Apparently, writing rhyming poetry is extremely passe and if you write poems that rhyme you’re basically Ronald Macdonald with a pen. No forget about John Betjemen and Anne Sexton and William Shakespeare, they’re all dead. Shut up, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy are… shut up. If your poetry rhymes, why don’t you just admit that you’re a *dirty word* children’s author or something, frittering away your meaningless hours writing Please Mrs Butler doggerel, rhyme is stupid.
So I tried, with today’s poetry prompt, to avoid rhyme. Not actually for the reasons above but because I realise I might rely on it a little as a crutch and it may be masking other failings. And also, I guess, because you should try and be open minded in life.
The poetry prompt I picked today was:
A poem of four quatrains that contain no adjectives, no adverbs, no similes, and the word “wren.’ Alternating lines of eight and ten syllables.
Ok, four quatrains, check.Alternating lines of 8 and 10 syllables, check. The word wren? No, it felt crowbarred (wrenbarred?) in. I managed no adverbs or adjectives or similes until the final quatrain, at which point I broke all the rules and RHYMED TOO, YEAH SO WHAT.
This is a poem about my granddad, the tone of which is probably a little discordant with the tone of this intro.
I go to see her now and then
to have the kettle on by six pm
to share an hour in chattering
presided over by the mantle clock .
which forms a timeline that reaches
back in quarter hours chimed since I was small
when Nana heard and walked and laughed
and my Granddad’s presence still warmed the house. .
Sooner or later, he comes up.
‘When we went to bed that night, he was fine!
He woke up. Arm ache. Ambulance.
Touched his hand. Bye love. That was it! The end!.’ .
I quietly admire the truth:
my granddad’s departure was smoothly done.
He spent no time waiting for death,
but went to bed still living; woke up gone.
Below is a piece of writing I submitted in the second year of my BA at the University of East Anglia.
For a few years around that time I worked at a hospital during the holidays, serving tea and coffee to patients and plating up their dinners. I wrote the following based on my experiences with the patients on those wards. At the time, I was fascinated by the realisation that at the end of life, we all start looking and acting the same. We come in to the world as identikit yowling babies and we go out of it as identikit OAPs in hospital gowns. More or less. It was a pretty tragic realisation.
Even worse: I realised that as identity appears to fade with age, so does everybody else’s memory that we were ever anything other than grey, wrinkled and probably a little confused. When my granddad developed Alzheimer’s and his personality changed quite drastically, we all found it hard to remember what a hero he had been to the whole family for all those years previous. When he died, all of those memories came back. But imagine how much harder that must be for a nurse working 12 hour shifts, never having known the younger versions of their patients. But life must go on.
I haven’t edited the story at all after re-reading it just now, so although the recollections still seem interesting to me I think the construction of it is a bit lacking. I’d like to clarify that I’ve since learned to use a semi-colon and start less of my sentences with pronouns. Thanks, 90’s Labour government for your grammar-sparse curriculum which resulted in me learning these things as a teacher in my twenties.
P.S. I got a first for this. Bitches.
It was a Monday evening in August that I first met Sarah. The sticky warmth of the day lingered in the cramped hospital air so that my pinstripe bib and waist high work trousers clung uncomfortably. It was a race as usual to find my clock-in card as the little dial flickered from 16:59 to 17:00, but I stamped it in time, absentmindedly pulling a green mop head from the bucket marked ‘clean’ in the corner of the office. “Ward Nine, ‘Elderly Medicine’!” My supervisor barked at me, ticking my name off on her clipboard.
