Chalk at Broadstairs

When the tide, slow retreating from the beach north of Broadstairs,

Reveals all the liminal acres of shore,

A field of nobbly pinnacles rises

Slathered with purple, green-fingered, white-raw.

The chalk will feel greasy to fingertip gripping,

The seaweed is slippy beneath treading feet,

Yet the softest of stones is defeating the ocean

Absorbing the thunder where seas swell and meet.

The  cliffs, yes they tumble, they fall and they shout,

Collapse in the surf of the tide’s furthest rush,

But ten days in twelve the water drains backward

And the roar of the ocean will turn into hush.

The power of water is soon dissipated,

Rollers and breakers split into rills

And the cliffs, slowly crumbling, must face the ocean

But twice a day water retreats and then stills.


To think of burying gold

When it hangs for free in the air

Just beyond the lover’s reach,

Just above her hair.

There beyond the snouts of dogs,

The winter-fingered trees

But bright and strong and in my eyes

The shining coin of spring’s surprise

It hangs to tempt and tease.

The crocus tips are up

And the night has returned to its hours

And all the city folk are glad

To tell seasons by the flowers.

Past the sour smell of square white bread

Put out to feed the birds

I route my return in time to pray

And gently finish the first spring day

With a gentler ring of words.

Short Children

‘Your children,’ said the Inspector, ‘Are too short.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Too short.  Too many are not achieving the expected height for children of their age.  A child of eleven years old is expected to be a minimum height of 1.34m by the end of Primary School.’

Mr Briggs paused, to check that he had heard what he had thought he had heard.  ‘Some are a little short, it is true,’ he conceded.  ‘Others are taller, though.’

The Inspector shook his head.  ‘Indeed.  A regrettable lack of consistency is observable.’

‘We find that most are tall enough by the time they reach us here in Year Six.  To reach, for example, the books on the shelves.  Jake is exceptionally small – but others are always ready to help him.’  Mr Briggs looked fondly towards Jake’s chair – a real trier, despite all his problems.

‘Ah.  But will that always be the case?’  The Inspector exhaled frustratedly, and answered the teacher’s unasked clarification.  ‘Other people, Mr Briggs.  The children should not be taught to rely on others – they should learn to rely upon themselves.  Each man, I have heard it said, is an island.’

‘But surely allowances must be made?  Is it possible for all children to attain that height?  I myself am rather short.’  Mr Briggs was indeed a little man.  In fact, as soon as any of his children came across that fabulous fantasy, The Hobbit, hidden like a pearl of great worth in the tightly-packed, admittedly rather high bookshelves that lined the classroom, they could not fail to form a mental picture of Bilbo Baggins with his thumbs stuck into his waistband, his head a little balding, his shoes worn through, like their own teacher, whom they could observe minutely from registration to story time.

‘Mr Briggs you are woefully underinformed.  Of course it is possible for all children to attain such a height!  Research has proven it – repeatedly!  Within your borough there are schools who attain one hundred percent expected height – and many children surpass that height!’  The Inspector spoke fervently.  He was in fact over six foot and, although he didn’t like to mention it, the shortest of the inspectors in his office.  ‘Of course such growth is possible!  With the correct diet, the proper climate of aspirational escalation, suitable role models…’  He paused.  ‘There are courses of treatment, exercises, training for staff working with children of Exceptionally Low Height.  In this day and age it is inexcusable for you to be sending children out into the world with such disadvantages!’

Mr Briggs sat down in his story-telling chair.  ‘I suppose it is no use to remark that many of our children are very small when they join us – particularly small, I notice.  In fact, in the course of my career I do believe I have observed a general decline in the height of children joining the school.’

‘Do not attempt to hide behind statistics and trends, Mr Briggs.  It is precisely because of declining height that the targets were set in the first place!  I suppose you realise that it is your personal responsibility to ensure that all the children in your care achieve a height from which they can look down upon their infantile behaviours.  Remaining undergrown can seriously hinder a child in their mental, academic and moral development.  For example, teenage pregnancies are notably more common amongst those of less-than-average-height.’

Mr Briggs shrugged helplessly. ‘In all honesty I must say that it was to escape the worries of teenage pregnancies that I chose primary teaching.  I prefer the world of the innocently soiled to that of the soiled innocents.’

The Inspector paced the room.  He appeared to inspect the working wall, which held a flurry of neon post-its quizzing the habits of polar bears, but in fact he was preoccupied with his own train of thought.

