Poetry and Prose
Absence in landscape made by millennial crawl
Bow back fills with air
the valley torn asunder
Air shaped memories
shades of light
patches of dark grief
Pick out the details:
that patch of yellow diamond, those
Muscular grounds, weaker than Bow,
always passing through
Thinness of air and I am at Cogne
My sister tries to skip in the snow.
Sliding on my bum and skis into my Dad
My mother’s brave and terrified technique
Grief is the shape of a valley
the air of dying thin
at altitude our absent ancestors reside
The colour of the ceiling
Artex swirls which revolve if the drip has been off can sometimes be as many as six colours at once
Not only colours
Shades too: green, white, a little rose, hint of blue, off white behind, yellow white at different times of day
The six colours vary. That is, they vary when I see that far
Carer arrives, their names change but their hands are always cold
As she lifts me, I am taken by a wave
The board beneath my feet feels firm
My arm muscles strain, I must turn
I have never seen the bed sores on my back but I imagine them as gradual, inch by inch, decay
Like the compost heap in my garden
My prize winning raised beds
I hope Barry has been weeding them right up to the lawn
The edges of my body are giving up
Each cell has fought so long
Now they surrender
The board swings back towards the sun, it blinds me for a second, the sail drops
I pull back with every bit of my free arm pulling
I am upright and suddenly still
The water glistens, the Greek sea, warm, warm sun, a fresh gust, I am nineteen
My body rests again on the scabs, the sheet of the mattress, plastic cover
The mattress itself has moved little
They should turn it
The scabs are searching for a new resting place, to settle back again
The cover moves, the cushions behind are warm
These is a faint smell from outside
I feel the pollen in the air
My geraniums must be flowering by now
And the apple blossom
Will live and die without me ever seeing them
The drip is turned up, the wind lofts
Fills the sail, suddenly, very quick now, skimming the aqua green sea
Across the slow moving waves
Steer into the wind to pick up speed
My muscles feel surer
I adjust my feet, toes dig in, knees bend a little
I arc my spine forwards once more
Bend my knees a little more
My spine holds on to my board
My spine holds
The scabs achieve their place, become peaceful
Mum will be here soon and the next job will be to eat
I am thirty four
The colours have shifted again
Six more shades, none the same
Barry looks in
Says something I do not catch
The radio is on, Radio Four
I push a word across my mouth, keeping one side closed it emerges, and then another, slower
“Turn it up”
The carer leans in. I smell her sweet perfume and soap
Like the Jasmine by the shed
Has it been cut back?
What time of year is it?
Perhaps on Gardeners Question Time
“Turn it up”
Small salvia drip onto my neck
She has not noticed
It will dry there
The stems of my roses reminded me of spines
I need to tack round against the swell
And head back towards the beach
The wind has changed yet again and suddenly there is the swell
I’m going over, inevitable
Board tips up and throws me off into the sea
Tied on, so I pull the board back, re-board
Dad’s on the beach with the camera
Better take the board in carefully, give Dad a good shot.
The sun is behind him
The picture will be good
The archers over time for medication
There is an itch now at the base of my spine
Like my wet bikini with sand in
My spine that mocks me everyday
A tingle like a slight pain
Just where I cannot reach it
When I move back the scabs again will shift
The itch will be forgotten
The spit has dried
There are as many shades of pain as colours on my ceiling
Some are constant, remain through each day
Some are special visitors
I can measure days, months, years, out, in terms of the quality, texture, name and location of the pain.
A grand tour of my body’s self-destruction
Planned and carried out by my bloody spine
But I try not to. It is, as it is
There are seasons within seasons in this room
But they are all the same
Nothing seems to grow in here
There is no warm sea
Only the urine bag
One day the first bud came through
I was in my chair
It was just peeking through the surface of the soil to greet me!
The garden was taking shape
“Mum put that by the pond”
“Turn around the chair”
“Can you put the compost in the greenhouse?”
“Shall we enter?”
“Yes, of course”
“Well then we need to work harder”
“What about the raised beds?”
“Let’s plan it out”
Every project to keep the spine in place
Now the morphine is my only project
When was that, my last trip in the chair?
When I was….
The Archers is over
Two hours to tea time
Four hours to Mum time
Carer on her break
The hole in the day, the hour of fullest despair
Will I make it to forty?
I could call someone
Or someone could come
One of the children
My fingers seem cold
Let me remember my spine
Each segment in turn
And try to decide once and for all, which one gave me all this
The itch is back
The shades are at six times six now
Shadows over more
My board is drying in the sun
Dad will frame the picture
My flowers one day will bloom
I will never again leave this room
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
there are only second acts
we do not see the first
traces of the smell returns
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
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
and i find you
what if i had missed you
and floated on
that tiny shadow
grows and lengths
her impossible resemblance
echo of my sister, my niece
so her girl will have a girl
will she return?
no matter is created
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.
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
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?
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
The crystalline sound of aluminium foil
In variety of shapes, sizes, colours
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 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.
She is free
She is cycling
Her skirts fly
She is a girl
She lies down
Listens to the RAF bombs
She is escaping
She is wearing her apron
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
What slender lines the river seems to hold
Flashing past on my way 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
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
The twine unravelling over time
The memory of him
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
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.
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 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.
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
Her force of nature flying endlessly
From waking to sleeping
Her power of immeasurable depth
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
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]
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.