- Vol. 05
Mother and Child
Vulnerable swell of belly, hidden hollow of the exposed arch, the unsettling tenderness of a fingernail’s width of exposed scalp. Who can see a child? A woman who will never have one. This is not a sad statement. This is a true statement. They are wrong, those who say: all those sketches, all those paintings, of women and children – a replacement for what she herself would never know, sentimental odes to motherhood. This misses the complexity of the gaze and all it reveals, the hard lines, the shout of the patterns, the child’s arm braced at a hard angle, doing as much to hold herself up as to be held. Books and letters tell me that long before she took up painting, she had already learned what it was to daughter a mother. The weight of a small foot in an adult’s palm. Within months of each other, my sister calls, my brother calls. We are pregnant, they both say. And my heart leaps. But once we hang up, I cry. Not because I feel diminished by their news. But because, at 44, without a child of my own, I think of all I cannot help but see every time I am in the presence of someone else’s becoming, how holding so little can hold me.
Two feet I have of comfort and despair, two livelong friends who fare me forth and fort-
like hold me to myself, who tell me where I am, ticklish yet able to absorb
my weight and make it theirs, each part hard-pressed, shaped rough or smooth by use.
They tell me when I'm naked, sopping, all reduced, what world seen from their vantage shows,
that big toes callused, full of sock fluff, still in motion are more elegant than some
bridges. They remind me of a sliced pear, each part whole, each of them mother and son.
They almost look the same, as sky to water, held and apart, each one the other's daughter.
In Pashto, to water sleep:
"da stargo tora" (the black of my eyes)
as tenebrous as the earth of her name left for dead so long, it had assumed
fecundity. look, this is a good world if you can winnow the linger of its indifference
to hold anything is prelude to extinction i wish i could exercise a softness as aphasic
as the dream of myself before i manifested a constant body. my grandmother remains
a timeless crescent, the shadow of a junglee badam tree carving up a bare roof by the mere
bent of its body. a body blackened to kin the eye the mind memorizes a river as light’s heartbreak
to remember that — an arid mouth is a corrupt temple. mirror, sacerdotal. a quelled raga—
a room where hours only speak in a continuous tense where imagination has yet to learn the invention of loss
does not have a flag an anthem, a national sport,
or anniversary coinage, no wars were fought in its name,
and soldiers do not patrol
its uneasy borders. Ours is a country where the citizens have,
almond-colored elbows, dark brown hair falling in wisps, a country where
all the countrymen have identical mocha-colored eyes,
and the hesitation of émigrés,
even our shoulders angle the same way,
we turn ashen when others address us –
we speak in garbled, fragmented speech, like there are things unresolved in our throats;
old words twist and turn at the tip of our tongues,
my mother tongue holds back your words, bilingual children speak later, so the adage goes,Read more >
Clean Hands and Clean Feet
In the evening regimen splash and sparkle of water, our reflections merge as one.
But her face is not mine, she is not my daughter: I am a just a nursemaid.
The twinkles in her eyes and innocent laughter do not belong to me.
Yet my dutiful devotion and my heart belong to her; they will endure for life
though I may never be her mother or his wife.
The bath used to hang on the wall in the scullery. Not our scullery. His scullery. We borrowed it from Mr Neil who rented us the rooms at the front of his house. One down, one up. My mother would knock on his door and he would lift it down for her. But she had to carry it to our living room. It was heavy, made of zinc, she said. It took a lot of water which had to be carried from the outside tap and then heated on our gas ring. It took a lot of hot water and had to be filled and emptied with a jug. Sometimes it was just too much work for her and she washed me in a bowl as I sat on her fat lap. It was snuggly I preferred it really.
You used to sing a song softly as you bathed me and it would mingle with the gurgling, lapping water against the muted green light of the long afternoons of cicadas at their chorus in the shade outside.
Then after lunch you’d lull me to sleep with the ballad of a bird who’d have to fly away one day soon.
Your deep forlorn eyes might not have chosen that life of tall chores of bringing up a child in that small house in a small town. But how well have you sent the swell of your talent to this distant city that never sleeps, yet amidst the noise its music keeps.
Trading the long liquid afternoons and the song of the cicadas for a TV, are you happy now Ma that in it sometimes you see me?
Cleanliness, Mummy says, is next to Godliness. Today the water’s cool as eels, clear as water in Dick Brook as skies were yesterday. Until she drops the soap. And then as if by magic, clouds appear around my feet. It tickles when she cleans between my toes and as the water swirls, I think of when my daddy held me high above the shallows where crayfish hide between the alder roots, little caves where shale becomes a home for cadis worms and trout. And as I watch the ripples in my fennel-scented bowl, its little waves bring back a tide of rock pools garneted with sea anemones swaying green with water weed; now you see it now you don't, a shrimp-crowd ghosting through its crazy razzmatazz; razor fish; my footprints in the sand erased by warm sea breezes. Cool white foam disperses while my mother’s hands rinse my ankles as this morning's rain pools across the window-sill. Gathers. Gushes. Lost among forgetmenots.
Remember me, dearest girl when you hold an infant dependant on you.
When you bathe her tiny feet a hand on her hip her belly resplendent.
And remember that I wanted to teach you all I knew and believed to be true,
The desire to protect and hold so strong and yet, secretly hoping you would rebel and set your own mark upon the world.
How to be a mermaid in times of trouble
Look, they're gardened here, air flowering warm in parloured foliage, watching those baited feet, dibbled fingers panning
pearls, Cherie's pebbled toes. Sweet eddies of morning light thread an enamelled basin's quiet eye, lessons in stillness.
Mama's dress fences her body in with a percale palisade, each rippled samphired sea-thrift line purpling its flow,
as if her lap is salt with waves. Arms fin out, legs scaled with the weight of things, a quick flittering of tails. Listen.
It's strange how sound drowns in water, a Zeppelined hum caught between Tuileries and Seine, the whispered flak along
Rivoli. Diving is an easy thing, she holds hands, counts a fire of flying fish, un, deux, trois, and they slip down, down below
a bask of gentle lanterned man-of-war. Breathe. Their lips are sea-caved, pink as cockle shells, hear the sirens singing.
Her hair was smoothly pinned back, pulled tight by her delicate fingers.
Her delicate fingers are something I remember to this day. The delicate fingers of a mother are rather curious, you see. They are, of course, delicate; but they also contain this unbounded power and strength.
Their finest touch can transform you from twilight to the citrine drip of sunset. You see, a mother's gentle touch gives strength, just as much as it is strength. The gentle press of her fingers against your back as she swaddles you in an embrace, or the familiar warmth of your hand in hers, that never seems to slacken, is akin to some kind of curious magic. Her single and omnipotent touch can silently slay your demons and calm the storm that brews over your churning oceans.
Her hair was smoothly pinned back. It always was when she was ‘mothering'. When she was bathing me in water that she had spent an hour alternating between two taps, just to ensure it was the perfect degree of warm, reminiscent of her comforting touch. Or when she was toiling away over steaming pots, carefully and prudently sprinkling vegetables with bitter cumin, heady turmeric and fervent cayenne pepper. Testing and tasting, ensuring that it would not burn me, but was still passionate enough to make me feel alive.
Her hair was loose; lustrous and beautiful, like a waterfall of oil, thick and shining. This was when she became herself. When for a few seldom hours she was not ‘mother’ but her own. And as it happened, she was more mother than she was ever her own.
