Brenda’s daughter Emma shows me in. She’s polite but thin-lipped, pale and precise, like someone with a hundred other things to do and none of them as stressful.

‘Mum has dementia and doesn’t know it,’ she whispers in the kitchen after letting me in the back door. ‘It’s been getting worse this last year. She’s been found wandering in the street a few times, brought back by neighbours and police. She lives with my brother, Tom, but they don’t get on. Tom had a Jack Russell, Billy. Mum used to look after him when Tom was at work, but she kept tripping over it so we…erm… we made other arrangements.’

It sounds ominous, but I don’t get a chance to ask what she means, because Emma turns and walks through into the lounge.
‘The nurse is here, mum.’
‘Nurse? What nurse?’

Brenda is still sitting in the chair she was helped into by the ambulance when they brought her back from hospital. She’s resolutely straight-backed, like someone who got delivered to the wrong house by mistake and doesn’t feel able to tell anyone.

The way the seats are arranged means that Emma is on the right and I’m on the left, with Brenda the focus of our attention. It’s an unfortunate set-up, the community health version of good cop / bad cop, with me smiling and nodding and making encouraging noises, tapping away on the laptop, and Emma perched quietly on the opposite side, picking her mother off every time she glosses over the facts, which is all the time, of course. Even though I’ve got every sympathy for Emma, still I’d rather she was in another room. I can’t help glancing at the empty dog crate with a photo pillow of a Jack Russell at one end, Billy transmuted from pet to soft furnishing.
‘Where’s Billy?’ says Brenda. ‘I’ll take him for a walk later.’
‘Billy’s gone,’ says Emma.
‘Gone? Wha’d’ya mean, gone? Gone where?’
‘We talked about this, mum He kept pulling you over.’
‘Don’t be so soft.’
‘Don’t worry about Billy, mum. He’s out of the picture. Okay? When you went into hospital. He’s been taken care of. We’re talking about you now.’
‘I don’t care about me.’
Emma sighs. Zips her fleece higher up her neck. Pushes her hands deep into the belly pockets of it.
‘No,’ she says. ‘And that’s the problem.’
‘I’m sure there’s some way you can get to walk…erm… the dog, Brenda. With someone else, maybe? You know? To hang on to?’
I glance at Emma. She closes her eyes and twitches her head from side to side.
I smile and look back at Brenda.

If she heard any of this she doesn’t let on. She’s switched her attention to an old, dented, dark-wood boomerang that’s hanging from a nail on the opposite wall.
‘D’you know what that is?’ she says.
‘A boomerang! Looks like a proper working one. Not the souvenir type.’
‘My father brought that back for me. He was in the merchant marine.’
‘Was he!’
‘Yes. The merchant marine. And he brought that back for me. A lovely boomerang.’
‘Did you ever take it over the fields and throw it?’
Brenda laughs.
‘What? It’ll take the top of your head orf! Like a boiled egg!’
‘I think you’re supposed to catch it.’
‘Are you? Well I’m sure I don’t know’
Emma sighs. When I look at her she raises her eyebrows.
‘Anyway. Let’s get back to seeing how we can help,’ I say.
Brenda looks sad again.
Stares at the dog crate.
‘I think I’ll take Billy out later,’ she says.

mr carrington’s cosy

Talking to Mr Carrington on the phone, I imagine him to be something like Mr Banks from Mary Poppins, sitting in a wing back armchair by an open fire, glass of brandy in one hand, phone in the other, hospital discharge summary on his tartan-rugged lap.
‘It’s the most extraordinary thing’ he says. ‘And to cap it all I have to wear this blasted boot.’
‘I’ll be over in about half an hour.’
‘Splendid! D’you know where I am?’
‘Roughly. How far down is number seventy?’
‘Stand in front of the old pub, turn to your right, stride up the hill three lampposts, turn and fire. Can’t miss.’
‘Great. See you shortly.’
‘Righto. Let yourself in. You’ll find me upstairs. Downstairs is rather out of bounds at the moment.’

* * *

I’m sorry to say that even Mary Poppins, with all her grit and sparkle and domestic magic, would take one look at number seventy, blush and pretend to have an appointment the other side of town.

