Shadow

we take our first step
we learn to walk
i walked into to you

her impossible skin
in the cream smell
of the sun tanned arms
returned
there are only second acts
we do not see the first
traces of the smell returns
her leg
that first moment held
i saw hannah
her body red
neon strip light refracted 
light her matted hair from behind
it was a moment
as the bullet through barrel pulls
the kinetics of life
the exhaust
her face squashed perfect
looked at me
her eyes opened
liquid slipped through
there was nothing else
i was the first she saw
the impossibility of her
the cost of first sight
i will grow older
and face the shudder
the turn away
hannah’s shadow grows
and in the silent silos
only ourselves sit beside her
and stroke her head
at last we are alone
father and mother
encrusted iced continents
and so hannah grows.
now i take my first step
I learn to walk
I watch the reflection of me
become focussed
and i find you
what if i had missed you
and floated on
into stone
i shudder
that tiny shadow
grows and lengths
now
her impossible resemblance
echo of my sister, my niece
in cycles
so her girl will have a girl
will she return?
no matter is created
nor destroyed
claudia is reborn
her energy to become
her sense of self returns
impossible like hannah’s shadow
finales written in hope
when you become whole
lifetimes are changed in form.

Dementia Triptych

1.

Legs slide over the edge of bed

Trousers pulled on

Shirt begin to button

Inside the fold of her skirt I suddenly sit

Sit in my home

In the maze of the fabric I am searching for her

Lost, alone

Button my shirt

Birthing me she dressed me for life

Laying my head on her breast

I remember too the soft cheek

But these pleats engulf me now

Deeper into the folds

She is there walking alone

On swollen knees

Scarping the wall to brick in anger

Dancing lightly on her toes

I pull a jumper over my head

Blinded I am in her darkness

I hide from the promises

We speak of her safety

Of the company she needs

Would she leave me alone?

2.

There are places that a child should never see

Secret folds of skin

The first place I saw in life

The spaces between us should be kept

The raw red sore beneath

And then

The crystalline sound of aluminium foil

Pushed through

In variety of shapes, sizes, colours

Purposes

Damian Hirst shelf in my mother’s kitchen

Aspirin to dissolve

The pill pouch like the folds of her tummy

Needed simple care

I stroke her forehead

She is hot

I am feverish

She makes me smile

The glass of water, cold

For these moments all life and death are here

All memories are condensed into this dead of night

We wait the life of morning

There are lives of carers that we do not want to live

You can see too much as you try to fix things

And all the past is wiped clean in that sight

It is the nudity that shows the helplessness of flesh

That you cannot walk by

There can be a gown which flips open

There can be unanswerable questions repeated

And slowly all surfaces are covered

With crayon landscapes and the walls become paper

The frontiers of the world close in

The meaning of a cardigan recedes into the impenetrable

It is a skirt

I can wear it as a skirt

What is a skirt?

I feel my anger rising, why can’t you understand?

I snap

I am angry at the impenetrable

The crystalline sound of aluminium relieves

Until it doesn’t

I cannot be here now seeing this naked body needing care

I cannot fix this

I see the veins strain in her swollen knee

Her legs that carried me

I embrace her and want to see her covered up

Her face so familiar I cannot describe it

The lines of my life in each fold

I cradle it now in my hands

“If you love me let me die”

There are places that a child should never see.

3.

