The Captive Page

And so there it is
A blank piece of paper
Pure and clean and expectant

Waiting

Will this be the piece of paper
where the best seller scrawls her words
Or will this simply be a list of

Groceries

A note to a lover,
a wife’s final words as she walks out the door
‘You should have washed up more often’

Arsehole

Is it to be folded, crumpled
Will it get the soft sleep of an epoch
Breaking down in the rubbish or

Recycling

The harsh teeth of the retreatment plant
Gnawed by fraught machines
Pulped, pulped again, reinvented.

Reworded

Does it still know that it was once a tree
Tall and strong and proud
Before its feckless enslavement to human thought

Scarred

By a pen across its silky surface
Marked forever
With blue and black and red ink

Humans

As the first letter forms on its bright page
Does the writer know
Is she, does she understand

Culpable

For a moment does the echo of a tree falling
Does it make her pen wobble
Does she hold firm and write on

Guilt

Do fingers of guilt
Lick the sides of her ideas
By that, is her ocean of thought

Limited

Free the page! Let it flutter in the wind. Let it fly til it finds where it wants to be. Let it be free of your words and your ideas. Unshackle it from your need to express yourself. Let it float down your manicured street. Free. Let it go.

Those are not my words

Carefully drafted
Beautifully crafted

Those are not my words

Your ears ringing
Your heart singing

Those are not my words

Lifted up, soaring high
Big emotions in the sky

Those are not my words

My words are tiny, small
They take up no space at all

They’re not heartfelt prose

More a little voice in the dark
Hiding behind a bush in the park

When they see someone they know

A tiny little, a very small sound
Held close tight, to the ground

When I walked past you the other day

A murmur, a ripple, a hum
A fading heartbeat, not a drum

You didn’t notice me.

Or my words.

Where is Margaret Gilbert?

Where is Margaret Gilbert?
I heard the tannoy say her name
There’s an empty seat next to me
On this over-crowded plane

I feel like I am royalty
I have space to spare
Where is Margaret Gilbert?
There is no one in her chair

The doors are locked for take off
She has arrived too late
Its like I am a rock star
With a model on a date

People they are staring
It is too good to be true
I’m on this flight for hours
Not with one seat but with two

I can stretch my legs out
Fling my arms around
Distribute my belongings
All along the ground

I can have the arm rest
I can have it up or down
Who cares where the head phones go
There’s no one else’s sound

I can use the toilets
Leave my tray table down
No climbing over a body
I can really move around

Where is Margaret Gilbert?
She never made the plane
Perhaps she died en route
Dead, so I am sane

Where is Margaret Gilbert?
I want to shake her hand
She gave me 14 hours of peace
Before I had to land.

Eaten

He looked at his hand. There was less of it today than there had been yesterday. He had bound the empty skin of one toe to the next one this morning, but his left hand seemed intent on disappearing. He knew what it was. All those metaphors. All those years. It was physically possible it turns out. He laughed quietly to himself as he sat in the lounge. All those doctored photos. What else could explain it.

He sat there without the TV on. In the darkness. Listening. He could hear the neighbours, not easily. Just the odd bump to break his silence. He hated the neighbours. They were from some place else. He wasn’t sure how much else, but some place else. He felt his hand contract as he sat there. Felt it shrink and shrivel as rage coursed through him. They had no right to be there, those neighbours. The people who ought to live there, ought to be from here. He wasn’t sure what that meant.

He couldn’t articulate it but he could feel something gnawing away in his fingertips, eating the ends of them. It was so visceral he looked down as if he might see a rat there chewing the end of his hand. There was no rat but still he could feel it. The erosion of his self as a physical entity.

His rage was all consuming. He sat there listening for more bumps. A car door closing in the driveway across the road. Who were they? They didn’t belong here either. They never spoke to him. He had been certain to ensure that never happened. He had thought about putting something through their letterbox to tell them to go away.

The children two houses down were particularly noisy. Bad parenting. She worked. What could one expect. He went to bed. All night, he could feel it eating at him. His arm. He couldn’t lie on it. It was so uncomfortable. He wondered if he opened his eyes his arm would be completely gone.

He swore he could feel his internal organs shrinking each time he slept. His stomach caving in. He daren’t even walk to the newsagents to get the paper anymore. There were too many people not from around here. Too many people who did not belong here. His face was worn and tired from glaring and leering at women who let their breasts hang out of their clothes. It disgusted him.

He raged in the night and still he could feel it. Travelling around his body, eating wherever and whatever it felt like. He was filled with it, with the injustice of these people filling up his world, there refusal to live by the rules that he set. Did they not know that once he had been an engineer. He woke in the morning, more tired than when he went to bed. He had breakfast, the same breakfast he had eaten for 40 years. He looked at the left arm, the hand hanging off the end.

He know longer knew how to stop it. The hatred was eating him from the inside out.

Things Shakespeare never knew

He is armed.
She is disarming.
It is not a match.
She is not Romeo.
He is not Juliet.

A child cleans her shoes in the kitchen.

