Stellar remnants

In which I define expectations

My night sky is scattered with heart glow – a bunch of flowers, just because; a birthday card with both sides filled; a glow-in-the-dark keyring from a long ago trip; a scribbled post-it in mother-tongue handwriting. 

Over time, a light might fade alongside memory, a dull white dwarf then nothing. But another always arises in that same patch of sky, burning fierce with love. 

One day, I’m scared that those dark patches will stay dark, as every note and card and piece of kitsch crumbles to dust, and she’s not there anymore to set the sky alight anew.

I will not live beneath a dark sky: I will seek someone who sows stars and together we will strew galaxies.

Fresh page

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

Happy New Year to everyone! It’s been too long since I last wrote a post – I’ve had a veritable cornucopia of minor illnesses along with the usual cramping beast so I’m not sure I’ve felt even vaguely healthy since October. Fingers crossed for a good start to 2020!

I’m currently in the south of Spain, where evenings remain lengthy and skies are adamantly blue. I’m somewhat amusingly on a ski holiday, which is possibly the worst activity imaginable given my various body issues, so I’m enjoying the views and the atmosphere whilst keeping my feet as firmly adhered to the ground as possible. It’s been bizarre to walk down a snowy mountain in a t-shirt at the start of January.

It’s my first holiday in a long while, mostly because I get ill when I travel, and then get anxious about being ill when I travel, and then get ill because I’m anxious… and repeat.

I did get crampy and did have to spend the first couple days in bed, but it’s a relief to have ventured forth despite the fear. It also brought up memories of the last time I’d been in these mountains, and the changes in my health and wider life. Last time was back in the ibuprofen days when I had travel anxiety but didn’t really think much about getting ill, turns out I still wasn’t carefree even when I really could have been!

I’m now thoroughly appreciative of good health days, of my many patient friends, and of the kindness of my family. And I wish all of you a full complement of the same.

Here’s to 2020, with love.


Writing on the wall

In which life hurts

There’s love somewhere in there.

I remember the feel of it, that blanket of trust and warmth and pride and ease. From the inside, it seemed impossible that anything could exist outside the golden globe.

But I’m on the outside now. And I can’t find a path back through the purpling bricks of disappointment and hurt. A wall started stacking the minute disillusionment hit, the minute I slid out of the golden bubble. Each brick whispers a memory, and as I brush my fingers against coarse surfaces, those jolts of remembered pain rip their way back in. 

And I jerk back from love.

My body built those bricks in response to threat: each one shaped around grit that would have scoured my heart raw. Each one is a warning that this love hurts.

To get back to love, I would have to pass through these mounds of past pains, feeling them anew. 

I know that love is somewhere in there. But it might not be worth the journey.

Choppy water

In which I take a deep breath

There’s a rhythm that jerks my chain. That winds me up to creaking point. That cuts me to the tender quick.

Question – 

Answer – 

Silence.

Pause.

Question – 

Answer – 

Silence.

Pause.

Question – 

Answer – 

Silence.

Pause.

And repeat.

My stride is repeatedly drawn up short. The chords halt before resolution. My words hang in the air, wisping to nothing as they fail to penetrate ears. 

Question – 

Answer – 

Silence.

Pause.

I occasionally break the loop, with the faint hope the system will reboot. That the floundering whale of conversation will find its way back to the ocean of words.

Question – 

Silence.

Half answer.

Pause.

The whale drowns.

Time warp

In which I wait

Sometimes it seems they’re caught in amber, in beads cast down by a sweating Sun. And it’s a beautiful place to be – all golden light and weightless suspension, and they’re barely aware that the slide of liquid has stilled around them.

And sometimes the amber darkens to tar. Surface long unbroken, they suspend beneath a blackened crust accompanied only by the larvae of petroleum flies and the souls of all those creatures who discovered the afterlife was hot and sticky. 

And sometimes a light catches the tar and it turns to ice. They’re barely visible within, just shadowed potential, but the faintest signs of thaw mark the gritted grey surface. There’s no way to know if they will emerge from Schrödinger’s ice cube unscathed despite their years of stasis.

But each slow drip sounds like hope.

Raw

In which I’m a little sunburnt on the inside

The scent of the sewage works is sliding around the window. Not exactly offensive, just faintly organic. A nasal weathercock that signifies an easterly breeze.

