REASONS TO SWIM INSIDE THE SKY

The canals of upper Clapton are mustard smelling trenches of blink-and-you-miss-it spasm splatters of colour amidst tar dark pathways. Bushes bristle with broken bottle leaves, mottle cast in a sullen, diesel pallor. Warrens snake under daisy field enclosures, as rabbits jump up into patchworks of butterfly pastures in green shield stamp grasslands. Silence only broken by the magnetic hum of telegraph wires slung from giant cranes, barbing and scratching the clouds in criss-cross lines: steely map gradients for a slate grey sky.

A mugger’s paradise – yellow raven’s eyes peep through black balaclava pillbox heads, bronchial and hoarse against the damp thin wool – lone men lurking in barbwire crevices, torsos immersed in the marshy reed vines, aqualungs of bile and blood coursing from their veins. Punctuating a walk along the bank are police notices with fish and chip paper headlines – uptight black letters stuck like calcified felt on crude yellow metal boards – milestone millstones chronicling acts of predatory violence.

Barges rest up along the River Lea decorated in Nepalese colours – mud reds, indigo and ochre. A local pub by a redbrick council estate spills people out into the early summer evening. Misplaced pudding-faced walkers, urban and ashen skinned, clutch their pints and look out to wide savannahs of wire sharp grass that grow beyond the swamp reeds of a still distant marshland. Chewing the crisp packet fat over memories of long distanced walks: exaggerated escapes from concrete chokey and unlikely fishing exploits and tips swapped and passed on: ‘put Perrier in this canal and you could oxygenate the dead. ’Fish rise like aquiline Christs from sunken tramways set beneath the fine silt bed.

anchor and hope

As if on cue, a salmon with a display of temper cruises by, belly up, rung free from its cellophane tomb wrap (courtesy of the local Tesco Superstore) – a smile of slash gut, a grinning fish coyote, its scaly skin shimmering silver and purples amongst the petrol whirl-wash of slow moving water.

You’re as likely to see a discarded shopping trolley or a deserted desert boot as any living being float upon this surface; but there are lovers here. Lone couples circle in the fringes, promenading the mud banks. Held close on one side by the claustrophobic, crumbling outskirts of the city and on the other by fields of secret kisses calling, blush tinged in the spreading sunset – the promised melt of soft lips joined. They walk in twos like swooning Bobbies on the beat; their fingers interweaved behind their backs. Dusk is their time to take the air, now momentarily sweet, before the sun floats down to disappear and the evening draws in and closes out the light.

shoping trolley for heron story

Swans form couples too, but one swims alone. Tony, named after a long necked former defender of these parts, Tony Adams. He moves with a ferocious, glandular reputation to live up to. Encased in a brick-hard armour of snow pelt, he hisses like a tomcat if you get too close.

Down river on the bank, the famous Dalston Heron poses on his stilt-like old man’s legs. He is as still as night and cranes his telescopic neck, his calm shape shifting in the shadows, his presence benign and balanced, somehow comforting.

A group of red faces nestled together on picnic tables jab their frosty tongues and shout out the odds. And from there comes a small boy, escaping his drunken mother’s shackles, emerging between heavy adult legs and rubbing at his eyes. He moves towards the heron, which stands quietly by a wall, its feathers blurring in the breeze. The boy reaches out with his hands and the heron lays his long, red bill gently on the boy’s shoulder. And they find a space, air cuddled in between, and slowly rock: a melancholic waltz. From the aggravated throng splinters a shard of angular spite: ‘Sean, where the fuck are you?’

Bobbing close by, like a small balsa wood boat, is a protective coot who blows his tiny soul trumpet through a Burger King straw – Zoot the Coot, whose shrill call-melody seems to rest on the woman’s pitch each time she cries out. ‘Sean!’; blast of coot; ‘Fucking hell, Sean!’; more blast of coot; and so on until the boy and the heron are suddenly gone, and all is quiet again.

