Saturday, 23 August 2014

By The Seaside


It has been a long day of travelling and now the family are at the cottage by the sea. It really is on a cliff, Hugo sees, poking himself halfway out the attic round window. He looks out into the misty grey-blue of seaside sky, watches a stray bird glide into a murky ridge that may be land or sea. It is hard to tell, Hugo is dizzy with tiredness. Attempting to lower himself back through the window and down, he instead slips forward, knocks his teeth, tastes blood. He takes a moment to steady himself, breathes the sea air.

The cottage has a musty smell. 'It's like old fish,' Gretel keeps saying. All the windows are open to air the place but it will take time. How long are they all going to be here? Hugo wonders but does not like to ask. Daddy is in one of his happy moods and is impatient that they all get changed and walk down to the beach. Hugo prefers Daddy when he is quiet and a bit solemn, his usual self. When Daddy is happy like this he insists everyone must be happy too and that can be tricky.

Grandmama is in the kitchen opening and closing cupboards. 'I feel like the old woman with a dog but no bone!' she says and opens the oven door and shakes her head. 'This will be interesting. And there's no shop for miles and miles!' She looks at Hugo with her round dark eyes. He is so pleased she has come too.

Mumski comes in from the tiny garden, she is holding Lucas who is already dressed in swimming trunks and inflatable armbands. 'Are we all ready?' Mumski says. 'Are you going to change, Hugo? Daddy says we have to go down to the beach and then we can have ice-cream!'

The cottage belongs to Mumski's friends who are writers, travelling writers who have gone to America. The cottage has books all over the walls and stacked to the ceilings. Most of the books look old and not at all appealing to Hugo's eye. He wonders if the travelling writers miss their books, like pets left behind.

Hugo wants to see the sea, yes he would like to feel it rushing up to his legs, he might like to float in it. It could teach him to swim. But now the family are standing at the top of the cliff steps leading down to the pebble beach and he's not sure.

'Pebbles,' Daddy says, 'I thought you said sand, Phyllida? Didn't you say sand?'

Mumski shrugs. 'I remember it being sand,' she says. 'But I've only been here the once before and it was a long time ago. Perhaps there is sand a little further along the cove.'

'Oh goodness,' Grandmama says looking down, all the way down. The steps are small grey teeth in the side of the cliff. There is no railing. Hugo and Gretel are looking at Grandmama and each other.

Daddy starts to walk down, holding Lucas. Jupp and Mumski hold hands and walk down. Mumski wears a black bikini, showing off her bony back and long white legs. She is not beautiful, hugo considers. She is spidery. He has not before now thought of her as any shape except dress shapes. As for Grandmama, dressed in her usual dress and with a light raincoat too - she is and will always be Grandmama shaped.

'We're not coming down today,' Gretel says loudly. 'You lot have a lovely time. Hugo and I will be helping Grandmama - with things.'

Hugo feels a sudden pang of pride in his sister. He ducks his head down, looks at his sandals. He does not want Daddy to look at him. Daddy stops his walk down and looks up. 'You are to come down, all of you,' Daddy says smiling. 'It's only a few steps.'

'There's a lovely little shop that sells tea and ice-creams, if I remember correctly,' Mumski says.


Back at the cottage, Hugo and Gretel are not sure what to do with themselves. Grandmama is to have a nap before she starts to cook dinner: sea-air pie.

'We could try making the pie so she doesn't have to cook,' Gretel says.

Hugo doesn't think that's a good idea. They go into the cottage's tiny garden and lie down on the prickly lawn. There are no deck chairs here. If only the beach, the sea, could be right here in the back garden just outside the cottage door! Why do there have to be cliffs and rock-faces and slippery looking steps? A mist begins to come in and over the land. They are mist bathing, brother and sister. Shivering in silence. It is warmer or colder down by the sea?

'How long are they going to be down there?' Gretel asks, her teeth chattering.

'Long enough to eat an ice-cream' Hugo says dreaming of ice-cream. 'And long enough for Daddy to start an argument with a someone, a stranger. And long enough for Lucas to start crying.'

'And long enough for Jupp to go into the sea and do a wee!' Gretel says. 'The sea is a big toilet really. That's what Beth said.'

'Who's Beth?' Hugo asks.

'She's here now, upstairs. My friend. Unpacking. She's got three swimsuits. But I don't think she'll like the steps down to the sea either. We're all going to have to just put up with it. We'll never have ice-cream all holiday!'

Just then a huge seagull lands by their feet. Hugo and Gretel stay very still. Once the bird has flown away they go into the cottage to find Grandmama sleeping on a tiny sofa. They watch her breathing.

'She has chocolate in her handbag, she always has it,' Gretel whispers.

'So?' Hugo says. 'It's her chocolate.'

Gretel goes to the kitchen and Hugo follows. They open the fridge and see it is empty.

'We should have been brave,' Gretel says. But I didn't want to leave Beth alone in the cottage. Or Grandmama. That was the first time I have ever seen a grown-up look really scared! This place smells like old fish.'

'You said that before,' Hugo says. 'We're by the seaside. The whole place is old fish! There will be pirates coming up the steps at night. There's not a shop for miles and miles. The bus only runs on Tuesdays and Fridays. We're never going home. You better get over it!'

Gretel looks ready to burst into tears and rushes out the kitchen and toward the wooden stairs. Hugo listens to the squeaking floorboards, to Grandmama sighing in her sleep, the near-calling of gulls, a distant clinking sound like boats or has the sound of the train followed Hugo down here, all the way down to the edge of the world?

Hugo sees a radio on the kitchen window sill. It is Grandmama's wireless, from home. We are staying forever, he thinks now. He finds a strange mug and fills it with tap water, slurps at it to check how salty the water might taste.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Head poem

She holds her own
head, for it is warm and smells of crayons
and milk, it has eyes she remembers
from another time, eyes from years
ago when things felt simple, real,
full of breath.

Small head, so strangely not at all
how she imagined it could feel,
even after all these years of wrapping
her arm around the space it might sleep,
to now be reunited with this,
a soft, supple bone, inquisitive black.

Even now, staring into her own mouth,
seeing the teeth of her dreams, this
head does not fit her heart. It is
almost sensible, a beauty in itself,
useless without her.

How to put back the things
we lose in a flash, a visionary rage?
This is not a task for a Friday afternoon.
Her head, the soft and shifting bulk
of desire without desire,
it must rest for now,
slow itself in endless waking.

Thursday, 21 August 2014


Before you, this house of a world,
before you there were sticks holding up
The sky, leaning in rainbows.
Fires trembled, low, whispering
without any feet to stamp the smoke.

The world could only be vast.
Things teemed, knitted, split and loved.
The hushed hands of something
made a dent where your
Mouth might kiss, speak, split
into the fray.

You were many, far off.
You resembled only the shape of each day,
a grey pattern on the back of a leaf,

An almost feather, a book of feathers.

You sighed without a circumstance,
sifted in a snow of prayers.