23rd NOVEMBER 2022


My (our) son lives and works in Madrid. He was granted permanent residence in Spain earlier this year and now has his own apartment. He’s lived there since May. Jackie and I went to visit last week for a few days. There are one or two things about the visit that struck me.
First of all, how pleasant the metro system is. Stations are big and, although some of them are busy, they are generally calm places. Trains run frequently and are generally orderly. However, although the authorities insist that everyone wears a face covering there are plenty who don’t. I’ve never found complying with this mask wearing to be a problem or a difficulty and I can’t really understand why people don’t manage it. Enough. That’s for elsewhere.
El Retiro really is a calm and restful place. We strolled around for some time, enjoying the tame sparrows and watching families, runners, buskers. I was taken by the change in ‘living statues’ though. We saw a man who had devised a scene where he was a waiter who had slipped. He was horizontal and seemed to be supported on one foot. In the past we’ve seen all manner of such ‘living statues’ – a skate board accident, an ejecting fighter pilot. Now, there were inflatable Disney characters prancing about. Tacky.
There were also the obligatory sellers of cheap reproduction football shirts, wallets, hats, bags, toys. All of them black, probably trafficked from Africa, all with cords diagonally placed across their blanket boutique so they can leg it as soon as the Guardia Civil is spotted. I feel great sympathy and sorrow for these men who think they have escaped a life of African penury for a life of European plenty only to find themselves in a European slavery. Wouldn’t it be great to find out who is behind it?
We went to Mad Brewing, Pez Tortilla and Toast – three highlights of Madrid’s growing beer culture. Pez Tortilla also serves wonderful tortilla – reputedly the best in Madrid. Mad Brewing is in a garage, near a DIY store. There were families having a beer, friends having beer, the three of us having beer. The brewer even gave us a round on the house! In Pez Tortilla, a bar licensed for only 55 people at any time (55 struck me as being a lot. There were about 35 drinkers in there with us and it was packed.) we had some local beer and a very strong but delicious Swedish beer. Most of those in there were young women; very different from similar places in UK. When we got to Toast we were the only ones there. On the board were about 20 beers, some brewed by the Irish owner who was changing several of those available. He told us about local breweries and those from Toledo, Segovia, Barcelona that he sold. I had a half of an Imperial Coffee Stout brewed in Segovia. It was 8% but delicious.
We spent a morning in El Prado looking at Flemish painting – Breughel and Bosch, Van Dyck and Rubens – as well as Velazquez, Murillo and Goya. I was astounded by the similarities there were (are?) in the royal houses of Europe. But then you notice the ancestry and remember they really are inbred mutants.


“The Passenger” by Cormac McCarthy. There are some fantastic sections so far: the scene with the FBI; the scene with Debussy Fields; scenes with Granellen for instance. But there are also long sections of discussion of quantum theory, chapters about Alice’s madness that baffle me. McCarthy doesn’t often bother with speech marks and the narrative flits about – it is not organised in a one to two to three kind of way. It is fractured to say the least. And yet I am gripped.


Neil Young and Crazy Horse “World Record.” Only one listen. Standard, rough edged stuff from Mr Young. Sentimental, wayward rocking music. Not his best but not his worst wither.
While I was at the gym, 22-20s “Devil In Me” popped up. Now that is a great version of the song. Also “Aint That A Lot Of Love” by The Flying Burrito Brothers. “If the cooks in the kitchen had a dress as tight as yours/ They wouldn’t need a fryer” and a guitar solo to beat some of the very best.


I don’t really know where the idea for this came from. Possibly Nancy Stohlman.


We hung feeders for the birds. Bacon rinds, seeds, bits of bread. They came and we tried to sketch, took photos and tried again. One day we heard a thump against the window. Saw the ghost of a bird on the glass. “Quick before Patches finds it,” she said. We thought it had died. But it quickened in my hands. We laid it in a shoebox and put it in the shed. It vanished but left its image on the casement.


