• Vol. 08
  • Chapter 12
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T18.0XXA – Breathing Obstruction

Gasping / each second / an ending / find air / in my arms / cherished child / as I run / frantic / and screaming / slapping / your back / my sandals / on ice / chest heaving / with yours / feet desperate / for traction / I am kneeling / inside / on the seat / on the wheel / my husband’s / frustration / is clenched / in his fists / pounding / the dashboard / at red / lights / ignition keys / swinging / my child / were you thinking / what / were you thinking / when you touched / it and tasted / that shiny / new thing / small / as you are / you wanted / to know it / to bring the world / inward / and closer / you swallowed
1

Liebe Radioaktive Damen und Herren

Lorraine stepped into the U-Bahn and sat. The man across from her was crying silently. His big red hand, cracked and dry, covered his mouth as tears streamed down his jowls, and he clung onto a flabby backpack in his lap. Nobody else noticed. She leaned forward to observe him, but the hand moved over his eyes and the man disappeared.

Lorraine sat back. The gap on the seat opposite her shivered. 'He can see me too', she realized. The carriage jolted and she hung onto the handrail, pulled herself up and stepped out. The shivering patch of air followed her out onto the exposed grimness of Alexanderplatz.

'Not me,' she corrected herself. 'That Thing in me. He can see that Thing.'

It happened on nights like this, when Berlin cracked open for her. It wasn’t worse than being alone, but not better either. The vast square was empty apart from a few huddled sleepers, its fringes curving against a steel-black sky. The heart of the city lay buried here, but its embalming had been a failure: it had resisted and still beat at an erratic rhythm, rotting and hollow.

Under the World Clock two elderly women in bright headscarves stood embracing, the shorter one lying her head against the other’s breast while her companion comforted her soundlessly. The taller woman looked right into Lorraine’s eyes as she stroked the other’s hair. Lorraine’s throat clenched.

'It’s not me,' she wanted to say. 'I’m not responsible for every one of you.' The shimmering which had followed her paused at a distance, glitching momentarily into the image of the man letting out an inaudible cry and tugging at his hair.

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2

Movement

it is time to slide wonkily downhill
denim bottoms fraying fashionably
rickety rocks kissing ass

it is time for the tinniness of time to
say in its tangy voice
that a floor-door has opened

on to the next
cubicle of time
where an accountant stares

and a computer rusts
and dust rests
and the only movement is you

having fallen frayed bottom-first
exploding with the old
transforming 4 walls

to 5.
the old is like a wind
to the stone-still new

and now it is time again
for a new old and the same old
still new.

3

Stunted

When I was younger
I had a habit of eating things:
pen lids, coins, pins.
Each thing that would
materialise out the other end—
because some of them didn’t—
I would hang in my room
on a piece of string from
one wall to another.
My trophies, my mother
said, were blocks to me
making friends, from
opening myself up.
With this in mind,
I decided to swallow a key.
It was only small—
the kind that opens windows—
but when I felt it down my throat
I went buckeyed, nearly choked
on the pointed edges which
scratched my tonsils.
They were shaped
like an E
but I yelped
in a perfect G.
Panic stricken, I told my mother
what I had done.

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4

Family Recipe

Set the day to a heat wave.
Take a rich grandad, treasures locked away, visiting family for a birthday treat.
Fold the birthday-girl, his favourite grandchild, into his arms.
Add the girl's single mother and five older siblings, looking on—essence of resentment—and a new fairy tale book grandad is reading.
Drop in one story about the goose with the golden egg and several secret whispers in her ear.
Crack open grandad's head when he falls hard and his heart stops.
Whisk the girl away so she forgets everything.
Make sure life is beaten in well—the angry mother/daughter/sibling relationships, the dwindling family fortune, the fruitless search for the safe box and the key.
Divide the mixture into six versions of what happened that day.
Bake for 25 years until, in therapy, the favoured grandchild's memories rise.
Remove the warm fairy tale book from under her childhood mattress, note and rusted key taped inside.
Leave long enough for everyone to cool down.
Swirl a topping of sweet forgiveness over them all.
Lay the table for another party.
Open the box.
Share.

5

Anamorphosis

Of course, you say, as we stand
at the counter of Bar Obvious
waiting for our coffees day after day

This meeting place is indistinct
as if you could scratch through the sky
to see the blurred edges between teal and ruby

The texture of absence, of air on metal, it's trust
it's like us
to try to trip the cosmic order

to skip away and wake with the key in our hands
to row home across the bay
before the sun rises

And that's what I want to know: how to traverse
the damn line between the visible and invisible
where colours morph: bright yet grey

Although you don't say much when we are here
I only need a word, an image
to bring it all back again

Threaded on a wire
curled around a hand as
a telephone cord



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6

Pandora

Where stars sing
between threads of time:
where compassion and courage extend
helping hands: where thought and endeavour
work together, you will find me.

Where hatred and cynicism
corrupt: where lies triumph
over truth: where calculations
compute incalculable consequences,
you will find me.

Call me Pandora if you must,
but know that I am double-sided.

7

Why I Kept Losing My Keys

I didn't hang them on the wire by the door. You explained that if I got into the habit, they'd always be there when I needed them. You were right. You were always right.

I left them in my pocket, thinking I'd be going out again soon, but you persuaded me to stay in and watch a film with you, so I cancelled on my friend. You got bored of the film, peeled off my jeans and flung them, keys in the pocket, into the corner of the living room. I found them the next morning, ten minutes after I was supposed to leave for work.

