a rare disease

they opened Alice up
like she was a tin of sardines
or a potential can of worms
no need for surgical face masks
when dealing with the already dead

they peeled back her widow’s skin
rummaged around her used insides
examined the obviously damaged liver
and wondered at the black gases
that emanated a smell of melancholia

the coroner told his assistant that:
neurological symptoms began with
subtle changes in mental acuity,
mild memory loss, poor reasoning ability
and irritability – he went on:

these symptoms become more severe
eventually progressing to delirium,
suicidal tendencies and coma
his assistant couldn’t stop himself weeping
and noticed too the coroner shedding a tear

here, take a scalpel and grab a leg
we’ll make incisions from belly to tippy toes
then saw open the top of her head
to release the rest of those melancholic gases
that keep her spirit from resting in peace

they set to work to free her corpse
from the devilment that lurked within
and all the while they breathed the black gas
the tears ran down their starched white gowns
a rare disease mused the men in unison

when their work was finally done
Alice Mary neatly stitched back up
never to know how far her story would spread
from London to Belfast, Swansea, Scotland
syndicated for all to read

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Alice Mary Thomas was my great-grandmother. She was from a family of railway tunnel miners and had spent much of her childhood living in squalid navvy shanty huts around the country. The Thomas family would have met and known my Hill ancestors from working at one or more of these mining projects. Alice married my great-grandfather Alfred William Hill in 1888. Their first two daughters died very young, possibly as a result of the Russian flu epidemic in the 1890’s. The family finally settled in the Lambeth district of London where Alfred died in 1920 aged 53 and Alice in 1929 aged 59. I recently discovered this story about Alice’s death whilst searching the British Newspaper Archives for articles relating to my wider family history. I was previously aware that she had taken her own life but had no idea about the link to the rare Hanot’s disease or primary biliary cirrhosis as it is better known today. The poem is based on these newspaper reports with some added fictional aspects thrown in for good measure.

Some few years later in 1937, their son Ivan Arthur (my grandfather) died whilst working on the new escalator system at King’s Cross Station in London after falling down an access shaft.

Alice Mary’s sister Louise Thomas found her way out of relative poverty and hardship by becoming the governess to the de Havilland family where she met and fell in love with the aviator Geoffrey de Havilland. They married in 1909 and she shared many of his early flying exploits. They had three sons, two of which were test pilots who died carrying out their work – events which she never fully recovered from. In 1944, five years before her death, her husband was knighted and she became Lady ‘Louie’ de Havilland. But that’s another story . . .

 

 

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Peter and the banker

you’re not smiling now said Peter to the banker
as he turned him away from the gates he guarded
who do you think you are turning up here
with a champagne bottle in one hand
and a frightened young lady clutching the other?

bloody chauffeur wasn’t looking where he was going
said the banker to Peter most mournfully.
he caused the crash that killed me and the blonde
I see you let the chauffeur in ahead of us
so what’s the deal my friend?

the banker offered Peter a wad of notes
but Peter was looking over his shoulder
nodding to an elderly gent to come on through
freshly arrived from a Swiss clinic
beaming with gratitude at being accepted

Jesus Christ said the banker
this is worse than getting into a London nightclub
don’t you know who I am and how much I’m worth?
for heaven’s sake I have an OBE
for services to banking and the financial sector

yes I know who you are said Peter
removing the hospital tubes from a young girl’s arm
and opening the gate for her to go through
yes you’re the one who loaned the money
that destroyed the rainforests

that helped pollute the land and oceans
that forced the innocent poor into destitution
yes you’re the one who took advantage
of those most vulnerable across the world
like your lady friend here upon your arm

who I am pleased to say is most welcome to proceed
which she did with a smile and a wave
disappearing into the white dry ice cloud beyond
the banker tried to follow her but Peter held him back
without appearing to lay a hand upon him

if you wouldn’t mind taking the stairs over there
keep walking down and someone will meet you
I’m afraid it’s policy to only allow in those
who have overall made good with their lives
and as you can see I am very busy

the banker shuffled off mumbling under his breath
followed by a politician and a military general
Peter sighed and wondered would they ever learn
these selfish humans consumed by greed and hate
wouldn’t it be easier to just all get along?

a death in a zen garden

she found him next to Buddha and his two attendants
arms and legs outstretched like a beached starfish

the gravel had been freshly raked to outline his body
an unlikely death scene in a serene zen garden

some say his master had orchestrated his funeral
others that the truth was known only to the willows

but next day his body was gone and the gravel raked
in patterns resembling waves and rippling water

only the words of his poetry and songs were echoed
the meaning of it all concentrated in the ensuing silence

she that had meant everything and nothing to him
taking her own last breath and reaching for his hand

isn’t this the way death dreams our eternal slumber?
on the point of everlasting meditation, of no return?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

sweet wilderness wind

let me sleep in the cleft of your old body
where the sticks and stones will bruise my bones
and the sun will find me between each shadow

it’s where I want to be
it’s the end that I wrote to my story
there where the sagebrush blooms
where the wild horses kick up the prairie dust
and where you’ll find me one day dying

oh come to me sweet wilderness wind
collect your scents and thirsty words
there is no other life for me

no more the traveller I
the poet wanderer no
I’m tired yes
I’m lost and
long grown weary of searching

