Thistledown.

Along every hedgerow,
every field,
silver seeds are flying out,
leaving home to make a new summer.
Parent plants stretch their stalks,
clinging, stroking.
Don’t go!
Not now………. not yet.
Just a few more days,
a few more hours to hold you.
The seed heads quiver
and their children shake out their hair,
ready to take their chances,
longing to soar.
They tumble out,
spilling onto the wind.
A kiss on the wild air
and they are gone.
A farewell and a promise.

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Short Story: Being Liam.

We all have secrets; the ones we keep and the ones that are kept from us.
Peter Parker/Spider-man.

Liam liked trains. He wriggled his way up onto the empty luggage rack as soon as he saw it. He could do that now that he was a big boy. He was seven. His mum was still struggling with the buggy. Thomas had to stay strapped in. Thomas was all right but he didn’t do much.
“Shazaam! Go, go web go!”
He swept his arms out sending delicate threads of web towards the roof of the carriage and Thomas beamed at him from his straps. With a bit more practice he would be able to swing out on one of those. He stuck his tongue out and Thomas kicked his feet. His mum was stressed.
“Get down Liam.”
“No.”
“I said get down.”
“I’m allowed.”
He sat there, looking down on everything like a proper superhero. He was wearing his Spider-man t shirt. His mum had said no to him wearing the mask though, because she said it freaked her out. It was in his pocket but she didn’t know that. He might put it on. He could see right down the carriage. The woman in the red scarf sitting half way down was looking at him. She must have seen the webs. He stuck his arms out, shut his eyes and made a vroom noise, using his special powers to flatten her. If his mum wanted him to come down she could make him. She was trying to get the buggy into the special place for it and Thomas was waving his arms and shouting for his ball. He would scream soon if he didn’t get it.
“Up, up and away web!”
“Be quiet Liam.”
He sent out a third level power surge towards his mum. Silently.
“Get down now!”
“No!”
“Right, well that’s it. Soon as you get home you’re grounded.”
Liam frowned. How had that happened?
“No!”
“You are. Straight to your room as soon as we get in. I’m telling you.”
He wrinkled his nose. She would forget. His mum just liked telling him what to do. She didn’t like it when he chose for himself. Liam liked choosing. He liked choosing and he liked making things happen. Thomas couldn’t do that.
“That’s not fair.”
“Well it’s what’s going to happen. I’m telling you.”
Thomas was giggling at him. Liam didn’t like it. Mum was looking in the bag for Thomas’ noo noo. That thing was gross. One corner of it was always soggy and Thomas kept chucking it on the ground so that someone had to pick it up. The dirt stuck to the soggy part. Thomas hardly ever got told off for doing that. This wasn’t fair. He wasn’t allowed to throw stuff like that. Being a big boy was rubbish.
“Sit in that seat over there.”
His mum was pointing.
“Why?”
“Because I said so.”
He shook his head. Thomas had been given his noo noo and he was bashing his buggy with it. He wanted his ball. It was hanging from its rope, just out of reach on the back of the buggy. Liam made a grab for it.”
“Liam!”
He shoved it underneath him and there was a whooshing sound.
His mum spun round. The ball was crumpled up like a burst balloon.
“Now look what you’ve done- and it’s not even your ball.”
He didn’t care. Thomas did though. He was howling now and hitting the woman in the seat opposite with the noo noo. She was trying to look as though she didn’t mind. Liam frowned at her and she smiled back. Her nose wrinkled and her glasses moved. It was quite funny but he didn’t want to laugh, he wanted to sulk.
“I need a wee”.
“You’ll have to wait won’t you.”
Liam held onto the front of his trousers tightly to make his point.
“I can’t wait.”
“Well you’ll have to. You should have gone at the station”.
There was a toilet there in the train- he could see it- but his mum couldn’t be bothered to let him use it. Anyway he wasn’t getting down from the luggage shelf until he had to.
“We’ll be home soon”.
He wondered if he would really get grounded when he got home and, if he was, whether his mum would remember that his tablet was charging in his bedroom and take it away. He was going to stay with his dad soon. Three more sleeps. His dad let him do anything he wanted to- even grief his buildings in Minecraft. Liam liked destroying things and he was good at it. He wanted to know why his dad didn’t live in the same house with them any more. It was a secret. Spider-man knew about secrets but this was the kind of secret that even a superhero wasn’t allowed to know.
“Can I take my tablet to dads?”
His mum was sorting Thomas out. Cleaning his face again. She was pretending she hadn’t heard. Thomas wasn’t allowed to sleep at dads yet. Just go to the park and stuff. That was boring because he couldn’t kick a ball straight and his dad always said he had to play as well, even when he kept falling over.
“Mum.”
His mum glared at him.
“I don’t want to hear any more about you going to your dads.”
“I’m going.”
His mum’s face looked strange.
“I know you are. Shut up about it.”
The woman sitting opposite had stopped smiling. She was cross with him as well now. He hadn’t done anything much. Liam glared out of the window, avoiding his mum’s anger. They shouldn’t be cross with him. That wasn’t fair. He hadn’t done anything. Just climbed up onto the luggage rack. What was so bad about that?
“Shazaam! Go web go!”
He grabbed his Spider-man mask from his pocket and put it on- he could do that really fast now- and stretched out his fingers towards his mum, sending sticky trails of clinging spiders web towards her that curled around her face and arms and stopped her moving. She turned towards him and screamed out in terror.
“LIAM!”
He felt much better.

