- Vol. 02
- Chapter 11
You couldn’t speak English when you arrived. Not much. After you crossed the Channel, queasy with homesickness and seasickness, they brought you to the children’s camp at Harwich and you couldn’t explain to them why you weren’t well.
There were children everywhere – like you – wearing numbers on cords around their necks. There was a man checking the tags as you walked by.
It was February and fog came off the water. The air smelled like coal smoke and salt. You carried your suitcase into one of the cabins. You had the top bunk, a scratchy blanket. The other children were everywhere, and this was where you were going to stay.
There was a dining hall. You were at one of the boy’s tables. They brought out beef soup, bitter black tea, soft white bread. There were hundreds of you.
You had this idea of England and what was going to happen here. But this wasn’t it. The sky was grey and the gulls always screeched. And one by one, the boys were sent to families in Leeds, and Loughborough, and Liverpool. You were not.
Finally, they told you – you were going to Dagenham. There was a big house there, an old man who would look after you and the other boys who were left.
When you walked from the house to the High Street, the kerchiefed ladies and flat-capped men frowned, or smiled stiffly, or looked away. They could see you were one of the refugees. They walked to work at the Ford plant; you went to the technical college each day. Read more >
Father took pleasure seekers out in a boat along the coast. The trip lasted a little over two hours, across the Bay to the lighthouse and back. I collected fares: the silver sixpences of the pleasure seekers, in a bucket I otherwise used for crabbing. Janey liked to come and see us off. My sister was what people in those days referred to as an ‘imbecile’. Mother said it was on account of the way Janey came out, with the cord wrapped around her neck like a hang man’s noose. It made her turn blue as the salt wrapper in a bag of crisps. The mid wife nearly didn’t save her.
Janey was loved. She grew to be a beautiful young woman, in spite of the way she was…When people remarked on how beautiful my sister looked, mother used to stare into nothing and mumble nature is cruel that way. Janey drooled a lot. She waved her arms up and down as seagulls do when they are defending. She never spoke a word any of us could understand, only squawked. Other kids made fun of her, soon had her christened the ‘gull- girl’. Father taught her to swim, well it was more doggy paddle than swim really. He’d take her out to waist deep, cradle her in his arms, then let the water lift her until she floated. The sea was Janey’s medicine, father said. It kept her calm. Happy days…
When I became older, father encouraged me to better myself, leave Yorford Bay and see more of what the world had to offer. I joined the navy. The war came, and I survived it, but that is a different story for another time. Mother and father were killed when the post office got flattened by a German bomb; the Luftwaffe often dumped bombs on east coast towns like ours before heading across the North Sea on their return leg. Janey ended up in an Institution. They looked after her well, so far as I could measure, but not long before the war ended, she died. I decided to scatter her ashes where we were happiest. Read more >
Shoes and socks off, strip down quick, flesh smarting against a cool summer breeze. Shingle stabs our tender soles. A million billion tiny stones. A galaxy, a universe: infinity between the shore and the esplanade.
Fred’s got his bucket. We race to the water, breathless, laughing. Anticipating the shock, clenching my fists, I hear the rush of wave on pebble on wave on pebble on wave on pebble and take the first steps in. And then I’m ankle-deep and standing still against the tide.
I wash my lungs in brackish air. Fred’s behind me, squealing with each new surge of icy water. He's chattering on about how he’ll have his own pleasure boat one day, and charge folk five bob for rides. I don’t say a word. I just stand firm and let my blood cool.
Fred’s too young to remember that Mam used to come in too. We’ve not been back since last June, since the day we brought her to see the sea for the last time. By then, the cough was constant torture, relentless. A storm she couldn’t weather. Like drowning on dry land.
I turn towards the sea wall. Dad’s there, trousers rolled up, blanket out. I see him eyeing the picnic I packed. Sandwiches made and wrapped in brown paper. Three hard-boiled eggs. A tea loaf, baked this morning, like she would’ve.
Not yet, Dad. Not yet.
I watched them flap their victory wings but there's nothing to celebrate. They might have sailed aimlessly for a few laps of the ponds pretending they were round the world yachtsmen but they were still what they were. Layabouts. Good for nothings. Wastrel musicians. Boozers. Boys in long trousers that their sisters haven't bothered to line at the hem. Men with imaginary hope. Boys looking up to them. I didn't want that for my son. Wishing and wanting and believing.
Call me harsh if you want but I sent him down to the fake shore that those dream merchants dug only last year and told him to catch some fish for tea. I knew there was only pike. He had thoughts of cod and of pilchards that didn't come from a tin. I put his imaginings in the bucket I gave him and said 'go catch what you can son'. I watched from the edge of the trees where the shadows covered my face. Not that he was looking at me, so blinking intrigued was he by the 'crew' onboard the Ship of Fools of Hollow bloody Ponds. He wanted to be them when he grew up no doubt.
He tried not to stare at them, them sat in the boat going nowhere now. Saw them get drunker and sway more than if they were really at sea. I could see it go from his eyes bit by bit, even though he had his back to me. Then some of the scales of wonder fell right off and landed in his bucket swilling round with the sand brought in from the Essex coast.
After an hour or so of him messing about with his rod and bucket pretending to catch non-existent fish I picked myself up and told him to wait for me. I marched right up the jetty as if it was a mile long of barnacled sturdiness rooted in the ocean for years. Read more >
When the sun sets
At the other side of the sea
He sees beyond the breeze
Sits in the multitude of other slaves
With hand against his cheek,
Thinks throughout the
Night and finds his soul wailing.
He has no vivid reason why he
Joined the boat – where he has come to?
He’s unsure what the
Sunrise shall bring tomorrow
Except for the shocks of the waves:
Every time it hits the shorelines
And eats up the sand,
He learns that tomorrow
Is not safe.
