I wrote the following poem in early Summer. It’s an attempt at the hybridised form of prose/poem I’ve been thinking about recently, there’s haibun (a combination of two forms a prose poem and haiku) in there too.
As the title suggests I’m not sure that the piece is complete, perhaps it’s just a start, after 30 years, of pinning down the Unfinished Business of grieving.
I hope this rambling kitchen sink of a piece contains sufficient nuggets to make it worth a reading.
The re-reading prompted numerous changes to the original.
An Unfinished Business
dŏ’cūment1 n. thing, esp. title-deed, writing or inscription, that furnishes evidence; hence ~AL (-ĕ-‘n-) a.,
dŏcūmĕ’ntor or IST n., person engaged in documentation
dŏ’cūmĕnt2 v.t. prove by or provide with documents or evidence; hence ~A’TION n., (esp.) accumulation, classification, and dissemination of information, material thus collected. [f. prec.]
Memory could be described as an exercise in abeyance. A study in the melancholy task of making the hole whole through fiction, not fact. Memory as a representation of absence, bulwark against annihilation.
The objects of memory are infinitely incomplete, they result from an ongoing process of becoming and disappearing. Memory slips and spills. It’s bedeviled by half-remembered, lost, obscure or obsolete part-objects. It’s shadowy, ghostly, even corpse-like. Memory is proof of the impossibility of total acquisition or last words. Memory marks absence and presence. Fleeting, yet all we have, our meager constellation, a consolation whose parameters shift and is dependent on one’s point of view moment by moment.
Memory the blurred snapshot, the point of time-less-ness neither flying nor dragging. Memory has little to do with the past. Memory is a paradox, despite chronology, with information drawn from way back then, they dance at the still point that can only take place here and now. They may feel historicised or dated or drawn from a childhood as yet unconstrained by the limitations of time, the fact is they can only ever speak with silent eloquence to this moment alone.
clouds pass across
a daytime moon
– askew poetry
Type […] ‘A turning on the path.’, then ‘…a distant place reached on foot and slowly.’ and ‘…through silhouette haws the silent, sloughing, snowfall falls – horizontally.’ onto a Spring-sunlit computer screen.
The clouds do pass. The tea’s gone cold, a small slice of paradise passes. Memory and time embrace.
Type […] ‘…memory of a friendship, leaning on the five-bar shadows, bringing back the old stories…’ then ‘…where joy or fear, sudden emotion or meaning match unspoken, broken hopes or fears to some mud field or shattered barn.’
Five floors up, red buses below, there’s not a broken barn for miles. All nostalgia. Echoes of incipient old age. Insipid maudlin lyricism. Mid-life’s rose-tinted whatnot for childhood certainty and limestone.
Type […] ‘..some well-known place, subtle and small scale, claustrophobic and snug, in failing light, for a moment transcends reality and becomes a place of bittersweet memorial. Cupping generations.’
At last, the words strike some small truth, that the lead miner, road haulier, platelayer, gardener and gout layabout, drinker, black inker all meet here, five floors up, they are my dead, who crowd my unremarkable occupied space as mute witness to time’s passing.
the dead –
are part of, not apart from
the written page
My Journal has hung around for a lifetime. A documentary script begun in 1978 and still written in some form or other. A habit. A millstone. 2018 will see 40 years of marking time. The pages are, of course, a fiction. They’re impartial and sub-consciously edited. The writing’s by person(s) I no longer know. I’ve forgotten so much more than I remember. History isn’t the past, but the grit that sticks in the sieve of time. Just fragments, the biggest shards that fail to pass through the eye of time’s needle. There’s no grand narrative. Only multiplicity, so very many stories.
Jewels these memories caught between the sticky pages of so many diaries. One small lifetime’s life&time, all words, all hand-on-heart and fairytale and hill-and-dale stories. Distant fantasies. Honest fallacies of memories of someone other than me. A story told. A stranger’s tale. A tongue-tripping over some unfamiliar score, one unknowing, sometime very knowing, adolescence. A feint smell of aching heart or bloody nose or tight hot squeezes or the scrapes involved in coming to terms with a coming of age. And then, such delicate things as breasts and boats, clay pots, dark caves and sweet pine-woody smoke.
Dad died young, at 48yrs. I became fixated by the fact that I was exactly half his age. As if it, in some arcane way, meant something other than a mathematical coincidence. This single numero-logic fact filled my head, it crowded in and cuckoo-ed out the whole dying thing. A summing up, that keep reality at bay.