Puno to Cuzco on the Andean Explorer.

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We were meant to be flying from Peru to Bolivia to visit projects supporting people in need but the border was closed. People were protesting against a new gas pipeline. I never did find out why they felt the need to do that but it gave me the best day of my life and it meant that I returned from my time in Peru without missing one of the great railway journeys of the world- a whole day on the Andean Explorer travelling from Puno to Cusco right across the Andes. It was an unexpected touch of luxury and a long lingering ride across the interior of Peru as we looked forward to two nights in Aguas Calientes and visiting Maccu Picchu.
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We left Puno at six o’clock in the morning. It was a strange back and forth beginning as we climbed up out of the town slowly via a series of switchbacks. By the trackside there were a series of small shacks, each one had a street dog waiting patiently by the door for it’s chosen people to wake up. Peruvians love dogs and I had already been offered a puppy to bring home in Chancharia, one of the shanty towns that we visited on the outskirts of Lima. Dogs were everywhere and none of them that I saw ever looked in need. Many of them had to duck and dive, yes, stealing offal from underneath street stalls and grabbing what they could find, but since a lot of the people who I met also had to get by on a similar basis I had decided that the dogs were doing all right. Certainly these particular dogs knew exactly where they were and who they could rely on and it made a solemn farewell honour guard for the train as it crept out of the town in the early light. They probably watched the train leave every morning, knowing that the sight and sound of it signaled the start of a new day.

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I settled myself out in the open air on the platform at the very back of the train, behind the viewing carriage. I would be there for the rest of the day, watching the Peruvian landscape unfold in front of me, reluctant to leave my post even for meals or Pisco sours. Puno began to recede into the distance as the train rattled along the shore of Lake Titicaca, a vibrant green expanse of water where we had visited the reed islands by boat the previous day. Quite quickly we were out on our own, heading across a great plain. Among the ruined farmsteads and dark rubble strewn ground there were farmers working alone, stopping to wave as the train passed. They were using tools that my grandfather would have recognised. Llamas raised their heads to watch us go by. It all looked harsh and unforgiving, the kind of place where people had tried and failed, but never given up making the attempt. Just a single stretch of track led the train out across the seemingly endless open ground towards the distant mountains. When we passed through the small towns, Juliaca, Pucara, Chucqibabilla, bicycles were halted and market stalls with coloured awnings were cleared away from the track for a moment to allow us to clatter our way slowly through the heart of the town’s life. We rode roughshod over paperback books laid out between the sleepers for sale, causing a moments chaos until the market closed in again behind us, covering our tracks. People, smiled, waved, stared, until the dogs ran the train out of town and sent us on our way back into the wilderness. It was magical.

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The climb up across the La Raya pass is astonishingly beautiful. Just a single fragile track leads you upwards into spectacular snow capped mountains. When the train stopped to allow us to get out, breathe the mountain air and look around people appeared from nowhere with crafts to sell. The fact that we were so high up and so isolated made them seem unreal. I wondered how long they had walked to get to the train stop. They held out knitted finger puppets, gloves, hand made water bottle holders, colourful hats, towards the faces on the train. Their expressions were serious. We clearly had money or we would not be on the train and they needed it. This was their one chance. Deals were done through the train windows or beside the tracks. When I got off the train to stretch my legs I found a whole craft market waiting for me. All because a train stopped in the middle of nowhere. A very beautiful nowhere but still nowhere. Peruvian craft markets are a joyous burst of colour and imagination. You can buy carved gourds, tiny exuberant animal finger puppets, paintings, knitted cardigans, jumpers, hats, gloves, ceramics, Peruvians are a talented and creative people. They love to dance, make, sing, parade and dress up. I had met people who were ready to do all those things in the most difficult of circumstances and my admiration for them has never faded. Life without a safety net demands a lot of the human spirit but sometimes it also shows us at our best.

