Saturday, 20 September 2014


(a grandmama story)

Grandmama calls Hugo in from the garden, it is not because of the rain but something else. He wipes his feet on the mat and listens to the quiet of the house, just the kettle boiling; everyone else has gone to the shops. Perhaps absentmindedly, Grandmama has made cups of tea using the best china and now Hugo sits at the kitchen table thinking Grandmama is playing tea parties, or does she really think he's grown up? She offers him a biscuit from the tin. Yes he is a visitor in his own kitchen.

'About your friend, the girl Topsy,' Grandmama says, adding a sprinkle of sugar to her cup.

'I don't have a friend,' Hugo says, 'she's just a girl that comes into my, our garden and walks about and pulls at things and - that.'

'And that, and yes, but you do spend time together and quite often? I've seen you two working together, building some sort of hut out of the branches our next-door-people threw over the fence when they cut down their laburnums. I've seen you,' Grandmama says. 'But dear me, this sounds like you're in some sort of trouble and that's not true Hugo dear, I just need to tell you that Topsy's in hospital.'

Hugo is only slightly concerned. If she's in hospital then the nurses will have given her a bath and that would not be a bad thing. He imagines her in a brightly lit room, tucked up in bed, a nurse holding up the tatty dungarees Topsy usually wears. 'Daddy doesn't like hospitals,' Hugo says.

'Quite,' Grandmama says and looks distracted and takes a sip of tea. 'Oh but I haven't explained. You were supposed to ask me: what's wrong with Topsy?'

'What's wrong with Topsy?'

'She fell out of a tree, Hugo dear, she fell and broke her arm and hurt a few ribs. I think she may be in hospital for a little while so that she can have a proper rest. We can go and see her.'


Hugo has never been inside a hospital before in his life. He knows he was born in a house and not a hosptial, and he knows he had a log basket as his bed for the first year of his life, this much Daddy has told him. When he thinks of being a baby he is glad to not be one still; it makes him scared to think of being helpless. Now he is growing taller by the day, he is taller than Grandmama and carries her shopping basket as they walk along the hospital corridor. His shoes squeaking, he keeps his head down. A hospital is full of sickness and importance, this much he knows, he feels it is best not to look to carefully at the doctors and nurses. He would like an x-ray of his whole skeleton, just to see he has all the right bones and in all the right places. Some nights he lies awake and feels his ribs but they don't always add up to the same number, the number changes from one night to the next. Is that the same for everyone?

They find Gingerbread ward, what sort of a name is that? There is nothing sweet about it, Gingerbread ward smells of gravy and disinfectant. There are bright floral blinds at the windows. A nurse talks with Grandmama and they walk by a small row of empty beds to a room that is a school room. Two firsts today: first time in a hospital and first time in a school! There is a low table with books and plastic bricks. And there is Topsy with her arm in a plaster cast, Topsy sat reading a comic to a tiny blue-coloured girl. The girl is like a shrunken old lady girl and Hugo is very afraid of her and does not want Topsy to see him. He backs away into a corner behind a bookcase. There is a small Asian boy asleep on a bean bag.

Topsy turns to Grandmama and with pleading dark eyes says: 'I like it here and I don't want to leave, and you can't persuade me!'

'Oh dear,' Grandmama says, 'oh my dear we've just come to say hello.'

Topsy has had a bath and her hair has been brushed, so that it looks just slightly wavy and stuck to her head in a strange way. She looks like a boy wearing a dress, a pale-washed orange dress that hangs off her chest. Hugo looks at a book about foxes.

'Have you got anything to eat?' Topsy asks and Grandmama laughs and says they have a present of a bag of grapes because that is what people get when they stay in hospital. 'I like grapes, black ones thank you,' Topsy says taking the bag of grapes and showing them to the little girl. 'You can't have any Florence, you're not allowed anything in your mouth. Take your thumb out of your mouth, Florence how many times do I have to tell you?' Her tone is both stern and caring. She pats the tiny girl on the head.

The tiny girl called Florence pulls her thumb out of her mouth and a long string of drool falls on to her nightdress. A nurse appears with a tray of plastic cups. 'Topsy, the doctor says he wants a little talk with you, so you must go to your bed.' Topsy looks terrified. 'You're not in any trouble,' the nurse says but in a bland way that suggests perhaps Topsy is in trouble. Topsy moves slowly from her seat and walks, with a slow limp, along to the small row of beds. 'Don't worry about the limp,' the nurse whispers to Grandmama, 'we think it's nothing. It changes from day to day.'

Hugo moves toward the beds, towards Topsy. Why is she so odd and dark and moody, why is she my friend, of all the people in the world why are we visiting this girl in hospital and where are her family at visiting time and why are there empty beds, what do they do with children here, hide the really sick ones away in little cupboards? The whys go round and round in his head, until he cannot stop himself.

