memo from nemo

From out of the surf the Nautilus beaches
scattering bathers with screams and screeches
alarmed by its cannons and other features
boiling sea foam seething from its vents
as it plows nose-first through the parasols & tents

a cautious crowd converges
overcoming their natural urges
drawn to see what emerges
holding up smartphones on sticks
jostling for selfie pics

the rusting periscope is snagged with bags
the portholes encrusted with condoms and pads
the propeller comprehensively snagged
the whole thing lying like a rotten fish
a bad chef served as a stinking dish

the children gasp and hug their mothers
as the submarine convulsively flaps its rudders
the crapped-up top hatch shudders
then rises up with a noxious sigh
rasps on its hinges and clatters aside

After a minute the captain climbs out
flinty blue eyes, whiskery snout
stands, glances fiercely about
then flings his cap with a violent motion
shouts ‘Who the hell’s been polluting my ocean?

‘Twenty thousand leagues have I travelled
warships sunk and giant squid battled
just to see the system unravelled
with cotton buds and wrappers and bottles
and a million happy meal Ronald fucking Mcdonalds

‘My beloved Atlantis! Completely ruined!
You have no idea what this shit’s doing
clingfilm, parcel tape, wrappers & bags
styrofoam cups and the filters from fags
spoons and stirrers and coffee utensils
felt tip pens, colouring pencils
fishing nets, yogurt pots
toothbrush holders, dental floss
and then – at the risk of sounding sarcastic
– the biggest risk of all, MICROPLASTIC!

With that he flushes and glares at the crowd
who listen to his speech with their heads unbowed
smiling and waving and calling out loud
‘Ah what’s the use! he says. ‘It’s pointless shoutin’ at yah
Someone fetch me David Attenborough’

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how to choreograph a riot

  1. Dominate the attack arena with your macarena
  2. If the cops use dum-dums hit back with can-cans
  3. Tango when they tangle; mambo when they mangle
  4. Put over who’s boss with a bossa nova
  5. Foxtrot through the hotspots
  6. And if that doesn’t work, twerk
  7. Then fandango home
  8. Rest, and the following day
  9. Ballet to the ballot box, arabesque, make your X (en pointe), and jete clean away my beautiful stranger…. jete clean away
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James the First

Rosie is more confused than usual, according to Rosie – the other Rosie, I mean, the one who lives at the end of the road and comes in most days to help. The fact that her husband Jim has the same name as me only adds to the confusion. He’s amiable enough, placid as an old turtle who swapped his shell for a corduroy jacket. If Rosie Two hadn’t introduced him as her husband, I’d think he’d tagged along by mistake. When she asks him to fetch in Rosie One’s address book from the kitchen, he wanders back in, flicking through a photo album.
‘Look at you in front of the Sphinx, Rosie!’ he says. ‘Well, well.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake,’ says Rosie Two, and goes to get the address book herself.

Rosie One is sitting in her armchair, held in place by an enormous, ash-gray cat. The cat stares at me, its head bobbing up and down and its eyes pulled wide in time with the vigorous strokes. It extends its front paws onto her lap, presumably to spread the impact.
‘Poor Jonesie!’ says Rosie One. ‘I fell on him, you know. Squashed him flat! Broke my fall, though, didn’t you, Jonesie? Hey? You broke mummy’s fall, didn’t you? You clever thing!’
‘Tripped you up, more like,’ says Rosie Two, striding back in from the kitchen and handing me the address book. ‘That cat. It’s an absolute monster. Anyway. There! Karen’s number. The next of kin. Apparently.’
Jim Two has drifted over to the bookcase, tutting and exclaiming as he makes his way along the shelves with his head crooked so far to one side his ear is practically on his shoulder.
‘Well, well!’ he says, carefully sliding a book out. ‘Who’d have thought!’
‘Jim!’ says Rosie Two. ‘You’re supposed to be making breakfast!’
‘Am I? Oh, right,’ he says. ‘Absolutely. Of course. Breakfast. Yes.’
And he wanders away in the opposite direction to the kitchen with a book in his hand. Rosie Two goes after him.
‘Nothing’s the same since my darling husband died,’ says Rosie One.
She’s looking at a portrait on the sideboard, a broad-faced, smiling man in a white naval uniform.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘What was his name?’
‘Jim’
‘Jim? Not another one!’
‘Well,’ she says, turning back to me. ‘My Jim was the first.’

