Drowned like puppies

I’ve seen my share of sad men

Down and outs by the bus station

Sharing cigarette butts and sherry,

Clean shaven men in traffic jams

Twisting the dials of their radios

Searching in the static for

Something better, something other.

I have seen men fall from grace

Like meteors they plunged

Into greasy oceans

Tangled in seaweed

They drowned like puppies.

Yes, I have seen my share of sad men,

Men who loved and lied

Men who lived and died

By their swords.

And some went screaming

To their ends and some whimpered

Like cornered foxes

Like scratching cats in cardboard boxes

They fought against their fate

But in the end they knew their worth,

In the end they breathed in deep

And felt the welcome earth

Consume them as it does all men.

Kneeling Spinsters

Every Christmas Eve

We drive to the Catholic Church

And we light a candle for your dead sister,

Whose hair was the colour of the straw

Of the nativity,

Whose soul was as bright as the neon lights

That reflect in the cold puddles

Along the wet high street.

And none of us believe,

And none of us pray to their God,

We are aliens

We are intruders here

But we are welcomed nonetheless,

Welcomed in silence by the kneeling spinsters

Who tug at dowdy sheets of linen,

Who set out candles on the wooden altar,

Who have enough belief for us all

Thank the Lord for the kneeling spinsters.

Death at Christmas

She fell face forward

Onto the wet pavement

And she was dead.

And her face was blue

When they rolled her over

As blue as the ocean in winter,

And her daughter screamed

Howled into the glittering street

Full of hopeful shoppers

All of them deaf to her moans,

All of them shrouded in wool

And Christmas fear.

And her aged face was dented

By the grey slab

And there was nothing to be done

And there was nothing to be said

Silence in the School

Today I was an explorer
And measured the depths of my thoughts with a plumb line
I jumped into the abyss
I reached for the tip of the greenest tree

Today I paced the corridors
And heard my hollow footsteps on the cheap linoleum
I watched a hundred girls whispering with their inky fingers
I listened to the tapping of their keyboards

Today I heard silence for the first time
And I realised that the sound was thunderous
I realised that the backdrop is more than a landscape
I remembered something I had forgotten

Today the playground died
And skipping ropes lay coiled like pythons in deference to the peace
I saw a mirage over the pitted tarmac
I saw the breeze push paper round the classroom

Today I smelt the grass
And felt the hum of living
I put my ear to the classroom wall
And I heard the sound of silence

Rhododendrons

Half a mile or so from the heavy farm gate a figure could be seen approaching in the gloom. A dark shape bobbing gently along the cinder path that ran all the way from the main road, dissecting the wide corn fields on either side of it. Fleetingly the figure disappeared in the low cold mist only to appear again, this time closer, close enough to see that it was a young man on a bicycle. He wore a cloth cap pulled down tightly over his brow, a long coat and a pair of solid brown work boots. When he reached the gate he dismounted, rested the bicycle against his thigh and disengaged the iron bar that locked it shut.

Now on its far side he paused and seemed preoccupied with some thought or other because he leant against the damp wood of the gate and looked back at the route he had taken as if he had dropped something and was looking for it. He pushed at the peak of his cap with a single finger and then ran his palm thoughtfully over his chin before turning slowly and pulling himself back up onto the high saddle. The bicycle itself was old and its frame was black and chipped, the wire basket on its front held a brown paper packet. It wasn’t long now before he reached the silent farmyard; again he dismounted but this time he walked the creaking bicycle across the yard, parking it against the dark wooden slats of the empty barn.

He was now in full view of the great house. Its windows peering out like sunken eyes over the sleeping farm. They made him feel uneasy but he walked out beneath the high red brick gables and around to the side, pushing open the cast iron gate that led into the garden. The ducks were muttering; mallards and muscovies digging their orange bills into the edge of the silty pond. He could smell the muddy water across the cool morning air. The lawn, freshly cut spread in front of him taut as a bowling green, reaching out gently towards the newly turned flower beds and leafy shrubs at its edge.

He fetched the wheelbarrow from its resting place by the stone wall and then ran it effortlessly along the winding stone path towards the circular bed of hydrangeas. The garden implements in the barrow suddenly shifted and he winced at the noise, slowing his pace. He looked guiltily back over his shoulder at the house but could see no lights nor any sign of life within. Removing the garden fork from the barrow he cleaned the dried mud from the tines with the practised toe of his large boot. Then standing he leaned on the handle and looked about the hushed garden, a prelude to the day’s work ahead. Now he could hear the pigeons under the eaves and the abrasive caw of the rooks playing sentry high in the turkey oaks; he thought they were his only audience.