Six shifts this week. I emptied sachets of custard powder, gravy powder and soup mix into plastic jugs. I’d perfected the technique a long time ago; an inch or so of cold water, whisk out the lumps, top it up with boiling water, whisk until it’s a little too thin. The custard especially seems to thicken and clog in the serving jug as it sits on the cold trolley, being poured in school dinner lumps over strawberry whips and slabs of jelly. Six shifts. One hundred and eighty patients. One hundred and eighty dinners and puddings. One hundred and eighty lots of “would you like a cup of tea Basil/Ivy/Edna/Joseph?” That’s one funny thing about the hospital; it’s populated by a different generation, a testament to a pocket of fashion that’s long expired, when Jeans and Marys were the height of vogue. Another thing is the food. ‘Liver and onions’ is probably the most popular meal on the menu but ‘lamb balti’ always goes untouched, left to be furtively prodded at by hungry nurses as they complain about it threatening their bikini diets.
I wheeled my cold trolley into the corridor and an auxiliary nurse came to help, belting on a plastic green apron. “What’s the first pudding then love? I’ll plate it up for you.” I read the name on the menu, ‘Jean Patterson’, neatly printed in block capitals. I asked the nurse for a yoghurt as I ladled soggy cauliflower cheese onto a heated plate, a spoonful of greying peas, a scoop of mashed potato. I piled it onto a plastic tray with a menu and a cutlery set.
“Mrs Patterson?” I called, and stepped into the bay. Four women were lying in portable beds, all wearing the same thin white nightdress, ‘PROPERTY OF GOOD HOPE HOSPITAL’ printed at the neckline. They all lay tucked to their necks under matching blue blankets, silent and milky eyed. They stared into space, out of the window, at their blankets. I looked at the white boards strapped to the foot of each bed. Sylvia, Bertha, Hilda, Joan. “Hi Joan I’ve got your dinner for you here!” I chimed brightly. The visitor at her side looked up and reached for the tray with a conservative smile. “Thank you nurse.” She had the prim tone of a private school headmistress. I might have corrected her on my job title but she carried on. “Nurse, do you think that you could get us an extra side plate please? We’ll have a go with this hot meal but she is ever so stubborn with her eating and I’m hoping to try her on some tomato sandwiches, we seem to have more luck with those.” I didn’t think people like Sarah existed, I’d always presumed that they were a fictional construct reserved for 1950’s piano teachers and horse breeders. It made me wonder what Joan had been like as a mother, if she’d been as stern and proper as Sarah before she’d become the meekly mute, confused little woman that lay in bed four, bay twelve.
Sarah’s olive skirt was heavy tweed that reached her ankles when she stood to take the plate that I’d fetched. She was as grey as her mother, assuming Joan was her mother. But while Sarah’s hair was coarse and neatly trimmed into a bob, Joan’s formed sparse cotton wool like tufts that seemed to cushion her fragile head on the stiff hospital pillow. Sarah never actually told me her name. I only know now because I saw a note on Joan’s bedside table one day, a brief line on crisp letter writing paper in the same tidy print as on Joan’s menus. ‘I’ve a dentist’s appointment this evening so I shan’t be in until around seven. See you then, Sarah.’ I listened to her as I plated up meals for the other three women in the bay, stiffly recounting everything she’d done that day while unwrapping the cling film bound sandwiches, cutting them diagonally into quarters. “Come on now” I heard her say as I pushed my trolley back down the corridor, “let’s see if we can have some tomato sandwiches. It’s the bread you used to use so you should like them. Come on then, hey?”
Tuesday, and I was on ward nine again. In the kitchen I listened to music through headphones to drown out the erratic bleeping of machinery, trundling through the same routine. Apron, hair net, custard, gravy, soup. Set up the cold trolley, set up the hot trolley, check temperatures, check menus. I started on wing one and took Peter a beef and horseradish sandwich on white bread with a bowl of strawberry jelly and blancmange. He’d been sheepish the day before following a bed wetting incident but that day he winked at me and grinned as I set down his tray. “If you were my girl, I’d tell the whole world I had the prettiest doll in town!” He announced, smoothing down the starchy sleeves of his cyan hospital pyjamas. I grinned back and called him a charmer.