He died in the May of ‘87. Or did he? Thirty years on and I’m discomforted to find I’m struggling to nail the death down. You’d think I’d remember. But I don’t. Blocked out? Perhaps. He’d have been 49 in the July, if he’d made it that far. I’d been 24 since that March. 48/24. 24/48, you see? You see??? It was a message. It meant something. Magic numbers. Magic numbers. This is how it went… Around&around my head…
In this 30th anniversary year around&around it goes again. Perhaps it’s time to nail facts down.
So here they are: dad, born on 12th July 1938 and died 14th May 1987. I’ve checked the register of births and deaths, and my journal (Journal No. 9 = 1987 – incidentally this year’s is No. 39 – some things stick…). He was indeed 48yrs. old when he died. I was born 15th March 1963 and, yes I was indeed 24yrs. old in March 1987, two months before he died. 24/48. Maths. Fact. I have the certificates to prove it.
- Head under the mini’s bonnet, December’s evening frost making everything glitter. Fag burning bright.
A halo of death-defining smoke. Laughter cough laughter cough laughter cough cough.
- Favoured armchair snug up against the sideboard. Feet up. Late night cricket highlights, ashtray on the arm, a slim mug of tea. That side board with it’s few strategically placed school photos and my lifeless fish carved over a term in school woodwork lessons, week after week of hacking away – it’s essential fishiness, if it ever had it, was never revealed – the wood remaining stubbornly wooden. Lump. Log. Hacked and stuck on a stick and dad, god-bless-him, put it in pride of place on the sideboard. Laughter cough laughter cough laughter cough cough.
- Walking down Bath Fields on a working morning. Green overalls. Lunch pack. Big flask of very sweet tea. We’d sit in the station yard at Matlock Bath and wait as the diesel engine’s plugs warmed up. The whine. Dad would pour tea and light up, smile and savour the moment. Laughter cough laughter cough laughter cough cough.
- Robin’s Hood Inn, Sheffield way, somewhere above Baslow. Nine holes behind the pub. We’d go in the evening, both quietly enjoying a swing and swipe. Crafty fag in celebration or commiseration. Pursed lips, fag dangling dad as he lined up the putter.Three strikes and you’re out. Third cigarette and the sniper gets you.
- Derby Royal Infirmary. Dad in for what he said was bronchitis. “Look at ’em, there’s a bloody great criss-crossed cut across their chests from corner to corner, same cut as they do on the dead. Last ditched attempts… Nothing more they can do for the poor old buggers. I’m lucky, just a bad cough. Nothing to worry about.”Six weeks later he died.
The following extract is drawn from my journal entry written on Thursday 14th May 1987 – Brighton
The phone ringing – no answer – ring, ring. Damn her. Cursing along the (Hove) road, damning the situation, the fact we had to fight, to row, my god what a pointless way to live. Another payphone closer to town. I phone again then again. This is ridiculous. Finally, J. a bouncy hello and then… Impossible confusion, twisting, writhing, desperate and rising panic at her words. Grasping at straws. She’s mad. How could dad be DEAD??? How did he die? Why hadn’t we know? When would say goodbye? Tears blinding and the world blurring. I couldn’t process the information. So desperately wanted it to be a lie, hoped she’d flipped, gone mad. And yet, certainty arose from the confusion and I knew it to be true. How? How? How? Dad. Dad. Dad. Dad. Not my dad. Please not my dad. Don’t take my/our dad away. Why couldn’t Jean ring earlier when there might have been a chance of goodbye??? Why hadn’t we been told? We’ve been robbed of a chance to say goodbye to our father. We’d never see him alive again. Oh why oh why????