“The English” on BBC. Quite a series. It has a Coen Brothers influence I’m sure but there are some fine performances by Toby Jones, Ciaran Hines, Rafe Spall, Emily Blunt, Tom Hughes, Chask Spencer, Stephen Rae. It’s not an easy watch but it’s one of the best things I’ve seen on telly this year. It’s set in 1890 and 1875 in the ‘wild west’ of US and London. It’s pretty violent though not graphic. It’s puzzling. At times it’s preposterous. But it is good.




I read Donna Day’s blog this morning (https://donnamday.substack.com/) and it inspired me to have a go at something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time – write a blog. So, here goes …


I have a copy of the 1977 Good Beer Guide. Good beer has been a part of my life since I was 15 years old. I successfully bought my first pint at The Olde White Bear in Norwood Green. My mate also Andy, pushed me to order because I looked older. I remember standing at the bar and, although I’d remembered to say 1952 if asked my birthday, I hadn’t thought about what to order. So my first pint was Double Diamond. The only wonder it worked was to convince me beer must taste better than that.
Anyway, a lifetime of seeking out good beer and good pubs has led me to go every Thursday with a group of friends I’ve been drinking with for over 30 years. The Hop is my kind of pub: 10 minutes walk from home, 7 well-kept beers, several ‘craft’ beers, cider and interesting bottles and cans. There are friendly staff, a monthly quiz, occasional live music, comedy nights. A camera club meets there and there’s also a book group, of which I am a member.
Beer of the week this week? Lister’s IPA.


On the way to school this morning, I chatted with Nancy (9) and Fraser (7) about The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. How does the RR manage to run into a tunnel that Will E has painted on a rock? Isn’t it incredibly funny that Wile E always falls hundred of feet to the bottom of a canyon? We mentioned many other cartoons we enjoyed but I was surprised that they’d never seen The Flintstones.
All this led me to a reverie on how much of what I see or hear of what entertains people relies on CGI. Grandchildren watch or play video games, some adults in my family play computer games or watch Marvel films and I hear about dragons in Game of Thrones or various films. I don’t think I’m entirely anti such things but I tend to prefer proper drama. What am I on about? CGI for its own sake isn’t for me.
However, it leads me to remember a recent visit to Forest Green Rovers. FGR won the game 1-0 and I enjoyed watching highlights of the game when I got home. I was even able to say I was in the background as Conor Wickham nodded in the winner. During the game, however, there was an incident where a Bolton player seemed to leap into the FGR goalkeeper rather than attempt to head the ball. There were disagreements among the crowd as to whether the ref should have flourished a yellow or red card. Oh how we would have valued an instant replay of the incident. That moment made me realise how much I/we have become accustomed to such technology in our lives. And of course the positive and negative aspects of the internet, computing technology and so on.
More of this another time, when I’ve thought it through a little more.


I’ve been enjoying the Rugby League World Cup. Actually I’ve enjoyed watching rugby league this latest season. My enjoyment of the game has returned. The physicality, power and skill involved in the game amazes me. Men and women, able bodied or in wheelchairs, who “put their bodies own the line” so regularly thrills me. The speed and grace of Tommy Makinson, to name but one. The skill and intelligence of James Robey, to name another. The sweet side-stepping ability of Tara-Jayne Stanley. The lunacy, skill and daring of Joe Coyd of the wheelchair game. Of course there are other players but these are a few who have caught my eye over the last 12 months.
But it’s the honesty of the game generally that I like. Players don’t back chat or insult referees or touch judges. They accept decisions, although they may question in a reasonable manner. They take knocks, they are fit, quick and strong. I suppose they know that what they take or give in a collision is what their opponents also aim to do and this seems to breed a mutual respect. Crowds seem to be partisan although, again, show respect for the game and the players. It seemed to me that rugby league adapted to the problems of covid-19 positively and the game as a whole developed approaches to racism and LGBTQ+ which are positive and accepted by players and fans alike. In short, the game’s the thing. Before I forget, punditry in both codes of rugby is far better than it is in football. It is more articulate, better informed, informative, thoughtful and observant. So it seems to me anyway.
Will I watch any of the football world cup in Qatar? I’d like to say no.


