Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Lammas sun etc (revised)

This one's beginning to head in the right direction, thanks to the feedback I'm getting from the poetry newsgroups.

The Lammas Sun has gone

Beyond the glassed face, fish
swim through mulm like ghosts
who haunt cellar barrels
sifting the last of the lees;

I'll net you a beer, neck
your sheen of skin stretched
from nape to blade, sift hairs
weaving your back in whorls -

and after? There is no after.
My face is glassed, your glass
is froth; ghost-clear worms
sift mulm, feed fish.

Ever wondered how to workshop a poem on the poetry newsgroups? Here's how. For contrast, see how the same poem gets workshopped at a more "traditional" web-based venue.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ice cream in Havana

"If you're pregnant, then I'll be pregnant too!"

"Don't be silly," she says. "You're a bloke."

Around them, the market swirls. It's a flea market, of sorts, though every market in Havana seems like a flea market to her. This one is by the old cathedral, not far from La Bodeguita del Medio where Hemingway used to drink, where she had told him of her new status over an over-priced, over-weak mojito.

"Do you want to keep it?" he'd asked.

"Of course I do," she'd responded, her finger in her mouth, dragging her nail across the back of her teeth in an attempt to dislodge a flake of crushed mint. The room had become crowded at that moment as yet another group of tourists was herded into the small space. Having arrived just before the hordes, they'd managed to find themselves stools in the corner of the bar, giving her a good view of how the staff prepared 20 mojitos in one big splash. Around them, the new people gawped around the room, checking the signatures that inched their way across every patch of whitewashed wall. He was gawping, too, but not at the walls.

She'd watched emotions and scenarios rush through his mind, each signalled by his brows and the accordion creases sprouting from the sides of his eyes. She was impressed by how quickly his brows had collapsed from an arch of surprise into uneven, questioning horizontals; how the white traces of untanned skin had flooded the curve to his temples, then ebbed back into their folded obscurity. When the muscles in his jaw began to haul on the corners of his lips, threatening a smile, she pulled her finger free of her own mouth, gently knuckled his chin to push his mouth shut.

"Let's celebrate," she said, pulling a note free from her purse without looking at it, waving it in the direction of the fat man behind the bar.

"You shouldn't be drinking." He reached for the note – ten convertible pesos, she noticed.

"You shouldn't be telling me what to do," she said, cocking her head to one side.

"Someone needs to look after you." He slipped his hand from her thigh to her waist, running his fingers across her belly along the way. "It's not just you, now."

"That's true enough. Dos mojitos por favor, señor!"

Now he is rubbing his fingers against the back of his head, dislodging sweat and oil from the short, salt-and-pepper strands. Around them the market crowd is in full, diffident cry – the hustling for business quiet yet insistent in the mid-afternoon heat. She strolls between the stalls holding onto his arm, tugging him to a halt every few paces to look at the wares on offer: papier mache vintage cars painted in bright reds, yellows and pinks; 'ethnic' wood-carved masks for hanging on walls; oil paintings not yet imprisoned in frames, their canvases left free to sway in the wake of browsing tourists. Many of them seem to be variations on a scene, a nineteen fifties classic American car parked in front of the Bodeguita they'd so recently left, the old cathedral in the background weighed down by its grey brickwork against an intense, blue sky.

"We should buy something," she says, "to celebrate today."

"Yes," he says, though his face displays his distraction. His eyes are darting between bodies and products, seemingly unable to rest on one thing or one thought. She halts him in front of table piled high with tin aeroplanes, their recycled bodies and wings still showing the marks of their previous, disparate existences. She smiles at the stall holder, admires the white of her layered cotton dress stark against blue-black skin. The second-hand smoke of the woman's foot-long cigar leaves a spicy tang at the edge of her throat.

He picks up one of the models. "How long?" he asks.

"How long what?" She, too, lifts one of the planes into her palm, admires the way the whole thing has been shaped from a single can.

"How long before it's due?" She glances at him sidelong, but his attention is entirely on the toy in his hands.

"I did the test before we flew here."