Ran along the street, lost, alone, tried to ring T., cursing no reply. Confusion. Nothing clear. Everything changes. Flux. Darkness. Needing to talk, so desperately needing to talk. Ring K. and cried down the phone blurting the facts yet know no facts, cut off from reality, the tears flowed. As the crying abated talk half sensibly and K. reassured me. It was short-lived. Then pain returned. Running. Run faster you bastard run faster! Run it out. Break it. Beat it. Block it out. At the house cried out, “Jude, he’s gone!” She held me. Confused. Shocked. Asks no questions just held me and I was so grateful, so very grateful for her silence. Felt very alone. Centre. Rock. Gone. Need to talk to T., to G. Get back from work T. please get back. We need to make plans. Make coffee through tears. The bell ringing. T. on the doorstep, unable to reach me by phone she’d travelled down from London. Narrow corridor hugging. T’s tears. We held each other and cried. Bodies wracked with sobs. Words not sentences. Took much confusion for sentences. Oh god, oh god, dad, we love you. We felt a powerful need to do something. Be active Ring A. in Matlock. Arrange to talk to G.. We leave the house and walk to the beach. But it’s too soon to make much sense of anything. Rollers breaking white, eyes aching. Speak to G., promise we’ll be there by the morning. Only then ring Mum. Big plans. We hide in the arrangements. Tea in mugs. Rucksack packed, Goodbyes. Tears. Hugs. T. and I running, then walking and talking in silent street, of the family, son of son, daughter of, of J., of what had happened. Why hadn’t she let us in? Could she really be so evil. So selfish. So cruel? Calmness came with disbelief at how cruel J. had been, then overwhelming waves of panic as the truth reasserted itself. Stomach churning. Bizarrely we bought beef burgers and threw them away uneaten. The 2.00am train to London. A cold dark Wintry night.
Run gasping for air blinded by tears crying out loud into the Hove Road. Grasping at straws – it’s fine he’s not dead, NOT dead. Christ NO! Me dad is dead. Not dead. END.
Green swarfega, diesel oil, pine sawdust on our hands to clean oily fingers, fag smoke, heavily sugared tea in a plastic cup, a caramel sweet-tooth passed on from you to me; a grinning and triumphant smile as you create duck a l’orange with a chicken… all GONE.
The flatmate I believed I loved held me. She gently stroked my hair and cried as I sobbed hungry, clumsy, noisy sobs. Me Grandma would hold me too as she’d held me when dad and mum divorced and held me as a baby when mum, frantic for sleep, drove me to drowse into the silence at her breast. I remember, simply, the peace [ ] ful [ ] ness.
The following extract is drawn from my journal entry written on Friday 15th May 1987 – Matlock
T., G., granddad and me up to Kirk Ireton. He lived separated from his wife and her possessive mother. It was a small cottage. The cottage where dad had died. But so little of dad was there. His voice, his presence has simply gone. It was hard to keep control. We picked up a few simple things, needing objects to connect to him, to hold on to. And needing to understand we went down to the PO, the kitchen, and ludicrous fantasy. Farce. Evil. J. the widder portrayed a dad none of us recognized, a revision, described with manic precision and icy poise. She wasn’t capable of telling the truth. Her stories in her own madness were the truth. “Your father’s last wish was to be buried next to my father.” Rubbish! If dad had a choice he’d have wished to be buried next to Grannie Allen at St. Giles’. “He wants no flowers from the family, only me.” The bitch. The manipulative conniving bitch, locking the family out. The family excluded. Total possession. She has his body and won’t reveal where he lies. She’ll arrange the funeral. T. explodes. Flings herself towards the widder and across the table. Grandad pulls her back. T. couldn’t help it. It was all too much. WE, the family, were united against her pathetic charade and paper thin untruths. She may have the law on her side but not morality or truth. We will never now know his last words, cannot rewrite things so that we’re able to say goodbye or that we loved him. Damn her. Damn her. Damn her. Poisonous, “your father didn’t want your grandma and granddad to attend” madness, madness. “I will clear the house, there’s no need for you to return to this village.” She’s locking us out. Had already thrown G. out. Does she have any idea of the pain and hurt she’s caused. Unforgiveable harsh and selfish cruelty.
I went in search of reality. Tried to talk to those who’d last spoken to dad, to B. at Autospares, to B. at Station Yard Taxi’s. Snippets of stories rapidly tore holes in the fabric of her lies.
