Summer in the city


This morning’s tour of duty; boy’s room first, open the blinds.  Nearly a teen and he’s still my baby boy, my puppy dog.  Two weeks today since I last saw him.  He’s off round Europe in a motorhome, playing Max to his dad’s Paddy. Not long till the weekend is my mantra.

But for now, I’m alone.  Girl in Africa, boy in Europe.  Sister on some island in the Med, friend in Scandinavia.  Utterly alone.  Even Les next door has escaped to Blackpool for a few nights.  In general, I think I do quite fine with alone, but these are testing times and I’m feeling kinda forlornely.

I consider taking Regina’s advice and finding a protest, to rub up against strangers; but this is a tiny city and its best offering is a rerun of Macbeth at the independent cinema. I settle, it’s ok.  Reminds me of when my boy nudges and says come watch the rugby with me, Mum; I get the gist but not the finer points and when I tire of concentrating, the scenery is easy on the eye.

Back at the car park pay-station, I find my plastic park-card and hold it out ready to slot it in, but there is no slot.  I wave it around in hope.

Just hold it up there, duck, where them three lights are.  A head peeks out from under the paymachine and a grimy finger points up to guide me.  Right up there – look, says the crosslegged imp, patiently.

Right, thanks I say.  I show the card to the buttons and like a jackpot in reverse, they flash rainbows and tell me how much to pay.  I feed a note into the machine and it spews out a few paltry coins, which I press into the grubby hands below.  Spend it wisely, I counsel, I hear wet wipe washes are the way forward.

Walking to the car, my phone rings.  My boy tells me he will be home in about an hour.

But you’re not coming home till the weekend.

Change of plan.

Well, that’s great, but couldn’t you have let me know?

I told you Monday didn’t I?

No, you said the weekend.

Hmmm… oh yeah, I wrote it on the postcard.

I see.  And when did you send the postcard?

Well, I couldn’t find anywhere to post it.

So, you’re bringing me the postcard that you wrote to tell me you’re coming home?

I could hear his grin, the sweetheart.




Missing my daughter

I close the curtains and breathe the air.

I sit on my daughter’s empty bed and close my eyes.  I see a tiny girl in a high chair.  She wears a tangerine playsuit, her dark hair is split into short, mischievous bunches, and she is play-frowning as she sits waiting for me to make her peanut butter sandwiches.  As a toddler, she had beautifully expressive feet: oh, how indignant they could be, and again so joyful.  She smiles at me as she theatrically furrows her brow, but the angle of those feet; the tension in them, let me know that a real tantrum is not far behind if I don’t hasten.  Just in time, the sandwiches are served and the feet relax; a first bite and her toes wiggle happily along with her jaw.

Always so independent, she developed her own individual smell from an early age.  Now older, stronger-willed and even more contrary, the perfume of her in this room seems to grow more powerful the longer she is away.  Or maybe I just breathe deeper.

It was two weeks ago that she sent her last, nervous, text before flying off to spend three weeks on the plains and deserts of southern Africa with a group of people she’d not met before; it is another nine days before I see her again.  In the meantime, we glean what we can from the weekly group-blog.  The first was heartening; we’re here safely, evenings are spent singing round the campfire and stargazing (generally speaking, the only stargazing my daughter does is watching TOWIE, but first for everything and all that).  The second was slightly more unsettling; we’re off trekking in search of elephants, it’s up to 40º most days and there are no showers – wet wipe washes are the way forward.  And while someone’s son is living on Tabasco sauce, someone’s daughter is a natural breadmaker and someone else’s snores, my daughter – after a week – spoke.

Next update is due tomorrow.

Now you’re really living

An evening of failure and listening to too much Eels takes its toll the morning after.

The light was beautiful this morning, but the air smelt sour.

On the way to school, my son told me about a dream he’d had:

– It was snowing, but it was like 32° and everyone had shorts on.

– How strange.  Why did the snow not melt?

– Because it was a dream.

I admire my son’s simplicity as much as my daughter’s complexity.  It makes me think of a time when they were younger, colouring at the table.  I looked over and watched as son decided which green to colour the grass; daughter stared intently at the landscape on her paper.  Then she looked up, threw me a quick smile and said:

– Mum, I was thinking last night.  You’re born, you have kids, then you die.  Is that really all there is to life?