"Oh," he says. He places the trinket back on the table, offers a weak smile to the woman as he turns away. Still attached to his arm, she barely has time to return her ornament to its place in the display.

"Are you hungry yet?"

She nods her head. "Not yet," she says. "I'm bored of the noise. Let's walk somewhere else for a while."


They cross into the strip of parkland between the lines of the market and the lanes of the main highway separating the city from its sea wall. The soil is damp in places from earlier rain, though she manages to match his even stride across the uneven grass. Beyond the grass, the road, the wall, the strip of blue water, reclines El Morro fort – old in its bricks, veiled by its trees. Turning, she looks instead along the length of the road. Beyond the market, the seafront buildings are dilapidated, needing more than a coat of paint to restore them to their thirties-gangster glory. He, too, chooses to look at the city rather than the fort.

"What I'll remember most about this city," he starts.

"The people?" she guesses. "The hustlers and loiterers and beggars?"

"The smells," he says. "Everywhere you go, the smells of dampness, decay, rot."

"It doesn't smell in the hotel," she says, drawing his waist into the crook of her elbow.

"No," he agrees. "The hotel smells of grafters scrubbed up to look handsome and pretty while they extract every peso from your pocket."

"It's not their fault. What is it that boy told us? Four and a half million people live here, but only one and a half million of them are policemen."

"He wanted ten pesos to take us to a salsa festival on the other side of town."

"At least he didn't want to sell us cigars."

"True. What do you want?"

She looks up into his face; he keeps his gaze on the cars and taxis jostling for position on the road, racing who knows where.

"I want ice cream," she answers, if only to end the brief silence. "I want veal and beef in rich sauces. I want proper vegetables. If someone offers me rice and peas, I want to say 'no, thank you.' Pizza would be nice," she adds, "or a big Chinese meal with plenty of chemical additives. In fact" – her hand reaches up to his chin, guides his eyes towards hers by his jaw-line – "I would happily kill the chambermaid for a decent cup of tea."

"They don't have tea in Cuba. They don't have kettles." He's smiling now: not his usual, social smile, but rather something smaller, more personal and reserved.

"But that's the problem," she says. "The idea of people surviving without tea and kettles is just too weird for me to handle. People need kettles; it's a basic human right."

"Families need kettles, too?"

"Yes," she says. "Families need kettles, too."

He stops, turns her to face him. "So what's the problem, then?"

"There's a world of kettles out there. So many to choose from. What if I choose the wrong kettle?"

"Can there ever be a perfect kettle?"

She's smiling now; she can feel the muscles in her cheeks bunching the skin beneath her eyes. "New kettles come on the market every year."

"Maybe kettles should be treasured. Ask the hotel staff – the chambermaid would kill for an honest, reliable, working kettle."

"Maybe you're right," she agrees. "But can a woman settle down with a kettle that was manufactured twenty years before her birth?"

He surprises her with a wink. "Maybe the woman like antiques?"

"Maybe she does," she says, returning his wink. "There's a kind of pride in owning an old kettle that still works, and polishes up nicely too."

He mocks up a look of horror for her, his eyes' tan-lined wrinkles snapping open like fans, his mouth purse-tight to lock away retorts. Then he laughs, and so does she, and they come together in a hug.

"I know of a shop that sells ice cream," he says. "You have to ask the right person, of course, and pay the tip in advance."

"Does it come with mojitos?"

"I expect so. Shall we go and find out?"

"Yes," she says, returning her arm to the back of his waist. "Let's go and find out."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Lammas sun has gone

The Lammas sun has gone

Beyond the glassed face, fish
swim through mulm like ghosts
who haunt cellar barrels
sifting gassed yeast broth;

I'll net you a drink, neck
the skin that sheens from nape
to blade, sift the hairs
weaving your back in whorls -

and after? There is no after.
This face is glassed, the glass
is froth; ghost-white worms
sift mulm, feed fish, swim on.

Monday, September 17, 2007

On the radio

It was hearing the song on the radio that made her do it. It was an old song, a doo-wah song from the sixties – some female trio, she couldn't remember their name now.

