More from ‘The Human Race’

More from The Human Race: ‘In front of a shop window’

Do I like this girl? I’m not sure that I do. She is not a genie in a bottle. She can’t grant me three wishes. She cannot capture my thoughts on paper.

Don’t be fooled by the wide eyes, the bloodless smile or the cartoon head. Her slightly open mouth suggests she knows more than she should. As though she is asking: ‘Do you like butter?’

What rite of passage led to this pain of glass? A spell not a curse was cast.

She is cut-off, weighted down by paper. She is framed by thick, pink parchment. She is heavier than roses, softer than a Cath Kidston print. She is sweetened with saccharine.

Her big blued eyes melt into the shrill of sunlight. Her black hair moults over the window display.

Why should I write her life in this way and not some other?

What is reflected? What echoes of other stories in her smile and eyes?

More from ‘The Human Race’

Chapter 12: Solstice (for Ross)

Something crashed through my hair, though I could not think that a Martian had landed, not with slush and Osip snuffling at our feet, and your face as a folk song, so gold and delicious, and the branches so bare, so dappled in sunlight.

‘There’s no Martian here,’ I say, ‘though something crashed through my hair.’

A car sloshes passed. The sky swarms with new snow. I call him to heel and we make our way home, crackling through puddles, laughing at fairy lights in windows and the drop of needles we’ll get from a pine.

‘December,’ you say. ‘Are you up for a round of Auld Lang Syne?’



Like a rolling stone… (for J.B.)

Like a rolling stone… (for J.B.)

She had a chameleon sense of self, a heart that gathered moss around its edges, a spirit rising freely with the damp and a global soul, at home in airports.

My Father’s house has many rooms, she read from a pamphlet handed out by a missionary.

‘He speaks Spanish and knows about water irrigation,’ she said. ‘We spoke of home and nation, history and tradition. And we had a similar take on Exodus.’

A lifeboat, anchored like an auxiliary verb, waited to ferry me to the other side of her sentence.

‘We spoke of anonymity and absence… And when I offered him a coin, he asked for smaller change.’

I showed her my jealous sense of self; the cavity in my chest that had once housed her heart.

So she packed a rucksack and went through the door.

‘I’ll send you a postcard,’ she called, not once looking back.

For hours I sat in the darkened room, telling myself she hadn’t truly left the building.

Old Wives’ Tales

Old Wives’ Tales

It is said that she spat

into the native’s eye

into the strange brew she

stirred with her stranger tongue

and how I long to taste

that blend of sweat and saliva


It is said that she spurned her homeland

burnt the house she grew up in

turned her back on all she knew

and didn’t know

except for the copper kettle

and the milking cow


It is said that she sifted

through the embers of her life

drawing her thoughts in charcoal

long after the fire had died


I say she did the right thing

I say she knew what she was doing

when they told her to be silent in church

and she stopped attending

she could be silent anywhere


And her silence spread

quicker than gossip

across the seven seas

for this silence knew

how she’d refused to be

as mum as nature

Going round the yellow-brick bend


Several years ago, in a writing class, we were assigned to write about ‘Yellow’. I decided to journey the Circle Line and record my thoughts & observations as I passed through 37 underground stations.

Embankment: Eastbound. 3 pm. Last carriage near the dirt-cream concertina connector. Please mind The Gap between the train and the platform. Temple: The Gap Line and what? Blackfriars: Don’t step over the yellow line lest you fall into the gap. All lettering on signs, whether warnings or instructions, are yellow. Mansion House: Two chatterboxes wearing church-going hats. A stout man chews in the way a cow chews cud. Items trapped in the doors causes delay. Cannon Street: Reflection in the dark, gritty windows: I’ve been beheaded. Monument: Obstructing the doors can be dangerous. Tower Hill: Support poles and railings are yellow. Kids go free. Aldgate: Oranges and Lemons said the bells of St Clements. Was that about child sacrifice or public executions? Liverpool Street: The lull of the carriage…rock-a-bye. Always has that effect. A sweaty man in a too-tight grey suit and green tie. I hope he doesn’t sit next to me. Moorgate: Two standing girls giggle in a kind of English that has no fixed abode. Barbican: Unbearable! I’m breathing him in! Farringdon: A bit of daylight. The chatterboxes get off. (The chewer got off at Liverpool Street.) A brunette with perfect pink toenails peeping out of strappy sandals. Sweaty man stares at her cleavage. Kings Cross St Pancreas: Sweaty man gets off. Euston Square: It would be easy to get off now, forget all about the yellow. Great Portland Street: The rear doors will not open at the next station. Please use the other doors. Baker Street: Swarm of bees buzzing in my head instead of thoughts…dozing off…Edgware Road: So much yellow on the map. Paddington: This is not a true circle. It’s the straight bit, the gap in my journey, which I have to mind. A little girl in a yellow dress is crying. Poor Alice in Underland. Royal Oak: Graffiti on wall shouts Go home wanker. Who is the wanker that has to go home? Westbourne Park: Yellow nose of train nudges into station. Ladbrooke Grove: Loud-mouthed man and female companion. What a lot of tattoos they have between them. Her skin looks jaundiced. He doesn’t want to go to Hammersmith, apparently. Latimer Road: It’s hard to think outside his voice. A hive of people on the platform. Wood Lane: What a great way to travel, if you’re a mole. Shepherds Bush Market: Loud man says to girl: ‘How dare you fucking tell me what to do’. I look away. Gold Hawk Road: Loud-mouthed man and ear-bashed companion get off still squabbling. A banana skin on the platform right now could prove fatal. Hammersmith: A stretch of the legs. Yellow is not my favourite colour!

