Who Am I?

I come when you least expect me.
I watch and wait.
I take without warning.
I keep, without a backward glance.
I have no pity.
I have no mercy.
I have no thoughts.

You may cry as much as you like,
send out your salt tears
into the bleeding heart of the sea,
I will not hear.
Scream out at the injustice
of a broken world,
I will do nothing.
Your sorrow will be carried on the wind
and pass straight through my heart,
leaving no trace.
I will not reach out.
Your anger will slip over the waves,
swirling around my feet
while I stand, silent and unknowing.
I will not hit back.

While your memories slip away
into the cold, clinging mist,
I shall remain.
I shall endure.
You will bow to me.
You will succumb.

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My Dad.

We waded out in our wellies.
and made bottle traps
to catch tiny brown minnows.
as they darted downstream.
We kept them swimming
in a water butt and fed them well
until their time had come,
and soon a thirty pound pike
was hanging on the washing line
waiting to be cooked up
for our cat Judy.

We made kites from plastic sacks
stretched over thin bamboo canes,
perfectly balanced
with long bowed tails
that rose up overhead.
They danced in the wind.
We built spitfires and hurricanes
and Lancaster bombers.
We walked round hilly pilly lands.
We went out on our bikes
and freewheeled down Acklam hill
with our legs stretched out,
heading into the sun.

My dad was cool.
He rode a BSA Bantam,
with a helmet and goggles
that frightened the dog.
He brought me dozens of cars home.

We watched Danger Man,
and The Sweeney together.
We had no idea what was going on
in The Prisoner,
but we knew it was good.
We cheered on Illya Kuryakin
in The Man From UNCLE,
We saw all the best people live.
Tommy Cooper, Bob Monkhouse,
Les Dawson, Des O’Connor, Ken Dodd,
we saw them all,
and we loved them.

My dad made the best gravy
and the best mashed potatoes ever.
and when I came home hungry each week
from my Saturday job in W.H.Smiths
he made the best ham, egg and chips.

My dad was tall and strong.
He could jump high,
kill wasps with his bare hands,
and dig huge hairy worms
who had buried themselves deep
underneath the sand.
My small legs ran behind him
struggling to keep up.

My dad was kind.
He was always on my side,
defending me from strangers,
bringing me home.
He could whistle in tune,
and when he came home for his lunch
I was excited because I could hear him
coming down the road……..

I can hear him now.

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Short Story: Behave Geoffrey!

Geoffrey is worried. His small, bright eyes stare out from his wrecked body as it lies, stretched out painfully, in his hospital bed. He isn’t sure why he is here. His legs hurt and they keep doing things to him, moving them about when he doesn’t want them to. He wants them to leave him alone, except that he is worried and he needs to talk to someone. He is in trouble and it is upsetting him because he has never done anything wrong before……. and now this. He is worried about the insurance people who are going to come after him. He needs to ask someone about it but they just keep walking past the end of his bed. People he hasn’t seen before. Strangers. So many of them. When he tries to talk to them they keep walking. If he can’t persuade someone to listen to him, the next person who walks past might be someone from the insurance. It might be one of the people coming to get him because he is in trouble. They will find out where he is. They will know. He grabs at his bed sheet. He should hide. He is going to get out of bed before they find him.
“Behave Geoffrey!”
One of the women in a white uniform who does things to him is putting his legs back in bed. It hurts. He shouts. She covers his legs up under the bed sheet and walks on before he can explain about the people who are coming. He doesn’t have the energy to lift himself up again so he just watches, his lips moving silently. Sometimes the people walking past are carrying documents, even pushing trolleys full of them. Words. Evidence. There is a file at the end of his bed that they keep writing in. More evidence. All waiting for the insurance people to find. All they have to do is walk past, pick it up and look. It isn’t locked away or anything.
“Excuse me?”
The person walking past doesn’t stop. He doesn’t even glance across. He is going somewhere else. Busy. They are all going somewhere else but Geoffrey doesn’t know where. The person sitting by the next bed turns round and looks at him.
“Are you all right?”
Geoffrey fixes his eyes on her. She seems kind, she has been there for a long time and she is not wearing a uniform. She has a bright red scarf and she is smiling at him. He dares to ask her a question.
“Excuse me. Can you tell me why I am here?”
She frowns. He tries again.
“I don’t know why I am here.”
“You’re here to be looked after. To get better.”
Geoffrey tries to take this in. It doesn’t feel like he is being looked after. Not at all. His family know that he is here and they don’t seem to mind but he does. Where are they?
“Thank you. Can you tell me who all these people are? I don’t know who they are.”
This is a difficult question and it makes her think. He waits patiently.
“Well, it’s visiting time. They have come to see the other poorly people who are being looked after- people like you.”
“I see.”
Geoffrey doesn’t see, not really, but she wants him to say something so he does, just as he did when people used to listen to him.
“And there are doctors and nurses- it’s very busy.”
He isn’t convinced. The woman doesn’t know about the people looking for him. She does seem sorry though and she is looking him in the eye. She is kind. She is not one of those people. He gives a slight nod, trying to take in what she has just said.
“Will your family be coming to see you?”
This is something that Geoffrey is sure about.
“Oh yes. We’re very close.”
He has told his family about the insurance people and Peter said that he would deal with it but Geoffrey doesn’t trust Peter any more. Peter was the one who brought him in here and left him among all these strangers. Anyway Peter gets things wrong. Peter is busy like those people walking past. He will forget.
The woman is still smiling at him.
“That’s good.”
The woman’s big smile brings the words tumbling out of him a rush. He needs her to know.
“I need to tell you something. I am in trouble. There are people coming to see me about it. Insurance people. I have never done anything wrong before.”
He tries to tell her more, as best he can, saying that they will want him to go with them and they will stand him up in a court of law to explain things that he doesn’t understand, but worry scrambles his words.The woman listens. She can see that Geoffrey is- or has been- a good, clever man and she is sorry. She tells him that everything will be sorted out, there is nothing to worry about, that he is safe, comfortable, protected, he is here to get better. He fixes his eyes on her and listens and for those few moments he does feel better and his mind is stilled. The people will not come. At least not yet.