They used to sing it together, the three of them behind the prefab classrooms during the breaks between classes. Shelly had had a good voice and knew the words; Trish had memorised the dance from watching the singers on Top of the Pops – hands go here, fingers point just like that. How they'd giggled. She'd tagged along to make up the numbers. After a few days, and a few arguments along the way, they'd worked it all out. Three new women ready to take the world in a synchronised strut, pitch almost-perfect.

What had happened to them?

She had been in the kitchen when the song had come on. She hadn't even realised it was playing until she noticed her hand scrubbing the big oven, with its six cooking rings, in time to the music. Then she'd stopped working and started listening, a small smile across her small, triangular face. Good memories.

Now she was sitting at Mrs Smith's table. Mrs Smith had a large house which needed cleaning twice a week, forty pounds cash-in-hand, no questions asked. One time, Trish had asked her: what do you want to do when you leave this dump? Well, she'd got what she wanted. The job had been routine, stacking shelves and playing checkout girl, but it gave her the pay packet at the end of the week – her passport to some good times. The husband had been more of a disappointment: he still was, she thought, but they'd worked well together, got their names on the waiting list, got into their own flat before the kids started arriving.

Trish had wanted riches; Shelly had wanted fame. A woman with a tight waist and a good voice could dream of record contracts. She'd not fitted in with those plans – she was more of a Babs Windsor than a Twiggy in those days, she mused as she got the mop out and made a start on the kitchen flagstones.

She hadn't thought of them for ages. Years. Most of the time she lost herself in worries about her boys as she hoovered, or shopped, or cooked, or the never-ending saga of her mother's illness. Suddenly there was an emptiness in her. She needed to know if her school mates – friends forever – had achieved their dreams.

Mrs Smith had a telephone in her kitchen. She picked it up as if to polish it. Maybe she could phone the radio station, tell them about how the three of them had performed that song. She'd heard others phone up and reminisce; it was one of those phone-in shows, in any case.

Mrs Smith wouldn't mind one phone call, surely.

It was strange, the way her fingers already knew the number to dial.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Jack's final contemplation

The first time Jack left his body, he had a revelation.

He could see himself sprawled across the bathroom floor. One of his arms was still clutching his chest, though there was no pain now. "So it wasn't indigestion after all," he mused. His other hand was grasped around the end of the toilet paper; the attack had been so sudden that half the roll seemed to have unreeled across his body as he fell, as if trying to hide him in a ribbon of blushing pink.

"May's going to have a fit when she sees this!"

He could hear his wife in the kitchen, knocking plates together in the sink in an effort to remove supper scraps from china-white surfaces. She never tidied the bathroom until after he'd completed his morning routine.

"I should be scared," thought Jack, "I'm dead!"

He looked around the bathroom from his vantage point near the ceiling – which was not as well dusted as May claimed it was. Fine cracks crazy-paved the powdery emulsion, with tapering columns of gossamer stalactites – old spider threads, he supposed – slowly swaying in the slight summer breeze from the window. Watching the motion was calming, mesmerising even. Jack remembered watching TV shows about divers drifting through kelp forests. He'd always wanted to go diving, but his fear of water had kept him anchored to land all his life.

Looking back down, Jack could survey the shipwreck that had been his body. He remembered being proud of his physique when he was breathing: 'a fine figure of a man', as May would tell him every so often. Now he could see it for what it was – a collection of mounds strung together by bones, held in place by too-tight skin. The fat had collected mainly around his waist and belly, but there was also a broad necklace of it supporting his chin. The skin itself was pale, greying, with a mosaic of hairs and fine, purple veins across its expanse.

"May was right. That hair looks stupid," he thought. Every morning he'd carefully arranged his thinning strands across the top of his head, fluffed it a little to 'make me look just a little younger'. He'd never noticed the baldness at the back of his head – he'd never seen it before. Now he could enjoy the ridiculousness of it all. He could appreciate the way hair tufted from his ears.

"Jack? What are you doing in there?"