She is free

She is cycling

Her skirts fly

She laughs

She is a girl

She lies down

Listens to the RAF bombs

She is escaping

She is wearing her apron

Packing cakes

Giving birth

She is doing the accounts

Colouring her hair

Replacing our garden fence

She is the soul

She watches her husband die

Slowly in their bed

He is cold

She watches her daughter die

More slowly in the hospital bed

Without losing faith

She holds it all

She is the sun

She fades in twilight

She sits in church and cries

Making her hand bleed

She remembers how to dance

She is on her bike

She is free

Bagged

What slender lines the river seems to hold

Flashing past on my way home

From home

Vermeered yellow patch this landscape less than whole

The snow at Cogne

Our fortunes in the bar foretold

Cycling to school the houses rushed past

Declan laughing at Janet and John books

Fingers stained with ink

Dungeon and Dragons our world

The chain off greased back at just past Kings Park

Pushing back on the cog with greased fingers cold

Discovering and losing so much

The salt on the wind

The decay of childhood into silences

Trying to keep hold of the sofa nap

Wanting so much to know

Making love and trying to keep

The feeling within and the women that i hold

Then

My children bounce on my bed to play

And after seconds they take themselves away

My sister’s life in mine the memory dissolves

Our lives as fleeting as this view

His clothes we bagged up and they sat alone

Airless, preserved

The twine unravelling over time

The memory of him

Slowly frayed

Grief decomposes over time

In sorting out a damp basement

The bags uncovered

Ripped plastics, his jacket spilled out

In part now rotten with damp

As surely as his corpse was made

Into nothingness before heaven

I cannot put his body back into these suits and coats

I cannot clasp now the sounds he made

The final stage of death

When new grief replaces old

His death displaced

His cuffs, his sleeves, his trousers legs

Somehow, betrayed by time

The darkness comes

When I am all alone

I look for something to hold onto

Finally, I find you

One Morning

We have one morning on this earth.

I woke on mine.

The sound track of my adolescence,

breaking on my insecurity across the sands of Bournemouth,

and smelling like the salty taste of Maria Costello’s mouth -

I did not know how to kiss – is the sea.

Passed Our Lady Queen of Peace,

by the cross roads,

the back drop,

to failed fumbling with bra straps

racing time and discovery,

was our beach hut.

That church, sat between me and freedom,

condemned me to even failing at solitary ejaculations,

held the altar that I served on.

John Wheaton’s elder brother had such singular purpose and stamina,

in all confessionals held

late at night on the roof of Toft,

the Bay below,

Dad’s homemade wine and our rolled cigarettes,

Feeding other peoples’ exploits, never my own.

It was well known, that my mind became like so much seaweed if a girl was with me.

And later,

I did not see them take his body from his bed.

I saw only the corpse of my father, a stranger.

Then: when I no longer cycled to Christchurch to open the shop on a Sunday,

and the sound of the tube replaced the sound of the sea,

and Delia invited me to her flat in Finsbury Park,

with the love notes from her ex still on the fireplace surround,

then all the secrets unfolded and in all these discoveries,

in the relentless drive to do.

So I took a twenty five year journey away from You,

and comfort,

and knowing how to be.

Each morning the beach is remade, smooth, virgin soil, redemption in a landscape.

Each morning the tube leaves empty and the mass of humanity moves from one place to another to earn a life worth living.

We trust in their repetition.

The sound of breaking waves,

my children asleep,

my wife sitting reading,

the sound of the breaking waves asked then, how should you live?

They still ask, who do you want to be?

And gradually we are alone again.

Amid the clutter and the chaos of my sister’s death, I remember most of all her faith.

My mother crying on the phone, her mind is going:

Can I go back to God?

Will he take me?

We have one morning on this earth.

We need to know how to use it.

The Cusp


From Table Mountain, 1200 feet, five valleys

Slopes of fields enclosed by English planted hedges

Verdant, lush, rain soaked: summer has finally turned green.

The clouds shadows pass across the sky bringing deluge

These drowned months have kept the butterflies away

In the cloudy darkened corners of the farms

Their wings are silent.

As every gully floods, streams as torrents flow, so my daughter walks ahead

She skips off from the path

Her long hair platted

Over the hood of her hoody

Her long legs darting

She clambers up the overgrown slope, then stops

“I don’t want to get my hands dirty”

But, she must reach the top.

The teenage cusp.

In sunlight passage rushing up

Her smile is of a little girl

In shady moments, keeping clean, the woman appears.

The slope is climbed.

The hands remain clean.

The cusp remains unnegotiated.

My butterfly daughter has certainly appeared

Her unrivalled beauty, objectively observed, and

Perfect markings

Her force of nature flying endlessly

From waking to sleeping

Her power of immeasurable depth

The character

Both statuesque like her physique,

and knowing like she plays games,

but also limpet and ungroomed around the edges,

blend in this space, this mass

of her unquenchable being

only this light a butterfly

could sit so long

between these complex worlds

and still be happy.

