The wall is the shadow of a ghost
advertising the repair of fountain pens,
a long lost art now that we all steal biros.
The letters are faded to a whimsical grey
that whispers of a time of calligraphy
when we still painted our own wounds.
I feel perhaps I’m peeling too,
the flakes of chemical snow falling down.
The letters that say book blood tests,
no mention of what for.
The appointments to explain
my intimate history of disaster.
I cannot read my own warnings.
The symptoms are obscure
and the typography of surgery
haunts my small hours.
My DNA is written in a language
I do not speak, the swirls of mutations
that spell a future written backwards.
I don’t know how to translate my body,
even though they tell me I can be reconstructed.
A mural repainted brighter, bolder,
a clearer message for all to see.
Yet I sense the past scars will still be there
under layers and layers of medical science.
I never knew it would be so hard
to read the writing on the wall.
It turns out that true love
is looking up at the stars
at five in the morning
and admiring how the steam
of your dragon breath resembles
the wisp of cloud as it whispers
over their stunning brilliance.
Not because you are
on some romantic stroll
or all night party caper
but because you’ve searched
the house for Steeljaw,
a small piece of bright blue plastic
who turns from a car into a robot,
only to be told he’s in the car
and that no, your two year old
cannot wait till daylight,
not when his favourite is lost
out there in the cold and the dark.
As you zap the car closed again,
you shiver with the thought
of how it would be if you were not there
to transform his face into a smile
that eats up all the stars in the sky.
In the car park he told you
how his wife wouldn’t go to the doctor,
visited the faith healer instead,
expensive flights to England
till eventually the miracle man said,
‘there’s nothing more I can do,
take her to the hospital.’
There they explained
it was all far too late
so sent her to the hospice.
Where she stood in the doorway
of that room, the room my mother died in,
and as I passed I saw her weeping
in her daughter’s arms,
scared out of her mind
because she thought
they’d put her there to die,
which I suppose they had.
Years later when I found
the tiny lump myself,
I thought of that woman in her terror,
and how easy it is to be smug, to be sure,
to tell yourself you need surgery
and chemicals and white gowns,
when what you really want
is prayers that are answered,
soft hands promising
to make it all go away.
There is the heat of insomnia,
a certain weariness in the bones,
the uncertainty of what my body
will do to me next. But there is also
stopping to notice a perfect
heart shaped petal floating in a puddle.
I stare into its deep red till you pull my hand
to show me a woodlouse kicking his legs in the air,
a green star stuck to your finger,
a bubble caught in the grass.
We take naps together in the afternoon,
drink hot milk which I used to find disgusting,
snuggle on the sofa to share our faith
in bad guy pirates swallowed whole
by tick tock crocodiles. An awfully big adventure.
As if I were somehow so much older
and so much younger at the same time.
You bring me flowers and chocolates
and stand in my conservatory
admiring the view of the stream.
I remember how years and years ago
we went to visit a young man who was dying,
when it was too late for anything
apart from being shaken
by his father’s fragile hand.
How we sat in the pub afterwards
and you said sometimes it just makes no sense.
Your sadness was so kind
and so filled with basic human decency,
I thought we must remember what’s important,
we must remember this moment and hold on to it
no matter how many miles or children
or break ups cloud our vision.
I look at you now and I see so clearly
your gift for laughter, how you’ve come
just when I needed you, as if time
were only water floating past in the distance.
I see you perched on a ladder
at the end of our garden
plucking Victorian plums
and the pleasure you take
in sorting them into bowls
of polished purple.
It’s hard to believe we were once
hard-core cocktail swingers
stumbling home on night buses
to strum hungover songs
about our broken hearts.
Now there is fishing
before the storm breaks,
compost heaps, country walks.
Are we older? Are we wiser?
You still have glorious stories
about Sri Lankan drag queens
and first class train journeys
through whisky soaked
Marlene Dietrich celebrations.
I’m still scribbling in the face
of cancerous grief
and family disappointment.
So maybe all that’s changed
is that somewhere along the way,
despite the night terrors,
the flashbacks, the self reproach,
we found our kindred spirits,
our fellow travellers, who are able
to forgive us all our foolishness
and love us back.
You answer the door in your red dress
and a flurry of Prosecco cut glass windows
as I step into the real world once more
and am told that I look great.
Even if this is an exaggeration,
I tell myself I look well enough
that nobody would guess
how hard and long I peered into the mirror
before finding my inner Cinderella
and heading to a party in London.
Admittedly more of an afternoon
of sitting on a sofa while reminding
my little boy that your Miss Marple
is a cat that has other murders to solve.
Your so grown up girl helping him
build a fairy wonderland
that’s been rescued from her grandmother’s loft,
while your sister learns the rules
to being knocked over by kiss me better cushions.
We all admire your gift
for finding suitcases and stuffed ducklings
that somehow effortlessly say,
this is my home
and you are so very welcome
to celebrate the last of the summer
in a garden full of raindrops and friends.
There are wings in the window.
I point out the great whiteness
of the heron as he soars impossibly huge
against a sky bruised with early evening.
You say it’s already getting darker,
the summer a fish slipping through our fingers.
Our dove hotel still empty,
but the stream has a new island I have yet to see.
I think of a gangster’s sadness at wild ducks
leaving a swimming pool as I watch
the starlings steal our blueberries.
Sparrows are not grateful,
they dance in the hedges
making nests for babies who will fly away.
Still when our little boy brings us pigeon feathers,
we coo at their lightness, their freedom,
how they tickle under the chin.
I think maybe this sickness,
this nearly losing everything,
is a kind of migration,
a mirror that never stays still,
words written on water.
And at last I have a home,
a place to float back to.
So Sunday morning nearly three weeks after my mastectomy,
we sit in bed and you point at my pyjama top
saying ‘I want to see your boo boo.’
As if to let me know the sudden closing of bathroom doors
and secret showers have not gone unnoticed.
I hesitate before slowly unbuttoning.
You’re two years old, please don’t let this scar you for life,
the Halloween deformity of the dissolving stitches
where once there was warmth and comfort.
You consider what’s missing for a long moment.
Then you say ‘it looks like a smile.’
And of course it does, the long sweep
swirling upwards at each end, though this
would never have occurred to me in a million years.
I could nearly weep with gratitude
but you’re already on to the next game.
I’m wandering through a series of rooms shouting for my brother.
I know the house is haunted but I can’t see any ghosts.
Just a feeling of great danger that shimmers in the white walls.
There are shots and a note I can’t read.
I run to another house where nobody cares.
I wake thinking these are the nightmares I had as a child.
Endless corridors in homes that refused to stay still.
Walls closing in. Losing myself in the paper mirrors.
A voice in my head that sounds disappointed.
Creatures creeping out of the television.
A fruit market where my parents disappear.
Everyone talks about courage, strength,
keeping positive. Only you cry out
for me at four in the morning,
curling your head in my lap
and clutching your panda,
only you know that I’m still afraid
of the monster under the bed.