Earlier this week I finished reading “Lessons” by Ian McEwan. Like many of his novels there are some gripping set pieces but I found this novel dull to the point of boring. Most of us are boring I know with moments of excitement in our lives but literature isn’t meant to be that kind o f slice of life. Is it? I want to read things that show me characters acting in interesting ways, demonstrating what it means to be human in more dramatic ways. The detail of Roland’s life wasn’t necessary for me. However, his relationship with his piano teacher was gripping in its perversion; his relationship with his estranged wife was also interesting in how her philosophy of life got lived out; Roland’s tussle with Daphne’s ex-husband was a good, dramatic moment in the novel too.
Since then, I’ve got ⅔ of the way through Helen Dunmore’s “A Spell Of Winter.” It’s a novel about the love, physical and spiritual, of siblings Cathy and Rob. It’s quite a shocking book. More when I’ve finished it.


Mojo magazine has a “How to Buy” article about ELO. I hadn’t listened to any of their music for a long time so I put “Eldorado” on the iPod and listened a couple of times at home and in the car. It’s on the grandiose side of rock and roll music but I quite enjoyed it in the 1970s and I quite enjoyed it this week. I’d forgotten “Rockaria” – in many ways a clichéd pop song but arranged and performed very well.
Also I saw that Neil Young is about to release a film – “Harvest Time” – which is a documentary about the making of “Harvest,” his 1972 album. So, guess what, I listened to some Neil Young. “Harvest” is one of my favourite albums, although I still think “A Man Needs A Maid” is execrable. I also listened to “On The Beach” – magnificent.


I’ve been doing Nancy Stohlman’s Flash Nano (https://nancystohlman.com/flashnano/) Here’s one I wrote this week. It’s pretty much a first draft so be kind if you comment.



It was a normal Sunday morning. Me and my son, Michael, were going to see my Mum and Dad. They live over Wyckham. It had rained all day Saturday but it was a nice morning. The steps up the slope were wet and I remember telling Mikey to take care. “It could be slippy,” I said. Well, we got about half way and he asked it we could have a go on the swing. He explained that some bigger boys had made a rope swing and put a kind of trapeze seat on it. Well, that’s when we found her, dangling. At first I thought a plastic bag had blown into the branches. It was a wild nigh last night. But as we got nearer I realised it was a person having from the tree and they’d used the rope from the swing. It was that blue, nylon rope. I told Mikey to stay away and I stepped forward. She was dripping wet and I thought she must have been there quite a while because it hadn’t rained all morning. In fact the sun was out. But I couldn’t see her face. Her hair had fallen like a curtain. I thought of getting her down but there was no point. There’s a tumble down wall nearby so I suppose she must have jumped off that. Well, what could I do? “Mikey,” I said. “Run to grandma’s and tell her to phone the police. Tell them I’m at the top of Wyckham Slopes and there’s been an accident.” Off he went. They live in School Lane. It’s about quarter of a mile from where we found her. I stayed to keep people away. Especially kids. Don’t want them twittering about something like that do you?


They sit on our sofa and say there is no evidence of foul play.
“We have no doubt she took her own life,” the woman says.
Your mum’s hand covers her mouth, your Dad’s arm soothes her shoulders.
You stand dumb, stilled by helplessness.
They had found her, dangling. As he spoke you imagined the scene: the sycamore with the sturdy, creaking branch; the taut rope; a drop of rain on the palm of your hand. Her hair hanging down. Her weary arms by her sides. Her feet pointing at the ground. But she is no twirling propeller sycamore seed. She is an odd fruit hanging on a limb. Her hair curtains her eyes, her face shaded from Sunday morning. She’d been gone since Friday.
And she’s wearing your Penn State sweater and her pendant is stuck to her, the locket right above her heart.
And there’s the note, damp, crumpled in her fist.


Her handwriting smudged with pain and rain.
You bluster from the room and storm into the kitchen. Before you get outside you pick up a glass from the table. You hurl it at the wall.
You walk, run, walk. You pass the school your eyes blurring. Then you’re at the foot of Wyckham Slopes and climbing – run, walk, run – climbing to the tree you know. There is nothing. No sign. Only you making the story the true story with a possible lie at the end. And you kick the wall. And you kick it again. And you lift a stone and fling it and watch it bounce and roll down hill. Then you roar your rage away.
“Take me,” you shout to no one in particular. “Make me right.”