Anticipation hung like notes in the air, massaged by banjo, fiddle and voice.
Not only did Hector keep her waiting but he sent the whole damn band to welcome her. Father was not pleased. He trod the boards, itching for sign of arrival, a message, anything. Peering beyond the shore with a desperate gaze he beckoned Catherine back to the boat. Time to leave.
Children began to dance and sing along with the band. The hull of each ship echoed a dull rhythm below the waves, feet tapping a welcome to those living both land and sea.
Catherine couldn’t wait another year. Father couldn’t afford to do so but had face to keep, and Hector had made a promise. Promises must be kept. Here, promises outlive us all.
‘Katrin! Katrin wait!’ a voice called from beyond the pier. Dougald came running toward them with a bottle and a note inside, placed it in Catherine’s hands and whispered ‘He's here’.
Molly stands, pensive, in the shallows. She is shivering all over but probably doesn't realise. She probably doesn't see the boat and its well-dressed occupants, going a-boating as Aunt Margot would say once upon a time, or two weeks ago. Aunt Margot would discuss them all loudly over tea, the styles of their sleeves, their strings of pearls and what colour ribbon surrounded Mildred Clacey's hat. She doesn't discuss them anymore.
Molly ignores them, ignores the first strains of music drawn from the guitar's strings. She ignore everything. She can't face the world right now. I have to face it; it's my only way to get by. The sea, sky, shouts and music. But not the laughter. I shut the laughter out.
I know it will come, from across the beach, the shouts of "Jimmy, Molly, come in." Father's uniform, which he never changed out of after he came rushing back from the Colonies. He shoved a bucket in my hand, a spade in Molly's, said to get down to the beach and stay there until he called us back. He wouldn't let us see her.
The sounds of the guitar trickle out. They aren't sad, like Aunt Margot's violin. I thought they would sound like that. But they are so... so full. Rich. Deep. Shaking with not quite joy and not quite grief. Read more >
onlookers in a new land.
How many nights at sea-
sleep wrecked by kicking fortune?
Haggard from days without shelter,
no work nor safety-
They speak many languages:
of poverty, fear and desperation.
Dressed not to offend, even apologetic
to the right people-
To our children
they are aloof, cold even:
no laughter spilled
for months or years-
hard to understand?
I trespass dry land to decant my joy
You have been there once, remember
when you walked with your head held high?
your shoes, polished to shine -
two tiny jewels to ornament your leather-clad feet
I will grow up to be like you
and I cannot hope to hold on to
every dream I carry
Because I do not know what it is not to dream
and to be merry -
a boy holding a bucket
to be filled with drops of laughter and lough.
I run to the water to salute it all:
beatified, well-nigh and within reach.
With a handshake, a smile and a drink.
Instead it’s the threat of arrests
With which we welcome all our guests.
Or rather, the ones on hellish quests –
Brown people who didn't conveniently sink.
Would that we welcome all our guests
With a handshake, a smile and a drink.
It was the day I met my first Syrian
We traded seashells
and bits of colored china and weathered glass
I did not speak Syrian
He did not speak the Queen's English
But we had great fun
And he pointed to his mummy and daddy
And said the only two words he knew
The boats kept coming
Hundreds walked past us
Into the evening
As the sun set on Brighton Beach
"Dad, how long until we reach the new world?"
"We will be in America soon," he said and patted my head.
We never made it there. We hit a rain storm that threw the boat over. People screamed, then their heads went under the water and silence. My dad had me hold onto a piece of wood that broke off the boat. There wasn't enough room for him and he slipped under the sea never to be seen again. I was chilled, hungry and stunned. Was my father really gone? My hands shook from the cold, but I held on tight to the wood for support. I did as my father told me before he disappeared into the deep ocean. After what seemed like an eternity, a ship picked up what remaining survivors were left and took us back to our hometown. Relatives who I didn't recall, took care of me and said my father was a heroic man. That was all I remembered of that time.
I watched the people in the boats, wishing I could join them on their cruise . The man playing the banjo called a cheery "Hello" to me. I waved.
The waves rippled in, the boats bobbed a little and rocked with the music.
Next time I'll go deeper into the sea and swim, I'll go on a boat and feel the thrill of the sea moving beneath me.
When I'm older.
Mum called to warn me " Stay close to the edge, take care!"
I was nervous, it was my first time. I was too young.
But next time.......
in the Vestry House Museum
There’s always something haunting
about the brass color of sea, that tint
of uncertainty hidden in the waves.
Water softens the man’s voice—better
heard in the amphitheater hills overlooking
the bay, just as physics says it would.
Sound travels faster over water, but do
his words, even mixing with the salt, work
their way any quicker into their hearts?
Town officials on the hill simply sneer
at his words. They say nothing good
ever comes from his part of town. Yet
the well-dressed man continues to preach
his mission, to inform the crowds, to warn
them of the coming storm of lies
from adversaries. His close friends huddle
in the back of the boat, play a sweet surrender,
music for his words—all doubt about his power
strums away on strings—violins and violas—
and with the simple chants—voice, an instrument
The reasons for looking were always serendipitous – sneaking into the room to hunt for hidden Easter Eggs or Christmas presents or later to borrow a bag from mum’s extensive collection. Or when Dad died; ending up laughing and crying after a mournful afternoon clearing out his clothes and bagging up for the charity shop. Stopping and tipping out the bag to come upon memories of holidays past, parties (so many parties!), the photo of him scoring a goal in which he is a tiny figure in the periphery – but of which he was so proud. An unforeseen reminiscence project that helped to break up the procession of grim tasks that always ensue after the activity of funeral arranging abates.
