soap

Mr Gates is dying in the living room.

Despite the name, it’s the most appropriate place. As well as being the only room big enough to accommodate the bulky hospital bed and dynamic pressure mattress, it’s also the most pleasant, with wide, sunny windows overlooking the garden, warm and well-lit by the sun for most of the day. It has a TV in the corner, too, specially raised up on a wall-mounting so Mr Gates can watch it from his bed. Unfortunately he’s deteriorated so much now that the Emmerdale repeats aren’t really anything more than comforting background noise. He lies semi-conscious, mouth gaping open, breathing in fitful gasps, hugging a pillow, his wasted legs crooked up. He doesn’t look as if he’d last till the advert break, but apparently he’s been like this for weeks. He doesn’t seem distressed, though, and his son, Frank, who’s temporarily moved back to help look after his father, is bearing up surprisingly well considering.

Everything’s in place. There are District Nurses visiting regularly, the GP has supplied the anticipatory meds, there are carers coming in four times a day to freshen him up. The only hitch is that the bed is jammed in the down position.

‘You couldn’t do it again if you tried,’ says Frank. ‘The carers threw a covered cushion on the floor when they were turning him, forgot about it, and when they lowered the bed it dragged the vinyl cover into the mechanism.’ He bends down to tug at the mess sticking out from one of the hydraulic legs. ‘See what I mean? We’ve tried everything to free it, but nothing’s worked.’

The carers can’t give bed care safely or effectively at this height, so the only option is to install a second bed alongside the first, slide Mr Gates over whilst still on the mattress, dismantle the broken bed, then push him back into position.

Four of us have agreed to rendezvous with Zac, the equipment supplies guy. Zac isn’t thrilled with any of this, not the timing, the circumstances, the interruption to his schedule, and certainly not with the number of people milling around, spoiling his routine.

Zac is covered with tattoos, even into those dangerous and anti-social areas, up the neck and the side of his face. He looks like a Maori warrior – so much so that with the stress of all this I wouldn’t be surprised if he did a war dance, flashing his eyes and poking out his tongue. As it is he gives a series of alarming sighs and grunts, and then hurries back outside to the truck to start off-loading. We follow after him in a line like so many ducklings, and immediately start getting in the way. But I suppose theoretically at least we’re some kind of help; in no time at all we’ve got the parts of the new bed carried inside and placed either foot or head end ready to assemble. Zac declines any help with this.

‘I’ve got a system, okay?’ he says, which mostly seems to be a lot of muttering and kicking.

We want to be on hand to pass things over, though, and ultimately to slide Mr Gates across. So instead of all going out into the hallway, we stand around watching Emmerdale.

I’d guess from some of the clothes and hairstyles it’s from the Eighties. The whole thing seems oddly amateurish, like a skit in a local church hall production. There’s a sad looking woman sitting on a swing, and a huge, red-faced guy in a white shirt and golden bow tie telling her how disappointed he is with her and how could she and so on. At one point she turns her eyes up to him in a pathetically pleading way, kicking herself back a little on the swing.

‘It’s no good, Janet,’ says the man. ‘Spare me the sob story. You’ve played your games for the very last time. We’re finished. Do you understand? Finished!’

He walks off.

The theme music plays, and the TV cuts to an advert – insurance for funeral costs.

We all grimace.

‘Can one of you pass me that?’ says Zac, pointing to a strange looking multi-tool on the floor.

We all go to get it at the same time, then all pull back again.

‘Jesus Christ!’ says Zac.

new year’s thimble

Coming back from a dog walk the other day we saw a guy kneeling in the field securing the legs of a tripod. It looked like he was setting up for a long-distance camera shot – maybe of the crows that squabble in the oaks around there – but when we got closer we saw that the tripod was actually a long, thin spade stuck in the earth, and propped up against it, a metal detector.

The guy straightened, waved, and walked over. Despite his headphones, combat trousers and Caterpillar boots, he had a strangely out-of-time look about him, like a Viking who’d come back in disguise to find the treasure he buried.

