Old English

We had a pet dog when I was a boy. A great,

stupid, soft, shaggy Old English sheepdog. I think

my mother bought him to make up for the regular

lack of husband. I can still remember the smell

of his fur, even now, so many years later, a wet,

sweaty, slightly dirty smell. It’s a long-haired breed,

the Old English. Picks up muck and bits and crap

in its fur like a magnet collects filings. Dopey dog

hated having all the twigs and things combed out,

or maybe he didn’t have the patience to sit around

while we did it. Had the attention span of a small child,

that dog, and the same silly grin, come to think of it.

My mother would come through the door at the end

of the day and the dog would gallop from the back

of the house to the front door like a mad thing

in a dog suit. It bounded down the hall and landed

its brown stained paws on her shoulders and licked

her face with a tongue that smelled of dog food

and slaver and bumlick. She was five foot nowt,

my mother. A pocket venus, that’s what she said.

The dog was a foot taller on its hind legs.

They stood there, both of them grinning

like silly kids. She had a great smile.

She loved that dog.

We loved it too, of course.

You had to love something that wagged

it’s stumpy tail so hard it sometimes fell over,

just because you were you.

It died of a heart attack in the back garden

one day in summer. I came out and found it,

lying there, on the toy-cluttered, unmown grass,

cooling down dead.

Broke my heart.

Never had one since,

dog, or heart.

Never will.

Not Remembering

I don’t recall him being born, my son.

Not enough, anyway. I remember scenes

from the day: the blood; the unexpected

bright colours of things that came out in the

amniotic fluid; the hospital smells; the

echoes; and the dawn, the brightness

of the early morning sunlight. I remember

his surprising black hair and scrunched

eyes and seeing his mother’s nose stuck on

his face. I remember those things. But I don’t

remember the feeling of him, coming to me

in that moment, being suddenly real and here.

I don’t remember that. Becoming a father

crept up on me. I wish I had paid

more attention.

Our Joyce

Walking into a city centre shop

a year or two back, or perhaps longer,

I did a double take and stopped in the doorway.

I turned and called out her name.

She turned and looked around.

It took a moment for her to see me

but no time at all to know me.

She saw me but said nothing.

She walked up and wrapped her arms around me

tight, like a bond,

squeezed with a strength I hadn’t expected

from this woman so much smaller

than the one in my memory.

She squeezed hard and then kissed me

harder, full face, on the lips,

in the doorway of a busy shop in the city centre.

I glowed. I burned, but not with embarrassment.

“Oh, love,” she said.

That was what burned me,

the heat of her love, pure, simple, and unashamed,

standing there in a stream of sniffy shoppers.

“Oh, love,” she said, again, “oh, it’s lovely to see you.”

That voice. Deep, broad, still powerful, still warm,

overflowing with feeling, her father’s voice,

loud and tuneless and wonderful,

speaking to me from when I was a child,

when I thought as a child.

The voice of Joyce, our Joyce.

We spoke and kissed again.

I can’t remember anything that she said.

That wave of love washed them out of my mind,

the words of Joyce who was born Kay.

My sister called the other day.

She told me Joyce has got that evil thing

that steals your marbles one by one.

More proof, as if we needed it,

that there is no God.

A Small Act Of Vengeance

The father arrives.

He pulls up on the road and he beeps the horn

and he waits. Perhaps he beeps again.

But he always waits.

The boys are never ready. He waits five, ten,

sometimes more minutes, but he always

has to wait. When the door of the house opens

the boys run down to the car, hurrying,

eager to see him. They have been waiting, too.

The couple parted some years ago. Who knows

who left who, or why anyone should care?

She stayed in the house, the family home,

and he didn’t. He has a new life now,

a new woman, and a new place to live.

The mother has a new man, too, someone

lumpen and sullen and dull. She found

him in town after running around

for a while dressed in desperate fashion.

From the window, she sometimes looks as the

man and his boys drive away.

But only sometimes.

The new man never looks, or speaks,

or smiles. The father drives too quickly,

coming and going in repentant haste

on this small road, where his

small boys live their contained lives.

He comes, and he waits.

Perhaps he is already annoyed

before he even gets here by this

small act of vengeance.

The Super Hero

Protected by the impenetrable shield of self-absorption the dark-haired young boy strode around the garden dispensing justice with his thumb-cocked finger-gun. He paused to mutter warnings to his foes and comfort to his friends before dashing ten yards or so to the other end of the universe to repeat the process. Hands on hips, the pigeon-breast chest of his red and blue costume thrust proudly out, the boy manfully defended his domain from the evil that men do.

