A washed-up snivelling wallow disguised as a poem. Sometimes the moment gets what it deserves…
…. This is quite old. My mum has also gone since I wrote this. But I was thinking of my dad the other day (I was using his tools) and I remembered this and thought I’d post it ….
People say grief doesn’t move in straight lines it moves in waves. What’s not always said is that the waves are more like the kind you get on a pond than in the sea. A pond can be flat for a while; the ducks go back to tending their nests, the frogs creep out to test their voices. And then something – a smell, a place, a memory of something shared – goes plop, and a stone hits the water.
Sometimes it doesn’t even seem to take a stone. Something will bubble up from nowhere, like methane from the mud, and off go the circles. Unlike a pond, the waves don’t always diminish as they move outwards. Sometimes they get bigger and the waves from one loss can touch off another until the pond is not a pond anymore, it’s a whirlpool and it feels like you’re drowning – and all because someone was wearing the same aftershave, or you heard a song, or saw a place name on a map.
The stone for me this time was wrapping paper, or maybe Sellotape. Suddenly it was Christmas and I was back in that small house, in the tiny hallway outside the shut door of the living room (the front room we used to call it, although it was at the back). That door was never closed. Never ever. Except for one time a year. And that was the time when Mum and Dad would shut themselves in to wrap Christmas presents. What exquisite torture it was to be an eight-year-old and to stand in pyjamas in that hallway and press my ear to the door and listen for the rustle of paper and the screech of my dad’s Sellotape dispenser.
Dad was a careful wrapper. His gifts, no matter what they were – a chocolate selection box, a Scalextric set, even a bag of marbles – all looked beautiful by the time he’d finished. He wrapped with care. Mum says he used to use a ruler. (How would he use a ruler?)
Dad did everything with care. He was gentle and warm and kind and funny, and I miss him so very, very much. I miss his arms, so big and soft, and how they would enfold me. I miss the smell of him and the warmth of him. His smile, his laugh and the way that he stood between me and anything that was bad in the world. He was my champion and my best friend. And he was the ground. He held me up.
Waves upon waves. Missing my dad, I found myself thinking about Gena for the first time in weeks. Gena was my friend. We didn’t know each other for a long time. We weren’t old school friends or anything like that, but Gena was there for me in one of the very darkest periods of my life. And I don’t know if I’d be here if it wasn’t for her.
She was what people call a free spirit (although she’d scoff and groan and roll her eyes at an expression like that). A musician. She had hair that was sometimes pink, sometimes black, most often the colour of copper. She played keyboards and guitar and wore Dr Marten’s boots before they were revived. And she sang. Boy did she sing. She sang jazz. She sang punk rock. She sang wild, crazy songs that she wrote herself – some of them fizzing with anger, some weird, and some haunting and sad.
And she did gutsy things that I dreamed of doing but didn’t dare. She bought a plane ticket, dropped everything in London and took her guitar to New York. She sang in bars and slept on sofas until months later, after September the eleventh, she came home. Sadder.
She taught me to sing Elvis songs and Sinatra. She used to say that people worried too much about what kind of voice they had or how well they could carry a tune. For her it was always about the song. If you believed it and you sang it with all your heart, it didn’t matter what kind of voice you had; people would feel the connection and would respond. She made me test the theory once by standing on a desk and belting out New York, New York to a room full of strangers. It was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done – and possibly one of the least popular music events of all time. To this day I still don’t know how she got me to do it.
I’m not sure her theory worked for me. (I didn’t seem to make many connections.) But it worked for her. Her voice was not what’s generally considered a beautiful voice. It wasn’t conventional. Her voice had gravel in it, grit – and she didn’t have a huge range. But she sang with her whole heart.
Once, at a party, in a friend’s kitchen she sang Stormy Weather. She just stood there next to the sink holding a bottle of beer and sang it. No backing. People stopped talking to listen. A few looked like they would cry. It was one of the saddest, loneliest performances I’d ever heard, and it was beautiful. But I missed the significance of it. Stupidly. I just didn’t think.
And then I got married. Gena came to the wedding in a dress and boots. And for a wedding present she gave us a big book of songs, jazz standards. I’ve got it right here.
And then I never saw her again.
My wife and I had our first child and, as sometimes happens, we became preoccupied. We lost touch with people. It was at least two years before I tried to find Gena again. By then she had gone.
Now sometimes I listen back to her recordings and I kick myself. It’s all there. In her crazy songs (…don’t turn away, it’s the least you can do. Catch me, I’m falling…) and in her voice. The story, her pain, it was all there all along. Stormy Weather. There in plain sight. But I didn’t see it and I didn’t help. I was too wrapped up in myself.
Gena, I miss you. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you like you were for me. I missed it. I just didn’t see. Forgive me.