His name was Janusz. We chatted about the area, what we knew about it, the places it might be good to look. I told him about all the fragments of old glass and pottery that get washed out in the far corner. Maybe there was a midden there or something. I told him about a field I thought was the remains of a medieval village over the back behind the church.
‘It had all these strange bumps in it I thought were the huts. But then I found out it was a golf course in the 1920s.’
Janusz laughed.
‘There is an old pond over there, though. It was dug in the middle ages, one of the hammer ponds they used when they smelted iron for cannon balls.’
‘Really?’ he said. ‘Hmm. Well – last year I found a beaten coin that way. About 1520. That was nice. Not much today though. I dug this up…’
He put a tiny brass thimble in my palm. It was fragile, dull, squashed out of true, filled with earth.
Have it,’ he said. ‘No idea how old it is.’
I felt the weight of it, held it up to the light.
‘Thanks, Janusz’ I said. ‘Thanks very much.’

I wanted to tell him how much it meant to me. How it was my birthday, and my Dad’s the day before that. How this time of year always felt freighted with meaning. I wanted to tell him about how Dad bought a metal detector once, back in the seventies, from the back of a Hobbies magazine. It was a clumsy, boxy thing, bakelite dials, wires sticking out of it. A horrible piece of crap someone might solder together from an old twin-tub and a radio. I used to go with Dad out on the Fen sometimes, looking for coins. I wonder what people must have thought if they saw us from the road: a man and his son, slogging through the peaty soil, stopping every now and again to chop frantically at the earth with trowels. A hopeless, fruitless quest. Half the time I think the buzz it gave off was a con, something random they built into it, just enough to keep the suckers moving. We’d have had more chance finding King John’s treasure with a hazel twig. Still – it meant something, out there on the Fen with my Dad, searching.
‘Thanks for the thimble!’ I said.
‘Hey! You’re welcome!’ said Janusz. ‘Happy New Year!’

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the wonderful thing about tigger

Carl climbs back into bed and slowly pulls the covers up to his chin. He’s a frail, tentative man in his forties, skin like parchment paper, his teeth sharp and defined. I’m surprised he’s been discharged home like this, but then again, he’s a convincing witness, and they’re short of beds on the psych wards.

‘I’m over it,’ he says. ‘I won’t be trying to kill myself again.’ He grimaces, and pulls the covers even more tightly around him.

This last time was the second attempt. Carl had taken an overdose of medication he’d stored up over time. He’d panicked at the last minute and called a friend, who’d dialled 999. When the paramedics broke the door down Carl was in cardiac arrest. They managed to get him back, though, and after a prolonged stay in hospital – a couple of weeks in intensive care, a month on the wards – he’d been discharged home with community support.

It’s a nice flat, but so bare you’d think Carl had just moved in. Even though he’s an artist, there are no pictures on the walls apart from two, childish, brightly-coloured crayon drawings of a dragon and a butterfly. The bare boards seem to go on for miles, from Carl’s bedroom at the back of the house to the huge bay windows at the front. By the bed he has an alarm clock and a glass of water. At the foot of the bed is a stuffed toy: Tigger, from Winnie the Pooh.

‘Tigger saved my life’, says Carl. ‘When I came out of ITU I only had the strength to stroke his head. It gave me power, though. Sounds silly but it’s true. He was my best friend in there. He kept me going, stood up for me. I mean – ITU was the worst. It was a nightmare. You’d think I was unconscious to look at me, but I wasn’t. Everything was out to get me – the equipment, the nurses. Everything was holding me down trying to climb inside me. I struggled like mad. One time I even threw myself out of bed. I just climbed over the cot sides and ended up on the floor – drips, lines, cables, the lot. Everyone came running. I thought they were coming to finish me off so I fought like crazy. Then they sent me back under. Next thing I knew Dad was standing by the bed on the ward. He looked so old and sad and worn out. It was Dad who gave me the spare kidney when I needed it, a few years ago. He’s amazing, my Dad. He came all the way down from Cumbria to see me. On the train. That’s a long way! I just kept thinking about him, sitting there, staring out the window. But when he got here I didn’t know what to say to him. Other than sorry, obviously. The worst thing was, when he left me at the hospital he came back here to sleep – in this bed, where I did the deed. That made me feel very strange. But he couldn’t afford a hotel, so I suppose it made sense. I wondered how I’d cope, coming back to this flat. It’s been alright, though. I don’t think about it all that much. Funny, isn’t it?’

