get agro. I don’t know where to find the cool stuff in town, so can you show me around when this thing is over?” And I just stood mouth half open, and she said “ha alright then, I’ll be out the front afterwards pretending to call my grandmother.”
And she was, she ditched the glitzy after-conference party to walk along the canals with me, smoking rolled cigarettes and talking about how we had found ourselves at the conference. Elle was a chemist and mathematician, and had developed some kind of analytical model which the financial institutions lapped up. I was an economics graduate trying to make my folks happy. Afterwards she came to my apartment for tea to warm up, though the weather wasn’t as cold as it would be in the coming weeks. I showed her my paintings. The paintings I hadn’t shown anyone, not even Michel.
She stayed in Hamburg for two weeks after the conference. She had flights booked to Munich, but changed them after Michel and I brought her rock-climbing in a little hall near his place. We got black coffee from the half-broken machine by the door, bought five sandwiches and a packet of nuts from the guy behind the counter, and went to sit on a bench by the nearest canal. She went, “huh, this is a cool place” and took out her phone to change the flights there and then.
“Did you know that Hamburg has more canals Venice?” I asked.
“Ugh, Nein. This is not how you say it”
“What? Am I wrong?”
“Yes. Well no. Maybe. But it’s about the bridges. Hamburg is the city of bridges. It has more bridges than Venice, Amsterdam and London put together.”
“Oh. Yeah so probably more canals too.”
Michel asked Elle “have you seen some of the bridges?”
“I mean, some yeah. I didn’t really notice bridges particularly. But then again, I haven’t seen the tourist stuff yet.”
“There are some really nice ones actually. The Köhlbrandbrücke is my favourite. It’s four kilometres long and high enough for ships to pass underneath. Some of the ones connecting the Speicherstadt are also very nice.” Suddenly a city-wide bridge expert.
“Have you seen the port at sunset?”
She hadn’t, and we went. All three of us, in my car which I almost never use. We hopped a fence and climbed up some old steel frame marked for demolition, and the orange backdrop to the spindly cranes and gantries put me in mind of War of the Worlds.
“It’s beautiful” said Elle, and suddenly it was.
That was the start of the most liberated two weeks of any of our lives. Sometimes magic happens, and it happened then.
We did the tourist stuff- the tunnel under the river, a concert in the Philharmonic which Michel and I couldn’t afford but Elle insisted on paying for us, Miniatur Wunderland. Michel was way ahead in his course and hardly had anything to do. I took annual leave. We bouldered at halls around the city. We played board games and smoked weed in Michel’s apartment when the weather got really cold, and read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? together. I was George. Elle read Honey. Michel did Martha and Nick, putting on accents that were more Louisiana than New England while Elle and I broke our sides laughing. He couldn’t contract words, and sang “Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
My therapist said, and many people agree with her, that I have likely altered the memory of those two weeks because of what happened afterwards, making them too perfect in my mind. Maybe I have.
In the end, the night before Elle’s altered flight date, Michel went out to get pizza, wearing his stupid noise-cancelling headphones. A guy had a knife and wanted a wallet, but Michel couldn’t hear him, and when he reached to remove the headphones, he got stabbed in the stomach. Elle and I found him. We called the ambulance. We held him as he died.
Six months later I visited Elle in Melbourne, in the year of travel after I quit my job. She told me might have kissed, that night, if things had been different. I asked her if we still could, and she said maybe. When we did, in the end, it wasn’t good, and we agreed not to do it again.
We still talk. Once a year we do a remembrance by video call, which we kept up for years before the pandemic made it cool. And on snowy nights in Hamburg, when I’m feeling trapped and afraid, I call her, and we talk about those two weeks, and how neither of us has ever felt so free.
My name is Eve, though not baptised.
Listeners, therein the injustice lies.
Not six weeks old when I would not wake
and now I pay dear for my namesake’s mistake.
She, the purveyor of original sin
as she bit into the apple’s ripe rosy skin.
Today should have been my christening tea,
Instead my family are burying me.
Laid to rest in a pure white dress,
an innocent angel they all acquiesce.
This angel though, she fell through the gap,
displaced from heaven and caught in a trap.
Above the cosmos I met a man named Peter
who introduced himself as the celestial gatekeeper.
With snowy beard and sumptuous vestments
he examined my soul in earnest assessment.
“I cannot give you passage, my child,
though your life on Earth was meek and mild.”
“Upon your soul there is a blight,
my sympathy for your blameless plight.
Holy water would have granted absolution
but as you didn’t receive this sacred ablution
there is naught that I can do or say
Except bless you and wish you on your way.”
Thus I spiralled as a dandelion seed shuttlecock
back towards Earth’s dark black rock.
A drilling motion affording me entry
to an underworld with another sentry.
A dog serpent chimera dubbed Cerberus
his glowing coalish eyes like crimson gerberas.
A guttural voice, half snarling, half sneer;
“Little girl, you have no right being here,
down amongst the sweaty suppurating heat
reserved for those who murder, blaspheme and cheat.
You are pure as the driven snow,
hurry, make your escape and go.”
“Go where?” my pleas fall on deaf ears.
A dawning realisation of all of my fears.
By a quirk of Catholic catechism
my being is in cataclysm;
like an astronaut divorced from his tether -
Drifting in limbo forever and ever.
THE PEARLY GATES OF HELL
‘Come along, dear. Get a move on and MIND THE GAP.’
The apprentice had dragged her heels ever since they’d landed.
Most of her students couldn’t wait for this part of the course when they could return to the classroom and flap their certificates in the faces of their friends.
She watched the flighty thing dawdle across the stepping stones, pearly white in the moonlight.
‘Did you hear what I said? Mind the gap.’
The apprentice reached the edge of the gap and stared, horrified, into a chasm. Warm, moist air wafted up frizzing her hair and dampening her cheeks. She could see a shapeless monster sleeping in the semi-darkness. All the training in the world could not have prepared her for this hellish experience.
‘I can’t do it, Miss. Can’t I use my …’
‘Certainly not. You know the rules.’
The youngster stepped back trembling. This was not a career she would have chosen but it was tradition. The first daughter of the first daughter, yada, yada, yada. For heaven’s sake, she thought, many of her friends were applauding the feminist movement, striking out for independence and freedom from outdated folk law. Would she be brave enough to face her mother’s wrath?
Miss was losing patience. ‘I must not fly off the handle,’ she repeated like a mantra.
‘I could really do with a cigarette,’ she muttered. ‘Or a stiff drink.’ Both were frowned upon but was there really any harm in herbal cigarettes and a glass or two of elderberry wine? She guiltlessly indulged in secret. Sometimes to excess. This was enough to drive anyone to drink.
Perhaps it was time to retire. She didn’t hanker after foreign holidays or stress-free knit and natter groups. What rocked her boat was the thought of relaxing in a garden, dabbling with her water colours, in the company of her pet, Worm.
It was time for a display of tough love.
‘Right. Enough of this nonsense. Let’s get it done. Five minutes and we’ll be homeward bound. JUMP.’
Miss held out her hand. The apprentice shook her head.
A wet, slurpy sound and groan from the chasm put wings on the youngster’s feet and she fairly flew across the gap, landing safely on the stepping stone. She squealed as the stone shook and dropped a short distance into the chasm.
‘We must hurry.’ Miss pulled a thread in her skirt and unraveled a long thin cord. ‘Help me tie this around the thingumajig.’
‘Isn’t this stealing, Miss?’
‘No, just taking it early.’
‘It’s not normally done like this, is it, Miss?’
‘You have to know how to deal with emergency situations, and this is becoming one of them.’
Miss pulled the cord tight. The stone sank lower. Grasping the end of the cord she jumped up onto a rubbery wall. ‘Move yourself and help me.’
The apprentice clambered onto the wall and together they pulled the cord until their booty suddenly popped free and hung, swinging over the chasm.
‘Ugh!’ The apprentice felt faint. So much gore. She really wasn’t cut out for this.
The monster reared up and wiped itself against their prize. The sides of the chasm contracted, drawing in air with such force and horrendous noise, that Miss and the youngster dropped to their knees, gripping the wall for all they were worth.
‘Don’t let go,’ yelled Miss above the noise. 'We don’t want to lose the thingumajig,’ and together they yanked on the cord until it was resting at their feet.
There was a moan and a strong gust of wind whooshed up from the depths.
Miss gave herself a shake. ‘That was a close thing. Come along, dear. Home.’
As she dragged the object of the exercise along the stepping stones, pearly white in the moonlight, the apprentice happily skipped alongside her.