There is a poem by Rupert Brooke called ‘Dust’. I first saw it in an old second-hand book. Brooke seems to be writing about romantic love, but the poem always reminds me of my dad. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen his ashes — grey dust in a polythene bag inside a small green box. Dad liked boxes. He liked things neat. And there he is. Dust. Waiting for my mother, still going strong three years later. Waiting for their six decades of marriage to resume again, their ashes to mingle as we scatter them together – as we plan to do – on the sea off the beach where we spent so many holidays.
The poem starts:
“When the white flame in us is gone,
And we that lost the world’s delight
Stiffen in darkness, left alone
To crumble in our separate night;”
But it’s the sixth stanza that always gets me. The first time I read it made me gasp. I thought of my dad and of how much I want to see him again.
“Nor ever rest, nor ever lie,
Till, beyond thinking, out of view,
One mote of all the dust that’s I
Shall meet one atom that was you.”
I think it’s the possibility that hurts so much. And wanting it so.
I miss him so much.
He is talking again.
“We are just waves,”
“Rising and falling in the dark.
“Swell, on a godless ocean.”
She indulges him
with her eyes.
“Our memories are nothing,”
“Just the moonlight
on the cresting water.”
“We rise, we fall,”
“Over and over.
“We always break.”
“But there are tides,”
“They are deep, surely.”
The urgency in her voice
makes them both laugh.
Their feet touch beneath the table and
they lean in and join hands. He can smell her hair.
A waiter brings more drinks.
They talk about something else.
‐——- (c) inkyjim ——–
Good morning, Mr Magpie
One – two – three
Please don’t make
bad luck for me
I live at number thirteen
I’ve stepped on lots of cracks
My mirror’s broken and black cats
have run across my tracks
I sneezed three times
as I walked under a ladder
So please, Mr Magpie
don’t make me any sadder
I’ve got a four-leaved clover
And I’ve spat and spun around
I’ve kissed a rabbit’s foot
And picked up a penny I found
I’ve wished upon a star
crossed my fingers
knocked on wood
So please, Mr Magpie
let my luck be good.
—- (c) inkyjim —-
I took my grief to see a poet
I told her death hurt
And that I was going to die
And my children were going to die
And their childen were going to die
And so was she
And love could not save us
The world would shrug
The poet said grief was not poetry
I should keep it in a drawer
I took my grief to see a wise woman
She told me death hurts
And that I am going to die
And my children are going to die
And their childen are going to die
And so is she
And the world will shrug at us
She told me to buy a notebook
I keep it in a drawer
I miss vapour trails.
And coffee shops.
Tattooed barista girls, buskers, and kissing people on the cheek.
I miss walking through London, being invisible, imagining the worlds behind each face. I miss the plaques that say Dickens Lived Here, or Saki, Jimi Hendrix or Canaleto. I miss the woman who stands outside Waterloo Station shouting Jesus Loves You.
I miss mojito ice lollies on my way home, slurping as I walk, chewing the lime slice. I miss the theatre, and stationery shops, and staring across the Thames from a crowded footbridge. The moon over Trafalgar Square. The sun over Oxford Street. The dusty electric smell of the Underground.
I miss crowded commuter trains. I really miss them. I hadn’t realised how much thinking I do on trains. So many clouds seen from windows, sorted into shapes or omens or, once, even a version of myself swooping and soaring through the sky.
The trains still run here, high up on the railway embankment. But they are empty now. Not a single tiny head in any of the lighted windows. And the trains sound different too. They are lighter. They rattle past in a higher key.
No one close to us has died. The deaths are still numbers on the news. But the sadness laps at our feet. There is a cheerfulness among our neighbours that seems unreal. A coming together that smells lightly of hysteria, of a desperation to be normal, to not look at the dark.
So much has changed in so little time.
I pass a car dealership as I walk my dog. The new cars on the forecourt are thick with dust.
Everything is different now.
If Rapunzel had been a girl with shorter hair
The prince might just have left her there.
Or, if she’d gone completely bald,
Stood beneath the tower and called:
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, I’ll restore your beauty
I am your prince, it is my duty.
The royal budget’s very big
We’ll get a blonde and glossy wig.”
Rapunzel in the magic tower
Would summon all of her girl power
And shout down from a high window
To the royal jerk below:
“I guess it’s sweet that you’re impassioned
But, dude, your views are so old fashioned
I’m more than hair or eyes or teeth
You’d be surprised what lies beneath
And my life’s my responsibility
I don’t need you to rescue me
I’m not some trinket on a shelf
I handle witches by myself
I won’t dress up for your male gaze
Or swoon at sexist power plays
You say you want me for a wife?
