People die. All the time. Physically, mentally, emotionally. They die and they leave us behind to work it out without them. When my dad died and I saw him, what struck me first were his skinny ankles and weirdly elongated feet in their grey woollen socks, sticking out from the sheet that barely covered him. They are the thing imprinted on my mind when I think of my dad and his being dead. And then when I saw him a week later in the funeral parlour, his face a livid purply red, creased in the agony of the heart attack that killed him, I didn’t know him as my dad. The funeral director looked disappointed when I said it didn’t look like him. I felt bad, so I told her it was because he didn’t have his glasses on. I don’t know why I felt I had to make her feel better about the fact that the man I thought of as Dad had been taken away and returned in an altered state. Politeness perhaps. I was 39 years old when he died, the same age he was when I was born. That doesn’t mean anything, but I like the symmetry.
It is the funniest thing I’ve seen all week. She was rocking and laughing to herself in her seat next to the aisle. High on something, out of it, in her happy place. I envied her. In her hand, the crumpled dog end of a roll-up and a battered plastic lighter. Whatever the joke was, it tickled her. Then suddenly, as the bus set off, she ducked down across the empty seat between her and the window. She was too far down for me to see, but I imagine she was cupping that precious dog end. The sound of metal against flint sparking up rose from beneath her tousled head, followed by clouds of white smoke as though a new pope had been chosen. She sucked and sucked. The lighter scraped and scraped. The clouds plumed. The woman in the seat in front turned around and tutted. I had to duck my own head, I was laughing so much. The sparking stopped and the smoke dissipated. The smoker glanced behind at me so I turned my face to the window, still laughing. As funny as she was, I didn’t want to get drawn in. My nutter magnet is strong enough.
I wore my red dress today, the one that usually makes me invincible. Armour is necessary when you have a five and a half hour uninterrupted meeting scheduled. The red dress didn’t work. Ten other people in the room. The one I usually giggle with was on his best behaviour. It was possibly for the best, though. When the fancy pants woman with the thumbnail chewing habit (I wanted to take that thumb and shove it in her eye) decided the things she’d seen and desired online were too big and industrial in reality, I wanted to laugh, I wanted to scream, I wanted to shout, “Who’s this c**t?” Instead I walked a small but significant distance up the room and smirked behind my hair. I photographed the machines she did not like. Beauty can be found in coils of copper and curves of cast iron, and in the mind of a fourteen year old boy who wanted to change the world, so built a machine to do it. Later, when fancy pants and the rest had gone back whence they came, I felt flattened, pinched, compressed. I need a decompression chamber more than I need a red dress.
I am eating a mint imperial. Mint imperials always make me think of a man called Bob. Bob was the gentleman friend of my mum’s friend Doreen. Doreen was as brassy as an ex-hairdresser from Chadderton comes. I loved her, wanted to be her, with her bottle blonde hair swept up in a beehive. She was blowsy, my dad said. I thought he meant blousey, on account of her liking for frilly necklines that plunged. Later I learned what he meant. Doreen had a biscuit tin with a Spanish flamenco dancer on the lid. She used to let me take two biscuits, one a pink wafer, the other a custard cream. Bob was her frequent caller who would take her off to stay at The Balmoral in Blackpool every summer. Mum would take me on day trips to visit them. Lucky them. Bob would always have mint imperials at the ready. Hot and peppery, not quite a sweet, shocking but compellingly moreish. We would bowl around the Pleasure Beach, Bob going on rides with me that mum and Doreen couldn’t stomach. When Doreen became diabetic, Bob moved in with her and became the official bearer of her emergency Mars Bar.
My adventures in poetry continue. Today I thought about e.e.cummings and read some of his work. I thought about him because he is my favourite poet, and because I thought about a friend whom I haven’t seen in too long. She loves e.e.cummings too. So I read my father moved through dooms of love. I read it online. The website kindly directed me to a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay. I have never read anything by her before, so I followed serendipity. The poem I arrived at was her 43rd Sonnet, What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why. After I read the poem, I went to visit my mum. As I drove, I listened to a song and a line in that song
Is the dead arm a warning
Of a stranger in your world?
seemed to echo a line in Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem.
what arms have lain
Under my head till morning
I thought about this and it struck me that the nub of the song is the sort of sentiment that leads to the nub of the poem. I undoubtedly think too much about things like this, but it keeps me occupied.