‘Am I a fully-fledged Tooth Fairy now, Miss? Am I, Miss? Am I?’
I thought I knew that part of the city like the back of my hand, but I turned a corner and walked straight into a brick wall that really shouldn’t have been there. For a start, this was my usual shortcut between the office and the station, and had always been an open alleyway before. And regardless, if someone was going to brick up the alley for some reason, surely they would have blocked off the opening level with the rest of the street, not recessed by several feet.
Once I’d recovered from the shock, and from the unexpected nose-flattening, I took a step backwards and regarded the wall in puzzlement. It was solid enough; my face could attest to that. And it extended the full width of the alleyway, also stretching upwards to the same height as the buildings on either side. The bricks even looked scuffed with age, as if the wall had been there many years.
I felt an impact behind me and was catapulted back into the wall, once again proving its solidity. There was curse and a thump, and I turned to see a young man sprawled on the ground at my feet. He looked up at me, and the wall beyond me.
“What the hell?” he demanded.
“Well, quite,” I said, then offered him a hand.
He took it and I heaved him to his feet. He grimaced.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He arched his back and attempted a smile.
“Just a bit bruised. Where on earth did this wall come from?”
“No idea,” I said. “I literally walked into it just before you walked into me.”
“Sorry about that,” he said.
I shrugged. “Hardly your fault. You had no way of knowing.”
He looked the wall up and down, just as I had done a few moments before. Then he looked back at me.
“I guess that puts paid to my usual shortcut,” he said, with more equanimity than I was feeling.
“Mine, too,” I said, ruefully.
He looked at me in surprise. “You take this route often? Or used to, I should say.”
“Every day,” I told him.
“I’ve never seen you down here before,” he said, “and I’m sure I would have remembered.”
I smiled, taking this as a compliment.
“Well,” I ventured, suddenly feeling coquettish, “perhaps the wall conspired to bring us together.”
He grinned, the expression making him look boyishly handsome.
“Maybe,” he said. “And, in that case, I must offer it my thanks. Do you fancy getting a coffee?”
“I’d love to,” I replied. “After all, we have to figure out another route home.”
“That we do.”
He offered me his arm; I took it and we went back the way we had come, together.
"So, what is your question?", said Xaraphid, doing a handstand naked while carefully balancing a pineapple on the sole of his right foot.
Doug's gaze was fixed to eye contact.
"Well, I have many. The most pertinent being the most obvious..."
Xaraphid was appalled by this man's ignorance.
"How do you know it is better to be free?"
Will it be worth the struggle
To knead and pummel
For fifty pounds?
Though double the rates
And much, much more than
Unnoticed every night.
There’s no outcry about that, I cry
Silently, as the irony
Swirls around the plug-hole of my thoughts.
And will it be worth
Swiping off your ‘Do not disturb’ mask
To fling these words crushed
like ice into your face?
I’ll answer the question,
Just give me five.
I had two favourite jokes when I was growing up:
Me: Ask me if I’m an orange.
You: Are you an orange?
Me: What’s the connection between an orange and a lemon?
You: I don’t know. What’s the connection between an orange and a lemon?
Me: Neither of them can drive a tractor.
I have no idea where I got them from, but I definitely judged my friends based on whether or not they agreed these gems were funny.
Humour is a very strange thing. I think most people who know me would say I have a decent sense of humour and can be funny on occasion. And there are lots of books I’ve read and films and TV I’ve seen that make me laugh.
But, generally speaking, if something is billed as a ‘comedy’, I won’t find it funny. I don’t like slapstick or broad humour or the humour of pain. But I do like wit and clever word play. Offer me the chance to go to the theatre to see a Restoration comedy and I’m there. But The Office? No, thanks!
The conversation that’s made me laugh the most in the last few years (and which I still quote frequently) went like this.
Husband: (driving really fast round a bend) Wheeee!
Me: (holding on for dear life) Don’t drive like that!
Husband: (pouting) Sad now.
Me: I’m sorry I always ruin all your fun.
Husband: It’s not always. (Pause) Sometimes you’re not there…
So, I can definitely laugh at myself.
On another occasion, I said something that made my husband laugh and his response was, “We’re really funny. We should do a podcast together.”
The idea took root and I bought a book by a podcaster I admire, all about how to start a podcast. In the opening chapter, it said, “You have to have a good reason for starting a podcast. It shouldn’t be just because you and your friend, Dave, think you’re funny.”
And yes, my husband’s name is Dave…
So I went back to the drawing board, followed the advice in the book and built a good idea for a podcast. We’ve been doing it for over 18 months now and actually have some regular listeners.
So, apparently, there are lots of ways to be funny and to put it to good use.
And I’ve come a long way from telling people to ask me if I’m an orange.
ANSWER THE QUESTION
“Susie?” Softly from behind me.
“Mmm”, I answer absently whilst drinking in the scenery.
“Susie?”, this time though more urgently,
prompting me to turn and encounter you on bended knee;
ring box proffered, gesture of entreaty -
a promise for all eternity.
Adrenaline slaps me back to reality
seeing things with renewed perspicacity
through pupils dilated like eclipsing spheres,
black and inky as bottomless meres.
I do not hear a word you speak,
blood thundering in my ears and staining my cheeks.
Sharp indrawn breath as shock takes hold,
teary eyes drawn to diamond encrusted gold.
A blushing bride is what you choose to see, -
overawed, happy, excited, surprised;
your ardour reflected back at you from my shiny eyes.
A misinterpretation of signals on your part; blind to the turmoil in my heart.
Feelings of horror, dread and constrict.
Tears, not of joy but of pain I’ll inflict.
Your puppy dog eyes gaze and beseech
as I am rendered devoid of all speech.
The brightness of your smile wavers and palls
as my continued silence your rhetoric stalls.
“Just answer the question” is your earnest plea
so my feet do the talking as I turn and flee.
I reach up and press the doorbell.
A jangling rings out from behind the door, as if an old-fashioned brass bell is actually hanging on the other side and is somehow connected to the modern buzzer beneath my finger.
The outside of the house has certainly changed since I was last here. The toxic sludge shade of grey paint that had always covered the bumpy pebble-dash of the walls is now a bright, pristine white. I wonder how often they have to touch it up to keep it looking so fresh.
And the evil holly hedge that was the source of many a scratched arm in years gone by has been ripped up by the roots and replaced with a smart fence. The flowerbeds my grandmother took such pride in are still front and centre on either side of the door, though. And they are filled with the signs of early spring. Snowdrops and daffodils abound in cheerful cream and yellow under the clean and sparkling windows.
Whoever lives here now looks after the place, at least.
I hear footsteps approaching and my breath catches in my throat as the door opens to reveal a woman a few years older than me. Her eyes are wide with curious enquiry at this stranger appearing at her door.
“Can I help you?” Her face is kind, no hint of suspicion in her tone.
“Um, yes. Well, maybe…” Now that I’m actually here, I feel stupid.
It’s been such a long time. The house has clearly moved on without me. Other people live here now and they’ve made so many changes. Glancing into the entrance hall, I can see that the awful 1970s wallpaper (green and yellow flowers on a purple background) is long gone. The white paint on the outside of the house extends to the interior, making the hallway seem much more spacious and less forbidding.
The woman is still staring at me, and the kindness in her expression is starting to falter.
“I’m sorry,” I say, gathering myself. “This was my grandparents’ house, a long time ago. My mother was born here and I lived here myself for a few years after university.” So much time has passed, but it feels like yesterday that I entered this house as my first solo living space as an adult. “I was passing through on my way back to London and couldn’t resist driving past to take a look. It’s all so different, and I just wondered if I might…”
My words trail off, drying up in my throat as I realise how ridiculous I sound.
But the woman smiles and steps back to allow me access.
“Oh, I know what that feeling is like. I often wonder who lives in the houses where I had my kids.” She beckons. “Why don’t you come in and have a cup of tea? You’re right, though, we have made a lot of changes since we moved in. But you’re welcome to come and have a nosey.”
“I don’t blame you.” I smile back. “I would have redecorated myself if I’d had the money. That wallpaper was hideous…”
I follow her into the house whose shell is so familiar, but whose personality had changed beyond all recognition since it was my shelter so long ago. As the woman closes the door behind me, the brass bell above it jingles cheerily as if the house recognises me, even though I’ve changed almost as much as it has. A ringing welcome from an old friend.
My new colleagues
You are voices and emails
Asking me to do things;
Tell me where to go next
And I jump at each request.
