Monday, 27 February 2012

Jejune - a poem

In rising arcs of naïve aspiration,
in glowing pride and unbound admiration,
I saw great depths, a new sophistication,
a worldliness beyond imagination.

I framed a peerless man in my mind’s eye;
I gave you wit, decreed your dullness wry.
I sketched the cynic’s smile you’d never own,
described the haughty brow, you’d never shown.

But then. I came to know a different you,
the hidden artificial, far from true;
the depth of intellect I thought I’d found,
a shallow pool of superficial sound.

Your metaphors came clichéd, too simplistic,
a jaded language so far from realistic;
the symphony, a halting, jarring tune
of disillusion found, too soon. Jejune.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Kiku - a story

So here they were, three sisters, in a strange room without any sofas, looking out from their separate armchairs. They’d never been here before without their parents; they hadn’t even been here very often with them.  

Nobody spoke. 

Rachel played with her socks, rolling them down round her ankles, like fat white sausages, then pulling them back up again. Mum would tell her off if she was here, tell her she’d ruin the elastic. But Mum wasn’t here, and Susan didn’t feel like it, so Rachel carried on; rolling and stretching, rolling and stretching.

Carol was chewing on one of her plaits. She’d screamed the house down earlier that day, when Mum had brushed her hair; she always did, no matter what day it was. Now she sat, curled up in an armchair, staring out of the window. Auntie Joan and Uncle George were the only people they knew who lived in a flat. It was on the top floor of a big old house, so the windows were level with the tops of the trees outside. Today, with the branches all bare, you could see through them to the streets and tall houses that stretched away down the hill, past the park and across the outside edges of Crystal Palace.

It was bad enough that their Nanna had died, worse that they weren’t allowed to go to the funeral. Susan knew that some people hadn’t wanted them going to the big church on the hill, and she could understand that for Carol and Rachel. Neither of them was even ten yet; but she was nearly thirteen, so she couldn't see why they’d all had to be dumped together on Auntie Joan and Uncle George.

Susan looked around her. Even though it was still light outside, the room was dark. The flat was part of a tall old building, one of the scary looking witch-houses they always ran past on their way to the swings. There were three lamps on small round tables, each with a tasselled green shade, but they weren’t doing much to brighten the room. Their weird glowing light reminded Susan of that time they’d gone swimming in the lake; when she’d ducked her head under and squinted up, she’d seen the same sort of dull green brightness.

It felt like they were waiting, but she wasn’t sure what for. She wondered if she ought to cry. Other people had cried when they’d heard that Nanna was dead. She’d tried, really she had; screwing her eyes up tight and thinking bad thoughts. But even though she’d remembered the worst thing, she couldn’t squeeze out a tear.

The last time they’d seen Uncle George had been at their own house. He’d done that trick where he’d put a tuppenny coin on the base of his thumb, then closed his fingers over the end in a fist and somehow clicked the joint, so the coin disappeared. They’d all checked his sleeves to see where it had gone, they’d looked under the cushions and down the sides of the settee, but none of them could spot it, until he’d jumped up suddenly and pulled it out from behind Rachel’s ear.

Susan wished he’d do a trick now, but maybe you couldn’t do magic when someone had just died.

Auntie Joan came in with a tray. It wasn’t like the painted metal one they had at home with the scratched old roses on it; this was a long wooden tray, with high raised sides, and holes cut in each end for handles. On it were three tall glasses of milk. Carol didn’t like milk, she’d never drink it, not even when Mum heated it up in the milk pan and put sugar in it. Susan wondered if she should say something, explain how Mum had written a letter to school, excusing Carol from the morning milk. She watched Carol wriggling in her seat, she noticed how even Rachel had stopped rolling her socks, waiting to see what would happen.

She saw how Auntie Joan placed the tray very carefully on the sideboard, then picked up the first glass and handed it to Rachel, who took it and said a quiet thank you. Susan knew she’d be last because she was the oldest; she knew Carol would be next. So she watched as her aunt picked up the second glass, and with it, a small plate of those biscuits with the nobbly edges, she waited for Carol to shout, or cry, or run out of the room. She could hardly believe it when her sister reached out to take the glass, copied Rachel’s quiet thank you and started to sip.

As she gulped down her own glass of milk, Susan wondered what time it was. There was a big wooden clock on the mantelpiece, she liked its loud ticking, but the numbers were written in Roman, and even though she knew she should still be able to tell the time, just from the position of them, the harder she stared, the more complicated it seemed.

Though she’d never actually been to one, and didn’t have any idea how long it might take, she thought the funeral was probably over by now. But she’d watched Mum earlier on, packing three pairs of pyjamas into the big blue holdall, wrapping their toothbrushes in one of the spare plastic bags from under the sink, so Susan knew their parents wouldn’t be coming back that day; she knew they’d be staying with Auntie Joan and Uncle George for the night.

None of them had ever stayed away before, well, not unless you counted being on holiday; and she couldn’t figure out where they were all going to sleep. If you’d asked her, she'd have said that she didn’t want to share a bed with her sisters, but she did want to go to bed soon; she thought it might be just like at Christmas, the sooner they all went to sleep, the sooner the next day would come. And then they could all go home again.