This particular photo is the subject of dispute – it might be any one of a number of distant relatives. Not an uncle or aunt, the shapes that they made in photos were always instantly recognisable to their siblings even if their faces were not visible. Even after many years, something about an arm or a tilt of the head was known and identified as ‘us’. Read more >
Dad was my world. I love Mum, but I worshipped Dad. He was always so calm and reassuring. No matter how bleak things were, he could always find a positive element, a way of comforting or at least making me laugh. I remember coming home from school one day in tears: Sister Agnes had brought a ruler down on the back of my hand because I got the fingering wrong on the B flat scale.
'Never mind,’ he said, 'The B flat scale and I will give you a round of applause when you've got it right. Because you will get it right, you know.’ It didn't seem so bad after that, and I did love my music, then. Like I used to love the river.
that you could move the ocean inside a bucket
and calm Neptune’s infidelity.
Barefoot and mute,
you’re going nowhere, just as we
are destined to drift.
Yet we have the winds
and our guitar player to entertain us;
you have a cold,
and will be left behind
in an untold tale of infant mortality
while we move on, undaunted.
Once upon a time, I knew two truths: I’d join the police and I’d marry Franki. I decided the latter the day she laughed at me for wearing a jumper to the beach. She ran in and out of the water, gathering treasures until she turned blue. Because I couldn’t stand the sound of her chattering teeth, I gave her my jumper. She carried her magpie possessions home in my bucket.
On the wrong side of the cell door, Franki remains silent. But the evidence speaks for itself.
Scientist: Dr.Hadgrove, delighted the people of East Gooner yesterday when he returned from his trip abroad to unknown lands. His eightereen pulled alongside the pier to the tune of 'Laissez-faire' (played by the local Skeens Regiment) to which he stood in prompt anticipation and respect.
The Mayor, Cliff Mitchell, shook his hand, remarking that it appeared 'Smooth as the Counts' and they then had their picture taken by a Mr.A Blackwood, (photographer) with the sea featuring as a natural backdrop.
Dr. Hadgrove made a small speech:
"I am returned from a journey of mystical significance and it is the result of years of contemplation and hard work from my team. The vast and numerous Islands of Rannaga are now successfully infected, we now await the fruits of our labour. Thank-you all."
A round of applause erupted from the gaggle of people who arrived in the nick of time, after hearing he was to make an early landing. Business men, workers, housewives and children lifted their palms to congratulate a spectacular achievement after such a long and dangerous journey across the sea.
Two eager children were spotted heading towards Dr. Hadgrove, one with a bucket, in the hope of him bringing home some spoils to which Dr.Hadgrove replied:
I got my bucket and spade and ran to the shore to watch the last of them leave. Mr Roche was there with his wife and it was hard to feel any pity for him in particular. I just couldn’t do it. I picked up a pebble and threw it at him. I missed by miles but nobody noticed. My sister turned to me then and said, “All will be great now. Wait and see!” I sat down on the beach and dug a hole deeper than I was ever allowed before and I looked up now and then to watch the grown-ups, sailing away, growing smaller, down to our size, then smaller still.
We would rule ourselves, care for ourselves, and gorge on chocolate and stay up late and play football on the streets under the stars, safely. No more homework, no more toothpaste, no more orthopaedic insoles. We’d have televisions in our bedrooms and have them up loud. Music would blare. We could pick our noses if we liked. We could eat it.
The band plays the victory march.
My eyes freeze
as I step into the icy water.
I have seen the light!
The glory sprint,
the row to victory.
The tide advances and
the years wash me smooth.
Sifting through the sands,
I trace the random flotsam
of a life
to this fully formed moment;
the glory march.
Nor back to fellow Sunday-suited warriors
Our armada of correctness, paused and stalled
As we invade an alien landscape
I stand, the Forlorn Hope in this No Man’s Land
Of adult inhibitions,
Mocked by laughing sands, the Company Man
Who can no longer sing another song
Father squalled, and called out my name, asking me to reach without fail.
Its full father, with so many people on it, I exclaimed
Don’t bother, just sit down, I promise you won’t be maimed!
The sand on the shore, and the stones hurting my feet
Handed me a collection of shells so neat!
The girl next to me is trying to make way
Moving a little forward and ready for the sway!
The bucket in my hand
And the thrill in my eyes
All set to leave
This city full of spies!
Thousands of sailors have come together
Giving wings and not just feather
Wandering their hearts, chasing their dreams
Filled with hope and a fighting spirit it seems!
It’s going to be a bouncy way ahead
Rippling and riding over its head
In some hours, I’ll be at the other end of the world
So close to my desires, ready to be unfurled!
It happened all in a jiffy
Hoping it doesn’t get iffy! Coming so close to what I’ve always wanted
Just a little more effort, my heart said undaunted
You’re very close to your destination
Get ready for this incredible revelation
For giving up will leave nothing in your hand
So keep your head high and take your own stand!
(Especially when its staining brown the sea)
It always makes me weepier, this"
-- She went on, whilst draining down her tea --
"...Is because it stirs up visions of the past."
(She stirred, but her thoughts were ulterior to tea)
"And I wasn't even there", she said at last,
"And I can't imagine life anterior to me."
We knew he would not be pleased at our catch.
Forgotten pleas for ice-cream.
We only asked once.
She was impassive. Prone.
Lolling on sand with fag in hand.
Green spotted scarf holding curls to ransom.
Handsome from a distance, still.
He was disengaged. Distant.
Neck aching from delayed pleasure.
Listening at keyholes was never wise.
We slept on the stairs.
We were young. Hungry.
Daylight delivered rain sodden dreams.
Of minnows and magic
Perhaps a ride on the train.
Sunday was heavy. Laden.
With guilty eyes he left early.
The bacon still warm on his plate.
I asked for more.
A slapped hand. Answered.
We looked at our plates.
Fixed each pupil to the willow pattern.
Burning a hole in the morning.