She watched him from the safe darkness of the warm kitchen. She watched him pushing the fork into the heavy clay of the flowerbed effortlessly heaving up the clods of dark earth. Kneeling he pulled at the sod, his slender fingers delicately sifting out the roots and unwanted detritus, throwing them unseen into an untidy heap behind him. Every now and again he paused, glancing up towards the window but she was sure that he could see nothing except perhaps the reflection of the trees in the dark pane. She thought of her late husband as she continued to study him, something of the boy reminded her of him. She didn’t know what exactly. She tried vainly to grasp at it as she washed her teacup in the warm water of the sink but the idea drifted away into the soap suds. Perhaps it was just that he was there in the garden his fingers picking at the same dark soil.

She tried to remember when she had hired him. He had knocked on the side door of the farmhouse early last summer. She remembered his face flushed from the ride as he stood there breathless, the bicycle by his side. He had spoken clearly and with a confidence she thought born of an education even if his appearance seemed at odds with it. That was what had won her over, that and the way he had looked at her, directly, almost imploringly with those pale green eyes.

Since her husband had died the garden had become overgrown , roses unpruned hung their heads like scruffy schoolboys and the flowerbeds long untended had been almost indistinguishable from the rough land by the meadows edge. Ground ivy smothered the ferns and hostas by the pond and the snails and slugs had long since had their fill of anything appetising. It had made her happy for a while to leave it like this, a demonstration of her grief, a tangible tangle of greenery. But his arrival had stirred something deep within her, she felt as if it were time to wake, time to breathe again. She would get him to plant a bed of rhododendrons there by the pond, that would be a start.

Bronski Days

Tore said it was hot whilst chewing on a carrot he’d found in his knapsack. It was hot actually. It felt like the sweat was being squeezed out of us by some giant unkindly hand, and salty beads of it ran from our brows down into our eyes.

We’d been picked up some hours before, (it felt like days) just outside the old city Jerusalem by some half arsed bearded Arab in an old jalopy. He stank of cigarettes and stale beer but he had laughed and had sung folk songs to us the whole journey right up into the Judaean hills. He had dropped us off, still singing, by the side of the narrow mountain road some miles back and now we were all silently wishing we hadn’t listened to Bronski’s crazy idea at all.

‘It’ll be great,’ he had said, his eyes bright with the kind of mad enthusiasm that took upon him every once in a while. ‘We’ll follow the aqueduct all the way into Jericho.’ And then he said ‘God damn it! We will flow into that city like a waterfall.’ Last night we had all gone along willingly with the idea. To be fair we had all been fairly laced with vodka and it seemed like a good way of breaking up the monotony of our daily grind in the glass factory.

We’d been walking for a couple of hours now and there was no sign of any aqueduct. The path was yellow dust and the bare rock hills stretched as far as we could see in every direction. A shimmering mirage lifted up from the land and to make things worse the sun was directly overhead. It beat down mercilessly and it made the heat come off the road like hot coals on a barbecue. I didn’t think we could go much further. I didn’t think any of us wanted to, except for Bronski.

Renata was the first to stop. She was the crazy Brazilian chick we had met back in the Negev, skin the colour of Demerara sugar and her hair all up in a hippy knot. She took a long drag on her water bottle and we waited expectantly for her to deliver. ‘Well guys’ she said in an American drawl, ‘I don’t see any frickin aqueduct.’ And we had all gazed hopefully toward the horizon imagining that it might suddenly reveal itself in a vision of loveliness.

Tore pointed vaguely at the map with the stump of his carrot. ‘Not far now,’ he said wishfully and Bronski nodded enthusiastically ‘I can feel it man,’ and he stamped his heavy boots onto the gravel track, ‘I can feel it!’ he shouted and his voiced echoed across the barren hills around us.

And then, almost as if Bronski’s shouting had summoned up the devil himself they appeared. Out of nowhere there came a great deafening thunder, a great heavy whapping rhythmic beat that drove vibrations right into our empty stomachs. We had all instinctively crouched down onto the dirt. They appeared over the crest of the hills, huge dragonflies, black and angry humming with a fearful sound that made it feel like the end of the world. They were Apache helicopters, and they hugged the rugged terrain like a lover, dipping and swooping till finally they passed directly over our cowed heads and sped onwards across the hills and into the hazey turquoise of the sky. The thumping still echoed about the hills for several minutes and we were all left with our hearts beating and breathless. It kind of spurred us on.

