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The View

Arthur sits alone at the oak dining room table looking at black and white family photos on the wall. Autumn sunlight from the French windows makes them glow orange. Library books lie in neat piles, unread. Crosswords cut from The Daily Mail but left undone are clipped onto a board behind a sharpened pencil. A pork pie from yesterday lunchtime sits on a side plate, half-eaten.

There is a knock at the door, followed by the clicking of a key turning in the lock. His daughter, Sue, comes in smiling, carrying an armful of clean laundry.

Hi Dad.’

Oh, hello dear… was I expecting you?’

Yes, you were. Of course you were. It’s Tuesday.’

Is it?’

She sighs and looks out of the window to see the last remaining leaf on the sycamore tree in the back garden fall onto the lawn.

You need to get dressed Dad. We’re at the doctor’s in fifteen minutes’.

Right-oh dear.’

At the surgery, they sit in the waiting room until the nurse calls them in.

Hello Mr Saunders,’ says the nurse.

Have we met?’ he says.

Oh yes. We see each other every week. Don’t you remember?’ she says. ‘For me to check your blood pressure.’

Do we?… Yes, so we do!’ He smiles.

Sue can’t help rolling her eyes and gives her bobbed hair a wipe over, her palm coming to rest propping up her forehead. The nurse glances at Sue as she takes Arthur’s blood pressure and the machine bleeps.

As they get up to leave she touches Sue on the arm gently.

Are you alright?’

Sue looks at her. A tear beads in the corner of her eye.

Thought not,’ says the nurse. ‘Cup of tea?’

Arthur tucks into a chocolate digestive biscuit and sips his tea. ‘Mmmm,’ he says.

Sue and the nurse talk about what the nurse calls ‘difficult choices’. Arthur listens without appearing to. In the past month, it’s been getting worse. Sue doesn’t know how much longer will he be able to live on his own. He drives her mad, but she can see no way out of his living with her and her family.

Couldn’t you get a carer in?’ the nurse asks.

We can’t afford that. Anyway, I’m not sure he would like a stranger coming in,’ says Sue.

Depends on who it is,’ says Arthur, cutting in.

Wait a minute,’ says the nurse, picking up a local paper from the table in the waiting room. ‘What about this?’

She shows Sue a small box ad towards the back of the paper.

Caring Sharing

Home Share Agency

If you are a senior wanting company

Or a young person wanting a room

Call us on 010-244-6231

Sue decides to call the number when they get home. She finishes her tea, pulls Arthur away from the biscuits, and they go out to the car.

Back at Arthur’s there’s no time like the present. She calls the number. A polite young man answers straightaway and he tells her all about the home share idea. It’s brilliant. Young people can’t afford to buy or rent their own places so close to London, and older people on their own want company and some help with the chores. Matches made in heaven. She makes an appointment for the next day.

They set off in Sue’s Volvo. He’s dressed in the clean clothes she laid out for him on his bed. A clean handkerchief pokes out of his pocket. His hair is brushed.

You’re sure you’re OK with this Dad?’

Yes. I’m looking forward to it. Nice trip out.’

They’re going to ask you lots of questions. Please try to sound normal,’ she says.

Arthur turns and gives her a look. ‘What do you mean normal?’ he says.

He wonders if he’s ever been normal.

The young man on the phone is at reception. He’s maybe twenty-one or twenty-two, skinny, smiley, with smooth, coffee-coloured skin and tight, curly, black hair.

He says, ‘Arthur! Can I call you that?’

Arthur nods.

Cool! I’m Karl. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.’

Arthur’s eyes open wider. ‘Erm… Good morning… Karl.’

Karl steps round the reception desk and takes them over to some plush armchairs arranged around a coffee table. Once Arthur has arranged his coat and stick by his chair, Karl passes him some papers.

OK Arthur, I just need you to fill out these details for me,’ he says. ‘I can do it with you if you like. No problem.’

Arthur smiles thinly at Sue. Karl explains that it’s a bit like a dating agency. They will try to match Arthur up with someone suitable for him. For the best chance of a match he should only tick the attributes he feels most strongly about. Each tick narrows down the field.

Sue surveys the many testimonials on the walls. Successful matches did occur somehow.

Karl pulls up to Arthur’s chair and reads out each attribute to him, then ticks it if Arthur wants to specify it. Karl certainly has a way with him. They chortle together as they work down the sheet.

A week later Arthur gets a call from the agency. They put all his ticks into the system, and the perfect match turns out to be Karl the receptionist who is looking for a place himself.

