scotland, winter, 2014
nobody knew what was wrong.
we sat around your bed every night in the vinyl chairs for four
hours that felt like four hundred in our far-from-expert white coats,
hypothesising, googling, guessing – lying, mostly, to ourselves and
i feared your thin; your evaporating legs; the blanket engulfing you;
the mattress you were disappearing into.
the thing was you seemed a little better that night. you even bobbed
your head in time to the jingle of the Cadbury’s chocolate ad blaring
from the telly in the corner of the shared ward.
your cousin tommy came that night.
the chocolate eclair your sort-of-wife brought the day before sat
on your bedside cabinet uneaten, its brown paper bag saturated
in the grease it had leeched. the tube of condensed milk i’d brought
to try to tempt you into eating something sat unsqueezed.
when the bell rang at eight o’clock mum swung her handbag over
her shoulder, leaned in, kissed you on the forehead said we were all off to the pub
did you want to come. only nobody laughed. i rose slowly, tried my best
to look disappointed the four hundred hours were up already, pulled my coat
over the layers of my grief, felt my way into the solitude of my gloves,
tied a scarf around my neck like a hangman’s noose, walked out
of the ward, past the fat bastard snoring, down the sanitised corridor,
pushed my way through the heavy swing doors that keep the fires out
and the sadness in. we stood a while in the car park talking.
your cousin tommy told us you didn’t treat your sort-of-wife very well.
if tommy was saying it, it must have been true.
winter fog purred into the car park, weaved itself around our legs, settled
on our feet like a fat grey cat. bewildered visitors spilled from the hospital’s
infected mouth and into their cars, their yellow fog lamps casting damp shadows
on the empty that filled me.
i stopped off at the pub on my way home with my selfishly flawless health
and perfectly functioning limbs, pulled up a narcissistic armchair by
an indulgent log fire and ordered a self-absorbed gin.
when the waiter brought me my gin you were still alive.
i raised my glass to the man you were, the father you weren’t
and to the health and future it turned out you didn’t have.
it is different to forgetting
there are some things you can never un-know.
it is different to forgetting. the nature of forgetting
is such that one day an image you would prefer
never to see again will possibly re-appear
when you least expect it, like say the image
of your father boarding a jumbo jet at glasgow
international airport, alighting in sydney and showing
up on your doorstep unannounced on an otherwise
ordinary sunday morning.
you will answer the door. against your better judgement
you will invite him into the gentle green paddocks
of the life you have spent the last fifteen years weeding
and mowing, reaping and sowing and although
it will not be his fullest intention, he will silence
the song in the trumpet of your daffodils;
ring the tender necks of your lemon scented
geraniums; drain the tears from the petals of your
but the image i would prefer to un-know would
be that of thomas and i with hector on the vet’s cold floor.
thomas is cradling hector’s head, i am massaging
his mane, both of us are wailing at our own invisible
walls. the vet administers the injection, i hold hector’s
gaze, place the tip of my nose against his and whisper
for him not to be scared. i caress his soft velvet
ears, softly sing him a dog lullaby as though
he were merely leaving us for sleep.
once he was gone thomas pulled a kilometre of paper
towel from the dispenser at the vet’s sink scrunched
it into a ball sunk his wet face into it. the vet stood back,
said he was sorry, handed us another kilometre of towel
before respectfully leaving the room and us alone
with our newly dead boy. i lay down the length of him
told him i had loved him like no other human had ever
loved a dog before which even i know is too big a call.
when the vet came back into the room, although i knew
it was daft, i asked if he was sure that hector was dead.
the vet bent down, gently pulled back hector’s eyelids,
shone a light deep into what were no longer the shining
eyes famous for prising sausages from the melting
hearts of unknown admirers, but the dull opaque
eyes of a whole dead fish displayed
too long on the fishmonger’s slab.
thomas and i got to our feet, readied ourselves
to leave. i took thomas’ hand, walked out of the surgery
and into the car, did what i could to turn the siren
of my wailing down to the correct therapeutic dose.
a few drops in an oil burner is fine.
too much ingested will kill you.
if life is unbearable
1. take one glazed pudding bowl from the high cupboard where you keep the shit you never use.