She heard a door bang shut. It was so loud; it must have been someone in the flat, though she couldn’t imagine Auntie Joan or Uncle George ever actually slamming a door. Then suddenly, there was cousin Vivienne, laughing and saying hello. All in one movement, she seemed to drop the embroidered strap of her bag from one shoulder, unwrap the long striped scarf from round her neck, shake her long hair loose, and scoop up Carol for an eskimo kiss.

Susan watched as they rubbed noses, she saw how Carol giggled and squirmed, how she begged for more as Viv put her back onto the armchair and turned her attention to Rachel, who was sitting across the room, watching silently, chewing on the skin at the side of her thumb.

“Hey Rach, have you ever seen a necklace like this before? It’s made of apple pips. All of it. Would you like to borrow it for a bit?”

Only after Viv had carefully placed the necklace over Rachel’s head and twisted it twice did she turn her attention to Susan. The eldest, always the last, and no lifting up for eskimo noses, just a tight, two-arms hug.

As she buried her face in her cousin’s shoulder, Susan could smell the strange, almost rotten, scent of Vivienne’s coat, with its leathery skin and furry edges. Then coming through over the top of that was another smell, it seemed to be oranges and lemons, sweetness and sunshine.

And then there was no need to screw up her eyes, or think of bad things. Susan breathed in the smell of being grown up, of being away from home; the scents and sense of things she knew and didn’t yet know. And, in the hug of her cousin, she cried for her Nanna.

Saturday, 11 February 2012


I get the call from Philip just as I leave the office.

“Say if it’s too much hassle, but is there anywhere you could stop on the way home and get an onion?”

“An onion? Just an onion?”

“Yep, I’ve got everything else, but I need an onion.”.

Ten minutes later I'm in the huge supermarket on the outskirts of town, on a fleeting shopping stop between the town where I work and the village where I live, between the day at work and the evening at home.  An in-between visit to what feels like an in-between world.

People walk slowly, silently, sullenly; leaning heavily on their shopping trollies. It’s mostly single adults. Maybe like me, they're popping in for a forgotten item on the way home, or perhaps they're just putting off returning to an empty home, reluctant to re-heat the meal-for-one they’ve thrown in the trolley,  that nobody sees, and nobody will share.

It’s a bit of a pied-piper world, no brightly clothed children careering around, no shrieking or crying. No laughing. There aren't any old people either; I guess they’re indoors keeping warm, away from the lightly falling snow. I remember how my Dad, when he got older, used to have a four o’clock curfew. It drove us mad that wherever we went with him, he always wanted to be back indoors by 4 o'clock. I couldn't understand the urgency then, his need to get back and sort out his dinner before the early evening news.

You’d never have found him amongst the after-work Tesco shoppers. Not then. But I know there was an earlier time when he was one of the people stopping on the way home to make sure there was food for his daughters' dinner. Picking up a pack of Findus Crispy pancakes, or a Fray Bentos tinned pie – quick to prepare fuel, for someone who’s found themselves suddenly having to take on the cooking, but who never really learned how. I wish I'd got to cook more meals for him myself.

I've only gone in for an onion, but the shop’s too big and I don’t know where anything is. I find myself  wandering aimlessly, gazing up at the signs above the aisles, falling into the trap of wondering if maybe I should get some tea and bread while I’m there.

I turn a corner and suddenly there’s a whole aisle of Valentine gifts. Chocolate hearts, fake red roses, balloon-bearing teddies. Between the purple cellophane wrapping and the scarlet red tinfoil, I see LOVE written in gaudy shades of pink, in a dozen different fonts. Row upon row; I can’t imagine how they'd ever clear these shelves, not even if every single shopper for the next five days bought a Valentine’s present. Not even if they gave them away free at the checkout.

I've never quite bought into Valentine’s day – the idea that someone might tell us how and when to love. And when I see the startling rows of coral, fuchsia and rose, I’m more glad than usual that it’s not something we do. I know I never want to be the sort of person who thinks they must buy a love token, and then throw it into their trolley with the cat food and the washing powder.

I walk on until I reach the vegetables. The green and brown hues are a welcome sight, even under the fluorescent lighting they remind me of the real world outside, and there at the end of the aisle are the onions. I take my time choosing; it seems only fair, if he's doing the cooking, that I pick the best I can.

In the end I buy three.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

In February - a story

His disappointment was palpable; she could see the expectation dripping from him, as his shoulders sagged, and his earlier brightness faded away. Perhaps it was the wind, but she thought she heard a long slow sigh. And suddenly she smiled at the thought of him being caught up and thrown squealing around the garden; blown up into the tall trees like a deflating balloon.

No words were spoken, there was nothing to be said. His head slumped forward, but not quite enough to hide the bead of water that traced a line down his face. She watched it trickle over his rounded cheek and down into the scarlet scarf tied so tightly round his neck. There would be others who’d pity him, but she knew that what caused his weakness made her stronger. And she knew that soon there’d be no need to seek shelter from his brittle coldness.

So she stood and watched the snowman in the slowly warming sun.


We had our first snow last night. First snow of 2012 and the first time it's snowed since we've lived in Otford. Philip will be up soon, and urging me to go out and play. I'll wrap up warm and join him, but I'll be thinking of the sun.