Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Confession

The Confession

The woman stood facing the window, the phone clasped tightly to her ear. The northern sky cast its cold light on her furrowed brow. She looked up at the scudding rain clouds and listened intently to the ringing tone.

“Gladys, it’s Phillipa. I’m sorry to drag you out of the classroom. Norman’s been taken ill at work. I have to get to Birmingham today, somehow. I don’t know when I’ll be back – it might not be for a day or two.”

The voice on the other end of the party line sounded tinny.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that dear. Try not to worry. Would you like me to send Michael home on the bus? I think there’s a Midland Red around lunchtime.”

No, I don’t want to take him with me. He’s only eight; I don’t want to involve him in all this. I was wondering if he could stay with you for a couple of days, with the boarders I mean. I would be happy to pay the extra fees.”

There was a pause and she listened intently for a reply.

“There’s no question of paying, but I’m afraid there’s no room at the inn. I took on a couple of extra boarders this term so we’re bursting at the seams. You know how it is, I really have to consider getting bigger premises, now that business is picking up.”

“Oh dear, I was hoping …”

“Look, don’t worry, leave it to me. I’m sure we can find someone willing to take him in for a night or two.”

“Oh, that’s very kind, but I wouldn’t want him staying in a strange house with people I don’t know.”

“No, no, he’ll be all right. You fuss about him too much. He’ll be as right as rain. Leave it to me. You worry about Norman.”

“But …”

“Look, I’ll give Rex a ring right away, you know my brother Rex and his wife Joy, don’t you?”

“Yes, yes that would be all right, I suppose. Thank you very much. I’m at my wits end. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to upset Michael, taking him out of school.”

“Of course not, I’m sure Joy will be happy to have him; he’ll be good company for John.”

“Are you sure, I wouldn’t ask but I don’t know anyone else who could take him in at such short notice. Tell him I love him and that I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

“Righto. I better go now and ring Rex. Leave it with me: you get off to Birmingham. Goodbye.”

Phillipa Weston stood for a moment staring at the phone, trying to gather her thoughts.

She pictured Norman lying in his digs in Birmingham. Pneumonia, the doctor had said, best come right away.


Michael sat quietly with the other children at the big table, waiting for Miss Glebe to return. He stared out of the French windows at the lawn, fringed by the pink and yellow prize-winning chrysanthemums and dahlias tended so carefully by old Mr Glebe. He could just see the old man, clad in waistcoat and battered trilby, tying up runner beans in the long garden that stretched behind the lawn into the orchard beyond.


He jumped guiltily at the sound of his name.

“Could you come here for a moment please, I’ve got something to tell you.”

He got down from his chair and walked uncertainly towards the door where the woman stood waiting. She closed the door and bent over him in the hallway. He looked down and stared at the pattern of squares and diamonds on the hall tiles, smelling the wax polish on the wooden wall panels and the hint of cooked onions drifting from the kitchen. He could hear the clattering of pans and knew he would have to deal with mutton stew for lunch.

“Your mother rang a little while ago. Nothing’s wrong, she just has to go and see your father in Birmingham. She’ll only be away for a few days.”

Michael knew his father worked away from home during weekdays, but his mother never went to see him when he was away. He looked up at the stooping woman, her right hand tightly gripped round the bone handle of the cane with its rubber foot. The lenses of her horn-rimmed spectacles magnified her brown eyes, so different from the cool grey-blue of his mother’s. She had a strong smell, not like the sweet smell of his mother. He looked at the crooked leg, clad in thick, lisle stockings and at the heavy, black boot with its leg iron.

“Why – why does she have to go?”

“She’ll be back soon. You’re a big boy now. It won’t do you any harm to be without your mother for a day or two. John’s father has kindly agreed to let you stay with them for a few days. You’ll like that, won’t you?”

Michael didn’t like it, but he mumbled, “Yes Miss Glebe.”

John was a year younger than Michael, a pale, skinny boy who wore wire-framed NHS glasses. Not the kind of boy Michael usually played with. They’d once walked up the road together to see his father’s motorbikes. ‘Glebes Motors’ had turned out to be a lopsided wooden shed, painted in faded green, with a few derelict machines nestling in the long grass outside. Inside the dark interior, his father had been clutching the proverbial oily rag, repairing a battered sidecar. He’d seemed pleasant enough, with the same sallow complexion and lantern jaw as his teacher, only younger.

Miss Glebe looked up at the sound of giggling from the other side of the door. She opened the door and hobbled inside.

“Boys, girls! That’s not the kind of behaviour we expect, is it?”

She propelled Michael towards the table and he sat down.

“It’s nearly lunchtime. I’ve got a few things to attend to. I want the senior boys and girls to copy down the rest of the sums from the board. You little ones, arms folded and heads down. Ten minutes sleep until I return. William, you’re in charge – I want no noise while I’m away.”

When she had gone out, the older children began to converse in hoarse whispers.

“What did you do?” William hissed at Michael.

“Nothing. My mum rang, it’s nothing.” It was none of their business so he didn’t mention staying with John.

“Did you bring your stamps?” David whispered in his ear. "My dad gave me a penny black, I bet you haven’t got one.”

“I’ve got my album in my satchel, I’ll show you at playtime,” Michael replied. “I’ve got a lot of colonials and three penny reds. Not mint, though.”

“They’re not worth much if they’re not mint,” William almost shouted.

“Quiet,” one of the older girls hissed, “You’re supposed to be in charge."

