A Neatly Made Bed

Euin sweated and walked down the street: he was late and only getting later. The air was hot and humid. He looked at each front door, hoping that he would recognise one. He reached the end of the road. Nothing. He crossed the road, his irritation building. Why didn’t I write down the address? He thought. Why did I think I could remember where he lived? He walked. He saw a parking space that had been marked out in white paint. It was a wide, white outline of an oblong. Painted in its’ centre was ‘JACK’S SPACE: DO NOT PARK HERE’. Euin laughed and felt relieved. He saw two Mini-Coopers on the driveway. Both were black, both had the Union Jack painted on their roofs. He recognised the cars as his late grandfather’s and walked towards the front door. He stood in the porch looking overheated. He wrapped his knuckles on the tan coloured front door. He was late.

His mother, Tessa, answered:

‘Hell-o, Euin. You alright?’

‘I’m fine, mum. Listen I’m sorry I’m so late.’

‘Don’t worry about it,’

‘It was the train. We got diverted so I wasn’t where I thought I’d be,’

‘Don’t worry about it.’

‘And then I thought I did know where I was. But…’

Tessa put her hand on his arm and said, softly:

‘Really don’t worry about it. But listen, your grandma’s in the front room so go and say hello,’

‘O.K.,’ Euin said and then breathed in deeply. He could imagine how impatiently they had waited for him.

He walked from the front door, through the hall, to the front room. The house had a cold that soaked Euin bone-deep. He embraced his grandmother, Mary, who was sitting in a high backed blue chair. She stood up, using her walking stick and said, ‘Hello, are you O.K.?’

‘Fine, fine. Just made some poor transport decisions. Sorry I’m so late!’

Mary and Tessa stood in front of Euin, looking irritated. He felt uneasy being here with them. His late grandfather, Jack, had not allowed women in his house and now Tessa, his daughter, was moving in.

‘Well shall we have a look around then?’ Tessa said, impatiently. They walked back into the hall: Tessa pointed at the front door. ‘We’re going to have to replace that.’

‘Oh yes,’ Mary said, ‘It’s a terribly ugly door.’

Tessa gestured to the staircase and said ‘And get a banister put in. I can’t believe Dad didn’t get one put in after he came out of hospital,’

‘Yes. It makes you shudder doesn’t it?’

Tessa walked down the hall to the kitchen. Following his mother, Euin remembered that the kitchen was where Jack had been found dead, wearing his pyjamas. ‘We’ll have to replace that,’ Tessa said, pointing to an ageing oven, ‘I don’t think it’s safe to use.’

‘He really only used to use the microwave and then just to heat things up,’ Mary said, shaking her head.

Euin nodded in agreement. He remembered the one and only night that he had stayed in this house. They had eaten microwave curries and it was one of only three meals in his entire life that Euin could remember not finishing. Later that night, when he had crept downstairs to sate his hunger, he had found only tinned frankfurters in the cupboards and only UHT milk in the refrigerator.

Tessa pointed to a panel of frosted glass. ‘We’ll knock that out and put in some stained glass instead- maybe something floral? Don’t you think that’d look a bit better mum?’

‘Oh, that would be much nicer darling,’

Tessa pointed to an empty space on the floor, next to the oven. ‘I want to get floor to ceiling cupboards put in there,’

‘Oh no, dear, I don’t think so,’

‘What? Why?’

‘I think that would be a good spot for a fridge and a freezer,’

‘We’re getting a new combo one,’

‘Oh. Well I think you should probably get separate ones,’

‘Well. We’ll see,’

‘You end up overfilling it otherwise, look how frosted up your freezer at home gets,’

‘But that’s an old one, mum. I don’t think we’d have problems like that with a new one, a Smeg or something like that.’

Tessa walked through the kitchen to the conservatory. It was wide and thin and dark and cold. Piled up on the left were bundles of yellowing newspaper. On the right, stacked haphazardly, were pieces of wood. Euin could identify two chair legs but the purpose of the other pieces mystified him. His own legs felt cold, especially his shins.

‘Hopefully we can get rid of this room. Fingers crossed we can extend the kitchen out here,’ Tessa said.

Mary nodded, slowly and said ‘Hmmm.’

‘Well it’s not as if it gets a lot of light as it is now, is it?’

‘No,’

They all stepped through a sliding door which led to the garden. Keeping the garden in shade were thin pine trees which grew in rows on the left and the right hand sides. On the right of the garden, below the trees, was a light grey concrete patio. On the left, unplanted flowerbeds and a small patch of green lawn.

‘The lawn is so green! You can so tell this was fields a hundred years ago,’ Tessa said, wistfully.

