I don’t open the curtains these days.

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The sun is garish
and always yelling –

a loud exhibitionist
a tactile party guest

drunk on their own stories –

it spills around the room
touching everything
behind my thin eyelids
with hot, glittering hands.


We prefer the dark –
the simmering violet void of night

that leaves the vulgar
roaring remnants of day

clinging to the edges

a night that does not
force herself upon you,
but pulls you close.

You lean in

her chasmic depths are moonless.

 

Friend Request

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She had met David online when he, a mutual friend of an old colleague, had sent her a friend request. Following what had been a taxing, if not entirely tedious, day of processing innumerable forms, she had returned home to find the little figure in the top right corner of the home screen was coloured red, proffering a tiny speech bubble containing the single number ‘1’. It wasn’t the case that this alone had taken her by surprise, or had stirred any greatly anticipatory emotions within her. She was used to friend requests, from distant cousins, neighbours, and the like, though most often from middle-aged colleagues who, having recently discovered their own effervescent online presence, would proceed to forward video compilations of dogs falling into swimming pools, and grainy, garish reproductions of inspirational quotations from pulp fiction writers. But David was different: a stranger, a spark of promise amidst the quotidian hum of the everyday. She knew at once that she would accept the request, but humoured her shy sense of dignity by scanning his profile briefly, as if to vet the man at the other end of it, flicking through profile pictures and noting which school he had gone to, before sending her response.

After she had accepted, she fed her cat, folded some laundry, and completed the minutiae of the quiet evening, before getting ready for bed. That night, whilst brushing her teeth, she looked up at her face reflected in the small oval mirror that hung above the sink. She had never been considered a beauty, even in her youth, but she fancied that her face still retained something of the girl that came before the woman. She was grateful for her mother’s high cheekbones, which, even now, seemed to beat back against the inevitable pull of gravity, keeping her jawline from drooping – though her own aging had never truly disturbed her, as it had others.

‘Of course you don’t mind, Ann.’ Her sister, Maggie, had exclaimed, discovering the first rogue chin hair. ‘But I do. Fetch me some tweezers quickly, for God’s sake.’

Almost a decade later, she still could recall how Maggie had continued to absent-mindedly rub the area from whence the hair had been plucked, as if to smother any instinct her body might have to reproduce it.

Before she went to bed, she looked again at David’s profile and it occurred to her to question if the request had been sent in error, and whether her hasty acceptance had made her look foolish. But, when her alarm rang the next morning, she awoke to discover a new notification on her phone screen: a comment, beneath a photograph of her, at Maggie’s fortieth birthday party. In it, she was standing in the background, behind a white plastic lawn chair, holding a stack of paper plates and smiling, as party poppers partially obscured the foreground of the photograph.

‘Really cute!’

She read his comment over, and then again, squinting and blinking the morning’s blur away. She refreshed the page, and still it was there, as fixed as a Shakespearean phantom dagger, leading the way forward – the way to him. Ann would laugh about this comparison later but, that morning, she looked again at the photo, this time with a more critical eye, and surveyed its contents. It was a good picture, and even she conceded that there was something nice about the way her hair looked under the glow of the fairy lights she had helped to string up, in Maggie’s garden: it looked soft, and the small, twinkling bulbs behind it had given her face a suggestion of warmth. She noticed however, for the first time, Flossy, the family’s border collie, lounging on the grass of the neatly clipped lawn, to the left of her: still only a puppy then, she had her head cocked to one side, with the slightest expression of alarm, prompted by the frenzied celebrations, in her baleful brown eyes. She looked particularly cute. Had David meant…? But, before the question could fully formulate in her mind, a second notification flashed up – a private message, this time:

‘Dog’s cute, too.’

That day had passed much the same as the following 4 weeks. Almost instantly, they had begun messaging daily. She had told David about her work in the finance office of a local primary school, of her day trips to the coast, and what she was reading. He, in turn, had told her about his collection of movie memorabilia, about the years he had spent working in Asia, as a young man, and about how he had always wanted to learn to play the guitar. A quickening sense of comfortability permeated their conversations, and she soon found herself revelling in his attentiveness. A flurry of sensations, each more exquisite than the last, had now infiltrated her life. She marvelled at the happiness this chance encounter had brought her since.