It’s a deeply unprepossessing row, one house leaning against its neighbour up the hill like drunks on a tipping bench. Number seventy is probably the worst, with its gappy tiles, hanging gutterings, cracked windows, rotten fascias, peeling paint, and a particularly malign-looking buddleia standing like a giant spider by the broken gate, arching its branches over the steps.

I don’t open the door so much as lift it delicately to one side. In front of me is a damp and gloomy hallway, a precipitous flight of stairs.
‘Up here!’ shouts Mr Carrington.
The stairs creak and give alarmingly. When I put out a hand to grab the rail, it wobbles with such a wormy shudder I decide to take my chances and pick my way spot to spot with my hands free.

Onto the landing, and another vista of neglect. Whole sections of wallpaper rolling off the walls. A scattering of junk. Skeins of old web. A spotted smell so rich you can hear it muttering.
‘First door on your left,’ says Mr Carrington. ‘If there was a door.’
Astonishingly, someone’s managed to cram a hospital bed into the room, squeezing it in at the only possible angle that could work. Behind it is a bookshelf filled with dusty books and crowned with a leather briefcase that looks like it’s just been fished out of a pond.
‘Good to see you!’ says Mr Carrington.
We shake hands.

If this is Mr Banks, he’s been marooned on an island for a good many years – which I suppose, in a way, he has. His mane of ash gray hair flows into an equally vast beard, so wild I only see he has a mouth when he laughs.

After my examination – which he passes easily, with nothing concerning in any of his observations – I try to talk to him as tactfully as I can about his circumstances, the trip hazards, the damp and so on. Each point he bats away with the practised ease of someone who’s had the same conversation many times before.
‘Don’t worry. I’m quite used to it,’ he says. ‘Honestly. I’m quite happy as things are. Once my foot is better I’ll be able to tootle down the shops as before. So long as someone can fetch me a few essentials in the meantime, I’ll be absolutely fine.’
The room is freezing, though. When I tell him how worried I am about that he laughs.
‘Oh for goodness sake!’ he says, swatting the air between us. ‘I like it cold. Always have. It keeps me sharp! And if I get a bit chilly – well! I’ve got my cosy.’
He roots around under his pillow, produces a filthy hat and pulls it over his head, squashing his hair out to the side.
‘See?’ he says. ‘What d’you think?’
‘Well. It certainly looks – warm.’
‘Exactly!’ says Mr Carrington, snatching it off again, his hair springing back. ‘So there we are, then. Now. Let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about you.’

the bastard biscuit tin

Henry is remarkably chipper given everything that’s happened over the past month. First there was the high-fall, fractured vertebrae, ribs, haemothorax, concussion; then there was the long-lie before he was discovered by his wife. Unfortunately, it was a busy night and an ambulance couldn’t get to him for an hour. When it did, there was a further delay waiting for backup (Henry’s a large patient; it was a difficult extrication). The hospital was overcrowded (which probably accounted for the delayed ambulance responses), and Henry’s long stay there was complicated by an infection he picked up.
‘By rights I shouldn’t be here,’ he says, wincing as he changes position in the armchair. ‘I’m lucky to be alive.’
‘So how did you fall?’ I ask him.
‘Y’know what? I think I’ll have a leaflet printed so I can hand it out,’ he says. ‘With diagrams and a number you can ring.’
‘Sorry, Henry. I know you must be sick of it all.’
‘It’s okay. I don’t really mind. I’ve been through it so many times now it helps iron out the bad feeling.’
He shifts his weight again.
I move a cushion; adjust the footstool.
When he’s ready he sighs and says: ‘It was that bastard biscuit tin.’
‘What biscuit tin?’
‘The fancy one. Although it’s not so fancy now. It’s got a big, foot-shaped dent in it.’
‘You tripped on a biscuit tin?’
‘Worse than that,’ he says. ‘Did you notice the stairs when you come in?’
‘Kind of.’
‘Did you notice they haven’t got bannisters on the hall side?’
Henry shrugs.
‘It’s funny what you see and what you don’t. They’ve been like that since we moved in twenty year ago. The people we bought the house off took them out to shift some furniture upstairs and never got round to putting them back. I meant to when we moved in, but… y’know.’
‘We got into the habit of putting stuff on the bottom step to go up or the top to go down. The biscuit tin needed going down, so I put it on the second step from the top – for safety sake, because I didn’t want Agnes tripping over it. And then I forgot all about it. Just lately I’ve been coming down backwards so I can hold onto the rail on the wall-side. Well – my hips a bit dodgy and it was easier that way. So of course I didn’t see the tin. I stepped on it, it flew straight back, and pitched me head first through the gap where the bannisters should’ve been. I landed in the hall just missing the back of my neck, and the rest is history.’
He rubs his neck.
‘As was I, very nearly.’