We eat pizza, exchange
Jokes; casual racism
No one is offended,
We are friends;
Your blood is warm.
We were always so aware of the passing of time
and of winters as children in the 1980s
Because every Christmas Aled Jones sang The Snowman,
And the grown-ups said ‘ooh when his voice breaks he
won’t be able to sing it any more’,
And somehow we knew from that that
The years, the winters the Christmases
Were a holding out against the breaking
Of childish illusion, that the freezing the sledging
The deep snow the hypnotised memories of childhood
would break like a snowball, shattering the window;
Smash and it’s all gone; Aled Jones stayed in my
ex-boyfriend’s B&B in Wales and apparently he’s
fat now. Those winters.
We are in the woods. I need a small tree for three bends. We walk brushing past the glossy hazel and dull sycamore coppice, looking for Ash, a straight grey stem. We head deep in where thin Ash saplings grow like giant grass, competing for light. There is die-back here, brittle brown twigs in about a third of what we find, Autumn comes early for those in trouble and there is nothing we can do. We keep going deeper, I am looking for multi-stem Ash, this will be fast-grown, over-grown coppice, no time for branches. Here, you can see I have been here before, harvesting, pruning, tailoring, neat rings look up at us as we scan the branches of the surrounding Ash stools, clumps of fine branches… there, that one. I prune away all the dieback I see on these special trees, old and new, 35cm from any lesions is enough to keep the pathogen from the valued specimens for now, buy them some more time. I can just get my hands around this stem, the pruning saw slices away, white dust scatters upon the thick moss, it is over in a minute. The sun shines through the branches, light dancing white and green. Let’s idle in the woods a while longer, flashing bright saw dishing out the only medicine we know, hopeless really, the air seems so rare today, moreish, I don’t want to return to the dark building, but we must.
The ‘Crux of the Quandary’, what is that? It should be a Sherlock Holmes novel; at the end he will track down a fleeing priest onto a frozen lake. Confronted the priest admits doubts, at which point a crack opens in the ice, a freak accident, he is swallowed.
Back in the workshop we deliver the log straight onto the saw bench, cut cleanly into neat boards, wet sap spraying. Into the steamer and I retreat behind a curtain to make blinding blue light, final welds on the final jigs and then illuminating with iron orange sparks. The bends, clamp, clamp, clamp, an old hand now they are pulled round into shape, the new bare surface of wood bears the marks of our labour as it cools, buckled fibres, round clamp marks, my crayons instructing, noting, referencing. We wait, the newly empty cells set hard, baking crisp as they dry. The seat slats need gentle bends. 10 minutes and they are ready, hot, over a giant gentle form we stretch and squash those fibres, controlled, and then onto the chairs clamped into place to dry. The trio hibernates in the warm. I’ll tidy up then.
Sherlock Holmes walks off the lake carrying the priest’s body in his arms, both are soaked through, their faces white.
Ready, muscle memory elastic, urging tools to work. The new bends released, surface meets surface for the first time, the parts spooned and fitting, these marks to get them perfect. I’ll carve them, the grinder relentless, wood to dust instantly, and the spoke-shave makes quiet elegant spirals that litter the ground. The 5mm holes and then 12mm inserts, as the hours pass, one by one they lock together, I am ecstatic, looking over my shoulder for someone to whisper in my ear ‘stop’.
Time is a burden for the bored, but a real luxury when there is something you want to do. The next stage can take as long or as short as you have, every tiny inch of the chairs worked, pure white Ash-dust like flour. Organic lines defined, considered from every angle and brought together. Square sections are rounded, like dough, and it is only when we have got to the elegant beautiful bones I can stop. After the journey all is in place and all will be fixed forever. Each joint is still just interlocked together with an insert to take the load, no glue, not permanent. We drill through the 5mm holes once more this time going through the inserts too. Next elegant dowels are cleft and made by drawing the wood through a series of holes in a steel plate, they are like solid straws, 4.8mm. The finest Japanese saw trims and then cuts down the length of the dowels at each end, the angles checked and re-checked so the cut will be at right-angles to the grain of the two parts is it about to secure. Two tiny wedges are carved with a sharp chisel and then cocktail sticks laden with glue do their work in the hole and the dowel is in. A tiny chisel turns the dowel like a key until the saw cuts are at the perfect angle, ensuring the wedges will push against the length of the wood, not split it apart. The tiny wedges, dipped in glue, are hammered gently in forcing the ends of the dowels to flare out ensuring they can never ever be removed. All is held, suspended, clamped to keep everything safe until the glue dries.
“My dear fellow,” said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.”
The finest art in all the world
Is to kill a god or King
To shun law and all
Without a soul
Detecting a single thing,
Today I’m Pontius Pilate’s hitman
Hired to shoot the king JC
I go back in time, from 8079
I’m an intergalactic assassin.
Today I’m Pontius Pilate’s hitman
Hired to shoot the king
I’m a fine exponent of the greatest art
The art of killing.
I chose a time my informant
You may call me a blasphemer
Of a very high degree
Yet I’m only trying to show you
That this religion which you
Follow and yet you and I are only living
Through an ethereal fantasy.
A lie that’s only whispered,
not said but just implied.
When the truth has been forgotten,
who was the first to lie.
White lies told to children,
the lies that help us cope.
When the truth can only hurt us,
it’s the lies that give us hope.
When black and white is not the hue,
and grey is all you see.
Please bite your tongue and keep it in,
and always lie to me.
The mud is thick. It sucks at my boots as I drag my feet free from its insidious embrace one painful step at a time. The story is tied in a sack by a rope at my waist. I have to lean all my weight forwards to pull it behind me as the mud tries to snatch it away, leaving me with nothing. I want the story to float ahead of me on a beautiful sparkling stream, a bubbling brook that laughs and leaps and supports me as the ideas flow and the words pour forth, pulling me behind them in the wake of their joyful progress. Instead, I have to force the story on, yanking and cursing and wondering why I should even bother when nobody cares about it except me, and I'm not really sure I do any more. It would feel so freeing just to let go and let the mud close over the story sack, sucking it into the dark depths where nobody would ever see it and I wouldn't ever have to think about it again. But I know that's not what I really want. I want the story to see the light, I want it to be finished, and I want the opportunity to submit it to places for publication. I just don't want to have to slog my way through the mud to reach that point. And I remember a time when the journey was just as much fun as reaching the destination, and I wonder what happened to that feeling and whether it ever really existed, and if I can create it again. But I don't know how.
Semi-conscious I was a theatre of many good people
Graphics card in overdrive, cascading kaleidoscope of flowers and flesh
Rotated and danced in hi definition.
Even my dream eyes could perceive only what the brain could process.
Like looking out a closed window and you can’t quite see the pavement no matter how hard you squash against the glass.
I sensed beyond the edge of my eye there curling and dropping away was more than truth
Sorry I’ve forgotten what I was thinking.
I once knew where I intended going.
Did I hear you say you liked me?
Will I finish this nonsense?
“I doubt it”
God I’ve forgotten the chorus.
O, one billion brain cells
And I want them back
Good heavens, that’s a start
A billion £s on loan
But, they are in a cell somewhere
I doubt it
Will I finish this nonsense?
Did I hear you say you liked me?
I once knew where I intended going
So sorry I’ve forgotten what I was thinking
Boring, Boring, Boring, what?
My opium poppies never grew
But served their virtual purpose
My courgettes did grow
And served their physical purpose
‘My seeds are rubbish. Another courgette
plant blew away last night,’ Dave mourns
at the pub.
I go to the pub after before or for:
a run up a hill,
working 10 hours, a three hour train journey
in a mask; a business trip to Ireland; a
bike ride; for an anti-flood meeting.
‘You’re the same’, they say. ‘You hang
around you can’t leave, it’s always one more
drink,’ I nod and smile and laugh but it’s not
when it matters.
"what is your name?"
I finally asked
on that cold
and hopeless morning,
as we stood,
naked on the hilltop, knowing
we were irredeemable.
"And I am Phoebus"
We cast off those vibrant
lies, I baptised him
Cain, he branded
me Cassius, and we went
our separate ways.
I suckled on the fat
of life thenceforth, and looked
not once back with
regret. There was no shame
or peculiarity in death,
yet I instructed
the undertaker to carve
"Scorn us or envy us,
it matters not to we
in milk, but gave up
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Tara’s breath evened out to the rhythm of the coffee machine, the rich dark liquid steadily dripping into the pot. Her morning run complete, she used the coffee’s percolation time to do some stretches. Then she puttered around the tiny kitchen, checking supplies and tidying away the previous night’s crockery.