Arthur, Sue and Karl meet in a pub the next day. Arthur likes pubs. Sue says it’s the only time he comes alive. She has a Pinot Grigio, Arthur has a glass of house red, and Karl has a Malibu and Coke. She goes to the ladies’ room before they settle down.

Arthur leans over to Karl. ‘She’s told me not to talk about you being black.’

That’s good,’ says Karl. ‘Because I’m not black. I’m mixed race.’

Arthur raises his eyebrows. ‘Oh… any Anglo-Saxon in there?’

Anglo-Saxon is about as common as you can get actually,’ says Karl. ‘So yes, probably.’ He looks Arthur in the eye.

Yes… I suppose you’re right, now I come to think of it.’ Arthur leans back as Sue returns to the table.

Sue is keen to set some boundaries, as she calls them. Karl calls them rules, but he goes along with it. They talk about (not) coming in late, (not) bringing friends back, chores, TV, noise, use of the garden, laundry, cooking and money. Karl listens as she goes down the list, nodding. Arthur says nothing.

Karl says,’ OK, and what about my boundaries?’

What do you mean?’ she says.

Well, I reckon you’re getting a pretty good deal here, Sue. I look after Arthur here for you. You don’t have to be around so much. He gets some company (and trust me, he will now). So, don’t I get some boundaries too?’

Arthur puts his glass down, smiles to himself, and looks at Sue.

Well yes,’ she says. ‘I suppose so…’

And shouldn’t our boundaries be about me and Arthur? Rather than about you?’ says Karl. He turns to Arthur. ‘Is that OK with you, man?’

Arthur says, ‘Yes… That’s OK with me… man.’

A week later Karl moves in. He chooses the room looking down on to the garden – he likes the idea of waking up to the sounds of nature. He carries a suitcase, a laundry bag (half full), a huge, bubble-wrapped flat-screen TV, a crumpled lampshade with burn marks on it, a laptop in a case and a plastic packing box full of pens, pencils, crayons, brushes, paints and paper.

Arthur is sitting in the hallway watching these items as they pass by and up the stairs. Sue stands next to him shifting her weight from foot to foot.

Mind the paintwork, Karl!’ Arthur says.

Don’t worry Arthur, I’m good at this. I’ve been moving this stuff around for years,’ says Karl.

Arthur and Sue hear bumping upstairs as Karl sets things down and shoves them into place. He’s talking to himself very quickly in a syncopated monotone.

What’s he saying?’ asks Arthur.

I think It’s rap, Dad.’ says Sue.


No! RAP.’

They have a month to see how it works out. The next day Arthur gets up as usual at seven. Karl doesn’t. He has to get to work by ten and ends up rushing out of the front door eating a piece of toast at nine-fifty. Arthur gets up to close the door behind Karl, shaking his head. Karl leaves a smell of coconuts in his wake which Arthur quite likes.

When he gets back from work at five, Karl carries in some groceries in plastic bags.

Ready for some tea Arthur?’ he says.

It’s a bit early for me to be honest. I usually go up the pub for a glass of red before dinner. Could we do that first?’ says Arthur.

OK, as long as I can have a bag of crisps – I’ll be starving otherwise,’ says Karl.

The pub is too far to walk but not really far enough to drive. Nevertheless, they go in Arthur’s blue Fiesta. As they walk in under the gaily-coloured flower baskets the chatter inside goes down a notch.

Usual, Arthur?’ says Tom the barman. Arthur nods.

Nice lad, the barman. I’m not sure about that tattoo on his neck though,’ Arthur says, a bit too loudly, to Karl over his shoulder. ‘What would you like anyway?’

Oh… just a Coke please,’ says Karl. ‘And a packet of cheese and onion.’

They take the drinks over to a table in the bay window next to a log-effect gas fire.

I love it here, ‘says Arthur. ‘It’s a real village pub. Not many of those left you know.’

Karl takes this in. Everyone looks well-off, well-fed and white. A group of late-middle-aged men crowd at one end of the bar. They are wearing garish, multi-patterned sweaters and trousers. They greet Arthur.

Oh my God. What have they got on?’ says Karl.

Arthur laughs. ‘They’re golfers.’

Do you play golf then?’ says Karl.

Oh, I used to, yes, of course. Not for a bit now though. My knees can’t take it any more.

In that gear?’ says Karl, sniggering.

Arthur doesn’t want to go into how you can tell a lot about a man from his choice of golf clothes: it has got him into trouble before in here.

On the way home in the car, Arthur suddenly thinks how quickly today has gone.