‘What is particularly disappointing is that there is so little progress in height across the key stages.  The majority of your pupils simply make average progress during their time here.  Average progress!  What if everybody made average progress?’

‘What if, what if?’  Mr Briggs chuckled to himself at the horror of a world in which all made average progress.

‘But!  Many of your pupils fail to manage even that.  In fact, according to the data you have submitted, one child is even supposed to have had negative growth!  He is now shorter than last year!’

Mr Briggs raised a finger.  ‘He did, however, lose both his legs in a rather nasty car accident, and I think in his case a little compassion…’

‘Compassion, Mr Briggs?  What place has compassion in this discussion?  You cannot deny that this case is quite, quite awful.’

‘It is, Inspector.’

The Inspector began pacing again.  ‘It seems to me that what this school needs is a severe shake-up.  I am sure that you do not measure the children regularly.  Perhaps if you measured them more often you would be rewarded with more growth!  There is not even a height chart in here.  Why, at Highdene school, every class has a height chart that extends to three metres!  They provide a truly aspirational climate, and several of their children have gone on to join the Grenadier Guards.’

‘Really,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘Well, this is not Highdene school.’

The Inspector now circuited the room, scowling at the miniature chairs that obstructed him.  He stopped by the window.  ‘Mr Briggs, I do not want you to gather the impression that I am any different from yourself.’  He smiled.  It was the smile you find semi-submerged in greedy African rivers.  ‘I simply want all kids to enjoy the world around them – to partake of every opportunity.  They should be able to look out of this window and see a world within their grasp.  See those apples on those trees.  They should be able pick them.  See those wires on those poles – every child wants to reach out for those wires and swing, swing into the future!  But what if these kids cannot stretch to take the book from the shelf, the can of baked beans from the supermarket aisle?’

‘I suppose you could always try lowering the shelves…’

‘Mr Briggs!  You miss the point entirely!  We must not allow ourselves to move the goalposts – to let standards slip!  You are advocating a world in which books and cans of baked beans roll about on the floor!  Where is the order?  Where is the aspiration?  Where is the opportunity, Mr Briggs, the opportunity?’

Mr Briggs too looked out of the window.  It was an autumn day and the weather had just changed.  A cold shower of rain was likely and the wind blew hard in the yew trees by the church gate.  His children had all long gone home, on differently sized legs.

‘There are children,’ he said slowly, ‘quite content to be short.’  He did not look at the Inspector, who was probably rather too shocked to respond in the small pause.  ‘In fact I try to teach each child to be happy whatever their height.  Some grow, some do not, but it is certain that the short ones enjoy opportunities – if you wish to talk about opportunities – that the larger will never have.  They can hide in smaller spaces when playing hide-and-seek – they can walk under low lintels without bumping their heads – and when they are older they can live in smaller, older houses, built for people of much smaller generations.  Small people feel a pride in their size – they associate with the underdog, not the victor.  I am not sure if smallness doesn’t breed compassion.  The smallest child in this class is not the naughtiest, nor the messiest, nor the rudest.  A child can be thoughtful, honest and wise and still stay small.’

The wind blew outside.

The Inspector perched on the edge of a table.  ‘I am concerned that you have simply taken this position to be obstructive and have created these strange justifications to reassure yourself.  You are an intelligent man, Mr Briggs, and I have read some of your research and its interesting findings, but you cannot base educational practice upon convictions.  We are not Victorians.  No, convictions are a weak foundation – proper educational research is what should direct you.  I am sure you have read the recent international study on height in Primary school pupils.  Scandinavian schools repeatedly achieve significantly greater standards year-on-year.  Our national average is the lowest in western Europe and far behind the US.  Even France have taller children and they have a woefully disorganised system with great variations in regional diet, to say nothing of their secularism and their short role models.  Why are we trailing the developed world?’  The Inspector’s faced darkened and his voice became hard and steely.  ‘Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the teachers holding us back!’

Mr Briggs frowned.  ‘I must say that I find this desire to exceed very strange.  Why is “tall enough” never enough?  Why must we strain to make our children as tall as their peers, then taller than their peers, then taller than last-year’s children, then taller again?  When will we say that our children are tall enough?’

‘Don’t indulge in these flights of fancy!  Your task is to ensure that your pupils reach a national standard of height – a task which you have repeatedly failed to complete.  Pupils are leaving this school at all manner of heights!’