I took with me my shoulders braced with
Everything I had already known about after
The day after everything fell apart and that day
When it was enough it was already after
Too much had been taken and too much remained
In the back of the boat
My nothing mixed with everybody's everything
And still nothing, with an empty pail of seawater
I was too small and he too tall
When I left home I thought, perhaps
Nothing could save me from my ruined hope
She’d brave icy-cold as the penny dropped, tossed overboard with a mighty cheer, from sailing boats soon to be away.
‘Show yourself,’ she’d say to the sea, as the waves lapped across her toes.
She’d always find it too, even if it meant going in right past her knees, and sifting through mud and stones and worms and bones.
‘You’ll catch a death,’ I would say. Not my words, but those borrowed from Ma. I always had me coat, so I’d be all right. Death wouldn’t catch me, no way. I can run really fast too. Just in case.
She was cold-blooded. Her words, not mine.
And double-jointed. She’d do this thing with her arms that made me squirm. It won her loads of friends at school though. She used to laugh at me when I cried myself to sleep.
And run to tell Ma if I’d left a mark.
‘You big softy,’ she’d say, ‘and you bein a lad an all.’ That was me sister, not me Ma. Ma would just give me a cuddle, and tell me to ignore her, sticks and stones and all that. I wasn’t buying.
Me and me sister like to see em come in.
The load was always lighter, and the songs, for some reason quieter.
But one day soon, I know I’ll hear me Pa’s voice, singing like an angel, singing out to his boy.
the sea, has brought buckets of progress.
The cotton counters count-bless their days
parted from nights of darker ways.
So bring ho boy! your history book,
yellowing pages, crumbling in continents.
Breaking away from great Soweto
we head to promised el Dorado...
Where days are brighter than the sun
of day when baptized John had been.
where master Christ, blonde, blue eyes
saves wretched and dark lives."
No! maybe to the water fall
i shall set sail
where, spirit-heads of Apache warriors
fall out of world of redemption
to the fathomless pits of bliss!
and may these days come again
when it is children going down
to the shore to gather water
too recently too much of other:
horror the sea itself cannot find
a way to bear, convulsions of pity
carry bodies, impossibly tiny
dressed in their finest for a trip
that began in desperate hope
and ends in grief, in salt
water dimpled with fun
a faraway horizon
fog-hazed and hidden.
Hull strakes bow to stern
laughter long left behind
life forever deadened
rigid military precision
Stern as gray gunwales
towering mainsail masts
cast above all else
forbearing and forbidden
Cold waves tickle toes
frozen in the sand
how can I await his favor
ready for feast or famine
or flood or fire
or war or peace
or heaven or hell…
whatever this new shore may bring
ready to sing
ready to dance
ready to seize
and turn this cold grainy perception
into a bright dawn
of blazing red fresh perspective
ready for riches
or the big bust
ready for glory
or a yawning grave
ready to cast off
what’s been left behind
and fully embrace
an unknown path into the future
That night, when I found out that they were seeing dad, I wrote a letter. It was long and very neat, I made sure every letter was as clear as possible.
‘Dear Dad. It really has been a long time since we last saw you and I miss you very much. I hope these men become good friends with you. Love you lots, George.’
The letter had more in it but it was nothing that special. Just news about my sixth tooth coming out and my bike’s punctured tyre.
Read more >
The fragile ferry-boat bobbed, already filling with motley workers. Islanders returning to the mainland. Ezra, silhouetted on the pier, struck an incongruent figure of formality and wealth. In the canicular of mid-summer, children paddled barefoot. They might soon spot him and beg for coins to add to their shell collections. Surefooted but shoeless perhaps they'll be chasing behind Faiga's carriage until scolded for absconding from chores.
Ezra waits. Grey sea laps below him. As they settle, the low murmur of ferry passengers is drowned out by footloose shrieks from the shore. How quickly adult life speeds away from childhood domesticity. For Ezra, being sent away from his sister was a fortunate turn of fate. He'd narrowly escaped farm labour and the men's workhouse.
When the letter arrived, Faiga had her brother assist in making up the travel hamper. Their last meal together. Exploring the parlour was a treat. He'd never used a kitchen knife. But the scars of that day were more than skin deep.
"Ezra! You're bleeding over the cheese!" Faiga's squawks still echoed shrill in his memory. A swirling haze of blue-green ruffles as her underskirts undulated. Her young eyes glaring wide like those of an exotic bird, possessive and caring.
"Bleedin'....little runt...your blood line is too precious, young Ezra, and I'll be wringing your scrawny neck if you aren't more ¡al lorro!" Ignoring the older Hispanic woman, Faiga flew across the kitchen, grabbing the knife.
A day to leave our soot entrusted homes,
We’d earned it!
You needed to have gone to Sunday school all year,
But it was worth it.
First a train ride and then a picnic,
Potted fish paste sandwiches, fruit cake and a sticky bun.
If heaven is like our Sunday school outing then I am starting to queue up for a place now.
Gran had come with us as Mum couldn’t leave my younger brother and sisters,
But she’d given me and my big brother a threepenny bit each that
We’d been promised for doing our chores since Christmas.
No doubt Dad would have preferred to have gone to Rainham in Essex,
He would have liked a half of shandy at the Three Crowns on the Marshes,
But Mum is a tea teetotaler and had signed the Pledge.
He couldn’t have come anyway, because he was trying to unblock the privy out the back,
It was leaking again and the pong was making everyone feel sick.
Paddling is great, but so is just watching,
I wonder if I’ll ever walk out with someone like the girls in their Sunday best hats,
Who are sitting in the pleasure boat.
Perhaps I’ll get a nice clean job working in a dress shop, when I grow up,
And then I will be able to buy a real swimming costume instead of the one Gran has knitted,
Because it weighs like a ton of coal,
And when it gets wet it will show all the bits you are supposed to cover up as I get out of the water.