Though their interaction had been limited to the online realm, the first breach into the real world was made when David had a bouquet of flowers delivered to her office, one breezy afternoon in June. She had been staring at the sky, through the window nearest her desk, contemplating the threat of rain, when Julie, the school’s receptionist, had swung her broad hips through the office door with a tall box and a smirk.

“For you.” Julie had said, before half turning, searching for a reason to hover.

She was desperate to take the box home with her, and open it in the delicious privacy of her flat, but the peering eyes of her colleagues made it clear that she had no choice but to unveil the gift to all. Inside the box, she found a sumptuous mass of sunflowers and delphiniums, and a card, which she had rapidly concealed from view, cringing in the burning heat of exposure.

“Who are they from, then?” They had asked.

“Oh, just Maggie.” She lied. “I babysat the twins the other week, while she and Mark were at one of his work dinners.”

She had not yet told a soul about David, and had not enjoyed the prying inquiries of her peers, least of all from Julie, who squeezed her shoulder, taking great, heaving sniffs of the bouquet, as if to validate their authenticity. Julie was the sort of woman whose gregarious displays of exaltation and delight for others revealed her own feelings about their inadequacy. Her surprise at the gift’s arrival indicated just how paltry she perceived the life of its recipient to be, compared with her own.

“Oh, Annie!” She’d squealed, and practically shook her hand in congratulations.

Ann resisted the urge to read the card until she was safely back in her flat, at which point she carefully opened the envelope to reveal the printed message of its sender.

‘I hope these brighten your day, as you do mine.’

 

*

 

The following Sunday afternoon, she expected Maggie for a visit. She had spent the morning sprucing up the place, even going as far as to dust the back of the TV, and wipe down the slats of her kitchen window blinds. As she did this, she noticed herself humming. She had placed the flowers on an old stool, which doubled as a coffee table in her somewhat poky living room, carefully lifting the vase so as not to disturb the petals. They had not yet begun to turn, and she looked at them again and again throughout the day, as they sang their colours boldly.

Maggie was late, and had not escaped the rain, which had also arrived, despite the warm weather. Leaving her coat by the door, but keeping her handbag with her, she allowed Ann to guide her into the living room before she launched into a rant about the weather.

“It can’t make up its mind.” She said.

Ann smiled to herself, wondering what David would make of this, and it reminded her of a message he had sent her, earlier that week. She imagined he would laugh at the very Britishness of it all, and make a joke about the immutable nature of small talk.

“Something looks different about the flat.” Maggie had remarked, at last, as she sat on the sofa. Ann had smiled, taking the armchair by the window, as was her habit during these visits; they talked about work, and Maggie’s children, the threads of their conversations weaving neatly and familiarly together in a stale sort of complacency. After a half hour or so, Ann got up to fetch a packet of biscuits, which she knew her sister would not touch, and to refresh their mugs of tea. She wondered if her leaving the room would draw fresh attention to the flowers on the table, and that perhaps Maggie might save her the trouble of bringing the subject up, by mentioning them first. She had wanted to tell Maggie about David, for her sister to be the first to hear about him. She had planned the disclosure carefully, and had hoped that the flowers might provide a useful segue into discussing him, with her sister.

It wasn’t true to say that they were not close, or that they did not talk. Their routines were deeply and jointly embedded, and the historical familiarity of one another’s habits was surpassed only by their own. They had existed, for all of their adult lives, within reach of one another, but their closeness was reserved to a realm of practicality: pragmatic, without real intimacy. It was as if both women had reached an understanding that to delve into anything beyond the superfluous might risk reopening old wounds. When the subject of their childhood, or their mother, was, on occasion, raised – perhaps at parties, or by friends – the two had established brisk strategies for changing the subject, in a way that did not raise alarm, but calmly and quietly ended the line of enquiry. It had taken Ann years to realise that this strategy had not only been exercised with strangers, but with one another, and the realisation of this had pained her.

Ann wondered if her intended, yet tentative, revelation about David might stoke the embers, and inspire a spark of change; she felt revitalised by this hopefulness. For years, even before their mother’s death, they had co-existed, paradoxically separate, and yet also inextricably together. She longed to light a fire over the dry plains of their communication, and she knew David could do it for her.

At long last, the bubble of privacy in which Ann had existed for the past month, was broken, as she heard Maggie’s voice calling from the adjacent room.

“These aren’t very you, are they.” She said. “What’s the occasion?”

“Oh.” She replied, and carried the mugs back through to the room, the packet of biscuits pinned under her arm. “They’re from a friend of mine. A new friend.”