2. wipe off dust.
3. open drawer.
4. take out non-slip mat so bowl does not slip.
5. cast your eye upon the folded floral apron that reminds you of the victoria sponges and warm kitchens of your youth.
6. close drawer.
7. enter walk-in pantry, lean back against wall, exhale. excavate self for motivation to move on to step 8. (consider heavy plant and earth moving equipment.)
8. pull self together. gather required ingredients from pantry shelves. arrange on kitchen bench.
9. open packet of chia seeds you bought when optimism was still a thing.
10. take each seed and survey to ensure quality and organic-ness. (each seed will be unique; this will only add to the pudding’s wonder).
11. smile if you have it in you (though this step may be substituted with dried egg).
12. add one third chia seeds to two thirds coconut milk (or coconut cream, it makes
no difference to anyone).
13. reject all stainless-steel utensils. as if stains were something any of us could avoid.
14. mix with a wooden spoon. it just feels kinder.
15. if deserved, add chocolate powder and/or half a cup of freckled banana (mashed).
16. mix again. as well as can be expected.
17. wonder why you are even bothering.
18. allow to stand.
19. in the warmth of the right kitchen the seeds will expand to their fullest potential.
21. if life is unbearable, a little sugar is permitted before serving.
if you have no eyes where do the tears go?
the emotions are half price on tuesdays. you are lured in after
your father’s funeral by the flouro lights bright as the mushroom
cloud you’re not meant to look directly into lest it burn
the eyes right out of your fucking head
if you have no eyes, where do the tears go?
you go inside. pull your collar up, sink your unexpectedly
wet face into the V of your jumper. make like the woman
who cut the coupon from the newspaper & won the three
minute trolley dash at the local supermarket.
take a trolley that does not require the coin you never have:
on your mark.
aisle one: baked beans, corned beef, two fruits in syrup, sadness.
move quickly. sadness is on special. take a dozen cans. check date.
make sure it has long best before.
aisle two: ajax, napisan, stain remover, disappointment. throw in a dozen
cans of disappointment. reconsider. take spares.
aisle three: toothpaste, mouthwash, sanitary towels, anger. empty
shelves of anger. get second trolley. advise girl on tannoy
you will need assistance to the car.
aisle four: dog meat, cat litter, sardines, regret. throw in a few, but then again
too few to mention.
[turn out of aisle four, past the yoghurts culturing
better days, the free range eggs in their supermarket cage,
the low fat cottage cheese you used to buy
in your teens when you were trying to disappear]
aisle five: frozen peas, dim sim, linda mccartney hot dogs,
forgiveness seeping from freezers like fog. wipe a circle in the
condensation on the glass door, press your eye up against it, stare
in at the piles of forgiveness stacked neatly in convenient 250g blocks.
open the door. take a single block in your hand. it is lighter than you
imagined. turn to your trolley already overflowing with the anger &
the rage, the disappointment & the hardly any regret & consign
the 250g block of forgiveness back to its fog.
aisle six: strawberry ice cream, coconut fro-yo, lemon sorbet, comfort.
take ten tubs of comfort two of the sorbet four of the coconut fro-yo though
you do not really know what fro-yo is, but it sounds like it might be happiness.
make way to check out. pile half price emotions on conveyor belt. pay your bill.
the girl tannoys for car assistance. once in your car you momentarily
consider going back for even just one single block of forgiveness.
you decide against it. turn the key in your ignition. head for the exit.
forgiveness is on ice. you know it will keep.
O cloud –
* a visible mass of condensed watery vapour floating in the atmosphere
* to become overcast or gloomy
* to make or become less clear or transparent
* a thing where we store information we should really keep private
O cloud –
sometimes you are long & pointy with a dorsal
fin & look like a rubber pike hanging on the wall of a log
cabin in the canadian rockies with a sign under it saying
the one that got away.
