Just one more minute’s screen time, please
to check how long my screen time’s been
I can’t settle. My brain’s uninsulated
wires fizz under the floorboards, burn up
my thoughts like dust motes.
(Please, don’t touch that bakelite
switch. I think we need
to get a man in.) All these screens,
these grim receipts of status spiked
on cluttered desktops
in my mind. Today
I spent three hours watching e-ink
notepads being unboxed. I learned
third hand a well-known racist
commentator said a racist thing,
and scrolled until
I found the thing then dived
below its line, let outrage bleach
the gutters of my mind.
I’ve heard the brain
is wider than the sky.
Well, the skies round here are huge
and grey and I have nothing
to say. I have rendered every
stunning vista into
wallpaper. I used to think
that cynics were the clever ones:
that treadmill, low-fat cynicism
that sees the fault in everything
before they try to reel you in.
But cynics don’t just see what’s wrong:
they accept it. I don’t know
what I want, can’t picture myself
twenty years from now. I’m hasty
thumbs, erroneous corrections,
fidgeting the flesh clean off
my bones, a phatic vocal tick,
the ground floor of a tower block:
all that weight.
And I Saw England
In dusty deep July I threw
my sun-scorched body in the Waveney,
cooled my blood against
the streamer weed and pennywort,
then breast-stroked up the river under
alder glades to turtle-bask
on a disused bridge support and gaze
at England in the water’s pickle-green
and in the swan that glided
fifty yards upstream, attended by her
cygnet train, imagine England
in the centuries of blacksmith’s boys
and parlour maids who’d slid
their molten bodies off that once-was
bridge on days like this.
And I saw England in the little
rowing boat and in the loosestrife flowers,
and in the mighty cob that slipped
along the river top beneath the smudge
of butter sun towards me and his pen
and cygnets far beyond beyond my back.
I kept an eye on him, as I splashed off
to reach my clothes, my bit of bank,
but when I veered away he veered as well,
so I veered further still, convinced
that he would see I meant no harm.
I gave that cob the river’s width
but still the beast bore down on me
til he was only inches off and then
his vast wings flapped, the white arm
of his neck rose up, his ancient orange eyes
flashed like fire on Boer farms, like mortars
dropped on Baghdad compounds.
I saw that stately mask slip as it did
on Belfast streets, and flinched
as England’s martial, murderous hiss
shot out at me from its serrated beak.
Mate! To think you still exist; out there
now in hideous 4K clarity, logging onto
Zoom and catching up on Gogglebox
in the aluminium twinkle of an eco-bulb.
Don’t you prefer the past? The world beneath
a vinyl crackle, its edges blurred, its phatic chatter
rendered down to poetry? I could leave you
there, suspended in the amber of a Polaroid,
where our parents, tweed-skirted and double-cuffed,
twiddle the cord of a rotary dial telephone
and smoke in the house. But then I think of
Calke Abbey, the nursery shut up the day
the little Lord inherited the master bedroom.
On the rug, a dinky car, abandoned
like a goblet at Pompeii. The tyranny of that.
We don’t touch each other any more
twelve years in a double bed
down to business-like deals
we can’t bring ourselves to shake on,
not even an x at the end
of a text. I’m not saying
that I want to. I just wonder
where we went. But today
you sent a photo of our son.
It stopped me as it flashed
across my palm. We were there.
In his face. In each other’s arms.
In the scum tide of my bath I still
trace the path we cut through the woods.
The wrong direction, it turns out, but a path
we worked at all the same: spent hours
hacking back the brambles, trampling
the stingers, unfurling fairy lights to hang
from branches. The maps are faded now,
bleached by silence. I can’t recall the views,
the light. I just remember mud, and how
it clung to both of us. Sometimes it brings me
gasping upright from a dream: that was me,
I was there, where was that?
Washed up in my bowl
of change like sea glass on
a shingle beach it pulls me back
through time – four dusty years
as I grow younger and unsure. Until
beneath a bridal moon one night
I will it up and onto my right hand.