The sound of Miss Glebe’s uneven tread sounded in the hallway and they began to hastily copy down sums from the board. Michael dipped his pen in the inkwell and made a nasty blob on his exercise book. Lunchtime was approaching with the threat of mutton fat and half cooked onions.


“It’s not far now,” John said, skipping ahead and half turning to face Michael as they crossed the High Street.

“I’ve got to look at something in Woolies,” Michael said, as they came up to the red shop front with the golden letters.

“I’m not allowed,” John said, but he followed on behind as Michael went through the glass doors.

“Come on, I just want to look at the latest stamps.” Michael made his way quickly to the display of cellophane packets. There were packs of all sizes, even some quite good ones at sixpence each, brightly coloured issues from Equatorial Africa, some of them mint by the look of them.

“Lets look at the guns now,“ he said, making for the toy section.

The one thing he wanted was a decent cap gun. He had lots of other toys but his father had refused to allow any guns. He said there had been enough killing in the war and wouldn’t have one in the house. His mother had talked his father round and bought him a pirate pistol for Christmas. It shot a stick with a rubber end at a target. It was a baby’s toy and he was ashamed when he took it out to play cowboys and Indians with the gang. Even the young kid next door had a cap gun; he was the only boy without one.

“Wow, look at these,” Michael said, picking up a realistic looking six-gun. The chamber revolved automatically and the breech broke open to load the roll of caps. It was moulded in a blue looking metal and had a white plastic butt. The black and white ticket showed five shillings, a sum way beyond Michael’s sixpence a week pocket money, which he rarely got anyway. Then there was the price of caps at four pence a roll.

“There’s some here for a shilling,” John said, picking up a cheap aluminium casting with a droopy looking muzzle and a crude red star painted on the butt.

“They’re no good,” Michael scoffed, “they only fire one cap at a time.” It was the sort of gun a kid like John could get away with but Michael wanted nothing but the best.

“Let’s go,” he said, “We’ll be late.”

An October drizzle had started while they were in the shop. They ran down Queen Street and John led the way down a narrow lane with rusting corrugated iron fencing on either side. At the end of the lane lay a street of red brick terrace houses with slate roofs.

“This is it,” John said, opening a low gate with peeling paint and running up to a lead-lighted front door. He rattled the letterbox and waited until a whey-faced woman with too red lips and a weak chin opened it. John ducked inside, under her arm, leaving Michael waiting politely on the doorstep.

“Come inside Michael,” John’s mother said, holding the door wide. Take your wet things off. She hung up their blue raincoats putting their school caps above the wet garments. Michael noticed his cap was on the wrong hook.

“Better take your shoes off dear, they’re all muddy.”

Michael reluctantly complied.

Joy walked up to a closed door and knocked. “Rex, the boys are here,” she called out, leading them to the door. “Are you ready for them yet?”

“Ready,” a muffled voice said from the other side of the door.

Joy opened the door and shepherded them into the lounge to reveal Rex standing with his back to the empty fireplace.

“Come in boys,” he said with mock jocularity. He beckoned towards them with the clumsy movements of a man of short but muscular physique.

“Line up,” said Joy, arranging the boys in front of her husband.

“Hands up!” Rex shouted suddenly, fumbling inside his jacket before pulling out a brace of pistols.

John rushed forward to receive his gift. Rex kissed the top of his head and looked expectantly at the older boy. Embarrassed, Michael displayed a poker face and took his gun with ill grace. He knew his mother would have expected better of him but he hated faking gratitude.

“Thanks Mr Glebe,” he said, examining the weapon he had so recently despised in Woolworths. If anything it was worse than he had thought.

Rex fumbled in his pocket and disentangled something from his handkerchief.

“There’s a roll of caps each as well,” he said, handing out the red spirals of cardboard punctuated by neat spots of gunpowder.

“That was very kind of your father, wasn’t it John?”

“Yes Mum,” it’s great, John said, genuinely pleased with his gun.

Joy led them out of the ‘saloon’ and up the narrow stairs. “I’ve put you in John’s room,” she said. The room was furnished with a chest of drawers and two truckle beds. Michael wrinkled his nose at a musty smell.

“I’ve put out a pair of John’s pyjamas for you and there’s a clean flannel and towel in the bathroom."

Michael followed her into the bathroom and wondered about his toothbrush.

In answer to an unspoken question, Joy said, “We don’t have a lavatory upstairs, so you’ll have to use the one outside before you go to bed. If you have to go in the night, there’s a jar under the bed.”

Michael didn’t like the sound of this but it explained the smell in the bedroom. He was familiar with potties under the bed from his grandmother’s house but had never known anyone to actually use one.

“Wash your hands and come downstairs,” Joy said, leaving them on their own. “Your tea will be ready in about ten minutes. You can play with your guns in the garden afterwards.”

Tea was fish paste sandwiches, milky tea and rhubarb and custard. Better than school dinners anyway, Michael thought. The back yard consisted of two muddy strips of grass separated by a concrete path and a clothesline. There wasn’t much cover to shoot from just a couple of battered dustbins.

They soon got the hang of tearing a cap off the roll and inserting it behind the hammer.

The guns mostly worked ok and Michael soon forgot his scruples, shooting at John and imaginary bandits over the next-door fence.

It was getting dark when Joy called from the back door, “come in now, it’s bedtime.”

Michael had used up all his caps and was tired of playing in the wet yard. At home, he had plenty of trees and fields to play in.

Inside, Joy lined them up again and said, “I want you boys to be good tonight, John’s father has got some paperwork to do and doesn’t want any noise. No playing up, I want you to go straight off to sleep.”