Wales, 20th July 2012

Sonhood 25

The Hepworth at Kenwood has become for me my father’s grave

There was a kind of terrace. Roses, pots, Doric style columns and a space about four meters square. We walked out of the funeral service and the crying began or began again. But now it was unstrained because everyone around was crying. At least that is what I thought at first. But then I looked around. David was crying uncontrollably. Mum was crying in the same way but she was also looking at us children and crying in part because of the way in which we were crying. My sister was crying but it was very much within herself. Uncles and aunts were politely sniffing and the merry men who had been invited stood embarrassed looking at their shoes. And the anger unspoken built. Why did they come? To gloat at the end or to, as the phrase goes, pay their respects. For what? For the years they spent giving their labour to my father and taking from him an idea of friendship. Playing on his insecurities and need for respect, his well developed fantasy life born of his massive and unfulfilled creativity. They were paying back the excessive over time, the low interest loans.
I stood there, cried and remembered the most embarrassing moment of my growing up. After we had lost the big business we moved to a flat with a big garden. In the endless attempts my mum selflessly made to rebuild my father’s self esteem, she organised a birthday party. Now we did not as a rule do people in the way typical English families do people. We did relations, fine. But “local people” were different and anyone who was not family was in the end local people, no matter how long we had known them. Dad kicked against this because he wanted friends. His problem was that work was his only mode for engaging with people. Friends were always directly associated with the business. The pattern was simple. He would meet someone through work and they would talk. Nine times out of ten they would, if they were that sort of person, notice that this was a mark – a person who might need social affirmation more than the business relationship. So they would play on this, flatter him, praise him until my Dad would think they were friends. And when they became friends his small about of business ruthlessness would disappear. Exclusive garage repair contracts for all the companies’ vehicles, long lines of credit, hours of free business advice would follow. The pay off for dad was the feeling that he had a life beyond the confines of the bakery and home. But this birthday party was simply excruciating. No one spoke, or they spoke haltingly. The bakers did not know what to say to Dad outside work. Dad did not have a mode with them other than giving orders. I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up. All the boundaries between home and work had been broken down. The bakers did not know how to act in this social situation and nor did Dad. The conversation could not get much beyond Robert’s beer drinking preferences and a little light teasing. Before too long they started to leave and we returned to the flat. The birthday party was never mentioned, and, as far as I can remember, never repeated. Now the bakers assembled again. This time for Dad’s funeral and again they did not know what to do. They were not sure how to cope with the flood of feelings that were emerging from the family. And now, years later, at unexpected moments, those feelings can return. Grief keep is a gift that keeps giving.

There is a part of me that does not really believe my father was real. I have an idea of my father constructed of memories and photos. I have put that idea into this book. But now that my life has become so different I find it difficult to believe that he and his little world really existed. That I spent all those days and nights working in the theatre of pastries. That my Dad was the man that he was seems like something I have seen in a movie rather than something which I have lived and experienced. I wrote earlier about the dysfunction between my memory and the real chronology of my life in the bakery. The fuzzy static that enters your head in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Perhaps death too makes the signal warped, the feelings fuzzy.

We have to lose that sense of contact for a while to be able to cope with death. Otherwise I think we would go mad. Some people’s lives stop at the death of a partner, they die very quickly afterwards. As though the signal disappears altogether. When my Dad died something else seemed to take place. I seemed then all in a rush to feel the need to ask lots of questions about who he was and who I had been. But of course I could not ask him. I wanted to rest my head on his enormous warm belly as we sat on the sofa to watch the afternoon film. Indeed, I wanted to do something and something which in our culture at least will be considered old fashioned, and slightly corny. What I had come to understand was that beside all the conventional and conflicted feelings that a son has for any father, I also admired him and therefore wanted to honour him in someway. These words are jarring: admire and honour. What place do they have in this world. You grieve, be sad, cry and remember. But honour? You love, respect, fear. But admire? It is biblical and Edwardian at the same time. Yet it is exactly how I feel.

What is it that I admired in this man? Well that should be clear from what you have already read. I admired his hard work and dedication to his craft. His obvious sense of enjoyment and accomplishment in what he did. I admired the fact that he took pride in doing a job well and finishing it. So much of what I see and experience in my working life now is about getting by doing the minimum or complaining about how much there is to do. So many of the people I work with seem satisfied with mediocrity. To put it most simply, I admire the fact that my father was not satisfied with mediocrity. He did not want a job done, he wanted it done well. The making was the thing not the balance sheet. The older I get the more sense I see in this approach to life.

The other concrete thing I admired about him was that he tried to let us know that he loved us. He was not a model father and he did not live in a way in which I have modelled my life. But from a very unpromising background he tired his best to let us know how he felt about us and I admire him for that. And I want to honour him because I never made it clear enough to him when he was alive that I loved him too.