stepping on a crack

We’ve been told to double-up for this one, so Sasha is sitting in her car outside the hostel, waiting.
‘S’up’ she says, winding down the window.
‘Any sign?’
‘They said he left the ward by taxi an hour ago.’
Sasha shrugs and puts her phone in her pocket.
‘Well I don’t know what route the taxi took because no-one’s been in or out since I’ve been here,’ she says. ‘and I’ve been here like forever. A proper stakeout. Wha’d’you suppose is in that pan?’
She nods and I turn to look: an orange saucepan on a window ledge outside the building.
‘Dunno. Maybe it caught fire. Why? You can’t be hungry.’
‘Hungry? I’ve been gnawing the steering wheel.’
‘That’s the Christmas effect. Stretches everything.’
‘Tell me about it. I’ve just been googling gastric bands.’
I yawn, look up and down the street.
‘Maybe he got dropped off just before you came, Sash.’
‘All right. I suppose we oughta knock, then.’
She squeezes out of the car, hauls her bags from the boot, and we both go up the stoop to the front door. There’s a carrier bag of empty jam jars on the top step with a note tied to the top.
For Janice.
‘I think they mean Jamice’ says Sasha, pushing the intercom. A dialling tone – then a crackly voice from some remote location.
Scheme manager mouths Sasha, then leans in to the intercom.
‘Hello. It’s the nurses from the hospital. Come to see Frankie.’
The voice says something we can’t understand. A pause, then the door buzzes and I shoulder it open. There’s another, inner security door – and just as I realise we need  buzzing through that, too, the intercom rings off.
Sasha frowns.
‘You’re gonna have to be quicker than that, Jimmy boy’ she says, then goes back out onto the stoop to push the button again. Another wait. The intercom crackles again, but this time the inner door clicks without any words being said.
‘You’ve done this before,’ says Sasha.
What? says the voice.
‘I said we’re in now, thanks very much.’

The lobby has the beaten, low-lit and musty atmosphere of homeless shelters the world over. Some of the doors have numbers, some of them just the ghosts of numbers. Many of them have been kicked-in and repaired, painted and repainted so many times the panels and joints of the wood have a gloopy, approximate look.
Sasha knocks on Frankie’s door. There’s no reply.
‘Did you ring his mobile?’
‘It went to voicemail.’
‘Try again.’
We both hear it ringing from inside the room.
‘So he’s either ignoring us, gone out again and left his phone, or he’s lying on the floor. Either way we’re going to have to do something.’
‘Let’s see if the scheme manager has a key.’
Sasha goes back to the intercom to explain the situation; I put a bag down to stop the inner door closing again, then go back to the steps beside Frankie’s room and knock a few more times, putting my ear to the door to see if I can hear anyone moving.
‘He’ll be over in five minutes,’ says Sasha, coming back. ‘Anything?’
‘Nah. I don’t think he’s in.’

We wait for the scheme manager.
There’s a door marked Private just behind Sasha.
‘What d’you think’s through there?’
‘I dunno. Wonderland.’
Sasha checks her phone again.
‘What are you looking up now?’
‘Places to eat.’

Even though he sounded miles away on the intercom, the scheme manager is with us in five minutes, exactly as he said. Graham completely fills the hallway, so tall and powerfully built I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that his DNA was ten percent viking and fifteen oak.
‘He’ll be in the hospital,’ he says, pulling an enormous fob of keys from his parka pocket and squeezing between us to get to the door.
‘But he’s only just come out!’
Graham looks at me and smiles.
‘I’m guessing you haven’t met Frankie before?’
Graham presses his lips and shakes his head.
‘It’s always the same. They say medically ready for discharge, Frankie hears it as medically ready for drinking. He’ll have got the taxi driver to drop him at the nearest off-licence.’
Graham knocks on the door, calls out, then puts one of his keys in the lock and lets us in.
‘See?’ he says. ‘Empty.’

