Looking for Bluebirds

This post is a little different – not poetry but the first short story I’ve written for a long time. It’s loosely based on my family history. Any feedback or comments would be greatly appreciated.

image created by the author

The passenger sun deck was anything but sunny. It was deserted except for a man with two huskies sheltering beneath an orange cape. A casual drizzle swirled from a concrete sky. Alina realised for the umpteenth time since arriving in Scotland that she was inappropriately dressed in her chic wool coat and cloche hat. The world around her spun shades of grey. Glassy waves frothed by the railings leaving lacy patterns of spume across the deck and marking her boots. The wind pummelled her eighty year old body like an invisible giant.

Alina clung to the metal rail and gazed into a whirlpool of cloud and water. She managed to suppress her nausea. The Pentland Firth felt as hostile as the English Channel in 1947 when she first arrived in Britain clad in her refugee rags. She looked down into the churning troughs of waves and imagined the exhilaration of jumping overboard, the shock of the cold. How long would it take to drown? Would it be peaceful or would her lungs fight for breath despite herself? She hoped the cold would take her first. As a small child she witnessed a Jewish woman drown in the River Dniper before the Nazis invaded. It was a hot afternoon and her family were picnicking on the shore when her brother spotted a body floating near Monastyr Island, long black hair trailing in the water like a death veil. Papa swam out but it was too late. Afterwards, Papa wondered if it had been suicide. Rumours were circulating about what the Germans did to conquered cities but no one wanted to believe them.

Alina peered into the opaque void looking for The Old Man of Hoy in the same way she’d searched the horizon for the white cliffs of Dover exactly sixty years ago. She was haunted by Vera Lynn’s song ever since she learned her parents had been granted EVW status and that they would soon begin a new life in England. On the boat crossing the Channel the idea of beautiful bluebirds and white cliffs filled her with hope even while helplessly vomiting.
Alina was the only one in her family to be sea sick. Her brother, Ivan stuffed his face with salami sandwiches like there was no tomorrow and raced around the boat exploring. Alina arrived in Dover stinking and humiliated without achieving a single glimpse of the famous cliffs or bluebirds. Years later she found out bluebirds did not exist in Britain and she felt cheated.

There was no sign of The Old Man of Hoy. She’d seen postcards of the sandstone landmark in the Hamnavoe gift shop and bought one for her husband Dmitri together with a small box of Orkney fudge. For herself she chose a block of handmade lavender and calendula soap coloured blue and yellow like the Ukrainian flag. The soap was called Forget-me-not. She
was groping around in her bag for a handkerchief when the ship reared and bucked like a wild horse. She lost her balance and grabbed at the rail wrenching her arthritic elbow. Her heavy bag slipped from her shoulder spilling objects across the wet deck.

“Let me help”, said the husky man. His face was weathered and unshaven. He crouched down picking up her purse, powder compact, lipstick, hairbrush, a packet of Jelly Babies and a leather album embossed with gold lettering in Cyrillic script. The man carefully shook off droplets of water from each item and wiped them on his trousers before replacing them in Alina’s bag. He released the dogs who began sniffing her feet. One of them jumped up
placing paws on her shoulders and tried to lick her face. Alina recoiled, lurched sideways and began screaming at the beasts. “Get away, get away!”

She was suddenly back in the camp, tangled in barbed wire with the fetid breath of a German Shepherd in her face and strange guttural cries echoing in the night.

“It’s okay,” said the man, “they won’t hurt you. They’re just saying hello.” He steered her toward a seat. “Take a minute”.

“I’m alright, thank you,” she said but she was trembling. Her hat slipped askew half covering one eye and she straightened it.

A woman appeared beside them. Her face was scrunched up like a ball of wet paper. She held two plastic cups of coffee.

“Here you go, love. Have one of these”, she said to Alina. “I think you need it more than I do”. The kindness in her voice was unexpected and she patted Alina’s arm.

Alina suppressed tears. “Thank you,” she murmured. The coffee was too sweet but it was hot and soothing.“My name is Moira, by the way and this is my husband Alastair. Our scary fur balls are Snowflake and River. They’re completely harmless you know.”

“I am Alina Stepanivna Kravchuk”, replied the old lady. “I am sorry, I am afraid of big dogs”.

“Wondered what your accent was,” said Alastair. “Where are you from?”

“I am from Yorkshire”, said Alina. She put the empty coffee cup down on the seat and the wind swept it away in an instant. One of the dogs lunged after it, barking. Alina pulled her hat down covering her ears which were pierced with tiny gold hoops.