Mr Briggs could not deny that.  Why, every single child in his class had achieved a different height last year.  None had measured 1.34m at the end of the year, and no two had measured the same.  ‘Inspector, as you were inspecting earlier in the day, I am sure that you noticed other qualities which we do our best to encourage in the children at our school.  Did one perhaps open a door for you?  Did any proudly show you their drawings?  Were some bold and forthright in speaking to such a tall stranger in their midst?  Did you find some reflective, careful or kind?’

The Inspector snorted a kind of laugh.  ‘Can you bottle love, Mr Briggs, or standardise thoughtfulness?  Courage, kindness, self-awareness – who has written the standards for these?  As inspectors we stick to those things that can be empirically measured.  Either a child reaches the next centimetre, or he does not.  Next year we will be rolling out tests of weight for all children entering the school, together with a weighing at the end of Year One to ensure that all have been properly nourished.  We expect a dramatic result from this, as it has been scientifically proven that achievement in weight and height are inextricably linked.’

Mr Briggs riffled through the pages of a dictionary open on his desk.  ‘Ah yes,’ he said.  ‘Who does write these standards?  I imagine that whoever set the standard for height was themself tall.’

‘Without a doubt.  As a very minimum, all participants in the writing of educational policy are well-developed in height.  It is simply a fact of life – in fact, they have certainly used their height in attaining their positions in society.  Children cannot rise to the top and achieve their potential without basic height, no more than anyone in society can.  The government’s Every Child Metres scheme is grounded in broader social policy – that all children should be healthy, safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being.’

Mr Briggs had had enough of this pompous claptrap.  ‘Who exactly decides what those positive contributions are, Inspector?  What is economic well-being?  Is it the warm feeling of well-being you have by being tall and wealthy?’  He began to get into the stride of his rant.  ‘A feeling of well-being can be misplaced.  There are always people to look down on us, and always people to look up at us – that is the way we are made.  These positive contributions!  To what are the contributions made?  Are they positive in terms of decision, participation, outlook?  Do we risk ruining our society if our children are not able to stand tall amongst the crowd of participating voters?  Or are your plans to standardise children any more than plans to stabilise society – to quash and sideline the questioning voices of the disadvantaged – the disadvantaged whose struggles have always been the catalyst for change?  Was there a minimum height requirement to join the French revolution, or to be one of the twelve disciples?  When will you call the short second-class citizens and mean what you whisper – you the inspectors, you the overdogs, you the tall?  I do not deny the benefits of height – I do not deny that every child should be well-nourished and exercised and should grow as tall as he or she can!  But I refuse to tell them how tall that is!  I refuse to let them think that they can fail at growing!  I do not think anyone can fail at growing.  I am a teacher because the best things I can teach are the ones that I do not understand – the ones that very few people understand – but perhaps some of my children, short or tall, understand one day in their hearts.  The world may judge them for their height, but I will not, and the world will change because these children will be the world, and they will not be scared to change!’

The Inspector narrowed his eyes.  ‘This is very dangerous.  I am surprised that you ever received sanction to teach vulnerable children.  You will not be working here much longer, Mr Briggs.’

Mr Briggs sat back in his chair.  ‘Inspector,’ he said, ‘It is already too late.  These children can never believe you now.  In fact I am sure that at least two of them will become teachers too.  And it gives me some satisfaction to say that they are amongst the shortest in my class.’

I wrote this in Autumn 2011, after a particularly frustrating RBWM meeting of Literacy Co-ordinators.

View from a Train Window in Autumn

A litter of yellow apples lie by

An access trackway, unregarded and

Ignored, for all the hundred pounds yet spent

On fruit from other garden fields, these fall

And tumble, bruise, sleep rotten by a path

That once in several months a gang tramp down

To mend, rewire, or tense the straightening cords

That rig steel pylons down the western line.

If only I had time and way to climb that fence

Or scale that wall and gather them – or you

Could ever give that hopeful seedling, now

A giving, breathing creature in our world

Appreciation’s gratitude of use,

To taste the fruit just once before it falls!

See all along the callous iron line –

Permanent way – the rails have taken part,

Assumed autumnal motley, blood and brown,

And ballast beds a thousand dry-stemmed weeds,

But heaps of darling brambles, glowing brass

Gloss-tip bold hips are all by-passed.

The jungles of sloes, elder, buddleia,

Are thick and scrawny, generous and gay.

Each waiting on a season – while the train

Diesels past, cold or wet or damp or dry –

And never can we tap those running rivers,

Wine-fountains.  Realm of black cat and magpie,

Occasionally trespassed by working gangs

Of hi-vis lads with flasks and sandwiches

And itineraries by which time those briars

Must be cut back – until next year again

They show their open palms in generous glee,

Unregarding the sudden slash and hack,

Intrusive but impermanent and weak.