I threw them on the table and by morning, they were gone. I checked every pocket, every bag, inside the sofa, under the bed. I was about to call my manager when you dangled them from a finger. "Looking for these?"

I didn't want to be a part of your system. I put my keys in my handbag. You woke me at midnight, raging that I'd better find them now because you wouldn't have me running around searching in the morning. It stressed you out.

I swear I put them on the wire. But when I needed them to drive to my mother's, they weren't there.

I left them at work. It had been a long day; of the fifteen accounts I'd passed to collections, five had screamed obscenities down the phone. My manager told me to toughen up. "You're on your final warning."


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8

Fob

This isn't a key on a wire,
the light refusing to catch
its eyelids like burnished butterflies.

'String me along,' it whines,
caught in a stilled gelatinous
sunset of gameplay.
It's dubious, coquettish, it flirts
a pretence that it's a fulfilled promise,
a copper kiss,

a myth, a trick. 'Look at me,'
it says, 'I'm a key
to that open tupperware box
full of neatly folded sins
and a banshee twist.'

This isn't a clever ruse to unravel,
or a telegram, or a time-travelling
device, or an installation
tripping along in high-heeled gallery shoes.

It's only at dusk when moths escape
the open mouths of virtuous toads
that you feel the cold slip
of an empty brass circle, a whisper
to all the impossible spaces
which might, one day, let you in.

9

A mechanism far too finely-wrought

When you rusted shut completely,
I heard it. From the other side of the world,
that squeal as your gears clenched teeth -
one last revolution now forever
seized in place. You always were that kid
who needed more; more dream-road metered
for your tread, more copper wire to gird
your tangly nest, more long run-up
to make the biggest leap. More oil to sweet
your keepings-on. Most of us believe we fall
wide open to just one key, that in this chest
we nest a mitred egg, some chambered trick
of boxes, that somewhere jerks the honey
of the thumb that perfect-fits the notch - 
that absence revving hot and frantic
as the engine in the throat. You kept a heavy ring
all jangling full of almost-right. I know you tried
and tried each one, in turn, to turn
the things you never could unlock, and tried
to stop the valves like I am now. All this water,
all this salt, it does seep out and in
as fast as we can test the fit. No chance
such human weather wouldn’t still a thing
that ticked and ticked, that took its time,
from every mark, to keep the needle
desperate in the red.

10

Little Lena

Come in. Yes, we’re both well. Lena’s playing outside. She’s happy on her own. She has a vivid imagination – little Lena. You wouldn’t believe the things she does sometimes. The things she says. Sometimes I wonder what’s going on in that small head of hers. Once she insisted she was a cat. I’m not a girl, she told me. I know! She licked milk straight from saucer. Was out in the playground crawling around on all fours and meowing. Slept in a nest of blankets on the floor of her bedroom. Funny little thing.

Another time we were walking past Mr. Wilson’s house. Yes, the old man on the corner. And Lena ran in front of him while he was mowing his lawn. I know! Scared the life out of me. Lena told him to stop because they were in pain. Exactly! Who’s in pain? The grass of course, would you believe it? Lena said she could hear it screaming.

Oh, and listen to this. This is funny. Just last week Lena came into my bedroom in the middle of the night. She told me that she needed to go outside. Needed to go to the woods. Yes, that bit of wasteland beyond the supermarket. She calls it the woods for some reason. Why, darling, I asked her. She said it was important. There was a gathering in the woods and she needed to go. Well, of course not! I walked her straight back to her bed and tucked her up. I told her we’d go there in the morning. She cried and said that it would be too late. I know! A gathering in the woods? Ha!

Was I like that as a child? Oh no. Never. It’s like she was switched at birth in the hospital. Like she belongs to some other family. I guess she’ll grow out of it especially when she starts school. The teachers won’t put up with that nonsense, will they?

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11

Putting the Tin Lid on it

The tin is full. It's heavy when I lift it to dust. This time, I properly look at it. I can't even remember where it came from in the first place. I guess it must have had some childhood gift in it once, maybe sweets – probably jellies. I hate jellies. The pine green paint is bright but the small beige teddies, with their red bows, look ancient – not in a Steiff-bear-expensive-ancient way. Just from another time, another life.

The tin has followed me from house to house, becoming heavier each time. It lived on the sloping kitchen shelf in that damp basement in Forest Hill. That's where it acquired the first specks of rust on its bottom. It moved to France and Russia – jet-setting tin. Well, hardly – it lived in a tiny room at the top of the lycée and in an even tinier room on the fifth floor of the Soviet apartment block with mosquitoes like helicopters buzzing around it. In those days, it was only half full. And rattled more.

The tin lid has become harder to move. Lids usually ease with time. But it's many years since I opened it. It could do with a squirt of oil. I open the drawer. That just-in-case kitchen drawer with batteries, plastic hooks which couldn't take the weight of a paper towel, rawlplugs, an old bone-handled palette knife, long since relegated to the role of paint-stirrer. I'm not a hoarder. The drawer, and the tin, are my two concessions to hoarding.

The tin lid releases itself. I empty its contents onto the kitchen table. Too late, I realise that I should have put paper down first. Rust dances down into the crack between the table's leaves. And there it is laid out before me. My nomadic life.

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12

The Day of the Hanging Key

The key appeared overnight, suspended on a wire across the town's square. It became the immediate focus of attention.

