Thursday 23 November


I don’t know what was more painful yesterday when I had my crown done: the drilling, or the squabbling between the dentist and her assistant.
‘What are you doing now?’ she says, glancing up through her spattered face guard at the young girl in the corner.
‘I’m spraying the tray.’
‘Well don’t spray the tray. You don’t need to spray the tray. It makes no difference.’
‘No buts. Just pass me the something-technical. Not that one, the other one. Thank you.’
The way she says thank you. Clamped more tightly than my head.
‘And then something-else-technical please.’ *sigh* ‘No. That’s the other-technical-thing. I want the something-else-technical please.’
Which turns out to be a thunderingly slow drill bit, the kind of thing you might use to scour a tunnel through a mountain, or maybe one of those heavy floor polishers, miniaturised, studded with diamonds.
The dentist frowns at the assistant whilst she snaps it off and snaps on something even more terrifying, dropping the other one into her tray with a clatter.
‘You don’t need to change your gloves,’ she says. ‘Why are you changing your gloves?’
‘I thought…’
‘Keep the gloves. We’re not made of gloves.’
She sighs.
The assistant moves to the other side of the room.
More drilling.
‘Suction!’ says the Dentist. ‘My patient cannot swallow.’
The assistant hurries back over and jabs me in the uvula with the hoovula.
I can’t help gagging.
‘Eeeezzzzy now,’ says the Dentist. ‘There you go! That’s got it!’

dog training

Walking with Lola over the woods today. A stout, bush-hatted, wax-cotton jacketed woman appears, striding stick-first through the rain, accompanied by a black and white collie cross that even from here I can tell is happy to be out despite the weather. As soon as the dog sees us it comes bounding over, instantly nose to nose with Lola, both of them doing that excited dog thing, where they straighten their front legs and make feinting half-jumps, like they’re practising CPR, tails up. I’m happy for them to run around after each other for a while, but the woman starts shouting: Candy! No! Come here, Candy! Come here!
I want to shout back that it’s okay – but I don’t, because I remember when we had our first dog, Buzz, and what a scrappy dog he was, picking fights for no apparent reason, despite the fact we took him to dog obedience classes, where – of course – he was the best behaved dog there.
‘Diamond dog, your dog’ said the trainer.
And all we could take from that was that it was all our fault. Buzz wasn’t scrappy with anyone else. He took his cue from us.
Anyway, the point is, whenever Buzz ran up to another dog, the dog’s owner would invariably shout It’s okay! He’s fine with other dogs! And what we wanted to shout back was Yours, may be…

Candy’s owner has planted her walking stick in the ground and is yelling now.
Candy! Come here! I said – COME HERE! in a surprisingly harsh tone, like a prison guard on a work detail, levering shells into a shotgun.
Even Lola seems cowed.
Candy obviously recognises the change in tone. She looks at Lola, then at me, then at Lola again, and is suddenly away. Seconds later I watch her sit at the woman’s frog-eyed wellies, looking up.
I expect to see the woman lean down and fuss Candy for being such a good dog coming back (and I’m all set to give them both a cheery wave). What actually happens is that the woman wags a finger in Candy’s face: Why don’t you come back when I tell you to? she says, which doesn’t seem at all fair. Lesson over, she pulls her walking stick out of the ground ready to carry on, but then stops again and looks back down at the dog, as if Candy has added something only she could hear.
Because I said so! snaps the woman – and the two of them move away into the gloom.


closing time

Leonard has a reputation
difficult to handle, apparently
(although, it’s probably fair to say,
the person who finds Leonard
most difficult to handle
is Leonard himself)
‘How am I?’ he says. ‘Not good, son. Not good at all
I just don’t want to be me anymore.
D’you know what I’m saying?
It’s all come to a head.
Maybe it’s time I cashed in my chips.
What do you think?’
He shrugs, gesturing to the room
like he’s inviting me to make an offer
on the pug-print scatter pillows, the fucked sofa
the walking frame, TV & box of medical sundries.
There’s a picture of Leonard on the wall
forty, maybe fifty, standing behind a hotel bar,
ruched shirt & reactolites,
the whole ensemble held in place
by a disquieting variety of stump-gapped smile
that – I have no doubt – could
drop from his face as suddenly
as the tea towel from his shoulder.
His right hand’s resting on a beer pump handle,
the left on his hip, with such shotgun bonhomie
it’s easier to imagine him ripping the handle
from the counter and hitting me with it
as pulling a pint of bitter.
‘That must’ve been fun,’ I say, ‘Running a hotel’
‘Fun?’ he says ‘Depends what you mean by fun.
The bastards never went to bed.’

Friday 18 November

the truth about the bird

I’m not sure about Twitter.