The oak still juts out limbs, regardless, hard,

The rowans stretch and slip down th’ embankment.

The brambles claw and catch, proliferate,

And everywhere in autumn you saw hips

In spring is but a net of green thorned twigs

And early summer, clouds of fragrant scent

Unrivalled by the essences, in glass,

Sold in a full room by the door of a

Large department store.  Clear out such memory!

Rather see those nebulous banquets

Ubiquitous and unique, that colour

Our paths and commutes when we least expect.

Tall Children

‘Your children,’ said the inspector, ‘are too tall.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘Too… tall?’

‘That’s what I said.  They are much taller than they are blonde.  How do you account for that?’

Mr Briggs tried to collect his wits.  What sort of response could he make to such a statement?  He edged forward in his seat to peer over at the spreadsheet the inspector was reading from and then sat back and rued ever supplying the man with his hard-won measurements.  It was very hard indeed to get some of the children to stand still long enough to measure them in the official manner, and now, having managed to get some sort of measurement out of them and then working hard to tabulate it, it was being fired back at him as though it was all… wrong?

The inspector pressed forward with his argument, a stubby finger wagging from a stained, monstrous cuff.  ‘Your children are tall but very few of them are strongly blonde – really showing a consistent colour.  How has your intervention as co-ordinator targeted this discrepancy?’

Mr Briggs fought back an urge to laugh at the man.  ‘Well, perhaps some of them jumped during measurements,’ he suggested in a frustrated ironical tone.  His colleague Mrs Green flashed him a warning glance – for his own sake, he knew.  But his sense of the ridiculous bridled and he wanted to speak.  ‘If the children were shorter, the discrepancy might disappear.  Perhaps we should remove their shoes.’

The inspector sat back, all geniality.  ‘No, no, no.  I am not at all suggesting that we should lower their performance in height, but for several years your children – apart from last year, of course – have been above the national average in height, but below the national average in blondeness.’

‘Let me be perfectly honest,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘At a small, family school like ours we look at the children as individuals.  One of my tallest girls – in my class – a girl whom I have taught and seen grow over the course of the last three years – towers over her class mates.  Does it bring her happiness?  No – far from it.  Although there is value in great height, she is not yet of a character strong enough to live with the burden of being six inches taller than her best friend – buying uniform from secondary suppliers that are never the correct shade of red – her shoes immediately recognisable without even that strange knack for scent that children possess.  On top of this, would I wish her to be blonde?  Not at all.  Let her enjoy standing in the background until she values herself enough to step forward.  She may always dye her hair.’

‘Individual cases do not concern me, Mr Briggs.  I am interested in the performance of your school overall.’

The man could not have played better into his hands.

‘Individual cases concern me exclusively, Mr Inspector.  That is why I am a teacher and you are not.’

Tall Children was written Spring 2012.  After a visit from OFSTED.

View from a Train Window in May

The cream-white, soda-flush of hawthorn bloom

Extends in streaks and still-shot eruptions

To bring the hedgerows more than definition.

Punctuation, regular as breath,

In gasps, in pants, in drinking draughts of sky,

Until the rows we watch from the window

Of the chuckle-wheeled carriages, are made

New-coloured, like the newly-weds’ hallway,

Redecorated with a paint that seemed

Unexciting on the shelf, but cover

A whole wall and gloss it over green

And spring green, the new and living colour

Of an awakening land, and you will see

How white is more than simply white again.

Some of those hedges hold their purple clouds

Where lilacs pour their thick, re-shaping shock

Into the composition of our eyes

And unframed, unstructured pictures, unhung

And unlikely to be collected.

But this is Spring – this vision from the train –

This helpless rush at life and flowered trees

And never while you ride ignore the may.

