Friday, December 21, 2012


I hold onto the last thing that you said,

each word a lifebuoy to a drowning man

adrift without your voice, unanchored.

If your breath cannot save me, nothing can.

I'm no less lost ashore though, once rescued

and blindly blinking love out of my eyes.

Where you are and I am, I am renewed;

resuscitated, panicked and unwise.

Love After Auschwitz

No poetry after he fails to find a way to say

the essence of you, finally, the thing

ness the actual thing that might actually be somehow

reduced call it an essence, a concentrate, concentrate!

A reduction, an absurd reduction the essence of you

in fact some fat some phosphorus mostly carbon

the spirit of you proof of what exactly?

Electric blinds. Perhaps so, if used


A womb of a room, false ceiling, panelling

in the richest of wooden veneers reproduced

here in more robust, synthetic form and the

model couple on the hotel television screen fixed

staring into an imaginary future of lost looks

and marital acrimony (suited polo shirts not guaranteeing

happiness forever).

The living creatures lie, honest at last, naked

reduced to some solution, finally. No more


How Bill Broke His Knee

Bill had been a fine dancer, not a great one. He had married young and had a ten year-old boy who told his schoolfriends that his dad worked in an office. Bill and the kid's mother had split up some years ago, but while they were together he had refused to tour, or to take work abroad. His career had stalled as a result, and he'd done some admin work to pay the bills, mindless, soulless stuff at first, until he found an agency which specialised in third sector placements. He took longer contracts. He stopped taking classes. He lost fitness and poise, but gained an understanding of how to run a successful non-profit, and found his way back to dance.

The company made a little money from touring, more from corporate sponsorship, a steady income from classes and studio hire, sporadic lottery grants, workshops, DVDs, advertising work, pop videos and theatre concessions. Bill managed this money as prudently as the artistic director would allow. He gently pruned the administrative staff, but retained an assistant. He gave himself a pay rise and began to take classes again. Towelling down after a class he would look at the studio mirror, a slimmer, looser version of himself looking back as each week passed, and say to himself “It's not a comeback.” He joined a gym, swam three mornings a week, weights in the evening.

Bill broke his knee irreparably in Barcelona. It was late October, a few days before his thirty-sixth birthday. He didn't break his knee carrying two suitcases down the aeroplane steps, greasy with warm rain and the smell of kerosene. He didn't break his knee falling off a rented bicycle, though his pride, and the civic litter facility he had hoped and failed to avoid, were both dented. He sustained no injury playing football on the wet sand of Barceloneta beach and survived unscathed the sudden full stop of an escalator in an out-of-town shopping mall. The direct cause of the ligament damage which would end his unvoiced hopes of a return to the stage was not the stunt he pulled to impress the young female assistant he had brought along on this tour, executing a triple pirouette on the arced surface of a giant cannonball in the Placa Reial. Although it is possible, likely even, that it was this whirling motion that caught the attention of the year old Newfoundland which, slipping its leash, barrelled into Bill's legs in between him hopping off the cannonball and landing. Crushed, Bill lay on the cool paving of the square. Nausea came and went in waves, but the pain was constant. Everything lost. “Fucking dog,” he thought, his eyes full of tears.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Ben came down from the hills brown and peeling, his last few drachmas spent and his spirit exhausted by a month of too many stars and resin wine and the odour of sheep dung never distant. His hair, usually the colour of wet sand, was now bright blonde, standing out on his arms as filaments of gold. His jeans were stiff with dust. He walked slowly into the village. A sweat-stained shirt loose about him, and another in his bag, both appropriated from his father's wardrobe back home. A wallet empty of all but a donor card and two tickets for the Paris Metro. His passport. House keys.

He spoke very little Greek, but his thirst was obvious. An old man waved him over with his stick. A pensioner, all in white, white hat, large white moustache, an angel, Ben thought. He sat in the shade outside a bar. 'Kátse káto,' said the old man, gesturing. Ben sat opposite him. The old man shouted for water and beer. 'No drachmas,' said Ben. The old man waved away an imaginary fly. 'No drachmas, no próvlima.'