Inside, Karl cooks them some sausages and mash which Arthur tucks into, making this-is-tasty noises. They chat about Arthur’s family. His wife of 60 years died three years ago. Sue is their only child. She can be a bit edgy, intense even.

Karl says he thinks Sue is lucky. He doesn’t know who his father is; never met him, doesn’t know anything about him. His mother lives in Brixton with his younger brother and sister. She is a cleaner. He doesn’t see much of them. His mother works long hours and the children go to his auntie’s most of the time.

Arthur says, ‘I’m sure she’d like to see you, even so. She must get lonely sometimes.’

I s’pose,’ says Karl, picking up the remote. ‘What’s on TV tonight?’

On Friday night, they are in the pub again. Karl is starting to enjoy this part of their evenings. Arthur is not saying much and gazes out of the window. Karl says, ‘Alright?’

Yes. Yes. I was just thinking about our chat the other night. Look, would you like to see your mother tomorrow? I mean… we could go. In the car. You know? It’s not that far.’

Karl looks up suddenly. ‘Look! I haven’t been back there for over a year now. There’s a reason for that. Leave it, man, OK?’

The golfers fall silent for a few seconds, twisting round to look at them.

Arthur puts his hands up. ‘OK, OK!’ he says, trying to contain his voice in a whisper.

Karl sucks his teeth and shakes his head. He finishes his Coke and stands up. ‘I’m going to walk home. Don’t wait up for me.’ He strides out of the door.

Arthur finishes his red wine and gets in the car. Oh dear. He was only trying to be helpful. There’s no sign of Karl on the way home. He lets himself into the dark house. He doesn’t feel like eating, but there’s no point in going to bed. He won’t sleep anyway. He turns on the TV and sits with a rug over his knees. The evening has become heavy.

Arthur wakes in his chair. Eleven o’clock. No Karl. He goes upstairs to bed.

In the morning, he goes down to make a cup of tea. Should he knock on Karl’s door? He doesn’t think so. That was one of the agreed boundaries. What if Karl doesn’t come back? Or what if he decides to move out? Arthur rests his head in his hands on the table.

Just then, there is movement upstairs. Arthur lets out a long breath and looks up. He hears footsteps coming down the stairs, and Karl walks in. They look at each other. Karl nods hello. He sits down opposite Arthur. ‘You gonna make me a cup of tea then?’ he says. He smiles.

I’m sorry I upset you last night,’ says Arthur, avoiding eye contact. ‘It’s none of my business. I should never have brought it up.’

No, Arthur. I’ve thought about it. And you are right. I should go and see her. It’s been too long.’

Arthur raises his eyebrows.

Anyway. I thought you weren’t good at remembering conversations the next day.’

Oh no. I remember them. If they’re worth remembering, that is.’

They find themselves outside in the Fiesta at ten o’clock. Karl says he knows the way from Brixton station, so they are going to head there first. Arthur gets the map out of the glove compartment and puts it on Karl’s lap. ‘Pretty straightforward really,’ he says, pointing out the route with the end of his car key.

We’ll see!’ laughs Karl, who has not done much map reading before, except on the tube.

How can you get through life without looking at a map?’ says Arthur.

Arthur hasn’t been to South London for a long time. He was born, and grew up there.

Karl can’t imagine Arthur as a boy.

They reach Brixton without mishap.

Arthur, do you mind if we stop for a coffee before we get to my mum’s?’ says Karl.

Arthur looks at him. ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’

Yeah, yeah. I just need to get my shit together first, man. You know.’

They park in a side road and find a small cafe on the corner. They sip cappuccinos and Arthur tackles a slice of Victoria sponge. He watches Karl as he looks out of the window at the passers-by. ‘Nervous?’ he says.

Not really. It’s just … a lot’s happened round here for me,’ says Karl.

Me too,’ says Arthur. ‘I used to cycle past here every day on my way to school. I don’t think I would do that nowadays.’

Karl smiles. ‘I used to walk to school. When I went, that is. I hated it. Most of the time we just used to bunk off.’

Arthur says, ‘On the subject of bunking off, Sue’s a bit put out I think.’

Oh, why?’

I think she is surprised I’m with you… doing this. I normally go over to hers today. I spoke to her while you were getting ready.’

Maybe she’s jealous,’ says Karl.

Karl’s mother lives in a council tower block a few minutes away from the cafe. They pull into the parking area. Arthur has never been in a tower block before and he’s looking forward to the ride in the lift.

You’ll be lucky!’ says Karl. ‘It’s never working.’

But it was.

When she answers the door, Karl’s mother is short but large, in a floral apron. Her round, red-rimmed eyes open wide and her mouth sags, soundless. She has no phone. She had no idea Karl was coming.

