Poetry Blog: Isolation

Welcome along to another poetry blog. I won’t bang on too long about this one, because I’ve blogged a few times recently about the fact that we’ve been isolating for ten days after my son and wife tested positive for Covid-19. And this is where these poems have come from. Simple enough.

What’s safe to say though is that this post is very much a first for me. This post contains three poems, something that I’ve never done before in a single blog. I had intended to try and write a poem a day for the time that we were isolating, but quickly realised that what I’d end up with was probably two poems that I liked and 8 absolute duffers.

I ended up writing three poems, all connected to our isolation period. My first one came about for a combination of reasons. Firstly, I was feeling quite shocked about the two positive tests that had happened in our house and while spending the first couple of days largely on my own, had a lot of time to think. Secondly, the Facebook group I formed last April called Lockdown Literature, was somewhere where I hadn’t posted anything in a long time, so when I wrote the first poem quite quickly as a one draft piece, I wanted to post it there as a way of informing friends of what was going on. Only when I wrote the second one did I have the idea for the blog. The third one? Well, that was the result of a head full of ideas and the need for one more poem to complete the hat-trick!

Here’s the first poem, written shortly after we’d found out about the two positive tests.

Ten Days

We've done this so many times before
that I perform a cartoonish double take
as those two lines appear where there should be one.
And although one is barely there, it's still a second stripe, an alarm that stops rather than starts.

A moment stretches out in front of me 
as I struggle to react, to comprehend, before the
adult in me reaches up, takes over and my mind
begins to crunch reluctantly through the gears
that will help me protect you.

More tests are booked, the coming days organised, rest is ordered, distance
kept.

Ten days to get through. Ten days to check on you both as you sleep. Ten days to worry on the inside, but paint a calm picture on the out.

The second poem is about watching my wife through our dining room window as she sat outside in the fresh air and what we laughingly refer to as sun in West Yorkshire at this time of year. It was a few days into our period of isolation and a relief to see that she had the energy to go out, a relief to see that she was smiling once more. It had only been a matter of days that she’d been ill for and it would last a short while longer, but given the death toll and the horror stories that we’ve seen and heard throughout the pandemic, it was a lovely moment.

Fresh Air

It's funny how, despite the myriad cures and treatments 
prescribed by those who know best,
we still insist that fresh air is the cure for all that ails.

I watch you both, furtively through the window,
part concern, part inquisitive and
partly just because it makes me smile.

Despite the late afternoon sun dappling the table
you're wrapped up for winter, for a moment comical,
with your hood up. But then your vulnerability 
returns in sharp focus and I'm stopped in my tracks.

Fresh air won't loosen this deadly grip,
won't work any kind of magic. And so, I monitor,
shoulder the burden, cook beige teas and hoover to stay busy,
keep my mind from wandering too far down darkened streets,
watching from a window as you shiver but smile.

My final isolation poem is one that I fear may come across as pretentious. That’s definitely not the intention though. It was born out of the fact that we’ve had to work hard to avoid each other over the last ten or 12 days. There have been lots of moments where we pause and indicate ‘after you’ or just make eye contact in order to tell the other person which direction we’re headed. It’s been a kind of family friendly isolation and it just occurred to me that it’s been a bit like one long dance. This has mainly involved myself and my wife and it’s been never more apparent than last thing at night when we clean our teeth. We have a small bathroom and so have had to move around carefully in order to keep a safe distance from each other – a kind of cross between an amateur ballet and something out of a fight scene from The Matrix. I suppose we could have just brushed our teeth at different times, but then I couldn’t have written my pretentious poem. Anyway, here it is.

An Isolation Ballet

Little do we know it, but we've performed some kind of ballet this last week.
Two parts grace, one part paranoia, several parts a combination of
fatigue and sleepwalking.
We've picked a path around each room and each other carefully, reluctantly,
traversed two metres apart performing the every day 
routines and collapsed in synergy, separately
at the end of each day.