On the other end of the ward I heard Sarah before I saw her, that same firm tone spilling out into the corridor, forming a familiarly one sided conversation with Joan. “I got up this morning and did a little gardening to sort out those marigolds that the slugs had been at and then I had to pop down to the Co-op to fetch some flour so I could make a crumble with those blackberries Alice gave me from her garden. I cleaned the upstairs bathroom and put a wash on and then Susan called me – she’s going to Cornwall next week so I’m going to pop over and see her tomorrow afternoon on the way here and lend her a couple of Eric’s walking guides. So then I made you some tomato sandwiches and drove over here. You can have them in a minute when the lady makes you your tea, now let’s see if we can get some of this cooked dinner down you. Shepherd’s pie today, now let’s have a few mouthfuls, hey? Come on now don’t be silly, you’ll have one more mouthful. Here we go then let’s try you on a tomato sandwich. It’s your favourite isn’t it? Come on then, good girl, well done.” For some reason I wanted to impress Sarah, with her smart blazer and bossy tone, so I made Joan a milky tea in a lidless beaker and without sugar, hoping that Sarah would appreciate my remembering. “Thank you nurse.” She said, with a measured tone. I didn’t like to correct her by then.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Ward Nine had become my regular ward. I started to look forward to hearing Irene talk about something she’d seen on the news, and to seeing Walter in bay three. He’d struggled to pronounce words since his second stroke, but always clapped me, wild eyed and wide grinned, when I brought him his sugary black coffee in a beaker. In bay one the stench of urine flamed in my nostrils, and I tried to breathe through my mouth as I stood by Roy’s bed. One spoonful of thickener Roy?” I asked him brightly as I stirred his tea to the consistency of custard. He didn’t answer, but I hadn’t expected him to. I’d never heard Roy speak. He stared at me, expressionless, hand outstretched. On his arm I saw a tapestry of tattoo’s, indecipherable beneath his wrinkled flesh. I tried to imagine Roy as a young man, having tattoos inked across taut young arms, having passion enough to want something indelibly marked on his person. I wished Roy could remember it, as he mechanically sucked the thickened tea through a straw.
I signed myself up for seven shifts the next week. A few patients had gone home. Hilda in bay twelve with the permanently wan smile and a German lilt to her accent that reminded me of a grandmother from a Roald Dahl story. Jasper in bay three, who couldn’t bear to be clothed. He’d moved to another ward. Joan was still there though, still quiet and confused, murmuring shy questions about where she was and what she’d done wrong. When she asked me and the nurses we awkwardly pretended not to hear, but Sarah would answer her like a primary school teacher, patronising but patient. “Now you know that, you’re here to get better. None of this silliness about doing something wrong, it’s just the way, hey?”
I went and spoke to Matilda in bay five, who was excited about some teabags her husband had left her. She read out the labels, seemingly amused by the exotic flavours. “Look at this then, lemon and ginger! Can I try that?” I dispensed hot water into a cup while she giggled, lifting each box in turn. “Peppermint! Well that’s not so bad. Would you look at this nurse? Blackcurrant Zinger! Well now I’ve heard it all.” I’d got on well with Matilda at first. Her extensive vocabulary and newsreader diction had reminded me of my favourite teacher at school. It had also led me to assume that Matilda’s ailment was physical, but the week before she’d surprised me. As I took her her tea she’d beckoned me down and muttered, “nurse, are you aware of this conspiracy?” I’d laughed at first but she stared at me stonily, waiting for my response. “I know most of the nurses are in on it but I’m not sure about you, what do you make of it?” I laughed again nervously, and told her I was sure she’d got it wrong. As I pushed the trolley out, she called to me “just give it some thought, nurse!” One of the auxiliaries pulled me aside later and told me that Matilda had dementia, and was deteriorating rapidly. “She’s a little upset today chick, best to just humour her”. She’d been her normal self ever since, perfectly lucid. But I could never bring myself to talk to her properly again.