'What does it open?' people asked each other.

No one proposed where the corresponding lock might be. Bewildered, the townsfolk simply looked up at the key and rubbed the backs of their craning necks.

Carla chose this moment to amble into the square and say, 'We should try to retrieve it.'

This suggestion animated the crowd. Carla sat on a bench and watched as two decorators extended a ladder. It almost reached the key but had nothing to lean against, which meant that nobody could ascend.

'Someone small could go up it,' one of the decorators said, as she attempted to keep the ladder upright. Nobody volunteered.

Carla removed her hat and brushed some talcum powder off it. The fine particles drifted towards the decorators and up their noses. They sneezed, and the ladder crashed to the ground.

'Send for Salvador,' Carla then said, replacing her hat. People nodded in agreement. They began shouting Salvador's name and looking for him.

The notion of a mysterious hanging key piqued Salvador's interest. Although reclusive, he strode to the square and assessed the situation.

'Give me an hour,' he said and disappeared.

With nothing to do, the crowd grew restless.

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13

THE KEY TO IT ALL

Grace Alice Mary Susanna Jane Smith had a superfluity of Christian names, just the right number of toys, two imaginary friends, and a conviction that she did not belong anywhere. Elephant and Ojo agreed with her. Elephant rubbed his fluffy grey trunk around Alexandra’s tight black curls. “The bathrooms in the wrong place.”

Ojo asked “Why isn’t there a tree in the garden, now?”

Ma and Pa were always nearby. Ma, a willowy blonde, with her kisses and perfume and fried chicken every Saturday. Ojo liked fried chicken, insisted on it. Pa was a painter. He sat on the beach day after day painting the sea and the shore.

Alicia, Elephant, and Ojo watched Ma dusting and polishing with an energy that was reserved only for every third Saturday in the month when the whole house underwent an orgy of cleaning and tidying. In between time, things were allowed to sink into a gentle muddle. Kisses, cuddles, games, and stories took priority. As usual, Ma took the red book down from the top shelf and ran a duster over the leather covers, huffed on the brass corners and lock, buffed them up on the corner of her apron. Ojo wanted to know why it was always kept locked. Ma smiled indulgently.

“Tell Ojo its none of his business.” She patted the key on a chain round her neck. “You’ll find out. All in good time.”

Elephant whispered to Alex, “She writes in that book when she thinks your asleep. It’s got photos in. I’ve seen her kissing them.”


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14

The Art of Looking

It wasn't clear where the point of entry began;
Or the exit.
This made the removal all the more difficult – the exorcism of lingering things.
And linger they did.
They were raindrops on washing lines.
They were leaves in decay holding fast.
They were the last slivers of horizon light at dusk.
But light they were –
And worthy they felt –
And they drew the eye.
It is then, in the act of examination, that the rest retreats, and you are left with these things –
Focal points of a life,
In your eyes.

There are those that pass by and through them without truly breaking stride.
It means they don't carry them –
Become fixated to a point where the background of their existence blurs,
And there is only that thing.
To continue straight on is to allow no time to consider it;
But it also dispels the need to.

How is it possible to know,
When it comes to looking,
How much
Is too much?

15

Separate Floors

You slide a rusted key to me
along a curving wire
connecting our two windows
in rooms on separate floors.
I've heard you sing for years
inside my prison cell. Each day
you've been my wakeup call
each night you've helped me fall
asleep. Your tiny key promises
much more. I've never seen
your eyes, and I realise
I might be ugly in your sight.
Anxiously, I search for locks
of fitting size and draw
multiple blanks. Finally relieved
I understand your proffered metaphor –
we will remain connected,
always breathing on separate floors.

16

Bonfire of the Properties

Someone had dragged a thin fridge-- could've been the last one on the whole block-- onto the lawn. Ran an extension cord through a basement window and offered freshments. A collection tin fashioned from a coffee can filled with change as we drank cold beer with the squatters. This was the last night they'd spend as neighbors. This was a simultaneous, combination goodbye, going-out-of-business, protest. Both a welcome and a swan song for everyone that had marched unsuccessfully for housing equality that morning. Anyone who walked through the neighborhood, their neighborhood, this place slated to become the amorphous "future." Who saw the spraypainted bedsheets hung from balconies, asking, "who belongs?" Anyone who witnessed the erosion of life, sidewalks, front gardens giving way to storefronts, coffee shops, electric scooter hubs. Through the rain, we had wound our way along that stretch of consecutive blocks that would be a high-rent district as soon as the paint dried.

We took ourselves on a tour of their buildings. Dated, cement, reminiscent of previous decades. Particleboard, radiators, linoleum tiles. Empty stairwells led to empty apartments. Echoing spaces that wouldn't exist tomorrow. Demolition was scheduled. Diggers and dump trucks were parked adjacent. Half hidden by the pines, their yellow necks careened over the carports, bike shelters. Inside, the shutters had been closed. For what? The homes were cleared of furniture, pictures, personal touches. Except where graffitists took bedroom walls, the accordion doors of linen closets as one last canvas. Portraits. Wet, two-meter faces that met you eye-to-eye when you entered.

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17

AntiMatterhorn

Two Library Assistant Psychogeographers poured through the broken golem city of newly bare shelves.

They had chosen their spot months ago, and having arrived at their final day before the service ambled towards its new home, their brief passage was charged with purpose.
The older of the two took out a penknife and set about freeing two small squares of the awful carpet, to take away as souvenirs. The knife bearer would frame his.