The discipline has been exhausting as we plie and pirouette 
our way through each hour of a ten day performance of avoidance
in search of some kind of security on our sanitised stage.
There are strange frozen moments, essential for safety, adding
to the drama and prompting the odd grin or burst of laughter at the 
sheer ridiculousness of it all.

Sometimes we don't even need to look as we move,
cautiously yet gracefully navigating space, just sensing the other 
and squeezing ourselves into a safe space.
This is not truly a ballet, a thing of beauty, but what we deem
necessary, vital as we dance apart, to stay together,
to remain safe.

So there you have it. The end to a difficult period of time in our house, although I think in terms of actual health it’ll take weeks, perhaps even months to adjust properly. The positive tests came at a time when I thought the threat had probably passed. I wasn’t ready for them. Not that I think I ever would have been, but at least when we were in the eye of the storm of Covid, say in the period between May last year and January of this, I had at least primed myself to expect the worst. Lately, as things have returned to being quite close to some sort of normality again, I had allowed myself the luxury of thinking that perhaps we’d got away with it. And of course we hadn’t.

I hope the poems haven’t seemed too indulgent or exploitative of the people involved or the situation. I think I just had to communicate what was going on somehow and writing it down is good when you’re being kept away from everyone else.

I hope you enjoyed what you’ve read. As ever, feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments. Thanks for reading.

Poetry Blog: Transition.

This is a poem I wrote a while ago now, late August in fact. It was around that time that we were preparing my son – our youngest child – for the step up to high school. In the U.K. schools had been closed for months, but he had gone back to primary school for the final half term, as the government opened them up again to Year 6 students in a bid to make transition to high school that little bit easier. It didn’t work, but that’s besides the point.

I happened to be looking through some photographs and found one that my wife had taken of our son at the start of primary school, as he headed to his first day of Reception class. She’d stood behind him and having let him walk a few steps further down the path and – no doubt crying – had taken a photo of him as he walked off. Every visible piece of uniform is just too big and his backpack takes up his entire back. He looks tiny and vulnerable and not ready for school at all. Suffice to say that while the image always makes me smile, it still makes me feel sad too.

At the time, we’d briefly debated not sending him to school. We genuinely didn’t feel he was ready for it at all and so we’d even gone as far as tentatively researching moving to Scandinavia where children don’t start school until later. I think (my wife especially) we just didn’t really want to let go. In the end, we relented and sent him. But every time I see that picture I can’t help but feel we made the wrong decision!

As I looked at the photograph last summer it brought the memories flooding back, but it also made me think about how quickly both my children seem to have grown up. Within a few weeks of that moment they would both be high school students and essentially a large chunk of their childhoods were over. And specifically where my son was concerned, my precious little boy was no longer the tiny child in the photograph. With time on my hands, I wrote the poem you’ll find below.

Boy

That picture will stay with me as the summers fade into autumn. You, walking ahead of your mum, in a uniform that you’d grow into eventually and an over sized backpack straining at your shoulders. Your jumper a red light telling us to stop and let you go into a bright new adventure.

We’d thought to avoid this moment by moving somewhere where the monster didn’t want you for another couple of years, but stayed, defeated by normality and a system that we did not like; school became an enemy that we felt we couldn’t fight.

Your mother returned to her car and cried that day, her body inert as the tears tumbled silently down her face, mourning the loss of her sunshine. I spent the day thinking of the three of you – my big, brave boy, his sister there, determined as ever to look after you and your mother; robbed, cheated, bereft. How could I protect you all?

For years from this moment you’d tell us, ‘Did you know?’ tales at the table, your new found knowledge taken, processed, committed to memory, worn like a brand new suit and then shared generously like your cuddles. Parents’ Evenings revealed what we already knew; everybody loved you, fell under your spell, like insects stuck in a web.

Years later, and a day after my heart broke down, I sat weakly watching you perform in your school play, expecting to cry uncontrollably, but instead mesmerised by your voice, your courage, your talent, and as our eyes locked I wondered if my wounded heart might now burst with pride.