That Thursday I brushed past Sarah as I walked onto the ward. She gave me a flustered nod as we passed, stuffing cling filmed tomato sandwiches into a heavy looking linen bag on her shoulder. It was maybe half an hour later that I reached Joan’s menu, but before I could check it the auxiliary took it from my hands. “She’s gone love.” She said, stuffing it into the bin. My mind went blank for a moment. “Gone?” “Yeah sorry love I should have gone through and checked. Oh and Elsie’s nil-by-mouth now so chuck hers while I’m thinking about it.” I peered into the bay and there it was. Joan’s bed, empty and remade. Her name board had been wiped clean and the usual pile of empty tablet cups and unused swabs had been tidied from her bedside table. “Oh.” I couldn’t bring myself to ask what ‘gone’ meant, and I couldn’t detect anything in the nurse’s voice. I heard myself making an excuse about having forgotten Bertha’s soup beaker – she wouldn’t eat it out of a bowl – and ran to the kitchen.
As I pushed through the heavy double doors a dry sob escaped from my throat and my face started to burn. Gone. Had Sarah looked sad? She’d been flustered but maybe she was just hurrying to another ward, or helping Joan to get her things home. But Joan wasn’t ready to go home. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to recall the image of Sarah walking past me. Was there a tear in her eye? Had they been glistening a little more than usual? I was sure her cheeks had been a little redder but perhaps not. What about the tomato sandwiches? Why was she holding them? I didn’t know. I still don’t know. After a minute or so I opened my eyes and took a deep breath. I picked up a beaker from the tea trolley and walked back into the corridor. With my most cheerful sing-song voice and my hospital smile, I said “right then! Here’s Bertha’s soup, shall we see if she’ll have a bit of jelly too?” And we carried on.
Here’s a short story I wrote last year having read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a collection of magical realist short stories. It made me interested in stretching the boundaries of possibility and not making a big deal of it.
Some of the story comes from personal experience. Most importantly, the manner of my granddad’s death and the unexpected calmness of my Nana’s reaction to it. I thought about how open and adaptable the human mind can be, which is where the premise of the story comes from.
I’m part way through writing a collection of short stories which all attempt to mull on this theme. It is best summed up by the lovely illustration below from one of my favourite authors: Kurt Vonnegut.
Alone, but for the dog
It was an unfortunate series of events that had left June, deep in the throes of Dementia, alone but for the dog. Her husband Jack had just begun to notice the warning signs. Two weeks ago June had poured them both a nightcap but, instead of the usual glug of Glenfiddich, June had brought two tumblers brim-full of clear liquor. Jack had only to smell it from the tray to know that it was Pernod – the aniseed stench was petrol station heavy. But before the confusion had registered in his brain, June, a sipper by nature, had swilled the lot. Her eyes were glistening. ‘My father introduced me to real single malt whisky. None of this Jack Daniels shit the kids are drinking these days. It’s for the dogs’. June did not usually swear. Nor did she usually denigrate dogs. The dog was on the sofa within earshot of the insult but said nothing.
The Pernod had been living quite happily in the liquor cabinet for almost a decade now. It had been put out to pasture after the last meeting of their bridge club, which had dissolved on account of all the death and sickness which had come with being a club of septuagenarians. Jack and June did not drink Pernod. They didn’t like it. They liked Glenfiddich.
A week after the Pernod incident Jack died suddenly. He had woken in the night half way through a heart attack and within an hour or so he was gone. Most of the time, June still felt quite lucid (and the rest of the time she thought she did). She was clear-headed and composed as she traipsed through the motions of Dealing With The Death Of A Spouse, although it was really quite a blow. Having outlived all of their friends and having not produced offspring, Jack and June had been all alone in the world. Now June was completely alone. Alone, that is, but for the dog.
Being alone but for the dog might have been a problem for an old lady with Dementia, had the day of Jack’s funeral not also been the day that the dog decided to start talking.