The old man watched him drink, nodding when he had finished the beer. 'Efcharisties,' said the young man, rising. The old man lifted his hat. His hair was thick and perfectly white.

Further into the village there were tourist shops and a post office, with a sea-rusted Western Union sign sticking out above the door at an uncertain angle. Ben went in. There was only one counter; behind it a small, nervous clerk on the telephone. 'Yes,' he said. And looking up at Ben, 'yes,' again. Then he smiled and handed over the receiver. 'It's for you.'

His father's voice, richly amused. 'Will a hundred quid get you back to Athens?' Shame draining slowly into relief. The clerk counting out the notes with short, slender fingers, like a girl's.

He bought a ferry ticket at a creosoted hut in the small harbour. The next crossing was at five. He walked back to the bar at the edge of the village. The old man was gone. It was too hot to be outside now, even in the shade.  

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Padlock

The padlock was heavy, a lump of polished stainless steel the size and shape of a cigarette packet. His uncle, who ran the hardware store near the cathedral, had engraved it for him. ANNA I XIMO with the date underneath, today's date. Ximo had done some extra hours in exchange, stocktaking in poor light. He felt the padlock bump against his ribs, its shape shrouded by the red lining of his jacket. Like another heart, he thought, but cool to touch, dead. He straightened on the seat of the moped.

He picked her up just after eight. Everything about her sad and dark. Her eyes made him want to cry, even as she was smiling. He had had girlfriends before, several. He had a job and wheels, after all. But Anna's sadness was irresistible, all-conquering. She dressed badly, he suspected, to avoid unwelcome attention from boys like him. She didn't speak much, preferring instead to communicate her inner pain with a broad repertoire of glances, from her large, dark, sad eyes. This suited Ximo, who himself was not much of a talker. Sometimes a gesture was easier. If you didn't know how to say what you felt, or even what it was that you felt, a gesture or an action could make feelings comprehensible or concrete.

Her father watched her put on her helmet. Silhouetted by light from inside, a dark shape, yellow all around. A big avenging angel sort of a man, in a short-sleeved shirt. He saw them pull away, heading out of the city. By the door was a large plant pot. Two gallons of dry earth and a dead aloe. He spat into it, meditatively, and went inside.

The city sat in a bay surrounded by mountains and from the lookout seemed like a gorgeous necklace around the throat of the sea. Ximo took the padlock from his pocket and showed it to Anna. He explained its purpose to her. Here, in front of God or whoever, the padlock represented their unbreakable love. That it could not be sundered. She looked at him and nodded gently, indicating comprehension, if not necessarily approval. There were other padlocks attached to the railings of the lookout, all smaller and tattier than theirs, some with initials written on in permanent marker. Ximo, for the first time, began to feel self-conscious. Perhaps he had said too much. In silence he secured the lock to the railing. Then he threw the keys over it, into the night, the drop too deep to hear them land.

The bad news came about a month later. Anna had grown increasingly evasive, but the text which ended it was shattering nevertheless. I don't want to see you anymore. Ximo put a pair of bolt-croppers, three feet long into a rucksack and swung it across his back. The handles sticking out above his shoulders like the blackened stumps of wings. He got on his moped and rode up the mountain.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Close Up

It felt good to be looked at the way she looked at him human and brown-eyed in this case dark and shining like polished stone but warm somehow amused and alive and completely present. Better still when she looked away listening to someone else but conscious of his gaze seeing him without seeming to see him responding when he smiled. She would purse her lips as if anticipating a joke that ought not be made a cruelty that might (and should) die unvoiced or a blandness she didn't have time for. Life is short. They were sad apart and not quite as sad together enduring hours weeks months apart each future meeting a misericord. This is happening now, in time, but we know the outcome. All love the same trajectory Montagus Millers renounce renounce. Love like the universe cooling and dammed passion a dry lake. How much longer he wonders can they keep finding the energy. A string of spit between her lips she looks up at him a puzzle an absurd face she tries not to laugh at the man she can't have but has anyway. Asks if he's okay. Yes he says not untruthfully after all it felt good to be looked at the way she looked at him human and brown-eyed in this case dark and shining like polished stone but warm somehow amused and alive and completely present.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Skin Deep