I lay myself down
stretch myself out
close my tired eyes
pretend I’m comfortable
when all along comfort is no reward
for a sinner

oh come to me sweet wilderness wind
collect your scents and thirsty words
there is no other life for me

 

I was free to dream in Wyoming

I was free to dream in Wyoming
pulled in at the side of the road
considering an epiphany
not a soul in sight
wondering
if I came back here again
would the feeling be the same
the moment and the state of mind
wind dried grasses at the side of the road
silent voices and dark shadows
dizzy under the big sky
thundering of hooves
I look up
there’s no one there
my heartbeat bangs out the seconds
drowns out my whole past
on my knees at the side of the road
consumed by my insignificance
intolerably small
impossible to quantify
my own voice useless against the backdrop
washed into a river bed
herded away by cloud rustlers
I remember thinking
I want to die here
right now
here on this sacred spot
at the side of this road in Wyoming

I was free to dream in Paris

I was free to dream in Paris
when I was a young man
with my head full of ideals
I went looking for the real deal

I was roaming the boulevards
and in the cafés I met poets
and there in the bars I met artists
I went searching for some answers

I was talking to the dead in cemeteries
where mausoleums crumbled
and the paper flowers faded
I went praying to my own truths

I was smoking on the balconies
drinking beer between the daylight
in a hotel down a side street
I went to find my muse under moonlight

I was walking and reading
with a book opened to my mind
lying on grass under glass skies
I went delving in my mind’s eye

I was staring down the river
at grey water slowly moving
knowing also I was passing through
I went knowing I was leaving

I was there for the first time
when I was a young man
and all the world was spinning
I went to ease all the questioning

I was free to dream in Paris
and no-one could tell me not to
not a soul could ever stop me
I went to find my lasting freedom

I was always in my own world
thinking who would come and join me
to be forever dreamers
I went looking for that lover

Yes I was free to dream in Paris
and who could take me back there
oh please take me back there
I went then but now I’m restless

duende

Lorca handed Dylan an Andalusian sunset
the sunset was in the shape of a guitar
and the guitar played gypsy ballads

Lorca handed Dylan a sheet of paper
the words he had written spoke of lovers
and the mountains on which they died

Lorca handed Dylan a host of names
a cast of characters for him to develop
and places where they would unravel

Lorca handed Dylan beauty in sadness
the smell of blood and soil and life
and the heartache between every line

we were sold a lie

we were sold a lie – they told us:
technology will make your lives easier

but instead we forgot how to communicate
and we forgot how to love
and we forgot how to be compassionate

we just kept thinking of ourselves
and all that we could order and consume
and all the places we could Instagram
and all the opinions we could share

and like
and hate
and invent

until the lie became normalised
and the fake became reality

we couldn’t comprehend what they had done
or how our greed had destroyed our lives
how alike we had become
how sad we all were

and it was too late to change
the lie had been cast
our feet were in concrete
we couldn’t move forward or back

we could only push buttons

what can you say?

his old ma fell in love with yet another man
who wasn’t even his pa or secondhand dad
just a third party guy way down the line
who should have known better
who should have stayed the visiting friend
not the constant companion

but hey, what can you say?
what can you say?

and now he finds he is losing out on love
he cannot find the empathy she demands
he wants it all to be over so quickly
he doesn’t even need the inheritance money
only the peace of not having to worry
about what may or might not happen

but hey, what can you say?
what can you say?

he should phone and say hello but he knows
the call will be tainted with negativity
and that’s not what he needs on this sunny day
when one life should not feel trapped by another’s
or feelings of anger welled up to the surface
but hey, what can you say?

what can you say?
what can you say?

life is what you make of it and maybe tomorrow
he will make that call and her spirits will have lifted
as if she has no more cares in the world
which of course will leave him feeling much worse
guilty as charged for being the unloving son
with the uncaring and callous heart

but hey, what can you say?
what can you say?

what can you say?
what can you say?

 

in death

i.

in death we shit only soil
it’s our daily diet of darkness
the hours and minutes are meaningless
light is but a distant memory
we feel the tickle of worms
wending their way between our bones
the weight of the world pressing down on our silence
a grave and lonely eternity

ii.

after that it’s everlasting
and you can never come back
not even on the tail of a comet
as a once in a millennium visitor
your memory will just keep on travelling
fading and fading and fading
until perhaps you reach the end of everything
or the beginning of something else