he knew all along

I promise
I’m being honest
when I say it threw me
as a cold wind suddenly blew right through me
the night Dad came back

I mean
he seemed
a bit quieter
like a ghostly proprietor
drifting in the shop to offer help
reaching stuff from the tallest shelf

I can tell
you’re not well, Jim
he said, as I watched him
drift through the bedroom door
a femur’s length above the floor

that’s rich
coming from the undead
I said
have you looked in the mirror lately?

he sighed
did an eerie, weary, dead dad kinda glide
over to the bottom of my bed
sat down (sort of) and shook his head

tell me if I’m out on a limb
but drop the pretence and be honest, Jim
I can tell when something’s not quite right
call it the gift of eternal sight

well okay dad, it’s true
I was never any good at lying to you
like that time when
I was nine or ten
and I snuck out
to edge the lawn
like I’d watched you do since I was born
in my defence
it was meant
to be helpful
but I wasn’t successful
it was horribly stressful
the edges were crap
may as well have been hacked
by a gardening psycho with a fireman’s axe
so I put the spade back
hurried inside
and when you finally arrived
home from work
you went berserk
stormed in the front room
where my brothers and me
were watching TV
and you yelled who made that god awful mess
and I kept my head down and I didn’t confess

well – newsflash son
I actually knew it was you all along
you always were a headstrong kid
it was exactly the sort of thing you did
your feckless brothers never touched a spade
so it was pretty obvious it was you I’m afraid
but that’s not why I’ve come back from the grave
he said as he gave
a flickering kinda glower
(understandable, given the hour)

tell me why you feel so lost?
I needs must know at any cost

(weird his speech turned so archaic;
but I suppose when you’re dead you’re beyond prosaic)

I don’t know, Dad
it’s sometimes really bad
and I wonder if maybe I was born
with an invisible caul that never got torn
doomed to live in a membranous fug
something like that, I said, and shrugged

Jim! Is that an extended metaphor?
if it is I have to give you credit for
being so cute & melodramatic
but as life skills go it’s problematic
you always did like to dress yourself
in words that dented your mental health

so what the hell do I do I said
throwing myself helplessly back on the bed

he drifted round the room a while
then settled back down with a weary smile
folding his bony hands in his lap
tossing back the hood on his demonic wrap

I’m sorry we never seriously chatted
before my atoms got royally scattered
all I can say in my defence
is MY dad was bad in every sense
stayed out drunk most of the night
coming back angry and up for a fight
and I know grandad was just as shite
so it got passed down as a kinda blight
no excuse but maybe explains
the dodgy links in the family chain
but it doesn’t have to be your inheritance
you have the tools and the competence
to forge yourself a better life
and that’s my message here tonight

he spoke like a spectral jiminy cricket
all he needed was a brolly and a ticket
to the transformation of the long-nosed puppet
to a real-life dancing boy or summat

(quite how many metaphors can you stick
in a poem – apparently five or six)

the universe is basically huge
cold as a wet weekend in Bruges
so it’s up to you to bring some heat
and find the love in those Belgian streets
I’ve lost where I’m going with that one, okay?
but I think you know what I’m trying to say
embrace your darkness! feel the burn!
find out what there is to learn
from the pain you sometimes feel in your heart
and greet each dawn as another fresh start

there’s nothing more fucked up than families
he sighed, patting my head with his white phalanges

then suddenly he straightened and flapped his cape
his sockets flamed and his jawbone gaped
‘I’m sorry to say, Jim, that’s really that
I’ve really enjoyed our spectral chat
but I’m off to explore Messier 83
a distant spiral galaxy
sounds nice in the brochure, but hey – we’ll see…’

with that he shot straight up through the ceiling
and left me with an awkward feeling
Dad never read a book, so honestly?
how did he come to learn astronomy?

ghost therapy

I dreamt
I was in hospital, sent
to see a patient
admitted that evening
a screaming
scared of
I said it was certainly the lesser of two evils
because it’s either a jab or a silver bullet
so he grabbed the emergency cord to pull it…

but then I opened my eyes
and to my surprise
saw my dead dad
ludicrously clad
in the big black cloak he always had
stagily wreathed in thick grey smoke
waving with boney bonhomie
from the foot of the bed in front of me

Alright son? he said
nodding his head
grinning so broadly
I was inordinately
worried his lower jaw
would pop right out on the bedroom floor
‘We’ve got to stop meeting like this!
but it’s another full moon so I couldn’t resist…’

I sat up
plumped the pillows and backed up
as he worked his cloak and flapped up

‘DAD!’ I said
as he hovered next to the bed
‘I thought when you were dead
schtum – that was it
not all this ghostly shemozzle instead’

‘I know!’ he grinned
‘but turns out when the ol’ body’s binned
the essence carries on regardless
don’t be so heartless
you can hardly
blame me
anyway I’m still a trainee.’