‘Well your dad certainly never planted anything. Does mean you’ve got great soil under that grass though darling. What are you thinking of planting?’

‘I think I’ll leave it how it is. I’ll plant in the beds.’

‘Oh. They don’t look as if they get much sunlight.’

‘No,’

‘And what about this awful concrete thing, Tessa, you having it broken up?’

‘I might do, mum, it depends,’ Tessa said,

‘And what are you going to do about parking dear? You’ll have to get someone out to sort out that “parking space” your father put in.’

‘I know mum,’

‘How absurd. To have two cars, exactly the same, park them in the off-street parking and then paint yourself a parking space right there in the street. I’ll never fathom that.’

‘I think it was because he always wanted the same car in case one had to go in for some work, mum,’

‘Well. Either way there was no need to paint in the street,’

‘No.’

‘Left a mess for you to sort out.’

‘Yes. I suppose.’ Tessa said, marching back inside. Euin and Mary followed her. They all walked into the dining room, which was at the back of the house next to the kitchen. This room was dominated by a large oak table which had around it six oak chairs. The only other item of furniture in the room was a heavy looking oak desk. The desk was on the far side of the room from Euin, Mary and Tessa. On the desk was a small blue radio.

‘That’s my radio! That’s my radio!’ Mary said. ‘He took it when he left. I don’t think he ever listened to it, but of course he had to take it when he left,’ she walked quickly to the desk, using her walking stick to propel her forward, and took the radio into her hands. ‘No. Look at it, it’s pristine.’

‘Do you want it now, mum?’

‘What would I do with it now Tessa? I bought a radio after he left and besides it wouldn’t pick up digital stations. Would it Euin?’

‘No. No, I don’t think so,’ he said, trying not to take sides.

Euin and Tessa walked to the desk. As well as the radio, the desk also displayed some of Jack’s correspondence. He scanned the letter that lay on the top of the pile. Euin did not wish to stare, so caught only snippets: ‘You have no legal right to paint on council property… we will remove any unsanctioned lettering, as we did with your previous “parking spaces”…there will be legal ramifications if you do not desist in defacing public property.’ In Jack’s hand, Euin saw ‘Responded by post 16/11/08- (My paint, my business.)’

‘Put that down then mum if you don’t want it,’ Tessa said to Mary, ‘Let’s go upstairs. But be careful because of the banister,’

They all walked up the stairs. Euin looked to his left and felt anxious when he saw no banister. On his right ran a wooden rail, parallel to the staircase. Above the rail were miniature stills from Disney films; Mickey Mouse, Bambi, Snow White and the Jungle Book. They turned right at the top of the stairs and faced a small bathroom. The door was open. There was a large, deep basin and a single, rusted tap above it. The floor was of worn cork tiles. They walked into the bathroom. Euin looked at the bath. The taps and the plughole were caked in lime scale. The tub was streaked in rings with watermarks. The room was cold.

‘We’ll have to take this all out and start over again,’

‘No, there’s nothing you can do with this Tessa,’

Next to the sink laid a shaving brush and a lightly rusted disposable razor. Above the sink there was no mirror. Hanging where the mirror should have been was a photograph of two young men in uniform, sitting on motorcycles. One of them was Jack.

‘God he loved the army, mum didn’t he?’ said Euin.

‘He did.’

‘If he loved it so much why’d he come out after two years?’ asked Mary rhetorically, ‘No-one was twisting his arm.’

‘And we’ll have a shower over the bath,’ Tessa said, ignoring her mother and pointing to the bathtub.

They backed out of the bathroom and walked into the master bedroom. Facing the door was a lone bookshelf. On it were books about World War Two, Buddhism and London’s fire fighters. Below the shelf was a grey chair. It was angular and top heavy and rested improbably on tiny, black, bowlegs. Mary walked slowly to the chair and then sat down on it. She leaned back heavily and looked tired. Next to the chair were all Jack’s shoes, laid out in pairs in a long neat line. All were leather and all were polished.

‘D’you remember it was his Sunday night tradition to polish those mum?’ said Tessa.

‘Yes. He’d sit and polish all of them, regardless of when he’d last worn them. What I rather objected to was that he did it straight onto the kitchen table.’

‘That is pretty disgusting, I suppose,’

‘We did eat off that table Tessa,’

Tessa pointed at the shoes. ‘Do you like any of them, Euin?’

He cast his eyes over them. ‘Maybe those brogues, the brown ones,’

‘Take them then. They’re only going in the charity shops otherwise.’

‘O.K.,’ he said and walked over to the shoes. He bent down and picked them up. They were stone cold. He stood up and breathed out. From his mouth and nose he could see his breath trailing out like ever so faint smoke.

