Diocletian

In which we Rome around

A poem written a few years ago about the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, formerly featured on Ma Kennedy’s blog. These sculptures were made to remember children who had passed away.

Dismembered heads seem entirely
Innocuous until the
Object in question is a
Child. Pale lips an eternal moment from speech,
Locks of hair unmoved by chill breeze, and
Eyes never carved to completion.
They loved this face enough to make it marble. While the laughing boy
Is now forgotten, love
Anchors to his every
Nick and fracture.

Apron strings

In which I return to a memory

Hangzhou, China

Train station, China, Summer of 2011.

There are heaving queues of sweaty people outside ticket booths, long snakes made of shouting and shoving. 

She moves along them. Short, thin to the point of brittle, with old apple skin and grey hair pulled tightly back. 

Her voice cuts through the shouts, an endless lament of need that sends eyes to the floor or the ceiling with unerring aim.

She has him on her back. He must have at least two feet on her, his limp legs drag the floor behind her, while his head lolls above her shoulder with a vacancy that suggested he is spared the wail of her voice. He is thin too, but his body is soft, cheeks hanging down and jolting with each of her steps. His arms hang loose across her front, strapped to bony shoulders with frayed blue cord.

She moves steadily, for all his apparent weight, up and down each queue. Her calls part the crowd effortlessly but she draws no coin from any hand.

And when she moves on, the shouting picks up again in her wake, snapping back to fill the void. 

She never really left that train station in my memory. She just keeps walking through those queues over and over again, steps never faltering.

It might be a better fate than the one that reality actually holds for an aging mother dragging her adult son on her back in a country without a welfare state.

Steel heart

In which smelting occurs

When I love I leave sticky fingerprints on every surface: remembering something forgotten, picking up something out of my way, gifting small joys like a cat dragging in half-battered birds.

My mother has always said that love is shown through actions, words are too easy. I took her belief and buried it in my heart, folding it again and again until rippled metal shone. 

My mother and I, we love in absolute balance, action meets action in a constant clash of sparking steel hearts. But not everyone forged their hearts this way. I run the risk of bruising or crushing, or of suffocating others with a barrage of gestures that I watch unfold with impotent horror. 

While it is easy to keep words under body arrest, it turns out I have only clumsy control of my actions.

This steel heart consistently runs the risk of stake raising. A gift for a friend that’s more extravagant than warranted, repeatedly putting yourself out until the other person feels a keen imbalance, giving when someone else feels unable to give back.

I’ve gathered ruddy rocks to smelt chains that can wrap this heart of mine tight and slow the pendulum swing. And maybe one day I’ll figure out how to wield it without wounding.

Under my skin

In which we meet Version 1.0

Rationally, I accept that most kids go through a phase of being selfish, whiny, demanding bastards. 

Somewhat irrationally, I find it really hard not to hate them for it – quite possibly because it’s like looking Past Isla in the eye. 

Past Isla was what polite company might call, ‘head-strong’, and what people behind closed doors might call, ‘a pig-headed, smart-mouthed, amoral princess.’ She was determinedly unwilling to accept that she might not be the centre-point of the universe’s orbit (she was, after all, much more right than anyone else), and she made sure to correct anyone who failed to recognise her supremacy. 

Backing down was for lesser beings. Lies would escalate, piling on top of one another like teetering blocks held only in place by steely belligerence. The universe fell into line with a whimper when she demanded that it be just so. And when something failed to align with her plan, her wrath was terrible to behold. Eardrums shuddered at her rage, skin burned under laser stares, and smoke crept from beneath doors as she smouldered. 

It didn’t take her long to learn that there were other ways to force the universe into line. Sweetness and light was a new one, all wide eyes and shy smiles, obedience that went beyond the letter of instruction, liberally slathered in butter that made it all the more likely that she’d win. She continued to smoulder underneath, of course, but learned to tuck the smoke inside and stop it from pouring down her nostrils. 