Sorry, no. I love my life
Please, pop your sword back in its sheath
Un-grin those shining royal teeth
We’re working hard here Witch and me
To overthrow the patriarchy
We’re printing flyers – see my blisters –
For distribution to the sisters
You’d better warn them in the town
This monarchy is coming down.
And when it’s done, when we are equal,
Come on back, we’ll try a sequel
But let me say this plain and clear:
You will not find a wifey here.
When we hook up it’s just for sex
You’ve got nice eyes – and awesome pecs.”
———- (c) inkyjim ———–
My legs are long and useful things
I’ve two of them you know
I swing them forward one by one
to get where I would go
with knees set halfway there
They’re also good for standing up
I’m glad I’ve got a pair
——- (c) inkyjim ——
My daughter is a highwayman
She rides a black toy horse
She fills our house with lusty cries
and threats of deadly force
She gallops round the living room
atop her rocking steed
and dreams up lots of lethal plots
with violence and greed
This morning as I wandered
from the kitchen down the hall
I felt a dagger in my ribs
and heard her frightening call
‘It’s pocket money day!’ she cried
I felt my blood run cold
‘I’m Catherine the highwayman
so pay me lots of gold’
I fumbled in my pocket
for a pound and 50p
‘Here’, I blubbed, ‘that’s all I’ve got
Work hasn’t yet paid me’
She snarled into her neckerchief
and spat a vile curse
She said, ‘You bring me more next week
or things will get much worse’
My daughter is a highwayman
It’s money or my life
I get no help from friends, the police
or even from my wife
They believe her when she tells them
that it’s just a bit of fun
They will not take her plastic sword
or confiscate her gun
My daughter is a highwayman
My wife says I’m too meek
but I’m afraid of what she’ll do
if I can’t pay next week
——-(c) inkyjim ——-
Poison drops of curséd moonlight
Infernal orbs by Satan cussed
Charméd pearls that kill a swoon-like
Looters of love’s sacred trust
Evil bulbs repulsing lovers
Drowning hearts in acid must
Once you were a source of pleasure
Now you are a cause of pain
I ate you and then kissed my treasure
Orlanda won’t kiss me again
Now I steep in her displeasure
Silverskins of cold disdain.
—— (c) inkyjim ——
Something has gone wrong with my email spam filter. I’ve been thinking about the concept of multiple realities. In physics and philosophy there are several theories and ways to get to that second idea. (I have no idea what I’m talking about.)
In an infinite universe (or series of universes) for example, if the building blocks of matter are the same, then every possible arrangement of those particles will necessarily exist somewhere, no matter how complicated.
Another theory is linked to somebody’s cat (it was Schroedinger) and to the idea that electrons orbiting a nucleus can be circling clockwise or anti-clockwise until you look at them. Once you’ve seen them they only ever go one way. Explaining the difference that looking makes is difficult. An idea that I read is backed by the majority of physicists is that there is some kind of split at the point of observation — like limbs branching from a tree. (I really do have no idea what I’m talking about.)
If you look and see the electrons spinning clockwise that becomes your reality and is the branch you subsequently follow. The other reality, where they spin the other way, also exists but is no longer available to you. Life is a series of decision points at which different versions of you break off and follow different branches into different realities, while you continue on the only path available given your choices.
Somewhere out across the vast emptiness of space-time there is another James, just like me, who is also getting all this spam.
But for him the offers are real.
For him there really is a single lotion to take away all his aches and pains, another to eliminate signs of aging, and pills that, overnight, will render him svelte and a sexual god. The IMF really has mandated the Kenyan Ministry of Finance to send him $7.8 million if he’ll only supply his bank details, and dozens of beautiful Russian women really are just dying to take him on dates.
Have fun James. Enjoy it while it lasts. Any second someone might check on those electrons. They may not be spinning the way you assume.
The people on the 6.35 to Waterloo are an odd bunch, but they work very hard. While I’m staring out the window at the clouds they spend lots of time on laptops. Half move numbers from one column to another for reasons I have no hope of understanding. Most of the others seem to work in marketing.
One man, who I first noticed a few months ago, has been writing a book about selling. I’ve been reading it over his shoulder. It’s the pseudo-scientific kind, with pat summaries of small psychological studies. Lots of talk of brain function and serotonin levels, that sort of thing. He’s been working on it for ages and I’ve become fascinated.
He’s in his forties, designer casual, trendy haircut, Chelsea boots, and expensive glasses – a successful marketing man with knowledge to pass on. His draft is on an Apple Macbook. Passages that he’s not sure about are in red and he revises them as we trundle through Wimbledon to Charing Cross.
Some days I’ve felt mildly jealous. He’s clearly more successful than me. He’s got more hair too. And I wish I was that close to finishing a book. But his chapter today touched a particular nerve. It was all about The Power of Stories.