Read more >
dancing with buckets to fetch water
from the stomach of the sea
heading to a happy home
the sea often fetches our children
from our carnivorous city that burns with bad blood
when home becomes hell
the sea becomes solace
but the sea is just a smiling masquerade
that sups on our children
and make them float like debris back to us
rejected and silenced forever
and we behold the debris of our dreams
with a sting of salt and sadness
drowning in our dirges
I just wanted a perfect life for you. Being part of my life meant pain, so I decided we would be better off being apart. In hindsight, its all good. You have found your perfect partner while I am on my journey and no one is hurt. You deserved someone better than me, who could love you and give you all the pleasures of this world.
I couldn’t bear the thought of you being sad when I go for my never returning journey. I already knew what most of my life would be. I was a very complicated person while you were just as simple as smiling baby spreading joy all around. How could I take that away from you? You were smart & funny with Monalisa smile. I couldn’t think of ruining it because of me. Sometimes I may have felt weak and tried contacting you but then afterall I am also a simple human being.
Now we live worlds apart and you settled in states, I walk my own path to find something I don’t know. I have only lived my dreams and here I am still living same visions. I don’t know whether what I see in my dream is true or just the manifestation of my creative imagination. I have not figured it out yet but one day I will.
On the day you were leaving for home, we were sitting in the restaurant. Earlier that night I had a dream about us never meeting again and just the thought of it had put me in so much misery & pain. The paid I couldn’t share with anyone. Our last journey together to your town has been the best memory in my life. Read more >
(Not mellow, romantic, soft-focussed sepia)
Dry. Brittleness, in stiff, thin card.
My starchy figure, caught
Motionless for eternity
A trapped moment of chemical-soaked nature
The joy followed
With soft, full embrace!
But, I'm sepia
Faded and worn
Weathered by time's enriching line
The journey began
Still, I'm sepia
Never to sleep.
Read more >
Overhead, the sky was a perfect turquoise, unmarred by candyfloss clouds, and the gentle sloshing of the waves beat its lullaby into my listening ears.
Mary suddenly looked up from her artistry, squinting in the sunlight to where Mum and I sat. She smelled of vanilla and something slightly fruity. Mary swung her bucket it in the air.
‘Can I go and fetch some water in my bucket please?’
‘Of course dear but take Arthur with you.’
Mary sighed. Being her younger brother, I was used to this sort of response. Mary got to her feet, still clutching her bucket and dusted the sand from her knees.
‘Come on then, Artie.’
I hated being called Artie. And she knew it. A sly grin smeared itself across her face. Then she turned and ran towards the sea, her bucket swinging furiously by her side. I zipped up my jacket and ran after her, Mum calling after us.
‘Be careful you two.’
When I joined her at the water's edge, I was all puffed out; my lungs iron tight, a small trail of perspiration beading my forehead. Mary wasn't looking at me though but at Dad who stood tall like a commander on this large boat full of other men and a sail that was impossibly white.
Read more >
~Fern and Tears~
should you die
before I lean unto
a dusty tongue,
would you whisper
to the dead-Living
that i, your father
would wear his
the couch of
roll and wipe
away your soft iced
sheet Tears. for it is not
in dying i fear, but those traced Narrowed Breast
which echoes dripping
stone-carved words greet
paupers who peel up from dinghies
on shaky sea legs, wobble
across the pier, reverse
gangplank, sea to shore.
Work they do.
Work they do.
So that their someday
children's children can frolic
at water’s edge in bright
bathing costumes, collect
smooth stones and shells
in a pail, splash and shriek
ankle-deep in icy surf,
gasp with shock and delight.
Taste the salt of sea air
instead of sweat.
We had lived in the London Borough of Waltham Forest for the whole of my life and, on special occasions, travelled the forty miles to Westcliff-on-Sea to get away from the hustle and the bustle of growing city life.
That particular Sunday, we were celebrating my twelfth birthday and we collected pretty, broken shells, and tried to catch crabs. Later on, with a metal bucket full of sea gems, we watched all the boats come in with the workers from Sheerness - getting ready to go back to work in the local factories. One man played classical music on an acoustic guitar with ease, while the other men in the boat continued talking and smoking.
The first groups of chattering men disembarked – some in suits and others in scruffy work attire.
My brother, Robert, was only ten years old at the time and said he wanted to take a boat to work like a Viking. Mother smiled and reminded him that he was lucky that our family had a car, because seasickness wasn’t very nice.
Fair blows the breeze for France they said
as the boats floated off, the dead
not yet counted on Normandy beaches
and now we welcome back the detritus of war
is it always so, that a child's small voice
must find a way to rejoice
on some refugee shore, where buckets and spades
are not trenching tools for the big dig-in
that only their fathers knew and now forget
selective amnesia the way they refuse to beget
a new generation steeped in blood
and cut low at some lunar Syria or Somme
and why does the returning boat on the spring tide
bring back the bodies for us to abide
with them in some brave new world:
'tis new to thee says the old duke Prospero
and always the dark-eyed Calibans get the blame
so recklessly apportioned - as if there is no shame
in any of it, not in the undeclared war
nor the return in ignominy from some desert dusting
but we cheer on the child with his plastic spade
he builds a sandcastle or redoubt in some shade,
not yet a tower of darkness or bewilderment
for that will come later, like half-moon devilment.
full with heavy
we see the gold mines
we stare from the ship
We the children of poverty
look back at the
our parents are sick
we have nothing to eat
Did they come with food?
The men on the
or they too came to looth?