The younger withdrew a document from inside her coat. She had rolled it up, rather than folding it, because a makeshift scroll had, she thought, a better performative quality for this intervention.

The spell scroll, somewhat fresh from a library printer, contained a solemn sigil – a blood red key drowning against the ‘Winter Mood’ of recycled library paper. It had not been ignited with significance through sexual energy, or from the trance brought on by exhaustive dancing, or mind-altering substances, but by the monotony of customer service, and every controlled explosion of, “I won’t come to the new library, it is too far from the bus station.”

She fixed the sigil to the wall between the empty shelves that had stood there since the 70s. There was no great fanfare, they regarded it for a few stolen moments and then left.

When the library building would be pulled down, the pent up magic in the tempered symbol would erupt, all of their good intentions over the town, like they were two anti-nuclear priests, who instead of warning future wanderers away from buried and still potent toxic waste, let that energy gush out, and flood the people with promise.

18

Losing

We heard the latches laughing. The key? It was finished, lost in the wet ground. Back we went, retracing our steps on the soaking path, as rain forced the half-slack fencewire to chatter alongside us. It skittered ahead, back, behind us, racing back and forth.
After two hours I said, look, pointing at a stone like a rusted heart. By then we’d retraced the whole route, found nothing key-like. Were we still looking for the key? In a leaf of shale I discovered your face, which I studied, disbelieving, then lost.
I lost it.
We lost it.
We had lost it, standing on the porch, waiting for the rain to finish, but it only turned patchy and blustering. We watched an actual cloud pour upwards, making the air silver and green. We knocked on the next door. No answer. Was there someone living there, even?
We had lost the key, somewhere in this bogwater-saturated earth. So we’d gone looking, retracing the entire loop, and the earth soaked into us.
At the hilltop a text made it through. We raced home with soaking phones, dreaming of the open door and a bag of rice. The light formed restless mirrors, we went back and forth through the glass. The bouncing wire ran back with us, making noises like a BBC radiophonic workshop. A serious smile on your face, you squinted up at the green sky and said –
The sun discovers a world wet to touch, fills it with reflection, and everything struggles against its edges.
      You’d lost it.
Alright. I admit, you said something else. But our words had been spoiled by the brightness, as my own speech, here, is delaminated.

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19

The colors of the sky

Of course I would never pick a hotel of that sort. It's because of the job.
Such a splendid sky. The colors make me think of an Anton Chekhov story. At this motel, right next to me, lying in a bed is a woman. You thought I would be alone? Her name is Nove. It's a code name. This woman is my partner. She joined me ten minutes ago in the room and we are now ready. We are lovers, cheaters, we raise no suspicions like this. The job is to get to a location for the pickup of a witness and - on a need to know basis only - possible suspect. We check out and hand over the key. I realize how strange and eerily vintage this key is, as if it opens up a treasure chest. But no, it’s the key to a lame door of a lame hotel in the middle of a highway. When we drive off with my partner's Ford, raising dust, my eyes look for the sky. The colors are now prettier and I mention this reflection to my partner who looks at me sideways, says nothing, squints her eyes and sucks her coke with a black plastic straw. The noise she makes gets on my nerves. She's not into literature, I get it. I just wanted to strike a conversation.
After meeting up with our connection in the Northeast, we had the witness in our car and Nove was boring him with protocol and procedures. But I got him to talk a little. It was a four hour drive to Rome. I got him to talk not about the event he witnessed - that wasn't our job - but about himself. "I'm a Russian literature undergraduate". I felt a twinkle in my heart, a tickle in my ear. That was unexpected. I wanted to keep talking but I stopped. My partner said mockingly, "oh, that is a coincidence, we are fans of Chekhov here". The witness was puzzled, tried to smile, said nothing.
I wanted to talk about the colors of the sky and the story that triggered the connection. But I couldn't remember the name of the story, only that it was macabre, and it was about the ocean, and dead bodies thrown in it. I kept my hands on the wheel until the sky turned dark, until in my mind there was nothing but duty.

20

SOME DAYS

I demand to be found.
Like lonely children who stay out
Too long in the rain.

My legs dangling beneath me,
Sick with the memory of hands.
Yet, every person I’ve met,

Has been traveling too fast.
No one stopping to answer.
I have gotten so dirty with time.

How do you breathe when the years
Get harder, when no one living knows
Your pain? You’d be disappointed

At how often I had hope for some
Silver lining, but I keep calling & no
One would come running.

21

The Ruin

We locked up as usual, as if
we were just going to the movies,
as if we were sure we would be back soon.
 
Three bags on the porch—all we could carry
to the end of the world. Above, the sky
crackled with dust, threatening
to kiss the ground, which had parted,
baring the dying heart of the earth.
 
Wait, said Ma. She turned
And strung the key on a piece of chicken-wire
In plain sight. It was the wire fence
Our passionfruit grew on, their fruit
Unnaturally large and heavy from the radiation
dripping seeds and yellow flesh
into the mewling eyes of newborn weeds.

It was the house we had grown up in
and to which we would never return. Maybe
after all this was over, someone
would stumble across it, clean the dust and
scorched earth from our beds, and make it
another home. We left our pictures
on the mantelpiece
so the house would remember us.