The plaster cast on her arm feels odd, not like a statue's arm but like something he might like to have on his own arm. Don't people usually write names and draw doodles? It is pristine white. 'How long do you have to have it?' he asks.

'Forever and a day,' Topsy says. 'I won't let them cut it off. I like my arm better like this.'

Hugo puts his hand in his jacket pocket and finds a half packet of Refresher sweets. He hands them to Topsy and she looks at them as if she is not sure they are real, turns them over in her hand and then holds them up to her nose. 'I love the smell of these,' she says.

'I do too,' Hugo says.

'But I don't have a toothbrush,' Topsy says. She puts the sweets inside the little cupboard by her bed. With her head tucked down she says: 'the fat nurse that does dinners called me a pikey girl.'

Hugo makes his hands into fists. 'She doesn't know better,' Hugo says.

Topsy smiles at Hugo. 'My mum's in trouble. She let me climb a tree, she let me. She ran away with a man ten years younger. She left me up the tree. My Dad's locked up. So now you know.' She seems proud. She sits on the edge of the bed and swings her legs. Her brown legs are covered with old scratches. He can see down the front of her dress, but quickly turns his head.

On the bus home Hugo asks Grandmama if Topsy will be staying in the hospital for a very long time and Grandmama explains that as far as she is concerned someone from Topsy's family will go to the hospital and collect her tomorrow, tomorrow or the next day. Hugo does not think Topsy will be very happy about that. Grandmama looks inside a tiny gold notebook that has a special slot for a pencil. He has seen this before, it is her book of secrets. Grandmama says: 'We'll see her again soon.' But Hugo is not so sure.

A week later, Hugo is standing outside the house with his sister. They are waiting for the ice-cream van to appear. 'Where is the ice-cream man!' Gretel hisses and walks into the road. Hugo is not bothered about ice-cream today but Grandmama has had some luck on the horses and now everyone can have a ninety-nine. Now Gretel is pointing and saying: 'Look, look at that! It's that girl!' Hugo looks down the road and sees the shape of a person on a bicycle, a large silver and blue new bicycle with streamers on the handles and a basket at the front. He can feel Gretel falling in love with the bicycle, she has dropped a coin from her hand and is not picking it up.

The person on the bicycle has one arm in a grey plaster cast, yet she is cycling easily right down the middle of the road, steadily making progress toward them. Topsy stops by Hugo and looks at him with sharp eyes. 'You waiting for something?' she asks, 'you waiting to see me and my new bike? Yes, it's brand new, no one else's. I got it for being brave.'

'I know you fell out of a tree!' Gretel shouts at Topsy, 'we all know what a silly, silly girl you are!'

Topsy cycles on. She does not say goodbye, or see you soon. She cycles with her knees pointing out like a boy might cycle, Hugo thinks. He would love a bike like hers, even if it is a girls' bike. He knows he will never see her again.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

I Once Knew A Man

I once knew a man who only washed over his shirt,
soaking it through until he felt clean enough,
and he slept in a bath full of hops
and he never spoke of the sea though he lived very close.

Yes he lived so close he was almost
part of the edge of the world.


I once knew a man who, for a year and a day, lived in
a bookcase full of the prettiest old books
and never complaining of boredom,
and I fed him poetry on slips of paper.

Yes he lived so neatly stacked,
slowly yellowing.


I once knew a man who loved to climb trees -
with his knees all burned out with bark skids
he would crouch as a tatty bird in high branches
and watch the world through dark embers.

Yes he lived so high
I almost forget he could not fly
until the day he did.


I once knew a man who had gold encrusted
fingernails from scraping lavish paintings,
so many stolen paintings all stacked in his flat
and he stood and looked and he scratched
and he scratched and the paint became gold.

Yes he lived with never a care
in the world and died before
the paintings could dry.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Autumn Poems

I walk the long way to the outside
tap because I do not wish to disturb
the speckled spider making a vast web
from bamboo to fence, to sky.

There is an eye of autumn in each leaf
as I water and plunging my fingers
into cooling soil I feel the thickening
roots of the season.


Sweeping leaves is a favourite task
for those of us with few trees;

in dreams I trample colours.
I make a brisk basket of leaves
and let them
       fall from the
                        sky again.


Thinking now of all the autumn poems
I have written and that time in a classroom,
the time when the teacher asked me:
did you really think of this word yourself
or did you copy it from a book?
Well, both. The word was accumulate.
I wrote about leaves building up against walls.
I had seen the word with a little diagram
of letters, bills on a doormat:
the letters and bills accumulate.


I walk the long way home
because I like to see the dying flowers
and the flowers to dye with.

Where is the eye of autumn but
in each moth's wing, a blink in the moment
of a web becoming other?

I begin to think of spinning again,
a soft dirty yellow, tight around fingers.
All the tiny stitches I shall seldom knit,
the wrapping up of short days,
the mist that lingers over certain poems.