appointment with bill

walks on
two small lurchers hanging on
his every sniff
every tail wag and leg lift
like attentive courtiers
or tip-oriented porters
keeping a valued customer
at close quarters
‘Pepper’s in love’ says Bill
but they’re having a lovely time…’
as we chat and climb
slowly through the wood
slogging through the claggy mud
talking generally about stuff
like isn’t life strange
and how you have to change
continually adapting
to the next thing happening
like this old friend of his
known him for years
wife suddenly dies
and now he has to try
rebuild his entire life
‘It’s hard,’ says Bill
‘but nothing stands still
you have to keep going until
you don’t
anyway – I hope you won’t
mind if we go via the shack?
there’s a bit of kit
I need to get back…’
so we stop at the shack
and he sneaks round the back
for the key
then he
opens the corrugated door
and I get to see
what the old shack’s for:
all the gear the volunteers use to keep
the wood in shape
and the pathways neat
and he rummages inside
as I hold the door wide
till he finds what he wants and steps outside
with an old and beautiful
wooden handled scythe
and he stands there smiling
posing with the thing
‘Who am I?’ he says
‘I bet you can’t guess’
and I don’t WANT to say ‘Death’
because – well
Bill’s not been in the best of health
and that story he told
about his old
friend Chris
was too fresh
in my mind
‘Old Father Time?’
I say
‘Yes – or DEATH’ says Bill
much the same thing
I’ll just lock up
and we can carry on walking’

don’t worry – it’s not as bad as it looks

the king my father

Dad appeared again last night
he said
waving goofily from the bottom of the bed
I sat up
drank a cup
of water straight off
‘Take the weight off’
I said
patting the bed
Dad shrugged the hood off his head
then sat
fussily folding his hands in his lap
Whaddya know?’
‘Not much.’
‘Hey – I appreciate you keeping in touch
what with being dead n’all
I didn’t put money on that at all’
‘Me either’ he said
‘I wanted a nice long lie-in instead
but them’s the breaks I guess
doomed forever more or less
to walk the earth in fancy dress…’

I don’t know if this is particularly relevant
but even though Dad was basically a skeletant
I knew at once it was really him
just quite a bit slimmer
the same ol’ glimmer
playing round his sockets
a packet of wine gums poking out his pocket

‘How d’you eat those things with your jaw?
You’d have to think it defies all laws
Wouldn’t they just fall straight on the floor?’
‘Uh-huh’ he said, waggling his mandible
‘Your concerns are understandable
But – see – these are Time Gums
Specially confected for spectral tongues
You feel like you’re chewing
but there’s nothing much doing
The flavours are crude
Your teeth come unscrewed
and the goddamn packet’s endlessly renewed
but it helps you concentrate
which is really quite helpful for a guy in my state

He sighed
flexed his glowing phalanges wide
then delicately hooked my curtains aside
and for the longest while we stared outside
the moon shining silvery, round and sweet
he said
‘And great you get this straight from your bed’

I said
sitting more upright on the bed
‘Tell me what it’s like being dead’

He turned his sockets sadly on me
and we held that connection wordlessly
until eventually
he yawned
and said ‘Well – it’s just like the time before you were born
THAT but without the cord n’stuff
I could tell you more but that’s enough
My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself
yaddah yaddah something else’

I gave him one of my probing looks
How’d he know Shakespeare when he never read books?

‘So what are you saying? Hell is REAL?
None of this sounds ideal
You’re making me queasy
sulphurous & tormenting sounds a bit sleazy’

‘Don’t take it literally
he said
suddenly leaping up off the bed
his black cloak cracking
snapping and flapping
like some dreadful, stressful, dad-sized bat
engaged in supernatural combat
screaming and crying
finally raising his arms and flying
straight through the ceiling without even trying
pointy and quick
like he only lacked a stick
to qualify as a rocket
the Time Gums falling out of his pocket

‘Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!’
I said after I’d managed to calm myself down a bit
and got up to disarm
the dreadful clamour from the smoke alarm
then picked up the Time Gums, gave one a chew
because – be honest – wouldn’t you, too?

appointment in albuquerque

and I met with DEATH on Tinder
and DEATH seemed very surprised
but I’m quite the olympic sprinter
dropped the phone and ran outside

I waved down a passing Uber
screamed Take me outta this place!
so she did a cool manoeuvre
and drove me outta state

I bailed in Albuquerque
gave her a million bucks
she said I was nice but quirky
and wished me all the lucks

I went to a 7-Eleven
to get myself a Sprite
imagine my expression
when DEATH said Hey! Alright?