 

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22

We are the key

So, here we are, still.
We have been noticed and the noticing has made us beautiful
Our decay glitters briefly, gorgeously, tragically in the midday light
Beneath the fading trees.
We may no longer have a point or purpose
We may no longer open any door on this earth but in our minds
We unlock universes
That divert us and teach us nothing
Not even awe.

That such a tiny, pretty thing destroys oceans,
Created The Immortal in a child’s red, plastic slide
To sail eternally among our birth stars,
While we hang here in dreamy oblivion, strung on our own doom
Searching listlessly for the thing to unlock
Even now.

We have been noticed and the noticing has made us beautiful.

23

Suspension

Each morning, I wake with disappointment that I have not yet passed.

I lay on the plastic-lined mattress until the orderly comes in and says good morning in a tone much too bright for this place. She helps me off of the low bed and wraps an itchy, starch robe around my frail body. At least she still lets me take a piss on my own and with the door shut. Not everyone gets that luxury around here and I relish the brief moments of independence.

Arthritis has rusted my hand into a permanent claw, making it easy to catch the cool water from the tap and splash it on my face. But they prevent me from doing much else.

The days pass in a blur of mushy food, medication, television, and the occasional assisted walk. I was left here some time ago, though I’m not sure how long exactly. Time works differently past the age of ninety. My wife, my perfect fit, died years ago—and with her my sense of usefulness and desire to know what day it was.

I am suspended, alive enough to not be dead yet not truly living, but I am not the only one. We all drift through this place like ghosts, hollow and gaunt. All waiting. Some of us are expectant and some of us are anxious, but we are all waiting. We are all being ushered through the final days of our lives by care workers instead of family members.

At promptly seven o’clock each evening I am back in my room, tucked into the sorry excuse they call a bed. I get one hour of television before another orderly comes in and says goodnight Ted in a tired and bored tone.

Each night, I picture my wife as I drift off with hope that I will see her soon.

24

Just Cut Metal

I squint through the cloudy mirage of tomorrow,
an indistinct watercolor painting
of turquoise shadows and
gentle mauve hues of memory’s projection.

I remember turning the key,
the creaking wooden steps to my college apartment,
folding faded jeans and gold threaded scarves,
placing them in someone else’s furniture.
Freedom infused my perpetual tuna casserole,
my monthly bus pass,
my afternoons browsing the basement
used bookstore for dog-eared novels.

My son’s tomorrow is a dangling key
of all things possible,
the clean sheen of just cut metal.
I put the rusted one in my pocket,
filling the air with story and youth song,
tales of skating along the canal at twilight,
seeing the outline of Parliament’s pointed spires,
listening to ballads at the Celtic pub,
walking until the soles of our feet throbbed.

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25

A Spare Key

I am eight. I'm very grown up.
I have my own front door key.
Happy birthday, my mum said.

Keys are power. Keys hanging
heavy on chains, swinging
long from my father's belt.
Keys worn like puzzles, jewellery,  
like a thinly bared brass finger.

No more scratching around
like a dog pawing a lost bone,
or searching dark secret spots
under porch steps, or hiding
a spare under a flower pot.

In my grip and grasp, I have
this shiny brass pressed deep
into my hand, its sharp teeth
jagged against my fingers.
It feels body-hot on my skin.

Try it, my mum says, so you know it works.

Into the lock, gently turned,
a click and fragile tumble, and
I'm safe as houses, inside.

26

Meet At Our Spot

She could not stop moving or else the mosquitoes would find pause to puncture and feast. She jiggled her legs and hopped from one foot to another whilst scanning the edge of the field again. She was early but this time of day always felt more elastic – shadows grew longer and pinks crept into the flat blue of the day sky, softening it, transforming it.

With her tongue, she moved her gum from the bottom left side of her mouth to the right and tasted its fading sweetness in the process. She turned the key twice then thrice in her palm and passed the time by singing the ABCs from Z to A. It was true that a green cash box existed. But relayed in passing as a joke; there were also biscuits, expired chocolates, half-eaten crisps mentioned in equal that lay less loved in her superior’s bottom left drawer. She imagined the sweat of her palm seeping into the rusted key, corroding it further.

When he told her this was right she believed him. For the force with which he kissed her against the metal chain link fence behind, left diamond indentations across the smooth of her back, which at the time, felt like they would last forever.

In the last light of the day, she saw a car pass in the distance. And she knew instinctively from the way it abruptly slowed to watch her, that it was driven by a man. She felt a cold prickle in the nape of her neck and her left fingers naturally curled into a fist with the jagged edge of the key peeking out. Eyeballs, male or female, were equally soft.

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27

Why they say red and green should never be seen

They say red and green should never be seen. Maybe it's too festive for any other time of year. But red lenghas and green barfi, or sea green walima outfits and rust coloured mendhi, or pistachio flakes and saffron curls weren't so bad, per se.

But I liked one and not the other.

I told him I hated the colour red. The colour of unpredictable periods, of embarrassment, of non-existent roses.

He wasn't into giving flowers, but he said I'd change my mind about colours, and what Desi bride doesn't wear red on her wedding day? Then he'd joked that he'd buy me shirt in the shade of his favourite football team first.

I saw red at that.

Until I didn't.

I waved my wand and stirred my cauldron. I dropped in tomatoes, nail varnish, even the hats of garden gnomes, anything I could find in mum's garden or bhabi's room, until the whole thing bubbled and fizzed and stank like rotten raspberries.

Until all the reds drained away.

