Years of Living Dangerously

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.

Babushka UK 1960s

History

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.

The Honeypot

The Avon lady lived at Number 5.
She wore black stockings and a loose beehive.
On Saturday evenings she energised
weaving down the street, wiggling her behind.

Laced up in my blue book-strewn room I heard
her singing Elvis songs and swigging beer
straight from the bottle, unladylike cheer.
Her lipstick crimson, her complexion clear.

At midnight stilettos tapped a morse code
for I’m alive and in love, don’t you know?
as she zig-zagged home, teddy boy in tow
rousing me from nightmares of frogs and toads.

I watched the lovers from my curtained screen
as they kissed and smooched by the apple trees
and I wondered why she was on her knees
while he softly moaned, begging please, please, please.

The Avon lady buzzed up at our door
each month with her sample box, treats galore;
Here’s my Heart, Persian Wood, Wishing, Rapture,
To a Wild Rose – desire choked our parlour.

Mam always chose Lily of the Valley,
innocent and not for whores, she proclaimed
eyeing me down in my navy school plains
as I sniffed each little bottle and prayed.

Avon lady thought me a Topaz girl.
Her warm scented touch on my wrist burned
like the bee stings of her loosening curls
so my honeycomb heart melted and yearned.

 

50E46099-D7FD-417F-AF78-D19C62E1EA9A
Image created by the author

Noddy Speaks in Tongues

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.

 

18B83045-BDEC-4E3C-A31B-12F9A8BE7C46
A Light Bulb Moment- photo by the author

 

 

 

The Other Side

Somewhere in the Hambleton Hills
I took a right turn down a track not
on any map and edgy with yesterday.

Like Alice I plunged down a tunnel
of yellow gorse, silver birch and rocks
that had danced in the Book of Genesis.

A large pink dog, the sort that calls
a spade a spade was waiting by a stream
where the track vanished in a tangle

of weeping willows and a warning sign
Check depth before entering. Deep water
and shadows beckoned. The dog wagged

his tail in approval and I saw beyond
the ford; a fertile valley and sheep
like ballerinas in tutus and a rainbow

house on a hill in a dazzle of sublime
clouds. I saw a smiling face and a hand
waving, an orchard and a rose garden.

I smelled strawberries, fresh bread
and wood smoke. The whispers of leaves
and birdsong drifted on the breeze.

The dog waited, his eyes wary as hope
while I considered the darkness
of the crossing and judged it too deep.

 

 

FA9F33AC-22D7-4E8C-B426-5A2A49F2FA35

 

 

 

Peacock Blues

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.

 

 

E3808292-4820-44BB-8C2E-35ADA9A2CBB8

 

 

Rehab

finally                       upright
and                            braced
swinging                  dead
legs                            between
parallel                     bars
I                                  struggle
towards                    reflections
of                               myself
one                            step
after                          another
says                           physio
walk                          tall
says                           physio
good                          girl
says                           physio
visiting                     hour
enter                         mother
face                           crumpled
and                            pale
my                             baby
is                               broken
she                            says

 

 

7F70DB2A-444F-48A3-958C-35B6AE534946

The Borrowers

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.

 

A1920991-C02B-4EEE-B52A-860673010DD4
Image created by the author

 

Closure

Time and lavender do not heal
your marks like a signature at my door.

My plastic skin splits beneath flaking
layers of paint. Wind and rain penetrate

my openings. No one hears the alarm
and soon decay sets in. The floor

sags underfoot, the walls are festooned
with festive mildew. What goes around

comes around. Time is a serpent biting
its tail, a palimpsest. If I close my eyes

real tight I see you running, a flash
of orange on green, a broken traffic light.

 

3E686330-BEB3-4F69-BC91-90B70AE74EED
Photographic image created by the author.

 

The Doctor Always Knocks Twice

Afterwards, mother offered
tea in bone china
spiked with roses, edged with gold.

The sugar tongs we never used
lay centre stage on the lace tablecloth.
His fingers struggled with the fine cup.

Mother looked away when a stain
bled across the virgin white.
In the next room, I smoothed down

the pleats of my school uniform,
pulling up my socks
as far as they would go.

 

9E80165E-0F6E-4655-9539-EF5DEC71506F
Photograph taken by the author