I THOUGHT that was you on the app!
your profile said Trenton, New Jersey
which confused me all to crap
‘cos I had you for Albuquerque

my bucket list

  1. Not to feel the chill breath
    of death
    prickling on my shoulder
    every time I joke about getting older
  2. And not to FEAR Death
    but see it in a wider, more holistic context
    everything that lives must die
    ours is not to reason why
    (but exercise and early nights
    are probably still good advice)
  3. To finally see
    life’s definitely
    not all about me
    (I mean – in the history of this planet
    roughly 117 billion people
    started out foetal
    which is the best way to understand
    roughly where I stand
    on the whole, bucket list phenomenon
    and why I’m not a bit more forthcomenon)
  4. I wouldn’t mind seeing the pyramids, though

a few helpful lines on death

Death is a Big Bargain Bucket O’Nuffin
an Interplanetary Egg Mcmuffin
without the Egg
just an infinity of empty bun instead

When you look at a pigeon
do you ever wonder what religion
it has, or hasn’t?
or if religion is entirely absent
in fowl?
and how’ll
you cope
if you get to the pearly gates and ask if they have any birds in there and they say nope?

the fact is
death as an act is
entirely passive
but the overall impact is massive
because really it’s everything
and nothing
all at once
and comes at a person on multiple fronts
from the holiest saints to the most unutterable non-saintly characters

if anyone ever frowns, looks me in the eye
and asks what I think happens when you die
I sigh
and try
to look confident
say I’m not hindu or muslim or protestant
but just a plain ol’ human kinda animal
admittedly particularly cute and adaptable
outward looking, international
but for all this, just a humble ol’ organism
suffering from a dose of cellular determinism
trying to make sense of being alive
and doing okay before I die

But you haven’t answered my question!
you shout in my general direction
your face red with congestion
(try breathing exercises is my suggestion)

so to recap
before I get knee-capped

I think death
is more than just a clinical absence of breath
no – that’s just the physical
it might help to imagine the umbilical
stretching toward
from the infinite womb
of Gaia, I presume
(which is to say
That Infinite Thing that brought you here today)

In other words, the Great Fertile Nothing
you got popped outta that day with a whole lotta huffing
THAT’S where you’ll be heading
the opposite of begetting
which shouldn’t be upsetting
because it’s the norm
a return to the YOU before YOU were born
i.e. Nowhere
which is only fair
because if everyone went and lived forever
we’d be jammed up with clouds and harps and whatever

Religion? – I get it
but in my case forget it
I’ll live my life and do my best
then dive in the void for a nice long rest

Reworked funeral poem

Death is nothing at all
it does not count
it’s just nature’s way
of putting the empties out

Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I (dead)
and you are you,
(playing the kazoo
or whatever the hell it is you do
to pass the time when I’m all through)

Call me by the old familiar name
(but if it’s all the same
as embarrassing names go
I’d rather you kept it on the down low)

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed of late.
(but not at the graveside because it doesn’t look great)
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
(And if creditors come calling, pay for me.)
Let my name be the household curse it ever was
(Me more than anyone sorry for your loss)

Life means all that it ever meant.
A life well lived now a life well spent
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
(except for that business with the phoney annuity)

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
(I’m still around but I look a fright)
and if I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
think of me more root vegetable than mineral

All is well (for you)
Nothing is hurt (except you-know-who)
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
(just try not to scream when I knock on the door)

Stanley the Lurcher shares a few comforting lines on Death

Isaac Newton, Cleopatra, Shakespeare – all died
No wonder I’m reluctant to go outside

Dying is as natural as scratching your ears
it just goes on a few more years

Death is the undiscovered country from whose bourn no lurcher returns
just a few less treats and a few more worms