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28

Relic

Nothing remains, but a relic of identity. A home ravaged by knives and guns, spattering blood, books, and bangles. The strike knows no barriers. When it hits, it takes them all. A home, once unlocked by its people, nourished and nurtured by sounds, smells and songs, becomes a cave of rubble, cracks and cobwebs. For passersby to ignore. For onlookers to wonder. For belongings to burn. For breathing souls to flee. But the relic stays. It hangs, abandoned, and comatose. It stands out in irrelevance, braving the vagaries of weather - a pale brick red, above pools of cleaned, dried, and now disappeared, blood. The rust, building month after month, year after year, parallels the silent, relentless effort of the mind, to bury trauma. The thoughts of birth, childhood, marriage, love, quarrels, and stories, once shared by a home, live on as flickering images, as relics of a once-thriving identity. Homes do take birth and do die. They are not here to stay. They do not stay for as long as we think. To have four walls alive is freedom. To leave behind a relic, a phenomenon.

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Temporary Social Housing

It dangled like a carrot -
The rusted key
To the rusted corrugated iron shed.

They said, I'd be off my head,
Not to snap-it-up
This star blocking sponge like bed

With corrugated iron stains
And tin can rain collectors
Displayed like candle holders
On a buckled red stained floor.

Cotton trump's cardboard,
They said, with pen ink
Dangling between - accept, decline,

While my eyes adjusted
To lines where outside
Pressed against wavy iron walls.

Entitled, she called
The back of my head
Disappearing through the
corrugated door
Of a tin can shed.

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The Plot

The key is already as dated
as those ubiquitous, archaic phone lines
which our words hung on:
we still talked in analogue back then.
If I remember it right, and plots always escape me,
the wire-taps weren’t working out for them,
it turned out that no one was speaking at all
and the burnt phones were abandoned,
left muttering to themselves out in the rain.
The plot hung by a thread, like a wire,
barbed and distraught, stray thistledown, sheep’s wool.
One night every other tree in the park
was felled. One became a diagonal slide,
water gusted over cars, and lights
flickered in distant buildings.
Far from town, telephone poles
were swept down in the storm
their lines penned the sheep
in a parallelogram field
bounded by phone lines and barbed wire.

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Blown off course

She peered closely, inspecting the ruby residue. It was like the key had been dipped in guilt.

She saw violent scenes: something scarlet and fleshy, half burnt maybe, flung into an old cello case and sunk into the river. She looked past the key, to the expanse of the placidly flowing river, today mirroring the mouldy grey of the sky. She did this walk every day and so far the river had always kept its secrets. Not like the wind.

But perhaps she was wrong about the cello. You could tell from the flimsy wire coil that it was the key that nobody cared about. It was more likely to be the key to an old bike lock or, in these parts - a rural republic of private castles bordering the riverside - she supposed it could quite reasonably belong to a wood shed or an outhouse.

It was odd to think of a key belonging to its lock. Two parts, forever connected. (She’d been told she was a romantic.)

The wood shed would still work. She’d not seen inside their neighbour’s one for instance. A desperate clammy hand, still shaking from the violent slam of the woodshed door, clutches the key, while its owner fearfully scans the watery horizon looking for their getaway schooner. The sunlight is slowly melting through the clouds and the key is quickly hooked onto a stray wire of the industrial scrubland adjacent to the boatyard, left to jingle in the early morning breeze.

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32

Memory

A walker leant against the fence
her eyes scratching meaning from a map
mind trying to etch shapes and lines
into the land gouges, bumps and jutts

the police man rolls over the wire
his belt briefly snagging under
the soft fold of seven item breakfasts
fitness focused on fading figure

a young child grasping excitement
with any climb, balance, jump, leap
imagined chasm, wistful daring and done
hands full of keepsakes forgot

the farmhand drags poles, hammers wave
cutters snap meaning from metal
four wheels badly parked, lane end
red tape hanging from a metal box

an old couple wanders in familiar memory
the rescued key inspected, rehung
so passers can witness its rust age marks
familiar held hands soften as they disappear

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Blood & Moss

Down go the busy bloods of summer
see them – No! FEEL them sinking –

and from its rusted sleep, the creeping dampness now ready
to read from its pages

familiar tales of tucking up tight
cut among misted covers

the stories we saved are all here –
remember, in your looking

There! There hangs a smoke chain, rising, and on it
a bow to take between bloody thumb and mossy finger

and in turning the seasoned clock to a promise of the first spring shadow,
before the last of the still airs merge with fiery ways and daring laments

our teeth sharpened and soil spent
we take our rest

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Blues and Greens

From my bedroom window, I can look into your kitchen. An old washing line runs between our homes, and while the distance separating these houses couldn’t possibly be any larger, it comforts me that our socks could technically meet in the middle of the street, spending an afternoon together, drying in the sun.

Yesterday you sent me a piece of sea glass over to my window, the old washing line becoming our very own telegraph wire. I imagine the piece must once have been clear as water, and then the vastness of the world beyond our little street, its freedoms and secrets left their stains and dyed it in deep blues and greens. Or maybe it’s just the reflection of the adventures of an old beer bottle.

I keep the piece of sea glass in a little box in my bedroom. Once a day I unlock it, take out the sea glass and see if its colour has changed yet. So far, it hasn't. So I put it back, lock the box and hide the key again.

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Key of E

We called it “the key of E”,
hung it carefully behind the wooden gate.
Running home from music lessons,
your slim seven-year-old wrist
stretched behind the faded planks
above the lilac bush,
and grasped your freedom.