Her sister shot her a brief glance, and she felt her legs might give out under the weight of her burdening desire to say his name. Maggie, uncharacteristically, reached for the packet, which Ann had settled on the arm of the sofa.

A rogue image flashed into her mind, of a time when she was very young, when Maggie had shown her the way to make rock scones. They had made them together. Hers had come out hard as tack, and she had despaired at her own uselessness, with a tantrum. But, as Ann was wiping her face, Maggie, perhaps a little clumsily, had picked up a few of her sister’s and mixed them in with her own perfect batch.

“Stop crying. See?” She had snapped, irritated by her whining, and holding a burned round up for her to look at, tapping it against the table. “I’ve made them before, and I still make mistakes. The oven must be broken. It’s not you. Stop crying, now.”

Ann felt a wave of nostalgia sweep over her, and was almost about to ask her sister if she remembered doing that, when Maggie brushed the crumbs from the corner of her mouth, and made her reply.

“Yes, I noticed that, actually. David, is it? I saw him tag you in something online the other week, and I wondered how you knew him. You know he’s Diane’s husband? Well, ex-husband, but only just.”

Ann froze momentarily before this revelation, and the slow, foul feeling of rot pervaded her. She felt that she knew, before it was said, that whatever her sister was about to tell her would bring to an end the delicate spell under which she had been rapt, for the past month.

“You know he’s always liking girls’ pictures, online, don’t you.” Maggie had said, conclusively, in statement of fact, rather than in expectation of a response. “Diane said it was practically compulsive.”

The use of the word ‘girls’ served its exclusionary purpose, both reminding Ann of her age, and reinforcing the ugly inflection the insinuation carried. As Maggie proceeded to describe his cataclysmic marital dramas, Ann felt herself steel against the sound of her voice, and the warmth of the earlier afternoon all but dissipated under the gravity of her disappointment. It wasn’t that Maggie had revealed anything particularly abominable, but rather that every new piece of information, significant or not, toppled the fragile framework she had built over the past month. It was spoiled. Something ugly had been allowed to enter this sanctum of happiness, and had muddied the water, now stagnant and foul. He was no longer a part of her future, but someone else’s history. By the time Maggie had finished her story and moved on to the topic of her noisy neighbours, Ann was entirely still, the hopes of the day having been extinguished one by one, like spent matches.

“But I don’t understand – why the flowers?” Maggie had asked, at long last.

“Oh,” Replied Ann, carefully, “I did him a favour. Processed some paperwork, that’s all. It was just a thank you.”

Maggie had been so engaged in the recitation of her news, she almost hadn’t noticed the state of emotional abjection then present the room and, taking into account Ann’s poorly worded explanation, and finding her sister less responsive than before, she hesitated, looking back at the quiet trail of destruction left in her wake. This was always her way, and she felt regret ooze silently into her mouth. She swallowed.

Both women sat noiselessly in the room, listening to the soft, twilit hushes of evening, from beyond the open window. A chill had swept inside and, in the time that had passed since Maggie’s arrival, it had grown almost too dark for them to see one another. But the prospect of switching on the main lights felt abrupt to Ann, who became suddenly afraid of the moment it would disrupt the pair, causing Maggie to realise the time – to return home, to Mark and the children. She knew, rather than hoped, this would happen soon, and did not wish to face the yellow meagreness of the evening alone. The night before her seemed to be stretched out: an endless tide of silence beating back the noise that had preceded it.

Eventually, however, the evening arrived and, neither wanting to acknowledge the situation before them, both Ann and her sister understood the time had come to part. Ann walked her to the door, and watched as her sister gathered her things and zipped up her boots. As Maggie turned to go, she hesitated. Her eyes quickly appraised her younger sister, and she wanted desperately to find the words she had said and cram them back into her mouth, but didn’t, nor did she address the want. Instead, having never been a hugger, she took Ann’s arm, for the briefest of moments, before letting go, and shutting the door behind her.

Later that night, as Ann’s phone lit up with another of David’s unreciprocated messages, on the nightstand by her bed, she pictured Maggie walking through the door of her home. She saw her, and her husband and children, and wondered what they might have spent the evening doing. She thought about their tea, their routines and their voices, and pictured her sister loading the dishwasher as Mark let the dog out a final time, both having sent the twins to bed before the News At Ten. She saw her sister’s face in the mirror above her own bathroom sink, and wondered what Maggie was doing, right at that moment. She thought about her sister, in the bedroom of her home, across the city, and in that bedroom, across the city, her sister thought of her, too.