The sheer humiliation of being told off sent rolling waves of scorch down her face and along her arms, blew deafening white noise into her ears. This was unacceptable. She adapted, it was imperative that no-one find out things that would lead to a bollocking. Instead, she hid those infringements, honed her lies, and began to work in earnest on her outward facade. She needed to appear perfect from every angle, no gap to reveal the complex calculations and mechanisms that clicked and clunked beneath.

Eventually, the facade was perfected and the smouldering child lived wholly within its walls. As that facade grew more familiar and those actions and reactions became second nature, her fires banked and her hackles gradually lay smooth against her spine. 

I remember her when I watch another child give the world a hard kick in groin, reptilian eyes showing only satisfaction and menace. And I wonder if Past Isla’s still in here somewhere, if I’m unwittingly carrying Versuvius within my skin. 

Maybe she waits there.

Maybe one day she’ll get tired of waiting. 

Let there be

In which someone listens

Being truly listened to is like standing on the edge of a sudden void, lit by thunderous sunlight and held in a silence so keen that moisture hesitates to evaporate. 

I fall into that void, cold fingers fluttering behind me like wings. 

And for the first time, I don’t curate my stories. I don’t shape tales to coax forth smiles, I don’t polish my thoughts to present their best side. And I don’t tuck the things that cut me out of sight. 

I keep tumbling, tears creeping into the corners of my eyes to burn at skin.

And then there far below, I see light blossom in the darkness.

Strands dance on lightning feet, orbiting each other before flying outward in a new direction. They hum with pleasure at the feel of the listening: words suddenly caught by an ear and held in the brain with the touch of gentle but curious neurons. 

Those strands weave as they go, forming a billowing net with edges that ever expand as words of understanding and tenderness wrap warm arms around my own. 

The void becomes a safe place to fall, the silvered net a constant assurance. 

All is let go.

No strings

In which I give without getting

Someone very wise (and unbridled) once suggested that I should send messages, letters, phone calls, and love out into the world without worrying about whether anything comes back in return. The act of sharing and giving is whole and complete in and of itself, it requires no reciprocity to be worthwhile. There may be joy when something is received in return, but there is no pain or shame when nothing comes back your way. 

I tucked those words into my heart and gave up paying out my emotions by inches. 

I started writing messages to people just because I wanted to say ‘thank you’ or let them know I’d been thinking of them. I drew my feelings up from my gut into my mouth and spoke them without being stifled by fear of silence. Sometimes something came back, sometimes nothing did, but my feelings were no longer exalted or diminished based on someone else’s actions. 

And somewhere along the way, I remembered that someone has always got to go first. I think perhaps this was something I chose to forget, always waiting for a sound to hit me before enthusiastically echoing in return.

I am no longer the echo.

I’ve traded in pride to lose guilt and anxiety, and it seems like a pretty good deal to me. 

On edge

In which I wonder where to draw the line

I can never find the edge where we stop and illness begins. 

The line that divides personality from disease is fractal, endlessly complex and barely perceptible. And the closer you are to someone, the more you realise that their illness invades every action, every reaction. 

I wonder sometimes who you would be if it were cut from you, leaving only the pieces that are actually you behind. Would your soul buoy upward with every sinew sliced apart? Would a rose tint engulf your vision after a lifetime of grey? Would all those barriers and obstacles and weights and troubles clatter to the ground with a tremendous roar as you finally shook free?

I suspect the shadow shape left behind by the carving would continue to whisper. It goes too deep now. Its flesh is your flesh.

And so I learn to love what has become you. I watch my own flesh begin to entwine with illness and cannot stop decisions from being nudged by this poisonous pairing. A scorpion’s sting lodged in its own back. 

We have become one and the same. Fraying at the edges.

Nosedive

In which I recount a tale of woe and bile

*This is basically one long piece about vomiting, probably not a great accompaniment for food… (Unless that floats your boat).

Ah Cathay Pacific. Forever wedded to vomit in my mind. It was a very unhappy union.

I was on a long haul flight from China to London and had been cramping merrily for hours. Ibuprofen wasn’t making a dent, despite inadvisable dosages. 

My main mistake was choosing to eat airplane food in a belated attempt to line my stomach. 

