I’m Back – Sort Of!

I’ve had a very long absence from WordPress ever since I was admitted to hospital with complications due to long Covid. Ten weeks on and I’m still incarcerated. I have no poems in me at the moment but have been producing a daily doodle. These started out as a bit of art therapy- just a quick sketch while propped up in my bed. But they seem to have evolved into something more.
I have decided to share them in the hope some of you may find them interesting. Comments and feedback very welcome!

The Magician

Amongst the Flutterers

I’m supposed to be dead”, Amy would say to the visitors wearing plastic smiles as they edged around the door into Room 1, Ward 5. It was gratifying to see them squirm at the mention of the ‘D’ word. In bleak times a girl must get her kicks any way she can. When Amy failed to defeat her illness, stubbornly refusing to rise and sparkle from the sheets like a New Year firework the number of visitors declined until only the troubled and lonely returned. They stopped bringing cheery cards, gifts of scented soap, lip balm and chocolates. Instead some of them drank her afternoon tea, ate her biscuits and ‘borrowed’ the taxi fare home. They all needed a sympathetic ear. There was Linda who was plagued by too many happy memories, Steve who was working out why his wife left him nine years before and Carol who couldn’t decide her next holiday destination. Amy tried to remember that just because she was dying didn’t mean others weren’t entitled to their own misery. It must be a hard choice between the Trans Siberian Express and an Alaskan cruise, after all.

Amy found terminal illness hard work. The doctors, nurses and visitors must be kept happy. It was considered bad form to show pain or fear. One must be positive and grateful at all times. “When you’re smiling…the whole world smiles” and all that shit. It was indeed true that even now there were things for which she was grateful. For a start, she had a room of her own and was no longer trapped with the dementia patients in Room 8. Amy’s new room didn’t have a view unless you stood on a chair and revolved your head like the demonically possessed girl in The Exorcist. Room 1 faced a brick wall with a row of identical windows. The sky could be seen only as a reflection in their glass panes. The best time was when the sun came up and flared in the windows opposite and a solitary seagull perched on her window sill, feathers so white, so exquisitely sculpted that Amy could almost taste the ocean. She imagined the bird swooping low over turquoise waves and then spiralling up into a pure blue sky.

The other thing to be grateful for was the night. Amy loved the night. It was the only time she felt safe. During the day an endless procession of strangers burst into her room without knocking regardless of her situation or state of undress. Dignity was a lost cause. To the army of uniforms she was no longer a woman but a lump of meat to be processed. During the day, she was lost even to herself, her mind focused anywhere but in this body, in this room. She felt she was looking down at herself from a great height, her body meant nothing more than a discarded old coat, too battered even for a charity shop. But at night as the ward gradually fell silent the real Amy returned. Sometimes she would talk to herself out loud, ‘I am Amy Baxter. I was once a teacher, a daughter, a sister, a wife. I am good at baking, knitting, gardening and pub quizzes. I am a loyal friend. My favourite meal is gammon with pineapple and chips. I prefer dogs to cats….’ After the ten thirty drugs trolley had squeaked its way from room to room, the footsteps, voices, slamming doors and buzzing alarms in the corridor lessened. Occasionally Amy heard a patient crying or shouting but it was not like Room 8 where the poor sods with dementia wailed all night and she never slept at all.