This seems to be the first of Vlautin’s novels. Before I read anything by him I heard and saw his band Richmond Fontaine. I say, “his band” because he wrote most of the songs, like this one. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-IznfkAm4w

Songs that tell stories often appeal to me. I won’t go into that just now but Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell have written plenty. So has Richard Thompson. Vlautin’s songs struck me as having a strong narrative structure and his vocal style seems to emphasise that to the extent that I thought he’d be able to write stories like Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor.

Another thing I liked about Vlautin’s songs is that he simply puts up the words and leaves me, the listener, to do some work, to think about what’s going on. He doesn’t tell me what to think, he shows me what’s going on. And, what’s more, I believe the stories.

Now, “The Motel Life” is just such a novel. It’s presented in short chapters, with terse information about the hardships two brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, as they manoeuvre their way through life in Reno, Nevada. They’re poor although Frank has a job and they know people who help them out. Unfortunately, Jerry Lee, after getting drunk, drives into a young boy and kills him. Frank covers for him and cares for him. He does so by working in dead end jobs, by selling posssessions and, on one occasion, gambling all their worldly wealth on the Tyson v Douglas fight.

Along the way, Frank gets help from various characters he knows from his or his family’s past. There is a sad, though eventually uplifting love interest and a dog. Frank tells preposterous stories to amuse Jerry Lee and Jerry Lee draws cartoons. Although Jerry Lee is depressed and scared enough to torch their car, there is spirit in the two of them. Against all the odds perhaps.

Eventually, I think the novel is about compassion, a struggle of human strength in the face of appalling circumstance and, yes, love. Frank and Jerry Lee share a fraternal love. They care for each other in their plight. It seems to me that this is the great strength of the novel – Vlautin manages to show the human spirit in what are pretty awful experiences.

Jerry Lee at one point says he’s a “fuck up.” But he recognises that Frank has been in love with a girl who returned that love. That, to Jerry Lee, is important. The two of them could well be losers but there’s more to them and their stories than just that.

The writing has a terse, minimal quality that I admire. There are sections where I feel the hopelessness of the two young men, their hopefulness. Times when I shake my head at their seeming stupidity or naivety. Chapters when I feel like cheering and punching the air. It could be seen as a bleak novel and I would agree up to a point. But, in the end, I can see light at the end of a tunnel. A faint glimmer perhaps but nonetheless a light.

I also got a feeling that there are swathes of USA that are like this. “Nomadland” and “Midnight Cowboy” could be another two examples of the lives of almost down and outs in the wonderful US of A. I’m fully aware that there are homeless people in UK too but this is an American novel. There is country music on the radio, gun shops and Dodge cars.

I enjoyed the novel both for the story and for the writing style. There’s enough good fortune, spirit and humour to drag me past the bleak existence of the characters.

Carl and Toby


and you were watching Dad and his mate Ellis carry a new settee. Mum was washing up. She’d just put Yvonne to sleep in her cot. There was a knock at the door. It was that kid you’d met on the way to the co-op.

“Are you coming out?” he asked. “Got summat to show you.”

You followed him to his back yard.

“What do you think of that?”

On the path was a home made go-cart. There were two big pram wheels on the back and two small wheels on the front.

The kid sat on the box seat. “This is how you steer it,” he said as he tugged the rope and pushed his feet to move the front wheels first one way then the other. Then he took hold of a stick on the far side.

“This is going to be the brake,” he said. You agreed it was fantastic. “Do you want a go?”

He stood up and offered you the rope. Before you could take it, an older boy in a leather jacket came into the yard. He spat a cigarette to the ground, stepped on it then strolled to the cart. He snatched the rope away from the kid.

“I thought I told you it wasn’t finished yet.”

“Sorry, Terry.”

He glared at you. “And who are you?”

“He’s just moved in.”

“Number 42?”