Boozy jokes and sweaty hands.
He is nervous. She is numb.
Her skin is stretched over her skull,
high ponytail and the angry makeup of a Scottish queen.
She feels empty inside.
Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo and friends,
Slump at the bar.

The child bought the shoe polish herself,
Because Mandy said, and Mandy’s shoes are ever so clean.

He is inside of her.
Yes, No, No, Yes.
She cannot remember.
He does not care.
He is Ophelia floating down the river,
Hair unkempt, breath stinking of fermented hops.
She is Hamlet, at the point of death,
Toby or not Toby?
Was that his name?

The child scuffs the polish over the dirt.
Wonders why it doesn’t work.
How do Mandy’s shoes get so clean?

She saw him again.
He was in the same room again.
He did not see her.
Could not see anyone clearly,
Through the drunken haze.
She drinks some more.
He drinks some more.
Iago serves at the bar.
Desdemona and Othello
Are blind drunk,
Stabbing each other in the dark.

The child throws the polish at the door.
It falls open, speckles black on the floor.
Mandy’s house has clean floors
She leaves it there and goes upstairs.

Dad sleeps in the street.
Cleopatra,
The streets are an asp.
Mum sleeps on the couch.
She dreams of a man in uniform who can save her,
Antony.
An endless drunken stupor,
With the TV on and the towels unwashed.
The post is covered in soot this morning.
They don’t have a fire.
So that is not possible.
She wonders why,
Through hazy eyes.

Their child looks at her newly cleaned shoes,
Shedding black spots on mildew carpet.
She is cold, she is hungry.
Mandy with her nice uniform and pretty hair
Will be at school today.

And she is.

Mandy has her hair in pigtails with pretty ribbons.
They twirl and sparkle in the sun.
Suddenly without warning she grabs Mandy’s hair.
Pulls it hard until Mandy begins to cry,
She sees the tears, feels nothing, does not know why.

‘How you begin life,
Should not determine how you end it.’
Someone famous once said.
But he was an old white man,
Long since dead.

If you write a book and no one reads it, did you ever really write it?

If you write a book and no one reads it, did you ever really write it?

The book sat on the library shelf for a good few months after she died. I wasn’t here when the original events happened, only when the end came. I had thought to put the book in the coffin but then events intervened.

Lynette was always a little odd, but only a little, not so wildly odd that you needed to worry. I managed her in the last few years she worked here at the library. Lynette wore the same plaid skirt, same olive cardigan and green shirt almost everyday. She had the same box haircut all the time I knew her. All that ever changed was the little pin she used to keep her hair off her face. Sometimes it had a tiny enamel flower on it, sometimes a little cat, sometimes a strawberry or a heart.

Truthfully I should have made her redundant when we got computers but she was compliant, easy to manage. She had the neatest handwriting and she seemed to just be part of the library. Even if I’d have made her redundant she’d still have been here every day.

The story goes that there had been an academic here, a man. Married apparently. He used to come into the library. He was always friendly to Lynette. It was no secret she was infatuated. It wasn’t returned.

There were, apparently, a lot of girls. He had his favourites, one of whom was Jeanette. They flirted a lot, in the library. He would lean in close and she would smile up at him. There were rumours. His wife was a harridan-aren’t they always though? Jeanette was by all accounts young and attractive and now I have seen a photo of her I can see that they looked good together. Too bad for the wife.

Lynette and Jeanette were friends despite Lynette’s feelings for the man. We’ll never know what really happened. They simply disappeared one day-Jeanette and this man. Just sort of ran away together. No one was surprised. Jeanette had a cousin who thought it was out of character but no one bothered with it much. The wife pressed the police but who believes a scorned wife.

There was a lot of gossip but not much else. Lynette never mentioned it.

In any event a few months afterwards, the book turned up. In the library. On the shelf. Catalogued and all. No one thought anything of it. It was his last work before he left and ran away, a hardback version, properly bound. It was the only copy we had but we assumed somehow that there were other copies out there.

We should have offered it to his wife, but I wasn’t here then and that didn’t happen. So it sat there and the only person who ever took any notice of it was Lynette. She would take it off the shelf occasionally and look at. Just look at the cover. I once told her she should read it and that’s when it became a kind of joke-if no one reads it has it ever been written. We didn’t do it intentionally but we just kind of made sure that we didn’t ever direct anybody to the book and it just sat there. There was no title printed on the spine and everyone overlooked it.

Then Lynette died. Quite suddenly. And I thought of the book and how it had made us laugh. I thought it would be a nice gesture to place it in her coffin. She had seemed attached to it, a memory of an unrequited love. She had few friends and no family. So I took the book off the shelf.

I sat down to thumb through the pages. It occurred to me after all this time I had no idea what it was even about.

I opened it. And there, where the pages had been cut out neatly to shape a space was a pair of hands bound together, severed off at the wrists and perfectly preserved and a note, in the neatest handwriting.

‘Romance is dead.’

Needle in, needle out

They are watching, always watching.
Needle in, needle out. Needle in, needle out.