The room is as squalid as you’d expect. A scattering of filthy clothes, food cartons, random stuff. The bed is rucked up, seamy – bloody, even, the pillows.
‘He fell over and whacked his head,’ says Graham. ‘That’s why he went in this time.’
Frankie’s phone is on the table. Graham picks it up and balances it in his hand like an urban tracker able to tell where the owner was, what they were thinking, where they were heading, simply by the weight.
‘He must’ve come by to pick up some money and left his phone,’ he says, then carefully puts it down again.
‘We’ll follow it up, reschedule and let you know,’ says Sasha.
‘Thanks,’ says Graham. ‘You know – Frankie’s the sweetest guy. Everyone’s done their best, but it’s hopeless, really. He had everything. Great job. Pillar of the community. But something happened somewhere along the line and he drifted off track. Who knows? Whatever it was it’s turned him into the world’s slowest suicide. Anyway! There you are! Thanks for dropping by! And a Happy New Year…!’

He shows us out and waves when we turn to look.

At the bottom of the stoop we pause to let a young family go by: a bearded guy in a red check shirt and Timberland boots, having an earnest discussion on the phone whilst he pushes a baby in a pram, and a tiny boy carefully skips along the pavement beside him.

‘Poor Frankie,’ says Sasha as we watch them. ‘Maybe that was it. Maybe he stepped on a crack.’

the life & death of the WDB

about this time in December / as far back as I can remember / the Wholly Dubious Beast comes looking for me / (quite why is a mystery) / it’s difficult to describe the WDB / & maybe / the best I can do / is just tell it to you / roughly how it appears to me / and see / how far it gets you / & if it’s too awful and upsets you / I apologise / but if only you could see it through my eyes / maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible / and make my trauma a little more bearable

who the hell knows
so anyway, here goes

on first sighting

jesus – it’s ghastly / my pulse rate increases vastly / like I’ve run downstairs to answer the door / and reached the floor / two steps earlier than anticipated / I’m devastated / jarred & scarred / scared, totally unprepared / I’m in bits & tatters / in all the places it really matters / I’m wound up / beaten out & bound up / I’m cast down / sobbing like a superannuated clown / honestly – the shock is inconceivable / totally unbelievable

on the sound it makes

if anything, its roar is even more disconcerting / the very essence of hurting / a discordant chorus of yells and shrieks / cries and freakish mutterings / explosive splutterings / sundry spillings / the drillings of a hundred fillings / mixed with the kind of howls / that wake you up in the bowels / of the night / and you lie on your back rigid with fright / stock still, perfectly flat / wondering what the fuck makes a noise like that / and very slowly you turn on the light / and you lay there shivering the rest of the night

the body of the thing

good grief / it’s beyond belief / breaking all laws of physics / with its transmutational sleights & tricks / being both small / and tall / at the same time / a constantly changing bodyline / mega-round, super-thin / everything out, everything in / like falling into a hall of mirrors / the closer you get the weirder it is / resulting in existential panic and anxiety / vows of sobriety / and a nausea / that floors ya / a squeamishness / whose extremishness / can only be allayed / by jumping up quick and running away

what it smells like

its breath / is instant death / it’s like a bored and sloppy chef / said fuck it / threw some kitchen scraps in a bucket / marinaded them in slime / threw in a handful of thyme / zest of rat / soupcon of shit and rancid cat / left it to stand outside in the sun / then served it on toast with parmesan

those claws

those claws are horrendous / mightily momentous / big as harps / shiny & sharp / gruesomely aggressive / rapaciously recessive / crueller than an accountant’s audit / when he rakes through the books, smiles & takes all of it / every last cent / back in tax for the government / leaving just a scattering of torn receipts / and a customer satisfaction survey to complete

and then the eyes

the eyes, quite frankly, are the worst / opening like a volcano burst / showering you in molten disdain / & caustic, incendiary rain / a pyroclastic vent / of fiery contempt / that turns you instantly to stone / the second you reach for your phone / petrifying your posture / so that years in the future / when they trowel you up with the dogs and the horses / and stand you in an exhibition of stony corpses / all the kids’ll line-up in that solemn hall / and make jokes about who you were were trying to call