The Cutting

‘You’ll have to clear the brook again,’ he said from his chair.  ‘Always grappling with those willows, I was.  You’ll never get the hay barge up there if you don’t cut them back.’
‘I hear you father.  That’s a long week’s work, and I can’t spare the time.’
The old man snorted.  ‘Won’t, you mean.  Won’t!  Sheer idleness is all.  A son of mine to shirk so shamelessly, on his own land.  Send Buck and Milton, if you won’t do it.’
‘There’s time yet before hay-making.  Buck won’t do it this week, and I won’t let Milton down by those trees.  He’s no respect for them.’
‘And what about you?  You talk as if you weren’t a working man yourself.  I never hired a man to do what I wouldn’t.’
‘I’ll stay by the calving, as well you know, this week and as long as those cross-breeds are birthing.  Not one of them has borne a live calf yet, and we’ll not suffer another year’s losses for a little patience.’
‘You talk as if you blame me, son.  You’ve already made me admit a fault, but you can’t leave it.  You may not have bought them, but there’s no sense in disowning an inheritance like I’ve given you.  But I tell you, if you don’t clear the brook this week you’ll be ruing your sloth come haytide.  The weather’ll break, and you know that I know it.’
‘And shall I leave my crippled father to calve those cows, then?’  Young Foxton had been needled enough.  Much as he hated to strike at his father’s weakness, the man seemed to refuse to accept his own circumstances.  Old Foxton, who had been the bluff, hearty owner of Foxton Farm for the last thirty years, was now confined to the chair by the hearth when he wasn’t being carried to and fro by sons or daughters’ husbands.  He had made over the deeds to his eldest, a man too like himself for comfort, but seemed to have forgotten it.
‘If you’ll hear me and choose not to listen,’ said Old Foxton, ‘Then you’re more of a fool than I gave you credit, and that’s all I say.’

The next morning Young Foxton took Milton and the axes down to the low pasture.  His wife was with the cows.  It had been his hope to overcome the old man’s curse and see those cross-breeds bear something living.  He had been born himself with a living touch – animals were all ready to have him close by.  As a boy foxes had come out of coverts, ravens down from roosts and milk-cows seemed to have saved their best milkings for his soft hands.  But there was something about that his father had suspected – something less than manly, this gentleness and this easiness to feel and stroke.  But even he had admitted that there were cows on the pasture who would have been wasted away in the cold winter but for the nearness of those warm, living hands.
The first day was an undifferentiated continuity, slashing at the tangling weed, bramble that stretched from bank to bank, rosebay, sycamore and aspen shoots all twisted and unlikely attempts at trees.  They laboured on under summer sun until the dusk came at last, leaving the hay-barge only yards upstream from where the little brook joined the river.  Unless they could clear a fair route to the long pasture then all the year’s growth of tall grass would be wasted, and the fields might as well have been stocked for the months they had been held back.  Such waste couldn’t be contemplated. Neither father nor son would have any waste on their farm, or ever had.  It was the only sin worse than deceit in their stern religion.
By the end of the second day a route had been hacked as far as the row of willows that Old Foxton had staked into the damp soil some fifteen years before.  They were all alike, with the same twist to the North about ten feet up, and none keeping an unsplit trunk fifteen feet above the ground, unpollarded though they were.  But they were all cuttings from another tree, some hundred yards up the brook.  Old Foxton had planted them for the leaf, which made a passable fodder, but also in some trial to placate the original tree, or so he said.
‘Come to the willow row already, Father.  A week, you said.’  Young Foxton couldn’t help but crow.  ‘We’ll have the brook clear before Sunday.’
Old Foxton shook his head.  ‘And you’ll be the one to praise patience!  Those willows shouldn’t be misjudged.  Roots like cable running into the water.  I cut that old willow down over and over, and he wouldn’t be stopped until I cut out the very lowest limb.  Rotted then.  More alive than you or I, those trees.’

The three men were struggling with the willows from then on.  Even though the trees were young, as Old Foxton had said, they had the roots of much larger trees, and a saw had to be brought to rasp away at them underwater.  The billhook would strip the lithe branches but only succeed in releasing an inner, vicious springiness.  Each of the men were covered in scratches and cuts when they returned to the farm up the hill.  The best axe was brought back blunt from those indomitable skins.
Young Foxton blamed his parent.  ‘Well, did you anger that tree, Father?  I’ll swear those cuttings bear a grudge against me.’
‘Willow is tough, boy.  The moving water only toughens it.  They gather all the strength of the water and the wind into their knots and hearts.  What did you expect?  Nothing wants to be cut back.’