Hi Mum,’ says Karl.

She is crying, tears rolling down her cheeks. Her whole body seems to heave with her sobbing. Her ample arms fold Karl’s head into her neck so that he is bent over as if at a drinking fountain.

Mum. This is Arthur. Arthur, this is my mum, Lydia.’ He hadn’t really thought about what to say next. ‘Erm… Arthur is my…’

friend,’ says Arthur. ‘Look, I can wait in the car, Karl. It’s no problem.’

You will not!’ says Lydia, standing back from the door and wiping her cheeks with the apron. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime. You must stay. Karl! Move those toys off the sofa so your friend can sit down.’

Can I look at the view first?’ says Arthur.

They stand in a row: Arthur on the left, then Lydia, then Karl, looking out of the wide east-facing window. She holds both their hands.

They stand staring at the scene below in silence, connected. A sycamore leaf wafts past the window, caught in an up draft.

Lydia squeezes their hands. ‘When you’re down there it’s pretty ugly and dirty. From up here it always looks beautiful.’


In front of him, on the other side of the two-way loop, a yummy mummy sat in a booth at a table, dishes of pastel sushi under plastic domes circulating around her to electro-bubbly music.

Over her shoulder a weeks-old baby fixed his china-blue eyes on the passing feast, dribbling and puking snail trails on her left deltoid.  She, unaware, was bent over her smartphone on the table, prodding and swiping with her free hand.

What could a lady who lunches possibly find to get busy with on a smartphone?

Hot-flush embarrassment rose through him as he realised he was doing exactly the same thing. 

On the Centenary of The Battle of Arras


For William John Symons (1892-1953)


11 September 1940 – Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire 

Eight at night, hot, sweaty, the rabbit

In the pot bubbling, the wireless crackling.

The news of bombs on London docks grabs

Your guts, mashes your mind, mood blackening.

A wave of shouting passes, and the slapping

Of hasty feet, of women and men,

With girls and boys who rush ahead of them.

‘They’re running to the schoolyard, come on Dad!’

Shouts Tony, full of steam, with tossing head.

You rush along with Doll, behind the lad ,

Past chink-free  cottages and musty garden sheds.

The whole world’s woken up and left their beds.

You crowd into the schoolyard on the hill,

The stars are black-out bright , your heartbeat still.

The breeze is warm, the trees’ leaves tremble near.

Towards the South an angry glow grows red

And lights the crane spikes of the docks.  You hear

The droning bombers’ engines overhead

And on your flesh, you feel the fear ahead.

The criss-cross beams of searchlights cast their net.

The flames flick through the far-off second sunset.


Weeks ago, you martialled East End children:

Your school was moving from the German bombs.

You herded them through Liverpool Street Station,

And counted them on board, one by one,

Their string-tied labels flapping cardboard tongues.

Tearful parents needed someone strong

To reassure that it was not for long.

You stand with their evacuated kids,

Who watch you now to see if you’re afraid

Of Jerry and his blitz. Your head forbids

The reeling-feeling dread of his invasion.

How can this all be happening once again?

You went to war, to end all wars, with friends

From Portsmouth twenty years ago. Back then

You didn’t fight to see them over here,

Buzzing, blitzing, bombing East End streets.

You didn’t hide in cellars, rank with fear,

To cower in shelters now while we repeat

The fight with Germans who you thought you beat.

So much for League of Nations, armistice.

Did we learn nothing, is it back to this?

‘Oh God, Bill,’ Dolly says, ‘What shall we do?’

‘We’ll carry on Love; I will teach my class,

You will fix the workers’ daily stew,

Tony will go to school – and this will pass.

We beat them once and we’ll complete the task

Again, you’ll see, no need to be alarmed.’

You hold their hands, look confident and calm.

To billets in the village, dark and drowsy,

The children stumble back along the lane.

‘What about our mums and dads, our houses?’

You tell them, ‘It’s all fine. Old Jerry’s aim

Was never any good – it’s still the same.’

‘You think all our bananas might be burning?’

‘I’m sure they’re not,’ you smile. Your stomach’s churning.


10 February 1906 – Portsmouth Dockyard

The champagne bottle bounces off the back

Of Dreadnought as she slips down to the sea.

It does not burst until the third hard crack,

The spume cascades down lapping plates of steel.

This ship shouts ‘Empire’, floating arrogantly,

Machine of mass destruction, steaming proud.

You stand with John, your dad, amongst the crowd.

His red eyes fill. You cheer and wave the flag.

