Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page
Hello Wordquest – I am very excited to be applying for the commission to write a piece for you, but have been unable to attach samples of my writing on your online application form, so I thought I would try posting them here for you to take a look… spacing may seem a little odd as copying into a blog sometimes changes the layout.
My father used to wear a ‘sports’ jacket with a shirt and tie.
On holiday he’d let the shirt lie open at the neck
swap his shoes for sandals, but leave his socks on.
He’d dig and build and dam the streams as they flowed down to the sea
where we splashed and danced and screamed,
and he ventured if it got warm, not to swim,
but wade out to us.
“I get cramp you know”
Couldn’t swim till he was thirty,
met my mother and she taught him.
And taught him how to be a father, because he’d never had his own.
Her own had been quite flawed and made their family life a hard one,
money tight and tempers checked.
And though our money was tight,
our tempers were free to voice our hurts and shout our fears
as long as we made up before we slept.
“Don’t go to bed on an argument!”
Except when he bought that watch
paid in instalments over weeks and weeks.
My mother was silent, with tears on her face
and we went to bed with that, louder than shouting.
And although she did soften, her eyes would flash briefly,
each time she heard him mention the ‘quality time-piece.’
“They took these on the first expedition to Everest.”
He always wore that watch, strapped to his wrist.
Engineered for action it would never see –
clean face and strong hands –
second hand tipped red like cupid’s arrow
pointing to each of us in turn, never resting on one.
Dictating our timetable –
set by the pips on the B B C.
Radio 4 was his constant companion.
Programme less important than the tone or pace,
the soundtrack to his careful life.
Plans made, schedules to be adhered to.
Every trip an expedition.
ETDs and ETAs,
running into red time –
no deviation from the prescribed route
“I’m committed now.”
No driving for the sake of it,
or turning left just because the road that way has a vaulted roof of lime green foliage
which shifts and sighs to let the sunlight through and leads somewhere we’ve never been before.
We were the ones who did all that.
Running, freefall down an unknown path
trusting that he would bring us back safe, carried high on his shoulders.
Or fetch the car when we got tired.
And as we ventured out alone –
“what time shall I get you?”
Drive us home, park up outside
and stay in the car, his not so secret den,
away from the house full of women.
Sat listening in the dark to his faithful friend,
the end of a programme,
tales from Ambridge,
letters from America,
News bulletins from around the world
and men’s adventures.
Mountains scaled, ravines traversed, battles fought and territories won.
Bravery and derring do.
Tuned to a world he would never see,
cities he would never visit,
heights he would never reach.
No mention of stories read at bedtime
grazes kissed and old jokes told,
curtains drawn against darkness
and monsters banished from beneath the bed,
towels dropped on the bathroom floor,
egg boiled – just right,
polished shoes lined up the stairs on Sunday night,
dishes to wash with sleeves rolled up,
watch un-strapped and left on the window-sill,
still counting moments.
Still counting moments
until it fell
strapped to his wrist
and hit the ground
And when we lay it in the box
there inside the lid we read
Made in England
He hits snooze and rolls over. Morning light spreads across the floor through the thin curtains, they are patterned with blue and green swirls, ripples and dashes, like water. But no barrier against intrusion, like the real thing.
He is swimming again, dropping his head underwater, pulling with his arms. Once fully immersed he drifts, feet paddling gently, using hands to steer this way and that. The water is clear, sounds of the world are muffled. Bright vegetation sways with the current, golden, soft, lit by sunlight filtering through from above. Far off he hears the voice of a girl, singing a familiar song. He pulls his hands down, to propel himself forward, kicks hard with his feet, catching silt at the bottom. It clouds around him. He can’t tell which direction she is, opens his mouth to call her, but it fills with water. Above him, maybe below, he hears a siren, its rhythms the same as the song. The water is dark, visibility restricted, his legs won’t move and his arms are rigid. The siren again, this time much louder.
Alarm goes off again, hits snooze again, but it keeps on at him. He throws off the covers and swings his feet to the floor with a thud, sits a while, till his brain catches up with his body. Moves slowly through to the bathroom, across the landing. Feet thudding as he walks.
Quick wash, quick spray, clothes on, he goes downstairs. Last night’s plates sit on the side in the kitchen, the fridge is pretty empty, milk smells rank. He swills the dishes to save her a job later, gazes out of the window to see a lifeless tea-towel hanging on the line – Flowers of Britain – none bloom in their garden. He dries his hands on his trousers, then back through to the hall.