The Chenille Tablecover.

“You don’t want to keep this, do you?”
A question thrown away with a glance,
expecting the answer, no.
A chenille tablecover is hauled out,
held up,
displayed like an ancient shroud.
Limp.
Unresisting.
Threadbare.
Its day has passed,
It’s purpose gone.

And yet………..
I remember a small child
who hid underneath it
peering from beneath the fringe.
A small child who got into trouble
for discovering the satisfying way
that the tassels on the edge
could be ravelled and unravelled
over and over again.
A small child who leaned forward
to pick at the weak points in the cloth
where the geranium pot stood,
and made little piles
of green fuzz,
injuring my grandmother’s pride.
A chenille tablecover
was a mark of self respect.
“In this house we clear the table,
put things away,
keep things nice.”
My hiding place was safe,
warm, respectable.
Under the dark folds
of its embrace
nothing could hurt me.

Yes I want it,
of course I want it.
It is a tattered standard to raise
in honour of my childhood.
A relic that can never be thrown away
which bears the marks of innocence
fear and love.

chemille-tablecloth

Broken Biscuits. Paines Plough and Live Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

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Production image from Paines Plough.

It’s a shame that there are not more plays like Tom Wells’ Broken Biscuits. It is a warm,touching piece of theatre that tugs at your heartstrings without ever tipping over into sentimentality. Thanks to his gift for writing strong, vernacular dialogue it all feels completely real and absolutely believable and there is also a strong structure which comes from the counting down of the weeks as the three would be band members rehearse for a Battle of the Bands contest and their relationships ebb and flow. They are sixteen and about to leave school after having an undramatically unhappy time. They have never been the cool kids- this is their chance to arrive in college with style and gain new respect from others, but also, above all, from themselves. They are a gay lad, Ben, who is trying to work out what this means for him and whether he will ever fit in anywhere, Megan, a loud, overweight steamroller of a girl who doesn’t understand how to work with others and lead but desperately wants to, and Holly, a geek, who is pretty and clever but held back by being a gentle soul with no confidence. They are an unlikely threesome who have only come together in Megan’s shed simply because there is nowhere else where they can find friendship and acceptance. They are all very touching characters, especially for someone looking back at teenage years from quite a distance.

I am guessing that the three actors must be a little older than sixteen but the first thing that impressed me was how believable they all were as teenagers; vulnerable, raw, well meaning, and so likable that you really felt for them and wanted them to succeed. I particularly loved Grace Hogg-Robinson as Holly. There were many times where you could see what she was thinking and her performance of her song about the lad in the supermarket was a real highlight. It had been cleverly written by Matthew Robbins, good enough to work as a song but not so good that it wasn’t credible for Holly to have written it. Faye Christall also had some nice moments as Megan, so anxious to be a leader, prove her worth and have friends but with no real idea how to achieve this and Andrew Reed as Ben was a delightful mixture of vulnerability, eagerness and misery waiting for his chance to grow. This is a coming of age story for all three of them and we have all been there in our different ways. It is rare for the average theatregoer to have teenage characters put in front of them and that in itself was refreshing, but when they are as well written as these three it is a absolute joy.

