1933 Babushka kept a pig in the bathtub while the Red Army raided barns and larders enforcing Holodomor. Out on the Kiev streets stick bodies staggered, bloated and staining snowdrifts like squashed bluebottles.
The children named the pig Nina against their mother’s warnings. Come slaughter day they waited on the balcony with scarves tight round their ears but the screams rang loud and their tears froze.
1974 The British three day week; fish, chips by candlelight. I strutted my hot pants to Bowie and Bolan on Pirate Radio; sniggered when Papa built secret shelves inside the chimney breast to hide tins of flour, sugar, rice, pasta and preserves.
Babushka, me and Mama chopped and shredded cabbage, carrots, onions like swathes of virgin lace spilling over the yellow table, pickled in old sweetie jars with faded labels. The blue room soured with the stink of vinegar.
2020 The year of Covid 19; I empty bookcases, arrange tins of soup, sweetcorn and tuna. Lockdown. The silent sky tumbles sapphire and stags browse my garden. Their antlers spark a murder of crows spooling from the willows.
When the amber light fades to dusk ghosts come knocking at my door. I look out at a deserted street, counting down every wavering heart beat. In the still mountain night I hear the echo of Babushka cheering.
Everything is more beautiful in retrospect. Sometime between the sepia past, the grey today and the flash of tomorrow truth slips away unseen, a tangle of electric eels squirming in an underground stream.
We look back and see only clear skies and carefree picnics but never the cold. We look back and feel only tender kisses and the soft caress but never the blows. We look back and remember nothing.
Break-time. The English sip milk through a straw, crunch crisps.
I am the foreign kid, cornered by Miss Blowers, stick the tip
between your teeth. The them there this. The they them, like this.
Her tongue protrudes from her mouth like a sliver of salami. De dem dare dis. De dey dem, like dis, I repeat.
Miss Blowers holds Noddy and the Magic Rubber. Her sharp
fingernails tap the cover; rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat. Thwack.
I am crowned with Noddy. I detonate with pain and shame. The they them there this. The they them! roars Miss Blowers.
My tongue strikes, three thunderous thumps, thanks.
Back home Mama prepares borscht, slicing beetroots, carrots,
Chop, chop, chop into small. Her knife slides through red
flesh with no resistance, taps as it hits the chopping board. Don’t like bosh, says I. Not de bosh, but de borscht! says Mama. Not de borscht but the borscht and out comes my tongue.
It was a time of velvet love,
revolution and Snakebite.
My mother gave me beige
polo necks and warned
of the dangers of touching.
My summer job yielded
a red dress from Bus Stop
with a plunging neckline
and a scalloped hem that swirled
when I twirled to Bowie and Bolan
alone in my room, rehearsing
my poses with a feather boa.
I met him on the landing of a cold
terraced in Queensbury, queuing
for the loo and giddy with homebrew.
He pretended to take my picture
with an imaginary camera, squinting
and clicking his tongue. You look like
what’s her name from Pan’s People,
he said as he kissed my neck. He wore
a peacock feather in his blonde locks
and a guitar with a tartan strap. His lips
were curvaceous like Bryan Ferry’s.
He called himself Fritz and a pacifist.
My mother was ironing father’s
socks, underpants and cotton shirts
when I got in, the steam clouding
the kitchen with a choking mist.
She didn’t look up when I gave her
the peacock feather. It’s pretty, I said. Some call it the evil eye, she replied.
Next day it was tucked behind her
gilded wedding photo on the shelf
with the candles and the broken clock.
We drift in the wind, nomadic, elusive,
mercurial as scraps of tinsel, we hunt
human gatherings, crossing forests, seas
and cities, passing from home to home
we reap your memories, your secrets
that doze like fish in a torpid pool.
Small, almost invisible, you mistake
us for sunbeams, for insects floating
in the sultry night, for snow melting
on your child’s face or candle light
glinting in your lover’s eyes. We are
constant as the air you breathe, entering
your nasal passages, your mouth, seeping
into your skin and every private cavity.
We grub deep into the coils of grey
where you hide. Without you we are empty
as a church without the presence of God.
We can’t love. We can’t hate. We can’t sing.
So when you reach the top of the stairs
and forget why you are there, when you fail
to recall your mother’s voice or the taste
of beer, when you forget the meal you ate
ten minutes before and your own name,
please don’t mind too much.