A pair of shrill beeps told her the coffee pot was full and a smile spread across her face. She crossed to the machine and reached up to snag a pouch from the cupboard above it. Unscrewing the cap, she grabbed the plastic funnel from its place on the counter and fitted its long tube into the pouch’s nozzle. She held the pouch and funnel securely in one hand and picked up the coffee pot in the other, carefully pouring the hot liquid into the funnel’s wide dish. Once the pouch was full, Tara tossed the funnel into the sink, closing the pouch and slotting it into the holder on her belt.
Now she was ready for her rounds, her list of tests and checks memorised from many repetitions.
Tara crossed the kitchen in two short steps and pulled the metal lever to unseal the door. She dragged it open and stepped out onto the walkway beyond. She grasped the sides of the ladder on the opposite wall and climbed up to the hatch in the ceiling. Keeping herself steady on the ladder with one arm slung over the rungs, she reached up to pull the hatch open. The long tunnel leading to the central spoke of the spinning module stretched above her.
At first, the climb was hard work but the effort gradually started to ease. The closer Tara got to the centre, the lighter she felt and the easier it was to pull herself up the ladder. When she reached the end and turned ninety degrees to enter the wider tunnel that led to the main section of the ship, she didn’t need a ladder. All she had to do was push off the hatch and her momentum allowed her to sail through the tunnel in zero gravity.
Tara played a game against herself every day, to see how far down the tunnel she could get without touching the walls. She lined herself up as straight as she could and shoved off the hatch behind her, keeping her body streamlined. She made it past the sixth bulkhead panel before she drifted to the left and bumped into the tunnel wall. Certainly not her best distance, but respectable.
She opened the hatch at the far end and pulled herself into the control room, guiding her feet into the magnetic boots that waited there. They locked in place around her ankles and she put her arms out to the sides to help her balance. Once she felt secure, she pulled one boot free, swung it forwards in an approximation of a normal stride and clunked it down again. Her progress in the boots was ungainly, but it was easier than trying to check readouts and manipulate machinery while free-floating.
Out of the window, space stretched out in its endless blackness. Tara’s little living module spun on its spoke, creating the small pocket of gravity that allowed her some semblance of normality in her daily life. She had run two complete circuits of the ring before making coffee and her time had been one of her best yet.
The hydroponics bay was her first stop. The botanists back on Earth had done an excellent job of engineering a wide range of plants that could grow in zero gravity, and the fresh food they produced to supplement the caretaker’s rations was abundant. The range of vibrant colours brightened the monotony of Tara’s days. Everything looked as it should, so Tara moved on, promising herself another stop to pick up some fruit on her way back to the living module.
Next came the passenger compartment, the largest section of the ship. Tara paused at the entryway to check the readouts on the colonist pods. There was an alarm system hooked up to the screens in her cabin, in case of emergency, but she came to check in person once per day as part of her duties. The bank of ten thousand lights that represented the cryogenically frozen colonists showed green across the board. Power flow was uninterrupted, nutrition provision was steady, everyone was sleeping soundly.
Tara nodded in satisfaction and turned her heavy tread to the smaller crew compartment further along. Her heartbeat sped up as she drew closer, anticipation fuelling her steps. The checks proceeded as they had for the passenger compartment. All looked good. Here, though, Tara unlatched the door and went inside. Two hundred pods lined up before her in ten neat rows. She walked down the third row, past her own empty pod at number forty-two, until she reached pod number fifty-eight.
Looking down through the frosted glass, she beheld the sleeping features beneath. She smiled and reached out one hand to lay her fingers as if stroking the occupant’s cheek.
“Hey, Alice,” she said aloud in the empty air. “How’s it going, love?”
She leaned up against the next pod in line and gazed at Alice’s serene and beautiful face. Pulling her coffee pouch free, she unscrewed the cap and put the nozzle to her mouth, sucking up the still-hot liquid.
“Ah, that hits the spot. So, not much to report on my end, I’m afraid. Same old, same old. Still, it’s good to have a routine, right? I have to say, though, mine’s getting a bit old.”
Tara unhooked a scalpel from her belt and scratched a small mark on the side of Alice’s pod. It completed the twelfth set of tally marks. Day sixty of her six-month stint as caretaker. Four more months and she could hand over to the next crew member and go back to sleep for the rest of the one-hundred year journey, speeding her progress until she could be reunited with Alice on their new home.
In early morning we arrived,
At 8 or maybe 8:05,
We came with jackets, boots and drones,
We came as two, and not alone.
Good morning Mr Building Owner
How are you in times of Corona?
We’ve come to look at the emissions,
From your cars and lights and kitchens,
And offices, and operations,
And places your employees station.
Perhaps we can reduce these gases,
Refitting windows with better glasses,
And swapping doors, and insulation,
To rid ourselves of that frustration.
The tiles that are beneath your feet,
We’ll use them to distribute heat,
Regarding that most vicious foil,
We’ll end your use of pesky oil.
And why you ask?
To save the world!
That have occurred
And continue to this very day
For which the world will dearly pay.
We’ll save the birds, we’ll save the fish,
Eat meat grown in a petri dish,
And for our plan to save the mammals
Let’s start with these here solar panels
Up on the roof your firm does rent
To mitigate the high percent
Of CO2 that comes from buildings
And you know the real gilding?
The measures they will cut your costs,
As well as keeping out the frost!
What say you? I politely ask
Two metres away behind my mask.
Aid the fight? Limit the loss?
You look at me “not at that cost!”
You have nothing to lose?
Is there really a risk?
Down on your knees, heaving, sick.
Gasps of dank breath,
no toothpaste, no strength.
Risk going out?
Risk staying in.
Crawling through life,
crippled with debt.
You’ve already lost it all.
Is there really a risk?
Nothing left to give,
but frustration’s lament.
Not giving up,
not giving in,
lyrics meant to strengthen them.
Weakening you fall again,
nothing to lose,
nothing to give.
There is only one thing left.
Resolve, however weak.
Here lies the risk.
Lose that crumb, that penny, that speck.
Truly lose it all.
No matter how dark.
Must not give up.
Must not give in.
Dawn was breaking as I started the car. I had twenty empty bags on the back seat. The sun was peeping up from a grey horizon creating an amber arc. The sigh of it warmed me and splashed strength on to my wounded heart. Slowing down at the zebra crossing at the bottom of the road I sawLance, the postman and it struck me as I watched him drop his bag and run up the driveway of number seven that I had not cried this time. This time my overwhelming feeling was of relief. Lance had muscles on the back of his legs that were as taut as those of a dancer in Riverdance. Through my open window, I could hear him whistle as he flew through his quotidian routine. I drew away from the crossing and pushed my sunglasses up further on my nose. No, I had not cried this time. Maybe it was because it was one betrayal too many, maybe because I had grown tired of being constantly crushed, discouraged and sneered at, or, it could have been the constant diet of derision. There were bundles of twine-tied newspapers in the doorway of the newsagents. Two of the staff was on the footpath, their upturned faces catching the first of the sun’s rays as they waited for admittance. They were oblivious to a young man with a ‘stag party’ tee shirt and blue shorts tied to a lamppost nearby. His companion also wearing the identical tee was holding on to the lamppost as he puked every ten seconds. The missile containing the former contents of his stomach was shaped like a dialogue bubble in a comic strip as it soared over his head momentarily before landing at his feet where it now resembled a map of Jamaica. One more left turn and I saw the apartment we had shared for seven years. Tall and stately it had been built at a time when Ireland had a more distinct class divide. I waited to see if your car was there. It wasn’t. I waited to see if your neighbours were awake. They weren’t. I opened the door for the last time with my keys. Slowly I filled the bags I had brought with me. My entire wardrobe, my harmonica, my photos, my DVD's, my scrabble game, my thesaurus, my crossword books, my cd’s my remembered kisses and the last few years of my life filled them to the brim. It took me forty minutes to clear the room that was once a sanctuary into a vacuum. When my work was done I packed the car closed the door and pushed my keys in through the letterbox, and drove away onto the open road of my life savouring the risk I had taken. It was so…worth it. At the florists I chose a bouquet of twelve pink roses. The assistant asked if I’d like it delivered. I said ‘Absolutely’ and welcomedthe future.
My Father said that peril was the gatekeeper of life.
A concept not readily embraced by the mind of a boy.
He also said that obedience from a child and a wife
was a man’s entitlement. Do not retort. Do not annoy.
Do not argue. Do not disagree. Do not express want.