swallowing the hook

I like to ride with him out to the river
the fisher king, the life and death giver
with his flies and his floats and his stale white bread
his fish blood hands and his fish blood head

I like to lie in the grass half asleep
and watch his fishing line flick and leap
as the wide river slides and the fat sun thins
and the maggots keen softly in their little round tin

now I’m old like you and I live by the sea
and the same fish swim out to look for me
It’s true, I tell them, I’m the son of the king
I’ve swallowed the hook, now reel me in

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tangled up in brown

I let myself in with the key from the keysafe.
‘Hello? Jack? It’s Jim, from the hospital…’
The bungalow is profoundly quiet, a heaviness to the air, cloying top notes of sweat and something else, the noxious atmosphere accentuated by the solitary drilling of a fly. Curtains drawn, a soupy brown half-light through drawn curtains. A door at the far end of the hallway standing open.
‘Hello…?’
Into the bedroom. The single bed on my immediate left rumpled up, nothing on it but a soiled bottom sheet, rucked up with a bias to the left; the contents of the side cupboard spilled or spilling; a chaotic pattern of smeared brown stains on the white wardrobe doors and across the floor – and then Jack, naked, lying on his back on the floor beside the bed, a lit desk lamp clutched to his chest, the cord tangled around his arms and legs. At first I think he’s dead, but then I notice a trembling in his abdomen, intermittent breaths, and when I touch him on the shoulder nearest to me, he shudders, opens his eyes and stares straight up at the ceiling, smiling in a beatific way, as if the touch was the answer to a long vigil of prayer.

I call for an ambulance once I know he’s breathing and stable. Even though they say they’ll do their best to get here quickly, and despite his poor condition and the likelihood of a long lie, he’s still only a medium priority and there’s a chance the ambulance may get diverted to something else. In the meantime I set about trying to assess Jack more thoroughly, and make him more comfortable. I put blue overshoes on, a plastic apron, gloves, and set to work. I turn off the lamp and gently disentangle him from the lead. After a quick top-to-toe that seems to exclude any obvious fractures, I use whatever pillows and bedding I can find to put under and around him to ease his position. I run a quick set of obs. I’m just about to go into the kitchen to find a beaker for water when Jack’s son Joe arrives. Joe is shocked by his father’s condition, but he manages to contain it for the future in the cause of setting things right in the present.
‘He was fine when I put him to bed at half seven last night,’ he says, putting on the overshoes and gloves that I give him, then helping me shift the furniture around to make room for the ambulance crew. ‘He’s had this UTI recently. The antibiotics haven’t been touching it. He was hallucinating about cats last night. He said the house was full of ‘em. I was going to talk to the doctor today to see what the plan was.’
He looks down at his father, and shakes his head.
‘Why didn’t you press your button, dad?’
Jack opens his eyes again and makes some incomprehensible sound.
‘He’s pretty dehydrated. I was going to give him some water,’ I say. ‘It’ll have to be in a beaker, though. His blood pressure’s quite low and I’m wary of sitting him up too much.’
‘I’ll see if he’s got one somewhere,’ says Joe, and pads off into the kitchen to find one.
Meanwhile I fill a basin with soapy water, get some dry wipes out of my bag and start cleaning Jack up. He’s in a terrible state. I’m guessing he must have had several episodes of diarrhoea through the night, the smear marks on the floor and wardrobe where he scrabbled around ineffectively. His hands are caked, his long nails thickly rimed, his body filthy – even the lamp is covered in smeary hand prints where he’s hugged it over night – for warmth, or light, it’s impossible to say.
I start work on his face and hands.
The ambulance arrives.
A paramedic walks into the room, clutching a clipboard.
‘Oh my good God!’ he says. And then, looking at my apron and overshoes, adds: ‘I don’t suppose you’ve got any more of those, have you…?’

shed head

I was thinking of writing a sequence of poems about Dad’s shed.

