A Cold February Day at the Seaside

Big fat flakes of snow fell this morning promising the beauty of a white valley. But came to nowt.

We went instead to the seaside. North Berwick. A beautiful East Coast village just down the Forth from Edinburgh. Bijoux boutiques and coffee shops and galleries. And then an expanse of cold sea and sand that looked golden in the low sunlight.

Ana tucked into a creamy whipped ice-cream. Robert and I sipped our hot coffees (mine a mocha). And we walked down the length of shore picking up seaweeds and driftwood and glossy sea-smooth pebbles.

Ana – North Berwick 23/02/2013

Ana – scoffing a 99 cone.

North Berwick – seasports on a cold sea

view out across the Forth – harbour entrance – North Berwick

‘Dad’s going to steal my cone’…

The view from the seabird sanctuary down the shore road – North Berwick


To be or not to be

There’s been horizontal snow all day with the wind battering the sash and case windows so they are all rattling to come in on us – every gap whistling with gusts that are making this living room bite with cold.

I’ve been too lazy to fetch the coal from Mum and Dad’s cellar. And the scuttle is full of apple cores and orange peels and sweet papers instead. 15 minutes more. That’s all. Then I’ll don my wellies and waterproof and go fetch.

I’m off today. The kids are at home too as there’s an in-service for their teachers.

In fact I’ve been off since last Friday. The February break has been a welcome one.

The job is neither good nor bad. I seem (wisely but unusually for me) to have suspended all feeling or judgement in respect of it. It’s a job. And that’s probably as damning as I can permit myself to be as I’ve never had ‘just a job’ before.

I do my best. Some cases are interesting. I cling to those which will push or challenge me. But in all honesty none of it is brain surgery or rocket science or – even what I did before. I help people keep their jobs – or help them to an accommodation with reality. Aside from that I simply get on. I’ve even found myself thinking of holidays and planning my year around them. That’s definitely new to me.

I am applying to study at Strathclyde University. That’s something good. An MSc in Mediation and Conflict Resolution. Sounds like one of those made-up courses full of nonsense words and gobbledy-gook. But I’ve read through the course outline and recognise the high calibre of some of the teachers. I gained accreditation as a mediator a while back – so this course will build on that. And in the world in which I work the qualification will be very useful – or rather, the skills which I learn will be very useful. Invaluable perhaps. Which can only be good for my employability. That’s a new reason for me to do any further study or learning – I’ve never paid a blind bit of notice to what would make me ‘more saleable’. Ugh. But in this case, I suppose it is true.

I’m also considering putting myself through the candidate selection process for my political party of choice. I’ve half-filled the application. Then I’ve simply fence-sat. Which doubt may well be my answer…

Thing is – I’ve a list of reasons why I shouldn’t do it. But since when have I done what I should do?

MP or MSP? Mmmm.

Come back for a coffee?

Go on through, he said.
Ignore my Dad.

I walk through Ishtar’s gate. The first.

To expressive dysphasia
a slittered seemit
a flaccid penis exposed and vulnerable in his lap,
I enter unto Babel:
Talking book; Wagnerian rabble; the tv blaring.

I was not aware of shedding that first layer.

I thought instead of Brahma astride the swan.
Silenced the clamour in my heart.
Suppressed the urge to understand
And by imperfect comprehension, judge.

I do not see the penis when I light his cigarette.

We masquerade as conversationalists
Each inhalation substituting for a word,
whole sentences, a paragraph,
A dialogue of smoke.

Later, when the child is moored within,
When we two share the same cramped space,
When your son disappears to work,
And your sisters come with their
Good intentions

We stare at one another with dismay.

What must come.

We sort silently through belongings
Sift through left-behinds,
Of last days.

Turning sweet papers and tissues and odd socks over in our hands
Pausing, sightless as though at rare finds.

Here is the throw-away razer
Clotted with skin and blood and hair
Here are your teeth, in pink, in the dish.

We thought you were Lazarus.
That last time, here, our
Vigils lashed your slender line of life
To our still insistent blood and pulse.