He’s worked here for a year to build this beast,

A year of blood, sweat, toil and tears. Your dad

Came home for tea each day with tales to feast

Your ears on: welds, thick plates, huge guns; so pleased

The Royal Navy ruled the seas outright,

That none dare challenge our Great Britain’s might.

You’re working hard at school, you’re proving bright.

And John is proudly getting good reports

From teachers who can see the glowing light

Of promise in your eyes and give support

For you to leave the docks, the first cohort

At Portsmouth’s new college, where  you’ll strive

For  University in a few years’ time.

These teachers push you hard to give your all.

They inspire by what they do and what they say.

You grow in mind and stature in their mould.

Though short at five-foot-five, you can hold sway.

You rev yourself to make the getaway.

It’s clear you are a leader, and your dream

Of being a schoolmaster starts to gleam.


15 February 1915 – Luton, Bedfordshire

‘Your Country Needs You,’ so the posters say.

You wait in line to sign your name for war.

It’s one year on. So you know today

About the Western Front and what’s in store.

And yet you smile, you’re proud, you’re brave, you’re sure.

You all want to go and show the Huns

What happens when you anger British lions.

You are to join the Expeditionary Army

In France, this is the first time ever abroad

For you, a Portsmouth shipwright’s son, now tommy.

And what of trench-life truth will you be told

While training, bulling boots and getting cold?

Will early mornings, box-pinched beds, sharp creases

Help, when your mates get blown to pieces?


29 November 1916 – Arras, France

Arras. The squeaking, creaking train pulls up.

It’s full of boys, young, single, just like you.

Fresh Royal Fusiliers are forming up,

Smooth-faced, feckless, reckless, hats askew.

Spotters fly, flimsy, over you.

The straight strips of stretchers line the track,

With smoking, blinkered boys who don’t grin back.

Sergeant Symons, a year on now from training,

You march the muddled men  to join the ranks

Of comrades underground in chalky, shaking

Caves and cellars under Arras. The dank

Dark throws the thud of boot on plank.

The light bulbs flicker SOS across

Graffiti signposts on the road to chaos.

A city underground. You share the stench

With rats and bats and lice and mice and men

English, Scots, Chinese, Canadian, French,

Welsh and Maoris digging to extend

The tunnels, through the chalk, beyond the trenches

To shield assaulting men from shells and guns

When they close in and bayonet the Huns.

You eat your scalding tins of bully beef,

You drain your rum  until you are not here.

You dream of strawberry jam and clotted cream.

You’re missing Martha’s bread and warm, flat beer.

Your mind makes green and placid fields appear.

Above, the weather worsens every day:

The snow and driving rain will melt the clay.

On last night’s raid, you saw a mud-drowned man.

He’d slipped off duck boards into sucking muck,

His face mud-masked. The filthy, clawing hands

And febrile fingers of a sitting duck.

The eyes glared through his death mask, terror-struck.

All this, illuminated by the flares,

Is the hell to which you climb, up white chalk stairs.

Rumours from the East of revolution:

The Russians might well pull out of the fight.

The Easter Rising cranks up more confusion.

A fresh offensive must be now in sight

With talk of improved tactics every night.

‘It’s coming, Sarge. It can’t be far away.’

‘Maybe, but we’ll be ready, lads,’ you say.


9 April 1917 – Outskirts of Arras, France


Five days the guns have fired

On Germans buried just ahead

To ‘soften them up’ and cut their wire.

Under Arras thousands wait

And listen to the shrieking shells

As they bombard without a break.

Even in this citadel

Below the earth the guns burst through

Your ears, your head, your every cell,

Reverberate and numb you to

A gaping statue, ghostly white,

Incapable of thought, but you

Must do the rounds by candlelight

And buck the boys up with good cheer,

Give a hand if they can’t write

Their letters home to sweethearts dear

And praying parents back in Blighty

Who could never dream what’s here.

You’ve been above, in thundering night,

To see, through periscopes, objectives

For the hurling, howling, headlong flight

Right through No Man’s Land, (perspective

Altered by the lenses), close-

Seeming, so that this directive

To attack may be, who knows,

Not quite as stupid as it seemed

To you, this morning, when disclosed.

That’s what you tell the lads at least,

As you explain to them the scheme.


Now your boys are huddled round,

Ready to ascend to hell,

Muttering prayers against the pound

Pound, pound, pound of shells,

Crumpled pictures close to hearts

In pockets, as they try to quell

The body-trembling terror darts

Which fly from head to toe. Mr

Lamb, thumbs up, starts

Up the steps, draws his pistol,

Shouts, and out into the ditch.