It was in Room 8 that Amy first started seeing the visions. When she arrived they put her in the bed near the window. The day was stormy. The ambulance had lurched violently in the gusts of wind on the journey to the hospital. She’d kept hoping they would plunge off the road on one of the hairpin bends so her suffering could be over. No such luck. It was cold in Room 8. The old metal windows were draughty and Amy pulled the blanket up to her chin. She was glad she’d brought her favourite yellow cardigan to keep her warm. She’d knitted it herself, embroidering the cuffs with small blue spots. She closed her eyes and tried to rest. After a while a nurse brought her a cup of tea. When Amy looked up she suddenly saw a jagged white light pulsating around the edge of the window frame, where the aluminium met the wall. She rubbed her eyes and blinked hard but the light was still there.
“What’s that light?” she asked the nurse pointing at the window.
“It’s the sky outside”, said the nurse.
“I know that, I mean what’s that white light streaming around the window?”
Amy looked up at the ceiling where there was a ventilation vent. To her astonishment strange rays of light were filtering through the metal grid. It looked like a scene from Star Trek.
“And up there, look!” she said to the nurse. “Can’t you see it? It’s like the wind coming in. I can see the wind!”
“There’s nothing there pet”, the nurse said. “It’s not Christmas you know. No fairy lights for you.”
Amy heard her go out into the corridor and say “The new one’s seeing fairy lights and she hasn’t even had her morphine yet!” Then laughter.

Amy hoped the lights would go away. She didn’t like seeing things other people couldn’t see. Did it mean she was on the verge of death or insanity? The next morning she could still see the lights but more faintly, wavering like thin silver strands. She tried not to look and never mentioned it to anyone again.

After Amy moved into her single room the weird lights vanished. She squinted at the window and tried hard to see something special but no, it was all completely ordinary. But then one day she was taken downstairs on a trolley for a CT scan. The lift was crammed with people, people of various age, race and build but one thing united them. They were all illuminated. Waves of intense colour pulsed from each human body, as if they all emanated a personal aurora as spectacular as the northern lights. Blues, greens, purples, all the colours of the rainbow. Tears welled in Amy’s eyes, not from her pain but from the beauty of each translucent soul standing shoulder to shoulder in the lift. She felt their hopes, dreams and fragility as concretely as she could see the nicotine stained fingers of the porter as he pressed the button for Level 1. When the lift doors opened the scene changed. People dispersed in different directions and they were back to being dull, normal humans.

When Steve came to visit, clutching a carrier bag full of photos of his ex-wife for Amy to admire, she tried to tell him about the life-affirming experience in the lift. He interrupted her story by saying it must be her drugs and could he have some please? After that, every time he texted to say he was on his way to the hospital she replied she was too tired for visitors. One time he turned up without texting and she pretended to be asleep. He never came again.

Amy’s evenings in Room 1 became more solitary but she didn’t mind. She didn’t watch the small TV which was set so high on the wall that it hurt her neck to look. Instead she would ask the nurse to open the window. It would only open about four inches to prevent suicides but that was enough to let the scent of rain and the sounds of the street into her room. Amy loved the birds who sang at night, their song mingling with the traffic noise, sirens and raucous drunks staggering home from the pub. One night she heard a man shouting“fuck off” over and over again at seagulls who were screaming loud enough to wake the dead. She imagined him out there with his bag of chips and the birds circling around.

Every night as her room darkened Amy would switch on the small spot lamp by her bed. One by one moths drifted through the open window forming an iridescent cloud in the pool of light. She liked to watch their hypnotic dance until she fell asleep. When she woke in the morning she found moths of every hue adorning her pillow like precious jewels. The nurses complained, some of them were afraid of winged creatures and ran shrieking from the room. The ward manager said it was unhygienic and in future the window must be kept closed at night.

On Amy’s last night she begged the kind Polish nurse to open the window.

“Just one more time,” Amy pleaded.

In the morning when the nurse brought breakfast Amy had vanished, her hospital gown cast off on the bed. A kaleidoscope of moths filled the room, shimmering over the walls, the ceiling and every surface. The largest and brightest was yellow marked with tiny blue spots. She was the first to leave, leading the others and fluttering out into the fresh cold air.

Amongst the Flutterers was first published on The Purple Hermit blog about a year ago under a pseudonym and in the second issue of The Haar.

photo by the author

Life

I am always astounded by the strength of life force in nature if unhindered by human activity, the pollution of drugs and chemicals. A few weeks ago I cut a couple of branches from my Woolly Willow tree (yes, it’s really called that or Salix Lanata if you want to be formal). They were covered in gorgeous catkins and made a stunning statement in a vase in my hallway. When I decided to throw them out I was surprised to see they had grown roots so now they are destined for a new life in the garden next to their mother tree. Happy trees! I have many different willow trees; scarlet, golden, black, purple, Swiss, a ground cover variety, one that has spectacular black catkins in the spring. It is a wild, windy and wet location and yet they thrive. Branches may break off in a storm but they go on undaunted. If only we humans could do the same.