My gorge rose with no warning. Gargantuan and whale like, it buckled my face in a wild bid for freedom. I attempted to keep all orifices closed but was scuppered by my nose, which released a high speed spray of tiny pasta bows – all over the business man next to me. 

His suit was wrapped in a lap blanket (he’d clearly done something right in a former life), but he didn’t seem particularly comforted. He reached to prod me, caught sight of my bulging cheeks, and wisely opted to call the air hostess instead. 

At this point, the flood gates opened. 

A stream of hostesses approached me in masks and gloves with dozens of tiny Cathay Pacific wet wipes, the scent of which promptly launched another volley of vomit. 

I assume they thought I was carrying some virulent disease that could land them all in quarantine, so I appreciate that they were willing to come close enough to drop the wet wipes off. 

Interminable hours later, I arrived in London on wobbly legs and in a nose-hair dissolving cloud of scent (though I had been wearing a mustard and brown striped jumper, which turns out to be the best vomit camouflage gear you could ask for). I was left very much alone on the coach back to Oxford, free to concentrate on willing my stomach contents to stay put.

My parents picked me up (they were even willing to make physical contact, which is a sign of true love), and watched me with worried faces as I wove toward the car. 

I arrived at the boot, and promptly booted over the back wheel – much to the shock of various tourists who clearly hadn’t spent much time in a university town before. 

My parents, ever the heroes, actually let me inside the car rather than strapping me to the top, and got me back to safety and a shower at record speed.

I still find Cathay Pacific wet wipes lurking amongst my things. A small plasticky reminder of this proud occasion.

That jumper got made into dust cloths.

Aglow

In which I catch the sun

I struggle to exist when I’m out of sight.

When I’m with you, I’m lit by the blazing sunlight of your presence. Everything becomes more entertaining, more challenging, more exciting.

But I fade from your brain as soon as my footsteps recede, and I only buzz a mental alarm clock when you encounter an overt reminder.

I know it’s just the way you are – I’ve always known. It’s an integral part of you and it couldn’t be changed without everything else changing.

I learned to let go of expectations because there was only ever one result: I would get hurt and then the same thing would roll around and happen again. Expectations form a wedge of resentment that slides between your heart and mine, but I’m the only one who knows it’s there.

I catch myself now and then, caught between hope and waiting. Gilded with the bladed edge of bitterness. And then I remember that there is no decision between you or the lack of you. I cannot live without the sun. 

So I store up those glowing hours and let them cast light on darker times. I absorb apologies into my skin and know that they are completely sincere in the moment, for all that they may scatter into ashes in the next.

And when I walk into the sunshine once more, it will burn away all but the heart you hold in your hands.

Rootless

In which you’ve sung me home

I came here rootless, one of those here-one-day-gone-the-next millennials that weevils into your roots when you’re not looking. We’re generally a toxic bunch, hollowing out localities with our disinterest in history and community, turning homes into places to sleep and neighbours into parcel collectors.

So it meant something when you welcomed me with open warmth and a hefty handful of humour.

You let me piggy back your stories, rummage through the memories you’ve collected, and become part of something that began before I was born. You gave me rides, sent me emails and offered company when I had no one else nearby, weaving a net that would catch me without a second’s thought.

And you always keep a weather eye out for anyone sitting alone.

I find the ecosystem you’ve created utterly beautiful – you’re a bastion for my faith in humanity. 

This is what kindness can build.

No longer a parasite, you’ve let me graft to your trunk, so I can begin to call your roots my own.

Even keeled

In which I send my love

It takes hundreds of miles for her to feel free. 

To chisel away at those layers of sediment worry,

Until she gleams beneath.

It takes a bitter wind to steal away her fears.

To rip at eyes and skin, until there is no room left to dread,

Only a world narrowed to a single, simple opposition.

It takes a problem solved to remind her of power.

Amid all those wicked chains that whip wild at the future,

This, alone, is in her hands. This she can do.

The sky folds down on every side,

Slicing through the heartstrings that she gifts so easily.

No longer pulled by faraway hands, she rocks on her feet, 

And takes her moment.