The Woman Who Arrives on the Hour
The Funfair at Pripyat
Your Country Needs You
Man of Letters
Down But Not Out: Upper East Side New York
The House on Prinsengracht
THE WOMAN WHO ARRIVES ON THE HOUR
She arrives on the hour - no earlier,
walks through the door and perches
like some exotic bird. Preens herself
Demands my attention. Like a fool,
I fall for the bait. Light her cigarette,
fix a snack. Pour wine Then we chat.
She leaves Goodnight. Always the same.
But tonight will be different.
The chimes stop and I check my watch.
Half an hour late, she slinks in
hiding behind dark glasses: claws for cigarettes.
I peel a match. Offer tapas. She waves away
the plate, reads me like the menu. Snaps
What's it to you?! Her heady perfume hits me
like the venom that's puffed her cheek.
I want to heal the bruise, but instead I shrink
and keep my feelings bottled.
Eyes closed. She pretends to sleep.
Wedding ring flung in a convenient sink.
I strip, slide under covers that prickle
my conscience: rehearse a flaky monologue
in my head. She rolls over. In the half light,
her unmarked side shows another character
Who are you tonight? I stare into the dark
and trace the patterns. Let the scene untold.
Foot down on the continent
we felt romantically European –
fully fledged Community members;
hooch chinking in the boot,
Luxembourg jammed on the wave band.
Then gauzy mist setting on fields
walled us up in freezing fog.
Headlights bounced back
like futile zaps from an alien craft.
We crashed up a lumpy bank
and trundled to a halt.
We made a camp on a damp patch,
downed a six pack of Grolsch and flopped
in our dome. Juggernauts rumbled
inside our heads, a cock-crowed and
cold metal nuzzled against our cheeks -
Venez dehors avec les mains leves!
Groggy, we crawled into a squinty dawn
to face armed gendarmes holding mugshots
of ETA. They prized open the boot
smiled - Anglais Then booked us:
bivouacing on a traffic island.
THE FUNFAIR AT PRIPYAT
(near Chenobyl, Ukraine. 1999)
A cold wind drones through the town
as it did 13 years ago, only now
It more than chills the bone.
Sealed In a bulky suit like a cosmonaut
he shuffles about the derelict funfair:
in and out of amusement arcades
past carousels and rollercoasters
stops at the bumper cars -
his favourite ride as a child
now tethered by wire-netting;
tattered canvas hangs like flayed meat.
He clicks on the Geiger-counter
listens to the grisly crackle
as the needle kicks from nought
to doomsday. Knows his own kids
will never crash the dodgems.
YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU!
John T. had no time for war.
That recruiting poster got his goat:
I'm a bookie-not bloody cannon fodder!
He stared back into Kitchener's eyes
saw Flanders and the Somme.
Remembered stories of Inkerman
and Balaclava.. Then saw his father
crunching through Crimean snow,
his rotted feet wrapped in sacks.
As scuffers hammered on the door,
(to impress upon patriots their duty)
he was off ike a hare, out of the blocks
through the scullery and over the backyard
wall: size 10 hobnails hounding him down
the ginnel, snapping at his ankles like rifle-fire.
MAN OF LETTERS...
He's a slow reader, 200 pages a day.
At a push, three books a week.
But supply and demand causes problems
some guys cram in 600.
Paperbacks stacked beside his bed:
Marx, Lenin, Kafka, Freud and Joyce,
biogs of Margaret Thatcher and Ian Paisley;
pages thumbed thin.
Down margins, diligent notes reopen old wounds:
the hunger strikes and blanket protests
cells daubed with shit,
reading matter banned, apart from the Bible.
He sees the faces of men released:
those who've chosen the ballot-box
and others still bent on the gun.
Sixteen years banged up inside the H,
twenty titles helped fine-tune his mind:
an appetite now driven
by essays, theses and memos
filed with politicians letters.
And in a smoothed brown paper bag
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
his Bible through a restless night.
Sunday afternoon on the Common,
the peace is shattered: rackety kids
hyped-up on Colas and Big Macs
are letting rip in the playground.
Wiped-out mams puff fags and look on.
Eyes fixed on his wrist, a lone father
counts the spent minutes of quality time:
rolls another Rizla and drags heavily
as his lad burns away the excess: Hot dog Sam?