You slap the backs of boys resisting.

‘Go on lads! Let’s leave this pit

And get some fresh air in our lungs!’

Your wit: they shake and smile at it.

Mr Lamb will lead Wave One,

Wave Two (with you) will give them cover

With fatal fire from Lewis guns,

Wave One down, then Two will be over

In the Boche trench fair and square,

And… finish off survivors.

There won’t be much left living there,

Once you have poked round everywhere.


Five thirty and they fire the flares.

Wave One spring up with Lamb and dash.

The creeping barrage bucks the air.

No Man’s Land erupts in flashes.

Earthen fountains fly sky-high.

You and Wave Two dodge the crashes,

Slam against a crater’s side,

Spray the guns to shield Wave One,

Then up again for one last time.

Wave One fires. Lamb is down.

Wave Two stabbing Huns.

You hit the ground.  No-one around.

No sound… No sound.

No sound… No sound.

No sound .


13 April 1917- Hotel Mont Dore, Bournemouth

Starched nurses butterfly-bob from bed

To bed, changing dressings, chatting, pushing

Men in chairs on parquet boards, heads

Bandaged, drinking cups of tea; shushing

Curtains, white, white, plumped-up cushions,

Surgical smells, rustling cotton sheets,

A vase of roses at your clean, dry feet.

The clipboard on the washstand  next to you:

Shrapnel – head and thigh (Removed Calais).

Your leg is strapped up tight, your head is too.

A smoothly-spun, white turban overlays

Your thud-throbbing brain and half your face.

Around you in regimental rows

Lie shrouded human shadows, trying to doze.

You send a card to John and Martha so

They know you’re here and safe, not far away

From Portsmouth. When they come they’ll want to know

What happened outside Arras just four days

Ago, to you, and others, young and brave.

But how much can you tell them? Can you bring

The dash back to your mind, or anything?

‘Oh Son, what have they done to you?’ she says.

‘It’s alright Mum, it could have been much worse.’

‘Much worse than this?’ she gasps, as she lays

Soft hands on yours and John shouts a curse

On Kaiser Bill, which gets a passing nurse

To say, ‘Enough of that for now, Sir. Please!’

And John, back in his place, looks ill at ease.

‘They came to get me Dad,’ you wince and strain.

‘My boys came back to get me from the hole.’

‘It’s OK Son, don’t tell it all again,’

Says John. ‘You need to rest, forget it all.’

But that is easier said than done, your soul

Is scarred forever with that memory.

You want to go back soon across the sea.

‘We got there really fast across the gap.

At first I thought we might all make it there,

But Mr Lamb, in front, fell fast, poor chap.

I had to take the lead, get up and tear

Across the bursting holes and wire snares

And take my men to cover from the shells.

My ears felt full of shrapnel, and I fell.’

Martha folds her face as you recount

The story of the boys and how they helped

You into shelter, life in doubt.

‘Thank God they got the pieces of the shell

Out from your head and leg,’ she gulps,

‘You’re not going anywhere, my lad.

You’re staying put right here with me and Dad.’

They leave you now to rest, and you lie back,

But all you want to know is what’s become

Of your platoon, and whether the attack

Succeeded. Did the enemy succumb?

How many made it through? – Anyone?

No-one knows, or no-one wants to say.

One day you’ll know it all, but not today.


11 November 1918 – 4th Officer Cadet Battalion, Oxford

You’re going to be a ‘temporary gentleman’:

The public schoolboy’s dying fast in France.

Of course, they’ll never think of you as genuine;

‘Not one of us, you know.’ They’ll look askance.

But for the war you wouldn’t get a glance.

Tomorrow morning you will be commissioned,

Second Lieutenant Symons (with conditions).

‘Gentleman; I have historic news!

The armistice was signed this morning, early.

The end of fighting! Eleven o’clock it’s due!’

The company commander leads the hurly-burly ,

Tears, prayers, cheers. But this will surely

Scupper all your plans of going back

To give the fight in France another crack.


1940 – Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire 

The war to end all wars did not. And so

You watch as London burns for months on end,

You see young men fall from the sky again.

But you keep cool, collected, even though

The scars you bear, the friends you left out there,

Must seem to count for nothing anymore.

Would you have made Headmaster without war?

Your wife, your son, your life all stem from there.

And now?

. . . . . . . . . .  The echoes of those wars repeat:

Human bombs explode instead of shells,

Innocent civilians face the hell,

And soldiers, heads in hands, beg on our streets.

Much has changed today, and much…not yet

I hope you’re proud of us: we won’t forget.