“You don’t sound like a Yorkshire woman” said Moira. “But it’s a lovely accent whatever it is. So are you a tourist? It’s the wrong time of year for a holiday”. The woman laughed revealing a broken front tooth.

“I am not on holiday, I do not believe in holidays. I am looking for my daughter”, said Alina.

She produced a photograph from her coat pocket and held it out to Moira. It showed a teenage girl with long dark hair wearing a gypsy dress, strings of beads and a serious expression. She was perched on the bonnet of a vintage Land Rover surrounded by moorland. The image was over exposed and faded with age. “She’s called Vita. Do you know her?”

“Golly Moses! I doubt it. Don’t know anyone named Vita. Do you Alastair? That looks like an old picture. My mam had a similar dress when I was a kid. Whereabouts does your daughter stay?”

“I do not have her address”, said Alina. Her pale eyes suddenly brimmed with tears and Moira noticed her cataracts. “I only have this”. She unfolded a crumpled newspaper cutting.

“Disabled artist storms Scotland”, Moira read out loud. “Orkney based Vita Kravchuk launches solo exhibition ‘Making Waves’, An Lanntair, Stornoway, October 2005. Her abstract drawings are inspired by the dramatic seas of the Far North.”

Moira looked closely at the small publicity photograph before passing it to Alastair. “Is that her in the wheelchair?”

Alina’s face contorted. “Yes, she is a cripple. A disappointment but we did our best.”

“My brother is visually impaired,” said Moira, “and he’s just as good as anyone else. Your daughter is obviously talented”.

“It was always art, art, art with Vita. All that modern stuff and fancy ideas. She never wanted anything normal like babies or a steady job. Such a difficult girl.”

“Well, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”, said Moira.

“Pah friends! I do not believe in friends.” Alina rose abruptly and offered a pound coin to Moira. “For the coffee,” she said.

“No money required. The coffee is a small gift from a new friend,” said Moira. “Perhaps we can help you find your girl? We own a guest house in Stromness. You can stay the night with us and tomorrow we’ll take you to the art gallery where someone might know Vita. Alastair can carry your bag. It’s too heavy for a lady your age.”

The ship’s tannoy made a garbled announcement about their imminent arrival on the island. Moira grabbed Alina’s arm. The huskies were circling around and growling.

“No, no, no…” Alina protested, her eyes widening in alarm as she was escorted away.

Alastair interrupted, “Look, a puffin!” He pointed towards the stern.

Looking back, Alina saw a strange bird like a parrot, black and white with a curved orange beak and orange feet. It flapped extended wings in a menacing manner before landing on top of the ship’s emergency lifebuoy. The bird and Alina looked at each other for a long, frozen moment as it’s feathers slowly changed to blue.

The Firing

I am squeezing my Self into an empty crisp
box. Guards wearing smiley masks watch
from three rifles distance. Muted comrades
observe from a raised perspex Zoom

box. Guards wearing smiley masks watch
my hands tremble as I clear out my desk:-
driver’s license, a diary with twenty-twenty
visions, a framed photo of a kitten in a tree.

My hands tremble as I clear out my desk:-
a notebook full of redactions, a wee feisty
cactus, a broken compact mirror, tampons,
lipsticks, tissues and a stained pair of pants,

a notebook full of redactions, a wee feisty
box of Black Magic, a blunt pencil with teeth
marks, my first draft of an Utopian Manifesto,
A Dummy’s Guide to Democracies, a sealed

box of Black Magic, a blunt pencil with teeth,
an eraser shaped like a penis, a list of dreams,
an emergency jam jar and a wedding ring.
In the bottom drawer I find the forgotten;

an eraser shaped like a penis, a list of dreams,
the one who truly loved me, the candle burned
at both ends, the first rainbow ever seen, failed
deadlines, a rope bridge with a missing link,

the one who truly loved me, the candle burned
the dirty girl I hated at primary school, the key
to the crystal garden. Shushing faces observe
while I squeeze my Self to an empty crisp.

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Zooming

Dutifully muted we wait in our bubbles, looking
at ourselves looking at ourselves smiling, looking
for clues in book shelves, potted plants, interiors.

Sid’s iPad is a shadow. Patrick props a stepladder.
Magi’s tablet belongs to a Ragdoll with blue eyes.
The third row shows bearded minimalists in grey.