Even now, when I visit her, her hair is smoothly pinned back. Her fingers are a little more delicate now and a little less strong. She grips on to me in the way that I used to cling to her.Read more >
Those bony and scrawny fingertips scrubbing and scouring every single piece of dust and soot nestled between my toes and puny soles imbues me with the moonlight sheen and the milky smell I was born with
You slowly and surely scrub my anger, pain and hurt away to let in dissolve in that turbid water when the plethora of emotions are birthing every second in your mind as you fervently look for the scars, small scratches, you might have overlooked
As gently as the seraphic touch on my nimble body which you have sculpted and nourished every bit of it you dissolve every pain in the small bowl you wash me inRead more >
GOES AROUND COMES AROUND
in a circular basin where movement is constant as water trickles over a child's toes
mother and daughter with heads together look down at the action – both sets of arms imitate each other
firmness and tenderness looked at from above so both heads recede look back to the roundness of the basin
look down, sit down below other chairs as water always trickles down as it does here though not in constant flow
cleanliness in innocence overrides the task taken that goes around comes around each day until the child bathes another
firmness and tenderness constant as water trickles over a child's toes with intimacy in a round basin
After Mary Cassatt and Ted Hughes
He still stands listening useless his wife washing their daughter at bed-time –
their girl glistening. She watches too, watches immersed toes. The room’s patterned, all remember – clearer than years they’ve since woven together.
Now they note the lip of the jug there, stood to attention while that hand holds that towel – and still likeness looms, down the decades, likenesses in dark looks.
“Ma!” she cries happily, “Ma! Ma!”
They watch the veered bowl as if watching heaven electing to bless
the flowers after all.
An Eulogy to Simplicity
Infant limbs obstinate – an inherent reluctance to allow the cold in – sensations from the past contrasting with the enveloping ease of the present. Now, two steps, dial, shower head, quick flip of a shampoo bottle, plop plop drops – more struggles of nursery nonsense – and none of the ritual of before. Ritual had meant celebration, elaboration, but now she was in-out, stripped and dipped. The noise of the water had alerted her to the chasm of time that had passed between then and now. Rather than an easy swooping, water lolloping towards toddler toes like an overweight, over-eager rabbit, water thudded from the shower head. She occasionally liked to imagine that the fall of water was uncontrollable, craving the vulnerability that standing naked in a communal, unlocked bathroom didn’t quite achieve. It was as if she wanted her blood running in rivulets along the grouting, the Psycho scream indelible in the patterns of the shower curtain. A lament to the lost moments on her mother’s knee, an eulogy to its simplicity. But modern life and Facebook had got in the way and those sacrosanct maternal movements had collapsed. She now tagged her mother in comments and cooking videos, neither looking up from the Midas mine of information. A radiator-warmed towel could never replicate that of her mother. Mr Right had become Mr Muscle (‘advanced power bathroom and toilet cleaner’) in a bleach-clean purge of skin and soul. She slipped whilst shaving, nerves and cells on a razor edge. Leaving the bathroom, she gingerly picked away the long hairs that had become entangled in her toes, a grimace on her face. The bowl was now in her kitchen, lined with a microscopic layer of dust and hair and grease. She thought of offering it back to her mother, perhaps with roses in it, but decided against it. Her mother had developed hay fever now, allergic to pollen and people and porcelain fragments from the past.
In The Land of Far Away
I would, if I could, wash my child’s feet with perfume, not tears Brush away fears with soft tresses, a silken towel Soothe flesh with oils not acid rain Rewrite the story of our godless crucifixion In gentle lullabies and sweet dreams And safe bedtime tales
But lands burn and skin burns and hearts burn Beneath war-ridden skies and a ruler’s lies And we wait for the giant killer to climb Into the clouds with an axe To cut down the madness and murder Lance the poison Write us our happy ever after Here in the Land of Far Away
An Exhibit of the Artist’s Work
In a full red dress with long sleeves in a yellow chair in the tilted living room or in a wicker chair in a lush garden with large green leaves, the artist’s wife spent hours at a time sitting for him.
Her dark hair is always pulled back and up, with hands clasped at her severe chin, or in her serene lap. Sometimes, she holds a child. He posed her in similar settings again and again. And again.
The artist said, "Only I understand how to paint a red!" In most of the paintings she has no expression other than one eye wider sometimes as if staring ardently into the artist’s soul.
With my marriage, people often ask me who left whom? The cliché is: it takes two. Sometimes, though it takes only one to ruin the union.Read more >
Not Too Cold/Not Too Hot
Now, now Misha, Do not fear the water. Let’s pretend your toes are a baby chickadee and this basin a birdbath. Not too cold. Not too hot. Can you hear that little birdie sing? So happy. So free. Someday, Misha, we will be free. We will go to America. I will clean the houses of rich women and sew beautiful clothes for their daughters. We will find a doctor to fix your legs. You will run and play in the dirt. I will scrub away the mud squished between your piggies. And for the first time you will giggle— For the first time it will tickle as I wash your ten little toes.
When I was a child, I used to call this quiet, boredom. And I despised her for it. The boredom of the water, waiting to cool. The boredom of the bedroom, waiting for dusk. The boredom of the closing mouth of the day, yawning into the long, boring night. My toes itched for freedom.
We have access to contraception, and now we pretend it’s a choice. But you can’t choose what you can’t imagine. (I whisper this daily, to the rhythm of a rolling pram.) Oh, I do remember the years before – the belly-aching sadness of not having a child; the stale, dry-mouthed hunger; the silent grief, month on month. It’s the silence of those years that crushes these ones into their domestic hush.
The other day I calculated that I have bathed you over a thousand times, already. I find myself leaning my head close to yours, stroking the soft goodness of your skin, feeling your heaviness fold, unthinkingly, into my lap; and I blink to forget the freedoms rotting in the toes of my smartest shoes.
With one hand, you weigh yourself against my body. With the other, you test the flesh of your leg. Soon, the light will fade from behind the curtains, the dust will rise like stars from the covers of your bed. You wriggle away from me, and half-walk, half-stumble towards sounds from the other side of the door. I watch the curve of your back. Your beautiful, sensuous freedom.
I remember the day I found out.
Dusk was approaching. Mama snatched my doll and threw it into the house. Papa pointed to Pablo jumping over the fence.
‘He is not to come here again,’ Papa said.
Mama told me Carmen would wash me and make me presentable for Abuela’s visit. 'Young girls should be inside, not out in the sun browning like peasants,' she said.
I didn’t know what a peasant was. Was bring brown bad? Carmen was brown and I loved her.
Why they didn’t like Pablo? Was it his dark skin or the way his mouth never closed? I had gotten used to the drool that escaped down the side of his chin. He couldn’t help it. It was how he was born.
He told me his father was a pirate who was always away at sea.
Carmen appeared at the door way and swooped me into her arms. They were strong. Much stronger than Mama’s. She was smiling, but her eyes looked sad. I watched as she gazed across the field to where Pablo disappeared.
My parents turned and went inside. I wish I were a boy. Papa would prefer a son, I thought.
‘Come, conejo – time to be clean.’ I followed Carmen to my bedroom. She knelt and looked me in the eyes.
‘You need to stay away from Pablo. I’ll tell him not to come over here.’