It’s raining on the shed below (and, unsurprisingly, elsewhere), and each drop has its knees bent up, arms wrapped around for maximum velocity, and is making a satisfying thwack-splat on the plastic-wrapped roof.

Through the collisions of kamikaze rain come the sounds of planes, every takeoff and landing a slow, deep rumbling sigh in the contented chest of the heavens.

I can feel all those sounds in my bones, the smells trickle along vertebrae, and that grey light – so often loathed – offers a soft cloud buffer between the world and me. 

I’m a little raw today. 

Last night, I unlocked one of those boxes I keep in my head and spilled its contents out, despite my brain’s best efforts to squirm and wriggle out from under your mercilessly gentle spotlight. 

And under that light, the shadows of the Dread Shame might have faded a bit.

So I’m wrapping myself in greys and rumbles, bathing in the faint scent of sewage, and hoping I’ll have a while before doubt wheedles its way back in. 

In time

In which we’ll meet again

Perhaps we’ll meet there

When the arches slump and weather

And strain to keep edge against edge.

The willows’ eyes will be dry by then,

Their hair will hang heavy in the water,

And gazes will fixate on stagnant twins.

Perhaps we’ll meet there

When these slabs no longer grind away

Under the patter of endless feet.

The stone lacework will have spindled 

Dark marks will marr the porcelain,

And safety bars will swing wild over water.

Perhaps we’ll meet there,

In air as thick as water, in the heat of a dying planet,

We’ll take flight against a purple sky.


The Cheat

In which I present a loving homage to Pratchett

The 33rd High Lord of the Eternal Worshipful Brotherhood of Cheats was having a really bad decade. With his back pressed against a dubiously stained wall in a dubiously shadowed alley, he took stock: limbs intact, all digits present, eyes and ears functioning, lungs and heart a tad wobbly but getting the job done. Left sandal lost; robe torn; hood still covering face. And so far, so not followed. Things were looking up.

It had been fine at the beginning. Life had been simple: follow the Five Commandments[1] and reap the benefits of being born with a scrupulously honest face. He went from being the eternally hungry and perpetually grubby 15-year-old Billy Druthers, to the smugly sated and only slightly shabby, Brother William.

The only catch in the whole deal was Commandment Number Five, ‘Thou shalt Cheat Death’… And even there he’d had some roaring good luck: he’d drawn thirty years, a far longer reprieve than that of his brothers. Thirty years peace of mind and exemption from accidental death (brothers still had to be wary of death at the hands of others.)

As the bottom rung of a very creaky ladder, Brother William had only the vaguest interest in the politics of the brotherhood, but even he had begun to worry as High Lord after High Lord toppled from their lofty perch. In the space of two years, the brotherhood raced through High Lord #2 to High Lord #27; they’d barely had time to compose adequate welcome speeches before the next body turned up. Deaths #2 through #10 were all unfortunate results of the Fifth Commandment; the brothers became High Lord just as their time ran out.

The other deaths, however, were of brothers with plenty of time left on their slip. Hale and hearty High Lords started to suffer curious accidents – one was bitten by the rare and highly poisonous Kitten Spider[2], and another was believed to have smothered himself to death while sleeping (he was succeeded by High Lord #24, his roommate).

In his 15th year in the brotherhood, as the eldest brother, Brother William became High Lord #33. With his easy-going nature, decided lack of interest in power or politics, and thanks in part to the awe inspired by his 30 Year Fifth Commandment draw, Brother William was allowed to become the longest running High Lord in the history of the brotherhood.

But over the years, as his hair greyed and then abandoned scalp, strand by strand, it seemed that he was losing his enjoyment of the cheating game.

He had never had the slightest bit of trouble with the Second Commandment in his younger years; ‘Thou shalt never pay for food, shelter or clothing’, was an easy task for an angel-faced youth with puppy dog eyes. As a middle-aged man with an overly well-known face, the High Lord was now finding it decidedly troublesome.

The Commandment demanded that The Cheats were never to pay for a meal, and the more nefarious the plot to attain food, the more devout the Brother. The early years had seen the High Lord clothed in a well-patched dinner suit, his voice wrapped in earnestly plummy vowels, tied up with crystalline consonants. He would plead entry to the gilded, marble arches of elite restaurants, the maitre d’ would inevitably decline, only to be swept up in a tale of sorrow and disaster (or sometimes a tale of hope and triumph, if the mood took him).