Pray. Praise. Respect. Listen. Obey. Do not engage
arrogance or pride. And when Mother was raped I was mute.
When her wounds wept, I shivered with frozen rage.
learned peril by this, the welts on my buttocks
and the cupboard’s darkness. Locked in compliance.
Belittled. Afraid. Angry. Ashamed. And then mocked
for these. I dreamed in my head that one day giants
or heros would come. She died. I was ten. She was blue.
He cursed into glasses of malt and I cried, but not loud.
Then I grew and he shrank as he drank as I grew
and I knew the Gatekeeper was lost and yet found.
I was his peril. He lay in his bed, in his sickening ego
still ranting and spewing out desperate prayers.
I took Mother’s hand and I never let go.
The pillow felt soft as I walked up the stairs.
Jemmie was never silent.
The moment she was born, she made her presence known with wails and squeals, gurgles and hiccups. Even in sleep, she murmured and sighed. There was never any danger of losing her or forgetting her. I always knew what she was doing and where she was. She wasn’t an unhappy or disruptive child, just always making some kind of noise. She wasn’t even all that loud, just constant. She existed in the world and she made sure the world knew it.
The noise of Jemmie quickly became the soundtrack to my life. Part of my attention was always fixed on her, tuned to her frequency. It got so that, when we were apart, I would find myself straining to catch a hint of her voice amongst the background noise of wherever I was. The unconscious effort would release with a physical sense of relief as soon as I returned to her orbit and could hear her once more.
That’s the worst thing. That straining is now constant, and it will never be relieved again.
The first time I came back to the empty house, the silence was oppressive. It pushed down on me like a smothering blanket I couldn’t fight my way out from under. I wanted to shatter that silence, to scream and cry, to rage against it and exert some control. Anything not to be left alone in those still, quiet rooms. But I could not produce a sound. I opened my mouth to pour forth my emotions, but they wouldn’t come out. The silence stuffed itself down my throat and trapped all my sounds within me.
Jemmie would never laugh or speak again, so neither would I. The house would stand as a monument, forever in silence because it would no longer echo with her noise. And I would stay in it, frozen in time and space. I have made my choice to remain silent in the face of the void of my existence, which no longer has Jemmie in it. I am wrapped in my failure to promote and protect her precious voice, and so I have sacrificed my own.
Silence is my penance, my only companion now that Jemmie is gone.
Phantom hands reside around your throat
Fear chases sleep
It hangs vacancy in your eyes
Hollows out your heart
In which to lie
Fear and the phantom now call you home
So when they ask
How do you explain
That your body
Are the cause of your pain
Battling- your own brain
At last the past has flown at last and left no doubts within its cast.
A certainty with all to see what's is done is done and history.
We cannot change what has come and gone.
We can't go back but must go on.
With what we learned by success or fail.
By true account or fabled tale.
Let the truth be our constant tutor.
Fair and fine, fuelling the Future.
The email came in and I hit the ‘Order Now’ button immediately. There was no way I was missing out on a limited run just because my therapist told me buying stuff wouldn’t fill the hole inside. It had to be mine.
The very next day, I set off on a trip away, by pure coincidence to a retreat run by the manufacturer. The confirmation email said they wouldn’t be sent out until the following week, but could I potentially get a sneak preview?
I gushed on arrival about how excited I was and she smiled and nodded, her eyes a little wary in the face of my over-enthusiasm. On the third day of the retreat, she interrupted my work to say she was expecting a delivery and could I listen out for the door while she was in the shower. It seemed like an odd request, but I agreed readily enough.
A few minutes later, I heard one of the other attendees talking to someone at the front door, saying she would need to go and get our host to sign for the boxes. I dashed out to intercept her, and signed myself, flushed with pride at my delegated authority. There were three giant boxes and I lugged them one by one into the building.
Could they contain what I was waiting for? My curiosity wasn’t desperate enough to breach the sanctity of another woman’s post. It was desperate enough to delve a couple of hours later when I was wandering innocently past (through the storage area next to the kitchen that had no other exits) and found the top box open.
And, yes! The hotly anticipated items were right there before my eyes, neatly stacked in all their glory. But they were vacuum-sealed in batches of five, and only one of them was rightly mind. I itched to rip the plastic and retrieve my prize, but societal rules of acceptable behaviour just barely stopped me. I slunk away to my corner and tried to focus on my work.
Hours later, when I was practically vibrating with need (awaiting both my item and my dinner), our host interrupted me again. She walked into the room in a stately manner, an object resting reverently on her outstretched palms. She grinned at me and presented it to me, beautifully wrapped in tissue paper of the brightest orange.
I managed not to snatch it from her hands and smiled my thanks, feeling the rigid edges beneath the rustling wrapper. I should wait, savour the anticipation, finish what I was doing and leave the grand opening until later. But of course I didn’t. I ripped the tissue paper away and revealed the stiff, black cover of the book, the numbers in the corner deeply satisfying in their rounded repetition. A quick flick through and all my dreams were answered.
Space to develop goals, list projects, track submissions, schedule sessions. Prompts to reflect and revise, to record achievements and plan ahead. My beautiful 2020 writer’s diary. All I need to fuel my writing future.
A choice is made.
Mohammed called me on Monday and asked if I could help. He didn't say Amanda* didn't know he was asking, although I suppose I should have realised. The client was due to be deported to India with her five year old son on 19 December so there wasn't much time.
The appointment was at 3 on Wednesday, so I said I would meet her at 2, and then changed it to 2.15 because I wanted to go to a lunchtime concert, but in the end I didn't make it to the concert anyway.
A couple of minutes after I arrived at the café, she turned up, with her young son and - unexpectedly Sarah from Salvation Army.
Of course she's not really called Sarah. I've called her Sarah because of Sister Sarah in
'Guys and Dolls'. She was there to look after the child, whose name I never did get, because there were more important things to discuss. Does that sound horrible? I expect it does. Horrible is who I am these days.
Indira - and of course she's not really called Indira, but I chose it after the former prime minister, and it contains the word 'India', which I think is a rather neat connection - was well dressed in a light raincoat, with beautiful dangling earrings. She wore a worried smile, nascent tears in her eyes.
I asked to see her papers and we talked about her asylum case, her spouse visa, why she couldn't go back to India, how her husband had repeatedly beaten her up in front of the child, how the first solicitor had ballsed up her case (my word: she was far too polite to ever say anything like that, an she probably didn't even realise that's what he'd done until Mohammed told her), and she cried when she said he'd refused to do her an appeal and she didn't know why.
I know why. Because there are lots of slime jobs out there who take on legal aid asylum cases and do next to nothing for the clients - remember, this is supposed to be fiction, so I can slag them off as much as I want - and collect the fee.
Then, when the Home Office refuse to grant asylum because the solicitor has done such a poor job, there's a window of just fourteen days to appeal. Fourteen days to find someone to stop the rest of your life falling off a cliff. And hardly any solicitors, even the decent ones, want to take appeals on, because it's just not worth the fees you get from legal aid. Assuming you can get legal aid. And if you can't, they might, just might, be willing to take your case to appeal if you pay them an arm and a leg.
The last time I took somebody to see A, her solicitor had lied to her and told her she had no right of appeal. He'd waited until the twelfth day after receiving the decision to contact her. She insisted on seeing the decision letter, which turned out to say she did have the right to appeal. I went with her to see A and we got an appeal in, just in time, and although it failed, it then went further and in the end she got leave to remain.
However, and I hope this will make you smile:
One solicitor told me when I went to see him with a client that she was the last person to get support from their legal aid budget, because of the time of year, late March. He'd been uncharacteristically late for her appointment and looked harassed. Afterwards I worked out he'd been arguing with his finance department, that being paid was secondary to this woman getting the advice and support she needed, because she'd been through so much he couldn't let her down now. Perhaps he didn't get paid at all.
That was Ben.
We won and the client and her family are safe now.
Well done Ben.
That's his real name.
So we talked through her case which meant the solicitor's job would be easier. Indira could put the case clearly to the solicitor, because we'd just rehearsed it, and I could query anything she said which differed from what she'd told me beforehand. This would save time and ensure the solicitor was fully in the picture.
At 2.55pm we headed for A's office. It was good Sarah was looking after the little boy because he was a real livewire. I guess he'd picked up on Mum's anxiety. The solicitor - A - has a great office. There are two seating areas for appointments, off the main reception area, glasses in, with an etching of a map of the world on the glass. This meant Sarah could be with the child in a separate area, so we would be undisturbed, yet he could still see Mum and settle, which he eventually did.