Bad weeks pass. I switch
it to the left and find us sitting
at our kitchen table. Sad years
roll back: winter into autumn
into summer into spring, we watch
the leaves grow green, the blossom
bloom from mulch. It floats up
to the branches and sews itself
in buds. I wear my ring. Doubts
dissolve. Our children
lose their words and start
to stumble on the flagstone floor,
till pushchairs come from younger
siblings. We understand them less
but somehow love them more.
I pass my tiny, bawling son
to the midwife, admire you
and all your body can do. And when
in a final bout of morning sickness
they’ve gone, we’re ignorant
to what we’ve lost. We fuck
so much we lose our jobs,
spend whole days in bed,
our wedding bands grow strange
and new upon our fingers.
I let mine catch on yours
as we put the awful wallpaper up
and pack our bags for honeymoon.
We walk the city walls in Sousse
and say we’ll always be
together. Back in England
there’s a party, till all our friends
grow sober, smart and slope
back to their seats. I give
my ring a final twist, you take
it off my hand. Tears roll up
our cheeks as we unsay our vows.
Terrified, I watch you back away.
as they always are, my parents
tell me I wasn’t first. Before me
the adoption agency sent
a baby boy. A dopey little
thing, Mum says. For months
they cared for him as their own,
and at Christmas asked if they
could put it in their cards, were told
to shout it from the rooftops.
The response cards were coming back
when the agency rang on Friday
afternoon to say so sorry, the baby’s
mother wanted him and they
were coming now. My father
was still at work. The facts
fall on me like cards on the mat.
Yes, Dad says, forty years
later, it was like he died.
Your Old Photos
That was quick. We’re already at the bit where you
pass your phone and let me swipe the years away.
There you are. In your father’s arms amongst
long grass against a sky of lido-blue; scowling
at your mum who wears a dress you still
have hanging in your wardrobe; lined-up
with your siblings Von Trapp-style on some
ice-lolly summer years ago; pulling the same faces
that you flash at me today: goofy lip-curls, that stare
when some sad thought has pulled you out to sea.
All that Kodak goodness, all that Phenidone and light.
A white door in a garden wall calls me through
to where you stand in a cotton dress, your arm outstretched.
Hungover with Katy
Let’s lie back down and let the pills kick in.
I’ll be big spoon, cup the reassuring weight
of your left breast beneath the warm white
cotton vest I found for you last night
when you were cold. Behind us sunlight
syrups through the French doors illuminating
particles of dust, bits of you and me that dance
then settle. I’ll watch that right-angled triangle
of reflected light form on the picture glass,
see wisps of clouds float by at speed. Somewhere
out there the wind is blowing hard. It can’t
get at us, we’re safe in here, as seconds become
minutes, then hours, then days, then years.
Your Old Photos (2)
You are showing me your strata, the women
that you were: young and pink-cheeked
on a Croatian beach; oioi-ing at the lens
in noughties Brixton. South London’s grumpiest
barmaid, the bruised TA, sozzled sixteen,
caked in Suffolk mud. They lie
compressed, preserved beneath the cliffs
of you. And I am on the shingle far below,
my head tipped back, gazing at the shading.
I want to be a raggy doll snug
within your elbow’s crook. Suck
your thumb, constrict my neck,
squeeze me till I can’t breathe, take me
everywhere with you trailing in the dirt.
The stump of my fist squeezed tight
in your sweaty grip. Drag me docile
to a birthday party, smother me
in cakey kisses, chuck me shrieking through
the air, run sticky fingers through my string
hair. Prop me up against the wall, pretend
to pour me tea and whisper things to me
you’ve never told to anyone. Look, my lips
are sewed shut. Leave me in a hidey-hole
gurning on the April leaf mould. Lose me
for a day or two and sob yourself
to broken sleep, choking on your salt-despair.
Then joy of joys, find me smiling on a gate post,
swear to never let me go. Sit cross-legged
on the floor tiles, watch me through
the washer’s porthole tumbling dumbly
in the suds. Love the stuffing
out of me, adore my threads away,
until my stains are permanent
until my button nose pings off
until my painted eyes are worn away
and I am blind but see, through
everything my half-moon smile
remains unchanged, no matter what.