The set, Megan’s shed, is an old style slice of realism, meticulously designed by Lily Arnold, and there are a lot of small clever details and changes through the course of the play that mark the passage of time. The play moves forward quickly and has plenty of pace thanks to the direction of James Grieves and the fast, sassy dialogue which the three actors are able to relish. All in all it was a real treat and we were lucky to see it on its short tour. The group of teenage girls in the audience who were there in their school uniforms, chaperoned by their teacher, loved it and came out energised and talking to each other about it. It might have been an afternoon of nostalgic reminiscence for me but for them it had been a slice of the life that they were living right now and that’s probably the best compliment Tom Wells’ writing could get.

Sun worship.

It is a wild sunrise after a rough night.
The sea is already awake and grumbling,
hurling itself at the beach, bent on having the last word.
The horizon is torn apart by rampant waves.
Spume flies up, lit by the fire of the first rays of light.
Bruised storm clouds drag themselves across the sky,
battered into shades of grey, blue, black and gold-
a tattered, ragbag army limping home.

Life is hiding. Few things are on the move.
Tiny waders dip and scuttle along the waters edge,
holding their nerve, keeping on, keeping on,
and a single crow, a fearless adventurer,
amuses himself after easy pickings along the shoreline
by swooping to taunt a passing dog and make him run.
I breathe in the power of the sunrise, letting it calm my fears,
and drink in the rhythm of the waves.

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Short Story: A Walk to the Shops.

When Margaret had first bought her seaside bungalow, after Bill’s death, it had seemed like a very good choice. It was on a nice estate, well maintained, close enough to a doctor and a small supermarket, and there were no memories. A fresh start. A safe choice. The kind of choice that she had been making all her life. Her daughters were pleased- perhaps that was because they wanted her to be happy or perhaps they were just pleased that she was carefully parked in a place where she would need little help. Accessible but not too accessible. She wasn’t sure. Probably both. Luckily she was used to her own company- Bill had never said much- and she had always kept herself to herself as her mother had told her to, years ago. It took her a while to realise that she was being watched.

Of course she didn’t let that stop her going to the shops. Today she needed milk, the soft bread rolls with seeds on top and pork chops, so she put her coat on and strode out with her bag, keeping her head up and her face closed. No trolley dragging behind her. That was the thin edge of the wedge that led to mobility scooters and slow decline. When she was asked how her daughter was getting on by someone who she had only seen from the other side of the road, a woman whose name she didn’t know, she was taken aback. Especially when the conversation started with her own name, carefully used to claim the right of asking. She was so taken aback that she answered straight away without thinking and ended up with a conversation that she didn’t want and far more information about the other woman than she was ever going to need. It was difficult to get away. In fact she came dangerously close to accepting an invitation for coffee at the local library. She walked away frowning, wondering how the woman had known that Ruth had been in hospital. It was only after she had reached the turn in the road that led to the town centre that she remembered mentioning it in the butchers. Nowhere else. Just the butchers. They were talking about her. This was the kind of place where people sat around waiting for something to happen. It didn’t matter what it was- gas vans, ambulances, the little town bus, district nurses, a strange car parked up, you name it. Anything that moved was watched. Anything unknown was wondered about. If a pair of curtains opened at the wrong time- or worse still didn’t open- the worst was assumed. If they stayed closed whispers would begin to go round. There was much fear beneath the well ordered lawns and rose beds. These people were waiting for the worst to happen to them and they were afraid. They were sitting there, quietly watching Pointless and Tipping Point on their big televisions, waiting for their world to be blown apart. They were old enough to have seen it happen to others- it would soon be their turn. Nobody stayed lucky forever. This could not be spoken of out loud, so instead they watched other people as a defence, looking for signs that the static, airless world of their cul de sac was being disturbed. The comfort blanket of neighbourliness and care which hid this fear couldn’t quite prevent it from seeping out from under the edges along with the spite.

Margaret didn’t tell her daughter any of this of course. Nobody did. One of the sentences heard more than any other on the estate was “they’ve got their own lives”. These lives excused adult children from phone calls, shortened their visits, and provided a chance for those whose lives were no longer noticed to boast quietly about someone else. Someone who was still out there, making themselves count, living on their behalf. Smiling photos were sent through the post to take their place, objects of veneration which sat there unchanging in their frames, pointed out proudly to anyone who saw them- as though absence could be excused by an image. Mind you, when it came to Jessica, her oldest daughter, an unmoving, smiling photograph often came as something of a relief after a visit from the real thing. She might have a PhD but she wasn’t as clever as she thought she was and it was a nuisance having to hide the Daily Mail.