I live inside my head. I remember. Sitting by the fire with my mother. Learning to sew. The warmth, the comfort. All of that. And now this.

Needle in, needle out. Needle in, needle out.

The ability of clothes to transform. I have learned to block out all the noise, the pain. To pretend it’s a movie going on around me.

They are watching, always watching.
Needle in, needle out. Needle in, needle out.

Focus on the seam, on getting the two sides together. On getting it straight. Neat tidy stitches. One row after another. A new needle. More cotton. Strong powerful thread.

Needle in, needle out. Needle in, needle out.

The act of creation. Of making something wearable from a long length of fabric, of putting two things together to make it something new. That is not what is happening here.

They are watching, always watching.
Needle in, needle out. Needle in, needle out.

One stitch after another. My hands worn. Reddened. Fingertips smooth. Wrists, swollen, sore. This material is difficult. It doesn’t want to come together. It pulls apart. Flakes away.

Needle in, needle out. Needle in, needle out.

Clothes can transform, they can take you somewhere else. One stitch after another to make something new. This material can’t be pinned.

And still they are watching me, always watching.
Needle in, needle out. Needle in, needle out.

Their desperate eyes watch my hands fly. I am so fast, so very good at this. At holding their wound together as I flay my needle across and through their wretched skin. My hands. Soaked in blood.

Needle in, needle out. Needle in, needle out.

As if the power of sewing could heal them all and stop this bloody war.

Come the apocalypse, we’ll eat the cat

My mother always said ‘Come the apocalypse, we’ll eat the cat.’

None of us took it too seriously. And then the apocalypse came.

It was more civilised than you think. It was announced on the BBC. The second the announcement was finished, she went looking for the cat. I think we all felt it was a bit too soon. I remember my Dad sitting at the dining table, pushing the meat around his plate with a fork. It felt a bit unseemly, as if there should have been a bit of a notice period. Time to say goodbye.

There wasn’t.

It was in the pot and on our plates before most looters even got out of bed. Here’s a tip, early evening apocalypses are best. People don’t believe it, go to bed, don’t wake up. We did wake up, minus the cat.

That first day my Mum visited the neighbours to see if they were ok. They were elderly. She came back laden with cans. We thought that generous at the time. There was meat for dinner again.

‘You know this street is full of elderly neighbours,’ she commented a week later. Followed by ‘enough meat to keep us through the winter.’

I commented that not all old people had cats. She looked at me blankly. I pushed the meat around my plate. I had not seen the neighbours since it happened. I don’t remember our cat being that big.

Since the collapse of civilisation as we know it, there are far fewer people around. We however seemed to have thrived with an inexhaustive supply of fresh meat.

Being honest living through the apocalypse has been lonely. There’s been the kind of atmosphere you’d expect at the apocalypse. A little doom laden, a lot of darkness. Not much water. We’ve coped. Mostly we stayed indoors, with the lights off. We’ve been out raiding other peoples houses, but we rarely see anyone.

We got through the winter with fresh meat. A lot of cats I told myself. We planted vegetables in the autumn. My mother had seeds. She was nothing if not prepared. It’s like she’d been waiting for years.

I can’t remember when Dad disappeared. Now when I look out in the garden though I wonder. There is a particularly fertile patch of soil. I’m sure she didn’t. He just wandered off like she said. Still we had fresh meat.

I think the apocalypse made my Mum happy, proved to her that all that tough parenting she’d put me through was worth it. She was never happier than after it happened. She was hardy and strong my mother. Focussed and determined.

She taught me everything I know.

She cooked well.

She tasted good.

And endless bloody hope…

When you look at the stars
What do you see
Do you wake up every morning
And think of the sea

I’ve read all the words
Everything you wrote
About spirit and happiness
And endless bloody hope

I look at my life
And I don’t see you
I look at my words
And you’re not there too

Do you do the ironing
Or do you find it mystifying
Do you wash up every night
Because you know that is stupefying

Do you know what it takes
To write silly little words
When the to-do list is long
And you’re not being heard

How many loads of washing
Did you do this week
Or did you sit in the garden
In solace and peace

Because I could write
Write like you I think
If I just had the space
And the time to blink

It wouldn’t always rhyme
Like this one does
I’d make it all spiritual
Maybe mention love

When I see the stars
I often think of you
When I see the sea
I remember I had dreams too

But the dreams have all faded
And fallen from this world
I never got the chance you had
Because I was born a girl.

Wrapping the house

I lay down on the landing
I reach out and pull the house in around me
The light fittings shimmer and shake
The house folds in on me and everything breaks

It wasn’t my intention
to try and make us safe
Every door seemed locked to me
I was trying to escape

I just got tired
I couldn’t seem to sleep
There were no more tears
I couldn’t even weep

Overwhelmed by expectation
I drifted out to sea
I couldn’t find the answer
All the words eluded me

I looked at the sky
I didn’t look at the ground
I wrapped the house around me
And let it all fall down

The ground opened up beneath me
but I could only see the sky
And as I turned to look at you
I smiled and said goodbye.