Back at grandma’s the family had gathered around grandma and mum. Rage, bewilderment, tears and disbelief and tea. The Twins, th sisters, spouses and aunties in the back room nursed their tea in collective solidarity, in the front room granddad, P., T., G. and I struggling to come to terms with meeting the widder. Grandad broken. Shaking head. Never seen him so distressed. We forced down tea. Mum leaving. Glad she was around today. That the family accepted her back with open arms. Me, Lee and T. go a walk, needing space, time, air, simply needing time and time where we didn’t have to talk. Lee helped, his rattling on about any and everything helped fill the silence and didn’t demand a response. Along the Lane to Silver Birch and Lumsdale…
A shiny scrubbed kitchen. She, as shiny, stole our dad. Skinny and brittle in grief she rewrote history as a fairy tale of devoted love. Of the final loving days. “Your dad had asked not to see you… ‘let them remember me as I was…’ ” she said he’d said. Oh she was good, she’d thought it through and refused to answer any questions that might unravel her fantasy. “Yes, he was at peace and happy at the end…” she concluded. No point in listening to this concocted confection. She had edited us from his life, then death. He’d become a husband without his human baggage. Her reliant silent man. I so wanted it all to be just a chaos of her making. With dad simply taking time away, gone golfing.
The Widder refused to tell us where dad’s body was. Outraged by her callousness people rallied round to help. A kindly local undertaker, who’d been a regular in mum’s Holloway pub, agreed to ‘ring around’. It took days to locate him. His body was being stored in a small locked chapel in a Middleton-by-Wirksworth graveyard on the road towards Via Gellia. “He’s alright, my mother sits with the dead through the night, she keeps them company like…” the undertaker said, seemingly to reassure me. We became complicit in a conspiracy. Favours were called in. It was agreed that the body would be moved, without consent, and just for a few hours, to a chapel of rest on Matlock Green, there we’d have a chance to view the body. We needed to view. We needed the physical proof he’d gone. A time was agreed.
At least that was how I remember it. None, or part, or all, of the above may be true.
The following extract is drawn from my journal entry written on Tuesday 19th May 1987 – Matlock
…we walked through the park to grandma’s and had dinner, grief was near the surface again, the food untouched, conversation stilted, eyes red with fought-back tears. After dinner it was impossible to settle, not knowing that dad was waiting, we couldn’t leave him alone any longer. We went with granddad. At the chapel on lane by Bentley Brook, a respectful nod, and we were ushered in. He looked so small. Tiny yellow hands. Hollowed sunken face.Was it dad? Wasn’t sure. My eyes flitted for evidence. And found it in his sideburns. The rest a shell. Dad had long since departed his suffering. There were no tears. Dad was too far away. This body wasn’t him. Be at Peace Dad, God willing you’ll be at Peace. We left. No point in lingering. We’d done what needed to be done. He was gone. That afternoon we walked. Down Wishing Stone to the Lumsdale waterfalls. We clambered about. Explored. Dare-devilled. Momentarily we were children again. And found release in the focused movement the clambering and climbing. Up through the Pine Woods over to Tansley. Walking worked.
The Invisible Man
Red flock and piped music. Low ceiling closing in. The smell of death masked, but that mask slipping. Limb-tied. Tongue-tied. What are you supposed to say or do in front of a body? Estranged. Just our silence and the bloody piped music. Searched the hollow cheeks and thought ‘…thank god, it’s not him…’ but then there were his sideburns… HIS sideburns… Didn’t dare touch him or hold him – unreal, too real, too cold, too small and silk wrapped. He blurred in tears and the blur was all that remained of him. Hear him cough. Watching cricket his feet up on a favourite chair. Purple haze of fagsmoke always the haze of smoke. TV smoke. Nothing to see here. I’ll carry my memories. Time to walk away. Nothing more to do or say. Enough, too much.
The following extract is drawn from my journal entry written on Wednesday 20th May 1987 – Matlock
The family began to fill grandma’s house. By 1.15pm 11 packed cars lined both sides of the road outside. The whole family – everyone – had gathered, from across the country they’d gathered. We began the slow snaking route up to Kirk Ireton. I drove mum’s car in front, the family, my family followed. In the village we parked as best we could. Not welcome at the widder’s house my family massed on the road. Dad’s brothers and sisters, every aunt and uncle gathered. 100+. I had the unenviable postion of liason, piggy-in-the-middle, went into the widder’s house, needed to know what the arrangements were. Was given a bloody sherry. Went back outside. Dad’s brothers agitated and angry, an honour thing, the belittling of grandma, they were up for a fight but not today, NOT today. Mum cried on Uncle B’s shoulder, the family saw, and the family united.
The hearse pulled up. I noted the vividness of the flowers as my eyes locked on the coffin. A hand through mine. The widder had left the house and clung to my arm. I let her hang. I didn’t look at her but rather looked behind me, and there my family were, stretching back to the distant bend in the road. Eldest son of eldest son, time to lead the family line.