Now, you prepare yourself to face new questions, leaving your cocoon to become a magnificent butterfly one day. Your mother has already shed the expected quiet tears, sought solace by burying her head into my chest, while I held her tightly without possession of the balm of words that might soothe.

Before we know it there will be another photograph and it will hurt to look at that too, You, in a new uniform that still won’t fit, walking headlong into the next five years of your future, stoic despite the nerves, wiser and still eager for more ‘did you knows’.

I will fret daily until I know you’re safe, drift off thinking of you and your new experiences and race home nightly to steal a kiss or lie beside you, clutching your shoulder while you let me in on your brave new world.

I have watched, awestruck as you’ve grown, felt my heart ache as you blushed at your achievements, daydreamed about the impact you might have on the world. Now, I urge you, with every ounce of strength I have, to conquer new worlds, open yourself to those new experiences and grasp at all of the future offers that may come your way.

My son didn’t seem ready for high school, unlike my daughter who three years previously had been desperate to move on. I worried about them both though, fretted through minute after minute of my working day, desperate to just walk back through my front door and see them, ask them how it had all been.

Both have had interesting ‘rides’ through high school thus far, as probably any kid does. They’re doing well though and both survived those first days! As did their parents! My son isn’t quite so full of wonder as he had been at primary school and is perhaps finding the transition quite tough. We suspected as much, given that he missed nearly all of the last 6 months of primary school and Year 6 and didn’t get any real transition between the two schools due to Covid-19. So all the worry that is conveyed in the poem wasn’t misplaced.

It’s a very personal poem and although I talked about him heading to high school quite a bit with my wife, my son and some friends, this was my main way of opening up about it all and probably where any actual emotion came out. I think my wife showed enough devastation for both of us at the time, so it felt important that I stayed strong. I can’t remember too much about it all now, but I imagine, writing late at night that I must have shed a tear or two. It’s such an emotive photograph!

I hope that if and when other parents read it they’ll perhaps recognise their own feelings and experiences in there too. It’s a longer poem, but I’d like to think that’s alright, given the subject matter. I won’t explain any intricacies of the language in there as some of it is personal to both my wife and son and their relationship and it’s probably not my place to share so fully. On a similar note, I’ve not used the photo that I tried to build the poem around, as again I don’t think it’s one that needs to be shared with the world (or the few people who’ll read this!). So the child in the image accompanying the poem isn’t mine! He just looked small enough and vulnerable enough to represent the subject matter!

Most of all, I hope you enjoy the poem. I hope it doesn’t bring back too many traumatic memories in any parents who read! When a child moves up to ‘big school’ it really is quite the event and I felt it was just too much to deal with unless I got it down on paper. Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.

Book Review: The Sunshine Cruise Company by John Niven.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about bank robbers – which admittedly, I don’t do too often – I think about shaven-headed, burly men with gruff cockney accents. Even the ones from the north of the country or even from another country entirely would have gruff cockney accents for me. And without exception, they’d be called something like Big Dave. Or Knuckles. I certainly don’t think of bank robbers as respectable ladies nearing pensionable age. But John Niven did and thank goodness for that.

As one nears sixty years of age, you’d hope to have life sorted. Sussed out. You’d hope that, as retirement beckons you forward, you’d be well prepared for what comes next and in actual fact, looking forward to taking things easy or even maybe taking on new challenges. Susan Frobisher and Julie Wickham fit into this category in many ways. Susan, in particular, is looking forward to the day when her husband retires from his job as an accountant; hangs up the calculator and the spreadsheet, so to speak. Her friend Julie just wants something different from scraping a living working in a care home.

In a way they both get their wishes granted. But this is far from a simple novel with a nice happy ending where two friends wander off into the sunset. No, Susan and Julie are forced to embark on a Thelma and Louise style adventure in order to get anywhere near the kind of ending that they want.

‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’ is an absolute romp of a tale as Susan and Julie (as well as Ethel, Jill and Vanessa) are forced to contemplate a life on the run from not one, but several police forces. And it’s hard not to want them to succeed. After all, it’s all Susan’s husband Barry’s fault. But for his ever-so-slightly different sexual adventures and a bit of taste for the high life, the girls wouldn’t have had to do any of this. So when you look at it like that, robbing a bank (while harming no one) is actually an acceptable course to take. Throw in the fact that some of the loot goes towards saving the life of a child, some of it helps out an old lady in a wheelchair and some of it sets up a young woman for an education that she otherwise wouldn’t have had a hope in Hell of getting, then you’ve got to ignore the amount of criminality here and hope they all make it to freedom.

This really is a brilliant novel. Centred around a group of characters who Niven has made both likeable and funny, it’s a story that works really well, despite its obvious far fetched nature. Far fetched or not, as a reader you’ll find yourself not really caring about that and just wanting them to succeed in their quest to avoid justice. There’s almost a Robin Hood type element to it, as we root for Susan, Julie and the gang while hoping that our Sheriff of Nottingham figure, a hapless detective called Boscombe, falls flat on his face, which he frequently does.

All human life is here. There’s Ethel, a wheelchair bound thrill seeker who is hell bent on living life to the full. Then we have the aforementioned Boscombe, the kind of man that we’ve probably all worked with and probably all did everything we could to avoid; a slob, a sexist, a man who looks down his nose at anything he doesn’t understand or agree with; in short someone who despite being on the side of good in all of this, you’ll laugh at more and more with every successive failure. And then of course there are Susan and Julie, the beautiful and vulnerable Vanessa and organised crime boss Tamalov who brings a tangible sense of menace.

‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’ has more twists than you can keep track of and many that you just won’t see coming. Just when you think that Susan and the gang are safe, they’re not and just when you think they’re finished, something happens to keep their adventure on track. And it’s like this until almost the final page, which means that you simply won’t want to put it down. I loved this book and after it sat in my ‘To Read’ pile for at least a couple of years, I was thrilled to bits when I finally picked it out and joined Susan, Julie, Ethel and even the loathsome Boscombe on the adventure of a lifetime.

I give ‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Things My Parents Used To Say

photo of a boy covering his eyes
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

I miss my parents. There’s no panic, they’re both still with us and in fact are on the end of the phone should I need them. But the global Coronavirus pandemic and the fact that we’re in lockdown has meant that there’s not a hope of actually seeing them. I can’t visit as I live over 100 miles away and while the frequency of phone calls home has increased over these last few weeks, I still miss them. This is weird because, if I’m honest, the distance between us has always felt quite convenient before now.

The whole situation has made me think about them a lot more than usual. I guess, if I’m being honest, part of that is to do with having so much time on my hands. I certainly don’t normally think so deeply about my parents and for so long. In fact sometimes, with a busy work and family life balance, my parents can seem a bit of an irritation. And while I feel guilty typing that and reading it back, I doubt any of us could look at it and not think the same for at least some of the time. If you’re busy, stressed out, hitting deadlines ad trying to be a good husband and father, checking in with the parents can feel like a bridge too far.

My mam and dad are getting old now. My father is eighty and my mother, despite her dogged attempts to keep the actual number quiet, is in her late seventies. In short, they’re vulnerable to this virus. And so, worrying about them, thinking about them, talking about them and even almost succumbing to random acts of abandon like driving up to stand outside their house and chat to them have come quite naturally of late.

One of the things that I’ve thought about most – and one of the things that automatically makes me smile – has been the kind of things they say or more accurately, said when I was growing up. You see, parents speak a different language. As you grew up they seemed almost alien and even now, in middle age I can say that they still speak a different language. So let’s have a look – in no particular order – at some of their stock phrases and hopefully it won’t be just me who’s transported back in time.