And leave us in poverty
beneath the brackish sea waves without
as much as a mewl. The high-tide
will feed on Mumma's Tiffany
bow, the one she wore on her
honeymoon to the cottage by the Irish
moor. The pavonine conch will find her
home again, and perhaps choke an elegy to
the breaths they drowned in her nub. Mr. Bubbard
and Timothy will bog down on the shells,
glass-eyed and terrified, as seaweed will ballet with eight tentacles and a starfish that are bound to
swallow the black that bleeds of my
bygone days. Kisses, I reckon, shall disintegrate and
marry the sands of sea and my life
will sojourn amidst coral reefs.
I feel those childhood memories come flooding into me
of long walks crossing sand and seaweed slime-
-impatient brothers claiming parental time.
Pa with his trousers rolled up to his knees
carrying the provisions of fruit cake, bread and cheese.
Ma's costume was a knitted one
she loved to swim, she loved the sun.
The men in the boats would cheer her on
Pa never minded, just harmless fun.
Our little hut was striped in shades of green
(secretly, I called it Seashore Queen).
Ma and Pa would open both doors wide
as we climbed the wooden steps to root inside.
The warming sun peered in every crack
these tiny recollections are taking me back
to simple pleasures, simple food and cricket on the sand.
Far- off strains of a marching brass band.
when we tired of games and sand and sea
Ma called her troops, all hungry for their tea
and served sandwiches and fizzy lemonade
Pa gulped his tea and munched cake she had made
my brothers grabbed their cricket stuff
and ran 'til they were out of puff!
across the sand and seaweed slime
Pa laughed and said 'there will be another time
when you visit sea and shore. You will hold these days for evermore'
My father took the shot without calling out. Looking up from the lit cigarette, he saw me for the first time as something other than the pawing, needy child. Something unfettered in the sure stride and swinging bucket. Confident. Curious. Apart. That paternal epiphany that doesn't come in slow, comprehending measures but hits you like a speeding car while you're rooted to the broken whites in the centre of the road, wondering which side you should leap for. Looking out from the water's edge, I was sizing up the widening world on my own. Sensing the significance of the moment, my father reached for the camera, aching to know what I thought of it.
He took the shot and we gave it pride of place. Foxed and faded, it keeps that place still: the first picture past the open door to the lives and memories of my own family. Its story enchanted the woman I always knew I'd marry. It conveyed to each of our children all the fascination and pride we felt in watching them grow and thrive on their own watches. Above all, it brought everyone who walked a stretch on my independent path closer to a loving father who was gone long before I first asked the A-line-skirted girl of my dreams to dance.
Sometimes the consequence of a lie justifies the deceit in telling it. Think back on all those parableized remembrances, all those mollifying little fictions, seeding and watering happiness and constancy where their opposites had no rightful place. Read more >
The sea was a mess, the weak slack tide and drab autumn off-shore breeze scattering any sequence and evenness from the waves. The remaining wavelets criss-crossed against the shingle beach pulling at the small pebbles, dragging them backwards and forwards, leaving small piles of them scattered on the waterline. Further out the hard buoyed craft bobbed and threw themselves back and forwards against the unpredictable wave direction and height. All of them looked slightly ill and tired at the antics of the sea.
In the lighter the band sat huddled against the heavy raised hull, the reinforced wood along the top of the boats flanks digging into the backs being pressed hard against them, almost all of them were smoking in some description. Mervyl sat with his back against the support for the base of the mast, now removed, the limp hand rolled cigarette, the fires within only just burning, hung from his face. It stuck to the bottom lip of his open mouth, fast in its fixing to his skin, as he mouthed the words the singer would be telling later. His hands move evenly as he practised his part on the banjo balanced on his right hip.
when a trilby hat was safe,
water stayed in a bucket
and a jetty hastened in on wheels
to say welcome.
Today the sea is in turmoil
exhausted with it's burden.
So many needing to be kept afloat
wanting to be washed onto an alien shore
to dream of castles built of brick.
So many small shoes to find and lay to dry
on a flat rock.
I had my mouth organ in my bucket to keep it dry, eager to take part in this year’s festival, to add my contribution to the guitarists and fiddlers, the flautists and tin-whistlers.
Brendan Og, the up and coming chanter from Falcarragh, was to make his debut there this year. He had quite the following already. It was said he could sound like a choir on his own.
The King of Tory stood on the dock. It looked like he saw nothing, but I knew better. Many a youngster had been turned away by his wicked glare throughout the years.
I was going to avoid the power in those eyes. I’d slip alongside the¬–
I froze mid-step. Of course ... there was always Mammy.
On and off. Off and on.
His light was soft and true. So real you could almost touch it.
It is when it is soft and true …. . It is when it is real, that we doubt. The self then doubts too. So it goes off and on just to see. On and off.
The fake are often so bright, that we take it for granted that they are true light. They do too, you see. It is never just a game, there is a real faith there too. I am. I will grow. There is hope. Always, in everyone.
Back to our vulnerable light boy
and his hopes to be a vulnerable light man.
It was on this light that he wrote his story.
I want you to see that. On his light he wrote his story.
So we only get to know certain chapters off it. The chapters written when the light was on. Or maybe, just maybe, it was when it was off that the chalk he used was visible?
Could it be?
Maybe it is in darkness that we see what we are made out of.
What our story really is. Rather than reflected to us, it glows to us out of our own darkness as we grow?
On these shores, when, flushed with yearning,
I looked across golden beaches
As if they were invitations.
Now, complacent, tired and ageing,
Sands look grey and seas have blackened.
Towns that once were filled with treasures
Are all reminiscent wreckage.
Looking back across the ocean
I can picture distant places -
Palm-laden paradises -
Yet return to land, to Devon,
To imagining my own room
As an island, warm and gentle.
we’ll go right
ghost of our hands,
the full emptiness
It echoes up high .. high up into the salty air,
I love the way everyone seems to be locked in a hypnotic musical stare.