He woke up to a new face. He was wearing a hospital gown which was neither green nor blue but some kind of non-committal shade thereamongst with a pattern on it. The bleached-out logo of the hospital trust, perhaps, he couldn't tell. A dusty glass of water on the bedside table but no cards or fruit. He sat up and drank. The gown tied up loosely at the back and his fur and his arse visible to all, the water, as warm as the room, it being a hospital significantly warmer than room temperature, dripped down his chin, some of it. Down his chin where once, and until quite recently, there had been a beard. The water, some of it, dripped onto his chest.  He looked down and couldn't see anything, concentrating his glance no further than the bottom of his face. Nothing to see. They'd shaved him. He stroked his cheek to confirm the fact. All gone. Well.

It wasn't a castaway beard or a shaped beard, it was in every way unremarkable. A middling beard, but one which he had been very much attached to. On the left side of his face was a dressing, which followed the line of his jaw from below the ear halfway to his chin. A talking point, certainly, but at the same time a poor substitute for the hair that had of late covered the same area. He worried at the gauze, scratching at it reflexively until a nurse appeared and told him off.

His wife and son arrived some time later without the missing fruit, she having determined, quite reasonably, that it would just go off, but with a large greetings card. A cartoon bear in a pyjamas sucking mournfully on a glass thermometer. The boy was only two and was frightened at first by the stranger in the bed. He had never seen his father clean-shaven or with a post-op black eye. Hearing a fat-tongued approximation of the familiar voice though he gauged the situation and climbed onto the bed. “New daddy hurt?” he asked. His father nodded yes to everything.   

Sunday, September 09, 2012

La Vita Nuova

He hadn't turned up for work. There had been no calls, no apologies. It was completely out of character, that's what his fellow players said, though none knew him very well. They couldn't tell you if he preferred dogs or cats, tea or coffee. He was quiet, competent, and reliable, they knew that. But that was all.

His sister raised the alarm. She had left several messages for him, with a creeping note of concern in her voice. The messages went unheard, she realised, letting herself into his flat a week later and retrieving them herself. No-one else had called. His violin, a 1914 Audinot, sat in an open case on his bed. His dress suit hung behind the door in a cellophane poncho, and five white shirts, similarly sheathed, jostled in the wardrobe like commuters. She found his shoes on the table in the narrow kitchen (the table was a hinged flap meant to drop down to save space but there was only him and the stay underneath, disused, was now immovable). The left shoe had been buffed to a dark brilliance, its pair lolled on its side, streaked with dried-out polish. A cigarillo had burned itself out in the ashtray. An open window. The absence of dust was a kind of bareness.

He reappeared after a month. His sister had never seen him with a tan, even when they were kids. His eyes, too, seemed more deeply coloured.

He had sat at the table smoking, polishing. A blackbird settled briefly in the plane tree outside his window and rehearsed, twice, a trill of pure notes. He knew that if he did not get out right then, at that moment, he would never get out.

He came back to sell the violin. He'd find something cheaper and live for a while on the difference. Learn the language, offer lessons, feel the sun on his neck.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Beneath the Cemetery

There is a green plain between the mountains, and a railway line. The train pushes through the clamouring paddles of cactus and great high grasses, following the river into the city. Static caravans rust among lemon groves. A gang of dogs, cartoonishly assorted, free somehow, have taken over a roofless farmhouse. I see them every day, barking unheeded orders to each other. No-one else looks out of the window. Beyond the glass, still new to me, are empty commuter villages.  Embankments thick with flowers. Doleful, tethered burros. A bronze statue of Christ on an eastern peak, arms outstretched for balance, his position never so precarious, even here.

Each morning I drive my Renault 4 (also available in white) down the mountain to the station, where the train sits humming like something from the next millennium. The garage by the level crossing where I bought the car, taxed and licensed, for 600 euros, is run by two brothers whose age cannot be determined with any certainty, though a rumour persists that they fought on opposite sides in the Civil War. Which would put them in their late eighties, at the youngest. I suppose it's the kind of thing you tell a foreigner. The two of them can often be seen roaring through the village on matching yellow trial bikes, their faces lined by age and speed and relentless sunshine. They grimace at me from beneath peaked helmets and miraculously dark hair as they buzz past. Smoking. Riding one-handed at 80 kilometres an hour on bad roads. Perhaps they are that old. Perhaps they're indestructible.