You nodded.

“What’s your name?”


The older boy nodded. “Good name.” He strolled towards the door. “And Toby. Leave the cart alone.”

Toby waved you to follow him. There was no sign of the older boy. Toby opened the fridge, took out a bottle of milk and drank.

“Want some?” he said.

You shook your head. The thought of those little bits of sour milk on the top of the bottle put you off, to say nothing of someone else’s mouth smearing the glass.

He held out the bottle to you. “I didn’t backwash.”

“No.” You turned away from him.

“Tell you what.” Toby put the milk back in the fridge. “Do you fancy an ice lolly?”

You wondered what chilled milk would be like. You kept your milk on a shelf at the top of the cellar steps. Now he was offering a rare treat. Ice. Lolly.

He told you to stand by the door. “In case my mum comes downstairs.”

He took a chair, stood on it and reached up to the mantelpiece. He took a purse, opened it and took out a coin. Then he replaced the chair and you both left by the back door and Toby began to run. You watched him run away from you until he stopped and turned.

“Come on,” he called and waved a hand.

You stood motionless, not wanting or daring to move, as Toby returned to you. He asked what was the matter.

“Whose purse was that?”

He told you it was his mother’s but that she wouldn’t mind. “She knows how much I like ice lollies.”

“But.” You didn’t get any further. Toby grabbed your sleeve and tugged. You resisted but he stood very close to you.

“She’d want you to have one too,” he hissed. “Besides, I only had a lend. I’ll pay her back.”

Just before he opened the shop door Toby asked if you wanted a Jubbly instead of a lolly. “They’re bigger aren’t they?”

There was fourpence change out of the shilling he’d lifted from the purse and he asked to see the penny tray.

Soon, you were both sitting in the corner of the field, your backs against the black hut. The pyramid shaped block of orange ice was bigger than a lolly. Toby sat and slurped and giggled as it melted into the weird shaped packet. You sucked no pleasure from the Jubbly, pretended to squeeze too hard and drop it on the crumbs of earth. You drank the watery juice that was left in the bottom. 

“I go to St Francis Catholic Primary.” Toby belched and laughed. “Mum and dad think it’s a better school because our teachers are nuns.” He belched again.

“Let’s go get my go-cart,” he said as he handed you a blackjack and a fruit salad. Without thinking, you got the chewy sweets stuck in your teeth as you went back to Toby’s house.

All the wheels and all the wood was piled on the grass. Someone had taken the go cart to bits. You followed him indoors again. His mum sat by the table. She had been crying and she had a cigarette in the hand she leaned her chin on.

“Toby-ash,” she said. “What you eating?”

He stopped still, looked at you and then at his mum. “Nothing,” he muttered and shrugged his shoulders.

Mrs Barczak stood up and took hold of Toby’s arm. “I think you eat sweeties.”

“Oh.” He shrugged from her grip. “I thought you meant food, like a sandwich.”

“Where you get money for sweeties?”

He told her that you had used your spending money to buy some chews. “From the penny tray.”

Mrs Barczak turned to you. “That is very kind of you, to share your things in this way.”

You said nothing but looked over her head and saw the picture of Jesus revealing his heart. The chewy fruit sweet congealed as you gulped, swallowed. Now a white blemish would appear on your tongue or lips. Auntie Evelyn told you that’s what happened when you lied.

Mrs Barczak sniffed. She sat down again and held her head in her hands. Her back heaved as she sobbed. “I had to get food on tick,” she howled. “I thought I had money in purse.”

Toby grinned at you and winked.


There’s a knock at the back door. It was that Toby kid.

“You coming out?”

You shook your head. “Busy.”

He kicked against the doorstep. “This aft?”



You took your football into the yard and practised kicking with your left foot like Dad had told you. After a couple of minutes Toby appeared.

“Heard you kicking the ball,” he said.

You didn’t say anything but kept passing the ball against the wall from one foot to the other.

“Do you want a go on my go cart?”

You trapped the ball under your foot and glared at Toby.

“You told a lie about me,” you said. “Telling lies is wrong.”

