Thursday, November 17, 2011


Ten, she is, lowering herself gingerly onto the riverbank grass,

amidst goose shit and the patter of punters on the Cam.

“Milton, Newton and Winnie-the-Pooh”,

their names jangle over the water, agitated by the boatmen;

loose change for the fountain, keys over a drain,

they drop. “Shakespeare, too.”

A bend in the river, what does she think?

“I like it here,” she says. “It's peaceful.”

Ah, a romantic! As ferry punts and self-hires collide

unsilently before us she sees only the green rhythm flowing,

the wind-combed grass, the cool colonnades of the library.

My daughter imagines her own Cambridge.

“Robert Oppenheimer”, a boatload of Japanese tourists

try to place the name. No, they shrug. It's gone.

Back over the bridge, dodging cyclists and proctors, we go.

I take a picture: her back and the Great Court beyond

spread out like someone's future. “Milton, Byron, A.A. Milne...”

She abandons the future, distracted by a college cat.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


He had called some numbers from the local paper. Three different men turned up, similarly dressed, to look at the tree stump. One was honest enough to say he didn't want the job, the other two called back with prices that John couldn't consider paying. Next he tried the plant rental place in town for a digger, but they wanted a deposit and waivers and all sorts. So instead he kicked the padlock off the lean-to, found a spade and a handsaw and oiled the rust off them. He started digging on Sunday, after church. It was almost spring and the ground was soft. He dug out in front of the house until his daughter called him in for dinner.

It was just the two of them now, a widower and a divorcee, the grandkids at college or at their father's. She was a counsellor at the school and there was a manfriend, a teacher. John didn't like him. She turned off the television while they ate. Pork fillet. She was a good cook.

It was an old beech and the trunk had split in a storm ten years ago. He watched the news while his food went down, talked to Sarah about work. He put his boots back on and went on digging until it got dark. He had promised his wife a summer house here, somewhere to sit with a book and watch the sun set. Nine years gone now, she was. She had always loved to read.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

April in Faslane

Women gathered at the dock, mothers, wives, girlfriends. One with a baby braced in the crook of an arm, slouched against a rusty railing, smoking. Look, there's your pa, all pasty. Fatter than I remember. The long black shape slunk in, with a great nose on it, but otherwise like a guilty thing, half-submerged. Four or five men on deck doing God knows what outlined against a bright horizon, morning. The mountains still with snow in the creases and the sky half-sun half-thunder cloud. A burger van wafted seaward the smell of frying onions through the gates of the base as two MPs sat in a Land Rover, one with his feet crossed high on the dash, boot toes pushed against the windscreen and the other dangling a warrant in a manila envelope.

The baby fidgeted and began to cry. Ma flicked her cigarette away, exhaled over her shoulder, away from the little girl. The butt marked a shallow parabola, still lit, out into the green sea which flicked the floating cylinder and the rest of the floating debris, smashed pallets, styrofoam burger boxes, shrunken footballs, all local stuff, back against the concrete wall of the quay.

The women drifted off inland. There were warmer places to wait. For some it had become hard to tell what was life and what was interval. The baby chewed on a dummy, looking out at the long black shape in the water. It raised a chubby arm and pointed, out to sea.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Rex Redux

Rex couldn't go through with it. He had gone in up to his waist, the worst bit really, when the cold forces the breath out of you. Then felt the sun on his neck and thought “I've paid for breakfast.” He was ruined of course, nothing would change that. The house, the car, gone. He'd hook the kids out of school at the end of term, try and get them into the local comprehensive.

Collected his clothes as he walked up the beach, hopped gracelessly into his boxers, grit on his sea-shrunk balls. Nevermind, he'd shower and dress again before popping down to the dining room. Appear respectable. For that breakfast he'd already paid for. He shook his shirt in a whisper of April wind then pulled it over his shoulders. Coward's way out, really. Limited liability. Better to drown in debt than to just drown.

The sun was above the hotel now. It was a beautiful spot, the broad bay with a fort at either end, uninterrupted views, the Atlantic, nothing between here and Newfoundland. Shame about that road, but you have to get here somehow. Late-Victorian it was, the hotel, he guessed. Queen Anne revival. Chintz. Built on a bend.

He picked up his shoes. From the East he heard the growing noise of a helicopter. He watched it fly overhead, still moving, and his bare feet registered the change from sand to tarmac. He never saw the van which threw him, broken, back onto the beach.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Back and Back

His mother combed his hair while it was still wet, her cheeks wet too and her eyes looking tired and sore. His hand in hers and in the other a small suitcase as they walked through town, half the buildings empty or ruined or condemned. Just a short trip, two nights then home, a great honour it was, of course. They had a compartment to themselves. He told the inspector that they were going to meet the king.

“Oh, is that so?” the inspector said. The boy knew that the inspector didn't believe him.

He shared an apple with his mother then threw the core out of the window. She told him off. She wasn't really angry though. They played Beggar My Neighbour but the cards slipped around on the seat and anyway it was better with more people.

The roof of the terminus was vast and black at midday. At the left luggage counter his mother took a small bag from inside the suitcase. The Underground was crowded and smoky. It was nine stops; he counted them on the map above the door. Outside the Abbey his mother knelt in front of him and pinned the cross on his jacket pocket. She was crying again.

The king was older than he looked on stamps and newsreels, and thinner. He leaned down and said “You must be very proud” and for the first time the boy felt the absence of his father, a dead man he didn't remember.