Michael rarely went to bed before eight thirty and, being an only child, entertained himself in his bedroom until quite late. It was barely seven o’clock according to the clock on the mantelpiece.

“Rex, you said you had another surprise for the boys.”

“Right, lets be quick then, the news will be on in a minute.”

He left the kitchen and went into the lounge. Joy followed with the boys and lined them up again in front of her husband. Rex groped in his trouser pocket and held aloft two sixpences, one in each hand.

“If you boys are good tonight, you can have these in the morning.” With exaggerated care, he placed the coins about six inches apart on a battered cocktail cabinet, as if preparing for a conjuring trick.

“Only if you’re good, mind,” he said with a warning look, his face creasing briefly into a smile. Michael noted the glint of gold among the jumbled tombstones in Rex’s mouth.


Lying in the gloom of the bedroom, Michael resolved not to resort to the filthy jam jar beneath his bed. He thought of the pack of triangular stamps that had taken his fancy in Woollies. He reflected that a wonky gun was better than nothing and sixpence in the morning was better still. He planned to visit Woolies again to buy the stamps and show them off to his school friends at lunchtime. He gave no thought for his mother and her trip to Birmingham as he drifted off to sleep.


Michael woke up feeling cold. He sat up and parted the curtains. It was still dark and a half-moon was riding low over the rooftops. He needed to do a wee urgently. The lavatory was in the back yard a few yards from the house but he knew the back door would be locked. He tried to hold on but gave way at last, groping under the bed for the jam-jar.

He filled the jar half full, feeling with his fingers in the darkness, but what to do now?

He didn’t like the idea of putting it back under the bed and decided to take it to the bathroom. He crept down the landing to the bathroom, went inside and closed the door.

He couldn’t decide where to put the jar so he poured the contents down the sink and washed it down with water.

He heard the doorknob rattle. Suddenly the light went on and he turned blinking in the sudden light. Rex stood in the doorway, his greasy hair stuck up at all angles.

“What are you doing out of bed?”

“I needed a drink,” Michael said, painfully aware of the jam-jar in his hand.”

“Hurry up and get one then,” Rex said, shuffling back down the landing. “Put that light out when you’ve finished.”

Michael skipped the drink, put the, light out and ran back to bed. He lay there shivering, listening to the sound of Rex’s footsteps going down stairs and, after a while back up again.


Rex went into the kitchen and sat down. He wasn’t happy about the boy being in the house. He’d heard bad reports from Gladys about his character. Something about shoplifting from Currys’ hardware shop, a penknife he recalled. Anyway, he didn’t like his attitude. It was like Gladys said he was spoilt and ungrateful.

He went into the lounge and looked at the sixpences. Why should he give the boy anything? It was all Joy’s idea. She was too soft Gladys always said so. They could ill afford to put him up, never mind provide presents. With John, he didn’t mind but why give presents to a stranger.

He decided to tell his sister that Michael wasn’t welcome, but what excuse could he give? A glimmer of a plan formed in his mind. He picked up the sixpences and went into the hall. Groping in the darkness, he found Michael’s raincoat and put the coins in the left hand pocket. In the morning, Joy would find the coins missing and questions would be asked. He could then do a quick search and find them in Michael’s pocket. He hesitated for a moment, knowing John would be disappointed if he didn’t get his sixpence. He decided he could give it to him when Michael was out of the way.


“Hurry up,” John said, shaking Michael awake. “You better get ready quickly or my Mum will be cross.”

Michael stumbled out of bed and dressed with cold fingers. He didn’t bother with the bathroom. He decided to use the outside lavatory after breakfast.

Over breakfast of cornflakes and milk, the boys exchanged excited whispers about the sixpences. Rex sat listening to the radio, drinking a mug of tea. He waited until the boys were dressed and ready in raincoats caps and woolly gloves before taking action.

He went out into the hall, where Joy and the boys were waiting expectantly.

“Now, I wonder if you boys were good last night. I hope no one was walking about the house while we were asleep.”

Michael’s heart sank. He was sure he wouldn’t get his sixpence.

“Hurry up, Rex,” Joy said, I’ve got to get them off to school, you know what Gladys thinks about lateness.”

“All right, all right, lets go in the lounge then.”

He went into the lounge and said dramatically, “Joy, the sixpences are not here. Did you move them last night?”

“Of course not, they must be there, let me see.”

Rex made a play of looking round on the floor. “They didn’t get knocked on the floor he said. There’s only one explanation. They must have been taken by someone, John, did you take them?”

John shrank back. “No dad, I never went in there.”

“Well someone was out of bed last night, I heard them creeping about.”

“What do you mean, dear,” Joy said.

“That boy there,” Rex said, pointing at Michael, I caught him in the bathroom late last night.”

“I’m sure Michael wouldn’t do anything wrong,” Joy countered. “Anyway, there’s no time now, we can talk about it later.”

“Just a minute,” said Rex, I want to look in his pockets. He lunged at Michael and groped in one pocket and then the other. Finding nothing he looked wildly round. “All right then, but I’m not satisfied about this.”

Joy pushed the boys outside and shut the door. “I don’t know what’s got into you,” she said.

”I don’t like thieves,” he replied, striding about, trying to think what had gone wrong. “I’m ringing Gladys. He’s not going to get away with it. She can search him thoroughly when he gets to school.


When they were out of sight of the house, Michael said, “What’s got into your Dad? I never went near the lounge. Did you take the money?”