In a park a small red vixen slinks into the bushes where her family waits. The moon passes shadows and light between the clouds, as the night rolls softly on the velvety, ebbing sheen of the canal. And there, high on the grass, are the boy and the heron – suddenly lit, finding out safe places to hide and spotlights of moon dust to play and emerge into. The heron is watchful, standing proud, as the boy runs down a slope, his arms flapping through the air.

heron and boy2

 

 

 

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CITIZENS

It’s a cold bastard of a night and it’s dark, really dark. And then you knock at my door.

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Can you help me, please?

Can you help me, please, who?

A game I played with my children. But you just walk in, onto my carpet, in my hall.

I have money, see.

And you show me a crumple of notes in the palm of your hand.

Please, take it. I need to rest.

I shake my head. Your hands are dirty. You smell of hunger.

Please!

You plead with your eyes; they’re cracked with blood. I take your money, take your hand and lead you to the back room. I light a candle. There are others like you there. They are quiet and one of them shuffles aside to let you in. You take your place beside him. I snuff out the candle and shut the door.

Your papers say you’re married and have three children. You looked pretty in the picture. I cut the papers and shred them as best I can, ready to put in the fire in the morning.

In the night as I lie in bed I hear your cries from below. New ones always cry but by tomorrow you will be silent like the rest.

In the morning I wash the potatoes I’d managed to scavenge the day before. I prick them with a fork so they won’t explode, then drop them in the fire.

I carry in a basin of hot water and what’s left of a bar of soap. They know they need to keep clean, so when I open the door they walk towards me in a line, and the one in front collects the basin and soap from me. You don’t join them but the man, who you’ve taken the place beside, gently pulls you forward to fall in line too. He mimics the action of using the soap. He smiles at you as he does this, and you look at him with your red broken eyes and smile too. I leave and close the door behind me.

When the potatoes are done I place them in a big bowl. The smell of burnt potato skin carries far, and when I open the door you are standing behind the man, waiting in line with the others. Each of you cups a potato into a hand and starts to eat.

I notice that the old lady who arrived two weeks ago is slumped alone in the corner of the room. Her skin is grey and her infected eyes are fluid with red and sulphur. Her time has come. After eating you will all silently hold her as she passes, and when darkness falls I will collect her body and carry it into the woods. By morning, nothing of her will be left.

It’s even colder tonight. I wish there were a blanket to pass around. I cannot risk a fire at night for fear the glow will carry. Even a candle for more than a moment can be a risk. One not worth taking, even for savouring the last book left in the house, Hemann Hesse’s Wandering. I love that book. I’ve read it many times. I think of the lines:

‘I want nothing, I long for nothing,
I hum gently the sounds of childhood,
and I reach home astounded
in the warm beauty of dreams.’

My home provides no safe harbour, nor do my dreams. My family taken, my dreams full with empty space, home a place of mere existence, scant survival.

Hesse says:

‘The dream of death is only the dark smoke
under which the fires of life are burning.’

Life is a flicker.

In the morning there is banging at my door. It’s the sound I’ve been dreading.

The soldier is not alone. There are three of them. He hands me a search warrant and they stride in. They search through the house. They come to the door to the back room last of all.

What (not who) is inside? the soldier asks.

Nothing, it’s a place I keep for dreaming.

The soldier looks at me as if I’m mad and barges open the door. It is black. He lights a match and holds it in front of him as he walks into centre of the room, lighting more matches to search each corner. Neither he nor the other soldiers see any of you but I do, your startled eyes, holding your breaths, clutching each other’s hands, backs to the wall.

We’re watching you, the soldier tells me when he leaves.

When they’re gone I go into the back room. The room is awash with a blazing light as if the curtains had caught fire and ripped open to the sun. It’s so hot. You take my hand and the man beside you takes my other.

The soldiers or their leaders can never see what we have, so tonight we will speak, and I will learn new languages and share my stories with yours.

 

**

Written for Word Factory’s Not The Election Citizen themed story Night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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IT’S HOT, SO BEWARE

Lost in Spain

 lost in spain

El Burro chants and coughs up globules,

Breathes like a juggernaut decompressing,

Steam exits through his nostrils. It’s a sign!

 

Monty and Victor are apart from their bicycles

and apart from themselves. The earth splits

and the cacti crackle. Another sign!

 

‘How does it go: “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain?”’

