I used to hear him coughing in the night -
it shook our house, I couldn't get to sleep -
on that top storey where the poorest go
he lodged, an exile, but I didn't know
where from or why. His eyes grew huge, his coat
let in each draught. I understand he wrote
some pamphlet, Down with the Death Penalty.
His voice was cracked. He lived on bread and tea.
That winter was a fearful one. I'd go
wild with my brothers, shrieking in the snow.
He went out very rarely, coughed and wrote;
they talked of an obstruction in his throat.
I was young then and now am old, yet he
limps into memory odd times, then fades out,
leaves just these words, It's sometimes right to be
in history's dustbin, a Minority.
One fell off the fragile bridge;
others froze in horror.
Far below them, howling winds
and glimpse of foaming water.
Four young women shared a house,
partied, shrieked with laughter.
All got married, scattered wide.
Three go on without her.
Driving rain, on clothes and skin;
you feel the thin bridge shudder.
The baby knows there's something wrong,
looks round and sees no mother.
Three come home. All night they weep;
why did no one save her?
while each, in fear, bears step by step
a child across the water.
I've written a lot more prose than verse, but usually describe myself as a poet. My four collections to date are The Sun's Yellow Eye (National Poetry Foundation), The Latin Master's Story (Rockingham Press),The First Wife's Tale (Shoestring Press, long-listed for Welsh Book of the Year), and Letter to my Rival. See also -
This whale will not survive.
Hunstanton's stripy cliffs
look down; the curious crowds
mill round him, and take selfies.
He's breathing, but will die
before the January sunset.
All that can be done
is to keep pouring buckets
of water, to refresh
his mangled skin. The red
liquid seeps into rock pools.
this pod. The sonar sent
them miles apart; they blundered
away from the life-giving
ocean, and into shallow
seas of the south. His brothers
washed up on various beaches.
One swam into a chine
and never left the Island.
One, when I was a child,
appeared somewhere in Sussex
(I was paraded past).
One, in the 1630s,
got painted by a Dutchman.
It could be the same crowds,
the same novelty seekers.
Not long to go. He sprawls
amid the weeds, the plastic.
His sides, fitfully, shudder.
In that house on the cliff
other lives are ending.
Night is not far off,
the tide on its way out.
The crowd raises a deep
sigh, turns round. It is finished.
and here is a short story ....
NEXT OF KIN
I woke up as the young male nurse was fiddling with my tube and the first thing I saw was a large figure 7 on the wall opposite. That was what started me thinking; had I been here seven days, seven years? I’d seen this room before. There was a magnolia tree outside the window with half-open blossoms and that puzzled me, because last time I noticed it, it had been bare. My mother had been with me then and her hair had been white, not grey like the time before that. I was too dopey to fit all the pieces into place so I just lay there.
The young man seemed vaguely familiar and I could read his name, GAZ, on the badge he was wearing. He was humming to himself, not talking, just doing things around my bed. The door opened and in came another man.
Julian. My heart sank; I didn’t like him any better than before although he now looked quite different; he had put on some weight and shaved his head, or perhaps gone completely bald. And after a moment I thought, these changes must have taken time. Had I really been in this place for seven years?
I was thinking, still trying to piece the mosaic together, and then I clearly remembered Julian and myself in the car. As usual, he was driving too fast, and we were having a row. A stupid thing to do. And that was when I screamed at him, for the first time, that I was going to divorce him. Phrases that had somehow lodged deep in my brain; seven years, car crash, divorce.
Julian came up and prodded me.
‘No change, then?’
‘No. Well, I’m not with her all the time, but according to my colleagues, there’s no change’.
‘The old people kept saying she could hear them talk’.
‘People want to think that. They see her breathing, her eyes open and shut; they can’t believe it’s only a reflex action’.
‘Did you know the old lady died?’
‘Yes, I heard’.
‘Dropped down in the street, just after she came out of the hospital’.
Now I knew that they were talking about my mother and it was like a tremendous blow to the head but I couldn’t cry, couldn’t scream. I already knew Dad had died. I didn’t know how I knew, but I was quite sure, and I could believe, too, that Mum wouldn’t long have survived him. They must both be - I did a quick calculation - over seventy. They’d met fairly late in life - after they had almost given up hope, they said - and I was their only child.
Gaz asked, ‘How are Kelly and the children?’
‘Oh, fine. Usual Saturday morning turmoil. I couldn’t stand it any more so I thought I’d look in on the way to the big match. I’m going to watch it in the Dirty Duck with my friends’.
Gaz was interested in the match too and they talked about it for a few minutes while I lay there trying to work out who Kelly was. And then it came back; Julian, with a full head of hair, had come in with a young woman in a bright purple frock who was obviously pregnant. I actually remembered thinking, if she goes into labour this moment she’s come to the right
place. And he had said several times, ‘This is Kelly’, trying to introduce her and me. She hadn’t smiled.
That must have been some years ago. So perhaps he had divorced me, married Kelly and had more than one child, but could he have done that without me signing a paper? I looked down at my left hand; there was Julian’s ring. I tried to shake it off.
What did any of that matter? My parents were dead; I had always known that I was likely to outlive them but the news was too enormous to absorb straight away. Perhaps, if I had been in a car crash and badly hurt, they had struggled on trying to keep themselves alive for seven years until they dropped.
I started counting, trying to work out which year it was, but it was no good.
‘There’s no doubt’ (Julian was saying) ‘that it makes things a whole lot easier. I mean, I’m the next of kin anyway, but the old folk kept arguing; caused me a lot of grief, I have to say’.
That was another phrase I seemed to know very well, next of kin. People had been talking about me, standing on both sides of my bed and arguing bitterly, and certain words had stuck. I didn’t yet know what Julian was planning to do; there were great chunks of the mosaic missing, but I listened.
‘And, obviously, it’s best for her, and Kelly and I can, you know, get on with our lives. It’s really affecting her, the situation’.
‘I mean, seven years is a long time’
I tried to take back control of my mind.
I had wanted to divorce Julian. I hadn’t actually told him before the evening of the crash but I had been thinking about doing it for quite some time. Kelly or no Kelly, he had not divorced me in the seven years I had been lying here and he was my next of kin. A message very slowly unscrabbled itself like the last clue in a crossword, Divorce Julian.
I’d already tried opening my mouth, but it was no good. Now I tried moving my hands, thinking I could signal for a pen and paper and write the two words in capitals. But I didn’t think that I could manage all thirteen letters; perhaps I had only enough strength to trace one word, NO. I looked down at my hands again, they weren’t moving and I was ready to weep with frustration. Gaz happened to be looking at me at that moment and I made eye contact. His eyes were blue; his face a little puzzled.
I shook my head. At least, I moved it. At first it was sheer frustration and then I realised I was actually doing it; both men were staring at me and I stared back and kept shaking my head to and fro.
After a while Gaz cleared his throat and said in an embarrassed voice:
‘I shall have to report this, Julian’.