John held his head down and walked quickly away. Michael ran after and grabbed his arm. Here, lets have a look, he said, going through John’s pockets. He soon found the two coins. “You did take them,” he said, showing John the sixpences.

“I never,” said John, pulling away, “leave me alone.”

Michael didn’t care who had taken them. They had been promised sixpence each and they had got sixpence each. “It’s all right,” he said, running after John, you can have yours back. We can buy stamps from Woolies now.”

John seemed mollified by this. They soon had a packet of shiny new stamps in their pockets as they set off towards the school.


Gladys pounced as soon as the boys came through the door. She pulled off their coats immediately and began a thorough search. All she found was the stamps but it wasn’t hard to put two and two together. She questioned them separately and soon got the story.

The stories matched but there was something wrong somewhere.

She had already helped Phillipa out with the incident of the army knife. It was obvious that Michael had stolen the knife from Curry’s even though he refused to admit it. If she’d had her way she would have got the truth out of him, but the boy was not yet admitted to the school. She didn’t want to lose a valuable customer, so she had given him the benefit of the doubt.

Phillipa had found the knife and asked her advice as a friend. Apparently, they had been shopping in Curry’s and Michael had picked up the knife from an Army Surplus bin and asked if she would buy it for him. She refused, of course and made him put it back. His story was that he found the knife in next-door’s shed and was only borrowing it. Either way, he had stolen it. She had persuaded Phillipa to take the knife back to the shop and apologise. She had driven her there herself, with Michael in the back seat, so he knew what for.

It all fitted in with what Rex had told her on the phone. Michael had taken the coins and involved John in the crime by buying the stamps. Saying he found them in John’s pocket was a lie, one that she could not forgive. Phillipa might be her best friend but the boy’s dishonesty had to be dealt with firmly, before he got any older.

When all the children were in their places, she clumped into the classroom and said in a strident voice, “Anyone who has brought stamps to school, bring them up to my desk immediately.”

A ragged crew assembled in front of her and surrendered sundry albums and loose stamps.

“No more stamps in school. Your parents can have these back when they come to collect you, and not before.” She wanted to make sure that everyone knew that she would not tolerate dishonesty in her school.


Michael got through the rest of the day somehow. He knew something bad was going to happen and hoped his mother would turn up soon and take him away from this place. He didn’t want to go back to John’s house but where else could he go.

It was Friday, so the borders were collected by their parents and driven back to the outlying farms. Michael waited alone in the classroom until everyone had been packed off home for the weekend, a ball of fear knotted in his stomach.

Eventually Gladys Glebe came in and stood in front of him, revealing the unnatural evenness of her false teeth in a grim smile.

“Well now, Michael,” she said, in her most cheerful tone, “what are we going to do with you?”

She waited until he had mumbled, “don’t know Miss Glebe.”

“I don’t know what you mother will have to say about all this, but I do know she will be very disappointed.”

She took him down to the kitchen where the old man sat listening to the racing results, checking his afternoon bets. He gave Michael a knowing wink. “Been in the wars ‘ave you lad? I’m off to the Service Club,” he said to Gladys, picking up a knobbly walking stick and making for the back door.

Michael got a corned beef sandwich and a tepid cup of tea. The milk was off.

“Now off to bed, Gladys said, but you better have a bath first so into the bathroom with you. I’ll be up shortly.”

It seemed a long way up the wide stairs. Michael stood waiting in the bathroom until

Miss Glebe had made her painful way up the stairs after him, one step at a time. He could smell the sweat of her exertion when she ran the bath. She didn’t put much water in, most of it being cold.

“Get undressed, now,” she said, “I want you nice and clean if you are going to be sleeping in my beds.”

He felt uncomfortable being naked in front of a woman who was not his mother. Worse, she had decided to wash him herself, scrubbing every part of his body with the awful Sunlight soap she used everywhere in the school.

“Now, you know I just want you to tell me the truth. You needn’t worry, I wont be cross as long as you own up. We know you took the money, but that’s over with now, all we want is for you to be truthful. You do want to be a good boy, don’t you?”

She kept up a stream of probing and cajoling for what seemed like hours. Eventually she lost patience and, drying her hands, stood looking at him from the doorway. “I’m going to leave you here to think about what you’ve done. I want you to own up and say sorry to Rex and Joy for all the trouble you’ve caused. Your mother won’t be home until Sunday, so you’ll have to stay with me till then. I’ll be coming back shortly to ask you again.”

He listened to her climbing down the stairs again and walking down the hallway to the kitchen. He shivered as the water became quite cold. He went over things again and again but could make no sense of it. It was like the time before with the knife. They said he was a thief but it wasn’t true. He did find the knife in the shed next door but he didn’t take the sixpences, at least not from the house.

After what seemed an age, he heard her labouring up the stairs again. He knew she would make him confess, just like before.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lily Moon

Dancing girl, why do you look behind? Wild
Glancing eyes, scorning the pursuing wind;
Rhythmically, round your thighs a serpent ties.
Cyprian, what is your gift to us? Lovely
Naked sea virgin without modesty,
Uranian, silver bell, cockleshell.
Eve, why not to your Adam cleave? Even if
You don't believe that wickedness must come,
Calamitous, apple bite, no respite.

Ghost woman, why do you stand and stare? Through
Corncockle eyes, Earth's skies seen from the moon,
Hyacinthine, waxen flesh, frozen breath.
Grisly shade, what are you waiting for? Bare
Breasts adorned with rowanberry crests,
Adamantine, sickle moon, suckle soon.
Ragged maid, what do you want of man? Fair
Your lime bleached hair, a sea of golden rain,
Labyrinthine, wicker cage, fire's rage.