How did she know where he lived? I wondered.Read more >
The storm is coming and they are alone. Smiling, she tries to chase the panic into a corner of her mind. Pretending to be calm, she gently washes the child’s sweet, innocent body. “A woman’s breasts: two perfect drops of tears – the sorrow of a body saying goodbye to childhood, getting ready to nourish another.” Remembering her own mother’s words, her smile becomes warm and real. The child laughs, her small feet splashing the water. The little body is following the rhythm of the mother’s heartbeat. Like a couple of graceful ice-dancers, they are perfectly synchronized. They have to be. She hears the thunder. The lighting will strike soon. The little one is clean and fed and sleepy now. The mother is ready. Wide awake she waits, she listens, she watches. More thunder. No lighting yet.
Walking the Waves
The full moon was rising above the trees. Aunt Jen held out the bowl of water infused with herbs and white flowers. She placed it in a patch of moonlight.
Mary felt the warm wood floor under her bare feet, the breeze through the open window. Out there, she could see shadows moving in the trees.
The water was cool; Mary's feet tingled. Aunt Jen's voice became a whisper, the sound of leaves.
What do you feel? she said.
Sand, Mary said. I feel sand. It's wet.
What do you see?
A beach. Waves. Light on the water. Oh! A shell. And look! Blue glass.
Aunt Jen was walking beside her. The sea breeze turned her hair to seaweed.
When they came back, Mary was holding the striped shell in her hand.
You are learning, Aunt Jen said. Next month, you can help me make the spirit water. We'll go back to the beach, and walk on the waves.
With every pace, you will change.
You will punctuate places. Scenes will spill into spaces, filling your mind.
Explore the range – the wilderness beckons, its open palms the terrain.
Hike and ramble, rove and amble to where the grass strokes your ankles.
Don’t stray, scramble, stumble – vagabonds who drift slip away; the ground can crumble.
Saunter into sunlit clearings, uncluttered, unfettered. You will see better. Feel better.
Enclosures blind and blinker, binding tight with boundaries, shrinking and shrivelling scope.
Wind through oaks, roam plains, climb slopes, dance in the trill of rain.
Don’t bolt, don’t quit, escape or split; run to feel freedom course through your veins.Read more >
I Belonged to You
You called me a waif, admonishing me for running the streets in bare feet, soles blackened by soot. With tender hands and a smile that edged away the undertow of frustration, you washed the blood from my stubbed toes and bandaged the wounds of a stalwart and reckless childhood. Your rage burned out of control for the other kids, but I was the child of your new skin, the heart that learned its rhythm from the pulse of the sea. I had his face, but I belonged to you. It was you who taught me the comforts of sadness, my tiny hands covered in the despair of your tears. You strapped me to your chest and climbed out of a life steeped in secrecy, into a decade of feminist rallies, and learning how to roar, but the weight of your sorrow had stained us both. You hit me once, when I was six years old and I hit back. We sat at the bottom of the steps together and cried.
But you are not my
Sit very still
Let go of my feet
Look at your sweet little
But you are not my
Do you like this dress?
Oh no, I
I am fond of stripes
But you are not my
I will just press here
Let go of my feet
Look at your sweet little
But you are not
I will just
Two heads together, seen from a standing point of view, looking down at them downcast, in tune, lost in time.
People-watching with photographs flicking through strangers, catching them in concentrated actions, frozen.
Life mingling in lives long gone fill spaces, hold building blocks together paint pictures, decorate now with then…
feel the difference between fact and fiction.
Sturdy like the house my grandfather built, let me build a foundation beneath you and you can balance on me when you're feeling less than able. “Lean on me when you're not strong,” they say, but I want you to lean on me always. As wild as the waves, as soothing as the sea, as infinite as the ocean, and as warm as the midday sun, I want my steadfast love to keep you safe, bring you peace, and fill you with joy for the rest of (y)our days.
It had been such a long time since they had last looked for her. Perhaps they thought she had died; tripped over a step and tumbled down the stairs of her lank, dusty tower with nobody about or willing to save it. They knew she could not stand the daylight's sun, and even though she could almost pass as one of them under the moonlight, eventually they called off their nighttime guards when they realised she was not coming out.
She never left her home because she was sad. They were all dead, the humans had hunted them down. All her family wanted to do was care for their treasures. Clean them, polish them, note down their individual characteristics and display them, hanging them up in the trophy rooms. But the humans could not stand this, couldn't stand to have their possessions taken, their collections disrupted.
All of her treasures had dulled and lost their shine as the moons passed, and she could not stand to gaze upon them hanging lifelessly in her parlour any longer. She waited for the coolest night, wrapped herself up in her soft cloaks, and trespassed into the capital through the sewage system. She stopped to feed.
The night was quiet, free of the humans' occasional celebrations. She acquired the clothes of one of their females. The female had no treasures. She sulked. The females normally had treasures. She left her.
This was one of their bigger houses, normally rich in treasures. She felt dizzy when she thought about the future. She climbed through the window and searched through the darkness.
A girl child was sitting on the floor. She looked up at her visitor, and gurgled, charmed at the sight of her. She was in her undergarments, and her hair was short and pretty.Read more >
Hands, feet and stripesThe tone, the grey, a memory of fog, of things lost, of things unretrievable. The scene is presented, pregnant with whatever one wants to project. Compositionally the ewer catches ones eye but there's something else about this. If I draw a triangular line through lip of ewer to wrist of woman to eye of woman and back again I am caught in the space of representation using words like humility, piety and submission. I spend too long with ritual meaning of feet washing, women and children. Thus far in this emotional commandment I have been given: love one another as I have loved you.
A Mother’s Lap
“I love you mummy,” she says, climbing into my lap. The queue of priorities reorder their places in my mind. I shuffle her hips closer, envelope her in my arms, rest my head on her head, and listen.
My mouth, brushing her downy ears, whispers warmth into her heart. I kiss her silky hair, humming, gently rocking. She presses the side of her face, with jigsaw precision, against my less than before breasts. Perhaps, they still contain a half memory of drunk-on-milk deep sleep?
This precious, unplanned moment contains no fear. She lifts her head to look, through clumped teary lashes, close up, into my face. She sees no lines or shadows. My smile is her lifelong invitation to take that seat, until the day she, like her brothers before her, feels too big, too clunky, too old for my then to become redundant lap.
Wash, Rinse, Dry
The day was long. A summer of flies and heat. Of dust, rising. In the meadow, you played in the long grass, chasing butterflies while the bees buzzed somewhere. Arms and legs scratched and bloodied by grass and thorns.
Overhead, around mid-day, she had pointed at the sky and told you to, ‘Look! Look!’
A bird there, hovering in the blue, and the white, white glare of a summer high sun. You had to squint to see it.
‘A kite,’ she said.
You shook your head. Because a kite has a sting. A kite is yellow and has a shape you cannot name. Neither circle nor square. Funny that she should not know this.
And then, it is over too soon. Back home, she said, ‘time to wash the day off,’ and you had wanted to run, because the dirt and the dust and the blood were all too perfect.
And again, why did she not understand this?