Toby didn’t say anything. He bent over and picked at a scab on his knee. You started kicking the ball again but Toby stepped in and booted it really hard. The ball flew over the wall. You turned, grabbed Toby’s arm and hit him then pushed him backwards. He staggered and fell on his back. You towered over him, fists clenched. He put his hands over his face.

“Don’t,” he whimpered. “Don’t hurt me.”

“Go get my ball then.” Your fists were still clenched.

Mum came out, drying her hands on a tea towel. “What’s going on? Who’s this?”

“I’m Toby.”

“He’s just kicked my ball into the street,” you shouted, “and I’m making him get it back.”

“Sorry,” Toby said.

“You, Carl, can stop shouting and calm down.” Mum held a hand out to Toby. He took it and she helped him to his feet. “It can’t have gone far.”

“But he booted it on purpose.”

“I said calm down.”

You chewed the inside of your lip. There was a pink mark on Toby’s cheek. Mum swept her hand over his shirt.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

He nodded and went to get the ball.

Mum glared at you. “Sometimes,” she said. “I don’t know where you get it from.”


“It’s him you need to be sorry to. All he did was kick your ball.”

“You don’t understand.”

She waved a finger and shook her head.

“Tell him you’re sorry,” she said. “Now.”

Toby stood behind you with the ball in his hand. “Sorry,” he mumbled as he handed the ball over.

You stood and looked at the sky.

“Carl,” said Mum.

You said the word.


“There was this old woman who lived where you live now and she had this cat. It was a great big cat the size of a dog. It went everywhere with her. She took it to the shops. She took it to the club. She even took it to the woods with her. I saw her. She had it on a lead. But when they got to the woods she let it off the lead and it sniffed around and sat and listened and the old woman sat on a toadstool and listened. They heard birds singing. They saw birds flying. They watched birds perch in trees.

Eventually the cat dashed off and disappeared. The old woman grinned because she knew what was going on. Soon the cat returned with a blackbird in its mouth which it dropped dead at the woman’s feet. She put the dead bird in a bag and stroked the cat.

Good girl she said.

Well, the cat caught quite a few birds and then the old woman stood up, brushed herself down and clicked her tongue. They walked back to her house. The house you live in now. And when they got there she took the beaks and legs and feathers off the birds. Then she used her long finger nails to rip them open and take their insides out. Can you guess what she did next? Well she cooked them and ate them. She fed some to the cat. It was their special treat.

Somebody told me her cat caught rats and took them to her, he whispered. But I don’t believe that. Then Toby’s big brother got really close, gripped your arm. Pinched you. His breath smelled sour, dirty. The old woman’s lips were red like blood. She always wore gloves. Velvet gloves. They’re quieter. Velvet gloves stained red. She vanished. Maybe she’s still inside. Nobody knows. Perhaps she’s been shoved in the cellar with all the dirt. I haven’t seen her for ages. Have you, Toby? Toby shook his head. She had a cat, he said, a great big hairy cat that went with her. Everywhere. They say it still lives in her house. Your house now.

So you’d better watch out.”


And I walk in to find Mum stroking Yvonne’s head.

‘There there there,’ Mum says. ‘It doesn’t matter, love. Don’t cry.’ They are wrapped together like (I don’t know what.) She spilt the milk mum mouths to me. And broke the jug.

And I imagine Yvonne skipping in spring sunshine to borrow milk from the Packers. Then, as rain pelts down, she dashes through a downpour to the black hut. Clouds impair the sky. She’s carrying the blue and white striped jug with a doily covering it. Is she crying? I can’t tell because of the rain. Anyway she’s decided to shelter until it eases. She stumbles over the threshold and into the metallic smell of the hut. She reaches out for balance and lets go of the jug. It smashes and the milk soaks into the floorboards. The milk mummy needed. Drinka Pinta Milka Day. Custard to go with apple pie. She reaches out and lifts the handle, dangles it from her thumb and forefinger. The milk dribbles away, stains the wood just as tears cloud her thoughts.