As his coffin disappeared I tried to understand the distance between me and that small body that I helped to lift out of the bath in Nice. That plastic body I viewed in the funeral parlour. The man I cried for uncontrollably in the space outside the chapel at the crematorium.

I am fourteen years old. The dispatch is full of fresh bread and cakes. They are neatly packed in wire baskets and trays. All the orders are correct and properly packed for delivery. The packers are smiling, the bakers happy and the goods themselves let off a smell and colour of contentment. Everything is ready. The oven is warm but not fully hot anymore. I feel warm, comfortable. Am I in bed? I thought I was at work. What is that voice? What is it saying: “Titch!…tictch!…TITCH!”. “What, Dad?” “Boy you are asleep on the wrapping machine? Come on boy, wake up and get back to work”. He walks away whistling. Dispatch is half full. Orders are incomplete and it is still two hours till dawn. Better find a doughnut to give me some energy.

[This is the end of the first draft of Sonhood]

Sonhood 24

Shortly afterwards my parents and I went to the Sicilian resort of Taromina for a New Year Holiday. Holidays with my father were generally good fun. At the height of his business we had taken a series of expensive package tours. One trip sticks in my mind. The flights were chartered and left at odd hours of the day and night. Dad was working up to the last minute and had not had time to change. He was still literally and metaphorically covered in bread flour. We arrived late for check-in and were last to board, making ourselves unpopular with the other passengers. An old man kept asking for heating to be turned up until the plane was boiling. Finally this old man took his coat off and there was load applause from across the aircraft. Mum hushing Dad up from cheering as well. We called the man shop steward. For the rest of the flight he complained about everything. Transfer from the airport to hotels was by coach. We began to drop people off at various little hotels. People starting playing a game of guessing whose hotel it was next. We passed through large palatial gates and along a winding drive way. Both Mum and Dad were asleep. The shop steward began to ready himself. We turned a corner and the most beautiful hotel, literally a palace with uniformed porters, the works. The guide called the name of the hotel and no one moved. Shop steward had started to get up but now sat down. Dad stirred. “What, yes this is us”. The dishevelled Brivati disembarked to open mouths, leaving a trail of flour behind us.

By the time of this New Year trip to Sicily our means were considerably reduced. But it was still a lovely hotel. It was also a relaxed trip until something strange began to happen at meal times. Dad was always a fast eater. Now he was gulping down his food, then leaving the table and returning red faced and watery eyed from the bathroom. It soon became clear that he was not keeping his food down. After they returned home he continued to lose weight quickly. In July I had my viva for my PhD. After lunch with my supervisor and the examiners I took a train to Southampton. Dad had been admitted to hospital there for some check-ups. He was down from 18 to about 10 stone. The viva had gone better than I could have hoped, in fact we took the doctorate from the meeting room and deposited it straight in the library without a correction. I was on a high but obviously worried about Dad. I told him my news about the viva. He was visibly moved, proud and pleased. He told me his news: terminal cancer.

In September I had my graduation. Taking immense trouble Mum brought Dad up for the event. He was now close to being a skeleton, maybe 8 stone. Dressed in a dark suit with a fedora hat, he was exaggeratedly old. Dad loved fun fairs and always wanted to go. He liked the old boys, the characters of the fair. His old age was compressed into a single year because of cancer. He had looked forward to being an old man, an old character and he tried in those few months to distil his old age into the way he walked, talked and dressed. Nothing would have given him more pleasure than to have been an old man who helped the bake house out of a crisis – pulling them out of the shit. He never had the chance.

My grandfather’s skin was rough and deeply lined. Tears would roll down from his eyes sometimes and his skin was so tough that he would not notice them. His mouth seemed set into his face as though he had had injections of botox. In contrast Dad, despite the many burns on his arms had soft skin, a clear complexion and smooth cheeks. On the day Dad died it took me a while to get home from London. It was evening when I arrived and my brother drove me over to see the body at the undertakers. They had just closed and the cleaner did not want to let me in. Finally, after a certain amount of shouting, the boss came down and opened up the room where Dad was laying. But it was not Dad. His cheeks had been made hard by the embalming; his hands had become puffed up. His emaciated body was rigid in his death suit. He seemed shorter, more concentrated and his skin was like steel. He had become his father.

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