The man in the bed
across from me
It is not gentle.
He is 92 years old,
used to work on building sites,
He knows what year it is,
the name of the prime minister,
can count backwards from twenty.
He’s unsure of the time of day.
The nurse tells him not to worry,
she’s no idea either.
Locked behind a pane of blue,
the masks hot and claustrophobic.
The needle not going in
and when it does,
the blood not coming out.
I wouldn’t call this coughing,
it sounds as if his lungs
are twisting inside out.
Still he manages to say
his wife has emphysema,
no one to care for her
if he’s not there.
The doctor tells him
we’ll worry about that later.
But with each painful, rasping breath,
I can hear that he is worrying now.
I was cycling as a child
when dread gripped my handlebars.
Though the traffic was ordinary
and slow, I had in my bones
the conviction something terrible
had happened. I raced home,
rushing in covered in sweat
and panic, to find you in the kitchen
stirring the gravy for dinner.
You paused at my wild eyes,
frozen stock still for a moment,
like a photograph, before I insisted
it was nothing, nothing at all.
You died young of a disease
that spread through the years
till I was surgically slipping
through ice. Scared and alone,
I suddenly remembered,
nearly three decades later,
that moment when I did not understand
what was wrong. The wheels
spinning through a crack in time.
All that we can never know.
The moon rises above the tree,
pain slices down my back.
I am a tiny glass sliver,
tight with shivering.
Though the night is a warm blanket
and that silver sphere is full
with the promise of a summer
of fresh pine needles, bicycle rides,
piano notes falling past midnight
when the war is over.
Parties in the street,
luggage tag children returned.
A song of such longing
for the four o’clock in the morning
mouthing of your name.
If only I dared to send a postcard
from this land of broken shells,
shining under an attack of plague,
so you could see what I see
through the dark square of the window.
There were platform heels across cobblestones,
a vodka bottle sunk like a stone. Cowboys and angels,
sailing across the specks on the carpet,
the sitting room spinning glitter ball broken fish tanks
as we danced till four am. The rain in the moonlit street,
boys thinner than shadows. Saucer kisses,
aeroplane tickets, always on the edge of goodbye.
We were so fucking gorgeous if only we’d known.
You run down the hill,
as you get further
and further from me,
till you vanish
behind a bush
of white bloom
waving in surrender.
This not being
in my sight
the old panic
so I pick up speed,
turn the corner,
and there is nothing,
just the yellow field
under the vastness
of a bright blue sky.
The breeze is laughing
as my heart
skips and skids
over the emptiness.
I shout your name.
You suddenly jump up
from your hiding place
amongst the flowers.
These days of sudden apple blossom
and a ball thrown high into a sky of clouds
swirled through forget me not blue
are detached from the endless aeroplane
telephone calls, late night urgent
meetings about meetings.
They sing of the stream passing
over stone, hawks holding
their breath, the horse
glittering in the field.
Your laughter in all its fragility,
the clocks caught in our throats.
How very small we really are.
The path strikes
through a sea of yellow,
how high the tide
these last few days.
We sweep through
to a house
left to a broken cowshed,
but still piercing
the sky with an alarm
that scatters crows,
black question marks.
sneaking round the back.
Inside the surprise
of the Royal Air Force truck,
brand new, as if the war
in remote pockets
of these rolling fields.
The bombs ticking
in our hearts.
The enemy silent, invisible,
flying over at night
when sleep is
that will not open.
Out walking in the woods, you suddenly announce,
there’s no such thing as dragons. I try to suggest
maybe long ago, back in prehistoric times,
just after dinosaurs. But you’re insistent
they’re just fairy tales, St George never
slew one, no creature could breathe fire.
I think of Puff weeping in his cave
and a grief for all those winged wonders
nearly brings me to my knees.
The things that little boys believe,
or nearly hold true, as that evening
you sob over the loss
of my time travelling machine.
How you wish we could find it back,
how neither of us are sure if those adventures
really happened or if teddy bears can talk.
You murmur, quietly in the dark, maybe all of life
is just made up, maybe I’m not real,
or you’re not there, maybe we’ll wake up
and none of this will have existed.
The miracle of how, at seven,
you can be so very young
and so very old at the same time.
I kiss your forehead, saying sleep now,
let’s keep dreaming for as long as we can.
Snake streets in which love is stripped back
to a silent desert empty of soldiers.
You can have too much beauty.
I am queen of the deserted sky trains,
the roads that repeat their quarantine crossings.
Empires fall but this kiss of poison seeps back
across borders. When is it time to let go?
My skin slides free, curls into a question
of shoes, the cutting of hair. I wear my masks
in a city suspended, prisons in small boxes.