And I am with her as he asked her if the milk was worth a kiss. I feel his arm holding her as his face drew nearer. I can smell the stale smoke on him, see the crescent scar above his eyebrow, feel the bristle of his moustache on her cheek, hear the snore of breath in the back of his nose. I can tell when she closed her eyes. I knew she tensed. She was repelled all right. Shocked.

Now back in the hut she hears some loose tarpaulin flap against the roof. Rain has eased. She picks the shards of crockery, wraps them in the muslin cloth. Now she makes a run for home.

And I watch her drop the crockery on the kitchen floor. She pricks her finger. Cries again. But stops as she pops the finger in her mouth.

And I know that his could have been me if I hadn’t deliberately dallied on my home.

And I ask myself is she crying because she spilt the milk? Perhaps because she broke the jug? Or is it out of fear of the gritty moustache on her cheek, the hand that strokes her leg?


She comes at night
sings me awake
croons me from dreams
to memory of grass and trees
to weeds and herbs
to my lifelong shame –
using her as a shield

She stands, tilts her head
smiles while guilt flashes
down my neck
into my angled shoulder
to the gashes in her wrists.
“It’ll be all right” she lilts,
as though I can right
the wrongs that haunt me.

What she called her “medal” I remember.
She found it in that black hut but
holds it out to me now,
someone’s lost locket where we put
that picture I made of her
The Green Girl laughing
on a swing, one shoe flying
to blue and gold
against background notes of grey
and jagged tones of black.


Of course, because your parents had told you not to go in the room you just had to see what was in there. And of course, because Toby’s big brother had told you that tale you just had to see what was in there. So just in case it was as dark as the black hut in there you put your torch in your pocket and listened once more. Nothing. So, you took a big breath and pushed against the door. Nothing happened. You pushed harder. The door stuck. So you ran and jumped against it, stumbled into the room.
As you tried to regain your balance, you blundered against the door. It thudded shut. The room was dark and you fumbled to your knees. Something brushed against your neck. A cobweb? You brushed it away. It brushed against your hair, heavier than cobweb. You froze. There was no sound at all but you could feel that hammer in your chest and in your ears. And that smell. Not sweet. Not disinfectant. Not pleasant nor unpleasant. You moved away from the door and felt for the torch. The dim beam showed some big square boxes. A trunk. Gingerly you moved the beam towards the door. The light dimmed even more. Fear prevented you from shouting. Shock blocked your scream. There was the old woman hanging on the door.
Whimpering, you could barely make her out, marooned as she was on the hook. And she seemed to have no legs, no feet, no hands. But sleeves dangled. As you moved your ever fading beam upwards, you saw furry dark where her face should be. Nothing moved but what was that around her neck? Sharp eyes, a snout and a snarling, silent mouth. A swirl of fur around her shoulders. Still nothing moved. You reached the light forward and saw a cat. Dead. And a red coat. A fur hat. But the cat. You looked closer and saw not a cat. Something else. Not moving. Dead. And that smell.
You tugged and wrenched and yanked to get the door open. Looked back and pulled it closed behind you. Your light blinked to darkness, left an acid choke in the back of your throat.

She wanted me to sing along but I started to panic

Everyone was dressed in yellow shirts, hurrying in the same direction. Someone pushed into me. I turned and a large woman with bright red lipstick and vacant eyes smiled beatifically at me. “Sorry,” I croaked. She lurched away when she saw my jester’s hat in Bradford Bulls colours.

I stood for a moment but was soon kettled along with the rest of the throng until we reached St Peter and St Paul. I could not avoid being funnelled through the porch and into the nave, where, as usual, I was amazed by the beauty of the building. But then a man in a fluorescent yellow jacket began strumming a guitar and the words of a song appeared on the wall of the church. The woman with red lips handed me a microphone and held my elbow. She nodded to me, smiled and waved a hand towards the words on the wall. She wanted me to sing along.

“Then I shall bow, in humble adoration / And then proclaim, my God, how great Thou art”

The entire host of daffodils raised their arms, their faces lifted in amazed wonder. As they trumpetted the words, I turned and turned but could not move, so many thronged around me. Those words, this congregation scared me, a fear that turned to panic. I screamed but none of them heard or understood.