Stories, he wrote, can really connect people. Something special happens to the mind when we share them. He quoted studies suggesting that brain chemistry is affected, and others showing that stories help people access emotions that are otherwise unavailable to them. This helps them to empathise with situations and people that they otherwise wouldn’t.
Then he went on to describe how this might be deployed to sell people things they otherwise wouldn’t want.
Part of me wanted to bash his head in with his Macbook. Another bit just felt sad.
Delusion stalks me like a lovelorn ex. Sometimes it feels like I camp at the edge of a kind of madness. It’s like all I would ever have to do is stop clinging on, just let myself descend.
I recall a red tower from my childhood. It is a helter skelter. I seem to live at the top of this metaphorical cliché. The stiff and shifting bristles of the mat press hard against my legs. I feel their scent in my nostrils – dry grass and old dust and cleaning products. (This cannot be a real memory.) I see the word ‘welcome’ in dark letters.
My childish pink hands grip the cold red metal of the chute. There is a novelty plastic ring on one of my fingers. The tiny grey face of an ape, or maybe a skull, girns back at me.
I live at the top. All I’d ever have to do is let go. Just stop holding on. Unflex those little hands. Slide. Lunacy would be waiting, its arms wide and soft.
My friend Mike
likes riding on his bike
He rides it all over the town
Mike says, “I like
to ride upon my bike
It’s like walking,
but also sitting down.”
It is one of the most human things of all to know something, to know you know something, and still to behave sometimes as if you don’t know it. The key, I guess, is in how we deal with that.
There are clay tablets in the British Museum scratched with parts of a story called The Epic of Gilgamesh. They are very old. It’s a story that has been around in written form for about four thousand years. It was probably being told long before anyone wrote it down.
On his quest Gilgamesh comes to realise that “The life which you look for, you will never find.” Humans have known this for at least four millennia — but I have never met anyone who’s stopped looking.
I don’t know what the answer is for coming to terms with our human inadequacies. It’s probably something to do with the difference between accepting responsibility and taking blame, between regret and guilt, between making amends and beating yourself up.
It’s worth reflecting that if you are aggressive with yourself about your failures then you are adding aggression to a world that already has more than enough. But if you can be gentle with yourself while not dodging responsibility then you are adding to the sum of gentleness and also moving forward.
We need to be careful that we don’t try so hard to become the person that we’d like to be that we forget to be who we already are.
Everything always seems to come back to relaxing with what is.
Except bagpipes. I don’t give money for bagpipes. Bagpipes are not magic.
Only when they stop.
If there is a hell it has bagpipes. Hell, if it exists, is probably the nicest place you could imagine, but with bagpipes.
For me it might be a reclining chair with a reading lamp and a stack of old hardback books. For you maybe it’s a red and white checked picnic blanket in a beautiful alpine meadow, a recliner on a sun-kissed tropical beach, or a luxury suite in a top hotel. Hell is any of those places with the addition of a single man in a tartan skirt playing Mull of Kintyre over and over and over.
I’m sorry Scotland. I do love you, but this is something you need to know.
(This poem was an experiment that just got out of hand. It is nuts and also kind of an outrage. John Keats, I’m really, really sorry. I post it here because it’s so over the top that it’s kind of fun. )
And the next day I’d get up and maybe stay for a bit or maybe move on to some place else, depending how I felt that morning. I’d have connections everywhere, but never ties. I’d be always moving – an English Bruce Banner, without the anger issues.
But I have no voice you want to hear and no musical talent. And so I just love buskers. They are magic. They do a thing I love but could never do. If you pass one don’t be mean. Slow down, listen for a bit – and for goodness sake give them some dough.
Daddy, does God wear underpants?
Do they have carrots in Spain?
Who puts that skin on the custard?
And do clouds get dry in the rain?
When will I be a grown up?
Why’s there a stone in my peach?
You know cats have nine lives,
Is their birthday the same date for each?
Why does Gran keep her teeth in that jar?
Why do fat people want to be thinner?
What’s the orange traffic light for?
Can we have biscuits for dinner?
Why are you smiling Dad?
Is it for something I said?
It’s just that I love you, my darling.
Now hush up and get into bed.
————— © inkyjim ————-
A ragged man teeters on the top steps of Waterloo Station. Commuters rush below. Their heads are level with his feet. Chins tucked against the chill they crowd past heading for home.
The man is shivering. His clothes and face are crumpled and old. He wears a filthy woollen hat and a jacket that is too small. One hand clutches a damp grey sleeping bag, the other a paper cup.
“Any help?” He calls, “Any spare?”
His back is bent. He’s rocking slowly from one foot to the other, a worn out sailor on a sea of hasty people.
“Any help? Any spare?”