‘It’s been nineteen years!’ I said

‘That’s nothing when you’re dead,’
he shrugged
‘But hey – it’s hard for me to judge’

I sighed
smoothed the duvet over my thighs
‘Sorry I was snippy
but it’s just a bit tricky
when you were alive you were so
I don’t know
buttoned up?
now you’re dead there’s no shutting you up.’

‘It’s true’ he said
‘I never felt so alive now I’m dead
but you see
the family meant a lot to me
I’m sorry I didn’t get to say how I really felt
but I guess that’s the hand your ol’man was dealt
my dad was a drunk who gave us the belt
so we grew up quiet and self-contained
which maybe explains
the strange restraint
but who knows? a psychotherapist I ain’t’

We chatted awhile about this and that
metaphysics; whether there are cats
and dogs
in the afterlife – or not;
what he thought about climate change;
whether he could arrange
to smuggle me over
so I could look around and get some closure
‘It’s not me it’s the paperwork,’ he said
‘It’s more straightforward when you’re actually dead.’

Just then we heard
a chorus of birds
raucously squawking just outside
a certain sign that dawn had arrived
and I reached out and shook his metacarpals
cold as a hand of wire-strung marbles
and despite all the smoke
the skeleton chic and the bullshit cloak
I have to admit I felt quite choked
when he finally twirled and quickly left
unexpectedly just as bereft
as nineteen years ago this June
when they switched him off in ITU

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?


first there was dad
then me
although obviously
that’s mad
because dad had a dad
his dad a dad before that
in fact
a shit load of dads going back and back
to – WHAT, exactly?
something slimy n’straggly
finning with a screech
ever so slowly up the beach
overcome with emotion
at this unexpected locomotion
sometime around the Cambrian explosion
without the least notion
what made it think to leave the ocean
and what the fuck it was doing there
wheezing in the sultry air
bug-eyed and staring
in the brutal sunlight glaring
wondering what the hell it was facing
in the bushes bordering the river basin

and let’s say you were cruising
in that bougie time machine you’ve been using
and your cameras all zoomed in
there’d be no disputing
between the scientists in attendance
an unmistakable family resemblance

sunday bonfires

I opened my eyes
and to my surprise
there stood Dad
nodding and smiling in that way he had
plus a few added extra spectral moans
cos he was twenty years dead and mostly bones

‘Ere we are again! he said. Happy days!
scratching his pate with a coupla phalanges
How are you doin’ Jim? Tell me – how’s tricks?
Anything a stiff like me can fix?

I sat up in bed and rubbed my eyes
‘Well – Dad – I said – what a lovely surprise
but I’d be lying
if I said your visit wasn’t trying
I mean it’s hard with you flying
around the place
it hardly makes
for a restful scenario
but that being said – how the hell are you?

I’ve been worse
dying’s the curse
of the living classes
lately I’d be hard put to tell you where my arse is
added to which I’ve lost my glasses
but even if I found ‘em
I haven’t got ears to hook the frames round ‘em
[but then he turned sharply;
looked at me darkly]
Mark me!
Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold…

whoa! just a goddamn minute I said
quickly sitting up in bed
Why the dramatic shift in gear?
Why’ve you suddenly gone all Shakespeare?
You’ve got to wonder how it looks
You only ever read gardening books

Mark me!
My hour is almost come,
When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself
and you know that’s bad for my mental health

Dad – I hate to say this
but you know I’m an atheist?
which is awks
all this talk
of purgatory and damnation
well – it’s an interesting situation
and not that I’m calling you a liar
but …c’mon… really? … HELLFIRE?
What did YOU do that was so terrible?
your only crime was overcooking vegetables

You’re right, Jim!
This is way too grim
I’ve been hoodwinked! Hypnotised! Taken in!
This is what happens
when you die and time slackens
and you’re prey to religion and gothic fashions
Just imagine!
Surrounded forever by ghouls and ghosts
with apocalyptic monotheistic guff to promote

So – what’s it REALLY like then, I said
Tell me what it’s like being dead.

Well, Jim – d’you remember as a toddler, kneeling
quietly by the window on a Sunday evening
as I worked in the garden, shadows deepening
threads of smoke through the darkness weaving
invoking a sharp and poignant feeling?
well THAT’S what it’s like, but 24/7
and whether that’s hell or whether that’s heaven
is a completely different kinda question

And with that he vanished in a cackle of smoke
And I fell back asleep and when I awoke
completely forgot the words he spoke
(mental note: keep a pad by the bed
or shit like this goes out of your head)


notoriously difficult to explain
funny-looking, spongy contraptions
buzzing with neuro-chemical interactions
like there’s something galactic
fizzing in the attic

quite what all this means I don’t know
I mean do YOU know where memories go?
when you’re alive it’s weird enough
your head filled with echoey stuff
but what about when you’re dead?
do the memories go somewhere else instead?