 

Fever Dream

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I dreamed last night
of an empty room,
of absent colour,
swaddled tight
in pitch and gloom.

I woke in fright, in
spice-lined sheets,
the heat of night
having bled a cool
clarity from my mind – oh
I dreamed last night.

I saw darkness seep
into the lines, and
blur the light
and though I know
I have no right

I long to tell you why
I dreamed last night.

Babydoll

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She had known men
and the language of them

She had heard all of their words
and felt them grip her beneath tables

Perhaps the way she smiled a lot
or touched her hair, or
even what she’d wear,
would bring it on

This is not a mating song.

When she was nine
a neighbour told her parents
that she’d soon be in her prime –
he winked and
they had laughed

In upper school she’d
doodled secret hearts
for boys that hung about in parks
in packs, ’til one called her
His Missus – for that
he’d taken more than kisses

Hot cola breath and
both hands on – that week,
a few diary entry misses

A decade after that
one had pushed her knees apart
in a bar, as she sat:
she’d said she wanted an early night –
she liked a lager
but had to get home to bed
and to feed her cat

Tell you what you need
instead of all that
he’d said
and then he told her

Now she was older

The sun of her youth had set
but still they’d come
and leave her wondering
what about her
made them feel so strong

This is not a love song.

Tonight she’ll find
some way to keep her back
from the wall –
her voice is gone and
this is not a song at all.

 

 

Something

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I’ve got a drawer full of shoehorns
from all the crackers,
from all the Christmases,
since I was ten.

Sometimes, I take them all out
and line them up from
one end of the living room carpet
to the other.

In order of year, I start with the
burned red cedar of ’91,
when Dad took us out
to see Grandma,

and end this strange lineage of mine
with the neon green plastic
of last year, when I took us out
to see Dad.

Tonight I will open the drawer,
and lay out this ribcage
of memory, just once more
upon the floor.

 

 

 

 

Architecture

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I know the shape of your face
so well, I could trace it onto

the arm of the sofa
the loose flour you left on the counter
the leg of my good jeans

I see the lines of you
and the directions they run

The frame that holds you –
an original

These contours cut
into my line of vision
when you aren’t around
to look at

At Work

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He knows what’s there
before it is

A seer

Not brushes but hands
and fingers

Each colour speaks –
a language he can read aloud

He moves shape together
and shifts something
as intangible as cloud

It is mercurial –
abstruse, like time,
both deliberate and imprecise
at once

When he is finished, he
stands back – peels himself
away from the canvas

Beer spills
from the neck of
his clutched bottle and
beads down his fingers,
warm by the time it
reaches his wrist

The tongue races to catch it,
tasting only its colour

On the fridge door,
a rogue fingerprint

of yellow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hit and Run

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I killed a fox, last week. I hadn’t meant to, only, once it had begun to drag its one rank hind leg from under the dogwood and across the lane, I was already going at around forty or fifty, and I just didn’t see it. Jack did, even from the back seat, and, just prior to the moment of impact, I heard a soft ‘fff’ noise come from his mouth, as the full horror of the impending collision was laid bare to him.

I’d picked him up from school only an hour or so after I’d checked out of the clinic. He had been reading one of the books we bought him for Christmas: the hardback annuals full of facts and trivia and records, of men with eyeballs that pop out of their skulls, and women with nails like beige coils of measuring tape. He’d been trying to show me something, in the car.

As we stopped to get out and check the now mutilated orange carcass spread across the road, it occurred to me that I might have missed my chance to swerve because I’d been looking at Jack in the mirror.

Naturally, he was horrified and fascinated all at once, as is the case with all seven-year-old boys.

“It had a bad leg. I saw it running funny.” He said.

I could smell the mange on its body, and its insides threw up little wisps of steam into the cold air. He asked me if it was dead and, since it wasn’t moving, I said it was.

“It might not be dead, you know.” He had said, peering at its slack, wide jaw. “It could be just asleep and really hurt. You don’t know all about it because you’re not a vet.”

I assured him it wasn’t sleeping. After he had bent down to inspect the thing one last time, his book still pressed to his chest, we got back in the car. It had just started snowing.

Later that afternoon, Jeff called from the office, while I was getting tea together.

“How are you?”

“Fine, it’s fine.” I said.