'A' said yes, she would take the case. Everything needed to be ready by the end of Friday, so the fresh claim could be put in on the following Monday, just in time to prevent deportation. It was a favour to me, I think, that she took the case because most of her work is in other fields now, and she'd have to drop everything else to be able to do it. She knows we are on the same page when it comes to asylum. We're part of the protection racket. I like calling it that. To think it's a protection racket, trying to get the Home Office to keep within the law and do right by asylum seekers. The whole thing is a joke. Protecting people from a government body who ae supposed to be set up to protect them. A joke.
When we left Indira was smiling a different kind of smile and Sarah was promising whatever he was called ice cream for being such a good boy. Sarah's husband was going to pick them up and take Indira and the child home. I told Indira to prepare her statement for the solicitor an email it to me to check. Her English was good, but couldn't be expected to be good enough to present the case in the best possible light. This statement would be the basis of her claim.
She sent it to me at 12.30am on Thursday morning and I opened it around 7.20. We worked on it, together, using email and phone for about four hours, after which she was entirely satisfied it represented a true picture of what had happened to her, so she emailed it to A.
The following week, I was happily on holiday somewhere hot where the food is a lot better than I can cook. I emailed A and Indira to see how things had worked out. They had gone as planned: a fresh claim, refused two days later (oh, they can move fast can the Home Office when they want to!) and a judicial review successfully lodged, meaning the deportation had to be cancelled and Indira and her son could stay in the country for the time being.
You might well be thinking, well so what? If the Home Office decided she didn't have the right to stay here then she should let them deport her (or 'remove' her, as A preferred to put it). Well, I have to tell you that I know thousands of asylum seekers, and I wish I had a cherry for every time the Home Office refused an application and tried to make somebody leave who was later found to be entitled to stay. I'd have planted a cherry orchard by now.
Last night I went to the opera with Sarah, the first time we'd met up socially in a long time. Actually we didn't: we went to a live broadcast, but that's the best I can do these days.
The Queen of Spades by Tchaikowsky.
Sarah used to be an opera singer (must be a great asset to the Salvation Army now) and pointed out people she knew in the cast, so it was a fun night out for us. Brilliant. One of the main characters looked like Jeremy Corbyn, and there were a few bars about half way through where he came on brandishing a pistol and the music, twice, appeared to play his name in a rhythmic way which was hilarious.
(Don't worry if you don't get that - you need to be into classical music, really, and how can I expect that of you as well as having to read this boring piece?)
There were only about eight people in the audience, some of whom left at the interval, and when we spoke to the cinema owner she said we were the only people who'd liked it. No accounting for taste..... The singing was superb - and I'd made us non-alcoholic cocktails for the interval too - so it was the best night out I'd had for ages.
On the way back Sarah told me the Sally Ann had been given lots of artificial Christmas trees just before 25th and she and her husband had taken one to Indira's house and helped her dress it. She said Indira had never had a Christmas tree before, and I said, a bit tongue in cheek since I'm a humanist who avoids Christmas like the plague (and I like to stir things), 'That would be because she's not a Christian.'
Sarah ignored my dig and said Indira told her every morning she gets up and looks at that tree and it lifts her heart.
You asked what hope is: it's a Christmas tree that Indira doesn't want to take down.
*You may be thinking who's Amanda?
That's a story for another time...…...
Trudging through Tadworth
but back in business
somewhere between Russian peasant and prostitute
A few flakes of snow fall
‘Where’s a cafe, please?’ I petition a postman in shorts.
He pauses and I wonder if he understood.
When he answers, eventually,
his vowels are as strange to me as a Frenchman’s. I tune in.
‘Carry on straight (tout droite), it’s about 7 minutes - are you walking?’
I am; his hesitation was in whether to offer a lift.
Getting in his car alone he says sadly ‘I hope it won’t be too far for you.’
Et tu, me too, I don’t want to walk!
But this is nowhere with rubbish blowing
through the railway trenches
And we are in no man’s land.
At first it’s just a feeling, she can’t be sure. Her nerves are strung out so thin they twang with tension. Many times she’s mistaken those tremors for change. For the better or worse it didn’t seem to matter now. All Lucy thought about was getting out of this space, this mindset, this rigidity.
If the tunnel had been either smaller or larger it might have helped. She had been squatting all night, her head forced at an angle against the rock ceiling, her body suspended just above the water. Every so often a drop of something landed on her face. It smelt of oil but she had no idea why. It was too dark to see what colour the liquid was.
When she’d scurried in here it was already night, the sky black, no moon relief outside. The further she’d pushed down this tunnel the more solid the darkness, in and outside her head. Every furtive step, every attempt to conceal herself more had loosened her grip on hope.
Lucy shifts position, to give her screaming muscles ease. No good, there’s no comfort in the few centimetres of space around her. She senses other creatures breathing somewhere in the tunnel. Her biggest fear at the beginning was something following her in, trapping her. Now she’s equally afraid of something deeper wanting to get out.
She can’t remember what she was running from anyway. Angry shouting, a man but he keeps his back to her, she hasn’t seen his face. Why had she been so sure he would wait for her outside? It must have been hours and hours, it’s cold, he would have frozen out there.
Would anybody miss her, raise an alarm? She couldn’t picture where she lived or with whom. Her sense of self is missing as if it had been scraped off by this rough tunnel, her petrified mind dumping everything in her flight. Why was she here?
There! She’s not imagining it, something is changing, it feels as if all the occupants of this tunnel are holding their breath. The silence is so pure Lucy finds she’s crying. She is a child again, waiting for Father Christmas to come. She’s a teenager who believes she will find the other half of her whole, that some rough boy will complete her.
She lets her body fall into the thin stream that runs along the tunnel floor. Somehow it’s colder still and her body emits a series of silent screams at the shock. Inch by inch Lucy tries to turn round so she’s facing back out of the tunnel. It takes what seems like hours and she’s panting by the time she gets back on all fours, her hands and knees braced each side of the stream on slippery narrow ledges.
Whatever’s behind her or out on the hilltop knows she’s there now. She laughs out loud because they probably always knew, she was kidding herself that staying silent would fool them and keep her safe. She’d been mad to think hiding away was a good plan. Instead she’d probably got hypothermia and she’d invalidated herself.
Lucy looked at her fingers before she realised it was no longer pitch dark. She could just make out her hands clenched into fists within her thermal gloves. She should go out there roaring. She shunted her arms forward, walking like an ape and the activity loosened her fear. It dropped behind her in the tunnel forming a barricade between her and whatever might follow.
I am on the edge of something.
I sense it.
just out of reach.
I close my eyes,
attempting to see
that I feel.
I am distracted -
a kettle coming to the boil,
wet washing to hang out,
birthday cards to write.
The light of the morning
the darkness of the night.
and still I feel it.
I hope I find it.
You kept it in your drum
to weigh it down although
you moaned it was too light.
You replaced it with a fleece
chucked it at me, the shadow girl
always waiting to help you
pack up your kit. Move on.
A plain grey T-shirt from Next,
oversized, not my sort of thing
but I’d had it thirty years,
the softest garment
I’ve ever owned, comfort
to a T.
I’ve exposed all my selves
that once wore it - rippled
with sun-oil on holiday;
bleeding and afraid; raw;
I wore it as a nightshirt
the day you proposed, then again
the night when you moved on.
Your mother says you’ve made it
with your band, in Poland.
I should have stitched
its rip, not let it worsen
thinking it was time
to let go.
I can feel my heart beat out that
Writhing march that constricts and chokes
Each waiting beat, each unsettled step
Another second gone out of reach
Still the blind, bovine hope remains,
Flickering in stubborn stuttering
Not desired. All I wants the cool
Dark, and that these bloodied feelings
Out of my heart. I wasn’t one for
Self doubt, self-immolation, yet it
With “Loving your profile”
It began, and
with this deadening
silence it ends.
I lie, awake, and alone,
And turn on the radio.
Just to hear, a single voice
Thats drifting out to me
I’d cry if you could hear,
I’d cry if you could see
But at “1.2 miles away”,
So close so far,
There’s as yet no relief for me.
“A classic here from the King”
And, quietly buzzing,
a message from her
- I think you are lovely but..
I get so lonely, baby, I get so lonely,
yeah I get so lonely I could die
My first day at work was an interesting experience. So many names, so many faces, so much to learn, so many people to try to be nice to.
The most outstanding of course was the girl who helped the tea lady. I didn’t realise that she helped the tea lady, because I didn’t hear her trolley arrive, being so involved in the intricacies of figuring out how to work a particular piece of software.