(Here I have to return along the straight bit of the Circle Line to Paddington. Too much repetition to worth noting anything.)

Paddington: Last carriage again. Being held at a red signal, awaiting the yellow. ‘East of the sun and west of the moon.’ Love that song, never remember all the words. Got nothing to do with yellow. Bayswater: Concentrate: in yellow: 16:20:10. In yellow: Please keep your belongings and clothing clear of the doors. Notting Hill Gate: A man with one of those Marie Curie daffodils in his green lapel. Sheer coincidence. High Street Kensington: ‘yellow and green must never be seen/but green and yellow is truly mellow,’ a motherism I can’t get out of my head. Gloucester Road: I could say my favourite fruit is pineapple, but it wouldn’t be true. South Kensington: Mobile phones are like comfy blankets. How people cling to them. Sloane Square: Applying make-up would be easier than trying to write on here. Victoria: The chairs are new, a deep blue background with purples, greens and yellows shaped into oblongs. St James’s Park: Ode to lying in the grass and counting buttercups. Westminster: It’s taken one hour 45 minutes. That’s one hour 45 minutes I’ll never get back. Embankment: I’m definitely not a Dorothy. I’m just that wanker that needs to get home before I go round the yellow brick bend.

Flower Study

Flower Study (after a visit to Keats House, Hampstead Heath)

Insanity has no season,

it wears no mask of life or death,

but waits behind plate glass

among wedding silks and widow’s weeds

that burst with dreams and barge into memories,

leaving me with nothing but a sense of unease.


If I could lie beneath the sheets,

among the mint-cool muscles of his mattress,

feel that dark stem pulling me down

towards glades of sleep,

then I, too, could be half in love with life.


Instead I settle by the plum tree,

remembering the hum of sunrise,

the subtle tears of the crestfallen.


A gallery of flowers along a white-washed wall:

Corn Lilly, Harlequin, Primula, Chilli,

all utterly lost to the poet’s disease.


It is not just the old that cling to mementoes

(as though they have more to be mournful about),

I, too, am water-coloured,

a washed out version of my once-upon-a-self,

knowing what it’s like to be mad,

stripped of dignity, dancing on the Heath.


For in the silence of 4 a.m.

I listen to the song of daisies

singing from the field,

true to their word,

before turning to seed.



(Another poem inspired by Frida Kahlo, who wrote: Fear and pain and desire and death are all part of your existence’)

Red! Ah yes, that mulish blush,

That cruel hyphen flanked by birth and death

And dripping with the detritus of both.

Red is red, red is blue, red is the flowering of pain born anew.


Red, a hybrid deer

Fed with two arrows from Eros

Who shoots milk into her wedding dress

(He’s a wet nurse and a traitorous pet).

I was wounded twice, once in the heart, once in the head,

these are the reddenings I’d rather forget.


Red is the Judas doll that burns in Easter’s flames.

Red is the red-green parrot rapt in a cage.

It’s the juicy offerings of an artist in pain.

It’s the stains on the sheets where we lay our blame.

Red is red, red is blue, red is the flowering of pain borne anew.


What did Red give me?

The first signs of a ruined life and

A shepherd’s sky in the cold light of night.

I was wounded twice, once in the heart, once in the head,

these are the reddenings I’d rather forget.