Late-night teenaged arms
would reach above the frame
to noisily fumble the familiar padlock,
while we listened and knew
you were home.

Until the days and nights
we huddled in silence
and screamed inside
your aching absence.
You slipped
our suburban bonds.
Unlatched yourself,
unfastened us.

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36

The Golden Key

We first read it in Grimms’: a poor boy finds a golden key in the snow, an iron box in the ground.  At first he can’t find a keyhole, but then he does.  The boy inserts the key, rotates it one full turn, hopes to find precious things inside.  But, we are told, we must wait for him to finish opening the box to discover what it contains.  There the story ends.

I read it to my son when he is three; he is satisfied, wants me to read it again and again.  Together, we imagine all sorts of treasures that might be discovered.  Sometimes, it’s jewels.  Others, it’s cookies.  We rediscover the story when he is five, and when I read it, he frowns.  ‘What’s the point of that?’ he asks.

Grimms’ notes tell of another version of the story.  One in which the boy is not a boy but a chicken.  One in which the key is found in dung, not snow.  One in which the key fits and turns, and the box is opened, contents revealed.  Inside: a short piece of fur made from red silk.  If, we are told, the silk had been longer, the story would have been longer too. There the story ends.

‘Dung is better than snow,’ my son pronounces.  ‘It’s funnier.’  What about the chicken?  ‘Chickens are better than boys.’  Better than you?  ‘Everyone wants to be a chicken.  As long as you’re not the kind that gets eaten.’  Are you glad to know what’s in the box?  ‘What does silk have to do with fur anyway?’   

These stories are categorised as Formula Tales, subcategory Unfinished Tales, subcategory Catch-Tales in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, which outlines yet another variation.  This time, a boy finds a key and casket.  Inside is a calf’s tail, and we are told that if the tail had been longer, the tale would have been longer too.  There the story ends.

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37

Martin and me

When Martin the metal dectorist brought home the rusty key and showed it to Eveline, his wife, she became unexpectedly animated. His new patch was in the grounds of the old manor house, down in the valley beyond the village. Hardly anybody strayed that way, afraid of ghosts perhaps, of quiet spaces, damp and mossy, but Martin had found a route through the woods and over the crumbling wall of the kitchen garden and he wasn’t deterred. He’d heard rumours of an ancient burial site in the gardens of the Georgian manor. Most people dismissed it, because of the proximity to the river, but Martin wasn’t so sure. Rivers changed courses, didn’t they? The house had been unlived in for years, the windows shuttered, weeds on the gravel drive. I say unlived, but there’s me, of course.
       That day, when Martin presented Eveline with the key, a grand flourish, a little out of character, changed our lives forever. Eveline, a pinched little woman, greatly disappointed by marriage, insisted the key must belong to the house. It was heavy, old, and when she rubbed the dirt off with her sleeve, there was the dull gleam of brass.
       ‘You must go back,’ she said. ‘There’s bound to be stuff. Don’t take the van, you can’t be seen, so just find the most valuable bits. My brother can sell them.’
Martin argued, the key sat on the table, days went by. It was no use. Martin capitulated.
He entered the house just before dawn, as the night sky turned shades of mauve and the palest pink. He remembered thinking he’d never seen it so beautiful and his fear fell away. The door did not creak, bats did not fly in his face, ghosts did not claw his throat. The house was furnished, sparsely rather than extravagantly. He admired a display of family photographs, picked up and replaced an onyx paperweight, ran his finger along a spine of

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38

Guarding the Treasure

Winter light struggled to penetrate the attic’s cobweb-shielded window. Paula waited until Tom’s head ascended through the trapdoor before she pulled the light switch, making the dust-encrusted space seem even more gloomy.
‘What are we doing here,’ Tom said, raising himself to his full height, flicking at dust already settling on his black suit. Paula saw the echo of their father’s face, the turquoise eyes, the soft mouth, always ready to smile. Now he flicked at specks, refused to look around, and Paula had a glimpse of her younger brother, the boy who had clung to her, followed her, who’d do anything for her.
‘You know,’ she said.
‘But what’s the point?’ he asked. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
Snatches of conversation, the occasional pulse of laughter flowed from below. Paula was struck at how comfortable people were at wakes, how they settled in, spoke of the deceased as if they were still with them. He’s dead, she wanted to shout, dead. The unspoken word resounded through the creaking attic.
‘Help me,’ she said, pulling at the book shelves that sat under the window. Still Tom waited, ran his fingers over the spines.
‘You should take these,’ he said, ‘Mam would have wanted them to be read.’
Their books, guarded, treasured, unopened in twenty years.
‘The Yellow Book,’ Tom said, pulling out a hard-backed tome. As he let the cover fall open, Paula heard a humming, looked around the attic. Their mother had hummed every night as she chose a story for them, her reading was like a song, soft, tranquil, a perfect lullaby.

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39

Coming off Life Support

Beyond this Wikiloop…shadows don’t add up
and the locked box lies
beyond the picture frame…I am all silver wire
that has no zip left in it…a fragile line
holds me in this/this/this…call it…
call it shackle-shadow…this line
where names have no faces…looming in
call them unknown numbers
                            hanging
between…call it walled/wild…call it flat
line shine…call it staring down
the wrong end of binoculars
call it this: floodlit mist…pulsing coral cataract…
call it faceless voice…breath…
call it random…
call it turn…
call it eye
blink…
call it stretch…….
                turn turn turn
call it hum…
call it quiet fury…
call it mine…
call it……

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A Season Past

She’d lost it, he thinks. Or had it been a slow unraveling? A loosening of threads, behind the scenes, behind the carefully constructed stage sets of her plaited braids, black-lined eyes, and sleeves pulled to cover delicate wrist knobs. Or had it been like a gradual shifting of colors? But surely, he would have paid attention to the brilliant flashes of red-orange or yellows before her final descent.