When the maitre d’s of all the best restaurants had grown sick of his tales, he started visiting the second best restaurants, but they too soon grew wary of the man with the rapidly sagging angel face. Gradually, he saw his evening meal turn from stuffed quail a la Contessa, to bangers and mash a la Kevin-what-works-down-the-pub. The doormen and barmen of the lesser establishments were also less inclined to believe his elaborately woven tales and so getting dinner had become a nightly trial.

The other Commandments had grown equally frustrating as time had passed – cheating on a young naïve girl was one thing, but Thou Shalt Cheat on Thy Partners was a damn sight more risky when your only option was your twenty stone, rolling-pin wielding landlady. After being turfed out of three different bedsits, the High Lord had decided to nullify the Third Commandment by avoiding the company of others. This had made his life easier, but hadn’t improved his mood.

Tonight though, it was the Final Commandment that was causing him trouble. The High Lord closed his eyes, quieted the thundering of his pulse and opened his ears to the sounds that filtered into the alley. A cut-off shriek from two dubious alleys along, the clicking sound of a mouse gnawing on rotten wood, footsteps, the sound of knuckles meeting cheekbone – footsteps.

The High Lord held his breath, the owner of the footsteps was making no effort to silence his feet: his heels hit the ground first with a click muffled by the grit that lined the cobbles, the toes twisted as the foot lifted away, a grating sound that punctuated each step.

HELLO BILLY. The voice boomed inside his skull.

FANCY. MEETING. YOU. HERE. There were hesitant pauses between the words, as though read from a script by someone with no idea of their meaning. The footsteps splashed into the entrance of the alley.

IT IS TIME FOR OUR GAME. At that, High Lord Billy of the Eternal Worshipful Brotherhood of Cheats opened both eyes and bladder, and stared in horror at the robed figure.

“Oh, uh, hello. Is it that time already? I was sure it was next year – are you certain it isn’t next year?”

The robed figure did not respond, but withdrew a glowing timer from his robe and set it carefully on the uneven slabs at the High Lord’s feet. The sand in the top bulb was draining into the bottom half at a somewhat alarming rate.

“Right, right. Well, I get to choose the game, right?”

THE 32ND HIGH LORD CHOSE THE LAST GAME. THIS TIME I GET TO CHOOSE.

“Ah. So – so what’s it t-to b-be?”

I THINK… YES…  I RATHER THINK I FEEL LIKE A GAME OF ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS.

The High Lord reared backward, affronted,

“You want to play Rock, Paper, Scissors for my soul?! That’s hardly respectful! What about the almighty game of Kha-Lan? The reverent game of Shin-sou? What about a bloody game of chess?!”

THEY TAKE TOO LONG. I’M IN A RUSH.

“You’re in a rush?! I’m about to die and you’re in a rush?”

YES.

The High Lord’s indignant bluster fell away with a huff.

“Fine. Let’s get this over with.”

WAIT… HOLD ON, I NEED TO GET THE WORDS RIGHT… WHERE WAS I… AH, YES:

33RD HIGH LORD OF THE ETERNAL WORSHIPFUL BROTHERHOOD OF CHEATS, ALSO KNOWN AS BILLY, I GREET YOU.

ACCORDING TO THE AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE FIRST HIGH LORD AND MYSELF, I CANNOT TOUCH THE BRETHREN EXCEPT BY APPOINTMENT.

TODAY I COME TO YOU TO KEEP OUR APPOINTMENT.

IF YOU WIN, YOU WILL BE GRANTED ANOTHER 15 YEARS OF LIFE. IF YOU LOSE, YOU FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO YOUR SOUL.

The robed figure paused and then held out a skeletal hand, bones so white they seemed to glow in the dimness of the alley, fingers curled into a fist.

Shaking, the High Lord raised his own hand.

ONE.

The fists came down.

TWO.

The High Lord met a pair of glowing blue eyes.

THREE.


[1] 1st Commandment: Go Forth and Cheat

2nd Commandment: Thou shalt never pay for food, shelter or clothing

3rd Commandment: Thou shalt never trust a brother

4th Commandment: Thou shalt Cheat on Thy Partners

5th Commandment: Thou shalt Cheat Death

[2] The Kitten Spider is covered in grey striped fur. It tucks its legs underneath its hairy abdomen and mewls like a cat until another creature approaches, whereupon it sinks two inch deadly fangs into its target.