Okay. I know how lame that sounds. It’s not a subject that leaps up on the table with jazz hands. But honestly – there’s so much to say about that shed. It was so much more than a rickety old hut he knocked up one weekend. It became his place of retreat, his sanctuary. The one place he could be alone, and sit at his workbench with a cup of tea, and stare through the windows into the garden, and wonder how the hell he’d got there.

We’d started off in London, in a much smaller flat above a flower shop in Pimlico – which sounds ludicrously Ealing Studios, especially given the old woman who lived immediately below us, banging on the ceiling with a broom handle and running a pair of scissors down the prams in the hallway. When things got too much, Dad took a job that came with a house, at a printing works in Wisbech, Capital of the Fens, (I’m guessing when they awarded the title the only other place in the running was a cluster of apple shacks). The house was bigger than the London flat, but the kids kept coming – so relentlessly you’d think it was by some other, novel process, like vegetative budding – until we’d outgrown the new place but couldn’t afford anything else. So a three bedroomed house had to accommodate six children and two adults, and occasional visits from Grandma, sleeping on a zed-bed behind the sofa. If you imagine someone lifting the roof off, cramming us all in, then slamming the roof back on and sitting on it like the lid of an overfilled suitcase, arms and legs sticking out of the windows, you’d be close. If it wasn’t for the fact the garden backed onto woods, apple orchards and playing fields, we’d have gone completely insane.

So without anywhere else to go, the shed became Dad’s sacred retreat. And even though it was made of scavenged wood, with a door so thin if a wolf came by he wouldn’t need to huff and puff, he could force entry with one paw whilst innocently inspecting the nails on the other – in our minds it was something much more, something powerfully and spiritually aligned with the essence of Dad, as brightly as the rows of jars of odds and ends with their bolts and screws and panel pins and nails of every size, ingeniously fixed by their caps to the undersides of the shelves he’d put up, and his tools, sitting in their outlines like they’d burned their shapes onto the hardboard by sheer force of utility, and that single bulb hanging from the ceiling hook like a torturer’s light, with a rough tin shade cut from an oil can. All these things. So utterly DAD.

And then one day, he’s gone. The shed falls to ruin. And I drive over to pull it all down and throw it in a skip.

So maybe, somewhere amongst all the spiders and Pifco torches with the corroded points and the drawers filled with anonymous crap, maybe there is a poem or two to be salvaged.

But a sequence?

 

Speaking of poems about sheds

Here’s the latest:

hermes
Genesis

There’s also a new post in ‘Voices’: Daisy D.

Thanks for reading!

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genesis

it was me
I did it
I destroyed Dad’s shed
(cut myself on a nail
goddammit
serves me right
blood all down my shirt
bloody shed murderer)

anyway, I had some right
being there at the begatting
forty years ago
Dad scavenging planks from pallets
at the printers where he worked
grimace & purpose of Noah
an eye on the sky
& a fiver for the lads
to drop it all round
and when he had enough
nailing them up, quick, ship-lap style
a couple of windows
real glass, putty of aniseed
speculative press in the corner
inviting a bridge of thumbs
across the divide

but now those hands
rest in the ground
empty as gloves
and here I am
bloodied and breathless in the ruined ribs of it all
the fucked felt, the fossilised tins
nails and screws and useless things
the wormy bench, the rusted saw
and look – a square of green rubberhermes
an offset image of Hermes
no doubt from the printing
of some catalogue
I take it inside
hold it up to a mirror
to read the backwards writing
only subsequently
do I become aware
of my face behind it
suddenly a lot like yours