Dark eyed girl, why are you crying? Under
Periwinkle skies rent by peacock's cries,
Mistress divine purified by fatal sign.
Belle Dame, what Saviour do you pray for? He
With purple brow crowned with bloody black thorn,
Arbitrary death, chest torn, women mourn.
Lily Moon, what bloody rites have you seen? Queen,
Your holly lair a sea of waving green,
Sanguinary, waxy sheen, women keen,
Rending hair, Living out your hopeless dream,
Unto eternity.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Island

I. The Resort

A few miles to the North, smoke plumes
drift over the sea, white warnings
of hidden fires raging in the trees.
A morning pall of ash remains,
of forest flames quenched by night-time rains,
sprinkled on the bedroom awnings.

The resort squats self-consciously,
a glass and steel tortoise in the trees.
In the lobby, new arrivals
accumulate and sip Chablis;
they listen to the hotel rules,
no booze or horseplay in the pools.

Bare feet, thongs and shoes pound pine boards:
checking in and out the motley hordes
disperse with electronic keys and
beach towels, walking in twos or threes
they wander through the scrub and sand
to find their rooms among the trees.

The sunlight glitters on the wires
strung between the parabolic beams;
breakfast birds dive down and flutter.
Ignoring screams, the skilful fliers
snatch crumbs of toast and butter,
in a palace of avian dreams.

Humbert, slumped in a wicker chair,
masks a classifying stare,
over the morning paper clocks,
two young princesses in coloured socks.
He leaves to undress by the pool,
hopes their mother didn't see him drool.

Along the boardwalk a black snake
lies baking in the morning sun,
feels the pulse of running feet,
turns back to beat a wise retreat.
The girls in costumes, looking cool,
run quickly to the swimming pool.

The boards rumble to a heavier tread,
dismayed, Humbert ducks his head,
as mother bulges out in red;
a splash signals her immersion,
drenching voyeur from toe to head;
he leaves, to seek a new diversion.

II. The Lake

The trippers have left their traces
lingering on the shining sands:
indentations, heel and toe,
soon massaged to oblivion
by the breeze of afternoon.
Dust devils begin their dance and go
round discarded butts and cans,
waltzing through the trees then
sifting through the litter down below.

The lake lies half in shadow,
cast by the torrid sun at trine,
angling over the cliff of sand
that plunges to the waterline.
Turquoise and green the waters shine
along the shallows of the beach,
but deep beneath the shadows
lurk realms of brackish hollows
where the light can never reach.

Deep and cold the water lies,
pressing on a bed of ancient leaves,
first fallen when the rise of man
was but a stagger from the trees.
Countless logs lie bedded down,
where pale eyes glimmer, floating
in murky depths of black and brown,
waiting for a lonely swimmer
to succumb to fear and drown.

To be alone in such a place,
the sun gliding towards the sea,
is to know the mystery
of a cobalt sky revolving
in the forest's watery eye,
disconnected from all trace
of human purpose, dissolving
in the microcosmic chatter
of teeming life among the trees.

Time ceases then, and fails to flow:
the pool, ominous and enticing,
sings with promise of cool delight.
With burning feet upon the sand,
a tardy bather slips from sight,
into the shelving pit below;
floats briefly in the blazing light
then drifts into a land of shadows.
A bird calls out as Humbert wallows.

III. The Beach

The hand of evening lies upon the sands,
grey ash drifts into the dingo's eyes,
where reflect blood-orange skies and
birds speckled in migrating bands.
Slow life from the bushes creeps
and signifies where danger sleeps.

Delicate but invisible hands
lie under a knotted epigram,
scribbled in the briny sands.
The dingo trots round rotted logs,
leaving messages for his dam
or other learned yellow dogs.

Listlessly the ocean swishes
and wishes for an evening wind,
to enliven its eternal song.
A broken thong, an orange rind,
odds and ends of every kind
bathe with crabs and mangrove pods.

Silhouetted in the lurid glow
beer drinkers squat incarnadined,
lovers stalk their lilac shadows
flowing among the toppled gums.
The sun falls behind the jetty
as the evening ferry comes.

Like chatter from a xylophone,
the luggage buses clatter
on the weathered jetty boards,
A single note on klaxophone
commands the Dis-enchanted hordes
to board the final ferryboat.

Tony Thomas
January 2006

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bucolic Beauty

Not existing in and for itself,
beauty's purpose is to enthral, entice,
to stimulate and select (or reject)
a victim, ripe for joyful sacrifice.

For the bee, the glory of the meadow
represents a tableau full of nectar,
where other species dine together,
with lepidoptera and vile insecta.

In the poet's eye, the field becomes
a woman, whose delights are needlessly
elaborated by mythology:
cornflower eyes, poppy lips and such fancies.

Flora or Blodeuwedd lie spread before him,
invitingly humped in a summer bed,
while neglected in the milking shed sits
plump Lucy, wondering if he's lost his head.

Function and form amply displayed, Lucy
squeezes and pumps milk from swollen teats,
sweats and dreams of lusty swains, she hopes
will deliver her from lactating drains.

Poet and Lucy remain unsatisfied
because they are tied to dreams of love and
beauty all confused with work and duty.
So, discard pen and bucket and go to it.