bibi the bird

Melvin is as landed and unfortunate in his armchair as a hippo in the dry season. An affable hippo, though, in a taut, custard yellow, California Dreamin’ t-shirt and grey jogging bottoms, his enormous hands restlessly picking at the padding of the arm rests, as if he’s gauging the right moment to tear them off and throw them.
‘What were you saying?’ he says. ‘I lost the thread.’
He laughs, exposing a few raw and stumpy teeth. If I had a head of cabbage I’d chuck it, watch him crunch it down, waggle his ears.
‘He does that a lot,’ says Bibi, Melvin’s wife. ‘Lose the thread, I mean.’
If Melvin is the hippo in this relationship, Bibi is the little bird that rides on his head. A trim, quick figure, she’s constantly up and down, repositioning cushions, fetching beakers of juice, a towel, a diary, a snack, another beaker of juice. She smiles at me and surreptitiously touches the side of her head, turning the gesture into an innocent scratch of her eyebrow when Melvin unexpectedly glances her way.
‘So what’s the plan, chief?’ says Melvin. ‘What’re you going to do with me? Drag me off to the knackers yard, I ‘spect. I’d make a lot of glue. ’
‘Don’t say that!’ says Bibi, jumping up again to move the stool so he can reposition his feet.
‘Ahh!’ he booms. ‘Thanks Beebs.’

The situation has been a long time coming and it’s hard to know where to start. Diabetes, joint damage, skin infections, kidney and liver issues – the list neatly packaged-up in the phrase comorbidities. Things were difficult enough before his latest fall, but he’s been discharged from hospital with a bandaged foot and the results of an MRI confirming mixed dementia. There’s a lot to think about.
‘Today’s a good day,’ says Bibi. ‘Isn’t it darling?’
‘Every day’s a good day,’ says Melvin.
‘Well,’ says Bibi. ‘Mostly.’

She’s doing her best to cope, but it’s a struggle. She’s already told me about his mood swings, how he’ll be fine one minute and raging the next. There’s a shine to her eyes that’s so brittle I don’t know if she’s ready to sob, scream or laugh out loud.
‘But where are my manners?’ she says. ‘Can I get you anything?’
‘No, no! That’s kind of you but I’m fine, thanks.’
‘Just let me know. It’s no trouble.’

Melvin is sitting in front of a large white blind. The blind has been pulled down to shield him from the midday sun. Now and again the shadow of a seagull glides across the blind, so clearly you can even see the toes of its webbed feet and the way it flicks its head from side to side. Down in the street some workmen have finished lunch. They’re shouting and swearing, starting up the mixer, tapping off bricks for a new wall.
‘Hear that?’ says Melvin. ‘I expect that’s the seagull, building his nest.’
We all laugh.
He clasps his hands across his belly, waggles his ears.

incident at the nunnery

Number one: Never open with weather.

Top of Elmore Leonard’s list of writing tips. But I’m sorry, Elmore – the weather is particularly strange this morning. It feels like I’m moving around in a photo that’s been put through a B-Movie filter, the light low and smudged, an oppressive weight to it that makes me scratchy and long for a little breeze. Even the bees look heavy, punting from flower to flower like exhausted gondoliers at the end of the season. And it’s only May.

The environment doesn’t help. An old nunnery converted into flats. On a sunny day it’s a beautiful spot, swallows screeching round the campanile, jasmine crashing like a fragrant green wave over the main porch. Today it’s more like the set of a horror movie.

Another car drives in and parks beside me, a long, beaten-up estate with a ladder on top. A grizzled guy steps out wreathed in so much vape smoke it’s like he’s a stepping out of a fire. I smile and nod at him.
‘Funny old weather,’ I say.
He stares at me with narrow, chlorinated blue eyes, and for a moment I wonder if I’ve inadvertently insulted his mother. But if I have, he decides to let it go – for now. He grimaces, flips a chamois over his shoulder, sticks a snub-nose squeegee in his belt, and slowly unscrews his ladders.

