Brighton Subzero

Photo: Michael Regan

I drove to Brighton: four degrees below.
The motorways were salty, grinding, slow
My windscreen wash was frozen. Would not come.
The murky shroud of winter pushed me on.

We met at Trevor’s Café. Half past three.
Two full breakfasts and then two cups of tea.
Like lovers, sliding eggs around our plates,
We slowly brought ourselves to share our fates.

We come at it full circle; in for the kill
In all my life I’d never seen him look so ill.
His news was bad. I knew that it would be.
Compounded by the consultant’s honesty.

I looked at him. His eyes bore into me.
A hollowed-out version sat in spectral symmetry.
His clothes and skin and faded hair let go.
The insubstantial trappings of this ghostly show.

The only moving things in the place
Were clouds of cappucino steam upon his face,
And his eyes; liquid eyes that, although blurred
Traced my talk of future hope in every word.

Talk of children not had, choices made,
Cities not seen, odd debts not paid,
Journeys not taken and books not read,
Went untold, and mostly by us both, unsaid.

Scarves and hats summoned, he scraped his chair,
And we were all too quickly back in the hard, cold air.
He’d not the energy for the uphill climb.
So we took the No 12 bus to save the time.

And later as I strapped in, and slammed the car door
I saw him up high at the window of the 7th floor.
Mortally still, except his eyes that followed me
Hungrily up the road I drove along, along the sea.

Cobwebs in October


Cobwebs in October
Low-slung nets made visible by dew
Appear suddenly one morning.
Trampolines of soft breath
And droplet-beaded precision.
The seesaw song of the chaffinch
Bounces off allium globes. Ghostly lines
Lassoed over St Johns Wort,
And spiders go-ape
Between herbaceous, hammock-weaved heaven.
Cat’s-cradles: the fingers of branches,
And every bush, every stalk is wired up
With explosives,
As pyracantha flames orange,
Wrapped up like a Christmas shroud.

Christmas at the Gloucester Royal


At the start of shift 3 she hands me a tea,
Just half a sugar. Like I like it now.
In the day room. Like a regular.
A too-familiar welcome for a place
We want to leave. While somewhere in the quiet,
Subterranean darkness, a registrar
Half my age, is cutting up my perfectly-shaped boy.

As I wait for the theatre curtain to fall,
Electric-yellow Nora Virus signs
Blare at me: hands off. Place of life and death.
Earlier, he, stockinged feet dangling,
Was held down with guy ropes;
Intravenous drips, translucent tubes,
The perfect paraphernalia of pain relief.
Inert and pinned, like Gulliver on the rocks.
The perfect Lilliputian saline solution. 

No scheduled ops on Christmas Eve. Time yawns
In the stifled room, reaching across
Empty steel-white beds.
Sounds of shuffling frames and sandled feet,
Porters chat and cackle,
Christmas radio wafts half-hearted jollity.
Unreal. In this real world of pain. Where,
Two nurses sit with a grizzled, pyjama-ed, vacant soul
Unstitch his attachments and hold his hand.
Look into his eyes, draw him from bed to chair
The first step of a long chain home
Into sheltered housing. He refuses.
Two green uniforms stand tall, oversee, frown,
He opens his eyes, moans, then roars,
Finally subdues into sobs. They stretcher him
Away as he flays, as his bagged ID and papers
Slip to the floor. 

And all the while the nurses’ touch,
Graceful, instinctive; eyes, hands, names.
I marvel at its gentle steely resolve.
This will happen. But we will match it with love.
Hard to watch such quiet dignity, it quite unmans me
And I look away. Squirm and squeak
In the shiny green visitors’ chair. 

Last nght, the Registrar sat on my boy’s bed.
First names. Like family.
She summoned an air
Of precision. Definition.
We’d needed for hours. Within minutes
She is the one I want to open him up.
But it’s a tricky diagnosis and even she
Can’t be certain. She retreated
To her flickering screen; ever the scientist,
Sifting and scanning the data,
Assessing the damage:
Pulse rate, Diastolic pressure, temperature,
Bloods, cannula, abdominal pain.
Weighing them
In her small and pinkly-washed hands.