Willed into living.

That we could resent again
Your mess and phlegm and
Our weary self-reproach.
Forget the pain and fear of impending loss.

So here now in this shrouded room
with your stilled body, a trace-less cardiac screen
The sounds of magpies gathering
We clasp one another against what must come.

A Child Again

Tethered to that bed.
Burdened by dying.
Age-hardened veins silting. Staining

Capillary bed and blackening skin from toe-tip,
up through shin and thigh and hip.
Diluted only by the saline drip, drip, drip,
ticking in time to the ward clock
and the oxygen feed.

Face tight muzzled by the mask.
Flesh swollen, hard-bitten, by thick black straps.

There is now the desperate need for acts of caring.
A glycerine swab for parched lips and cracked, swollen tongue.

My husband removes his father’s mask. Gently. Stroking and kissing the strap indents across his misshapen face
and death comes now in chain-stoking pauses fracturing our living.

Is there a protocol for this?
What must be done? Should be done?
I fuss with washing, brought fresh with us, in the rush from home to hospital.
Here are the pyjamas, bought in the daylight when he was alive and with intent.
Here are the unguents he enjoyed.
But with which we now anoint.

The doors twitch and open and nurses come with empty hands.
With professional pity and platitudinous glance.

There is the coughing of old men, whose time is not yet, from beyond the island we have made for ourselves in this glassed-off periphery.

We are not of any world I know. This twilight before dawn, when the breath grows harder to draw and life ebbs to its lowest.

This is the time for last words.

I love you. Please don’t die. Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.

And I watch my husband become a child again.

At 5.30am we leave that place for the last time.
My husband turns to me and says, plaintive in a child’s voice

I am an orphan now.

And weeps.

Just another average night…

Ma and Da dropped in on their way home. They’d visited the old home town the night before. Been at the Club. A showband belting out Queen.

I could’ve sworn it was Freddie singin’  burbled Mum. It was so loud I could’ve sworn I was about to have a heart attack. 

She protested but a bottle of cheap bubbly Pinot Grigio was found and opened. Old family photos were conjured online from Ma’s cousin who’s conveniently laid out his photographic genealogy on Facebook.

My maternal grandfather John Phillips with his sisters Jean and Peggy circa 1924 and again, with his mother too, circa 1965 (courtesy of Great Aunt Peggy’s big box of family photographs)

All this time Da had been shifting from foot to foot, coughing and refusing food offerings. He wanted home. He was starving but he’d eye-balled the house curry and rice with deep disgust. Finally, realising Ma was not for shifting, he scooted up to the Chippie for a Fish Supper for himself.

Freed from Dad’s fidgeting and her dinner-making duty, Ma relaxed. Unwound. Started to tell her midweek tale of ‘Mrs Repression from Across the Landing and Things That Go Bump in the Night’.

Repression is a middle-aged born-again virgin. Got herself a rebound shagger 23 years ago; held onto him long enough to get pregnant and then he did the dirty and found someone who didn’t sellotape her nipples down to prevent them showing through her jumpers. (She told me this one long, unfortunate night shortly after I’d moved into the village).

Repression lives across the landing from Ma and Pa.

She’s odd. says Ma. But she’s a good neighbour.

Ma means that she’s quiet and keeps a clean house.

In fact, Repression is an invisible neighbour. Aside from the annual bottle of ‘thank you for cleaning the communal stairs’ wine – which simply materialises on Ma and Pa’s doorstep every Xmas morning – you’d never know she existed.

Slugging a deep draft of the fizzy, Ma settled to her tale.

It was Wednesday. 3 o’clock. I wis wide awake because a hid restless legs and I was ready to kill yer father for his snoring. Ye know whit he’s like. You’ve heard it. That snoring. 

Nods to Evan. Aye son. They laugh. Whit wis it you ca’d it? 

Aye. Hog-Shoos. We all laugh at that memory. Evan at 18 months trying to tell me what his Daddy had been doing when I was out. Then shouting loud HOG-SHOOS HOG-SHOOS. Hours later when Robert fell asleep, it made sense. Snore on the in-breath and snore on the out. Join it together. To anyone with even just a fraction poetry in their ears it sounds like Hog-Shoooooo.