And I will sing a lullaby

I’m eating coco-pops early – like, GMTV early – when she wakes up.  ‘Morning, Baby!’ I say and I smile a big smile.  She looks at me with those big puppy eyes and I grab her up and kiss her tiny wet nose and put her on my lap and she’s snuffling round me and pawing.  ‘I know what you want, Baby’, I say and I give her the breast, but she doesn’t.  She doesn’t want the breast, she wants the coco-pops instead.  Baby’s growing up I think and a tear plops in the bowl as I put it on the floor for Baby.  I blink away thinkings and tears and go for more coco-pops.  Must ask Missis Downstairs I think as I’m pouring the milk.  I shout to Baby, ‘we’ll ask Missis D what’s best for you to eat.  Can’t be eating coco-pops all day long, Baby.’  But Baby’s gone back to sleep, curled up around a belly full of coco-pops.

I’ve had Baby nearly six weeks now and Missis Downstairs says I’m doing great.  She’s great herself, is Missis D.  She helps me out when I’m stuck and if I’m having a bad day, she brings me down to hers.  She takes Baby off me and plonks her in a nest of cushions.  I sit at the table and she brings in the tea-tray and sets the table all fancy-like with cups and saucers and silver spoons and the teapot’s got a woolly cosy so we can natter away and when she pours second cups, the tea’s still hot.  The table always has the same soft thick tablecloth, the colour of custard and always clean and smelling of outside.  Missis Downstairs has a garden with a clothes-line over the lawn and a tree with birdfeeders all hanging off the branches and a bench where she can sit and watch her birds and shout at the thieving-bugger-squirrels.  I like the blackbirds best.  That night when my baby came and I was walking round the flat breathing and puffing, it felt like I was the only person awake and I heard a blackbird singing from Missis D’s tree and I thought of blackbird singing in the dead of night and I remembered my mum used to sing it to me and then I wasn’t so scared.  I didn’t know then, what she’d be like, my baby.  And when she pours second cups I know it’s time to stop nattering cos she has her chores.  ‘No rest for the wicked’, she says and shakes her head, and me and Baby go back upstairs.

The nurse told me to pick her up but she was too tiny and looked all wrong.  They said she wasn’t right inside but she’d look less wrinkly if she grew.  They dressed her up in a tiny pink cardi that an old lady knits for the poorly babies, and a pink hat that looked all scratchy.  She frowned at me in her sleep so I told them to take the hat off but she didn’t stop frowning.  She didn’t stop frowning until the next day when I was feeling braver and I let the nurse put my baby in my arms and she fitted there just right and I smiled and smiled and the nurse showed me how to feed her with the breast and she unscrewed her tiny eyes just a little bit.  The nurse said I should talk to her but I was all shy so I sang instead. Blackbird singing in the dead of night.  In that plastic cot she always looked cross, with her frown and sometimes her fists’d go like a tiny slow boxer’s and her mouth’d open wide but all that’d come out was a tiny angry tongue and no noise.  When she had the breast and I was singing to her she stopped being so cross but she never looked happy.  The nurse said she was too little to smile.

When Baby wakes we go and see Missis Downstairs.  I say I think it is time Baby had proper food and Missis D says I am quite right.  I don’t tell her about the coco-pops.  She says tins are easiest but I must not forget that she still needs milk and I must give her the bottle at bedtime so she will grow nice and big and strong and shiny.  She says we shall have a pot of tea this afternoon, to celebrate.  I don’t feel like celebrating but I don’t tell Missis D.  I smile and say that shall be nice and go off to the shop to buy tins.

My baby didn’t grow any bigger and the nurse said her insides were getting worse and asked if I wanted to have her baptised so she’d go to heaven when she died and I’d have to choose a name for her.  I could only think of Blackbird but the nurse said what about Ebony because it means black and I liked that cos it sounds all fancy-like.  After the vicar came and gave her her name, I held her and gave her the breast and sang to her until she stopped sucking and she never looked happy but then she almost did.  The nurse asked if I was ok and if I wanted to be on my own with her for a bit before they took her away to be in heaven.  I sang and rocked her then I went home and told Missis Downstairs and we had a pot of tea and I was still crying after the second cup so she let me stay a bit longer because sometimes the chores can wait.