One of the cuttings had a limb right across the stream.  Alone among its siblings it had seemed to have scorned the sky and preferred sheer contrariness.  Even after a few years’ growth the branch was thick and twisted.
Young Foxton was sure that if they could take it off, the hay barge would go clear up to the long pasture uninhibited.  He worked hard the fifth day, and kept Buck and Milton with him until the evening star was brighter than the sun.
‘Hand up the saw, Buck,’ he said.  ‘And we’ll tell the old man that his job’s done, even before those cows have calved.’
It took the saw to bite into the bark, but the teeth squealed when they started into the living wood.  Then the axe, chipping, chipping, pale shreds of wood floating slowly downstream beside the barge.  The saw again, and sweat rose on the farmer’s face.
It was hard to see what had been done and what was left to do in the early night, beneath the shadow of those long leaves.  He put his weight against the bough to test it, and before he knew his feet had slipped off the mud-layered root beneath him, falling backwards.  With a crack the branch sheared off, not where it had been cut and hacked, but right at the trunk and the two fell together into the stream.  His head bounced on the hardness of the root and eyes closed as the water covered over him.
Try as they might, the two men floundering in the dark shadows could not lift the branch off from him.  Somehow it had caught in the tangle underwater and he was held down.  By the time they had cut and wrenched it out, he was a heavy, sodden mass like a still-born calf, and that was how he was taken back up to his father by the hearth.

I wrote this in 2011.  I wanted something a bit spooky – and maybe it’s in imitation of Lawrence, too – but I always intended it to fill the third space in my Ghost Story Trio.

Cufflink Villanelle

Now I can wear her gift upon my wrists,

The reassembled clock-pieces to link

Our lives, half out-of-time with what persists.


These first pair, shared and bought, began the lists

Of contracts of giving, presents for ink,

Now I can wear her gift upon my wrists.


The next two are stiff, worn in Cambridge mists,

And I lost one of our favourites – flat stones sink

Our lives, half out-of-time with what persists.


I hung rings in her hair – this sight persists

When I wish memory’s eye would wink.

No eye can wear her gift upon my wrists…


They only hold together with sharp twists,

Straining but secure, I thought, but now think

Our lives half out-of-time with what persists.


But hands that held are impotent, blank fists,

And the last dregs of gladness, those I drink

Now.  Can I wear her gift upon my wrists,

Our lives half out-of-time with what persists?

Dear Possessions – Part III

If you haven’t read the previous parts of the story, reading this one first will spoil the mystery!

I spent much of the day in bed.  A heavy chill had come over me following my rash behaviour and Helen insisted that I return to the guest room with a new fire, staying warm lest pneumonia develop.  I must admit, not only did I feel physically frail but my mind was cramped with strange half-whispered thoughts I strained to capture and command.  The broken ring still lay in my closed hand when some time near mid-day I fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke hours later still shivering.  The ring in my hand was too painful to hold, so I put it in the glasses case that now held my smashed spectacles lying on the table near my bed.  Then I began to pummel my memory to see if there was anything I had ever heard of that resembled this strange haunting – for by then, loath as I had been to admit it, I was sure that that was what it was.  I have seen many awful and some terrible things in my life and heard accounts from many concerning their oppressed or troubled lives subject to some supernatural influence, and while I could think of no matter in which treasured objects like these had been removed and bewitched, that in no way reduced my certainty that poor Michael and his wife were living in a house subject to just some such influence.

Lying there weakly, I went back over what had occurred since I had arrived at the house.  The key to the other bedroom had been discovered missing in the morning, and subsequently I had discovered it in the grass before going to bed.  It was that night that I missed my spectacles, which were then found the following evening once again in the garden, and then this morning I had missed Michael’s ring, as I was now sure he had.  But had he missed it before then?  When I came to think of this I realised what should have earlier been so obvious.  If Michael also knew of the absence of his wedding band, as he surely must have, it missing from his very hand, why had he not been out to search for it as I had, or had he already?  That broken branch of holly had held its still-green leaves, wet with the dew as I had raised it from the ground.  But the other end had too still been green, and the ground dry beneath it: the branch had been freshly torn from the hedge and before the dew had fallen.  Michael had missed his ring before he had gone to bed, but after I had seen the married pair retire.  No wonder he had slept so badly.

But that also meant that Michael had not found his ring and that he was probably still subject to that uncertainty through which he had blamed himself when I had first arrived, attributing two missing objects to his own forgetfulness.

However much Michael feared, then, it was unlikely that he feared that the band had been taken from his own hand – no, much rather that he had, in his distressed state, mislaid it, much as the key and, somehow, my glasses had been mislaid.

Nonetheless, I knew that his ring had disappeared last night, and re-appeared this morning, mangled and drainingly horrible and it had re-appeared further from the house than either of the other two mislaid objects.