The Darkening

Shadows rooted in the sour
grooves that framed
her mouth. Invisible at first,
they bloomed in the living
map of her face, festered
in the lines on her brow,
in the web of crow’s feet
perched on cheekbones
and in every pore
of once perfect skin.
Within the purple moons
beneath shuttered eyes
darkness multiplied
spread along the wrinkles
of her neck, the valley
between breasts, the soft
folds of belly and genitals,
filling hollows and dimples
right down to the pink tips
of her toes. Eventually
shadows enveloped her
like a miasmic cloak.
In the mirror she saw
memories of memories
and not the shudder
of dust she had become.
In the street, folk saw
a swirl of fog and not
a woman named Margot.
They walked straight
through her and shivered.
Her words became a wild
keening of wind, creatures
of night her only friends.
Bats, moths, owls gathered
safe in her twilight wake.

Image created by the author

Home is Where the Heart Stops

Part one

The smell hit her the instant she opened the door. A mix of cats, geraniums and cigarettes. Isabel hated smoking and potted geraniums in equal measure. She didn’t own a cat. She shoved the mountain of accumulated mail out of the way with her crutch. The paramedic placed her bags inside the hall and disappeared down the overgrown path without saying goodbye, still grumbling about how you were only allowed one piece of luggage in an ambulance.

Isabel closed the door behind her and locked it. Her hands shook and her heart threw summersaults of joy to be home, in her own private space, finally away from the prying eyes and probing fingers of the white coats. She’d thought this day would never come. She’d thought it was over, the end of the road, kaputt, finito, nothing left except bedpans, pain and humiliation. No future except days lying in her own stink, face down in a bowl of hospital porridge while the fat lady sang.

Panting with exertion she shuffled slowly into the living room and sank into the cane chair by the French doors that faced onto the garden. She’d missed her mountains, the light and emptiness of the vast sky. Her solitary room on Ward 3A looked out onto a brick wall. She couldn’t see the sky at all, not even a sliver. The only way she could tell if the sun was shining was by the light reflecting in the brickwork, the changes in hue. On a bright day the bricks gleamed like tiger’s eye. On a grey day they were a dull flesh pink.

Now Isabel surveyed her garden, still marvellous despite the weeds and rampant lawn. The hollyhocks blazed magenta. The roses drooped with lush scarlet blooms, the honeysuckle smothered the archway and on the horizon Morven and Scaraben glowed purple in the evening sun. She sat there for a long while, just breathing, in, out, in, out. She was alive. She was home. No one could hurt her now.

And then she saw the boots. Dirty workmen’s boots placed casually in the middle of the kilim rug she’d brought back from Turkey. They were caked with mud, one boot tilted as if they’d been cast off in a hurry, the soles worn, the brown leather wrinkled with age. Her chest tightened in panic and she scanned the room for other signs of disturbance. Everything seemed much as she’d left it the day of the accident other than a layer of dust and a few cobwebs. There were books and magazines in a tidy pile on the coffee table, logs stacked by the wood burner and dead daffodils in a stained glass vase on the window sill. Her grandmother’s vintage clock had stopped at five to five.

Isabel couldn’t bear to touch the disgusting boots with her bare hands so she nudged them closer with her crutch. One of them tipped over and a tiny square of paper fell out. Leaning unsteadily from her chair she picked it up and unfolded it with trembling fingers.

Written in red biro on a torn piece of graph paper was just one word, ‘remember’.

To be continued…

image 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

Your Poem

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.

 

DA0F65A6-F2EC-427E-B920-2F548E04232C
Photo by the author