Pug miss

They were sitting at the wooden table in the front of the holiday cottage they had rented in Hall-Dunderdale in the Lake District, enjoying breakfast in the sunshine. There were cups of tea and boiled eggs with brown toast on a plastic tray from the little kitchen. 

Despite the cloudless sky the air was fresh. The wagtails sang as they rocketed and plummeted in the wind, ewes called for their lambs in the nearby fields, cows bellowed in the stinking shed across the narrow road. The red-faced fells looked down on the valley from each side. 

The two pugs, Ollie and Delly, in their harnesses but without leads,  were up on their hind legs nosing the edge of the table hoping for scraps. Something caught their ears and they threw themselves into short bursts of body-jerking barking at the road through the gateless entrance to the front garden of the cottage. 

Veering round the bend fifty yards up the road was a black Astra with two young men inside wearing wooly hats. Music thumped through the body work of the car. Its tyres thudded on the uneven tarmac like a drum roll. 

The pugs twisted, made four foot contact with the gravel by the table, and kicked it backwards as they reared towards the road. 

As she looked up it seemed to her that the pugs and the Astra were drawn closer together with each bark and each beat. 

The table was the type you see in pub gardens with benches attached on each side. As she struggled to stand up her legs became wedged between the edge of the table top and the edge of the bench. 

Her hands frantically wiped an invisible glass screen through which she watched the imploding scene. ‘No, no!… Come back!’ she shrieked at the dogs. Then, ‘Stop!… Dogs!…. There’s two of them!’ at the the Astra.

She lifted each leg in turn out of the timber trap of the table, scraping the skin of her shins against the wood.  But she felt nothing. All her attention was on the road. 

The car had slowed to a walking pace and the dogs were jumping up to reach the elbow of the boy in the passenger seat as he leant out of the window, grinning. The car stopped. 

‘Ello luv…are they poogs?’ the passenger laughed.

Her hands had covered her forehead and eyes as if she were playing hide and seek with the boys. Her hair flopped over them and was straggling between her white fingers. 

She slowly uncovered her eyes and let her hands drop. ‘Oh my God!… Oh my God!’ She panted. This was how she had reacted to the torture scene in Versailles on the TV the night before, but this time she was in the scene herself.

She looked around her. 

Somehow she was standing in front of the car and slightly to the passenger side of it, over the bonnet. The pugs were straining up to lick the boy’s fingers which by now were dangling down the door of the Astra.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘They are pugs… Sorry… I should have had them on leads… I didn’t realise… ‘

‘Maybe it’s you who should be on the lead luv. We nearly ran you orver.’ Said the driver. 

‘It’s just that their uncle Boris was hit by a car and died in London a year ago.’ Her face crumpled and her lips trembled. ‘It was awful.’ she said. 

‘Don’t worry… W’or used to ’em’ ere luv.’ Said the driver. ‘Get oop on the fells wi’ em. Yarl be safer thur… ‘ave a nice day!’

The tyres kicked gravel back along the road as they sped off again, laughing.

She dragged the pugs back into the cottage, sobbing, and sat down on the sofa clinging them to her and kissing their snuffling heads.

Pug walk

At eight o’clock the two pugs, Ollie and Dellie, wake me up licking any exposed parts. I pull on some clothes while they stretch out on the duvet like pigs hanging in a butcher’s window. We file down to the kitchen for harnesses and leads, then they hurtle down the stairs, bottoms working like speed walkers’. They paw at the front door, barking to get out. Half asleep I form up, open the door, and we are out onto the narrow lane in front of Wave Crest. They are off. Straight over the sea wall and on to the shingle beach with its sloping hardwood groynes. They head straight to the nearest bushes cocking legs urgently.

We walk over two groynes to the favourite poo spot. I delve in my coat pocket for the crinkly black bags. This is the last thing I need at this time in the morning but one becomes inured after a while. This must be how new parents feel all the time I suppose. The bulging bags go into the red bin, weirdly like a post box, reserved for ‘dog waste’.

Then we are into the social phase of the outing. The regulars with their owners turn up most mornings. I only know the names of the dogs – Rudy the chocolate labrador, Pigsy the terrier, Teddy the labradoodle. There is running and jumping amongst the tussocks, tail biting, whoops of joy. I am slowly coming to, but they would carry on walking for hours quite happily. I, having breathed back the first menthol of the day, am ready for a cup of PG Tips.

‘Brekkie… Come on pugs!’