He climbs the stairs again and pushes her door, just a crack, peers round it to check how she is. She lies on her side of the bed, the other side empty, as if dad has just got out, or not yet come in, dressing gown wrapped closely to her. Frowning, even while sleeping, breathing deep and slow, covers pushed down, where they’d been the day before and she’d not made the bed. He pulls them back over her. The mirror reflects back the room, a boy tall-as-a-man, standing by her bed. Clothes litter the floor, where they’ve fallen or she’s stepped out of them. He scoops them up, quickly, furtively, and throws them into the redundant laundry basket.
Downstairs, grabs his bag, checks the time, out the door and down the path. The sky is much lighter now, but it’s a cold day, rain peeing down. Turns up the collar of his jacket, against the wet. The walk is never pleasant, not much to look at. Paving slabs cracked, leaves drifted in heaps, a dog crouched over one, so he can’t kick through. The uneven roads collect puddles of rain and passing cars spray dirty water up his legs. His bag hurts his bony shoulder, strap cutting in. The air is grey and the only noise traffic crawling past, stopping and starting as cars reach the junction, pull out one by one. Tires on wet tarmac, slurping and hissing. Houses with net curtains to keep the outside from peering in. Tiny lives in tiny rooms. A man comes out of number 34 and runs to the bus stop holding a newspaper above his head to keep off the rain. No point waiting for a bus, by the time one comes along you’re soaked anyway. And the noise on them, tsk-tsk-tsk of secret music through headphones, chat-chat of girls, mindless banter from blokes in cheap suits.
He walks past the queue, silent until they step on board, as if the sanctuary of the vehicle loosens their tongues. Roddy Becks is there.
They exchange the word, with a toss of the head. He’ll beat Becksy to the gates, he always does. He heads for Happy Shopper to buy a carton of milk. He loves milk, ice cold, to throw down his gullet as he walks along. Round the corner, through the door. “Alright,” from the girl behind the counter.
He throws up his head in reply, chucking money on the side. Downs the milk, starts running to make up time. Through the gate, bell going.
Through the hall, grey like the sky, climbs the puke stairs with matching puke walls, to French with ‘Miller the Perve’. Granger’s on duty along the top corridor, handing out flyers for some weirdo club he runs after school. Lessons drag on. He’s got no lunch so blags some off one of the girls. They all like him, think he’s dead sensitive, not bad looking. But he’s no time for girls, knows what they’re like under that sparkle, full of dreams that are bound to turn sour.
Not a bad day, not too much aggro, he’s pushed through the gate at the edge of the crowd. Turns up the lane, collar up, head down, for the walk home.
“Getting the bus?” Becks shouts over.
“Nah, I’ll walk.” Like he always does.
He’ll run it. The back way, takes longer, but the rain’s stopped, bit of sun getting through, naked trees reaching to touch it, in case it can spark some leaves off to dress them up again. Long strides, breathing deep, even, holding his bag close to stop it banging around. On up the hill, slipping on gravel and dirt as he runs, he trips, lunges, grabs to stop his fall, but falls anyway. And where his hand goes out to break the fall he feels something, curved and hard. He grips it in his fingers, pulls his hand back to take a look. A shoe. Small and neat, silver, with jewels that catch the weak rays of the sun and bounce them back, bright. He casts a glance around, nobody looking, so he puts it in his bag between geography and sports science, first picking off the bits of damp leaf that stick to it.
Head down, walking now, not running, back towards the shops. Turns the corner and heads for home. Key in the door, slams it behind him, hears the voice from the front room.
Who else would it be? He opens the door to find her as usual, in the chair, in front of the telly.
“Alright,” he grunts.
“Alright love. Want some tea?” Said without looking up.
She never makes tea, just sits smoking, watching quizzes on telly. He puts his hand in his bag, curls his fingers round the shoe. And turning back to look at her, the light from the screen catches her hair, it glows gold and her face looks softer. The audience gasp and applaud on the telly.
“Mum…” but it’s already passed. He lets go of the shoe and climbs the stairs. She sucks on the cigarette, lips smacking as she pulls it away, filter toffee brown where she drags so hard. The ashtray is full, balanced on the arm of the chair. Some man has just lost £16,000 because his final answer is wrong.
“Ahh,” says mum.
He runs a bath, drops his clothes on the floor and climbs in. Under water the sounds are muffled, steady beat of music from next door, dull sound of telly from below, a siren. It is warm in the water and as it cools down he stretches up his foot and twiddles the tap to let more hot in until it slowly splurges out of the over flow and he has to get out because there’s no more hot to put in. The immersion tank speaks to him, grumbling and complaining, as he throws on a t-shirt and steps into his jeans. He lifts her laundry basket under one arm and takes it downstairs like a child balanced on one hip.