  1. It’s reasonable to assume that every child will frequently ask ‘What’s for tea?’ (or dinner, if you’re posh or just plain wrong). My parents never seemed to tire of not giving me the correct answer. As a pair they seemed to have one stock, prepared answer each; a personal favourite, if you like. Firstly, my mam would regularly reply to said question with ‘Shit, with sugar on’. Often, if he was around my dad would then add to this nonsense by informing, in a posh voice ‘but divinely cooked.’ His own answer, for the times mam wasn’t around or found herself too busy to answer was to tell me that it was Dried bread , jammed in the door.’ Hilariously here, not only was the bread stale, but he was insinuating that the nearest I’d get to jam was to stick it in the door. I didn’t even like jam! It’s safe to say that I was often a confused child around meal times and as a fussy eater, disappointed too.  Why wouldn’t they just tell me the answer? And why, oh why give such a bizarre response. Frankly, if Childline had been around when I was growing up, I think I’d have had more than enough reason to give them a call.
  2. Closely linked to number one is the fact that because my mam didn’t like to swear in front of us (apart from when she was giving a witty answer to the tea question) she’d often substitute words for swear words, especially when exclaiming in frustration or anger. The stupidest I can remember is her habit of saving our delicate ears from foul language by shouting ‘Tish’. It’s a tough one, but can you guess what she was really wanting to say?
  3. A stone cold favourite, possibly in every house up and down the land next. Imagine the scene. You’re out in a shop, possibly you’ve been in many more than just the one. At some point you will have seen something that takes your fancy. Tired out, bored and probably fed up, you forget manners and exclaim ‘I want insert item here’. What were you told? Altogether now, ‘I want never gets!’ Every. Single. Time. And always said with total and utter enthusiasm and smug self satisfaction.
  4. Another that has caused much beffudlement over the years comes from a different source, but a parent all the same. This one comes from my wife’s late grandmother who was as Yorkshire as they come. When I first noticed her using this expression she had got to that age that some people get to where they no longer care what people think of them or what they’re saying and so this expression would come out in all sorts of places, to the amusement and sometimes mock embarrassment of my wife. I never knew what it meant or even, it transpires, what was being said. It was only in thinking about this blog and doing some loose sort of research that my wife explained it. The expression in question was ‘warn o’ my arse’. Warn would have been pronounced waaaaan, by the way. Apparently it means ‘worse than my backside’. So when someone would ask her what she thought of something, Nelly (the grandma in question) would often – just it seems for the fun of it – reply ‘warn o’ my arse’. So, for example a meal might be ‘worse than my arse’. Charming.
  5. A response to the question ‘What’s up?’ was always one that left me frustrated. It showed how desperately uncool my parents were. So to place you at the scene, so to speak, imagine a young lad asking his dad ‘What’s up?’ It may have been a question of concern or just one making a general enquiry. Either way, let’s see it as the intended starter of a conversation, remembering that it’s good to talk. So imagine the mounting teenage angst when the response to my ‘What’s up?’ was regularly, ‘The sky…do you want it down to play with?’ My response of a groan, a thousand yard stare and leaving for another room probably said a lot about my relationship with my dad!
  6. My dad however, provides the final two of the memorable things my parents used to say. This particular one is one I’ve to this day never been able to explain. My dad has explained it but it still makes no sense at all. Let’s try it for size, shall we? If you ever got something wrong and tried to explain your mistake away by saying that ‘I though it was…’ you’d be met with the following. ‘You know what Thought did, don’t you? Followed a shit cart and thought it was a wedding.’ Poor old Thought. Left with so many questions, not least ‘What on God’s green earth is a shit cart?’ And let’s not even think about the wedding in question.
  7. Finally comes a tale of short trousers. And by short trousers, I don’t mean shorts. I mean trousers that are too short. Half masters we call them. A boy on my street was notorious for his short trousers. He just never seemed to have jeans that reached down to his shoes. And so, whenever he walked past the window he was like a magnet for my dad and one of his favourite expressions. Dad never seemed to tire of telling us that Jamie needed to ‘put some jam on his shoes and invite his trousers down for tea.’ Much to the embarrassment of my own kids, I have adopted this particular phrase and still use it to this day.

So there we have it. Parents, especially mine, are a curious breed who at times have a language of their own that appears to be mainly made up of absolute nonsense. Feel free to leave any of your own parent’s sayings in the comments box or let me know via Twitter, where I’m @grahamcrosby and Middle Age Fanclub.