They stop in their tracks and run over, leaving the throng, the promise of food trumping all other distractions. I shuffle back to the front door. The pugs are there already scratching to get in. They bound up the stairs to the kitchen. I trudge behind. Now we are into the vocal phase of the morning. As soon as bowls are spotted the high-pitched yelps and howls begin from Dellie. Ollie waits patiently for his, allowing his brother to do the talking for both. They gulp down the crunchy biscuits and meat pate, changing places two or three times, licking every last morsel until the bowls are spotless. They lick each others faces and whiskers clean.

The day has started. Without them I would still be in bed.

Slipping away

As Tom sat at the gate-legged table things were slipping away. 

His memory was not what it used to be, starting with the names of people he had known for years, and who now scrambled themselves up together so that he thought he was talking to one when actually he was with another altogether. Why the bemused looks? He knew exactly who he was with. 

His children’s childhood had slipped away too. He thought of them more as friends now. He saw one or other of them most days. They made fun of his odd little ways, which he had always had, but which were emerging from their privacy more regularly nowadays. He’d taken to eating out every night because he had never cooked anything and had no interest in learning, and because he hated eating alone in the house. It always felt like being stood up every evening there. 

Restaurants encouraged the odd little ways to come out.  On his arrival at the Indian a pile of poppadoms and a tray of chutneys appeared swiftly at the table with a small bowl, warmed. He liked to eat out of a bowl. He had got this from the only other restaurant he went to, a Chinese. He would linger at this stage, prolonging the time away from the house. Once he’d ordered the main course the waiter would reach to take away the menu. He would snatch it back. He liked to keep it at the side of his plate for the rest of the meal. You never knew when you might want to consult it. He once asked for soy sauce to go with his chicken tikka (starter size). The young waiter had tilted his head to one side. He probably didn’t know what soy sauce was. Whatever the meal or restaurant, Tom always finished with one… yes ONE scoop of vanilla ice cream please. Variety might be the spice of life, but not when you were eighty seven.

His daughter had a thing about his wardrobe which had taken on an enduring quality. A purple jumper,  which now hung generously about him, could appear every day for a month. Years ago he had sported a pair of towelling swimming trunks on the Thanet beaches for close on a decade.  In the end his wife Mary had spirited them away to a neighbour’s rubbish bin. He had searched high and low for them. He had given up swimming (and beaches) shortly after that. 

Around him in the dining room the dark green wood chip wallpaper was bare, the Welsh dresser’s shelves empty, the occasional tables unladen, the life sucked off them. And he was alone. Mary had died three years before suddenly. This was good for her but not for him he told people in the pub.  She was an angel. Her domain was the home and she ran it really well. He had never before lived on his own. 

At first he couldn’t imagine what he was going to do all day. When it turned out to be not very much he settled into it without self-examination. The afternoons dragged. He would sit in front of the TV with the twenty-four-hour News Channel on (sound off). The highlight of the day was at six in the evening when he went to the pub which he and Mary had frequented together for twenty five years. Now even their friends there had started to slip away. 

After three years of this he was in a rut. He was going through the motions. So he was delighted when his daughter and son-in-law suggested they have his house enlarged, and sell theirs, and move into his place with their three teenage kids. He would move in with them while the works at his were completed. They could take care of him and he wouldn’t be lonely anymore. They would all be together. Light at the end of the tunnel at last. But now the solitary period of his life was slipping away to nothing he had become more anxious about it all. A new bed would never be as comfortable as his own. There was his bad back to think of. He was fine here really. So now his home was slipping away as well. He didn’t know if he was coming or going. People at the pub asked him when he would be moving out for the work. He couldn’t remember. Or he wouldn’t remember.

He lifted his head from his hands and saw a fresh spring gust of wind detach the last dead leaves from the Sycamore trees at the end of the garden. They settled on the bushy grass. 

There was a knock on the front door, a key in the lock, and someone came in. He looked round.  

“Hi Daddy… you ready?”

“Oh… Hello darling… Sorry,  I wasn’t expecting you…Am I ready for what?”

Harbour Street 

Nose down Harbour Street in beating sun,
See quirky shops and cafes one-by-one

Link arms against the onslaught of the chains,
Who every year set out to stake their claims.

Bars on every corner so it seems,
Though elsewhere publicans give up their dreams.

The trippers trip in traffic as if blind,
I too remember how it was first time,

To smell the chips and touch the oyster shells.
I can’t be mad  –  this magic overwhelms.

And who can blame them all for liking here?
I came one day and stayed for twenty years.

It’s fresh, it’s free, it’s fun, the people smile,
Look healthy, happy, hippy, seaside-style.

Image by Nigel Wallace