take the first exit

Sometimes when I’m arriving / or leaving / or deciding it’s high time I stopped / and dropped / all the buying and complying / all the dealing and denying / the blind believing / like sometimes when I’m driving / somewhere nice / or not / somewhere cold / or hot / listening to podcasts / forecasts / browsing through broadcast whatnots / the latest schemes / dietary regimes / ponzi queens / killer kitten memes / diana ross and the supremes / political extremes / bin Salman with a book out / on how to plan the perfect Turkish cookout / Cameron with his crook out / in his sheikhy shepherd hut on the lookout / while Johnson jokes from the downing street dugout / that’s papered throughout / with the pages of the standards handbook he’s torn out / and on daytime TV / a deputation from the Chinese embassy / interviews photogenically / on the inherent harmony / of Feng Shui for Peng Shuai / and I wonder whether it will rain again today / and flood / and sweep me away in a wave of mud / and whether I look good in this hood / or whether I should / just accept my age / gracefully / and wander off tastefully / and lose myself in what I did or didn’t do yesterday / and once again I forget what it’s all about / because even though I’ve tried and tried to figure it out / once again I’m circling the roundabout / gripping the steering wheel wracked with doubt

advance notice

it’s a click of the turnstile, a twist of the head / a hundred years till the end of the bed
it’s a conference of dreamers, a rolex, a ranch / a barrel of monkeys hung from a branch / it’s an empty ward, a vision in scrubs / a snoring senator asleep in the tub

Mr Trump stood on the stump
smile as wide as a gator
took some honey and plenty of money
and was smiling four years later

it’s a dummy diversion, a faker, a squad / a stockpile of bibles, a run on God / it’s the weight of a shadow, the slip of a dream / it’s a rat with a flashlight, the cat with the cream / it’s the luck of the loser, a criminal crouch / it’s the xerox you kept in a ziplocked pouch

Mr Johnson went to Wisconsin
selling his curds and whey
the farmers were charming but prices alarming
and so he bid them good day

it’s a baby in a baby gro, the lady in the lake / it’s a cemetery crow with a cemetery snake / it’s a victim of circumstance, a patsy, a pal / it’s a plastic bag in the old canal / it’s a pixie in a poncho, a garbage patch / a sub on the seabed with an open hatch / a flickering light, a bloated crew / gathering round for the evening news

Mr Jinping started limping
as soon as he tried to run
he ordered his generals to massage his glutials
then shot them with his gun

it’s a frequent crier, a fearsome toad / who sits himself down in the middle of the road / and licks his eyes and clears his throat / and starts his song with a terrible note / that shakes your windows and rattles your walls

with a song that you hope means nothing at all
no, not a thing
not a thing at all

howl howl howl
the old man said
as he carried his favourite
back to bed

and the weeds grew strong
and the hour grew late
and all we could do was


something good is just about to happen

Harold doesn’t just suffer with anxiety – he’s anxiety incarnate. He is fret and worry and apprehension and dread, bound together with chains of despair. He is one hundred percent uneasiness, with a side order of foreboding. Anxiety has invaded his body, worn him thin as a pier post submerged by the tide, the black water rusting out the bolts, leaving just a pair of drilled holes for eyes.

‘But how do I know you’ll come?’
‘I will come, Harold. I promise. I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.’
‘But what if you don’t? Who would I call?’
‘You could call the office. The number’s in the folder. But I should be there in twenty minutes, traffic permitting.’
‘What do you mean, traffic permitting? You mean you might not get here at all?’
‘Well – sometimes the traffic’s a bit sticky, Harold. But twenty minutes should do it.’
‘But it might not do it. It might not. And then where would I be?’
‘I think you just have to trust that things will work out.’
‘But you can’t guarantee it.’
‘No. I suppose when it comes down to it, I can’t.’
‘So you can’t promise me you’ll come?’
‘I can promise I’ll try.’
‘And you you’re not lying to me.’
‘No. I would never lie to you. I’ll always be honest. Even though it might not help sometimes.’
‘Because I don’t want to be told one thing and then something else happens.’
‘No. That’s not nice at all.’
‘So you’ll be here in twenty minutes?’
‘Twenty minutes. Try not to worry.’
‘But it could be longer?’
‘I’ll see you in a bit, Harold. Take care.’

I ring off. Take a breath.

Take care? Why did I say take care? It sounds too final – the kind of thing you say when you don’t think you’ll see someone for a while. Certainly longer than twenty minutes.

Even over the phone I can feel the glittering mycelia of anxiety reaching out to me. I shake them off. Take a breath. Drive more positively than normal. Get there in ten.