but then again

so that’s the Wholly Dubious Beast / or how it appears to me at least / and I’ll admit / even though I’m still afraid of it / there’s a part of me that kinda likes it as well / its sensitive pads & extraordinary smells / I like the offhand way it trawls down halls / dragging pictures off the walls / trailing its nails down the curtain rails / burning seventeen kinds of ruin / into whatever project I happen to be doing / rousting all my habits from their shells / stamping on the shells as well / & I like the way it stalks my dreams / with its suffering squint and measured screams / & there’s an elegance about its ugliness / a sadness / whose origins I still don’t get / and yet / when it reaches out to grasp my wrist / to drag me down to the things I’ve missed / despite myself I plant my feet & resist / and though its scaly tail snaps / still I can’t relax / and let go / and what d’you know / that’s it / shit / once again I’m standing here / with December dying on the threshold of the year / and the WDB crying and shoving me clear / and trailing away into the ground / and me calling out as it spirals down / I love you, WDB! It’s true! / come back next December and I’ll see what I can dowdb

blog robin

Well – I can’t believe another year has come and gone…

I think that’s the accepted way of starting a round robin letter, those insipid but curiously incendiary A4 slabs of family business that get smuggled inside Christmas cards like condoms of pure news inside a drugs mule.

There’s lots already been said about Round Robin letters. Simon Hoggart published a series of very funny books about them, and you’d think that would’ve been the comedic stake through the heart of the phenomenon. But they still keep coming back, and I suppose it’s because of their utilitarian nature.

I’ll admit, sometimes it feels a little curt just to put Lots of Love, Jim xx when I haven’t spoken to that person, brother or what-have-you, in six months or a year – and don’t they deserve more? So the temptation is to write a paragraph or two, and if you roll that out over a dozen or more cards it becomes quite a thing. And I’ll be saying much the same stuff. So the temptation might be to rationalise the process (I say temptation in a HIGHLY theoretical way, because, actually, I’ve never been tempted), spend a little time getting it right on the computer, a few jokes and quotes, a mixture of trips, triumphs and tragedies, tactfully balanced, nicely aligned, with a few cheeky snaps to cheer the whole thing up.

So yeah – I suppose it does make sense.

Except it doesn’t, because if you’re close enough to care about this stuff you’ll know about it already. And if you’re not, you won’t.

ting ting ting ting ting

And by the way, if you’ve sent me one – thanks very much! It was lovely to hear all your news.

Merry Christmas & a very Happy New Year!

With lots of love


(p.s the round robin’s in the post…)

the old dance

the fallow field
that runs down to the wood
has fallen to the clearances
including, I’m sorry to say,
one half of the badger sett
that extended from the treeline
to the flag of a lone goat willow
and an armoury of brambles.
(the flag dropped
before the tracks of the digger;
the thorns were out-toothed
by the bucket)

but badgers don’t know
the meaning of defeat
(I think it’s safe to say)
because I suppose nature
has its hard ways, too
and all you can do
is get on and survive
anyway, suffice to say,
they wasted no time
over the next couple of weeks
doing a bit of digging of their own
excavating old runs
opening new ones
reinforcing, extending, clearing
all on the woodland side
and this morning when I went
to see how they were getting on
I found slag piles slung
from a number of holes
scree slopes of sandy soil
deep-found stones, roots, sticks
and in amongst it all
the skull and hip bones of a rabbit
the femur of a badger

I wasn’t shocked
I mean, it’s been a good while since I thought
badgers were grumpy but essentially kind
reading books in high-backed chairs
carrying a candle each night to bed
and I know, intellectually at least,
that when a badger dies
or any of the other animals that share
its extensive chambers
they hold no vigil
around some other hole entirely
heads bowed, paws folded,
incanting from Thessalonians
the mourner’s kaddish
or Ṣalāt al-Janāzah
no. they get busy
with the bustling shuffleP1130078
they’ve known for years without thinking
head down into the darker earth
front paw to back
with a flick and a shuffle and a flick
out with the roots
out with the stones
out with the bones
making good the ways
making good the days
making good the sett