The smell of soap. Creamy and perfumed. Lavender filling the room. You close your eyes and breathe it in. Breathe in the day again, the smells of summer, while she touches your skin. The gentle smoothing away of dirt and dust and blood, not as bad as you feared.Read more >
On brooks of velvet You smelt like salt Feet dipped in the plunge-pool Cradled by stones, calluses I loved to watch you wash
Goosebumps on goosethighs You’d talk me through The whys, cheek touching Breath like peppermint Water slowly darkened with Garden-dirt and grass
Now, tables turned You in that same basin I’ll try to be gentle as Then. You are the Child now: pink and plump forever.
The Difference Between
Outside, the men teach the boys how not to cry, how to withhold their shame, to stand up for their pride, defend all their boundaries, to do what is necessary, to bang their hand on the table or throw things across the room. Sometimes, It gets physical, tears rise and fall. After a while a fortress surrounds the heart, They toughen, prepared for whatever will be meted out. Once the clamps are in place, their sensitivities recede, and they turn to face a mirrored world they see as cold and cruel.
Inside, something else is going on, where the gates are left open, a softening, a feminizing trait they will one day come to yearn for. It reminds them of the womb they emerged from, the tender touch of their youth the cajoling voice of mother teasing them to unclench their fist, causing the man to stutter in rediscovery. It is the only thing that keeps them from becoming wandering lawless beasts.
Herein, It is a common Wednesday, time for the weekly bath. What transpires is a tender, maternal, intrinsically female ritual to do with the washing of the feet, and by extension, how to begin again, Read more >
Mother & Daughter
Was this the moment we were supposed to remember? One little piggy under water and nine more wishing they knew what would happen next.
Wasn’t this how our belly button muttered truth? Telling a story of how we were connected even years later when we might forget it.
Was her robe always that long? Even on the mornings when she got up to see the boys off on their paper routes?
Did she really prefer her clothes in stripes? Maybe he picked that for her after she chose the forget-me-not wallpaper.
If my foot tipped the side of the bowl and the water ran on the old carpet or tipped the pitcher and broke it
did it matter then or was it later?
This little piggy
This little piggy reminds me of how unfair it was. It does. Oink oink oink, I am five again. As I travel down its slopes I slip and stumble and fall. This little piggy makes me forget that I am now soaked in soothing, lovely, warm water. The fresh scent of it. Lavender. All the bubbles I could wish for. Just rolling around in it. All of my own making. This little piggy tends to bring out the oink in me. Has me rolling around in something else alright. Spreading the stink of it everywhere I go. This little piggy. Shameful. This little piggy forgets gratitude for all that is. In this free market universe.
Mother’s Arms – a villanelle
In my mind I am but three Bereft of all my adult stress, With mother’s arms embracing me
Enduring love can set me free As to her heart I gently press. In my mind I am but three
My future trials I cannot see – What lies ahead an empty guess, With mother’s arms embracing me
A grown up, I am all at sea With feelings I try hard to suppress. In my mind I am but three
Does past life really hold the key To actions I cannot confess? With mother’s arms embracing me
In comfort, I little could foresee My life would end in such a mess. In my mind I am but three, With mother’s arms embracing me
domestic placidity follows the writhing rhythm of countless mundane tasks relentless routines of the untroubled home
bely requisite tranquility immaculate pristine flawless model rooms fatuous shells which mask helpless powerless unarticulated groans
rising from churning acidity bitter bile from deep within hurt unspoken questions unasked thrown into profound depths unknown
Rest on my lap, Let me put your swollen feet into the water I poured from this flowered vase.
Let me cradle first one foot Then the other in my palm, Work out the dirt from between Your tiny toes.
Our heads together watch me Work. I feel the heat Of your head next to mine. It is quiet away from muffled
Noise of horses snuffle, Cart rattle on cobblestones in the street outside. Tomorrow you'll be back
to work for twelve hours in clatter and dust of the linen mill. Enjoy this quiet my little one.
Feet in the Bowl
Let’s wash your feet in milk. Tell me how sweet and cooling it was – eighteen years later, when we meet again. You are my daughter and do you see, do you know, that the hardest part of love is keeping milk from going sour? One day, they will tell you.
Let me hold you. Let me hold you again, before the scene changes and you run barefoot into other rooms.
I am not your mother, but I exist, in order to make your little life splendid. One day, you will remember.
Woman to Woman
I bathe your feet new little woman feel the touch of difference
for deep within your unclothed innocence a voice is being nurtured.
These feet little woman will carry that voice.
You will meet sisters along the way and learn to raise those voices.
There will be walls to climb little woman climb high and if
they should remove one foot from you climb higher.
If one day you have no shoes remember your voice is leaving footprints.
Should that voice trip on the trodden path walk on water.
The road was long. Each step I took You took one more. Your hand always in mine, Your steps echoed mine. We skipped light, Glancing off uneven Pathways like shallow Water tumbling over Glistening cold rocks.
Our braided arms swayed Like a rope swinging From an oak bough. Only when a sullen sun Dissolved like a lemon Drop on the city’s tongue Did our bodies turn to lead, Our eyes catch shadows That stole catlike to our door.
I gather you into my lap. You lean into the soft harbor From which you swam Shedding fins and gills For lungs, arms, and legs To walk dirt and cobblestone Roads, to fold damp blades Of meadow grass, to dig Your toes in the thick of carpets, To patter-dance on wooden boards. Read more >
The wee soul's never been to market she's always left at home she's told it takes too long
At bath time I speak to her of little piggies she tells me they're her toes
After bath time I feed her
hold her close 'til mummy decides to come home
I Wash Your Two Feet
I wash your two feet. Just as my mother did for me and my grandmother did for her.
I wash your two feet. I tell you stories about the great woman you will become. And of joys you have yet to imagine.
I wash your two feet. I don’t trouble you with warnings of the challenges you will face or the people who will try to hurt you.
I wash your two feet. Life is long and childhood is short and I know we won’t share many more moments like this.
I wash your two feet. So that one day you’ll be able to stand on them and walk your own path.
This Little Piggy went to market
They took a short cut through the flower market on the way to kindergarten. So early in the morning, but the men were already clearing up, boxes of blooms all sold out. Fallen petals though, sometimes a whole rose to pick up. Mama called Claudia on, told her not to kick the flower pulp with her good shoes. This Little Piggy stayed at home. Claudia wished she could have stayed at home. Kindergarten was strange smells: long-cooked vegetables, the toddlers’ flooded toilet, wax crayons and too ripe bananas. Routines to remember, squiggles that people told her made up her name. And no Mama all day long. By dinner time she was ready to leave but This Little Piggy had roast beef, gravy, mashed-not-roasted potatoes. These were the parts Claudia liked. Not the orange discs of carrot. Not the watery cabbage. Especially not the roasted parsnips pretending to be roast potatoes that they tried to make her eat all up. This Little Piggy had none. At kindergarten she learned that if she didn’t eat her main she got no pudding, even if it was her favourite. She sat quietly while the others scoffed chocolate ice cream with their mouths open and didn’t talk to her. She drank her water and tried not to cry. And this Little Piggy cried wee, wee, wee but no one at kindergarten seemed to hear until it was too late. Warm and slippery down her legs, staining her new white socks, even puddling inside her good shoes. Squelching as she walked all the way home. Mama wasn’t angry. Instead she said, never mind, and, we’ll get you clean. And yes you can have pudding. And yes I will say the rhyme and play the game and tickle you until you laugh and laugh but never until you scream.
To the sea
And one day it will be the sea again; close your eyes and travel through time. We’ll go to the beach on a big train, and one day you’ll see the sea again. The sun will shine on your playpen; you’ll have a memory, perfect, sublime. And one day it will be the sea again; close your eyes and travel through time.