‘That’s it, Victor, you’ve got it,’ says Monty.

The buzzard clouds shift and groan. The final sign!

 

The two friends don’t hear their calling.

they walk and sing the song,

don’t feel it falling. No breath. No sign!

 

 

 

Night Swimming

Each summer’s night Beatrice and Marie Von Sudenfed arrived for a skinny dip under the lustrous silky moon. They skipped amongst the pond flowers on the bank that led into the water. The air swooned with perfumed blossom and the light warm scent of the young women’s skin.

Suddenly a puff of pheromone escaped the lively, watery earth like pollen from a flower sac and rose and swirled and blossomed into the form of a proboscis-quiffed-teddy-boy-flower, his stem straight and firm like iron, his beady eyes fixed on Beatrice as if he wanted to impregnate her. She felt the aroused intent in the air and shied away, whilst Marie Von Sudenfed, the elder and more experienced of the two, reached over to wring his stupid neck.

He ducked down and appeared to evaporate away. But later as the moonlight cracked and seeped amongst the branches of the trees, his fine misty tentacles could be seen caressing over the water as the girls swam out to the nervous centre of the pond.

Night Swimming

 

 

Hand Me My Hand

hand me my hand‘You can pin a maggot on a mackerel but you can’t pin a mackerel on a maggot,’ whispered the featureless child, his unheard words of wisdom floating away on the wind.

There was lot of wind on the Suffolk coast that day and it was busy dragging the kite belonging to the father of the featureless child along the far side of the beach.

‘Feck it, feck it and feck it,’ scalded Dad.

The snake on a rope thought he said ‘fetch it’ but his impulse to slither over and fetch it was curtailed by a sharp yank on the tie-rope around his neck. His trunk slinked and then coiled up into itself; his gasping tongue protruding to fork the passing currents of air.

Amongst the masses of messed up line attached to the kite emerged a giant ugly deep sea fish. It stank and shouted at a woman and a baby ahead of it.

‘Not mackerel, not a maggot, not a monkfish,’ mumbled and murmured the featureless child.

‘Mmmmer mmmmer mmmmer, can’t make any fecking sense of any fecking thing you say, lad,’ blasted Dad.

‘Sssssand shark, it’sssss a sssssand shark,’ hissssssed the snake.

Dad went to have a closer look. The stinking sand shark bit. He came back with the kite but without his hand.

‘That takes the biscuit,’ sobbed Dad.

‘That took your hand,’ corrected the featureless child.

Dad looked at him for a moment. ‘I understood that bit, lad, you’re right. Good to hear you talk normal for a change.’

The snake slithered back with Dad’s hand.

‘Thanks, snake,’ said Dad with a playful yank at his tie-rope. ‘Now let’s go home, your Mum has got some serious sewing to do.’

 

 

Barking to Woolwich, the River Way

Big taxi mouth, Barney Eggleston, got himself and his pooch kicked out of a London cab for mouthing the dirty. Not only that but a big tit was dancing on the roof of the cab and taking the St Michael, so he let it have one with a five-note concord straight in the beak: a right bloody mess. In the melee his pooch only went and got himself on the wrong side of the river.Barking to WoolwichAfter things went river n’ tits up, Barney was straight on the blow to his missus: ‘Andy, listen up, dog’s bollocks only gone and got himself the wrong side of the river’.

‘What you on about?’ she screamed.

‘Prince has only gone and got himself -’

‘I heard that, cattle brain, I just don’t know what you’re on about.’

‘Look, Andy, he’s got south side of things and I don’t know how he got there.’

‘Well, you’d better get figuring, that dirty pooch cost a cow’s arse lick.’

He wasn’t sure what Andy meant by this but his brain had bigger beef to fry. He tried to reason out things in a thoughtful way: ‘It’s like that story about the fox and the chicken and the eggs and the boat.’

‘What you on about now?’

‘I’m meaning it’s like he’s the chicken and the fox is me, and -’

‘Fuck off with all that,’ shouted Andy, throwing her receiver down.

Barney put away his blower and whistled for his pooch to come over. He even tried to entice it with the wave of Adam Smith. But then he remembered however monetarily inclined his pooch might be, he couldn’t swim a doggie.

