Saturday, 28 January 2012

Construction - a poem

Starting out was simple,

a joyous thing to do,

you built without concern or care;

the palace of the new.

You laid each brick so carefully,

cementing it in line,

so focused on the task ahead.

Believing it was fine.

The walls grew high around you,

you laboured on within,

each interlocking fragment

an ever thickening skin.

Oblivious to the weather,

to rain or storm-swept sky,

you carried on constructing.

You never wondered why.

You built high, never pausing

on the task that you’d begun,

until the day you realised that

you’d never reach the sun.

Beginning it was easy,

but knowing now is tough;

however high you built those walls

would never be enough


One of the comments on my last blog post was from Joe Pereira, who, amongst other things asked me if I could "write something about "building walls" ?" this poem is my response to that. 

Thank you Joe - I'm not sure how well I've risen to the challenge, but I hope you like it

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Broken sunglasses and an old potato

It's not a good start to the day as I realise, yet again, that it's bins day and neither of us remembered last night to put the rubbish bags out for collection. As I stumble around the house in the half light of early morning, muttering and grumbling about being late for work, I wonder how other people organise themselves for the day-to-day activities of living together. With the small part of my brain that's awake at 6am, I trawl through faint memories of our early conversations, but I can't remember us ever having a conversation where we allocated out the chores; I don't recall any lists of tasks carefully shared and balanced.

There wasn't any negotiation process all those years ago, and I'm sure there would be no point in opening talks right now. It's too early, I'm sleepy, he's asleep. So I gather up the newspapers for the recycling bag and move from room to room emptying bins into a black sack. I line up the bags at the kerbside, then go back indoors to wash my hands before leaving for work. When I go upstairs to say goodbye, I realise there's one bin I've missed, so I dash back down for another bag, my irritation increasing with each of the thirteen stairs down and every one of the thirteen stairs back up again.

In our bedroom there's a small white basket, it's usually got a few tissues, perhaps the label cut from a new t-shirt or the polythene wrapper from the weekend's newspapers. Today, just because I'm in a hurry, it's full. And when I tip it up, the contents don't empty quickly or cleanly into the bin-bag. I reach down gingerly through the tissues, hoping for nothing damp, then extract a pair of broken sunglasses, one lens missing, one arm sticking out at a strange angle.  I tug to release it from the wicker weave of the basket, and as I do so, the rest of the litter falls to the floor. As the tissues float down like over-sized snowflakes, there's an unexpected thud, and I see a wrinkled old potato rolling across the floor and under the bed.

A little later, I'm driving to work, along with the often-slow lanes of traffic on the M25. This is usually my time for the mental shift from home to work, an hour of thinking about the day ahead, preparing the virtual list of things I'm probably not going to achieve in the next eight hours. But today, my mind keeps returning to home; the images in my head are a pair of broken sunglasses and an old potato.

I can't help but think how well those two objects sum him up. If I was taking part in a tv game show, I'd have guessed the identity of the bin-owner before the compère had even finished describing the wrinkled gnarliness of the potato.

I'd have known why sunglasses are a year-round accessory for him; that it's not a vain affectation, just a need to stave off the unsettling effects of over-bright lights. I'd know that he loses or breaks them time and again, that one day he'd like to own another pair of real Ray-bans, but that in the meantime he settles for something close.

I'd have been able to describe to the watching millions exactly where that potato came from, how it's ancestor sat in an egg-box on the window sill in Crown Road, before being planted in the middle of our allotment. I could talk about the enormous pride we felt the first year we harvested our own crop, how every year since then he's dug up the potatoes with the glee of a boy searching for buried treasure.  I could go on to explain how he's the cook in our family, how he turns those potatoes into the crunchiest roasties, even though he insists on leaving the skins on.

Today, the traffic flows as smoothly as my imagination and soon enough I'm pulling into the car park. As I stand in the lift on my way up to the seventh floor my last thought of home is the realisation that, without any negotiations about the sharing out of chores, I seem to have done ok. A frantic early morning emptying of the rubbish bins is a very fair price for the dinner I know I'll be going home to later.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Dinner for two

We talk almost constantly, as we struggle out of coats and scarves and take our seats either side of the wooden table. It's a couple of months since we last met up so there's plenty to catch up on, but as we each pick up one of the oversized menus to choose our food, I'm momentarily side-tracked by thoughts of childhood friends. I don't ever remember going out for a meal as a child, not even with family; the very idea that anyone back then would have suggested an outing involving dinner makes me smile.