I spend my days in Malaga, trying to make myself understood. The labourers on site are Brazilian,or Francophone African. The skilled workers are from the Baltic states. There are even some Spaniards. Thankfully they all speak a little English, so we get by, particularly after an unhurried Andalusian lunch. There is something democratic about a hard hat and a hi-vis waistcoat. Everyone looks much the same in them, and everyone has to wear them, the millionaire developer from Madrid and the floorsweeper from Côte d'Ivoire. If we finish early I take a bus to the beach and sit there watching the sky change, until the flies chase me away, or night comes.

People talk on the train home. They have their own jobs to complain about, suppers and weekends to plan and disagreements with loved ones that are important while they're on the phone but will dissolve, in most cases, with the first touch at the doorstep. How were the kids today?

No-one is waiting for me, not in this country at least, so most evenings I stop for a drink in the station bar. The tap hasn't worked for weeks, so Francisco - Me llaman “Frank”! - pours me a beer from a small can and charges me a euro. The bar is L-shaped, with a door at either end, always open and the weather blows through unobstructed. When a mist rolls over the mountain, it rolls into the bar. There's a table in one corner, though no-one ever seems to have sat there, three barstools, a fruit machine and a small colour television on which Frank and I watch Pasapalabra, a game show on Telecinco. We're obsessed.

Frank may own more than one cardigan, but if he does, they are all burgundy, and otherwise identical. He is as gruff and self-contained as one might expect the proprietor of a station café in southern Spain to be, but he seems to like me, perhaps because I share his enthusiasm for Pasapalabra. Álora nestles among three mountains, and the railway station is at the very bottom of the town, so the TV reception is often poor, and when the wind picks up along the Guadalhorce and rattles the shutters and agitates the spirits bottled behind the bar it's hard to hear much. Nevertheless the charisma of Pasapalabra's winsome host, Christian Gálvez, shines through the gloom. Everyone talks very quickly. Elderly women in the post office speak an accelerated version of the language recited on my Learn Spanish tapes. Of the conversation between host and contestant on a gameshow, against the clock, I pick out maybe two words in five. Somehow this does not diminish the charm of the thing. It's a word quiz, and everyone loves those, don't they? I do well in the music round, most nights. Frank does less well, not just in the music round, but generally, which is odd, him being a native speaker. He seems untroubled. Sometimes, I suppose, what is most important is to have the right answer, even if you don't understand the question.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Way She Says His Name

There is a music in the way she says his name, but now that she's not speaking to him anymore he thinks that seeing her will be halfway or someway at least towards the experience of hearing her so he starts finding time during his working day to slip off and hang around near the coffee shop where he knows she gets her four shot latte twice a day and there's a bus stop twenty or thirty yards down the street where he can smoke and drink his own coffee and still appear to be on the way somewhere rather than just waiting like a bloody fool for a glimpse of her face and the lips he has kissed and the great mass of hair that he has tried to push his fingers through. Love it was, he supposes, for him at least though he always sensed there was something unreal about the whole thing, what with her being so extraordinary and him, well, a bloke in a hard hat she met in a pub after work, not that he had his hard hat on, but she had a trolley case full of paperwork and he'd helped her into a taxi with it and she had kissed him there in the street, a bit inexpertly, if he was honest but she was drunk so he understood.

He stands near the bus stop picking little bits of dried plaster off the back of his fingers. Then he goes back to work.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Running Repairs

They arrived home within a month of each other. Toby was a year older. He had recently divorced and his wife had kept the house. He had exhausted the patience of his friends, in whose kitchens he had got drunk, and on whose sofas or spare beds he had sweated out the booze. So he had gone back to his parents, until he found a place of his own he could afford. Luke had come back to look after his mother, who was dying more quickly than expected. He worked from home, anyway, and his sister was moving to Leeds with work.

They met again as they had first met, in their respective back gardens. Toby smoking, Luke on his mobile. There was pointing, the nervous laughter of recognition and a handshake. They had fought and played here, from six to sixteen, a forever ago.