Should any object disappear that night, then, it would reappear the next morning further even than the ring, in the shadows beneath the pines.  So I concluded.  The shivers returned and I fell back into the drowsing state of half-sleep that so exhausted me.  After about an hour of this, Helen appeared.  She brought me soup and some comforting words and I realised how morbid and strange my fevered wonderings had been.  She was not troubled by any presence or power.  The missing objects were merely confusing and a little nuisance.  Michael too appeared and said that he had telephoned for the doctor to come the following day, as it was now rather later than I had imagined.  He too was in admirable – enviable, even – spirits.  I banished my speculations at once from my head.

Of course it was the foolish assurances of security that were the products of my fever.  If I had remembered the ring lying in the case by my bedside I would have realised so immediately, and perhaps had and taken that opportunity to avoid the terrible consequences that would so shortly befall.

I really was ill.  My exhausted body struggled to engage the chill through the night, sending me hot and then cold and then hot again.  I lay, semi-conscious and only partly in control of my raving mind or flailing limbs.  There was no comfort in the narrow bed, none in my tormented mind.  The fears returned to me but Michael and Helen did not.  I know I would have shouted out warnings and despairing prophecies like a possessed man had they been there to even chance believing me, but my mind told me that I was alone.  Eventually sleep – that balm of the tortured, that gift to the suffering – sleep quietened my limbs and my lids and lips.  I ceased to think, ceased to fear, and lay in a deep slumber.

Waking life burst upon me with violent motions.  I was being shaken, hard, by the shoulders and sitting up in bed.  My mind, still dim, registered that the fever had passed, and my thought was only obscured by the lethargy of sleep still swimming through my head.  I was being shaken.  It was Michael.

‘Clement!  Clement!  For God’s sake, man, wake up!’  My tired eyes seemed to notice that he was wearing a burgundy-dressing gown.  Was it morning?  I shook off Michael’s hands and stretched my arms, trying to slough off the torpor and the ache of sleep.  But poor Michael’s next words brought me abruptly into the cruel morning.

‘She’s gone, Clement.  Helen has gone.’

I jumped up.  Never for a moment had I considered that.  I turned to Michael.  His face was hollow, pale and empty.  I prayed I was not awake.

‘Gone?’  I asked.  ‘What do you mean?  What has happened?’

Michael answered quickly.  ‘She has gone.  She came to bed with me last night and was there when I fell to sleep.  I have just woken up and she is gone.  She is not in the house.’

I threw on my clothes where they lay by the bed and dashed to the open door of the master.  The bed was open on one side where Michael had plainly been sleeping and the other was unmarked.  No-one had slept there.  I went up to the bed and, fearing the worst, reached out a hand to feel the eiderdown where Helen should have lain.  I shrank away from the cold before I could touch the bed.  Michael came over;

‘It has grown colder,’ he said, calmly.

‘Michael,’ I said.  ‘Forgive me.  I should have told you immediately.  I have your ring.’

‘You took it?’  He looked astounded.

‘No.  I found it in the garden.  It is in my room.’

We quickly returned and I showed him the twisted band.

‘Ugh!  That was mine?  It disgusts me!  It…’  He took it from me.  ‘What does this mean.

‘Michael,’ I said.  ‘I found it beyond the lawn, in the trees.  If whatever has taken these has also taken Helen, she must be there.’  Michael did not move.  He held the ruined ring in his open hand and shivered visibly.  His eyes were fixed on it lying there like a scar or an insult.

‘Your glasses,’ he said.  ‘Smashed.  The spoons, ruined, the locket destroyed…  Our ring…’  To hear him say ‘Our ring…’ I felt the cold despair return to my bones.  I could not move, although I knew we must.  The fear of what might be was too great.  ‘Our ring…  ruined.’  He looked up.  ‘And what of her?’

‘We must go,’ I said.  ‘We may be wrong – there may be a chance – we must hurry.’  I took him by the elbow.  ‘Come on, Michael.’

We went downstairs as we were, slippered and uncomfortable.  The back door which Michael had opened before waking me stood ajar, and in poured a thick reeking cold driving mist.  By the time we reached the door it had filled the room and swollen in a cloud to the stairs.  Unearthly and dark, it distorted all the shapes around us and swallowed the noise of our feet as we ran across the frozen lawn.  Michael tripped and slid and we found ourselves at the first of the terraces.  As I took his arms to help him up I felt great violent shivers – of fear or cold I knew not.  We blundered our way hopelessly between the hedges.  We fought aside the scratching holly and trod into the deep shadow of the copse.