The ceremony was a blur. The congregation also. The tunes struck cords and tears flowed. I feared for the coffin balancing on a precarious trolley. Might it suddenly fall? As my eyes filled with tears I searched the ceiling’s details, the rafters and beams, anything to hold the extent of emotion at bay. It failed. And I cried as I remembered my good dad. The vicar tried diplomacy, the healing of wounds and rifts. He failed, his praise for the widder fell on deaf ears. The truth would out, was out.
A gravel path to graveside. Dad lowered. Goodbye dad, goodbye. And then stillness, silence, formalities over, the crowd thinning, my sister and I lingered, she threw in fluorescent golfballs, day-glo orange, they clattered noisily, dad would have approved! And so the private grief begins…
Afterwords or Running on Empty
no, no, we’re fine [we lie], we’re doing well [we lie] – all things considered…
an empty day [ ] same, same empty walk [ ] then empty home [ ] to empty house [ ] an empty night [ ] of empty dreams [ ] an emptiness [ ] time mean and meaningless [ ] nowhere to go [ ] afraid of tomorrow [ ] no-one wants to see the hurt [ ] or smell it on you [ ] people fear the physicality [ ] of grief [ ] the darkness [ ] that wraps around logic [ ] and poisons it all [ ] claustrophobia and fury [ ] snuffing out fairness [ ] and faith [ ] with the ‘guiding hand’ [ ] gone [ ] numb fingers lose a grip on things [ ] a mind lives too much [ ] in yesterday [ ] anywhere away from here&now [ ] riding the surface [ ] of things [ ] is greasy and insubstantial [ ] slippily signifying [ ] that you [ ] it all [ ] is dead [ ] and gone
I’m still trying to find and struggling to find the words, and needing to find the words, to fill the silence left by you. On rare times turning home I see you everywhere. In every breath thoughts of you condense. You were neither knee bone nor arse but forehead and cheekbone, silence and home. Days pass and still so suddenly comes raw grief and even now the tears. Less dramatically, more domestically day to day, out and about I keep finding you, glimpsed in a car, in crowds, though perhaps more often it’s in the quiet places where the wind catches your cough and in that moment attaches you to here and now, a bittersweet memorial to your passing, and I will never stop ha ha ha heh heh heh elephant’s nest in a rhubarb tree missing you.
The death needed walking. A route was found. I’d circle after workle. [Sorry.] Up Steep Turnpike and into the St. Giles graveyard. “Let memory be the golden chain linking us ‘til we meet again.” was written on one of the gravestones I passed. The cloying rhyming sentiment was somehow helpful. Granny Allen’s grave, at rest with husband John.
Almost remember him. He’d been born in 1887 and died in August 1966. I’d have been three. Grannie – Emma Swindell – was born in 1891 and died in January 1976. I’d have been 13 yrs. old. Sorry. It’s that Maths thing again. A need to enumerate.
Back then the family kept their graveside trim. After dad was buried we laid the flowers, stolen from graveside – it’s a long story, here. And, as the day, weeks, months passed it was here I came to talk to the dead. Dad’s grave wasn’t the hole in the ground where his body lay, but here with the granny who’d brought him up.
He’d come full-circle.
And yet, how beautiful…
the words catch
the Derbyshire wilt
a cadence dropping
at the end of
each dully sentence
across the fields comes
of manure. […]
a paper bag
comes the rain.
history’s scars as sheep-shitty barns
long shadows twist
wiping the face from a dandelion clock
And yet, how beautiful the place is.
biblical and chapel read
a war memorial’s plaque
– those same names still littering
my school’s roll and the children’s
section of the graveyard.
Wild Cat or
Catcliffe’s sweeping calligraphic lines
homily to homecoming
a roll call.
the conjuring trick called place.
Autumn again. again.
So much to forget. It’s becoming someone else’s narrative. And yet, how beautiful it is. This heavy weight of shadows. Observance. Subservience. Extravagance. Dance. Silence waiting in the wings of the walking. Blackberries, primroses, cowslips, stray flies flicked by a twitch of a switch of fern. Time knotting. Wright over left and under… Freeze-framing.
Line dancing down Clatterway from the Cross and to Pig O’ Lead.
A whiff of paradise. And, it’s raining.
In loving memory of Michael Holt
b. July 1938
d. May 1987