Ma supped some more wine and resumed.

Well, a hid punched him but he wis still snoring. So a thot (rolling her eyes to heaven) jist get up Mary, jist git up and make yerself some tea. So a did. A got up and rose and fetched my new housecoat. 

(Aye I got it last Saturday when we wur shopping. Aye, from that Marks and Spencers outlet in Livingston.)

So. Anyway. Before yer Mother so rudely interrupted me (she pointedly winked at Evan) Tae cut a long story short, I got up. That bloody animal was still lying there snoring. Didnae even notice a’d left the bed. Then a went through to the hall and into the kitchen and put on the kettle. Yer father’s still got paint tins oot of course and I nearly killed maself because he doesnae know the meaning of putting things away safely. Anyway. Tae cut a long story short a wis standing at the sink rinsing oot ma favourite mug (ye know how a like that Oceania mug) when there wis this, well, this and at this she’s casting her eyes about searching for the word she wants This Noise.

Dramatic pause.

And at that minute, from the hallway or from the bowels of the basement, came the most almighty grunting growling groaning animal sound. An almighty, loud, growling gurgling grunting. Snorting syllables resolving finally into a distinct: Hoooooooogg-Shoooooooooo.

Evan started to giggle. He started to laugh. He snorted his juice from his nose which made us all laugh. He stood up from the table and held his sides and bent double and from the wheezing laughs it sounded like he’d forgotten how to breath.

Between laughs, I stood up and bellowed.

JAAMIEEEEEEE…. you little bastard! Come-up-this-stairs-and-say-you’re-sorry!

And Jamie, the truly tricky one, appeared in the doorway.

Aye Mamie said he That Noise, Mamie?

That’d be Papa’s SNORING Mamie. And then we all laughed. And Mamie didn’t get to finish her tale until much later because Papa arrived with his fish supper and they descended upon him and it like locusts.


“To cut a long story short…” 

The noise was a banging and grunting and growling which was coming from the communal loft. Ma roused Da and they stalked the flat fruitlessly searching for a sound-source. They went to bed again and settled into their nocturnal rhythms. Da snoring. Ma rubbing her restless legs. 

Then came the door-taps. Gentle at first. Then loud, insistent. Then a wailing from the communal landing. Then Da pushed out of sleep and stumbling around in the dark; feeling his way to the door, where he stood, naked as the day he was born, holding his willy and (Mum says) whispering into the door.

It was Repression. Da, shocked into awake-ness shouted ‘Eh? It’s you? You want me? Sorry hen. A’ll gist be a minute. You’ll need tae wait tae a git sum claes oan’. 

Ma got up too. Da shoved on trousers and top but forgot his teeth, so when he finally opened the door – to a distraught Repression – he spent the whole time lisping and with one hand across his face. Having made sense of Repression and her wailing, the band of three (Repression in pyjamas; Ma in her new M&S housecoat and Da sans teeth) trooped into Repression’s flat. Where they spent the next hour, ooohing and aaahing over the strange noises coming from directly above Repression’s bedroom. 

Da checked the heating and the pipes. Having fallen 8 ft from out of the loft last year he drew the line at climbing the ladders offered to him. Eventually, at 5.30am,  they decided that there was no bomb or gas pipe or water tank waiting to explode and took their weary leave of one another. They were too tired to worry about being killed in their sleep by anything, never mind a mains gas collapse or exploding tank and resolved only to call the plumber in the morning.

Next day the Frood man was called. Frood is a Lanark institution. He listened to the noise. He went up and down the stairs from the communal basement boiler to the flat. He carried large clanky hitting tools said Ma. He cocked his head and made his own noises. ‘Ahhhhh’ he said. ‘Ohhhhh’ he said. After his sixth trip to the boiler and back up the noise stopped. 

Ma asked what had caused it? The noise? Frood tapped his nose and laughed and said ‘Ah. Well Mrs R. That would be a technical matter.’