Sometimes I think it’s been a great creative spur, inspiring me to look at things in more detail, at mushrooms and trees, patterns of light, found poetry, birdsong after the rain, a ventilation duct that looks like a steampunk worm. I love the way it challenges me to come up with haiku poems, scraps of conversation I’d otherwise forget, short descriptions, serious notes, trashy nothings. I love the way it makes me feel connected to people doing the same sort of thing, all over the world.twitter logo

But some days the whole thing flips on its beak. Suddenly I’m using Fritter, not Twitter, and I panic that I’ve fallen under the spell of some giant and insatiable chick, incessantly demanding food, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and I’m flying backwards and forwards looking for anything remotely digestible to drop into its beak. And I worry that I’m actually morphing into this crazy blue chick myself – living on a sugary diet of likes and retweets, dashed when my follower count goes down, happy when it goes up, even though I have no idea who these followers or dropped followers are, and even though I suspect that many of them are living like me, in a nest of scraps somewhere, with a phone camera, snapping anything of interest.

Today I love it, though.

And, of course – hashtag irony – this post will feature on my feed.


one hell of a grip

There’s a black and white photo of Glenda on the wall taken when she was a young woman in the Land Army. She’d obviously dressed up for the picture, because although she’s still in fatigues, her hair is nicely swept back in a wide band, and her lipstick is in a perfect bow. It’s a great shot. Glenda’s smile is so bright and enthusiastic and full of energy, I can imagine her pulling the spade out of the soil and advancing on the world, waving it overhead.

‘They shipped us off to Berkshire,’ she says. ‘I hated that farmer. We all did. Picking potatoes in the rain. He always used to drive the tractor too quick for us. We couldn’t keep up. I used to throw potatoes at him to slow him down. And he’d shout back You throw another one of them fuckin’ potatoes at me, Glenda, and you see what happens.
‘And did you?’
‘Course I did. He didn’t scare me.’
‘What happened?’
‘We all went on strike. We sat down in the middle of the field and refused to budge. He ranted and raved. You get back to work now or you’ll see what for he said. But he was like that. Full of wind.’
‘He sounds horrible.’
‘Oh – he wasn’t too bad once you got to know his ways. He just needed someone to show him who was the real boss round there. I remember this one time, I was up on a hay rick and I saw a mouse. Well – if there’s one thing I absolutely detest and cannot abide, it’s a mouse. But where you goin’ to run when you’re standing on the top of a hay rick? You silly cow – it’s only a fucking mouse he said. You come up here and deal with it, if you’re such an expert I said, and threw the pitchfork at him. But he didn’t know, you see? He didn’t know how much I hate mice. And rats. I can’t stand rats.’
‘Maybe he should’ve got a dog. To catch the rats.’
‘He did have a dog, a Jack Russell, called Gravel. Vicious, pointy little thing.’
‘So I’m guessing you didn’t have such a great time in the Land Army then?’
‘Oh no. We had a great laugh. There was a prisoner of war camp down the road, full of Eye-talians. We used to hang around the fence and pass carrots through the wire. ‘Ere. Get away from there! the guards used to say. Drop them carrots! Didn’t bother us, though. They needed fresh food and attention. And so did we.’

Whilst we’re talking, there’s a sudden, soggy thump behind me, like an albatross just flew into the window.

‘Window man’s here,’ says Glenda, easing her position in the chair. ‘They have to do it on a long pole these days, ever since the last one fell off his ladder. D’you know something? I was brought up in a tenement block in Ladbroke Grove. Six floors up we were. And every Sunday my mum used to sit out on the ledge to clean the outside. Hold me legs, Glenda she used to say. And I’d be hanging on for dear life, her stockings slipping down, and I’d be shouting For God’s sake, Mum. Haven’t you finished yet? I’m losing yah! And she’d shout back Don’t be so silly, Glenda. Just hold me legs! Her voice all muffled like, because she was the other side of the window, and I had one ear in her lap. And she’d be out there, cheerful as you like, scrubbing the window singing away as easy as if she was polishing the mirror in the bathroom. She was good, my mum. And she certainly had a head for heights.’

Glenda seems distracted for a moment, brushing some biscuit crumbs from her lap.

‘And you might not think to look at me now,’ she carries on at last. ‘But I tell you what – I had one hell of a grip.’


