For the first time on the Purple Hermit we have a poem from a guest poet, fellow Scottish writer and friend, Alastair Simmons. Enjoy!
Blue Poppies (In memory of Esther)
She took ages to answer the door in the heavy summer rain. Finally, she fumbled open the catch. Her hand was bandaged, her eyes blackened, on a white face. “Err, I’ve had a fall,” she said, her hands still shaking. “Err, I’ve come about the garden, gardening,” I said. Suddenly, her eyes sparked then ignited ninety plus years held in darkening pupils, the delicate filament in her blue iris illuminated. “Did I tell you about trekking in the Himalayas? Right over the pass for six days. I remember now, the blue poppies, wonderful,” she said. She began talking, as if she’d known me all of my relatively short life. She took my arm and leaned hard on the old wooden stick, “Now let me show you the roses.” The summer rain pelted like an Asian monsoon. We didn’t notice.
By Alastair Simmons 2012
Alastair lives on the Northeast Scottish coast, finding inspiration in the landscapes of Scotland and Northern England, and also it’s cities. And the gardens he creates, working as a gardener. “Poetry is about finding connection and expressing that feeling, whether it’s people, nature or worlds we find ourselves in.”
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.
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.
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.
The passage of one life is like a poem,
the end an echo of the start; a solitary
fight to enter this world, darkness
to light. The bloodying of white
sheets observed by strangers in a room
with thin curtains, mirrored in the final
stanza only without felicitations. You hope you die before you get old.
The romance, the action, the clues lie
in the middle section of your poem,
an exposition on your main theme;
a search for happiness, love, money,
acceptance, fluffy cats, fame, red hair,
a good shag or prize-winning dahlias. You hope you die before you get old.
Whatever floats your boat, baby!
By stanza seven you learn you are not
a boat but a desert island, unexplored. You hope you die before you get old.
You sit on the shore watching the murky
tide of water and wait for the Ferry. Angel
whispers in your ear. It is the jade game,
the sky is not the same blue, the sun holds
no heat and no one will ever truly get you.
In stanza nine the diminishing begins.
Your body shrinks (except for your nose).
You shape-shift, spend more time looking
down and back. Chins multiply but hair
and friendships fall away. Downsizing. You hope you die before you get old.
You can’t piss in a pot no more.
You can’t recall names no more.
You hope you die before you get old.
The passage of your life is like a poem
structured by repetition, rhythm, rhyme,
recurring motifs and metaphors exploring
a theme (same shit different day). The arc,
the meaning of your story remains hidden
to you (although strangers see) until
the moment God turns over your page.
the fall begins
a slow decline
ages in one
murder by fire water
can’t remember faces no more
of old age
can’t piss in a pot no more
or a swift
choosing an open window
a dislocation of ghost limbs
shape shifting hair aflame
till you hit
ground zero running
the red light
I’ve won this battle but I can’t win the war.
Like a vampire back from the dead,
I regenerate in fancy dress disguise.
This moustache doesn’t suit me at all
and spaghetti legs flip/flopping
every which way – most unnerving.
My spine is trying to reach the floor,
running low on back bone and needing a nap.
My arms whirl in decreasing circles,
muscles have given up the ghost. Where is the sultry woman in the gold silk robe?
My heart still beats in dedicated syncopation,
an expectation of holy communion, the red
wine that I must sip not spill. My heart
forgives any casual blasphemy,
rebellion of malformation.
And I, the unbeliever, swear to uphold the creed.
On my left shoulder, smooth as ocean
a lonesome fish swims against the tide
and dreams of new beginnings. Where is the chamomile child spinning down the hill?
She forgets the scars and stripes, puckering
my wrist, tribal markings. A rite of passage
or a reclamation of self? Mutinous but lightening.
My translucent skin, wafer thin, is a manuscript
revealing the indigo text of an alien race. Where is the pearly newborn hidden in her crib?
So near and yet so far. I must cut deep
to draw blood. Beneath the thumb is the scared
and sacred spot where the pulse beats.
I’ve been away for some time but I’m back, or at least for now. Apologies for my absence from Blogging World and the world in general. So far I’ve spent five weeks trapped in a small hospital room in Inverness following a fractured femur. Tragically my treatment has not gone according to plan. After the initial operations to repair the original fracture I have acquired another THREE broken bones in my legs due to careless handling and bad advice from Occupational Therapists and Physiotherapists. And the worst news is that the fresh broken bones are not fixable. Any surgery could make things worst not better. No one seems to know what the prognosis is.
I’m trying to stay positive but it’s hard. I don’t know how much mobility or independence I will ever regain. It’s also hard not to be consumed with anger for the so-called experts in this hospital who have damaged me and are now trying to sweep their negligence under the carpet. I have not even had a proper apology or any acknowledgement that anything has gone wrong.
Anyway, when my mind is not fried by morphine, pain and exhaustion I will try to post here on The Purple Hermit and I hope my followers and supporters will understand.