The butcher was his usual cheerful self.
“Hello love. What can I get you?”
Margaret wanted to tell him that she was not his love but she kept her lips closed. After all if she wouldn’t tell him her name what did she expect. She smiled politely.
“Two pork chops please.”
“Two?”
“Yes please.”
Yes two, Margaret thought- that surprised you didn’t it- and I’m not going to tell you why. The chops were shown to her and then wrapped up carefully. Jessica liked pork chops and she would be here in a few hours. She would braise them in a nice sauce made from white wine, a little bit of vegetable stock cube, chopped up apple, half a leek and a drop of cream. Not too much cream or Jessica would scrape off the sauce and say she was allergic. That was nonsense of course- Jessica had eaten cream for years- but you couldn’t tell her. Thinking about it she had better get some more cream in case the tub in the fridge had gone off.
“Is that all?”
“Yes, that’s all.”
She held out £3.25 towards the butcher’s outstretched hand and they both said thank you all over again. So much gratitude for two simple pork chops. Silly really.
She was glad to get out of there.

The town was quiet now that the summer visitors were gone. Familiar faces had reappeared after being lost in the crowds for a while. The saying that you had to summer and winter a place before you could think of yourself as properly settled in was never more true than here. This place was used to comings and goings. It was somewhere you could disappear. People got used to seeing you about but they didn’t think about it for very long. Plenty of people passed through, and many of them soon moved on. A face would be seen on the street for a few weeks or months, and then it would be gone. No reason why. The visitors, the retired folk on the estates who went on long cheerful rambles with the walking club, the elderly whose families deposited them in one of the large hotels on the front which had been turned into nursing homes, the visitors from the tin boxes filling the fields on the edge of the town, the day trippers who filled up the grassy car parks on the cliff top, and the students who came out of nowhere to do the seasonal work each summer, they would all leave sooner or later. This place was used to strangers and they could feel comfortable there. Or at least some of them could. At least the supermarket would be more bearable now.

They had over-baked all the seeded rolls that she liked. Again. The woman at the customer service desk was not as sorry about it as she tried to sound.
“I’ll make sure that your message gets passed on.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned it.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed just a tiny bit.
“I’ll let them know.”
“Thank you.”
Gratitude again. For what? And if “them” was the woman with the long face behind the bread display, who had a habit of mangling warm loaves of bread inside the slicing machine, she might as well not bother.
At least the cream was sitting there, ready to be bought without incident, and she remembered to reach to the back to get a better sell by date. Small victories. Sometimes she liked to go to the checkout aisle where the cheerful woman sat on the till- she always found something to laugh about and you could hear her at the other side of the store- but not today. She crept out via the self service till and allowed the disembodied voice to thank her for buying a tub of cream and a pack of six rolls that she didn’t really want. Jessica would be here soon. With little Jake.

Jake was the one human being- probably the one thing on the entire planet- that Margaret did not have mixed feelings about. Her first grandchild- two years and five months old- had proved himself utterly perfect in every way, outstripping with ease any other grandchild that anyone else might have, ever. Jake was an unexpected gift to her in late middle age, after Jessica had finally found someone to settle down with who could keep her under control and he was just……. well perfect. There was nothing else to say. When his mother complained about him Margaret had learned to sit there and answer back in her own head- usually “shut up he’s perfect”- while letting her daughter talk. It wasn’t easy being a mother. Sometimes when she listened to Jessica talking to Jake she could hear herself, over thirty years ago, and it made her cringe. She had not been a bad mother….. had she?……. but she certainly could have been a better one.

Margaret kept a box of toys in a special cupboard all ready for Jake’s visits. She liked to add something small as a surprise each time he came and she knew which biscuits and sweets he liked best. Jessica didn’t like him having too much sugar and she talked about “spoiling” but once every few weeks didn’t harm and if his gran couldn’t spoil him, who could? He ran it all off anyway. She hugged her shopping bag close as she walked back down the road, thinking of his face as the cupboard door opened and his tiny birdlike voice shouting “nan nan”. Nobody else in the whole world would ever call her that.

A young mother walked by with her own toddler, sitting bolt upright in her pushchair. They had such elaborate pushchairs these days- more like formula one racing cars than things you would take a baby out in. Not pushchairs…… what did Jessica insist they were called? Travel systems. That was it. And they cost a fortune. As if wheeling your child a few hundred yards down the road was the same as crossing the sahara. Such nonsense. There were no children living on the estate, you had to walk into town to see them. Just one more silence in a silent world of waiting.

As her bungalow came into sight Margaret’s feet sped up and her heart lifted. Not long now. Jake brought the future singing along with him each time he ran across the lawn to the house, a promise of good things ahead. She remembered her grandmother looking down at baby Jessica when she was laid on her knee for the first time- one of only three times she ever saw her- and saying, “she’s got her whole life ahead of her”. Back then she had just smiled and thought, of course she has, but now, when she looked at Jake, she was able to read her grandmother’s thoughts and understand what was being said. It was his world now. His tiny hands were carrying the remains of her life forward and what was left of her hopes had been passed down to him. All she could do was watch and marvel.