things that float & go bump

A couple of the nurses are sitting with the Co-ordinator, chatting about this and that at the end of the shift.
‘I’m sure that house is haunted’ says Lena. ‘Every time I go there something weird happens.’
‘Like what?’
‘I don’t know. Just weird. Like – atmospheres or something.’
‘My mum and dad had a poltergeist for a while,’ says Rachel, flipping through a file, so matter-of-fact it’s like she’s just turning to a section called Paranormal Manifestations and What to Do About Them.
‘What d’you mean for a while? Did they have it exorcised?’
‘Not really. We got to the bottom of it ourselves.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Well – they sold up and moved to this spooky new house on the Yorkshire Moors. It used to be the parrot house of a big old stately home…’
‘The Parrot house?’
‘Where they used to keep parrots.’
‘Makes sense’
‘It’s pretty isolated. Just the main house which is all converted into flats now. A few outbuildings. And then the parrot house, standing on its own at the edge of the land. And then beyond that, you’ve got the moors, stretching out all bleak and mysterious, with a load of sheep and goats grazing and generally wandering about.’
‘Why the hell’d they go there?’
‘They wanted to get away from it all.’
‘Sounds like they did.’
‘Absolutely. It’s nice enough when the sun’s shining. Anyway – they said to me the place was lovely and everything but might be a little bit haunted. So I said fine, I’ll have a look. The first night, everything was quiet, fine, nothing strange about it except for those creaky noises you always get in old houses.’
‘I hate them.’
‘But the following morning when we all came down to breakfast, the heavy rug in the front room was pushed all the way over to one side, rucked up against the sofa.’
‘That’s what gets me about ghosts. They never do anything constructive. Hundreds of years to plan their revenge or whatever, and all they end up doing is arsing around with the furniture.’
‘Yeah – but turns out, this wasn’t a ghost. It was just a static charge building up between the rug and the stone flags, so overnight it kind of floated across the floor. We put some anti-static strips down, and it sorted it out a treat.’
‘The second night was different though. We’d all sat down to watch Strictly, when suddenly the television shot across the room and smashed against the wall’
‘Oh my God! That’s terrifying! You can’t tell me that was static.’
‘No. Turns out the aerial was hanging loose outside, a goat caught his horn in it and dragged the TV across the room when he tried to run off.’


Moira’s mouth has a tragic and graven quality, down-turned, thinly incised, which, along with her hooded eyelids and watery blue eyes, gives her a profoundly disapproving expression, something you could imagine at Judgement Day, looking out across the smoking ruins of the world, with a caption in Gothic script that reads: I told you so.

‘I spent a great deal on his education so it’s about time he started paying some of it back,’ she says, the point of her elbow dug into the armrest so she can hold her bandaged hand straight up in the air like a courtroom exhibit.
‘When did you last see him?’
‘Simon? Yesterday. He stayed the absolute minimum and then he was off to another meeting. I said to him: What’s more important – work, or the health of your mother? I won’t be here much longer. If it’s going to go on like this, the sooner I go, the better.’
‘Where does Simon live?’
‘Where doesn’t he live. It’s absurd. He’s got enormous houses all over the place and he spends most of his time in hotels.’
‘Couldn’t you move in with him?’
She turns her eyes on me.
‘He’s a businessman, dear. Not a saint.’

It’s been a long and difficult assessment. Moira has the issue of her hand, of course, but it strikes me that her biggest problem is depression, a bleak and palpable thing that sucks all the light and life from the air, like a black hole opened up in a riser-recliner and someone tried to disguise it with a dressing-gown.
‘I asked Jenny upstairs if she could go out and get me a paper. And d’you know what she said?’
‘What did she say?’
‘She said No.’
‘No. Just like that.’
‘Pretty harsh.’
‘Harsh? I’ve known her twenty years. I think it’s positively murderous.’
She pats her hair with her bad hand and then winces as she lowers it back to her lap.
‘I shan’t be bothering her again,’ she says.

The phone rings. Moira mutters and frowns.
‘Shall I get it for you?’ I say.
‘I’m not dead yet,’ she says, and then makes a huge, sighing deal of picking up, reciting the name of the town and the phone number when the handset eventually makes it up to her ear, as brave as a telephonist being martyred at the stake, making one last connection amongst the flames.

Oh. It’s you… Well how d’you think I’m getting on? … I’m not, and that’s the whole point… Yes, he’s here now… How should I know what he thinks? He just sits there making approximate noises… Not at the moment, no. I haven’t finished with him yet. When I have I’ll get him to call you… Yes, thank you. I think I have everything I need – excepting a son who gives a damn.

And she hangs up.
‘That was Simon’
‘I guessed.’
She observes me closely.
‘He sends his regards,’ she says, after a very long while.

the clown procedure

Raymond, eighty-six,
stands in the kitchen doorway
back-lit, uncertain, hunched as a bear
prematurely brought to the mouth
of his cave by a dream of hunters
‘Thanks for seeing me’ he wheezes
ironic, given his condition
just back from the eye hospital
where the surgeon sorted his cataract
insouciant as a sous chef
peeling a lychee
‘I’m fine with everything normally,’ he says
‘I’m pretty independent.
It’s just – with this eye –
I needed help with the ointment’

I follow him inside, to a table
silted with post, pills and magazines,
spent scratchcards, pizza menus
and numbers and names, all in green ink,
scrawled on the backs of envelopes
‘Everyone referred to us
goes through the same procedure’ I say
immediately tripping over my bag,
fumbling my folders
and scattering all the forms on the floor
‘Oh dear, oh dear!’ says Raymond
suddenly brighter
‘Are you alright?’
and, popping the cap from his biro
he slides another envelope from the stack
‘And what procedure might that be?’