His domain was the garden of a semi-detached house in the suburbs of the city. The house was around fifty years old but sturdily built and in reasonably good repair, with a tiled roof and a central door accessed by a small set of concrete steps. Built just after the war, like most of the other houses on the street the house was somewhere to live rather than somewhere to love. It had been designed to shelter an average family in slightly cramped comfort but it wasn’t a pretty building; the porch was made of pre-cast blocks, the road out in front was made of badly laid and broken concrete, and the old metal-frame windows that failed years ago had recently been replaced with white uPVC. It stood on an outside corner plot, with a large garden to the front and side and a small rear yard that was littered with plant pots and toys and bicycle parts. It was a new domain to the boy. The family had only moved into the house a few weeks ago and before that time the garden had been tired and unkempt. Now it had startled new flowers around sawn-edged lawns to accompany the incumbent rose and forsythia bushes. The flowers had been placed in positions where they would not always be trampled by heroic feet, but occasional collateral damage had to be expected when trying to save the world.

The old woman sat and knitted while she watched the boy play. Her seat was a light metal fold-up chair of the kind people take on picnics. It was positioned beside a low wall at the front corner of the house so that she could see almost all of the garden area. The tic-tac of knitting paused for a moment as she sipped her tea. She smiled as she looked at the needles in her hand and wondered what her first, wild love would have made of her hobby. She noticed the veins and wrinkles and liver spots on the back of her hand. It was the hand of an old woman. She wondered what her last love would have made of these hands and wished again that he was still here to ask. The woman took another sip of her tea. She looked up at the sky and then resumed her hobby.

The sun was bright this afternoon and the brightness bloomed on her pure white hair and white blouse, which contrasted with her thin black cardigan and black cotton trousers. She got up occasionally to make cups of tea and her movement was easy and smooth, an easiness for which many of her contemporaries quietly envied her. It was one of the few things that they did envy about her life.

The woman was the grandmother of the young boy. A madman with a knife had also made her the boy’s guardian. A pensioner, she now had to worry about getting up every morning in order to make sure he got to school on time. She had to be there to pick him up from the school gates and to take him to the evening and weekend activities that were organised by the school or his friends. She had to try to help him with homework, had to do things she hadn’t even thought of for over forty years. She had only been doing this for nine months but she was already tired enough to be asleep before the news every night. Too tired to stay awake but too worried to stay asleep, she often lay in bed in the middle of the night thinking about what she needed to do for the boy in the day to come. Sometimes she wondered what she could do for the boy for the years to come.

Young children are innately clumsy. The rate at which their bodies are growing means that each day what could be jumped on or climbed up or leaped across on previous occasions is subsequently attempted with a body of slightly different dimensions to the one used before. The young boy now demonstrated this fact by jumping from the wall and not quite hitting the flat rock he aimed to land on and tumbling forward and skinning his knees on the asphalt path that ran from the pavement to the doors of the house. The super ego gave way to the alter ego and tears eased into the boy’s eyes.

The old woman didn’t jump to help. Rather, she raised herself quickly but calmly from her chair and walked up to the boy and lifted him to his feet. She didn’t chastise the boy, nor did she mollycoddle him. She spoke firmly but fairly while she examined the wounds, describing the bloodied knees to the boy in a matter-of-fact way, explaining what she was going to do about them, and telling him how this had happened and how to avoid it happening again in the future. The boy nodded and sniffled and sobbed a little but listened all the while. This small lesson was given with love and was acknowledged and registered and retained for future use by the boy. It was a gift from the old woman to her grandson and for that he wrapped his arms around her neck and hugged her and said nothing.

The old woman placed her hands protectively around the back of the boy’s head and drew him to her and stared up at the clear blue sky again so that he couldn’t see her shining blue eyes. She thought of her daughter and of her absence, of the too little time that the boy had with his mother, and of the too little that she herself could now do for him.

She thought too of the evil that men do.

She Moves Forward

She steps out of the door and moves

forward. Before her are her dreams,

the things she wants and needs, the

hopes and likes and loves of her life

that are yet to come. They have plagued her,

these dreams, haunted her waking hours

for so many years that she has come to

resent their pressure, the weight of them

on her daily life.

Today she is weightless.

Today is the leaving day, the day

when she goes out into the world, to make

of it what she can. She hopes to find joy

out there

joy in being, a feeling that she has yet to touch

her. She does not know if what she is will be

enough for the world, and she knows that

the world may be too much for her, but

she will try.

She will try.

Behind her, they smile and wave and wish

her well, and then they close the door and

let her go

and tears


Being A Father

Being a father.
This is difficult.
I am one,
I am the son of one,
I am the son of many
Gone before
And never known.
I’ve never known
The one I have
And he has known
The same of me.
We are two strangers,
Too strange
In too many ways.
We’ll never know each other now,
We’ll never have that thing,
That father, son, and Sunday roast,
Family thing.
Maybe it’s that,
The way we’ve been,
That makes it sometimes hard
For me to be
The father I should
To my own boy.
I’ve set bad examples,
I know I have.
I still do.
I’m slack and selfish,
Bad tempered,
Though occasionally nice.
I haven’t guided him,
Advised him,
Haven’t really talked to him,
When I should have done
Or even could have done.
I left him to grow into himself,
Like I was left
To become the man I am.
And look how that turned out!
But hey,
The thing I did do,
The thing I did right,
The thing I’ll do ’til the day I die
Was love him.
Always have.
Always will.