The ex-patriots story


The General inspects the Guard of Honour.
Stone faces, bright steel teeth, hands
on riflebutts ready to fire into the crowd.
Harry is up there, his briefcase, his stern expression.
There is a white woman with red hair: I am
not myself. There is a voice, very loud, shouting
Murderer! Dead men fall out of the sky, children
are abandoned, farms are in flames, the sun itself
is a Fascist and I too, Harry, am its victim.

Dark faces late at night break down the door.
There are eleven of them. I counted, believe me,
the details are accurate. I have the scars.
My hair is still wet and my breasts exposed.
There were eleven, I can bear witness. They certify:
the woman with red hair is out of her mind.

But they cannot hold me. I demand to be returned
to Harry who has diplomatic immunity.
Then I put everything in one suitcase, my Bible
in three sections so it will not be detected.
Whatever I have will be turned against me.
And all that long flight back I keep my hair covered.

I walk the trunkroads, accept lifts, sleep
on park benches. In Leeds I give my amythysts
to a thin young woman in a transport cafe
who is getting married. In Edinburgh I give
my diamond watch to a couple who let me stay
in their house. In Durham I leave my pearls
at a bed-and-breakfast. In Manchester I insist
the waitress takes a gold ring.
In Peterborough there is nothing left.
In Gloucester I am committed.

Such red hair! Believe me! I wore pale colours,
lemon and eau-de-nil, my shoes the narrowest fitting,
my long fingers covered with rings.
The First Lady walking between the best dresses
and the white straw hats, bunting overhead, flags, trumpets,
rosepetals and from the terrace small birds like scarlet
fingernails picking the seeds from heavy grasses
and the sea so clear! I float face downwards
watching the jewelled fish.

The Great Flood


In Brunswick Square their dreamtime skirts
would brush pavements shiny with neon. They jumped
the barriers of carparks snagging their tights
dancing towards where damp spots were beginning
to show up in the basements.

Then young men slammed through the alleys
singing angry songs, the windows like cracked ice.
Sheep stranded between sheets of floodwater
lifted their heads to the grind of traffic
jammed solid over Westgate Bridge.

Willows had black ribbons in their hair,
the outskirts unravelled into wasteland
and the bare knuckles of hawthorn hedges.
Gaunt barns floated on rafts of concrete,
mud lapped at the gates, the sky firewater coloured

and by the time anyone thought to look
there was two foot of water in the cellar
and the pipes were frozen.

She Writes for Children


You drive through the woods into story-book country,
desert island, haunted house, secret garden,
ginger beer, currant buns and the scurry of small dogs on parquet.

So now she swoops down to pick you up. You are exactly
as she imagined you, just what she wanted. You couldn't be better.
Your legs dangle as she holds you on her knee

and puts words in your mouth each one
sweet as a sugared almond. She used to explain
how the children she invented would just come

alive and take over! But that wasn't true
because if you were to try and change one word of her fiction
it would be the death of you.

Breaking the News


When they call you think someone's been complaining
about the dog. Or the hedge overhanging
the road. Or you have dropped your purse which they are returning.

Neither of them are women. They don't offer to make tea
or ask you to sit down like they do on the telly.
But they read out his address. Have you heard from him recently?

He rings sometimes, you say, last time could have been May.
There was this complaint from upstairs. It'd been hot, they say.
(Bloody neighbours, can't mind their own business can they?)

It had been six weeks a long hot summer so by then
after all that time and the windows open you can imagine.
We couldn't make a firm identification.

They leave a small pause and look serious.
You say Would you like a cup of tea? But they refuse
politely. You can tell it's awkward for them breaking the news.

You remember, in the war rations were tight
and flies got to the bacon and Mum said we couldn't waste it
so she cooked it really crisp but you couldn't eat it.

You look up the name of his dentist. When his baby
teeth fell out he got ten pence from the tooth fairy
you could see the tiny ridges of his big teeth through the gums already.

You're just sat there baring your teeth. Grinning.

Before or After


I like to get there early when the cleaning
has just been finished and you can smell polish.
Or when, in the kitchen, cucumber rings and radish-
roses march all the way down the salmon and the icing
is perfect. Before the shop opens, when pyramids
of apples and oranges still show no sign of blemish.
When the snow is untrodden, the sheets ironed freshly
and nothing has been said that could be heard or misheard.

Or after. When scars of fires and flattened grass
show that the campsite has been abandoned.
When the beds are stripped and the visitors gone.
When the furniture-van drives away and the house
echoes like a cathedral. When there is no more traffic.
When everything has gone wrong that is going to go wrong
and they ring down the changes. And the weeds begin
to push their way up through the tarmac.

Keepsakes


Her first shoes. His first shoes.
Also their vests, their nappies,
their first curls and their nail clippings.
The pram, the cot, the playpen,
books, beads, bricks and paintboxes.
Their baby teeth. Their felt-pen pictures,
their lentil-and-pasts collages.
His mug with the tank-engine.
Her mug with the rabbit.
Their school reports. Her tricycle,
his go-cart, his orange belt for Judo.
Her pony. All the tack, the haynet, the buckets
and the rosettes she won at the gymkhana.

What has become of the children?
How small they are, how pale and their eyes
closed like drowned kittens, embroidered nighties
wrapped round their little legs.

Who are these people in the hall?

Being Grandma


Grandma walked from above Slaidburn
to the black town where tall chimneys
smeared the drifting skirts of rainclouds.
Her clogs clacked on the stone setts.
She sat next to Nellie, nimble-fingered,
and married the Master.

Now I am Grandma I go looking for her
in Croasdale where the water seeps
through the peat, between the rushes
and the hills rise and darken.
Tumbled walls, splintered rafters,
hoofmarks and the smell of wet wool.
I call her name which is my name.
Our faces are wet. Our hair is as grey
as the long grass and we wail
like a pair of old sheep.

Being Grandma 2


Heavy Boy. His smile
brightens the whole hillside. Round
blue eye, round pink cheek
and the weight of him
still to be guessed.

We sit by the beck. He picks up clean
washed stones cleverly
between finger and thumb
and hands them to me.
I say, Stone.

He says OH, OH.
I name them: Stripey, Blackie,
Holey, Tiger John.
He slips them into my pocket.

And for him I would walk into the water
and lie down as I did before.