No. She’d just lost it. A break. The bite in the air, maybe. She’d talked about it once – the aging weeks of summer, how it stank of dead grass and flowers, the hangers-on, their purpose outlived. The first nip of autumn cocooned it all under a blanket of morning fog. Add cold, shorten the days, and out broke new blue skies, visible through the baring trees, and fresh air. She felt it in your loins, she’d said, and he had blushed at the word.

When he first saw the key, he thought, she’d lost it. Dropped from her purse, shaken loose from a ring. The key to the postbox. Some observant soul had spotted it and carefully looped it around the wiring where he’d tried, in vain, to train lilacs to climb around the front doorway. The shape of the key like a puzzle. Simple, but ingenious – a key to the hidden tumblers and pins, their patterns never revealed. She’d chosen it well.

She’d planned it. Not lost it. She smelled it in the air. The gradually winding down of a moment shared, now past, the first pops of autumn like the scent on a trail. He pictures her delicate fingers taking the wire, holding it steady, while she attaches the key just at eye-level. He couldn’t miss it. “Aren’t you paying attention?”, she’d said last week. He’d tried. They key hangs, a furry rust grows over it now, a beautiful deep red, the color of her hair.

41

The Rich Man

Dangling. You keep me
Dangling, Between the red light
for stop and the green

for go. No amber.  
Never the gentle amber.
The maybe amber,

the amber which does
not require me to jump through
hoop after hoop, to

walk the tightrope of
approval, wired, suspended
like the rich man who

believes that one day
he might, just might squeeze himself
through the needle’s eye

while the corrosive
unchanging atmosphere of
his situation

tarnishes his life:
his neurodiversity
the unspoken key.

42

The key

Looking back, there were pockets of happiness. I could lay my childhood out like a shuffled pack of cards on a table, and select one or two that stand out with bright, cheerful images.

He always let me get the key myself; I’d reach up on tiptoes and feel its cool, rough face, sliding it off the wire. Taking a minute I’d trace my finger around its pretty shape, wiping rain and imaginary dirt away, before I couldn’t wait any longer and I’d pass it to him.

Smiling together we’d make a bit of a pantomime about opening the door, what would we see, what were they up to today, would they be pleased to see us? We both knew it was silly, we could hear their excitement as soon as we got to the door, and it was the same every time. But it was a shared moment of happiness and I wasn’t going to let that go.

I knew the routine, he’d open the door slowly, I’d look at my feet, examine the floor, walk in slowly and quietly, whatever you do, don’t flap your arms. Once we were both inside I could look up.

I’d always stay looking at the floor for as long as I could, the pale grey grit was always clean, he’d make sure of that on each visit. In amongst would be the odd bit of dropped seed and my favourite find; a feather. I collected those feathers; every single tiny one was picked up, examined and placed in a treasured chocolate box, with a sliding lid.

I’d slowly look up when I couldn’t wait any longer.  

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43

Bartleby

I once squatted a flat in Crystal Palace, sliding a plastic bank card vertically down the lock to coax the door, heart in my mouth each time, until the brass slipped and the spring gave. A run down Victorian house near the park, badly converted into student flats. I’d rented it to begin with, but when the contract lapsed and my course ended and I gave the key back, I stayed on. I think I felt it was so shit they owed me something. Or maybe I hadn’t worked out what you did next. The flat was on the first floor, up a fire escape. There were two big rooms, one looking out on a garden I never went in, and the other, overlooking the main road, where I slept. I joined two single matresses together by the handles with cable ties to make a double. The carpet was rank. There was an ornamental balcony through the sash window that I would climb out onto, though I don’t remember why, as you could smoke anywhere then, and I did. It was hip-height and full of dead leaves. The sort of balcony you might wave from. The woman upstairs was a student at the Laban. She had a Psychedelic Furs poster in the kitchen, and she played Downtown over and over, for weeks, choreographing something ironic that made the ceiling bounce. Eventually the landlord served me with some papers, and I found a room in Brixton. Last time I saw the house, the balcony had fallen off. Probably the weight of snow.

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Autumn Writing Prize

October 2021 marks the first ever Visual Verse writing prize. This unique ekphrastic writing prize offered writers the opportunity to pen a response to an image and submit a response within a two-hour window. We expected maybe 50 submissions or so and were astounded to receive 280.

When judging the prize we looked for pieces that hit what our editors call the "Golden V". These are pieces that have three strong characteristics:

1. Accomplished, high quality writing
2. Relationship to the image
3. Innovative and/or brave

We selected a shortlist of 16 pieces and a handful of pieces that individual editors felt were special mentions. Our head judge Preti Taneja then had the task for selection just four winners. We congratulate Benedict Welch, Clio Velentza, K Roberts and Mitra Visveswaran for their exceptional writing.

We would like to congratulate every single writer who took the time and committed to this exercise. We hope that you surprised and impressed yourself, just as you did us, and that you will continue to write in extra-ordinary ways.

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