I think I speak for most dogs
when I say there’s no such thing as ghost dogs

Verily did’st I meet Death waiting in the market
and ventur’d most bravely to tug its cloak and task it
What is Death? And lo! it did blow a wormy gasket
so loudly did it laugh-eth
and ghastly did gaspeth
embarrassed was I the joke not to graspeth
tempted to say forget my question – sorry I ask’d it
for I woulds’t feel bad if Death suddenly cark’d it
but Death doing its best its corpsing to mask it
sayeth Why! Death be but a snooze in an underground basket!
(and I came from that place thinking Death may be sick
but jes’ ‘cos you’re eternal why be a dick)

a short waltz on a beach at the end of the world

wade naked in the water
lay dreaming by the lake
angels will blow the way to go
devils only know about snakes
so when the sun comes rolling in
and shadows steal the land

well c’mon take my hand
out on the sand
and we’ll dance our death away

I swear I’m never gonna run again
I swear I’m never gonna quit
life’s a big peach just outta reach
when you think of it
but if you say we’ll win someday
I’ll do my best, goddamn

so c’mon take my hand
out on the sand
and we’ll dance our death away

life’s but a walking shadow

I’ve quit a lot of things in my time, believe me
jobs, school, college – all defeated me
the relationships
I let slip
even this poem I’m writing today
will no doubt end up going the same way

‘You lack sticking power’, mum used to say
when I’d tell her the latest thing I’d thrown away
‘You have to learn to grin and bear it’
(and now here comes the scary bit:)

‘What? You mean – like a SKULL?’
‘How’s THAT an encouraging image at all?’

Ever since then
skulls have been an emblem
of forbearance, or tenacity
or that faintly annoying, saintly kinda capacity
for gritting your teeth and seeing things through
(Yeah? And look where THAT philosophy gets you)

Now mum’s dead
and it has to be said
(although I’m wary of sharing it)
infinitely grinning and bearing it

Because let’s face it (pun intended)
Death is just sticking power super-extended
Absolutely no-one bails on death
‘Out, out brief candle,’ said Macbeth
and that was a guy who knew quite a bit
being up to his neck in it

dad comes back (I know, right – AGAIN?)

as usual he appears with fluorescent flair
yaahing & woo-hooing down the stairs
a halo of ghastly green worms for hair
waving his shroud emphatically
a little melodramatically
it seems to me
as I know he was buried in a suit
but maybe he hired the shroud for the shoot
maybe there’s an undead outfitters
called Zombie & sons, or Just Jitters
I’ve really no idea
I’m getting off-point here
which is
ghouls and vampires and such
none of that bothers me all that much
but ghosts have got my attention good
since dad landed back in the neighbourhood

he wails to me
waving his arms unconvincingly

Okay, okay
I say
Let’s just drop the LOOK AT ME I’M SO DEAD act
I think I can take it as a flatline fact
since I saw you unplugged in ITU
(the scariest thing I saw anyone do)
so you can save the sulphur
sit on that sofa
and rest your mouldy old bones a minute
as far as hauntings go I’ve reached my limit
rest, rest, perturbed spirit
maybe it’ll make for an easier visit

and to my surprise
he complies

so – tell me – dad
this may sound mad
but what’s it like being dead?

he scratches his shiny head
lovingly examines his
long white phalanges
then smiles at me
and carries on more conversationally

S’okay he says
it’s had a bad press
are the hours good? yes
there’s very little stress
so unless
you’re under some kinda spiritual duress
or feel the need to confess
or maybe impress
the need for vengeance on someone who’s transgressed
I’d have to say, for me at least, it’s been a success

I say
that’s nice to hear
but – to be clear
why are you here?
if death’s such a doozy
why d’ya treat the place like a goddamn jacuzzi?
jumping in and out
waving your arms and legs about
lots of steam
see what I mean?

well, the metaphor’s a mess
but I guess
I can see where you’re coming from
and judging from
your current demeanour
I think you’d be keener
if I dropped by a little less often?
but then – wouldn’t I be forgotten?

no – no, you wouldn’t
so I shouldn’t
take that as a reason for haunting
continued contact I’m fully supporting
just not with all this phonus balonus
maybe you could phone us?
or skype?
or a text if you can type?

alright! he says
you’ve made your case!
I was never any good at face-to-face
but promise me I can swing by soon
anytime there’s a blood red moon

so I say naturally dad, of course
when suddenly he rises with the force
of a Marvel special effects team
and roars off with a chilling banshee scream
and the ceiling rends and ripples
and the hissing cat’s hair bristles
and the lights all surge and pop
and dogs in the street all howl without stop
and the curtains snap and whip
and the carpets ruck and rip
and the chairs all flip
and I’m sitting trembling saying what the shit

then a moment of silence

the sound of distant sirens

then I hear dad whispering so low I almost miss it
sorry Jim – couldn’t resist it