But what conspiracy lies behind that art?
The dark glistening eyes, the downcast glance,
the bitten lip and blushing modesty that
transforms country tart to sweet Aphrodite.

Behind nature's arras squirms the culprit,
an uneasy chariot of ancient germs,
aided and abetted by the senses
retarded by the horses of the mind.

The arts of poetry and dance conspire
to hinder that inglorious conjunction,
that crux of irresistible desire
to join opposites in form and function.

Beguiled by sphere and dodecahedron,
Platonic aesthetes preferred completion;
they could not stand nature's unruly plan,
so inconsistent with the mind of man.

Incompleteness, then, is the mysterious key,
rather than proportion or symmetry.
Aristotle would have rather dined on slugs,
than sip nectar from Lucy's ovoid dugs.

The pelvic thrust of young Perseus, cast
by Cellini, was designed to excite
the lust of the Florentine pederast,
not ignite Aphrodite's sacred flame.

The fruit of Bacchus' lips proclaim too
Carravagio as lover of the pretty toy,
and Michelangelo's boy hero David
slayed more than Dan's tribal bugaboo.

Beauty, then, is the hidden mask of desire,
a lurking fire in a thousand places,
burning in each weeping eye, the traces
of some primaeval ire still not snuffed out.

But good taste is the sine qua non of art,
woe betide those who neglect the critic's part
in blocking the poet's tendency to employ
the squalid bits of nature's inventory.

To the youthful eye, the morning's pleasure
sounds no alarms of gravid pains to come,
but charms and adds value to a treasure
that may grow heavy with the setting sun.

And so as evening falls and our poet fails
to capture glowing tales of beauty,
garnered from his wordy fields of clover,
may chance to see Lucy bending over.

In a flash, the truth he sees, between
the nice proportions of her knees,
and glib theories of rhyme and metre are
cast aside like the curtain of love's theatre.

Stumbling forward with inarticulate cries,
he grasps the weary milkmaid round her thighs
unbuckles all his mental blocks, wails "fuck it!"
and falls headlong into Lucy's bucket.


Monday, July 6, 2009


A lone man stands defiant in a field,
bracing his weary head against the whining wind,
and with his pale blue eyes from northern lands,
red-rimmed with dust and seeping, he sees
the gloomy sky browbeat the brown horizon.
While overhead the midday sun flames down
into his brain, where all the world lies weeping,
and desiring, a wilful pool of swirling pain,
filled with hopelessness and thoughts of fame.

And round about the wheat dances in the wind,
beneath the vastness of the empty sky,
whispering its song of plenitude;
a dance he has learned and understood,
from the twisted trees and tortured wood
of the black cypress and the olive grove.
But soon the wind must overcome his love,
the stoutest tree and twisted heart intent
on wrenching out its deepest mystery.

Still the power of his will resists,
and flickers over the canvas width,
in slashing flames of blue and gold.
Ten years of suffering and pain
blossom again, like fruit trees after rain.
But trust the devil Mistral to persist;
it fills his nose and eyes with dust and mist,
until the wide sail torn from the easel
is cast down upon the sea of waving grain.

Kneeling now, he bows to his creation,
not for the first time on hands and knees,
he worships and knows what to do by rote.
The ritual implements are soon collected
and arranged before the fallen shrine;
brushes, oil and paint and turpentine.
The work of love and life begins again,
balanced against the weight inside his coat,
one last struggle against disease and pain.

Soon, all too soon the final work is done,
and the Mistral dies down as if satisfied
that a dream so roughly hewn from wind and sun
is a worthy tribute to its headstrong power.
What then remains of life to be revealed?
Suddenly, without warning, the crows fly up,
to swirl and stream above the lonely field,
black, cackling laughter rising to the clouds.
The crack of the gunshot echoes after.


Saturday, July 4, 2009


Hilda Morgan opened the bedroom door and waited while her daughter dumped her suitcase inside. An older version of her offspring, she looked worn and tired

“Mum, It’s a bit damp in here, isn’t it?” Bella said, clasping her arms round her body.

“It’s been shut up since we moved in: I keep most of the doors closed while your father is away; it’s easier to keep the rest of the house warm.”

“This house is awful. Why did you ever move to this God forsaken place? You had such a nice house in Cambridge.”

“Well, when your father failed to get tenure we had to move out. He wanted a big place in the countryside, so he could store all his books and artefacts. Take your coat off and come downstairs; there’s a nice fire burning in the lounge. I’ll put the kettle on.”

Bella shrugged, hefted her suitcase onto the bed and opened the lid.

“Right-o. I just want to unpack a few things first, then I’ll be down.”

The younger woman listened until her mother’s footsteps reached the bottom of the stairs before taking off her coat.

This was the first time she had been inside the house, recently purchased by her parents in anticipation of their retirement. Situated in the Sussex countryside, it had once been a vicarage. It was a Georgian building, adjacent to the village church, and probably built on the site of an earlier living.

The bedroom was dark and dingy, like the rest of the house, which was crammed with old furniture and a jumble of artefacts gleaned by her father from all over the world. Professor Morgan was presently on a field trip to Anatolia and it had been almost three years since they had seen each other.

The room contained an iron bedstead with brass fittings, and an old marble topped washstand, replete with water pitcher and bowl, which had once belonged to her maternal grandmother. A large mahogany wardrobe with bevelled glass mirrors stood in the corner, by the sash window. An engraving, in a battered gilt frame, hung in the shadow of the wardrobe, opposite the bed. It seemed to depict a well build young lady, lying half out of bed with her arms thrown back in an ecstatic trance. She couldn’t see the rest of it very clearly, but there seemed to be a horse’s head looking down on the scene.