I saw a concave knitting beneath your twinkling eye splash of talks and splash of memories, Mother, rub my sins hard as death bright as sunflower-toasts rub my thighs, rub my thoughts fastening my back, erecting my mind. In the eye of mundane truths and lives of insect-bites plaster this eggshell body with bubble and foam a star kissing another star. Your eyes soft as my belly-button with hands of vertical stripes and patterns like a lullaby, I often see your face in my dreams, Mother, countless motions of twists. I die each night to feel this salty-love – a paroxysm of your body.
Why does the air smell green when it rains?
Your feet got wet in the grass and you wanted a bath to wash the cold away. So we went to bed late and bathed. I would give you anything – I would give you the ocean just to say The world is yours.
[One day we will go to the sea]
For now, a basin, A hand on your waist to say We're home now and safe.
[Dip your toes in. In the morning the air will still be green]
She would read the encyclopedia as she cooked, stirring the contents of a heavy-bottomed pot with her left hand while holding the book aloft with her right. I always wondered how she did it; it was difficult for me to lift the book, even with both hands. I should have known—my mother was one of the strong ones.
“I’d also like one of these,” she’d told the bored cashier in the saggy red apron-vest. With grimy hands, the cashier had rung up the leathery volume, dumping it into the bag without regard to the fragile tomatoes and plums and bread within. My mother had promptly removed the book, tucking it deeply under her arm, without a word of complaint.
When the book sat idle, I’d open it, pressing my nose into the pages, breathing in as if I could smell the trees that had birthed them. I imagined blue sky, cracked leaves, ebony soil, a scent as fresh as the mysteries the volume contained. Flipping through, I’d chance upon a set of pages that were thinned and crinkly, where red sauce had splattered and had been carefully wiped away. I'd lay my cheek on these pages, knowing my mother had laid hands on them. It was a secretive, shared experience, one without words between us, but with words nonetheless.
“Cuboid. Navicular. Cuneiform. Metatarsals. Phalange.” Her soapy hands would glide down the length of my feet as she washed them, naming each bone. Balancing me carefully, holding me firmly, a soft, satisfied smile on her face. Bath time was more than just bathing, getting clean; it was a daily anatomy lesson. Yesterday she’d been in the E’s—and I’d heard words like lobule, helix, and auricle, as the warm towel traced my ear.
She probably thought I wasn’t listening on those nights. I was.Read more >
The eye has decided it will not read today; scorning its owners pleas, the extraneous imperatives and dismissing the ability to see, it closes at approach of text.
Its partner derided host’s attempts to allay its needless loyalty.
Another bathed my child today – custom which has long abided – as they do with all deceased before throwing on the dirt.
The prayer book blurs again.
A Muddy Day
I put my feet in the pot the old fashioned way Very cold, tingly. Playing in the puddles, everything muddy All the dirt on the floor. Mother took out a jug and a dish Carried me over Took off my filthy pants, shirt and wellies Put my two feet inside the big bowl poured cold cold water all over it. She wiped me up with a cloth as best as she could and said: “Take a bath later!” Clean again, I am sunny Time to go find another puddle to jump in!
A Letter from a Daughter to her Mother
With no clothes on, true freedom beckons near, And cool, light breezes calm my prickled skin, Until I think a strange and silly fear: How would that water feel with my feet in it? That old tin jug is colder than crushed ice; It chills the blood that runs through my flushed cheeks. That basin does not do much to entice: From me it garners some protesting squeaks. With your strong arms you hold me very still; In your rough skirts I can feel gentle heat, And on your lap I sit and watch you spill The water from the jug onto my feet. They both now in the basin calmly stand With you rubbing dirt off them; I relax, Remembering the feeling of your hand, Secure in thought that time's stopped in its tracks. The day will come when I’ll be tall like you, And I’ll no longer fit into your lap, So moments like these are ones I’ll review; They’ll be the ones that'll dash free from time’s trap
Time and sun have left their mark, mapped your day, your play. Defined your soft edges. From your feet, I wash the day, venerate your presence. For those moments, you allow me to hold you close, feel the pulse that once resided within me.
Stubborn. Always the stubborn one. The waited for daughter who wishes she was another. Leaves time at home, along with dresses. Runs to abandonment, gathering the verdant; my butterfly.
Taking the Time
I wish I lived in an era when women wore striped, long dresses and gave their children baths on their laps.Read more >
When there are no words
When there are no words there is touch. I do not remember you ever hugging me. But when I was small you held me. I have seen the photographs. You are smiling in those photographs in which you are holding me.
When I fell on the road, you cleaned the wound on my knee and put a bread poultice on it to draw out the grit. It is white and smooth, the scar on my right knee. The wound healed cleanly, thanks to you. You set me on my feet, literally so. My feet have carried me round the world and I have taken it, largely, for granted – that the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other has brought me to this day and that soon I will stand and walk out into the sunshine, easily.
But in houses through this town there are people who can no longer do this. People who sit and wait for someone else to take them out into the sunshine, a someone who may never come. They too, these people unknown to me, were once five years old; they ran barefoot without a care, as I did. A tumble or the sudden stab of a thorn in a heel then brought quick tears, but a mother’s touch and the benediction of warm water meant the memory did not stay. We all ran out again soon enough into that sunshine which – in our memories – shone through all the summer days of our childhood.Read more >
Ties That Bind
Mary Cassatt's well-known painting Degas-esque, 'The Child's Bath' Ideas drift – the Madonna and Jesus Cleansing, purifying; familial bonds Tenderness, togetherness, education Sunday grace, calmness embodied Freed of artifice or guile A moment in time, fragile Art galleries' depictions gilt-framed – Painters neglected or acclaimed
A golden harp plays in the ether Reverberating through centuries
Fragrant whiff of twilight creeping Eucalyptus linen fresh Jug and bowl cracked slumber schooling Water printing splatter trail stepped Dripping droplets, stirring distance Rock pool tiptoe damp cold floors Yearning mother's soft word spoken Reassurance whispered love of chance Oven roasting hay wain summer Swirling bed time hot coal heaven Open fires kindling sparked
candy striped gown hair bun double crown honeycomb memories
come and go hand in hand with the morning mud
pink lavender sugar plum ladybird green thumb milk teeth baby steps
tippy toe into the bowl our daily divination
watch it slowly wash the hours
and tend to her like freshwater river
Mother bathes you and your body will remember– the comfort of her arms will anchor your dreams a counterweight to all the grief the years may bring because once you were held perfect in the perfect curve of her devotion that one safe place everything depends on her hand firm at your waist her head tilted in to yours her embrace at once secure and open that bright blue and yellow morning solid footing for whatever road you take
The Child’s Bath
No one steps into this quiet room where sunlight and a mother’s love warm her clammy skin. Foreshortened faces, familiarity of flesh. Among wild constellations of clashing colour, a child’s pale body beams in moonlike nudity.
Squeeze of foot matched by press of thigh – the angle bats the eye back and forth, a silent carriage return. No Madonna and boy child here – just the newness of old love.
An Angled View
The sun shines on us, it's a captured landscape. It’s a magnetic bond, her epic lessons. How you stay alive. That is life. This is living. This long race is our odyssey, it hungers for black or white. I don’t remember the blink, the flinch, the harrow of this angled view. Do I remember when she washed my feet, or scrubbed my knees? No. I don’t.