The first thing I knew was that this beautiful young girl was smiling at me and asking if I would like a roll. Well, I thought, she is certainly straight to the point. Her eyes laughed and she continued: “Ham roll, cheese roll or egg roll. Or a sandwich.” Actually I’d brought my own lunch. I was on the point of declining the invitation of a roll when I had a moment of spontaneity and found myself suddenly asking for a cheese roll. She smiled again, turned and I couldn’t help noticing her slim figure in a beautifully fitting summer dress. I watched her casually saunter over to the tea trolley, pick up a roll and walk back towards me. “Two pounds please”, she said, with a look in her eye that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the current transaction. I fumbled in my pocket for a couple of coins which she took without a word and passed on to the next customer.
I realised that I was still watching her when I became aware of a guy over the other side looking at me with a smirk. Suddenly the software became my focus of steely attention as I stared fixedly at the screen as if I had never been separated from it since birth. The room seemed strangely warm.
When I looked again, the guy over the side was looking at his own screen, but the smirk had been replaced with a sneer.
The end of the day finally came and I went home. I walked away from the building, through the industrial estate, past other offices and factories pouring their workers out like a swarm of lemmings, all going home to their cosy houses and families.
Turning a couple of corners brought me to the quieter end of the industrial estate, some of the buildings empty and vandalised. Another corner brought me to a street where the some of the buildings were ruins, their car parks abandoned and overgrown with piles of rubbish strewn around and a couple of burnt out cars.
Round a third corner and I realised that ahead of me was a familiar figure. Slim in a summer dress, it was the girl with the rolls. She was walking ahead of me, sauntering. Soon, I was near to her and she must have sensed me there because she turned and glanced behind; recognised me, smiled.
She walked ahead, I matched my pace to hers, keeping a respectful distance back. At one particular factory there was a length of broken fence and she paused there, turned towards me and smiled, the same smile she had when she asked me if I would like a roll. Then she disappeared through the broken fence and when I arrived there, I could see her walking towards an empty shell of a building.
Intrigued, I found myself following her. Perhaps I felt worried about her, I wouldn’t want her walking into danger. What sort of thing might be going on in this deserted building. Maybe I was mistaken in my motive, but whatever it was I simply found myself following her.
At the broken, smashed doorway she had entered the building though I paused, peering inside, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. Then I stepped in, and found myself in an empty cavern, the light shining on the bare columns of the building like light filtering into a cathedral, the large bulk of dusty machines heavy in the background. I stepped forward, but could not see her.
Suddenly, as in the most predictable of films, I was grabbed from behind and my throat pinned by a strong arm, pulling back into an uncomfortable position. My judo tuition disappeared from my memory and I concentrating on gasping as my throat was constricted and back bent into an agonising position, my legs buckling beneath me.
The arm changed position and the other joined it and I found myself being shaken like a rag doll, then thrown hard against the dust of a pitted concrete wall. Then my throat was grabbed again by a hand which pinned me hard against the wall and I could now see the face of my assailant: the sneering colleague from over the other side of the office.
“So you fancy my girlfriend do you?” the face sneered.
“Thought you’d follow her here did you? Have your way with her, did you think?”
Well, no, not really. I was worried about her. But I rather felt that sneerface might not believe that.
I remained silent. Out the corner of my eye I saw the girl, in her summer dress, standing nearby, the same smile on her face.
“Do you know what I do with boys that follow my girlfriend, eh?”
Oh dear, this was all becoming so predictable. Let me guess.
“I’ll show you, save you the trouble of trying to think too hard. Here’s a little taster.”
Sure enough, here it came.
As his free arm swung up towards my face I lunged out with my leg, kicked him in the shin which rather distracted him and as he eased the pressure on my throat slightly, managed to move my face out the way of his fist which I noticed happened to have a small rock held tightly within it. I heard a crunch as it contacted the wall by my left ear and Sneerface winced with pain.
A quick second kick knocked him off his feet, then I grabbed him and to my surprise my judo training finally burst into life and before I knew it he was on the floor on his back. In the gym I would be down and doing floorwork with him, but in this particular situation I judged it more appropriate to leg it as fast as possible.
As anticipated, a few expletives were thrown in my direction but unfortunately amongst them was the rock he was holding, which hit me square on the back of the head. Good shot. It smarted, too.
I turned, glanced at sneerface as he stumbled to his feet and skidded on the dusty floor as he stumbled towards me. I could hear roll-girl laughing hysterically and felt like saying something smart like “It’s ok, I’ll bring my own lunch tomorrow” but couldn’t be bothered.
It turned out I was a better runner than sneerface and he quickly gave up the chase.
Boy, was I looking forward to going to work tomorrow. Not.
Rock and Roll. What a day.
It’s happening again
Back and forth
To stem the flow of memories
The rolling sensation
End over end
Crashing and splintering
Through the central reservation
Round and round
Screaming and crying
Until the rolling stops
And the car comes to rest in my mind
Everything is still
No movement from the other side
No motion at all
So I rock
To stave off the stillness
To push back the memories
To remind myself I am alive
Even though he is not
Let's hear it for the tribute band: raise glasses if you would.
A bit like all your favourite groups but nowhere near as good.
Find them in the church hall on a Tuesday in November
And tell yourself the singer beats the one that you remember.
A geordie Robbie Williams, David Bowie with a lisp,
Sway to George Recycle as you tuck into your crisps.
The Rolling Clones will start you up; Dead Zepplin take you higher;
The Back Doors or an overweight Fake That will light your fire.
So long live all the tributes with their spandex and their covers.
Give us that touch of magic now we cannot get the others.
We'll book you for the garden fete and love you in the pub.
And we'll make believe it's Wembley when it's Rochdale Labour Club.
MR SHARIN’S ALLOTMENT
I hate cabbages! They’re all growing them (except Mr Sharin, of course. But then, he is a bit different. I must say, he grows really lovely stuff. Not a cabbage in sight on his allotment.)
It’s all Fred Taylor’s fault.
“Grow a line of cabbages and it’ll keep the slugs off the rest of your fruit and veg. Slugs prefer cabbages’, he proclaimed one morning. ‘Course, word soon got round and before you could crunch a carrot, everyone – except Mr Sharin – was growing them. Like sheep they were. Laughing and joking as they sowed their seeds. Thought they had the answer. Even joked that they would be asked to go on Gardener’s World. They would astonish the nation. TV crews and journalists would descend upon the allotments and it, and
they, would become famous. Mr Sharin did not like this idea.
“We don’t want anyone trampling over our allotments. I’ve seen these camera men. Wires trailing all over the place, then they walk backwards while they’re filming, and they have big feet. No, you won’t want that”.
“It won’t be like that” said Mrs Jenkins. “Anyway, there’ll probably be a policeman just to see that everything is all right, so to speak”.
“Police?” squeaked Mr Sharin. “What do we want them here for? Poking around other people’s business”.
Poor Mr Sharin. He went quite pale. He’s often here ‘till quite late in the evening. Lovely shed. Plays his music. Rock and Roll he likes. Keeps his shed locked though. Doesn’t like anyone to go in there. Mind you, he grows some lovely stuff. He often gives me some. Delicious they are. Not sure what they’re called but I know they’re not cabbages! Lovely pointed leaves. In fact I really think they’re good for me. Oh yes. I like what Mr Sharin grows.
It’s such a lovely day. I’m more than happy resting against this five bar gate watching people digging and hoeing. Nice and soothing I find it. Hello, that’s a police siren. What's happening?
“You called Gardener’s World after all Fred?” Mrs Jenkins calls out.
“No! What the heck are they doing here?”
Everyone’s stopping to look. Police are everywhere.
Oh, Mr Sharin’s leaving – in fact, he’s running. They’re chasing him. Oops, he’s taken a dive. Landed face down in Fred’s cabbages. That’ll upset Fred. Why are they handcuffing him? Doesn't look as if he’ll be doing any rocking and rolling for some time.
Now they’re digging up some of his plants. I hope they don’t come back for the rest. My mouth is watering just looking at them.
Fred’s having a confab with the others. He seems to think
that the TV crew might come after all. Something to do with Mr Sharin’s plants. I would certainly recommend them. Perhaps some of the others will grow the same. I’ve never seen a slug on them. Time for one more nibble at those lovely leaves. By the way, don’t bother with the cabbages. Yes, slugs do like them but it just encourages more slugs to join them and, as people say, ‘they breed like rabbits’. As a rabbit I really do object to that!