maybe they go into everything else
when you’re laid to rest and your brain slowly melts
it might explain the other day
when I went to visit dad’s grave
carnations singing invitingly
frank sinatra: come fly with me

calling time

There was derelict ground at the end of our street
where the print works social club used to be
its pavilion fallen in, everything decayed
all the best stuff robbed away
but we managed to salvage an umpire’s chair
for some reason still standing there
rusting by the tangled nets
like the last of the sunny afternoon sets
ended a hundred years ago
and now only rain passed to and fro
and the only umpiring left to make
was which kind of weed would be next to break
up through the broken tarmac surface
while the developers slowly completed their purchase

Dad put the chair at the back of our house
so when he was digging he could take time out
sit with a tea, survey his work
the vegetable kingdom of the printer’s clerk

twenty years later, mum’s gone, too
and there’s an awful lot of clearing to do
at the end of the garden I find the chair
the woodwork gone, the ironwork bare
and I see Dad sitting on it, sipping his tea
quietly scrutinising me
and I wondered whether he’d approve or not
all those years of digging – for what?
a realm of brambles, nettles, shrubs
his son in a hat with croppers and gloves

but all things pass – gardens, courts
the Fens were reed beds once of course
and before that – dinosaurs called to each other
across the shining river delta
and further back, before this world,
before the formless pattern of chaos unfurled

and in my mind Dad is there
watching it all from his umpire’s chair

I stand for a while, the garden stripped
then toss the bones of the chair in a skip

ghost dad’s good advice

so there I was
relaxing in my crocs
wondering if there were biscuits in the box
when someone knocks

I thought it was Amazon
but when I opened the door
who d’ya think I saw
come to visit me once more

that’s right – GHOST DAD!
he said: how’s it going Jim
as I stood aside to let him in
accompanied by demonic violins

he said: sorry about that
I can’t do nothin’ about the music
it gets me right in the whatsit pubic
and to think they think it’s therapeutic

I have to say he looked the same
which given he’s been dead a while
is a triumph of spirit over style
but he was nothing if not versatile

he hovered in the kitchen
and said – how are tricks
his smile the fragile side of fixed
you’d expect from essentially a pile of sticks

not bad – thanks for asking
I said as he drifted
and every jar and box lid lifted
and all the contents critically snifted

and once again
I thought as I watched
our relationship had gone up quite a notch
ever since his operation was botched

so – Dad – is this a social?
an other-worldly good morning?
or are you performing
some vibey, beyond-the-grave kinda warning?

always with the drama!
he said – then suddenly twirled
screaming like a demon from the underworld
his cloak embarrassingly unfurled

impressive I said
as he slowed and stopped
and his lower jaw dropped
and I had to bend down to pick it up

I helped him slot it back
he said I’ve been working on some killer moves
but I still haven’t really found my groove
I s’pose I’ve got eternity to improve

I said no no I thought it was great
really dynamic, quite impressive
surprisingly expressive
the screaming maybe a touch excessive

thanks he said that means a lot
I remember you used to study drama
rolling around in fancy pyjamas
off yer nuts on marijuana

guilty I said that was totally me
but it’s been a few years
I never managed an acting career
it’s an awful lot harder than it first appears

he said everyone’s got regrets
(lidless wink, lipless smirk)
particularly when it comes to work
I mean – look at me – office clerk

I shoulda really been a builder
that would’ve definitely suited me better
righting ladders not writing letters
but often life brings other pressures

you’re not wrong I said
well, he said, that leads me neatly
to the message I’m to give you discreetly

nice I said that’s really sweet
(to be honest, this was all a surprise
previously the closest we’d gotten as guys
was crying with laughter at Morecambe & Wise)

now he said my time is up
he held out a hand for me to take
and even though it was a gentle shake
the arm came off with a dusty break

don’t sweat it he said
using the arm to point at the ceiling
no hard feelings
these phantom limbs are all self-healing

and with that he was gone
in a cloud of fog and screech of strings
and though the visit was interesting
it didn’t help with anything

the mysterious case of the disappearing gardener

I think I was maybe nine or ten
watching Scooby Doo
I’d spent some time in the garden
tidying the lawn or trying to

I’d found Dad’s edging tool tricky to use
so the line ended up pretty scraggy
it looked like something Scooby would do
on a pogo stick chased by Shaggy

when Dad got home he was PROPERLY mad
marched in, turned the TV down low
‘Which one of you kids is responsible for THAT?’
he said, pointing out of the window

he asked us individually, one by one
there were quite a few, you know
and when in the end it came to my turn
I shook my head and said ‘No’

that was it, as far as I remember
the villain was never revealed
Dad had a flaming kind of temper
but like the lawn it healed

fifty years later mum lives alone
I’ve come to tidy the garden
everything’s wild and overgrown
the edges much less certain