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When the train set off again we descended steadily into a very different landscape, the rich, green fertile land of the sacred valley. It was easy to see why the Incas had seen it as special. The farmers here had a much more promising soil to work with- there was life and growth everywhere around the Huatanay river. A different world. This was the Peru that I had wanted to see. Flocks of parrots in sub tropical rain forest by a rushing river backed by mountains, a riot of green abundance, a world of natural plenty and luxury. When I had first been deposited in the smog of Lima after a long hard journey I had wondered whether the Peru that I had been hoping for really existed. Now I knew. It had been laid out before me like a film set for the whole day, a constantly changing vista that seemed to be there just for me. As the train swept down the main street of Aguas Calientes at the end of our journey I stared up at the side of the forest covered mountain above the town. Somewhere up there was Machu Piccu, and after my first night in Gringo Bill’s hostel I would walk in the sacred city of the Incas.

The Truth About Rainbows.

Don’t believe what they say about rainbows,
the promises,
the crock of gold.
They are deceivers,
beckoning you onwards,
tempting you towards a shimmering lie.
A magician’s misdirection.

A confection of sunlight and falling water,
stretched through empty air.
An accidental note of beauty
ready to fade into nothing
at a time of its own choosing
while you hold out your hand towards it
in delighted confusion.

Just wonder, look, and hope.
Believe your heart, not your eyes.

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The Woman in Black. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 30-07-15

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Production photograph copyright Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media.

The Woman in Black started out at the Stephen Joseph theatre as a small scale lunchtime show, back in 1987, without any thought that it might become the second longest running show ever to be staged in the West End- it has been running for twenty five years and there have been twelve national tours. Something about it touched a nerve. Quite simply Stephen Mallatratt took Susan Hill’s clever, middle of the road ghost story- the kind of thing which has a wide audience- and produced a pitch perfect piece of writing for the stage which was given an engaging and very theatrical production. It draws you in cleverly, and is genuinely frightening when you see it for the first time. It was one of the Stephen Joseph’s greatest successes in its first 60 years and it was no surprise to find another revival of it in the 60th anniversary celebration season. A safe choice but I think that we can forgive them that.

This production doesn’t put a foot wrong. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about seeing it again, having seen a young Martin Freeman in the SJT’s 1997 revival and got to know the twists and turns, but I am very glad that I did. Robin Herford, the original director, has been with the show for every production and every recast and this is obvious from the start, the whole thing runs like a well oiled machine. Every move, every line reading, has been proved by time to hit home when done correctly and the technical team, Denzil Hebditch and Charlotte Brooke manage a series of challenging sound and lighting cues faultlessly. By now I am probably making it sound like the equivalent of Sunday evening television, and but for the two actors at the centre of it it might well have been. Christopher Godwin and Tom Godwin bring it to life with great accuracy and energy. They establish an immediate rapport with the audience, which is important if you want those watching to be afraid, and we can lose ourselves in the story confidently, sure that they both care about telling it to us and know exactly how to do it. They make you feel that they are presenting it to you for the first time rather than trotting out an old war horse yet another time and nothing matters more than that. A lot is asked of them and they deliver. It also adds an extra frisson that they are father and son as this works perfectly within the play when we are taken back in time.

Obviously I am not going to say anything about the plot as one or two people may still not have seen it in spite of the film (which had drawn a few young people into the theatre) but it is a very classy piece of writing which allows you to scare yourself with a minimum of effort. We do that much more successfully if we are left to our own devices

The Twilight of Memory.

Old age creeps up behind you
and slips inside your skin
while you are thinking of something else.

It strokes your body
into a slow submission,
stealing your time,
putting a brake on possibilities,
forcing a slow winding down of the senses,
shrinking your horizon,
reshaping your dreams.

You are not immortal.
Those days are gone,
lost in a past where you danced without aches,
sang at full strength
and rushed in without regret.

Others now wander where you ran,
seeing things for the first time that once delighted you,
taking it all,
reinventing the world in their own image.

And yet………….
hidden in the far depths of your memory
there is another place,
a world that was once true.
A world where you saw things
that they will never see,
did things that are no longer possible,
felt things that made your heart race,
heard sounds that they will never understand.
They don’t need to know.
You have a whole life waiting for you.
Close your eyes,
sit quietly,
travel on.

Grandad Shipley.

Lady’s Bedstraw.

Lady’s bedstraw……..
Who named it that, I wonder?
Which person first smiled secretly
when they thought of it
and laid down their beloved
in a soft, sunlit patch of golden flowers,
telling them that they deserved
a place to rest which was more beautiful,
more serene, more airy
than that of the richest of the gentry,
being free, wild and alive.

All I know is that each July
I watch a particular patch of it
as it appears out of nowhere
and shoots for the sky
among the dull grass
at the side of the cliff top path,
greeting it as a familiar friend.

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