Not much in the freezer, couple of pizzas. He takes one out and slams it in the oven, watches her, watching telly, while it cooks through. He puts some on a plate, on the chair by her elbow. He knows she won’t touch it, eats like a bird now, taste buds all gone. He lies on his bed gazing up at the ceiling, at the clouds she painted when he was a kid and fitted the bed. One looked like a witch and he’d cried, afraid it would get him. So she climbed on his bed, paintbrush in hand and daubed more white to paint it out, sung to him softly – raindrops keep falling on my head – until he drifted off to dream about being big and fighting all the monsters in the world.
Traffic outside, dog barking, music next door, telly mumbling down below. He drifts into sleep, doesn’t hear her switch off the telly, climb the stairs, slowly, sigh at her reflection in the mirror, or the creak of the bed as she lowers herself onto her side of it.
In the morning, he forgets the shoe shoved inside his bag. He goes through the motions, same as every other day. Alarm, snooze, alarm, quick wash, quick spray, gets dressed, looks in on his mum. He walks the usual way, bag on his shoulder, banging in time with his stride. He feels a pain in his leg where something digs in. He slips his hand inside his bag and wraps his fingers around the heel of the shoe, feels along to the toe. The sun trickles weakly but the trees seem triumphant, the pavement shiny, the heaps of leaves like fires, he kicks his way through them, revelling in the swish. The sound fills his head.
“Oi, Becky! Why don’t you walk?” He shouts at the slumped figure of the boy as he passes.
“Nah. Too far,” comes the reply.
“Alright mate,” to the man at number 34.
“Who are you callin’ mate?”
On to the shop, Happy Shopper – he is a happy shopper, round the corner, through the door, into the shop, carton of milk.
“Good morning,” smiling to the girl behind the counter.
“Are you takin’ the mick?” She glares at him.
He slugs down the milk, white, cold, spilling a bit on his jacket. Through the gate, he beats the bell, beats Becky and starts the school day. The hall isn’t grey, it’s a soft kind of lilac, like that shirt mum wore when she worked at the bank. The stairs aren’t puke, and Miller’s just friendly, not like the old teacher who shouted and yelled. Granger’s not weird, just into weird stuff, and that’s okay.
He gets into trouble, asks too many questions, they’re not used to him like this.
“What’s your game?”
“You being funny boy?”
But not a bad day as days go, a bit too much aggro, but nothing he can’t handle. He is pushed through the gate at the edge of the crowd and turns up the lane, collar up, head down, for the usual walk home. Past the arcade of shops, Pizza Panic, Bonus Rentals, Threshers, Happy Shopper. He looks up at the hill behind, a whole sky up there. He takes a run at it, long strides, holding bag, hand on the shoe inside, breathing deeply and reaches the top. Spinning around he cries aloud like Tarzan. The sky is huge, the town is tiny, the grass is soft and dewy and the air is clear. He can see his whole life down there, and he is alive.
He runs home as fast as he can, shoe in his hand, tripping and stumbling, but not falling. Up the path, fumbling with his key, he barges into the front room, calling as he does.
“Mum! Come out for a bit. Mum?”
Mum with her golden hair that she has never dyed, that used to shine when he was a little kid, who used to laugh before dad had gone, who used to sing and dance, who used to paint and draw mad pictures with him and cook and bake whilst he made potions and special recipes by her side, who sits in a chair mostly now, cigarette in hand, motionless, shineless, songless.
He hears the immersion tank grumbling and complaining, gurgling and refilling, up in the bathroom and takes the stairs three at a time. She lies in the bath, hair streaming like Ophelia, not golden now, but dull. An empty strip of pills lying on the floor. He uncurls his fingers from the muddy old shoe and lets it drop to the floor. He kneels beside the bath and wonders if he should lift her out before she gets cold and wrinkled but instead leans forward and turns on the tap to let in a little more hot.
Gretel & Ariadne
I keep mementos
which silently document a life.
A private archive.
No glass case,
No air-conditioned vault.
clip from umbilical cord,
hospital identity tag,
lock of long-awaited hair,
crumpled painting of a cat, or maybe a dog, an owl?
a single boot, of soft leather with unmarked sole.
Small blue dress with bleach stains,
milk-tooth wrapped in a paper towel,
list of spellings,
letter to Santa,
postcard from Paris,
I gather them up in your wake,
knowing I dare not call out for you to wait so I can keep you in my sights.
You keep mementos too.
Letter from the Tooth Fairy,
ticket stub for Steps,
old party invitation,
Birthday card signed with fifteen names,
paper bag from a department store,
earring shaped like a tiny bow,
dog-eared passport photo,
postcard of Audrey Hepburn,
exam timetable folded in a square,
post-it with a heart drawn on
These track your path away from me
and will not stop,
until you find the need to document another’s life,
as I do now.
There is another course,
the one that brings you back to me.