Until I was 11 I went home for dinner. We lived in Bradford. Mum cooked for my sisters, my uncle and me. We had things like cold cuts with chips, bacon and egg, sausage & mash, meat & potato pie. Mum would usually serve a dessert as well – steamed sponge, cakes, fruit pies, rice pudding. When I was 11 we moved to Oxford and I went to school the other side of the city to where we lived so I had school dinners. I remember sitting at a table with a member of staff – a different one each day. I liked most things – not liver though because it was either chewy, rubbery or slimy. Didn’t like the texture. But I remember cheese flan, sliced ham with parsley sauce, fish pie, steak and kidney pie. Often fish and chips on Fridays.
I delighted in eating cabbage, cauliflower and other veg too. That’s how I’d been brought up to eat – square meals mum called them.
Puddings were usually the kinds of things mum cooked. But I do remember boys turning their noses up at semolina pudding with a spoonful of jam or rice pudding with jam. I loved that and swirled it around to make it pink. Chocolate sponge with chocolate ‘custard’ anyone? Delicious. And a jam tart with dessicated coconut sprinkled on top. I also remember a pink ‘custard’ sometimes poured over jam sponge.
We left Oxford when I was 13 & returned to Bradford. We were skint then – Dad was unemployed – so I took sandwiches and sat on my own in the park near school to eat them. They were all right but I yearned for the dinners I had in Oxford. We started having our dinners at tea time then and it was back to home cooked, hearty food.
I think all this gave me my interest and concern about what I eat. Now, at 66, I like to think I am a good cook, adventurous and keen to eat well, think about my diet. Yes, I’m sure this came from those lovely school dinners and mum’s simple, hearty meals.


(Content Warning – reference to self harm)

I want to set up some similarities and contrasts in this story, which is part of a greater whole. Parents and their children, blood and what it means, cuts and hurt, brother and sister. Bonds, promises and secrets. Does it work?


When Dad cut himself shaving he couldn’t believe it. He’d positioned his shaving mirror carefully and put a new Gillette blade in his razor. He’d even shown me how to hold it. He’d been humming “I got plenty of nothing” as he lifted his nose out of the blade’s path, pulled the flesh tight on his cheeks and lifted his chin to reveal the vulnerable Adam’s apple where he scraped with great care. So, when crimson stained his chin he made a right song and dance about it.

“Give us a corner of that paper.” He stuck a shred on the nick.

“That won’t do much good.” Mum held his face in her two hands. “Let’s kiss it better. That’ll keep it in.”

“Gerroff.” Dad smiled but held her away. “Where’s the styptic pencil?”

“The what? Just spit on it. That’ll clean it as well as staunching it. You don’t want it all to run out.”

Well, Dad really danced around after he slapped the after shave on. Mum told him not to be so soft.

“Anybody’d think you’d chopped the end of your finger off.” She held up her left hand to remind us of what had happened to her when she worked at Chappell’s. “You’re not going to bleed to death.”


Later, Mum and Dad were concerned that you spent so much time on your own. Dad thought you were getting like the cat – one minute snuggling up to you and purring, the next out the door and god knows where. Mum said it was just a phase.

I heard the click-clack of your feet on the stairs. I knew that you shouldn’t have come home, that you were either poorly or you were wagging it. You could  have been poorly. But when I heard that choir sing “You can’t always get what you want” I knew you were wagging it. Well, I thought, it’s no hanging matter. But you ramped up the volume and I couldn’t concentrate.

And you spun round when I opened the door, your eyes wide open, your mouth an ‘O’. Then my eyes took in your white leg, the line of blood, the flat blade. Your hands shook. Perhaps I spoke your name. “Stop it,” I said. I know I told you to stop. And you said that it eased you and ceased the pain. Helped to get it out. You leaned on me then and I held you and we both cried, our tears mingled, fell on the wound we could see and the ones that were invisible.

And you said, “One day ….”

And I said, “One day ….”

Then we both said, “One day, we’ll get him.”

I pierced my left palm, watched the crimson bead then pressed it against the cut you had made.