But there’s serenity in the scent of tar coal soap and lavender pillows and sun-dried cotton sheets. Her dimpled chin makes me smile as much as my child’s laugh. My mother is the softest colour. The shape of life. My future. I don’t remember her stormy moments of rain; I leave that drear to others. Do I remember summer’s cloudless sky, or my mother’s hazel eyes? Yes. I do.
BORN UNDER A BAD SIGNI’ll never be who you imagine I am,
No matter how much you love me—
That is, no matter how much you love
Whoever it is you imagine I am.
No matter how convinced you are
That I am who you imagine I am,
The fact remains you created me
In your own image that blinds you to me.
No matter how often you lay down your life
For whoever it is you imagine I am,
I won’t be there when you hold me in your arms,
It won’t be my lips when you kiss me.
I’ll never be who you image I am,
No matter how much you love me.
If love were enough, there would be no need
Ever to be honest or to understand.
A single memory overrides her thoughts. She remembers a time before this moment, an easier time of lighthearted laughter and warm embraces. She looks on at the man standing before her and sees his son within those cold brown eyes. The son she loves so dearly. The son who is being eaten up by hatred, trying to piece himself together in the midst of the confusion.
She remembers the smell of dust on him, as she cleaned his little feet in the warm water. His hair was thick and curled, as it is now, falling gracefully around his flushed face like a hyacinth in bloom. His rounded body nestled comfortably in the curve of her own, cheeks brushing against one another. She loved him like he were her own. She wanted to fill the gaps his father had left behind as best she could, to smooth them over with clay and stone and fill the cracks with precious metals.
But she could not mend him.
carve out the belly, the womb with a bloody blade rename yourself the ripper bleeding every month day after day, staining towels for this is the price of rags to riches as if a babe in the arms is a tender bird to which every woman desires aspires but this is nothing yet another backstabbing she-bitched two-faced lie some women just like to fuck it's as simple and clean as that period.
Learning to LoveI faintly remember the times that you vigorously washed and dried my hair on Sunday evening, the brush catching the edges of my ears as I squirmed and wriggled beneath the blistering heat of a hairdryer on full blast.
Often, I remember something else, I remember you squirming as I brushed your hair. Watching it fall out with each stroke as you got weaker and thinner. I cried again that night, wanting to be beneath you with the hairdryer burning my ears once more but it was never to be.
Last night at tea-time, I sat next to you on your bed, now placed in the living room because you could no longer manage the stairs, talked to you while I stroked your arm and held your hand. I tried to get you to drink the thick protein drinks you were given to keep your strength up but like a child you kept refusing.
I was a young mother, flitting between a 53-year-old and a three-year-old. Using what was left of my youth to care for you both. A mother's love. A child’s love. Life was blurred, a rush of nursery runs and hospital appointments. I did not stop because love is unconditional. When you passed away I ran, through the hospital corridors and out the door like I’d done many times when I was a teen and the pain inside me got too much but I soon realised it was still there and the only way to heal was through time and learning to love myself in the same way you loved me.
Hands and FeetImages strike through words
they tell me about you
I tug apart thick skin
that responds only to barbs ; make a window
In the basin, the water is soft
Your fingers even more
I am porcelain
Their tips massaging love
I try to retrieve
from the log of my nerve endings
The firmness came later
The withdrawal is still not in my past
Like wildflower wallpaper compulsions,
your breath too is passed on
Before you discovered my failures
pushing out through that same skin,
you must have thought me precious
enough to stamp tactile memories upon
Little Circles“The foot is connected to every part of the body,” Ma said as she held Little Brother, my only brother, on her lap, her already worn hands rubbing small circles on his feet. “This will help him grow taller.”
I wanted to be taller too, but Ma saw more need for men to be tall. After full, long days of leaning over us, maybe she was sick of tilting her neck a little lower to also look at Ba, who was only two thumb lengths shorter than Ma. Maybe that’s why Ma had to soak Simon’s feet in water, saying it drew out the toxins of his body and left only purity to circulate.
I watched Ma do this every night for thirty minutes. In these thirty minutes, Little Brother was a version of himself no one saw during the rest of the day. He sat calm and still, held firmly in Ma’s arms. I wondered what it was like to be so close to Ma’s chest that he could will his heartbeat to match hers.
“Can I get a massage too, Ma?” I asked one day after Oldest Sister hid Mr. Hu the tiger on the top-most shelf of the closet in the hallway.
“You don’t need it,” Ma said. “You don’t want to be too towering.” She added that she had no time anyway, she had to finish cooking dinner and she didn’t even start the rice yet.
But I didn’t see why I couldn’t be tall and strong, too. I wanted to feel connected to the rest of me, to the water, to Ma.
Mother and ChildA memory and a photograph and the memory of the photograph. My brother, now forty-seven, is a toddler in the photograph and he’s sitting in our mother’s lap. No, that’s wrong. He is sitting to the side of her, squashed in between her on his right and the narrow high side of the narrow chair on his left. Our mum has her arm around him and grasps the arm of the chair, almost in an unnatural pose. But photographs can do that. We know our moment is about to be frozen.
It’s taken in the house in Cumnock. The chairs were left behind or more likely dumped during the move to Ayr. Green vinyl backs and arms and brown seersucker material cushion. Two of them and the three-seater settee. In summer our backs stuck to the vinyl. This was what it was to be young and alive in the 1970s. In Ayr there was a new build house and a new curved right angle sofa and more comfortable chairs awaiting us.
In the photograph our mum and my brother are wrapped up warm, woollen jumpers on. Was the camera the camera my other brother got for Christmas that year?
Took pictures of everything. The cube flashbulb that went off in an almighty flare of magnesium white light and singed the plastic of the cube that held the flash. The smell of metal and plastic and burn.
AblutionFirst I’ll wash away the dirt, the stains of grass, the tiny motes of dirt between her toes, and the dark lines of scratches, until the skin is as clean and soft and pale as I could wish it.
But the skin is so soft it, too, comes away beneath the gentle caress of my fingers, melting away in a swirl of pink and brown to reveal the richer, deeper reds of muscle and sinew and blood.
But I can’t stop there. There are bones, tiny, soft, creamy-white, that still flex, still wriggle with delight beneath my caresses. These, too, must be washed away.
And once there are no longer feet, I work my way up the smooth certainty of the legs, the round happiness of the belly, the pale strength of the chest, the gentle comfort of the arms.
The face is always the hardest part to wash away. Lips that only want to kiss, to whisper, to suck. Eyes that only want to seek, to study, to absorb. But stroke by loving stroke I watch them dissolve.
I brush the darkness of her hair. Soft, softer than my own, softer than my fingers, softer than imagination, until the last of it drifts away like smoke from a dying flame.
And she is gone, like she is every day. She is gone and I am left, like I am every day, alone with my wishes and my dreams and a bowl filled with pain and regret and two years of tears.
StingMy daughter steps on a bee when she’s out in the garden, playing. The skin swells red around the sting, and she comes in to me, crying. I put her small foot to my lips, try to suck out the hurt, but she wriggles, can’t stay still, pulls away. She’s crying and I don’t know what to do.
