Exhumation.

I

Under the lead gray sky
The sharp wind scours them.
The cold of the damp soil
seeps in to their knees as they crouch
and scratch at the earth.

Bones laid naked to the sky.
board, cloth, flesh long ago mulched to mud.
perhaps a rib cage tangled by blind burrowing claws
the only disturbance for almost
an eternity.

Delicately they prise the clayey grip
with gentle fingers,
lift here a thigh, there a pelvis, work free a clavicle,
carefully gather the unfused bones of a stillborn’s skull
like grimy petals.

Eyelessly, hopelessly, we watch them
as they methodically graze on our remains.
They harvest our bones, but we will be here
always.

II

The first of us secured this land
when the infant town still teetered along the strip of shore,
clinging to the sides of the high steep bank.

But the town clambered up
out of the lap of the tide,
stretching itself out above the river mouth,
coagulating prosperously over the fields,
and our living ceased to come.
This place received no more dead.
We were forgotten.

III

And now the clarts* our flesh became, gouged
and crusted over.
The sky that saw our living
commit us to the earth, blotted out.
Brick dams the river breeze
that once stroked the drizzle steeped sod.

*mud (Tyneside dialect)

– originally published in Death Head Grin.

Return Journey.

I yank another drawer open. It rattles, and is empty apart from a Phillips screwdriver and an unused mobile phone. I shove it roughly back with my hip.

“Dad, its getting on you know. Can’t you just take that bag?”

“No love, I can’t. I don’t like taking a Marks and Spencers bag to Morissons.”

“They won’t mind.”

“Well I do.”

“Can’t you just get one there? I mean, they don’t even charge.”

“OK.” I exhale. It just seems like such a waste getting a new one when there must be one around here somewhere. And I don’t feel comfortable taking a bag from another shop. Its advertising, isn’t it? I should be able to lay my hand on a bag, there’s no one else putting things away.

Jen is sitting at the kitchen table doing her mother’s nails. The varnish is a horrible mauve colour. She must have brought it with her, Audrey would never have owned anything like that. I think maybe Jen likes to be doing something when she’s with her mum, as the only way she can engage with her now. Fussing with her hair, what have you. They used to be really close before Audrey got ill. It must be hard on her too. I feel a sharp stab of shame for being so irritable around her.

“Won’t be long love. Bye Audrey love, back soon!” I leave through the back door.

I have to duck under the washing line to get to the gate. A few of Audrey’s things, some shapeless tee shirts and a dull nylon skirt. Not my wife’s clothes at all. She was always stylish, well turned out. A nice pleated skirt, a blouse with a bit of lace at the neck perhaps, matching earrings and necklace. And so trim, good posture, always a playful spring in her step. I had tried to help her dress the way she used to, but it was more trouble than it was worth. So now it is practical clothes, elasticated waist, no fiddly buttons, things that won’t need an iron.

When I arrive at the stop the bus has already turned the corner, so I was cutting that a bit fine. Jen needs to pick Alison up from school at half past, so I’ll need to get the five-to back from Morissons at the latest. Still, I don’t have much on my list.

No, this isn’t the retirement I’d been looking forward to. And now since Audrey had started with the wandering off all the time things have got more difficult. Just me nipping to the shops takes forward planning. It could be worse, Jen is really good, and her Bill takes me to do a weekly shop in the car on a Saturday morning. Social Services have sent people round, but I tell them we don’t need anything. Some of the neighbours have offered to lend a hand, but I think they are really just on the look out for some gossip. So, no, thank you very much.

Its a nice sunny day, although quite cool. I have time for a quick browse at the magazines. I put a Daily Express in my basket. Looking at the women’s magazines it strikes me that I don’t even remember which magazines Audrey used to get. She used to read a lot, magazines, always a book beside the bed. These days she won’t even sit with the telly on. She seems a lot calmer with Jen, less agitated, I don’t know what it is about her.