He asked me if I’d been alright on my own, after all, and how he had wished he could have been there. For me.

“Well, it’s done now.”

I pictured him listening to the sound of me chopping carrots.

After a pause, he asked, “How’s Jack? His mum wants him this weekend. I said that was fine.”

“He’s fine, that’s fine.”

“They’re going to her sister’s. Anyway, I thought it might be nice just the two of us.”

“Okay.”

“… Especially now.”

“Right. I’m making the tea.”

I could feel the phone, like a hot brick, clamped between my cheek and left shoulder.

“It really is for the best, Helen. To be born …” He started again, but before he could get out the word ‘disabled’, I said the potatoes were boiling over, and put the phone down.

I could hear Jack in the living room, and the familiar clicking sound of him sifting through his Lego bricks. I tried to think about all of the different sets we’d bought him. Making lists is a habit I’ve had since childhood. Sailing Boat, Deep Sea Diver, Helicopter and Landing Pad, Downtown Fire Station, Fire Truck with Real Battery-Operated Siren. That last one had cost seventy-five pounds.

I wondered whether they made other types of sets. High-Rise Flat. Dole Office. Mortuary. Off-Licence. Women’s Refuge. Asylum For The Criminally Insane, with Real Battery-Operated ECT Kit.

Jeff said it was the right thing to do. Fair. Ethical. Scrupulous, even. As I listened to his son play, I listed those words out again.

 

At tea, Jack sat swinging his legs and waiting to be let off the hook with the rest of his food. Jeff spoke in high tones. He asked questions about school.

“Helen killed a fox today.”

Jeff told him to eat his tea.

“It was when we were in the car. She killed it with the car and I didn’t think it was dead. We could have put it in the garden, though, and buried it like when Rex was dead.”

Jeff shifted in his seat.

“Rex was a dog, Jack. Foxes aren’t pets.” He explained.

I watched Jack weigh the comparison in his mind, as he poked his tongue between the gaps in his teeth, flecking tiny specks along his gum line.

“Foxes are wild animals. They’re different to dogs, and sometimes they get killed because they don’t have owners to look after them. It’s normal, Jack. Nothing to feel bad about.”

I could tell Jeff was looking at me a lot at that point, because Jack had begun to follow his eye line back to me. As I turned to look at him, a loud smile burst across his face.

The snow continued to fall all that day and through the evening, the moonlight turning everything outside to silver and bone. Long after he had drifted off, I crept into Jack’s room and stood by the bed, watching his small chest swell with each slow breath. Across the landing, I could hear the hack of Jeff’s snoring and I knew that, when I came to join him, he would pretend he hadn’t slept either. But I wasn’t tired.

I was thinking about a story Jeff had told at the dinner table. It was one I had heard before, about a wounded starling chick that had fallen from the roof of his childhood home. Jack had listened to the story intently, it being new to him, as Jeff described the anguish of watching his own father land a brick down hard on the tiny shattered body.

“I realised, I learned then, Jack, that sometimes the kinder thing to do, is to let a thing die.” He’d said.

“Yeah but, you didn’t let it die, though, Dad. You killed it.”

As the story had unfolded, I remembered hearing it myself, at a dinner party, years earlier, not long after we’d first met. I had sloshed my wine around in my glass, my free hand resting on Jeff’s strong arm, and smiled at him, proud of him for telling it, and of both its sensitivity, it’s simplicity, and its faultless morality. But, that night at tea, as Jack had puzzled the fable out, forking pathways between his shunned vegetables, I felt sick at the thought of that bird’s tiny head beneath the brick, and of its unheard cry of ignorance. I tried to visualise its broken body, having fallen from the rooftop, in order to credit the situation as hopeless. But, no matter how hard I tried, its body did not seem so shattered, nor its cry so feeble, as to justify the story’s end. As the full image slid into focus, the bitter gall of concession rose in my throat and tripped from my mouth in a gasp that half-woke the sleeping boy.

As he lifted himself into a new position, and murmured in the sleepy way of children, I closed the bedroom door with silent precision, and turned into the dark corridor before me.

Meeting

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rock
speaks volcanic tongues
a dark crown
atop the ragged shoulders
of the wild earth

obscure
and sombre shadow
ebbs and pools
like a deep bruise
upon the wild earth

unseen
wind soothes the
black pearled glass
bejewelled with fractured light
above the wild earth

lower
your human eye
bow and retreat
from the vast chambers
of the wild earth