When I stop dead
you’ll find you need to turn around
and gather up the markers left behind,
that track the journey we have made together
as I tracked back the journey with my mother
when she’d gone.
As long as we have threads to guide us where we came from
or morsels dropped to show the way
there’ll be a trail to follow when we need it.
If you are Gretel, I’ll be Ariadne
and keep the path from past to future clear.
My Wealth is the Future
My friend Lanre
doesn’t know his real birthday.
The British told his father
he must register the birth in the township.
But a boy is a man, when he’s ready
not on a day on a calendar.
So he just picked a date
from a week or so back.
That was the birth-date, he says, for his son.
My friend Lanre
toddled into his father’s dwelling,
he was round about two,
and found him hanging from a beam.
He doesn’t speak of this,
but his girlfriend whispers
as she shows a faded picture
of her chieftain-son’s secret history.
Who’s to say why this happened.
My friend Lanre
was sent to England to get an education
and make the family proud.
He learned to shape his mouth
around new words
in Public School contortions
so that sometimes
I can hardly understand
a single word he says.
My friend Lanre
lives in a rented apartment
close to his London Chambers.
He chooses not to buy,
a roof he says, is just that.
He collects modern works of art
but refuses to insure them.
When things are taken, he says,
they can never be replaced.
My friend Lanre
wears an ancient wig and gown
and speaks in defence
of those less fortunate brothers
without appointed council.
No matter if they’re guilty,
the task, he says,
is to utilise the Queen’s law
to get them off the hook.
My friend Lanre
is the archetypal English gent
his manners and speech make him one.
But his careful disguise
betrays one tiny clue.
When I talk of things
he speaks of thin’ s.
He says, ‘thin’ s fall apart.’
My friend Lanre
simply by dropping a G
shows himself as Olanrewaju,
in his father’s tongue,
my wealth is the future.
Amongst grapefruit and limes
are waxed lemons,
their essence sealed.
Plump Technicolor hybrids,
lit by harsh strips above.
This bar-coded fruit will be sliced
and dropped into a drink
or quartered as garnish on a pub plate.
It does not stir memories of longing.
I remember that film where a girl,
stripped to her waist,
rubbed lemons on her skin.
Her back to the camera,
to catch the perfume of citrus
from the screen.
I remember lemons growing outside the window
zest warmed, then pitted by rain.
Ready to drop
or be plucked,
twisted from the stem
staining fingers with invisible yellow,
Those remembered lemons carry with them
the call of cicadas in the afternoon
and the lightness of cool sheets on warm skin.
Not another bloody stick.
Just how many does a small boy need
to tool himself up for imaginary battle?
I know for a fact there are always two or three
lying on the back seat of the car
for his sister to sit on and cry, “Oh God! What is that?”
Some of course, are weapons,
but others are polished twists of touching stuff
for hands to rest on – fingers to wrap around
thumbs to rub up and down
as if burnishing a golden rod.
Those ones I understand and allow him to bring them home.
Wizard’s staff, lance of a knight, sceptre of a boy king.
Others I scorn and demand they be left behind.
My vision cannot equal his in most cases – or his sister,
“it’s just a dirty stick.”
That time in Wassdale we had lain awake
listening to the howling, rushing dragon
as it thundered around the hills and down the valley
wrenching pegs and guys from soil.
We brave adults ventured out to secure our bucking canvas shelter
to keep the boy king and his sister safe inside.
And he, eyes wide in the darkness, softly asking,
“did you bring my stick back in?”
Once safe in his hand, he breathed more easily and allowed his eyes to close,
armed against the demon who railed outside.
We lay down and I whispered,
“it’s fine, everything will be alright,”
secretly believing otherwise.
I reached out my hand to touch his arm
and closed my fingers round his wrist
just like he, small boy, closed his fingers round his precious stick.
The Utopia of Hugging 
Two Chinese brothers wait with cameras
for the people of Nottingham
to show their love for humanity.
It’s such a pretty park,
but the sun doesn’t reach the pond this time of day.
The few shabby ducks are unimpressed by our leftover wholemeal bread.
The kids want to play hide and seek, just till it starts,
I’m afraid not.
That man by the toilets looks decidedly shifty.
What the brothers Gao don’t know,
is that on any other day,
this is where drunks come to hug cans of lager.
 On Sunday the 30th April 2006 people in Nottingham took part in what is thought to be the first ever mass hugging event staged in Britain and part of the Gao Brothers’ global World Hug Day series of performances. More than 100 visitors gathered in the Arboretum where they were invited to hug a stranger for 15 minutes before joining in a group hug. The event was accompanied by choral music composed by J S Bach.
Commenting on the Nottingham event, the Gao Brothers said that the Britrish people had invented a new form of ‘creative hugging’.