Bella felt grubby after the long train journey from the city and rummaged in the suitcase for her spongebag and a towel.

“Bella!” she heard her mother call from below. “Your tea’s ready.”

She didn’t feel like having a long distance conversation so she went out to the landing, leaned over the banisters and shouted, “I’m just having a quick wash, don’t pour mine out yet.”

The bathroom was even worse than the bedroom. There was a battered enamel bathtub with claw feet, a decrepit basin with iron stains and a big copper geyser with a conical top, which smelt of gas. The doctor had prescribed sedatives after the breakdown and she swallowed two tablets now, with a palm-full of water. The hot tap squeaked when she turned it, releasing a tepid flow of water into the cramped hand basin. After a perfunctory wash, she went downstairs to face the inevitable interrogation about what had gone wrong with her life this time.

“Now dear, sit down and have your tea, two sugars, isn’t it, and tell me what’s happened. I was really worried when you rang, you sounded so upset. I suppose it’s that person you were with. Stephen something was it?”

“Stephen Leacock,” Bella said curtly, “he turned out to be a lying creep.”

“But what about the other one, the one you had before?”

“Brian, you mean? We broke it off long ago.”

“Well, you don’t want to leave things much longer dear, you’re not getting any younger. At this rate I won’t live to see my grandchildren.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better, is it? I’m not prepared to discuss it. I just want to get away from all that. The doctor said I was to have a complete break. If you don’t want me here, say so. I know you’ve never loved me, especially since Douglas died, but I thought the least you could do was put me up for a bit until I can get back on my feet.”

“Don’t be silly, dear, of course I’m pleased to see you, it’s been such a long time. It is a bit lonely here now while your father is away.”

“It’s all right Mum, I just need to lie down quietly somewhere. The doctor gave me some pills but I’m still a bit jumpy. I’ve just taken two, so I might have a quick nap until they take effect.”

Hilda Morgan stood up and began to clear the teacups away.

“I have to pop down to the local shop for a few things. Is there anything you want, dear?”

“Yes, there is, as a matter of fact. I’ve used my last tampon, could you get me a pack, please.”

She didn’t wait for a reply but went upstairs to unpack.

The bedroom door opened with a creak. Bella froze with fear as a dark shape leaped off the clothes in her suitcase and fled past her onto the landing. A dark grey cat, its fur bristling, stood at the foot of the stairs and looked at her with an almost human face, before rushing down the steps. Her heart raced madly as she went back into the room. She didn’t know her mother had a cat and wondered if it was a stray that had taken refuge in the house.

Bella switched on the light; a dim sixty-watt globe hanging inside a hexagonal wax-paper shade, festooned in cobwebs. Not wanting the local yeomanry to see her undress, she closed the curtains.

Despite her weariness, she forced herself to unpack and store her clothes in the cavernous wardrobe. She put the empty case under the bed and saw that a chamber pot, matching the wash- basin set, had been placed in readiness for visitors. She was thankful that it was empty.

The room felt very cold. She undressed quickly and put on a long, unflattering nightgown.

“At least it’s warm,” she thought, catching sight of her statuesque figure in the long mirrors of the wardrobe. “I’m still beautiful,” she murmured, admiring her shoulder length hair and the dark, liquid eyes, set in the pale flesh of her well-proportioned features.

“Figure’s still good, too, even if I am well past thirty.”

As if to prove the point, she pulled down the top of her nightdress to expose the soft globes of her breasts. She fondled herself for a moment, but then remembered the way Stephen used to touch her there.

“Bastard,” she said out loud, “miserable bastard.”

Bella didn’t want to think about him; couldn’t bear the thought of him fondling another woman.

She suddenly felt very weak and tired. Pulling up her nightdress, she turned back the covers and slid into bed. It was hard and uncomfortable, with a bolster as hard as a rock. She stared at the print on the wall. The light falling on the distorted glass made strange patterns, bringing the picture alive somehow. She reached up for the bedside switch, extinguished the light and was soon asleep.


Bella woke up, not realising where she was at first. Hearing the front door slam, she realised that her mother had returned home from the shop. She felt refreshed and wondered what time it was. She jumped out of bed and pulled the curtains aside. The clouds had broken up and a weak October sun dipped towards the ragged stand of elms that stood behind the crouching shape of the old church. Feeling guilty, she got dressed quickly and went downstairs to find her mother unpacking a couple of carrier bags in the kitchen.

“I saw the vicar down the road,” her mother volunteered. “This house belonged to the old vicar. When he died the church put it up for sale and built a new vicarage on the other side of the church.”

“How come you and dad bought the place then?”

“We got it cheap, the roof needed fixing and no-one from the village wanted to live here.”

“Ghosts, I suppose. I really don’t see how you can live in this gloomy hole; it’s quite unsuitable. Dad must be mad to leave you here alone by yourself.”

“It’s not so bad, dear, I do have the odd visitor and there’s the Women’s Institute meetings and Church on Sunday, if I feel like company.”

“Christ,” thought Bella, “if that’s all I had to look forward to, I’d kill myself right away.”


Mrs Morgan cooked up a lamb stew and served it on trays in the lounge. They ate in silence, in front of a television set that had seen better days. Bella couldn’t face any more arguments, and sat through all the awful programmes that her mother wanted to watch. By ten o’clock she was bored witless and headed off to bed.