The playing children at the oceans edge look at my father and smile,
They kick the waves and dodge the stones and toy with the frothy tide,
My heart grows full as I look at my father who has filled my heart with pride,
I feel so lucky to be on this boat, but most by my father’s side.
There is an air of melancholies that seems to resonate,
The people smile, the people frown its emotionally innate.
I sit and and gaze around the boat as the seagulls sway and swoon,
I sit in total adoration as my father plays his tune.
He stood on the prow looking like an explorer, crazy eyes fixed firmly on the shore, expectant.
“Prick,” someone muttered but it was lost on the sea spray, and drowned like dignity. We left that behind long ago.
In the time it took to row from ship to the shore, the crew fell silent. There were no murmurs. Fear was in our bellies and it filled us more than the beef stew. We waited for orders and shivered against the cold. A cough. Some puked. Someone sobbed.
“Come,” he said, loud and pompous, a Walrus, belly aching and horny, “let us greet our destiny.”
He ignored the comment and leapt from the prow into the hooves kicking and thundering underneath him, pulling him down, trying to drown him. One or two of us cheered but it passed on the breeze, a cry, stifled and wet. Someone pulled him up, dripping and smelling of brine.
“All right sir?”
He looked at the man as though trying to remember the name. He shook the seaweed from his ears, heard the horses, baying and whinnying, the albatross laughing.
“Yes, quite,” he said.
Read more >
he has waited all his life
for this moment.
He looks at the man on the boat
and stares with recognition.
His followers are present,
talking in hushed tones.
Their impoverished lives cling like barnacles.
The boy is watching.
He has listened all his life
to others who have everything.
He feels the bucket in his hand
waiting to be replenished.
His followers are patient,
whispering behind hands
calloused with indignities.
The boy is changing silently.
In a moment of transformation.
The shining words lay fermenting in his bucket.
His feet pound the shingle,
while the minimal waves anoint his feet.
The followers turn their heads and
watch a young boy.
Leave his childhood behind and go on – To Lead.
I had lots to do of course, what with going back to school soon, and shells to collect right now, before the best ones got washed away. Jellyfish had to be cut up too, in case they stung somebody.
And soon, soup to warm up.
Rosemary didn't want to play on days like this.
She wanted to go with him.
"Daddy why are you going away again?"
"Daddy where are you going to take them?"
"Daddy, why can't I come?"
But she'd never get an answer. He'd just stand there, like a soldier, waiting for the last one to get into the boat, like he didn't hear her.
I know now how he must have felt.
I know the twisting gut when my little girl hugs me before the warder pulls her off, crying, and I avoid the child's eyes and ignore her tears.
But she musn't know that I feel the loneliness, tolling my death each time, I have to hide it. I think I do.
I watched as the old hands settled in;
reacquainting with friends who came to ease their passage:
to welcome them from years of pain
and talk of old times.
From the relative safety of my coma,
I smiled as young paused … or made a din
splashing through the embracing surf, toes burrowing
through sand they would not feel again:
tasting last cold climes.
Then the dock-master turned to me in my coma:
me, surrounded by my kith and kin
and pipes and loud machines. I eased towards prime wassage
offered by a kinder Charon,
cleansing life’s told crimes,
between our toes when the water
floods the shore. You can see me,
my neck and arms and thighs,
my stomach pulled in tight because
we're by the sea. The white froth is
champagne, soaking my ankles,
making my skin glisten with pearls.
You tell me your father will be here soon;
that we should kiss before he comes to check
how many razorfish we found in the flat sands
but finds us carnal and drunk on seawater.
It is definitely my notebook. I recognise my own writing, I think, perhaps a little neater than usual, a little more deliberate.
I think I even remember the book itself, a vague deep recollection that comes to me when I close my eyes and concentrate on the texture. The reassurance of the thick cover, the creak of the spine. I even get a faint hint of the smell of the paper, which I know for a fact is all in my mind, because my sense of smell doesn't exist any more.
Probably about a hundred blank pages and only seven of them filled. Tucked between these words I must have written, but have never seen before, is a postcard.
Someone took a photograph. They took the trouble to take a photograph and then they took the trouble to have it printed. They paid for this process, this processing. They bothered. I wonder how many they had made, and then I wonder how many they posted. The corners of this one are worn, the pigments and fibres cast to the floors of decades of rooms.
I turn it over in my hands and the reverse is also covered in my words. I wish more than anything that I could understand what these words say, what the formation of these letters once meant to me. But the longer I look the more my eyes make my head hurt and I slip it back into the book.
I have to stare at one of the blank pages and let my eyes travel along the empty ruled lines until the pain starts to recede. These ever reliable lines of progress across the printed page. Blank pages that aren't really blank at all.
Charlie biffed me round the head.
‘Whatever do they teach you in school?’ he said. ‘It’s "send him victorious", nincompoop.' He spelled out the word. ‘Victorious – like we’re going to be when we beat the Fascists in Spain. We were up in his bedroom packing his bag.
Ma and Pa had tried to talk him out of it when he said he was leaving the Royal School of Music and going off to fight Franco with the International Brigade. But nothing they said could make him change his mind. Even Ma telling him he should be ashamed to waste his scholarship. I handed him some socks and his plaid shirt.
‘D’you think I should take my guitar ’ he said. It was leaning against the wall and he stroked the wood, as if it was his best girl. If he didn’t take it, I could have a go, like I’d always wanted to, but Charlie never went anywhere without his guitar.
I nodded. ‘It’ll keep you company. ’
Charlie ruffled my hair ‘Good lad,’ he said. ‘It’s for our future I’m going. You know that, don’t you? Ma and Pa don’t understand. Look after them while I’m gone. ’
I wasn’t sure I did understand or that I knew how to look after my parents, but it was me who suggested we should go to the sea for the day like we always did in August. It was three months after Charlie left then and we hadn’t heard a word.