Despite my rocky steady confidence in her
It is the post-op sight of my little boy
In an oxygen mask at midnight
Which unmasks me. The anaesthetist
Touches my arm to reassure.
The spaceship bleep and hum
Only sound in the cavernous, cathedral-dark.
It’s quiet and prayerful down here,
His tiny damp puffs of breath
Like a consecrated mist.
Blessed incense. 

Christmas Day clicks round. I stay for just a little longer
Because I need to rest my eyes on his face.
Marvel at this Christmas miracle.
I want to throw the window up
And lean bodily forward screaming to the world.
Call for a Christmas goose,
He is alive! It’s Christmas Day!
But I’m English.
And instead I drive home steadily.
Eyeing the dark road for surprised deer and sudden fox.

‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ – The Black Mountains


Sharp-angled sunshine catches up with us
On Hay Bluff, racing over bracken bent
By showers stacking up against the dark
And brooding layers of the Black Mountains.
My boy and I we laugh along the ridge,
Gaze across the peak of Lord Hereford’s Knob,
And giggle at the future insults we will trade.

We slide down mossy slopes on green-stained arses.
A pair of red kites, picked out by low light
Skate across the fawn, heather-line of landscape.
We stroll the last few miles down to the car
Elbows and shoulders bump happily into each other.
And later, after cafe doughnuts and hot chocolate
We eavesdrop into Hay-on-Wye at soft twilight.
Yellow-lit windows, cold stone-air and mouldy books.
Boden-London families, Barber-clad old men,
Carved pumpkins and candles, shining shops
A touch of otherworldliness, as he
Weighs a fountain pen he likes the look of,
In the new old-fashioned stationers.

And walking to the car he holds my hand
Although he knows he’s too old, we smile together.
A day shared. In the car he blasts the heating,
Teases me at something I said, and all the way home
I become Lord Hereford for the day. 



Winter Solstice


Winter Solstice
December 21. Shortest day.
All walled in, I watch the windows
And the leaking sky, waiting for the last light
Of the waning year.
Deep, all-day dark.
Racing clouds and bedroom weather
A dark and hopeless time.
Finally the dog and I brave the cold
And hopscotch the spaces
Between farm-track puddles.
Nut-brown and spattered,
She half-heartedly retrieves
Beech branches I half-heartedly fling.
Noses leaf-mould, chews blackened conkers,
Stands solitary, senses scents
Then crashes through the shivering stubble
Following fox. Chasing hope.
We make one last loop as the half-light fades
And just then the last touches of winter-rose
Leak out of skirting clouds to brush the sheepfold walls
And the line of the horizon bleeds
Like a glorious, over-painted eighteenth-century canvas,
The old light-year is over, the new one begun.
And there is a spring in our step,
All the way home

Leaving home


Leaving home

Judging by your expression, as we sat side-by-side on the edge of the just-made bed
You needed us to stay, just a touch longer than the other parents
Who with a cool wave through car windows bless nonchalant offspring
Before crunching down the gravel track to empty nests.
Precariously balanced, we toy with words
And weigh the spaces between our sentences.
Unsure how to express what we want to say
Not wanting to lose this moment
This build-up of 18 years.

Memories flood back.
The tip and glitter of stabilisers on that sunny lurch
Across Hengistbury Head, gulls wheeling overhead
The first piano lesson, knees tucked tightly together
In nylon shorts, more chatter than playing
The snapshots of you on the hills, that photographed
Familiar grimace, the same three weeks ago
In the cold Langdale Pikes as we ended an era
The nights sat on the bed reading stories. You a little too big
For this joint exploration into another world
But still your head easing into my neck
And here years later, on the university bed
We run the risk of meaning too much
But saying too little.
I ask how long you would like us to stay: “Forever!”
You respond and we both laugh, me roaring to cover my fear
You shyly like I haven’t seen you do for years
We have a final walk around the campus
A snatched ice cream and finally next to the car
You tell your mum off because she supposed to cry
And isn’t, and then the big man hug comes
You look down at me, taller now
And, knowing that the tables have turned
You check on me as I slip
From your grip into the driving seat
And I sit there, the windscreen wobbling with the image
Of you fumbling with the new plastic key code
Before you finally disappear from sight
Into the new hall door, of your new life.