‘Have a quick look out that window Euin,’ said Tessa. ‘It’s an absolutely smashing view.’

Euin walked to the window, clutching the shoes. He put them to rest on the windowsill and opened the window. He leaned out and craned his neck to the left. As far as his eye could see there were gardens and trees and playhouses and expensive wooden lawn furniture. In one garden he saw two boys of roughly eight bouncing rhythmically on a trampoline. They were still dressed in their pyjamas, though it was now mid afternoon. Euin thought it absurd that these two boys would grow into men and that they would have houses and cars and children and marriages (and perhaps divorces) of their own. Leading to what? He thought. Always the same thing: death. And after that? Relatives sweeping through your home and putting everything you owned into two categories: ‘worth stealing’ and ‘for the skip’. He breathed in and out deeply. The boys bounced and a little humidity from outside crept in through the open window.

He stepped back from the window, turned around and noticed a single bed, fast up against the left hand wall. This was neatly made; the ebony black blankets neatly tucked under the mattress and turned down six inches at the head of the bed. There was one, white pillow which lay precisely parallel with the headboard. It was the neatest bed that Euin could recall seeing.

‘That’s a neatly made bed there, mum- you do it?’

‘No, your grandfather did. Might’ve been the last thing he did before he died,’ Tessa said, in a matter of fact way. ‘It always was one of his preoccupations, a neatly made bed.’

‘It was always me who did the beds when we were married, Tessa. Or you children,’ Mary said, breathing heavily. She coughed.

‘Not always,’ Tessa said, sulkily, ‘I remember he helped me sometimes.’

‘I certainly remember when you didn’t do it. I wonder if you remember that Tessa?’

‘Yes mum,’

‘Do you remember how you sneaked off to watch the television instead?’

Euin walked back over to the window.

‘Yes, mum. I remember.’

‘And Jack got his cricket bat and smashed the screen in?’

‘Yes, mum.’ Tessa said through gritted teeth. They stood in silence. It seemed, to Euin, that memories fell into similar categories as possessions. Those worth remembering; the incriminating, the irritating, those that had the power to justify keeping a relationship unchanged after death, those would always be kept, treasured even. Memories that failed to fit that pattern; awkwardly presented kindnesses like when Jack had paid for Euin’s university tuition without informing Tessa, or feats of great thrift, like how Jack had lived off only half of his pension, investing the remainder- these would be forgotten, eroded slowly by the lapping waves of time or drowned out by the louder voices of criticism: it is not everything of a man that is swallowed up in death: their love, their hate, their envy all lives on, only not in the ratio that it was in life, only in the ratio of those who remember him.

Should he stand up for Jack? No, Euin thought, that was only opening the door for more remembered bitterness from Mary, and he could see that his mother couldn’t take much more of that today. Mary would always wait for the naively offered complement ‘Wasn’t he good at D.I.Y?’ and would counter it with the truth, her truth, ‘He never once did our guttering. And when he painted our windowsills did he clear up after himself? You can bet he left that to me. Paint all over the carpet!’ No, Euin thought, better to not open the door than have it slammed on his fingers.

‘Anyway look Euin, if there’s anything else you want to take then you can have it!’ Tessa said. Mary coughed, and then took a deep breath.

‘What about that chair?’ Euin said, limply. He looked back at the boys on their trampoline, in their pyjamas, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing.

The Cormorant Dress

I watch him for a long time,
His outstretched wings straining away from his torso,
Creating a black feathered axe.
I have watched him dive
So precise in his assault of fish
Then patient
As he waits for his wings to dry,
Blood sloppy around his beak,
Fish-flesh pink around his jowls.
He dives again
I paint his rock with glue,
Sun bakes it dry around his webbed feet,
His beak and jowls strain upwards
As his wings thrash.
I shoot him with an arrow
His shrieking peaks
Then recedes.

Sea is still, waves limp to shore.
The island too feels flat
Though stepped banks of shale rise
And everywhere trees of many types spring up.
There is coolness under their canopy,
Where you can smell streams
And hear wild dogs bawl.
It all may as well be scrub or sand,
the sea too could be baked to salt dunes
For all that it has brought me.
Six times I have signalled passing ships,
My arms cormorant wide.
But as each came nearer I hid
And prayed they had never seen me.
For weeks afterwards
I reconstruct in paint what I’ve seen,
Use my cave-wall’s rocky inconsistencies
To recreate the lines of a man’s face or his whiskers.
Their painted eyes warm me,
I talk to them at night.