They bought a car between them, seventy-five quid each, a doer-upper from the local paper which they hunted down in fulfilment of an unrealised teenage ambition. Luke spent more time on it, while his mother slept. It was something he could fix. Toby helped him out on alternate weekends when he didn't have the kids, and when the evenings got lighter he'd change out of his suit into overalls and lean over the engine with a Haynes manual. The yellow concrete of the shared driveway camouflaged, soon enough, with drips and runs of oil. Another four-hundred in parts and a failed test and they got it on the road. They drove Luke's mother to the hospital.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Natalia watches her father on the evening news. A still portrait with a caption at first, his learned face and bright white beard spread across the screen, then him suddenly live, responding calmly to an excitable BBC reporter, his lips moving, but the rest of his face a mask of mild amusement. And in the background acres of West London stucco, leaping youngsters in thawbs with jeans and hi-vis running shoes underneath, ululating and punching the air, their energy communicating itself to the newsman who turns to camera with the shiny obvious zeal of the newly converted.

The world is changing and somehow she is part of it. Her mother on the phone in their small kitchen, the coiled lead stretching around two corners like gossip over a fence, and her father's face, impassive to all but its own certainties.

The brick appears in the corner of the screen with its own certainty, no arc, flatly damaging, catching her father beside the left eye. A sudden stillness, blood, calls for Allah then the barriers crashing forwards and the camera reeling drunkenly. Language moving from the diplomatic and statesmanlike to the base notes of anger and revenge and sat upright on the pavement the cleric, her father, no longer middle-aged, clutching his eye and asking for help. Blood streams down from his cheek on to his white robes, his beard all red and his other eye weeping and his daughter crying too, watching it all unfold on the small television.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Minor Character

Everyone agreed that the kid was an extraordinary talent. His parents were not the sort of people who would normally choose to nudge a child into the hothouse of celebrity. His elder sister, Kayleigh, had a pretty enough singing voice and most of her teeth, but they had never been pushy with her (she was not discouraged; they attended her performances with the school choir three or four times a year.) The boy was something else, though. He could do Joni Mitchell, Jeanette McDonald, Gaga, Maria Callas, Whitney Houston, Ethel Merman and the falsetto of Prince. If you closed your eyes you couldn't tell the difference. What made him exceptional, however, the accuracy with which he could reproduce female voices, also limited his popularity. There was something unsettling, something uncanny about hearing the world weary timbre of a torch singer rendered by a bony thirteen year old boy. He had been eliminated in the early stages of a TV talent show, the judges using words like 'weird' and 'inhuman' to describe him. The public never caught on.

Secretly, his mother believed it was a gift from God. She had been raised in a kind of charismatic baptist cult and had never really shaken it off. She never spoke to her son about this, even on the warm spring afternoon when she interrupted him, crouched and sweating at the desk in his bedroom, the distinctive monosyllables of internet coitus barking from his laptop. A week later his voice began to break.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Man of the House

His father told him he was staying with a friend, threw a holdall over his shoulder and walked away. From the doorstep the boy could hear his mother crying, an unfamiliar sound, somewhere upstairs. He understood that what had happened was irrevocable, that the 'friend' was a woman from the bank, younger than Mum, but thicker through the middle. But he didn't see what was worth getting upset about.

There were two ways of looking at it, he thought. He had either lost a parent (one who considered his home a sort of self-excavated oubliette, who forgot himself in televised golf for whole weekends at a time, a tactic of avoidance so classical in heritage and execution it was almost admirable - Pro-Ams, Japanese Senior Tour, WPGA, he'd watch it all, while his clubs rusted unswung in the carport, a caldera of arse-scuffed oxblood leather accommodating his crescent misery – gone now, though the golf bag remained, the mittened woods poking out from its top like reproachful civets) or gained one: a heavy-hipped woman not much older than him, numberwise. With a honest, open face and presumably an exploitable sense that she had wronged him, the son. More cash at Christmas, and the tantalising possibility that his newly single mother, trimmer than her replacement, though admittedly less honest and open of face, might herself find new love.

He shut the front door. Then he went and sat at his father's end of the sofa, and picked up the TV remote.