“Let me get you a cup of hot chocolate to take with you, it’ll keep you warm,” her mother said.

“Thanks, that would be nice. Have you got anything decent to read?” Bella replied.

“There’s a new Women’s Weekly on the table. “

“No, books I mean.”

“You know your father has hundreds of books in his study. It’s down the end of the hallway, you can’t miss it.”

Bella went down the dim passage, past a grandfather clock, ticking ominously. The floor was uneven, paved with medieval tiles. It seemed that the house had been built on the foundation of an earlier building. The study door was crowned by a stag’s head, which cast long shadows on the walls. Inside, the ceiling lamp revealed a long room lined with bookshelves on either side of an ornamental fireplace. There was a desk at one end, by the window and a long table covered with a litter of broken pottery, bones, and artefacts of flint and bronze.

Most of the books were works of history, anthropology or archaeology. However, quite a few of the older tomes had Latin Titles. Bella recognised ‘De Anima’ by Aristotle but could not make much of ‘Tractatus de Striobius et Lamiis’ or ‘Melleus Maleficarum.’ There was a number of theological works too, left by the previous tenant, she supposed. She marvelled at the tenacity of the male mind to endure such a heap of arid lore. “It looks like the Women’s Weekly will have to do,” she thought, leaving the study in disgust.


Bella returned to the kitchen empty handed, picked up the now tepid chocolate and said goodnight to her mother, who was snoring in front of the dying fire. Upstairs, her room seemed even more dank. It was cold outside and condensation had formed on the windowpanes. The full moon, now risen over the leafless trees, shed its baleful light into the room. She put down the cup on a rickety bedside table and switched on the sidelight. The Art Nouveau shade cast multicoloured lights round the room, mixing eerily with the moonlight.

Shivering, Bella undressed and donned her nightdress as quickly as she could. Feeling a cramp in her tummy, she realised she had forgotten to get the tampons from her mother. Reaching under the nightdress, she felt the sticky dampness of blood. When she looked at her hand, it glistened faintly in the moonlight.

“Damn,” she said to herself, “I hope I don’t stain the sheets.”

Bella found a wad of tissues in her handbag and stuffed them in the crotch of her knickers before getting into bed. She sipped the chocolate, which had formed a skin, and listened to the random creaking of the house. She could even hear the heavy tick of the grandfather clock and the whirring of the mechanism as the lead weight descended inside the wooden case. Her heart leapt suddenly at the sound of caterwauling beneath the window, presumably from the creature she had seen sitting on her clothes. She put out the light at last, feeling depressed and miserable; she eventually drifted into an uneasy sleep.


Bella woke with a start; she was icy cold. A great weight pressed down on her chest, like a two Hundredweight sack of grain. It was pitch dark in the room, as if the moon had set already. She couldn’t breathe and felt as if she were dying. She tried to move but was completely paralysed.

“It’s just a bad dream,” she thought, and struggled to wake up. There was a twittering sound, like a pigeon taking sudden flight, or maybe more like purring, she thought. Something was tickling her thighs, feeling its way blindly in the darkness. She screamed silently as a tremendous pain rose from her groin to her belly. Her whole body was aflame. The terrible pain increased until it became a raging ecstasy, such as she could never have imagined possible. Her entire being became swamped with a terrible desire. At first, she prayed that it would abate then prayed that the burning pleasure would never end. Something terrible lay upon her, like the body of an iron god, tearing her open; splitting her asunder; crushing her tender woman’s flesh.

It ended with a brilliant flash of light, illuminating the whole room; then darkness. She saw a face of inexpressible beauty hovering over her.

“What are you?” she heard herself say, in a choking voice.

There seemed to be an eternal silence before the answer came.

“Asmodeus – worship me and I shall return to you.”


Bella squinted into the lights shining in her eyes. Blurred figures in green caps moved purposely above her.

“Just breathe normally, Ms Morgan,” she heard a man say, “its all over now.”

She felt nauseous and afraid as the nurses wheeled her to the ward. She could see a tag on her left wrist with the message, ‘Bella Morgan - 31/10/70’ in blue biro.

When they had lifted her into a bed, she managed to ask, “Why am I here?”

“You’ve had a bad attack of appendicitis, I’m afraid, but there’s nothing to worry about now. You can go home in a day or two, if the doctor is satisfied with your progress. Swallow these tablets and you’ll feel a lot better in the morning.”

Bella didn’t want to sleep. Most of all, she didn’t want to return to the vicarage.


Hilda Morgan turned up the next day with a bunch of flowers left over from the Church decorations.

“What’s the date,” Bella managed to ask, “I’m all doped up, I can’t remember.”

“It’s the first of November, dear. You gave me such a fright; I had to ring the ambulance. You were in a terrible state last night, raving and screaming about I don’t know what. Anyway, we’ll soon have you home and tucked up safe in bed again.”

Bella sat up quickly, her face screwed up with pain.

“I can’t go back there, Mum, I can’t. You have to try and understand what happened to me.”

“There’s no need to upset yourself, dear. I know you’ve had a bad time lately, but the doctors have all sorts of drugs to make you well. I know our country ways seem strange at first, but you’ll get used to them after a while.”

“For Christ’s sake, you silly old woman; you’ve no idea what happened to me in that room. There’s something horrible in there, something unspeakable,” she sobbed.

“The first time is always the worst, dear. If you don’t come back to us, you’ll never find any rest. No man could ever satisfy you like he can. Anyway, summer is a good time to have a baby. I’m so looking forward to having a child in the house again.”