Did the sailors imagine me a ghost?
Me, the only body who breathes and speaks
On an island populated by ghosts?
It is on the days after rainstorms
That I most miss conversation
Another soul to say
‘Keep the meat up high- that at least we can do!’
I imagine, on these days,
The hundreds of other islands out beyond the horizon
And the people, sitting together fireside
Taking one another’s company for granted,
Blithe spirits who cannot imagine themselves cast out.
They live blindfolded, as I did.

I mark time on a fallen trunk-
First a line lightly scratched with a bone awl,
Then carved with a bone knife,
The tenth I rub with hot ash.
When I reach a thousand
I gather grasses from each corner of the island
Arrange them in leaf bowls
And wait for them to dry.
I hack the trunk apart and burn it,
The grasses provide smoke of different colours.

I lost years to sloppiness,
Now every task must be completed with precision,
Meals especially-
Pack each wild onion tight with herbs,
Pluck every bone from the rockfish,
Cut diagonal striations into the skin which
Allows the fat to crisp.

On the fifth day after they left me
I left my baby alone while I fetched firewood.
I returned and the cave floor was
Painted in splatters and streaks with his blood
And he was gone.
I never found another trace of him.
In revenge I killed five litters of wild dogs,
Slit each dog’s throat
And combined their tiny pelts into five coats.
I wish that I had never killed them-
It brought me no peace.
I burnt those coats years ago from shame.

With even frequency whales wash up on the beach,
I pull the sinews from their monstrous corpses.
Pulling sinew through birdskin as thread
I stitch the cormorants together as a dress,
The black of the feathers so irredeemable
As to become in places blue.
I hope to finish it in the next thousand days
And wear it as I burn the fallen trunk
And watch the pretty island grasses
Escape the island as smoke.

The Intrepid

A man sits on a single-decker bus-
His gratitude for the mundane,
Even the unpleasant, surprizes him.
What is that cheap aftershave?
Behind it is the odour of a fattish man.
A black woman’s long braided hair-
Where do the extensions begin?
The plastic handrails swing softly…
He is even grafteful for the travel sickness.

He leaves the bus, the sky is thickly blue,
A new denim blue scratched at
By whisps of cloud.
Sun brilliantines the upper floors
Of the buildings opposite him.
Careful!
Anxiety begins to gnaw at the man’s gratitude.
He checks his breathing-
Is it clear? Is it?
While he flicks through second hand books,
A woman begins to hoover,
The dust scares him,
The hoover scares him.
He worries about his breathing, hesitates,
Then leaves.

He turns the keys quickly in the lock
They sway, ringing unprettily…
Back at home, the gratitude reappears.
He has seen heat shimmer above the railway bridge,
Making liquid the view of houses beyond it,
Like the lines that distort his view
Of the dried flowers on the windowsill above the heater,
Like these lines, like this distortion
But not hopelessly familiar.

Picturesque

There was a bay below them and Caitlin wanted to photograph it. Euin did not want her to.
‘Come on, babe, do that later. Let’s walk.’ Euin said.
‘O.K. Just one?’
‘Very quickly, come on. I want to get down there.’
Caitlin raised her camera to her right eye, and shutting her left, took the picture. While she did this, he looked down, seeing the bay speckled with tourists and cameras.
‘Sorry, it didn’t come out great,’ she said.
Euin blinked quickly and tensed his jaw a little. He breathed in through his nose, then out, slowly but not patient.
‘O.K.’ said Caitlin, after taking another photograph.
‘Good.’
‘Do you want to see?’
‘No. Not now, maybe later.’ Euin said, impatient.
From Caitlin, silence.
‘I’m sorry babe, I just feel like you are obsessed not with having a good time but with recording us having a good time which, conversely, takes away from the good time we’re having!’
‘I know. I just wanted to take a picture because it looks so nice and it’s the first time I’ve been here.’
‘I know, darling, but can’t you take them at the end, after we’ve had a walk?’
‘But it might not be so bright then, Euin.’
‘It’ll be fine. Look, let’s walk and we can figure it out later,’ he said, taking her right hand in his left and walking quickly.
From Caitlin, more silence.