The mist was thicker – too thick to reveal the bole of the tree a foot before.  We held hands like terrified children and plunged through the briars and the nettles and the ferns, regarding nothing.  And suddenly the mist parted.  We stood at the base of a low mound.  On all sides the mist wreathed and tore and roiled madly.  Overhead the mist glowed dully with the few weak rays of the sun and the ground was stony, rough, and an inch deep in rime.  The rank grass and stones rose sharply.  On top of the barrow – I realised that it was a barrow – lay Helen.

The ice was even thicker about her, but then I saw that she lay encased in white beneath even that.  She lay in her wedding dress like a doll, motionless, colourless, colourless, lifeless.  All around her, pendant and precious earrings dripped from low fingers, the pine branches bare and skeletal and possessing.  There was something lively, crystalline, distant, ghostly – there was something that I immediately associated with the malevolent power of possessive spirits – simply about the arrangement of the best gems of a young wife on the black and broken splayed talons of the trees.

We did not dare breathe.  How could our eyes belong to us – our breaths belong to us?  Helen lay there, her self desecrated and broken like the dearest possession.

Michael stumbled forwards up the mound and fell to his knees in the ice beside his wife.  He reached out to her face and touched it.  Nothing moved.

For a moment I thought that he had frozen too.  His outstretched fingers lay on her frail forehead.  But his lips began to part.

‘She is dead.’

Any shred of hope was tangibly raked from the last crevices inside our frozen bodies.  I know he too felt dragged inside out.  He had lost the very power to own – to possess – anything.

With a shrieking crash, ice fell from the trees.  The beaded pendants were caught and smothered.  A shudder passed through the ground under our feet.  Helen’s eyes opened.

What had happened in that place that the most precious things risked such evil destruction?  We left the house with all our questions unanswered.  Michael carried his wife away from the barrow barely breathing.  He had no desire to discover why.  We left immediately with the doctor, taking nothing but our loves.  All through our desperate journey I wondered, as I still wonder, had Helen herself been no more to some awful unknown monster than the trifles and petty possessions taken piecemeal over decades, or longer, from those that lived in that house?  A clock, a bent flute, a torn bag of coins, an old book.  All found lying in the ice around her on the barrow.  Was she just such a possession owned and envied, snatched away?  And had she been snatched back again, or had some deeper change taken place?  I left without anything I had brought.  And in some deep hidden part of my soul I knew there was a seed of fear.  Never had I so keenly felt and feared all the risk of keeping something close.

The Garden, Gone and Remaining

It’s dangerous, returning where

You left your living herbs to root.

A trip to re-taste friendship’s fruit

Was bittered by a chilly air.


The trees that stood between brick walls

That hid along the alleyway,

Perpendicular and grey

Behind the street thick with footfalls –


Those trees that softened up waste ground,

Beloved by none who owned them, no,

Beloved by one who knew them so,

Can no longer there be found.


Eight sycamores, wind-strewn and wild,

A faded, fallen apple, broke

Beneath the ivy’s unfair yoke,

And hazel and its hopeful child,


The ashes, birches, and tangled low

Odd-limbed gooseberries, all leaf

Their chance to fruit far too brief,

My chance to help them years ago.


If anybody knew or cared,

I did – who slept beneath the branch

And dreamt that plot my mind’s wide ranch

And ate the berries birds had shared.


Returning down that concrete path

Something airy worried me –

Then bare sky lay, no branch, no tree,

And sorrow mingled up with wrath.


For all these deeds and rights to build

What value has the love of soil?

For profit pulled from a rebar broil

Who counts the trees the clearers killed?


Small pain, oh yes, for all fall, trees.

What sentimental rot – what pose!

But gloved hands felled and counted those,

That last were climbed and held by these.


I know the width of limbs, the give

And sway of outstretched arms that reach,

From letting slower creatures teach

And show me how to be and live.


God speaks in rocks and fruits and trees,

So shouldn’t I be sad and cry

That disregarded saplings die

That I regarded, gave me ease?


From bed – this bed – beneath this spread

I’d wake and see them greet the day

Or sleeping, hear the wind at play

To test them, twitch them, shoulders spread,


Roots wild-set but gripping close,

Joying, fighting with the gale,

Ducking rain and flicking hail,

And then in sun, remain, repose.


I left a lot there in that ground,

A sage-bush brought and cropped and strong,

The trunk split-twisted, leaves grey and long,

Potatoes not yet dug or found.


Nothing’s lost.  I hope – it must be.

I know that God permits no waste,

And where our minds dash on in haste

He plays a longer game than we.


How many times a root re-springs,

How many times a spring re-flows,

Oh, every time you prune a rose

You prove the loveliness of dead things.