‘Stay there, Prince my lad, I’ll come to you.’

But too late: Prince had gone off to use his return ticket on the ferry.

Barney was waist deep in Thames pong when he saw the ferry come towards him and it was then that he remembered that he couldn’t swim either. His phone rung: it was Andy: ‘the fox would eat the chicken, you ponce. But don’t get any fancy pant ideas about cooking up Prince,’ she screamed before a circling swirl of water sucked her and Barney down. And then a curious stillness, save a few bubbles popping up on the water’s surface, and the passing sound of a dog’s howls deep in the heart of the river.

 

 

 

 Waterworld

An old lady and an old man sit on an inflatable sofa.

waterworldSaid it was like 1938 to 1939 all over again.

I know.

Teetering on the brink, dithering in the face of disaster. All all too late, nothing to do about it, we were all doomed. Doooomed! No one believed him.

Not now.

Earth heating up, waters rising, washing us away in the swell!

Leave it. Let’s rest a little.

I worked for him after they put him in a nursing home, tight as a tack he was.

Was he?

He was! I put his dentures in a tin and shaved his whiskers with my fingers to save on razors.

Of course you did, makes sense now you say it. Now, are you going to buy me a drink, I’ve come a long way.

I don’t know you, do I?

You do, we talk ever day. My drink? Please?

Another one said Noah’s ark was real, found the planks and everything.

Everything?

Don’t need Noah now, and a boat would be a waste of time. They’re building rockets to Mars. Branson’s in on it; he’s one of them.

One of who?

The chosen ones, been selling tickets on shuttles to his rich friends for years; we’ll be left to fend for ourselves.

He wouldn’t do that. He’s got a nice smile.

Dinosaur teeth, they all have: Cameron, Charles, Camilla, Cilla.

Cilla?

Black! Cilla Black! My scrotum is litmus. All that itching, it senses things, can tell a bad one from a good one, it knew the deluge was afoot.

Rained 400 days so it must have been very itchy.

And 400 nights, sandpaper on nylon sheets. I’ll get you that drink now.

Daft sod, I was teasing you. Where are you going to get me a drink from?

Their sofa wobbles in a swell, the gloop of dark water twisting and spreading under the moonlight.

Could use a cup to scoop it out.

We don’t have a cup. And we can’t drink; it’s contaminated

We’re done for then?

Of course we are.

Can you swim?

Can you?

Used to be able to.

There you are then. Why don’t we hold hands, have a kiss maybe, share some of the old air raid spirit?

My scrotum is telling me this isn’t going to end well

You don’t need your scrotum to tell you that. Now shut up and give me a kiss.

But I don’t know you.

We’ve been married for sixty years you silly old fool, now hold my hands and give me a kiss.

Bert takes Mary’s hands in his, and kisses.

‘Oh, your lips are dry, love’, he says.

And a wave suddenly moves them from view as a large rocket passes over the moon.

 

 

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THE HIKE

a-mountain-hike

‘Oh, lone is the path that turns its head, that coils the slopes, and reaches unseen peaks.’

A ramble no more amongst congested city parks, devils careering on wheelie boards, arses slung from low-hung jeans, bins stocked full with detritus: used pampers, split micro-brewery plastic tankards and tomato splattered pizza cartons.

Out into the big sky and mountainous ranges, the air rare and tight, the urban hiker takes his beard for a wild unanswered whistle and a solitary testing climb. No mobile reception, no wifi, just him and his lightly groomed, much-coveted facial hair.

‘Beard, I like it. I like it very much,’ he says.

The beard tenses, its follicles frosting with the cold, tightening its grasp on the skin around his master’s mouth to produce a satisfying satisfied grin.

‘I want to shout “I’m smiling because I’m happy!”’

The beard has other ideas and tightens its hold further so the hiker can speak no more. He is forced to sit down with his beard at the mountain’s peak and listen and watch, the cold mist rising from the valley to join his own exhaled plumes of breath, his heart slowing to a single beat, everything laid out before him.

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AN UNHOLY GRAIL

 

an-unholy-grail

Quiet now. The night is Devil black.