The next day, Missis D called me down to hers and nodded at a cardboard box sat in front of the table. ‘See if that helps’ she said and went off to mash the tea.  I opened the box and there she was, curled up on an old jumper, fast asleep.  I picked her up and she fitted nice in my arms and she stayed asleep while I rocked her and stroked her soft white belly.  Not a perfect fit, like my baby, but nice.  We were still rocking away when Missis D came back in with the tea-tray and asked why I was crying like a daft lump and didn’t I like her.  I said she was lovely and please could I keep her and Missis D said of course I could and I said ‘I shall call her Baby’.  Missis D gave me the bottle to feed her and a tick-tocking clock wrapped up in a furry blanket to put in her box at bedtime so she could pretend it was her mummy.  She told me Baby’s mummy had died and that if I looked after Baby nicely, maybe her mummy would look after my baby in heaven. But Baby wasn’t good at pretending and that night while I was in bed crying for my baby I could hear Baby in her box crying for her mummy.  I wanted to look after her all nice-like cos I wanted my baby to be happy in heaven and maybe she’d smile.  I didn’t tell Missis Downstairs.

Baby’s head sticks out of my handbag and we choose some tins and take them to the till.  The lady says ‘awww, little cutie, what’s name?’ and I tell her she’s Baby but it feels all wrong.  I give her the money but then a funny noise comes from my mouth and I have to run out the shop without waiting for my change and I run all the way home and I have to go to Missis Downstairs’ and ‘oh, lovey, what’s all this about, then?’ she says and I don’t know.  She gives me tissues and leaves me with my thinkings while she mashes.

Missis D brings in the tea-tray and I tell her that Baby’s growing up and she’s not a baby anymore and she needs a new name.  I look at her curled up asleep on the cushions, little brown legs twitching like she’s dreaming of going for a run.  I can only think of Whitebelly, but Missis D says what about Ivory because it means white and I like that.  I like that.

At drop of dusk

It’s near-darkness on a placid autumn evening and I’m sitting in my sherbet-lemon car.  Floodlights towering over the pitch beyond throw their glow upon the burnished leaves of the birch tree in the car park.  A car pulls up next to the pitch and a woman with a baby harnessed to her chest walks up the lane.  The baby’s name is Max. They are wrapped together beneath her coat and she is talking to Max, kissing his hatted head. She watches for a while as the coaches shout to the boys who throw and catch, run and ruck.  She tells Max how well his big brother is doing, explains to him some of the simpler rules of the game and, even as she breathes in the milky sweetness of his forehead, she knows that the years will be short before it is him she is watching in the steaming pack of muddy boys on a still autumn night.

I sit back in my car seat and put my head against the rest.  A migraine is in retreat.  It is too dark to read – the floodlights don’t reach this far – so I take out my phone and find something to listen to.  Dylan Thomas shuffles to the front of the queue, he’s reading Over Sir John’s Hill.  I rest my head and close my eyes; I’m there with him and it’s bliss.

I think Dylan Thomas’ poems work on many levels, many points of sophistication; Thomas is to poetry what Abba is to pop music.  Listen to the poem (here, although I prefer the reading from ‘Dylan Thomas at the BBC’) and you will hear lively imagery animated by alliteration, assonance and repetition.  It sounds free and almost prose-like, but if you read it (here) you can see that, as in Don Paterson’s poetry, everything is held together by a solid frame of form.  Five stanzas of twelves lines with a syllabic pattern and rhyming aabccbdefegh.

As I’ve said before, poems seem to take on an added dimension when read aloud.  Donald Hall agrees.  In an article for The New Yorker, a series of anecdotes and thoughts on poetry readings, he says Thomas’ poems were ‘fabricated for his rich and succulent Welsh organ’.  He also says:

‘When my generation learned to read aloud, publishing from platforms more often than in print, we heard our poems change. Sound had always been my portal to poetry, but in the beginning sound was imagined through the eye. Gradually the mouth-juice of vowels, or mouth-chunk of consonants, gave body to poems in performance. Dylan Thomas showed the way. Charles Olson said that “form is never more than an extension of content.” Really, content is only an excuse for oral sex.’

But for me, as a listener, it is something purer.

Sitting there in the darkness, listening to Thomas examine his own mortality, it took me back to that moment of promise before a first kiss.