The girl at the table shook her head, awakening from a dream of sorts. Opposite her, the man in the blue suit and the green shirt looked up from his crossword. The girl, who was a woman, looked at him through grey eyes, reflecting the short lightwaves that his brown eyes absorbed. ‘I saw a building,’ she said, ‘the same shade as your shirt. Green enamelled metal. Two sailors were filling it with board games.’ Opposite her, the man whose shirt was the shade of green enamel looked back to his crossword. He wrote across a line of squares. The woman, who used to be a girl, felt a judgement in those squares and the spidery black letters placed inside their walls. ‘Where has my life gone?’ the woman murmured. ‘Where is my drunkenness of being?’ The man placed more spiders inside square walls. The woman looked sad. ‘Am I looking at you from the wrong direction?’ she asked. Opposite her, the man whose suit was blue like cornflowers, pressed on, pressing down, marking the page. The woman sighed and cast a sidelong glance through the café window. ‘Let’s go back to the beginning,’ she said. ‘Start this thing again.’
The small, dark girl looked up at the frozen sailor. As she regarded his four-square form he seemed to solidify and the colour drained from him. ‘I said he was colourless,’ she said to no-one in particular. ‘I always knew it would end this way.’ Far in the distance, the girl at the table yawned and stretched. She shook her head as though awakening from a dream before rising from the table. Far in the distance, she began to walk. The small, dark girl leaned over the handlebars of her bicycle to watch. Her quizzical right eyebrow arched above the glittering blackness of her eye. The girl who had left the table took forever to reach the middle distance. ‘Shall I give you a backy?’ called the small, dark girl. ‘It’s one of my finest skills.’ ‘No thanks,’ said the girl who had left the table, her voice sounding closer in the ear of the small, dark girl than she would have thought possible, had she been inclined to think about the possible in any way whatsoever. Then, there she was, the sunlight catching on the gold in her brown hair. ‘Nice statue,’ she said. ‘Did you make it yourself?’
Fatigue glittered across his brow. The two-fold harm, its twin destruction, left him four-square and rigid. “Your mouth, your mouth!” sang the small, dark girl, jubilant and cocksure. “My mouth?” the sailor said wordlessly. “Your mouth, your mouth, so square and flat. Your mouth, so square, just fancy that!” sang the small, dark girl, cycling tauntingly round him. Four-square and rigid and building a rage as hot as a furnace, the sailor felt his legs pushing down into the earth. Through his square mouth, shaped like a letterbox, he bellowed, “My mouth, my mouth, so square and flat!” Anguish echoed all around. Tears sprang in his eyes. He was not a thing, he knew that much. And yet, his rigid legs pushing down into the earth, his four-square body belied this knowledge. The temptation of a heavy load, a weight, a pressure. 5CWT or more, he seemed to understand, a pressure greater than could be borne. He chose his words. “My mouth, my mouth! My mouth, my mouth!” The small, dark girl cycled back from the middle distance. “You chose your words?” she seemed to ask. His square mouth grimaced. His eyes flashed fear. Here was his sorrow, at last.
I am reading a book. Nothing unusual in that. I read a couple a week. This one, though, sneaks poetry back into my life. I used to read poetry a lot. I used to write it. I can’t remember when I decided that was self-indulgent. Perhaps when bearing responsibility loomed large. Perhaps when privacy was lost to the sharing of living arrangements. A friend and I would exchange haiku on postcards, back when postcards were a thing and we were young enough to not have to behave like adults. I would read poetry like I read novels. My favourites were Cope, cummings, Hannah, Keats, Lochhead and Whitman. When love was young and we were exploring, we would read cummings out loud to each other, lounging on the bed, decadent in our untested attachment. Attachment solidifies and, like plastic, turns brittle with age. There is no room for poetry now. So sneakily this book returns it and I find myself reading poetry in secret, under the guise of reading a novel. Francis Jammes crosses my path, and Dong-ju Yun: Up where the seasons pass / the sky is filled with autumn. / In this untroubled quietude / I could almost count these autumn-couched stars.
I feel fortunate to have gone through the education system with access to full funding, covering my tuition and living costs. My parents couldn’t have afforded to send me to university without the grant system. I reckon I earn around twice what I would have earned if I’d left school at 18 and not got a degree. For the government to withdraw maintenance grants for students from low income families on the grounds that it’s unfair to expect tax payers to subsidise their education is disgraceful. My education was subsidised (I prefer to think of it as the grant being an investment in me) and I now earn a decent amount, pay more tax, and am not saddled with a huge debt. I have no problem with my tax being used to invest in students from a similar background to mine. University isn’t for everyone, I know, but everyone should have the chance to go to university if they want to. Money shouldn’t be a barrier.
This is the BBC news story I read this morning: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-36940172
Here’s a charity that is helping students from less privileged backgrounds get into arts based HE. £5 a month isn’t a lot, is it? http://arts-emergency.org/donate-2/