"I'm fine, dear. I'm having a contemplation!" It was their little in-joke, the ten minute break from each other's company to attend to bodily functions.

"Jack! Talk to me. Are you okay?"

"Oh, May," he thought. "You're going to be so sad soon." But not even the idea of his wife's anguish could break this peacefulness.

Outside, a bird throated a a 'come-hither' call. Jack went to look at the world.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

John's new game

"John, love. Look, I'm sorry ..."

He could see her reflected in the window shop, a still body among the hurrying shapes in the street, merged into an array of violent, sophisticated computer game display boxes. He was there, too, a pint-size parka jacket, hood up, fat sleeves shoved into pockets.

"John, come on, now! There's no need to behave like this. Let's go home, now ..."

The rush of words took him by surprise: "Whose home? Your home? His?"

"Our home, John. Yours and mine."

"Until it's his turn to have me!" How could his Mum and Dad have stood there in the street arguing about him like that? They didn't even ask him what he, John, wanted to do.

"That's not my choice, John. You know that. The court said you have to visit him twice a month."

"And you let them tell you what to do? I hate him! I don't ever want to see him again!"

"John ..."

"No, Mum. You let him shout at you in the street. You let him order you around: 'do this, do that. Drop him off tomorrow at eleven. Don't be late!' It's like he owns us!"

"He loves you, John. You know that. He's taking you to see the game tomorrow ..."

"I don't want to go and watch football with him!"

"Now stop it, John!" In the window he could see his mother reach out her hand to his shoulder. When he felt the touch he scrunched his head down, turned to face her as he moved away. But he couldn't look at her. Beyond them the crowds had turned into a surge of adults heading towards the station. Some of them were staring at him and his mum, slowing a little as they passed them – like a car crash.

"Look, love. I know it's been hard on you. But this isn't the time or place to talk about it, okay? Lets go and buy this game of yours and then we'll go home. We can pick up a McDonalds on the way home, if you like."

John said nothing. He didn't know what to say. He didn't know what to call the tight knot of rage and embarrassment just below his heart. Instead, he punched the window.

"It must have been faulty, flawed," his mother had tried to explain to the shop manager later. "It shouldn't have just shattered." But John didn't notice – all he could remember was the way the shards and sparking edges had danced around his fist, a kaleidoscope of rush-hour crowds and startled cars.

Tears pinched their way from his eyes; something hot was dribbling across his wrist. Yet just like the window, the strange pain in his belly had shattered, flown away. Beyond the glass remnants, boxes called for his attention: 'Play Me!' they cried.

'Why should I?' he thought, not noticing his mother's hugs and screams.

'This game's much more fun!'

Friday, September 14, 2007

Ofishull: i am an writter

Or so claims the piece of paper I got from the Open University today telling me that I have passed the OU novel writing short course I completed over the summer.

Although I think the word "pass" is a bit meagre. I got well over 80% on both my marked submissions and you only need 40% to pass the course. Maybe if the piece of paper had said "double pass" or "pass plus quite a bit extra" I'd be happier. Though I am happy, of course!

The good news is that I'm going to be posting some more stories over the next few days. The bad news? How can there be bad news? I'm going to be posting some more stories to the blog over the next few days. This is a "no bad news" scenario. You will both enjoy reading my blog over the next few days.

The even better news is that I've passed the 40,000 word mark on my novel. I'm aiming for around 100k - it's science fiction, where the current trend seems to be to consider anything less than 120k as a bit, well, anorexic. But it's got sex and intrigue and burning women and did I mention the sex yet so I'm hoping I'll be forgiven the missing words when it comes round to submitting the novel to agents etc - which should be sometime in the new year if I can keep the pace up.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Yes, it's a bit of a controversial website - people posting other people's work without permission and stuff - but it's not that different to youtube and everybody finds youtube really useful (especially now youtube seem to be doing something about the flagrant copyright abuse stuff). So I signed up and posted a couple of my pdf chapbooks. After all, it's much better for me to post my own copyrighted work to the site rather than have someone else do it for me (without me knowing sort of thing).

Oh yes: here's my page. Enjoy!