I move on.

Mary’s live-in carer meets me at the main door and leads me through the maze of corridors. She’s as tough as the cleaner – tougher, actually – as substantial as a tree, crudely sculpted into slacks and sweater with a chainsaw. No doubt if there’s a fight between them later, when the cleaner sneaks in to assassinate the patient, the cleaner will start out losing, because the carer has such a relentlessly crushing grip, but then he’ll squirt vape in her eye, put his bucket over her head and guide her to the window. And then notice me standing there, and grimace before he kicks her out into the quadrangle.

Mary is sitting in her armchair, tucked in beneath a heavy tartan rug despite the weather, happily watching a film from the seventies, something with jangly violins and Mia Farrow in a trenchcoat looking worried.

‘Hello Mary,’ I said, shaking her hand. ‘I’m Jim. From the hospital.’
‘He come to take blood’ says the carer, looming over me. ‘Not all of it.’
I kneel on the carpet beside Mary and start setting up.
‘Oh,’ I say, hunting through my bag. ‘Damn it. I meant to restock before I came up and I completely forgot. I don’t suppose you have any gloves, do you?’
‘Glove?’ says the carer. ‘Sure. We have plenty glove.’
She goes off to the bathroom to fetch me a couple.
‘What am I like!’ I say to Mary, sitting back on my heels.
She looks down at me, then leans forward and reaches out to rest a hand on my shoulder.
‘Have you been tested for Alzheimer’s, too?’ she whispers.

Welcome to Hemlock Hall

I.
For centuries our college has prospered
and countless practitioners fostered
their footsteps all boom
through the cloisters & rooms
and they sleep underground in the orchard

II.
Our head is known in academia
for his teeth and pernicious anemia
he looks in his cape
like a bat at a wake
and his smile is a warm crematoria

III.
Flying is the root of all alchemy
defying the rules of anatomy
so at lauds and at vespers
in wailings & whispers
we flap from the floor to the balcony

IV.
Our staff are all fully immersed
in the arts of the damned & the cursed
our head of year eight
was burned at the stake
in the reign of Elizabeth the First

V.
The school is endorsed by a party
of nuns & illuminati
our crest is a crow
with its eyes aglow
and our motto is puer damnati

VI.
Ofsted condemns our achievements
in grudges and dark disagreements
but we’re top of the league
in moral fatigue
and score GOOD for our work in bereavement

VII.
Our charter is written on vellum
in imp’s blood diluted with venom
our porter’s a wolf
who lives on the roof
but he only comes down when I tell’um

VIII.
I’m always here to explain
any questions you might entertain
our fees are most reasonable
& the term times quite seasonable
Imbolg, Lammas, Samhain

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the old woman & the crow

the door was locked & the floor was swept
& the artist sighed on her pillow as she slept
& a mouse watched closely as the shadows crept
& a woodlouse hurried from the dusty ledge
as down from the casement two tiny figures stepped
the old woman & the crow
the old woman & the crow

there were daisies in her hair & ink on her sleeves
on her shoulder a satchel of feathers and reeds
& she set them on the table according to need
as the crow flapped up by her side to see
the delicate lines she carefully conceived
the old woman & the crow
the old woman & the crow

& the wind blew wild and the moon bowed low
& the dark waters sang in the deeps below
& no shade did she miss and no detail forego
as the night fell still & the world turned slow
till all was done and she readied to go
the old woman & the crow
the old woman & the crow

she smiled & held a hand to the side
& the crow dipped low with its black wings wide
& she leapt on its back & waved her goodbye
to the mouse peeking out from its hole close-by
the visitors caught in the prism of its eye
the old woman & the crow
the old woman & the crow

& the sun slid up, & the candle burned low
& the artist rose grumblingly aching and slow
& came downstairs to her studio
& stopped when she saw the strange tableau
a daisy on a picture, signed below
the old woman & the crow
the old woman & the crow

(dedicated to Bev Cooke)