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.

New Fruit

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after he hung up, she
took an orange from the fridge and rolled it
between her palms

she first thought to bite, to
peel the rind back and sink her teeth deep
into the flesh

it promised a sweetness, so
saccharine and slack it was to her, but
instead she chose

the tug of longing, the
syrup thickness of indecency, a
fruit far sweeter

 

 

 

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

Andromeda

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I dreamed you
came to me
and wanted to tattoo the night sky
on my body

Starting small, you
cut into me
and marked the constellations
across my skin

Pegasus on my pinkie
Cassiopeia on my collarbone
Lyra on my lip
Hydra on my heart

After that, you
swept across me –
mapped the nebulae until
I was full

Bored suddenly, you
peered over me
hid your inks and left
the open wounds

unfinished and incomplete:
a partial galaxy

 

Language

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My mouth is a treasure chest
a pit of language

my tongue stirs this cauldron

sounds swell
and drop out of my mouth

like heavy stones

each a swollen fruit
of differing flavours

too rich to swallow

puce
plump
pearl

colossal marbles clacking
against my palette

I savour all

sunk in the noise of it
and too drunk on sound

to climb out