Sleep now. The Knight waits for attack.

They mass behind. They storm and plunder –

The giant evil birds, the filthy scalded cats,

The tombstone tenants, faces racked by thunder.

Hope shines out from the door in a negative of night,

The moon above is full and on the other side of dawn

The cheats and murderous burst out of the earth,

The horned devil finds a good place from which to strike,

All light gone and night undone, the Knight waits.

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MONSTERS WITHIN

monsters-within

Mister Tindall runs the sweet shop. Mister Tindall lives alone. Mister Tindall has no friends. Mister Tindall is a monster.

Me and my brother call him names: yellow fangs, pus breather, custard eyes and banana ears; these are our yellow names for him.

He is the ugliest man in the street. He is the ugliest man in the town. He is the ugliest man in the world. He isn’t even a man.

Once he was wearing sandals and I saw claws where there should have been toes. He has a hairy back that’s way too hairy even for a very hairy man. He has spikes where they have no right to be. He owns a tail.

Dad says he’s the sort who would sit behind a screen in a darkened room and target bombs onto innocent streets and faraway playgrounds. Mum says Dad is being ridiculous but asks us each day if we’ve actually seen his tail. She has a strange worried look when she asks this. Like she’s remembering a nightmare and isn’t sure if she’s our Mum anymore.

That’s the effect Mister Tindall has. He upsets everyone and everything. That’s why we don’t go into his sweet shop, except when he’s not there. There are pink gums, red gobstoppers, small stacks of Dracula milk teeth, and jars with body chunks floating in formaldehyde.

A new rumour has started going around town. It says Mister Tindall is fearful of his own reflection, and is as scared of us as we are of him. He’s a coward and can be got at! Last week Dad rounded up a posse and they took flaming torches and stood outside his shop for hours not saying a word.

We still hurry when we pass the shop on the way to school. In class we all daydream about him. On the way home we write graffiti on his walls, like ‘leave our town’ and ‘you’re not welcome’. At night we hear him rubbing away the words, and once we heard him cry.

 

 

Picture by Jonny Voss

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WATCHING THE DETECTIVES

KOJAK

Hello, Detective, where are you going?

Call me Theo

Theo, that’s a nice name

Yes it is

Is that your lollypop?

Yes it is

It looks sweet

Yes it is

I want you

Yes you do

I love you

Yes you do

You’re so direct

Yes I am

Tell me something to break my heart

Who loves ya, baby?

Ohhhhhh, Theo!

When a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you?

You really do it to me

Yes I do

You’re the main man

Yes I am

Ohhhhhh, Kojak, you’ve done me again!

Yes I have

13 Kojak

 

QUINCY

QUINCY

‘I swear I saw it, I did, I did,’ says the lippy horseman pointing back towards the island.

‘You saw what, may I ask?’ asks the armless one.

‘Fungus Face, Mister Mask the Fungus Face! He made some bad ju ju down there.’

‘Do do?’

‘Ju Ju! He do an autopsy or something on someone or something, I don’t know what. Couldn’t make it out.’

‘You should go back and make it out,’ says the armless one.

‘Come on! Who do you think I am, Poirot or Quincy?’ asks the horseman

‘Quincy.’

‘And who do you think he is?’

‘Quincy.’

‘Well, I’m not going back, not for you, not for no one, not even for Quincy.’

 

POLICE! CAMERA! ACTION!

creep

 

Police! Camera! Action!

Another disaster programme done and dusted, and the TV anchor-man made from slime and Milk Tray slips away to the park. Clothes off, neck hair swept back, his metamorphosis into a creeping creeper creep happens within his own moving fog of smug. His form glides as much as it hunches and when he arrives in the park he sets about worrying the deer by whispering crime statistics and the phrase ‘buckled Austin Princess’ into their hot felt like ears. ‘Bastards’ is a word he savours for unsettling the stags, their bony coat stands tensing as if they might rut and cut at any moment. But as quick as he was there, he’s gone again. Back to the studios and into his early evening television suit, a Chaplin dung stain mopped off his top lip by his adoring assistant, his tiny hooves clasping the calf insoles of his smart heeled shoes.

Smile! Smarm! Action!

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