They reached the bottom of the bay. There there was a cluster of rocks which formed a natural pier, extending upwards four metres and outwards into the sea, perhaps ten. On it were gulls.
‘Look at those gulls, they’re huge!’
‘God they’d take your eye out, easy.’
‘I think they look majestic, somehow.’
‘More like bouncers, looking at their eyes they’re completely dead.’
‘Shall we go up on the rocks?’
‘All right.’
‘Do you want to go up first?’
‘Fine.’
Euin lifted his left arm and right foot onto the rocks and began his ascent. He stayed mainly on his feet, using his arms as light support. Towards the top he went briefly onto all fours. He reached the top and sat, then she.
‘Look at that: what a view!’ she said, out of breath and excited.
‘Yeah.’
‘What’s that?’
‘What?’
‘That. That island?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I thought you’d been here a million times?’ she said, then jabbed him lightly in ribs with bony elbow.
‘I still don’t know and can you not jab me please.’
Caitlin went into her left hand coat pocket and removed from its’ case, her camera. She lifted it to her right eye and shut left then drank in the view through the lens. Turquoise sea crashed onto black volcanic rocks. Sea spray flecked Euin’s angry face. Euin looked Caitlin, reached his lower lip over his lower teeth and rested his upper front teeth there. He shook his head and said.

‘Are you serious? I thought you must be joking when you took that out.’
‘What? It’s a beautiful view.’
‘Why isn’t spending time with me here enough? It’s like you are looking back on this now as you’re living it.’
‘I didn’t ask you to be in the picture did I?’
‘No, I didn’t say you did.’
‘Come on, Euin.’ She said and reached her right hand to meet his left. In her left the camera remained.
‘No, you come on. You never listen to anything I say.’
‘Fine. O.K. I’m sorry I took a picture.’ She said, flat.
‘Right- If you’re going to be like that then I’m off. See you later.’

Euin climbed down the rocks carefully. He walked further around the bay on a path that wound upwards towards cliffs. He stopped when he reached some rocks that they call ‘the organ’. He looked at the long, thin, volcanic rocks but did not take them in, feeling only irritation, this caused by French tourists blocking his path and, worse still, taking photographs. Then, as the tourists left and he stood alone, his perspective changed.

He became aware of his long, thin, hexagonal bodies, each cold and nude and old as time. He could see the bay below and the sea beyond that. He looked hard.

The bay’s curve was hesitant and weathered, an old, arthritic claw. Rocks that comprised it were ink black, hexagonal columns, like him. One million perfect rocks, fifteen million years old. Turquoise sea crashed into them, starting as a line of dolphins slowly rising from water then crashing, icing-sugar white foam, thick as meringue peaks. Beyond the bay was the pewter sea, veined with failed waves, smothered by tides, petering into nothing like whispers of a palace coup. Above, sky offered opalescence and, in doughy patches of cloud, more water. Sun cracked through, hitting foam hemming and dying and hitting sea and glinting glinting glinting.

And Euin thought, as he felt gulls nesting above him and lichen living on him, that this was a nice place to take photographs of, after all.

Bicycles

We did not start well with the neighbours.
When we moved in
We bought them a bottle of Prosecco
To try to make up for any inconvenience we might have caused-
Or at least that’s what we said on the card,
Really we meant:
‘Please like us, and be quiet at night so that we can sleep.’
But the gesture wasn’t reciprocated (as we’d hoped)
Or acknowledged (as we’d expected).
Instead, the offered hand hangs between us,
An embarassment to all parties.

*

The neighbours are both overweight,
He moreso than her.
She sometimes acknowledges us,
He never does, although once
When I was walking out of the front door
He prompted her to hold the door open for me
And another time,
When I was trying to work out where our fuse box was,
I knocked on their door,
And he answered…
He was shirtless and his huge naked torso
Sagged between us, utterly hairless.
He told me that theirs was above their door
And I said thanks and that I’d try there.

*

I thought at first that they were our age
But looking closer they are probably only
Twenty five or twenty six.
They have a daughter who is four or five
And a new baby.
Their old car, a small car, is
Filled up with rubbish,
Food packaging, mainly.
I can see how it happens-
‘Leave it, I’ll sort it tomorrow…’

They’ve got a new car, it’s much bigger
And it was clean for a while
But now it’s going the same way.
We were walking on the path once
And he reversed powerfully only inches
From our feet.
I am nearly sure he didn’t see us.

*

Our flats share a small hallway
Which is entered through a heavy fire door,
The door is self-closing.
When it slams shut it is loud and it makes
The plasterboard walls shudder.
Between them, they must go in and out
Fifteen or twenty times a day.
Mainly, I think, it’s her going outside to smoke.
She stands just outside the front door,
Under the shallow porch
And stares down at her mobile phone,
Smoking, seemingly without relish.
He comes back late, usually
Around eleven, often with the five year old.
I guess they spend the evenings at his mother’s house.

*

In our shared hallway are their bikes,
Both fairly new. They look unridden.
They don’t dominate the space
But they are impossible to ignore.
They haven’t moved during the two years we’ve lived here,
But last week we heard him pumping up the tires.
I imagine them riding in opposite directions
Until they’re thin and as far apart as possible.