An old man sits ranting
The world is full of madness, masquerading as normal
what is normal?
the ability to appear upright whilst falling, I believe
Here, the manual
Being a rock prevents you from falling, but when you start to fall
you cannot cling to yourself. Should you try, you only fall faster.
It is the fate of the falling rock.
Really, it is inside that we die first, he says, spittle dribbling down his undershirt
then the rest follows - slowly, determinedly
Death resides in my heart, he thumps his chest
it is the nearness of it that comforts me
at peace in solitude
and a rock
I hurt no one
but everyone gets a shot at me
I unroll myself at the feet of the careless
the careless, he cries; the world’s loss of love, care, respect!
it is that which pains me
thus when I am alone I am at peace
Solitude I choose; I choose willingly
and revel in it
it gives me freedom, independence
from reliance on fulfilment from others
who are incapable
and of those there are many
(derisively) The hollow reeds
Now choose, do choose. He looks me straight in the eye
hollow reed or falling rock?
Transcendent = The World is outside Yahweh
this realm made for us
we below seeking a sign, a miracle
to reach beyond this physical, to behold
a glorious vision of transcendence
Immanence = made the tree, is present in the tree, but is not the tree
We touch your creations
tiny blue wildflowers under our feet, a torn hem
a lock of hair from a loved one curling in our hands
as poisonous snakes rattle under the shining ivy
all made by you
a divine lantern, a god particle
Immediacy = There is nothing but her
everything is her
she is everything
God is dead
It was our Lauren who showed me the ad in the paper and said she was going to go for it.
'Get away, you daft 'apporth,' I said, hanging onto the washing machine so it wouldn't judder out and scuff the kitchen tiles even more.
'They pay you £150 for the day, ' she smirked, 'and all you have to do is hang around and cheer when he makes the speech.'
'When who makes what speech?'
'King George the Sixth. It's a film about how he couldn't talk proper. He had a shockin' stammer and the film's about this doctor who cured him.'
I could feel her eyes wickedly twinkling into my back as she said,
'Guess who's playing the king?'
'I dunno. Claude van Damme?'
I was getting sick of her twittering on and the washing had got all tangled up in the machine, so I was struggling a bit to get it in the basket.
'Only Colin Firth.'
She knew she'd got my attention now. Colin Firth. Mamma Mia, Bridget Jones' Diary, Kingsman: the Secret Service, Pride and Prejudice, you name it, I've seen every film he ever did. Even 'Love Actually' where they gave him a rubbish part.
'Okay,' I told her, 'start again. You said there's this ad in the paper...'
'And they're looking for extras for a film called 'The King's Speech' starring Colin Firth. They pay you £150 for the day and you have to go to the stadium. They give you the gear, you listen to him give the speech, then you clap and cheer. I signed up already.'
'Give me that paper,' I shouted, as she snatched it up and ran round the kitchen with it. She reached the door before yelling,
'Buy your own,' and she was gone.
The washing forgotten I slipped on my crocs and sprinted to the paper shop to get 'The Examiner'. My hands were shaking so much when I got home I could barely turn the pages to find the ad. Except I couldn't find it. Then I realised it was in yesterday's paper. I'd have to get the bus to the library in town.
Of course, the bus took ages to come and it was raining stair rods. By the time I got to the library I was a drowned rat, but they had the paper and I soon found the ad. Seeing me pull my phone out, the librarian tutted and pointed to the 'no mobiles' sign. Shamefacedly, I put the number in and marched out into the rain.
'Hello, hello? I'm phoning about the job in The Examiner, to be a film extra?'
'Sorry, love, we don't need any more people, but I can take your number...'
'No, erm, no thanks.'
I was so disappointed I found a quiet corner in Merrie England and wept over a latte and two Mars bars. If only Lauren wasn't so mean... Well, that's my sister for you: selfish to the last. I'd find a way to pay her back. And soon. I went home to my washing, draped the duvet covers over the doors to dry, made a mac 'n' cheese for the kids' tea and put Mamma Mia on to cheer myself up.
Lauren usually came over for tea on Saturday. Her favourite was fish and chips, so, even though I knew it would break the budget, I sent Tim out for five fish, a steak and kidney pudding for Martin and chips. Tim looked at me as if I'd come up on a scratch card, even brought home lager.
We settled the kids in front of 'Despicable Me', and ate in the kitchen with our tinnies. I knew Lauren wouldn't be able to help herself and soon enough she was bragging about her new job: she had to be there at nine in time for hair and make up. She was catching the 8.15 bus to be sure to be there early. She'd try to get me Colin Firth' autograph but she couldn't promise. And with the money she was buying herself a designer jacket she'd seen in TKMaxx. In fact she'd already bought it on her credit card and was going to pay it off next month. Pretty soon I knew all the details and Lauren was going to get a lesson in keeping her mouth shut.
Tuesday morning it was fine but cold. I shooed the kids out for breakfast club at 8; Tim was long gone as usual. I called Lauren and said,
'You have to help me. There's a bird trapped in the shed and I can't get it out'.
She protested she was just leaving, I'd make her late: I began to cry.
'You won't be late. It'll only take a minute. You know how scared I am of birds.'
'Okay, but if I can't get it out quick I'll have to go.'
'You're a star. Thanks Lauren.'
Two minutes later she was at the door, wearing her new jacket.
'Thanks,' I gushed.
She left her bag on the kitchen table and held her hand out for the key.
'I'll open the shed for you. The door's been sticking and there's a knack to it.'
Lauren raised her eyebrows to show her contempt for my fear of birds, my falling down shed, my general status as a loser, before following me down the garden path. I unlocked the shed and cautiously opened the door, letting Lauren in through a small gap.
Then I slammed the door shut, locked it and took the letter out of Lauren's handbag before rushing out to catch the bus.
I left a note on the kitchen table for the kids:
'Your tea is in the fridge, just warm it up, and can you let Auntie Lauren out of the shed.
Love, Mum xxx'
It started with mix tapes
You unwrapped the world
Presented it to me
As a gift
For us to share
Now we find ourselves
Standing in a new place
And yet unchanged
But it is here
In this moment
The honesty of your love
That never tried to change me
That holds me lightly
In a state of stillness
the sweet beauty
As day turns into night and back again
We are side by side
Our eyes casting back
As our feet continue to walk
Not you’re not here what has become possible? Admitting I can’t do love and will be alone - not because I want to be but there isn’t enough appeal within me to stop it happening. If not you - no one. Nobody visits me here but I don’t seem to mind that.
You might return but that would feel like trying to reattach the skin to a wound. That lost thing putting itself back where it broke my flesh with its escape. I shouldn’t let that happen but I don’t seem to be someone with choices. They tell me you won’t come, you have promised not to and I know it's because you don’t care.
Then here I am on day three and the realms of possibility have opened slightly. They made a horrible creaking sound in the night and I imagined they were closing but look, when I shut my eyes I sense that kind of light you get behind clouds. Today I have done some childish painting while fantasizing I have a naïve talent that will make me famous. Famous, and rich, because with those you can solve anything. You can have panic rooms installed.
All my bleepers went off in the night and, for the longest time, nobody came. When they ran in, three of them, they tried to make up for lost time. I realised my bizarre sense of humour still functioned because they were funny, falling over each other funny. I thought they said it was my spleen that had ruptured and that was too ironic not to smile. It was within the realms of possibility that I might die. There and then just as I finally felt safe.
How long are your arms really? You always said they’d find my throat across decades, countries.
Day five they’re tender with me, sorry they overlooked my spleen. I don’t blame them, on the scale of things it wasn’t much. It’s just I have a necklace of bruises around my neck and I don’t remember them doing that. I asked but the nurse said she was sorry it was just they had to apply pressure when they opened me up. So I can be opened up and survive.
The plastic surgeon says it will only be three or four operations over a couple of years. He pats my shoulder, tells me I still have excellent bone structure and I will probably be pretty. After he leaves I can’t stop crying. I might be pretty. I have never been anything other than an ugly cow. Nobody noticed my excellent bones. Did you when you were breaking them?
You came. I saw you outside my room or was it a dream? I watched as the security guards pinned you to the floor and one of them kicked you. I laughed because it was exactly the same place you liked to kick me. They hauled you up, crumpled, bleeding and I looked you in the eyes. I felt something cringy, new, pricking my soul. I felt powerful.
Here’s the worst possibility of all, the damage you did to me wasn’t just physical. I will get out of this place. I will look different but I might now be sub-human too.
“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!"