The cool ones are sipping tea from chunky mugs.
The patient ones are still holding hands raised
while their rictus grins slip off screen to scream.

Three minutes to write a poem about the sea.
Try to recall how the sea looks, sounds, smells.
Time rubs out. One by one our bubbles turn black.

Photo by the author

Prelude

Something is wrong. A grey fog
stinking of wet wool hovers
above my bed when I wake.
I hit reset and instantly a citrus
glow permeates the Sense-o-Net.
Lemon scent cuts through the fug.
Bitter-sweet, my six naked limbs
dissolve like butter on hot toast.
I hit open and the view unreels;
a newborn sun rising from the sea,
a debonair yacht with a white sail,
a labrador chasing a beach ball.
Let’s get this show on the road,
I hit extraterrestrial to transcode.

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Flower Power

Like many others stuck at home since the start of the Covid Pandemic I have taken comfort from my garden. There’s a special healing energy in the natural world which we all need at the moment. Just a few minutes outdoors can reset my mood. Today was a particularly grim British October day with non-stop rain and dark overcast skies. So it was lovely to look through some of my flower photos to remind myself how beautiful life can be. Here’s my favourite one of a white hydrangea like a cascade of starlight.

Photo by the author

Translating the Unspeakable

The poet’s job is to translate unspeakable things on to the page…” 

“Poets don’t get into poetry for money, they do it for vocation – I feel like that anyway. Poets can touch hearts and minds; they can translate trauma into something people can face. Sometimes there’s a cost for the poet to do that as it takes looking at the trauma right in the face and then allowing others to bear the idea of trauma safely. That’s why I write poetry. Poems are empathy machines.

Racism is a system that keeps propagating itself. It wasn’t the bankers, millionaires or computer magnates we turned to in the crisis – it was the nurses, garbage cleaners, supermarket workers; I hope those people will be valued more.”

Words by Roger Robinson

Photo by the author

Down Below

She has never seen so many of them, diving
in ribbons, mercurial as the heart of a virgin.
She opens her mouth to cry out, joyful
her hot mouth expects a fierce Atlantic roar.

She taps an elegant rhythm as the rocks tease.
Not surprised, they reflect the enduring
equivalence of a human. Five liquid bodies
hurl into the waves. She’s eager to slip

a knot around her waist, slide into the silver
gaping mouth. She believes she will fly
underwater, melding like angler fish, one
into a luminous other. Love lingers

under the scalloped tongue and her smile
disappears into a cave. Words are the agony
of a different folly, wafer thin, hankering
for the heavenly parts of this world.

Photo by the author

Shoots

My therapist’s room has lofty ceilings
and a view across rooftops to the sea.
A row of potted geraniums line the sill
and a tribal mask hangs over his desk.
My therapist says I must remember.

My therapist likes to shop. He’s a snappy
dresser. Today he wears orange trousers
with a button down shirt in lemon. He sips
tea from a turquoise mug. My therapist
says I remind him of his dead grandfather.

My therapist composes poetry in his head
as he walks along the seafront. He recites
a poem about a man sleeping rough
outside Habitat. My therapist suggests
a poem about planting a seed of anger.

My therapist has green fingers growing
houseplants with pink flowers. He displays
a cactus with fuschia spikes that remind
me of my dead mother. My therapist
says I am a rose without thorns.

My therapist has cold sores and doesn’t feel
like talking. He missed his train, feels stressed.
I suggest homeopathy. He asks how I feel
about him. I say he is amazing. We are both
wearing yellow jumpers. My therapist says

we are synchronised and sends photos of tulips.
My therapist suggests letting go, forgiveness
and voluntary work. He says my perception
is flawed like rippled glass in a old window pane.
My therapist asks, are they out to get you?

Our last session he complains of food poisoning
and a dodgy meal in Chinatown. I suggest ginger.
My therapist says I have too much empty space
in my head, sniggers at my leopard print hoodie.
Perhaps you’ve shot yourself in the foot?

Photo by the author

Mortality

We follow the signs, white on blue
autumn clouds shifting. Slings
and arrows show one way to exit.
We follow the twisted pitted road
down the line. We avoid potholes,
broken tarmac, pines felled by storms
littering the verge. We drive slowly
around those tight bends. The road
south unspools an old home movie.
In Golspie the doors burst open,
the sun breaks gilding the moss,
the dry stone walls, the sycamores.
The paramedic with kind eyes
wishes you breath. Magic
moss crumbles gold dust
between your fingers until
only the scent of earth remains.

photographic image created by the author