*  *  *

When Harold comes to the door it’s like someone throwing a curtain aside on a  monologue.
‘I was worried I’d caused a stain on the road.’
‘A stain Harold? What do you mean?’
‘A stain. I could see a black patch on the road outside, and I was worried my milk had leaked from the bottle. There was a workman outside and I asked him about it.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He said it wasn’t the milk, it was the repairs they’d made to a hole. He said if it was milk it would’ve dried by now. But it could’ve been the milk, couldn’t it? The milk could’ve leaked and caused damage to the road? And then what would I have done?’
‘It definitely wasn’t the milk.’
‘You’re sure?’
‘Positive. There are many things I’m not sure about, Harold, but I can absolutely guarantee your milk hasn’t leaked and damaged the road surface.’
‘But it was all black and shiny.’
‘That’ll be the bitumen.’
‘Yep. I would think.’
‘What’s bitumen?’
‘It’s a tarry substance they use to resurface roads.’
He frowns.
I take the opportunity to redirect his attention.
‘Would you mind if I came inside, Harold? The doctor wants me to take a little sample of blood…’
His round eyes deepen.
Blood? What on earth for?’
‘Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you all about it.’
‘But why does the doctor want you to take my blood? Am I ill?’
‘It’s nothing to worry about, Harold…’

It carries on like this all the way in to the living room. I put my right hand lightly on his shoulder, hoping the human weight of it might reassure him a little. When we reach the living room he hitches up his trousers, lowers himself with enormous care into a ruined armchair, then sits with his hands gripping the armrests, his spindly legs close together, his slippered feet flat on the floor. Only when all this is safely done does he turn his drilled gaze onto me.

I try the usual tactics. I ask him about his family, what job he used to do. I ask casual but specific questions about his daily routines. What he eats. How he sleeps. I ask about his bowel habits. How he’s managing. I make banal comments about the weather. I make him tea, and so on. But despite adopting the conversational profile of a pebble, every last thing gets turned into evidence of imminent ruin and disaster.

I settle back.

The walls are covered with pictures: kitsch, mini motivational posters, one of a kitten in a boot saying I hate Mondays; some with blocks of text saying stuff like Only I can change my life… or something good is just about to happen – but the one that really catches my eye is a copy of the Mona Lisa with a photoshopped spliff in her hand.

I look back to Harold and smile.

‘Am I ever going to be well?’ he says. ‘And don’t lie to me.’

a loss of balance

‘My psychiatrist is worried what effect all this is having on me,’ says Angela. For a moment I think she’s going to illustrate by pointing to her brain, but uses her finger to push her glasses back up her nose instead. She makes as if to fold her arms, then changes her mind at the last minute, puts them in her lap – and then changes her mind again, and folds them after all, leaning forwards with her shoulders hunched, rocking imperceptibly.

I’ve only been in the same room with Angela five minutes and I have to say, I’m as worried as the psychiatrist. Angela’s face is so intensely anxious, it’s as if someone had taken a cup, drawn round it with a crayon to get the circle, roughed in two permanently arched eyebrows, a pair of thick glasses, a flared nose, a downward pointing mouth, and then below it, as an afterthought, adding an incised groove like a second mouth, to amplify the sadness of the first.

‘You’ve got a lot on your plate,’ I say. ‘Anyone would be anxious.’
‘I am anxious,’ she says. ‘I’m very anxious.’
‘It’s understandable.’

Staring at us from the armchair opposite is the source of Angela’s anxiety: her father, William – an imposing figure, despite his extreme age. William is fastidiously dressed in a buttoned-up shirt and tie, bottle green cardigan, corduroy trousers with a sharp crease down the centre of each leg, his velcro-shoes box-fresh, correctly fastened. He’s so tall and gaunt, with so many edges and angles to him, you’d hardly think he was real at all. I imagine when he gets up at the end of the evening, he simply unfolds, flap by flap, like a complicated origami figure, cushion fold, chair fold, reverse-squash fold – and shuffles away to sleep in an envelope.

He must have some mass, though. He fell on the patio a week ago, taking his wife Rose with him, landing on her and fracturing her hip. Rose ended up in hospital, of course, with the prospect of a long convalescence. The only other sibling, Angela’s brother Tommy, works away from home a great deal and can’t spare the time. And as Angela is off on long-term sickness due to her anxiety, they decided – or at least, I would think, Tommy decided – that Angela should be the one who stays with William until Rose makes it home again.

‘I just can’t keep an eye on him every single hour of every single day,’ says Angela, hopelessly.
‘Hmm,’ I say. ‘What do you think, William?’
William slowly unlaces his fingers and then holds his hands apart in a sad, what-will-be-will-be kind of way.
‘It’s difficult,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to worry anyone. But it is unfortunately the case that – for whatever reason – I have something of an issue with balance.’

I turn to Angela again, who’s staring at me with such terror it’s like we’ve been dragged to the edge of a precipice.

‘You see?’ she says.