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.
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
The dog named Black Balls watched
from a safe distance as Ivan shoveled
manure at Tundra Corner. Stripped
to the waist, sweat beading his grand
moustache, lush despite his eighty years.
When he found the gold ring he stopped
dead, yelled ‘охуеть!’ and then ‘соси хуй!’
The hens fled to the moonshine shed.
The vintage wedding ring, twenty two carat
and inscribed forever, lingered like winter
sunsets in the empty Heinz soup tin
where Ivan kept his razor and comb.
One morning as he waxed his Stalinesque
twirls before the tarnished mirror
he finally decided on the rich widow
with the plump rump from Paradise Farm.
Note:- I am unsure of the accuracy of the Russian swear words so if anyone can advise their help would be appreciated!
My lady waits in the wall
papered over by skeletal hands.
She withers lilies with one eye
and blue ivy winds her hair.
Her holy cheeks crumble
like old plaster of Paris
but not her secret vows.
Restless but unseen, she stirs
death to do our parting.
The Scots language has a perfect word to describe winter in the north highlands. ‘Dreich’ (pronounced /dri:x/) is an adjective mostly used in relation to the weather. It translates as bleak, dull, dreary, grey, comfortless, cold, overcast, miserable. At least four of these conditions must apply for a day to qualify as truly dreich. The origins of the word come from the Middle English ‘dreig, drih’ in the sense of ‘patient, long-suffering’ and correspond to the Old Norse ‘drjugr’ – enduring and lasting.
Certainly a great deal of endurance is necessary to survive a Scottish winter. The endless grey skies and lack of light can be depressing. I find my energy levels dwindle and I just want to hibernate at home, huddled by the fire. But there’s also a strange beauty in the dreich days, a potential for change. When the mist dissolves and the clouds blow away the light will be brighter than ever. Who knows what will be revealed. Something fresh is germinating but we need to be patient. It is a transition period between the old and the new, a time that can be used for self-reflection and healing.
Here are two of my favourite dreich photographs. The first shows the section of an old gate leading to an overgrown field. The second shows the windows of a disused filling station. As well as the empty shelves you can see the reflection of a minimalist landscape. If you look really hard you might see me.