Nah. Just Wotsits an'a Slush Puppy!
A car door slams. She stomps in the playground,
a spanking new furry toy in her fist: Sa-am!
Mum! The boy drops his icy drink,
runs into her arms and clutches the bribe.
Mother and father exchange greetings
like guards at a border post.
Polite formalities dismissed. He hugs his son
for all he's worth, slips a fiver in the boy's pocket
and crosses the Common, head down.
See him in his empty gaff. Or a pub,
sinking a bevvy or two, maybe more.
But never enough...
DOWN...BUT NOT OUT: UPPER EAST SIDE. NEW YORK
(for Raymond Harris)
I read the obituaries daily - another fat cat croaked.
Stroll two blocks, take in names:
Cartier, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent,
hike up Fifth Avenue where I bank,
complete the rectangle
96th Street at the top, 59th at the bottom.
Like a good Jewish tailor, I never cut corners.
But always the same question, where do I flop?
Probably on 61st, in the doorway
of Christ Methodist Church - God willing!
A limousine pulls up, waxed and bland
like the old guy prised put on crutches
dollars like dialysis revitalise the dead.
You know, the stores dean dirty money!
But where's the remuneration? I'm a cheapskate.
Don't ask. Don't panhandle. But will accept donations.
Passing brownstone homes and plush apartments,
I think of three office chairs and five garbage bags
inside, rejuvenation pills and a picture of my mother.
Memories of my Syrian father, I keep locked in my heart.
The Times reads another wino's torched.
Found his charred remains among trash outside
Caviarteria's. Rich kids.
Tomorrow will bring new events.
Maybe, I'll go back to Acapulco...
or even Brooklyn. I say a prayer, eat pastrami on rye.
Then snuggle up with the finance section.
THE HOUSE ON PRINSENGRACHT
(Amsterdam, October 1998)
Last day of a weekend break
I visited Anne Frank's House.
Like most knew of the diary
but wanted to see the bookcase,
the Secret Annexe.
Climbing the narrow stairs
I began to feel indifferent -
cold as the thin museum.
Sepia prints covered walls and archive footage
showed the Holocaust in graphic detail.
I carried on to the next floor
till enough was enough
tourists buying souvenirs maddened me.
I brushed downstairs into the street.
Staring into the grey canal
the third floor looming
a backdrop to the news lodged in my head:
'Pinochet Arrested in London',
'Milosevic Sends Tanks into Kosovo'...
And 'Israeli's Invade West Bank!'.
A pleasure boat floated past,
I heard the guide's amplified words:
109 different peoples live
side by side in Amsterdam!
I used to watch her paint her mouth,
the way she shaped the bow,
then smacked her lips together
and pressed them on a tissue
red imprint on a white background.
I'd ask: Can I kiss them?
Sometimes she lit a cigarette, took a drag
and let it burn in the ashtray
red lipstick around the fitter. I hated it.
She never smoked in the street though.
Not like other kids' mums
schoolgates' fags in their gobs.
She said: it looks common
And my mother was always right.
I woke from my first wet dream,
the alarm ringing and my mother bawling: Get up!
The face that seduced me, a memory
on the pillow, the cloy of lipstick on my mouth.
You’ve been playing with yourself she said,
thrusting my pyjamas under my nose:
That's what they do in mental homes.
All night, I laid like a corpse between the sheets
hands fixed firmly behind my head.
I remembered the photo of dad's sister:
a faded print, cracking at the edges,
her metal hairgrips and vacant stare.
Cigarette smoke wafted upstairs,
I screwed my eyelids tight
and buried my head beneath the pillows.
Home for Christmas. But Peace and Good Will
were not on the cards.
Dad stood at the door in full festive spirit.
She sat in the living room gawping into the past.
I drank to my father's health
and stumbled the wooden hills,
laid awake with the light on,
waiting for the darkness to stare me in the face.
Holdall packed, I took a last look round my room
the smells and images still vibrant.
Downstairs, she hunched in front of the telly.
Didn't say a word. I looked at her,
beneath the fading black rinse, a sullen mouth.
Dad squeezed my hand. Said: All the best.
I glanced back. My baggage was lighter.