We trudged on silently for another couple of kilometres, Tore pointing every now and again up at the buzzards looping freely high above us in the dry mountain air. And then suddenly the valley widened and we arrived on the rocky lip of a large chasm. It was as if the mountain had been split by some huge knife and we all looked in wonder at the God-given rift that lay before us. A steep sided narrow gorge with tiny flecks of green running along its bottom. And there, three quarters of the way down its ragged sides was the aqueduct. It lent against the rock face like a guard rail running in long straight stretches and sparkling with clean rolling water.

Bronski was smiling right from ear to ear now and we all gazed silently at the view before us. A steep path zig-zagged down the valley and we took it in great bounding leaps our hearts full of joy and our backpacks bouncing behind us. We were yelping and shrieking with squeaks of delight. Grasses and palm trees began to appear beside the path and Tore almost ran into an old grey donkey that was plodding untethered up the valley. Bronski was the first to reach the aqueduct. He flung his pack down and pulled himself up over the rough lip laughing then flopped down fully clothed into the cold water. Soon we had all followed his example and we lay on our backs letting the cold water wash over us, washing off the yellow dust and then drinking down great gulps of it. It was delicious.

Later after we had dried ourselves we traipsed happily alongside the channel for a couple more hours until we were forced to leave its side. The path descended and the aqueduct passed overhead across several great stone arches. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked. We did reach Jericho eventually but it was late in the afternoon and the place was deserted. We sat on a pile of gravel and ate our sandwiches whilst the light faded and gave way to a marbled darkness.

That was one of the Bronski days that I remember well but there were many others.

Spring tide

A winter’s storm has flung

A thousand pebbles on the esplanade.

A thousand rounded cherts and flints

Rolled in the grey tide

And smothered by the sea’s grey foam.

I watch them as the setting sun

Gives each a slanting shadow tail

And like a thousand spawning fish

They face the West aligned

And swim upstream for home

Butterflies

“Is there anybody at home?” she asks me, her elbows leaning into the wooden table, her hands cupped together gently. It’s as if she is holding within her slender fingers the rarest of butterflies. She may as well just have asked me if I liked pistachio ice cream?

“Jonathan?” She says in a gentle voice.

My head is full of fug, it’s like I’ve just woken up after a siesta and I’m trying to grasp whether it’s evening or morning. “At my home?” I say stupidly.

“Yes, is there someone there now?” I want to say what the fuck has it got to do with you but I resist the temptation. Instead I say, “er, at home? No, no one at home”

I can feel her eyes on me. The last time I felt like this I had been dragged unwillingly into the Head’s office at school. Now I’m studying the line of tatty folders that runs along the shelf above her head. I’m trying to read their labels. I tilt my head but the writing is too small to make out anything and then I smile at my own stupid effort.

“I can phone someone for you if you like?”

Phone someone? Phone who you like, it’s a free world. Again, I resist the temptation. “No” I say “it’s fine.”

“You know I have a patient at the moment who I’ve been seeing for years…..” but her voice trails off into a dream and I find myself flitting like a butterfly up past the shelves and folders, up past the smeared whiteboard and the medical books, right on up to the off-white ceiling tiles. And then I realise that there is no window, there is no escape from this. So I float back down again into her soft vowels. Her name badge says ‘Emily’ and underneath, oncology. I roll the word around in my head, it’s a nice word, satisfying, it has gentle edges.

“Jonathan?” She says and now I look right at her for the first time. She has a kind face I suppose. She reminds me of someone and as I try to remember who, she opens her hands and smiles and there in her palm is the most beautiful butterfly I have ever seen.

Lyme Park

Lyme Park in the snow
Was a sight to behold,
Leafless trees lined row on row
And a fold of whiteness falling away on either side,
Like infinite blotting paper.

I sat duffle-coated on my sled,
Atop the slope
Fingers round the yellow twine
And then I saw her, the girl in red,
The girl directly in my line of flight.

And I don’t think that I had ever seen
Such beauty in a girl before
And suddenly it all made sense,
Life, love and honour
Seemed tied up in her woollen scarf

And for a moment
The five year old became the man,
And I caught a glimpse of life’s great plan
Mapped out across the Virgin snow,
But something made me let it go

And push off from my resting place,
Something fearful deep below
Pursued me as we gathered pace,
My sled and I,
We hit her squarely on the thigh

And there we were
That girl and me,
Tossed flotsam-like on a stormy sea of white,
Whilst adults ran from left and right to rescue her.
The girl in red cried silent tears,

Away was led
And someone near was overheard to say
This was indeed a sorry way to end the day.