The Pier Head is crowded, the Royal Iris is docking.
Giant rubber tyres, along the side, squeal with delight.
We're off to New Brighton for the sun, swim and sand.
Fifty years later, another boat approaches Greece.
The Isle of Lesbos stretches out her ancient arms,
Sappho pulls in the orange-ringed day's catch
but the market is already closed.
That day on the sand,
Our buckets, our spades,
The sea in and out, in and out.
Brine-coated air, damp on our skin,
The lingering smell of shell fish.
I remember sounds too: the lone seagull's call
And the call of the men,
The women too.
And the children's cries,
The crescendo as they drew nearer,
Crammed together, bodies on top of bodies
As though they formed the rafts they travelled upon.
On land they still clung to each other,
Weeping, pale face after pale face.
Amongst them there was only one I remember:
'Sacrifice to Neptune,' muttered one man to another.
'Was it worth it, do you think?'
fraught with dust
and cold and salt
leaves adults as much as children to its
very elements – biting.
Because since he's arrived, four weeks now,
dog-tired too, hoping to find his lost mother
on every berthing ship, he survives on liquid hope.
Never on solid grub.
Because he's seen many arrive,
bristling with evanescent hope,
yet starved of water and strength
a boy, eight, fills his bucket,half,
with corn gruel, looking to give first comers.
Because this boy knows nothing of seasons,
knows nothing of mass deaths on high sea
knows at least, to live is to see others sigh,
to watch them chomp, gulp in gratitude
for whatever offering they could appropriate.
barely breathing emptied of
a will and way we simply stood
by the shoreline heaving collective
cries. we held our hands together we
we worked this out without a father a mother. sir was
at sea she was consumed we were alone awash with salt.
our eyes burned as we submerged and our bodies filled with
sea we were buckets weighed down by the weight of a world without.
sure of where they are going,
in, then out, sucking small pebbles and
sand and the feet of kings,
ships flaunt sails and children’s courage
mounteth with occasion
and I irresolute
suited booted English
on the edge of a jetty either
to embark or disembark
or to rebuke the tide
as in the distance a brass band
plays Rule Britannia.
Grandma told me his story every day lest I forgot,
caressing an already faded picture of him
standing straight-faced with a sword
sheathed on his right side.
Whenever her skinny thumb rubbed on father’s
face, she would make an expression as if she were holding
back an uncontrollable
laughter. I would guess
she must be really proud of him.
Your dad was such a brave man,
they said his life saved another ten more.
She prayed to the spirit
of the mountains,
of the heaven,
of the dead,
to the benevolent golden Indian prince
sitting with an inexplicable smile on the wooden altar.
She prayed for his soul and
for his rest and
his safe passage to the afterworld.
But I prayed that
if I’m good enough one day
I will run out to the river banks to meet a man
whose face I’ve only seen in
a rubbed-out photograph.
His hair slicked back with sea water, a shard of coral was his comb. The jacket of his suit was died black with the ink of octopuses he’d caught, bare handed, off the island coast. His leather shoes were polished, his tie was sharp, weaved together with bamboo leaves. There was still something dazzling about his smile. It was bleached white. He said how he’d used the alkaline poison of puffer fish to turn his mouldy, castaway’s teeth the colour of the clouds. Even his breath was fresh.
The gentleman castaway did not sweat, neither did he panic. He was perfectly hygienic, with all the sponge in the world just waiting for him on the sea bed. He would bathe in baths of rock pools, careful to remove any crabs before he slipped in, and the only towel he needed was a big banana leaf.
Food was easy. For he could spear a deer from half a mile off. He was intensely patient; he always won the waiting game when holding a fishing rod and of course, he had plenty of firewood, which he carried about in his briefcase like a salesman and his goods.
He had created the perfect civilised society on what was otherwise a barbaric jungle wasteland.
But now the rescue boats had come ploughing up the shore. Men who had been searching for years piled him onto the dock he’d constructed and were ready to take him away. They were ready to take him back to the real world, to the real civilised society. The gentleman clutched his briefcase full of firewood to his chest and straightened his tie. He slicked down his hair with the coral comb and he checked the black polish on his shoes. This was what he had always wanted, to be shipped back to the civilisation where he belonged. But just before he stepped down onto the wooden deck with one polished shoe, the gentleman turned away.
Read more >
and the sun was bright enough and clear.
Surf froth-foamed across the shallow beach,
and the sea was wholemeal-brown and bitter-cold.
The shingle ran in streams beneath my toes
with each rhythmic push and suck of the waves.
There was song too and strummed melodies,
as the wind-slapped sail beat its metronome.
The sea breeze smelled of salt and seaweed,
the prom of fish and chips in paper twists,
and, bellies full, we slept on the train home,
our pockets bulging with shells and sepia stones.
Hot to cold movements
In and out breathtaking
Skin of children unsealed
So porous, so unarmoured
In and out breathtaking
Boat, buoyancy, lifebelt
House, flat, tent, catch
In and out breathtaking
of you: my watching is delicate, young
my age, too, young and my language
yes, young, but my description of the
white water atop blonde sand in the eventual clarity
of this summer’s promissory heat—
and those adults on the boat, their joyfulness
wearing fancy suits and fedoras, their position
farther atop the water’s blending into blue
resembles above me, this ceiling of Saturday’s
clear and tonal sophistication, and though
none of your actions understand the silence
of my watching, my enjoyment is a catalogue
of contemplation among this beach of tonal appreciation
We are the fathers of your children.
We are providers.
Look to your leaders.
We do not encourage
women. Suffer little children.
Come worshipful brothers.
Do not ask why.
In our ties we are men.
We can walk on water - fly.