Once you looked
like a man with black hair exactly
like my husband, with no eyes, banging out chords on a fender
american deluxe & dreaming of a tama drum kit with gold plated
hardware that can never be
but mostly O cloud, you look like
a great white tumour growing exponentially
on god’s own brain, pressing down on his cerebral cortex, impairing
his vision leaving him unable to dive headfirst into the mediterranean
to save the tiny unripe fruit hanging from the barely established
sapling of Alan Kurdi’s life. then there was the other time,
so out of it on tumour medication he was unable to
prevent the air strike on Omran Danqueesh’s house,
leaving Omran shocked & bewildered, his wee boy fingers
dipping into the blood seeping from his too little head––
O lumpy cushions of puffed up whiteness!
O fluffy unsweetened mouthfuls of fairy floss
– no amount of chemo can shrink you
O enormous grey & sometimes charcoal swollen
hearts stuffed full of aunties over forty weeping for the children
they left it too late to have
O fat silver bladder inside a cask of cheap chardonnay
or sauvignon blanc from liquorland
O ample misshapen knobbly thing
like the black carcinoma that grew on the dog’s elbow
& the vet couldn’t cut off for fear the cancer would spread
O mildly irritating husband with the sedentary
job who does not exercise & promises to give up smoking
& pays monthly membership to the gym but never fucking goes
O smoke ravaged lungs of a husband who will probably
die young & float up to heaven on a soft warm cloud that will feel like an ikea
feather doona straight out of the dryer
O great bulging jaws of clouds
that huff & puff & blow the unaffordable house down
O three little pigs in a homeless shelter
O too young dead husband strumming gently
on a harp that was never his instrument
O glorious skinny cigarettes
he sometimes rolls by hand using pouch tobacco with less chemicals
though he still has a packet of ready rolled in his man-bag at all times
O abundant, probably empty promises
of a life lived long together
O second hand smoke rings from god’s own fag.
ode to the man who knows me
coffin shaped bag i
had no idea what to think. the
night before he kept dropping hints.
“did i tell you i have to go to the city
tomorrow?” he said. “no you didn’t
mention it,” i replied. “didn’t i? oh yeah,
i’ve got to pick up something special
for somebody’s birthday.” he said. “do you?”
i said, nonchalantly, in between frying
garlic and slicing green beans.
“i mean ordinarily i wouldn’t go
to the city on a tuesday,” he
said, “i mean, can you
imagine, me, in the city on
a TUESDAY?” this went on
all night. it wasn’t my birth-
day for another four weeks. when i
eventually took the bait and asked what he was
picking up and who it was for he shot back with his french
equivalent of, ‘shite in a poke for nosey folk.’ the next night
at the station cafe i ordered the beer battered fries with the side
of chipotle mayonnaise. no one orders just chips and tomato sauce
anymore. and when his train pulled in, i watched him get off, light up his
fag, all the while trundling this great black thing along the platform behind
him. he arrived at the table the same time as the fries.‘i got you this,’ he said,
pointing at the huge black thing and looking slightly away for fear of catching
the look of crushing disappointment in my eye. i put down my fry, took the huge
black thing from him, lay it down on the ground, unzipped it. and when the soft bag
fell away and the warm blaze of maple declared itself, it wasn’t a cello i saw lay-
ing there with its elegant ribs and hand-carved pegs, but the tiniest molecule of
unconscious desire he’d somehow managed to identify in me and isolate from
the other billion molecules that make me. and as the first dry crumbs of aston-
ished delight caught in the back of my throat i stood choked – not knowing
what to do with the joy. and when the crumbs cleared and i could breathe
again i reached towards my cello as though i were warming my hands
too long frozen at the first flames of a winter fire. and as we
settled down at the cafe table together to mow through
what was left of our fries, i kept glancing down at
my cello, snug
in its satin
Ali Whitelockis a Scottish poet and writer living on the south coast of Sydney with her French chain-smoking husband. Her debut poetry collection, and my heart crumples like a coke can, has just been released by Wakefield Press, Adelaide, and her memoir, Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell, was launched to critical acclaim in Australia and the UK in 2010.
Her poems have been published in various literary journals and some are forthcoming from The Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine and The University of Wisconsin’s Forty Voices Strong: An Anthology of Contemporary Scottish Poetry. She is working on her second poetry collection, the lactic acid in the calves of your despair, and her second memoir, andy’s snack van tour of Scotland. Read more of Ali here.