When I close my eyes, I hear a buzzing that isn’t there. It’s the buzzing that was delivered to me the day my daughter was born, a buzzing that hasn’t left since. Sometimes it’s so loud, it drowns out my own thoughts. Sometimes, it drowns out my daughter’s voice.
My lips fail to comfort, so we fill a bowl of water, cool from the tap. My daughter lets me bathe her foot. It’s as if, when underwater, my fingers and her wound aren’t attached to our bodies. Underwater, my fingers soothe. But when I draw them out, my daughter won't let me touch her until I’ve dried my hands.
I can’t imagine how I thought about bees before I became a mother. I can’t imagine how I got here from there. I can’t imagine how such small wings can create such a penetrating noise.
The dinner will not make itself. My daughter pads around me as I slice open the tomatoes. She will not go out in the garden again today. She presses her sticky body close to mine.
OLD FEETOld feet
have ugly displaced bones
that force shoes awry
a legacy of past stilettos
or misfit army boots
with cracked skin
and brittle yellow nails
which old hands cannot cut.
Yet those same feet
hold the ghosts of tender bones
and sweet smelling soft skin
that nestled in a mother’s hand
and which she printed for posterity
on a treasured plate.
The Middle of the MomentHelena was her first child. When they put her in her arms, after a prolonged labour, she was overwhelmed with exhaustion, and a terrifying thought kept going through her mind, ‘I am responsible for making this baby into a strong woman.’ Slowly, she realised that what was happening was the opposite. This fragile daughter of hers made her into a strong woman. She had always claimed to be a patient woman. How wrong she was! Helena’s endless demands for feeding and her restless nights often caused her tears of resentment and self-pity. It was Helena who gave birth to her mother’s patient self. It was Helena who gave birth to her mother’s courage, when she killed the dog who attacked her little girl. Most of all, it was Helena who taught her to lose herself in the moment. That evening, Helena had a high temperature. She was too hot and could not sleep. Sitting on her mother’s lap, her feet gently rubbed in warm lavender water, their breaths synchronised and the world fell away. There was only one heart beating in two bodies.
Can yousee today the well, the bucket, miles walked by women
drought, the flies, and the sewage. see coal dust, acidic rain
or smog coated lungs. see slaves, cotton, cholera and votes
only for certain people. Hear the looms, boys up chimneys,
those below-stairs maids. see what it takes this closeness, this
cleanliness, this bond. see all mod conveniences, the pigments
cut with lead and mercury, all that wealth, that love all that love
Cold feet, warm heartThere she is, every night -
Staring to her small feet
Which, have been stepping many years
Too young, too old.
Holding her fears
Cleaning her hope
Warming up her cold
Drinking water through emotion.
She is only a kid
She is already a kid
And she never know -
When she is allowed to be who she is.
There she was -
The wet nurse
Wiping theirs tears
with a daily cloth
Pretending she was strong
She could be writing
She could be away
She could be done.
There they were -
Pretending everything is going to be alright
That time will come
with new clothes
and its freedom.
War BabyThe soldiers occupied the territory
of your body and
what remained was guilt and blame
for failures of protection
What remains is this little one.
I will not name her.
When you left
I sewed forget-me-nots (forget-her-nots)
into your petticoats
pulling hard on the threads
to stitch her
into your memory.
But for you they are
each stitch always the wound.
You unpick threads to survive.
She has her mother’s smile
this child of my child
but her cool tone eyes
foreshadow the future.
In what is now her father-land
I count her toes
in the language of her mother.
MarthaMartha looked after me
when my parents were away.
Told me stories of the sea,
of mermen and monsters, they
swam with me under-covers before prayers,
along with other secrets I hushed up the stairs.
I remember her softly bathing my toes,
chalking me in Calamine
when the sun burnt my nose.
If she clapped quick it was a sign:
Parents were back and I was to bed!
I'd clamp my eyes shut and act like dead.
Why Martha left me? They didn't explain...
I talked to her always. See, I'm with her, again.
Did you have fun?I love you my dear
About the mud,
I know I told you no to play
But I was young once too.
I know how raindrops
Rippling in those small
Round sidewalk ponds
Call out to little feet.
How hard it is to resist
Their cry, “jump in me!”
See how easily it washes off?
When we have cleaned your toes
We will clean your shoes.
First is no barrier
To the love I have for you.
Did you have fun?
Now let me see you smile.
Mother and childRest your gaze on the angel in the parlour
the household madonna in her allotted role.
Carer, source of all nurture; painted into a corner.
A deity of small tasks: hemmer of handkerchiefs,
wiper of tears and noses, washer of baby-creases
and barely formed toes.
See, her head bowed - demure mother.
Days bound by chores. Days spent kowtowing
to the demands of young children.
Don’t look here for small acts of rebellion
- she is too tired, too trapped
inside these flowered rooms.
If she is dreaming of her own crushed ambitions
she keeps her eyes downcast
keeps her thoughts hidden.
And the child? Already inducted into the cult,
she learns daily the fate of all women.
She seems docile, but looks sullen.
Maybe her mother will whisper to her
fairy tales of emancipation.
Maybe the child will break the mould.
Land of My BirthWithout speaking the ritual begins. All articles present, laid out in pristine order. The articles of life – health, wealth, greenery, rolling hills, drive-in volcanoes. One by one, they are plucked from their slot and customised for gain, leaving weathered remnants in their path. The inner core trembles and Mother Lucia’s calming hand glides down the mountains, her voice whispers…
‘Helen don’t give up.’
The warm waters swirl around swollen feet. Memories of battered kin, long battles waged by translucent warriors eager to hold your beauty, now being washed away. The air around is still, waters warm and nourishing, giving life back to a land long embroiled in a tug-o-war for possession. But are these really memories? Stinging nettle whips, unyielding machine belt collars, brandished by one elected fool after another on the pulpit, draining life from cane harvest gathered by bended backs.
‘Hush Helen, don’t give up!’
‘Your children will hear your cry.’
The warm waters flow into villages long forgotten by time, through passage ways left to crumble and fade away. Massaging them out of their slumber, giving strength to weary limbs. The hills sigh, shaking off the bonds of dependency and from deep within resolute voices cry…
‘Come Helen, time to rise!’
‘Gather your offspring, time to rise!’
“A Mother and Child Reunion” Paul SimonOrphaned at 42 – old enough to understand.
Still young to feel deserted by a woman who knew
me inside out, back to front & all points east and west
She acknowledged all my faults loved me
just the same, unstinting and unfailing.
Listened to my woes imagined or otherwise.
And sometimes annoyingly reiterated the other
point of view of which I was wilfully oblivious.
My orphan Annie heart has never ever stopped
missing her and her faithful and curious
predilection for housework and ‘turning out’.
Her afternoon’s summer finery after the morning’s prosaic
overall of labour, satisfied from the consoling therapy
of dusting, hovering, baking and all things housewifely.
Meals set at tables for my Father’s and my delight.
I chirruping along about my perennial childish
doings – secure as any child has the right to be.
Cocooned, embraced, enveloped and indulged.
Our constant relationship moving through the years
Her stoicism and dignity when my Father died
and she faced an uncertain and alien world alone.
Clean/uncleanIt’s when the missus goes out, I can see you properly. The master is locked in his den, and the house is quiet. I give you all the baths, you’re used to me around water and you never make a fuss. It’s meant to make me know my place, but it’s like coming out into the light, spending my nights upstairs after my days trapped in the kitchen. The big range dries out my skin and throws smuts into my hair. But I never feel dirty when I’m with you, even though you have everything you could wish for. That I could hope for.