June had been the only funeral attendant – an unpleasant but not uncommon fact of life for eighty-three year olds. Afterwards, as she clicked the front door shut behind her, she prepared herself with a deep breath for the first moment of domestic life post-Jack. It was to be her first evening as the sole resident of their sixty year marital home. She spent a moment in the doorway, not ready to enter the living room and see Jack’s empty chair. June contemplated the tragic inevitability of her future. People think that with old age marriage becomes a tale of companionship. They imagine that old people don’t experience desire once they cease to incite it. In the doorway, June briefly lamented the fact that she would never be kissed again. Desire, for June, had lived and died with Jack.
Wilbur was a Great Dane with black spots on sleek white fur. Six foot three when standing on his hind legs, he was named ironically after the runt piglet in Charlotte’s Web. When June found him in the living room after the funeral he was wearing a grey tweed suit of Jack’s with a powder pink shirt and braces. When June walked in, he furrowed his brow sympathetically. “How was it, June?”
June blinked and stared at Wilbur. He paused and then walked to the liquor cabinet. “Let me get you a drink” he said fraternally, pouring out two generous portions of Glendfiddich. “I’m joining you on the whisky if you don’t mind.” He winked at June as he handed her the glass. “Pernod’s for the cats”. June took the Glenfiddich and spoke at last. “You can talk!” It was a predictable thing to say but, considering the circumstances, reasonable. “Can we skip this part and start having fun?” Asked Wilbur, smiling. June sipped her Glenfiddich and nodded slowly. After a few moments she grinned and asked: “Who’s your favourite author?” Wilbur laughed. He had always been a great fan of June’s open minded nature. “Tolstoy, but I mainly like his short stories. I’ve not read Anna Karenina which I think makes me a bad Tolstoy fan. Do you like Bukowski?”
That evening June stayed up until 11pm: it was her latest bedtime in years. She and Wilbur were having so much fun. She read aloud to him her favourite excerpts from Anna Karenina and he recited his favourite Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice. They laughed fitfully rifling through June’s old lipsticks and eye shadows and giving each other makeovers. June’s arthritis and Wilbur’s lack of opposable thumbs made their efforts equally ridiculous. Wilbur tried to recreate a montage fashion parade such as one might see in a teen movie. He put some Eighties Madonna on the Hi-Fi and bounded in and out of Jack’s wardrobe in various comical combinations, but ended up getting his head stuck in a turtleneck and eating a moccasin shoe in overexcitement.
When they were tired Wilbur made some cocoa and they built a fort from blankets and cushions to snuggle in and share favourite memories of Jack. If you’re wondering at this point whether Wilbur’s intentions were anything but honourable then put the idea out of your mind. Wilbur was a dog, remember, and a neutered one at that. Besides, he knew as well as you and I do that June’s understanding of romance lived and died with Jack. Wilbur knew it instinctively but you should know better; I told you only a few paragraphs ago. The new sleeping arrangement was undeniably symbiotic though. Dogs love blanket forts and old ladies love to be the little spoon.
Three weeks later June followed Jack to the land of peace and conclusions. She was in the garden deadheading marigolds while Wilbur recited The Owl and The Pussycat to her, substituting ‘dog’ for ‘owl’ and ‘OAP’ for ‘pussycat’. June was giggling and sprinkling the flower heads onto the springy grass at her knees as a warm feeling, normally associated with drinking red wine at lunchtime, spread dizzily through her. Gently she lay among the marigold heads and smiled her final smile up at Wilbur, who smiled softly back and bellowed jovially, “Go forth, Titania!”
The dog barked for an hour before a frustrated neighbour peered over the fence and saw the scene: a gaunt, wild haired old lady, lying dead in the grass wearing nothing but a stained nightdress, next to a distressed and lonely dog.
The death certificate cited malnutrition as the cause of June’s death but, had she or the dog been able to share the truth, the world would have known that she had died of happiness.