I think of a time when friends were just there, wherever you happened to be; sitting next to you at school, running alongside you round the field by the bin-sheds down the flats, standing beside you peering into the muddy ripples of the river in Belair Park. In the days before mobile phones, in a world where ballet lessons and after-school activities were something other people did, there wasn't any planning or scheduling involved; it just happened.

Conversations were about the people and the situations you all knew; your teacher, the girl in class whose Dad hit her with his belt, whether or not you were really going to kiss Terry Jackson. Friends changed quickly, you fell out and fell back in again and a 'best friend' was more a state of mind than a matter of fact, but friendship itself was a constant.

I don't know when it started to change, perhaps it was when we all left school to go off in different directions. After that, families and relationships, new jobs and places to live, there were so many reasons why keeping friends suddenly became 'keeping in touch'; why constant became intermittent.

Yet the first half of our evening follows a defined pattern, as we each share news of our other halves and homes, of ex-colleagues in common, of current work burdens and future holiday plans. Conversation flows, it's collaborative and comforting, but then as the plates are being cleared, I realise there's been something in the tenor of our talk that's changed. When I've spoken about holidays, it's been less about future adventures and more about the places I might never get to see. We've made reference to failing eyesight and aching limbs, I've even mentioned retirement.

Then comes the moment when I lean forward to make a confession. But it's no tale of infidelity or misbehaviour, no shocking scandalous gossip,

"I've bought a new pillow."

Almost as soon as the words leave my mouth, I realise the mistake, I'm already cataloguing myself as an old woman.

But then she smiles and offers up her own secret.

"I've got an electric blanket."

And then I remember that thing about friendship; about finding things in common, having a partner in crime, and I realise that maybe times haven't changed that much at all.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Maybe it's because

It's the city of my birth, and even though I live in the countryside now, I've never lived more than thirty miles from its centre. Whenever I stand on Waterloo bridge and see the sun glinting on the river, I get a rush of pride that this is my town; that I can call myself a Londoner.

Yet there will always be times when I feel like a tourist. Afternoons where I wander around bewildered; craning up at tall buildings, rushing past my reflection in shop-front windows. I still traipse down crowd-filled streets because I've never learned the quiet short-cuts, still shop in over-priced chain stores because I've never found the secret alternatives.

Philip has often teased me for my inability to find my way around. When he first arrived here, he took the time and trouble to learn the streets, to look for the places he wanted to eat or shop or simply spend time. He walked and walked, until the roads had formed their own pattern in his brain, until he'd formed an affinity with his adopted city. Growing up in London, I just took it all for granted. Or hopped on the tube.

Nowadays, part of the challenge in finding my way around is that my understanding of the geography is totally based on London Underground maps. My only way of working out the route between two locations is by interpreting the coloured spaghetti of the tube.

But at the same time, I have my own, ever-so-slightly bonkers, theory of tube travel in London. It's based on the miles I've walked, swapping between one line and another, along corridors,  through tunnels, up and down escalators, threading my way between rushed commuters, striding past unappreciated and unappreciative buskers. I sometimes believe that it's all a big conspiracy.

Just imagine that, by the time you reach your train, you've actually already walked the distance to your destination. Could it be, that the trains shake and move in the dark, but don't actually go anywhere? That the tube companies entice you in, with their promise of speedy travel, only to use you as a captive audience for the adverts pasted just above eye-level. Have you ever wondered why those adverts are so carefully positioned exactly where you end up looking, as you try desperately to avoid eye contact with the people sitting opposite. As you sit there, in over-crowded, over-hot, carriages, desperately waiting to be set free at your destination, have you ever questioned why it takes so long to travel just a mile?

Or could it just be, that my antipathy to tube travel has more to do with the fact that most of the subterranean railways criss-cross their way beneath north London, leaving those of us who hail from the south-east, forever grateful to red buses and black taxis, fundamentally mistrusting the notion of underground travel in any form at all?

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Shortfall - a poem

If I could close my eyes and turn away

Pretend I haven’t seen or caused the fault

Not know I was the one who disappointed

Nor face the truth, that I have fallen short

It seems so hard to take the errors’ credit

Or make myself accept my personal blame

Gather in the harsh accusing finger

Not whisper out some other culprit’s name

Oh. I wish I could return to childhood

Let someone else protect and make it right

Shrug away the weight of resolution

Sleep undisturbed throughout the longest night