I polish the knives and forks and wonder what you can use them all for. You have five pairs of shoes, I went barefoot till I came to work in this house when I was ten- missus made me cover up my feet and they itched for weeks. The only time I’ve lain down to wash, I was giving birth in a bath-tub. This bath-tub. You won’t have to deal with that.
I wash your feet specially, missus doesn’t like any one to notice how your little toes are so short. She won’t let you wear sandals, makes you keep your shoes on at their beach house in Hove. Everyone understands, she’s tried so hard for a child, then had one that’s not quite perfect. She’s so beautiful, with her long red hair and blue eyes. The master and missus are striking when they walk out arm in arm, with his blonde hair like an angel. Everyone is on their best behaviour around her.
Your hair is getting darker, your eyes are getting lighter. I gather you into my lap, the place I hold you once a day and carefully wash around your perfect toes. The only remaining sign that you are mine.
When the Sea came to meThe first time I saw the sea I was about 5 years old. It rolled in quite gently at first then gathered pace and roared it's way across the sands. The noise scared me but my mother laughed and took me to the edge of the water. The cold water ran over my bare feet and I backed away quickly shrieking with fear and joy combined. I grew more confident and walked once more into the onrushing tide loving the sensation of the water withdrawing and my heels sinking into the soft sand. The sunlight glistened on the waves, a million stars shimmered as far as I could see and when the time came to go home I cried for that sea, to wade in its waters. My grandfather chuckled as he dried my feet with the towel warmed by the sunshine "Here come on let's get you dried, just look at all that sand in between your little toes!" I looked down seriously at my feet while grandfather dried them with all the care of a man cleaning precious porcelain "There, you're done now" he said blowing on my feet to scatter the few obstinate grains that remained. The effort of blowing caused him to cough with a rasp that caused alarm between me and grandmother. He turned away and cleaned his mouth with his handkerchief, composing himself before turning to face us adding hoarsely "Eee this blinking cough eh? Come on lets get set for home little un" My grandfather died the following winter and he would never dry my little feet again. I was distraught at the passing of this lovely man who loved us all. I lay on the settee with my face buried in a pillow crying, inconsolable. My mothers voice gently told me to look and see what grandfather had left me and with the inquisitiveness of a child I turned to look. It was an enamel bowl filled with water "Look grandfather saved you some of the sea!" My sobbing stopped and I asked mother "Is it really the sea?" "Yes" she said "He wrote a letter to the Pier man and told him to send some of the sea to you, something to remember him by" I lowered my feet into the cold water and could think of no greater gift than the day the sea came to me...
Miscarriages (Or The Bird And Other Things)I killed a bird once.
I smashed it with my fist
and it died right there –
it didn’t even quiver.
I took it out into the garden
and buried it,
like you’re supposed to.
I squeezed it,
felt a bone crack.
I buried it that way.
I went back into the house
to find flour,
a white dome
with red petals.
I thought they were raisins.
My mother told me
everything was fine
but fell onto the floor
like a cartoon character
and the flour
An EducationChristine taught me many things.
A loyal servant to our family for two-dozen years, she reared my three older siblings before I was unexpectedly thrust into her care. I was a surprise. I shouldn’t have existed. But when mother fell pregnant at 48, my existence came to be at the expense of hers.
“It was just her time,” my father said once without much conviction, on one of the rare occasions he acknowledged me.
My two older sisters had been married off long ago, so I rarely saw them, but when I did the cavern between us was made plain. My brother still lived at the house as he was the heir. He tended to communicate in grunts and coughs. It wasn’t personal; he spoke with everyone that way. Still, the burden of being my mother’s murderer was one I bore my entire life. They didn’t have to say it. I knew that’s what they thought of me.
I suffered episodes of rage, or “hysterical fits”, as father called them. First I cried. Then I screamed. Then I hit and attacked anyone who tried to calm me.
When I got like this Christine always did the same thing. She would remove my shoes and stockings. She would fetch a basin of lukewarm water and a small jug. Then she would sit me on her kneeling lap as she used the jug to slowly pour the water over my feet, washing them. Then came the soothing refrain of her gentle whisper.
“Try not to thinking about anything else. Focus on the feeling of the water trickling down.”
PewterThe sewing machine was invented in 1830, but
into the 20th Century
many tailors, seamstresses, mothers, daughters, children, orphans, still
blankets, handkerchiefs, table clothes, breeches, bonnets, dresses, nighties, vests
out of necessity,
Early in the 1800s, Cardiff Castle had flush toilets and taps, but
there are still fly-in villages in the North
not just Siberia
not just Papua New Guinea
not just Zimbabwe
clean drinking water.
HushHush now, no more crying, she whispers, her breath hot on my cheek. The water will wash the hurt away, make it better.
Silly child, Edith had said, her hands covered in suds, as I limped into the kitchen, cheeks tear-streaked, my favourite dress covered in mud. Your mother told you not to run in the fields. There are rabbit holes everywhere. She’ll be so cross.
On she went as tentatively I made my way into the house, fear now creeping up my legs. Would Mama be disappointed, blame me too?
I stood at the sitting room door. Shafts of sunlight lit up her hair as she read. Peace filled the room. I hesitated but could not hold myself back.
Mama, I said.
She raised her head, dropped her book and ran to me, her long skirts rustling. Into her arms I fell, breathing in the sweet scent of her.
My darling, she whispered, scooping me up. My poor darling. Edith, we need water, she called.
Gently she undresses me, shushing me all the time, ribbons brush my ears as she eases the pinafore over my head. I step from my bloomers as she holds my hands until I stand before her naked.
Marin, Marin, she says, my sweet girl, and wipes away the tears.
Edith comes in carrying a towel and a bowl of water. She places the bowl on the rug, tutting as she does so, disapproving of water in the sitting room.
Mother takes the towel and wraps it around me then lifts me on to her knee and places my foot in the water. It is warm but still my toes tingle and I pull back nervously.
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Your Hair Is Dark NowYou lift my foot gently from the hospital bed and enclose it in the flannel, hot at first, then warm as you press carefully around my heel, the fleshy part at the base of each toe, then the top. You glance at me, trying to gauge whether the pressure is okay, whether this is going down well. I nod and try to say ‘lovely,’ but speaking has become difficult. Your eyes give everything away, they have done since you were a small child, and I am grateful when you bend your head and continue.
Your hair is dark now, one or two strands of grey like I had at your age. You dip the flannel into the bowl of hot water and begin on the other foot, and I close my eyes because I know you will look up at me again, wishing that your hands could do more than bring this temporary pleasure. When you are done with the flannel you smooth on some lotion and begin to work it in in small, slow circles.
I relax back into the pillow and remember that you used to love me washing your feet as a child after you’d been barefoot in the garden all day, sitting still on my lap as I took one foot, then the other, and rubbed off mud and sand with my thumb.
I can feel now the way each foot fitted perfectly into my hand. Is this what has made you come here with your flannel and your lotion today? Do you remember the big cracked enamel bowl we used, and the way the late afternoon sun slanted through the window where we used to sit, always in the same chair in the kitchen? Afterwards you would run off and join your sister and the noise and the squabbling would start up again, and I would scold and wish for you to hurry up and grow older.