The moment

In which we visit the office (III)

Written on a particularly cheery day at a desk…


There comes a Moment,

Hurtling out of the morass of meaningless days.

Ululating its discontent, the Moment snaps at heels,

Ripping at sinews and seams until the morass

Stills. There, entwined in the purr of the Moment, it

Dawns on you that the sludge of your life is slithering away,

Another day. Another

Year. Gone.

A road less travelled

In which we go for a walk

My younger self roamed wild over these moss sprung hillocks, feet incautious until one would sink calf deep into a hidden burrow beneath a troublesome root. It was here we found blunt badger skulls, dragonflies the size of a grown up’s hand, and an endless supply of scratches and stings. 

Today wavers between sunshine and shade, shifting from dappled scenes of teddy bears’ picnics to the gloomy hollows of a Forbidden Forest. The wild scabious has hung glowing violet lanterns to light the way, painting a purple haze onto retinas. Willowherb withers and dries, then casts itself to the winds in curls of fluffed seeds.

The other floral efforts have retired now and the bees have moved on to less green pastures. This year, the blackberries never made it past livery pink before mummifying on the bramble. An early autumnal transformation signals stress amongst the deciduous. 

My younger self delights in the feel of hollow thumps beneath scrabbling hands and feet, she wields lichened stick-swords that are longer than she is, and stares up at a sliver of sky that snakes impossibly far above. 

She’s quite a while away from thoughts of climate change, invasive species, dieback, ticks, or sustainable woodland management. But it’s comforting to know that her uncomplicated delight can now wander hand-in-hand with the concerns of adulthood. 

Hydra

In which we visit the office (II)

Written for a particularly exasperating shared drive.

Fortunately, my sense of self-preservation

Rode to the rescue before I slaughtered the

Imbeciles who birthed this hydra.

Data spawns from myriad folders, incomplete,

Atrophied, unnamed. I know not, as

Yet, if my self-preservation will remain horsed.

Labour of love

In which we wear judgy-pants.

“Is she in love with you?!” They ask, young eyes wide at the impossible concept of love actually being a many splendored thing: one apparently shouldn’t write poems for one with whom you are not in love. 

I didn’t get the memo.

And then there’s the careful note in the arms of someone who feels that love has now become something to be coloured within the lines. The innocence and ease has become increasingly self-conscious and cautious as childhood disappears into the distance. 

Eyebrows rise if I share a room with my brother or father when travelling, and assumptions are made if I go to dinner with a male friend. Handholding over the age of ten seems to only signal romantic love, so I receive speculative eyeballs when I support my mother – lover? Daughter? Carer? 

A spectrum of love exists to be expressed in a spectrum of ways. So I’ll take off my judgy-pants if you take off yours.

Ankles

In which we Rome around (IV)

Rome 17

On a modern-day teenage gladiator at the Colosseum, I salute her.

Cocooned in a padded jacket and still freezing, I traverse the old

Oval. My wind-teared and sun-squinted eyes

Latch on (in horror) to bare ankles accompanied by a sullen scowl.

‘Oh darling, I told you that you’d need a coat!’ The not-

So-

Subtle maternal ring of ‘I told you so’

Exacerbates the scowl.

“Um,” comes the response,

Mumbled through chattering teeth.

Filigree

In which we Rome around (III)

On Castel Sant’Angelo and its contents.

Chest number four stands

As tall as tiptoed me, with

Sturdy stained panels warding off

Treasure-seeking fingers.

Elsewhere

Lies the worn steel

Dance of a sword hilt,

Accompanied by a polite sphere of cream filigree that

Nestles quietly against the pitch barrel of a pistol.

Generation after generation made this

Edifice their own, building into,

Layering

Over, growing with.

Curlicues

In which we Rome around (II)

A poem written for the Vatican City, in all its ornate glory.

Vast quantities of g(u)ilt

At your service, Mr Pope, sir.

There’s no such thing as too much

Icing (particularly the fecund floral

Curlicue ceilinged-variety),

And we’ve got a truckload of figleaves at

No extra cost – the boys have their


Chisels at the ready.

It’ll pay for itself, sir, don’t you worry,

They’ll be lining up to see

Yon naked gents, just you wait.