I have been really lucky though, I know that. What did a woman like Audrey ever see in me? I’ve never worked it out. I can still remember when we met, how easy I found it to talk to her, how that made me feel. But Audrey was always good at bringing people out of themselves. She made a new man of me. She really did. And our marriage lasted all those years, and then there’s our lovely Jen. Although she takes after me physically, broad and big boned, she is blessed with Audrey’s confidence and cheery ways, thank goodness. Bill’s a good sort, and Alison’s a little love. I try to focus on these things, but a lot of the time there’s nothing to take me out of myself, and if I’m not careful I start dwelling on the negative things, my thoughts going round and round in endless circles.

Morrisons is quiet this afternoon, and there are no queues. After I have paid I stop and put my bag down at the bench by the Community Noticeboard and check the receipt. You have to be careful that the special offers have been put through properly. I reach the bus stop in good time. There is a bit of a stiff breeze but it feels good just to be standing out of doors in the sunshine.

And here’s the bus. It’s a quiet time of day, just before the schools come out. As the driver hands me my ticket I see his big bony hands are covered in messy blue tattoos. You wouldn’t think someone would get a job where the public could see those. There is a couple sitting near the front, and a woman sitting a bit further back and across the isle. A young woman with long hair is sitting further towards the back. I walk down the aisle as the bus pulls away and sit down in the seat behind her. I put my bag on the seat beside me. I don’t like to put my things on the floor, you don’t know where people’s feet have been.

Her head is inclined down, she must be reading something. Her hair is past shoulder length, and very straight and thick, and she is wearing it loose, although she hasn’t pulled it free when she has put her jacket on, and with the ends trapped it bulges out over her collar. It is an unusual red colour, natural I would say. It has all sorts of different tones in it, auburn to bright ginger, and the sunlight makes some of the strands light up gold. I think I can smell a hint of floral shampoo, but this is so faint I am not sure if I am imagining it or not. Some of her hair has worked free of her jacket at the sides and hangs down straight, swinging gently with the movement of the bus. Her shoulders shift now and then, as if she is possibly turning a page. At the sides of her head there is a slight movement, she must be eating a sweet or something.

I reach in to my inside jacket pocket for Audrey’s nail scissors, and hold them clasped in my hands against my chest for a moment. My heart has started thudding, but I keep my breathing slow and shallow. The hair bulging from her collar would be easiest to grasp, but then the ends would tug when I pulled them free, so I will have to go for the loose hair that is nearest to the back. I must keep my hands well away from her line of vision. I sit forward. Without moving my head I cast my eyes once round the bus. Holding my breath now I slowly and steadily reach forward and gently grasp a piece of hair. I can feel the thickness of it between my fingers. Keeping my elbows tucked in to my chest, I raise my right hand, more quickly now but keeping the movements smooth, sliding the open blades either side of the hair. There is no time to hesitate and I steadily squeeze the handles together. There is a crunching as the hair is severed, but I know that I am feeling it through my hand, rather than hearing it. I can feel the slight weight of the hair as it begins to fall over my fingers. Perfect. Now I start to draw both hands away – and I feel a sickening tug as a last strand is pinched in the blades. Her hand flies up so suddenly it almost catches the scissors.

At the same time she turns her head, then twists round in the seat so that she is staring me in the face, only inches away. She stares blankly at me for a second, as I stare back. She’s younger than I thought, a teenager perhaps, heavily made up eyes in a pasty face, her hair hacked to a blunt fringe. Her eyes fall from mine to my hands which are frozen at shoulder level, and the blank look disappears.

“My hair, what have you done to my hair?!” she shrieks in my face, more than loud enough for the whole bus to hear.

Her mouth is opening so wide that I can see a white blob, a piece of chewing gum it must be, resting against her back molars. She continues to yell. I sit, astonished. And the language – I’m sure Audrey would never have been exposed to such language at such an age, you shudder to think what their home lives are like. As she continues to squawk, her attention begins to go to the woman opposite, who has stood up and is now coming over. Dressed in a long shapeless black cardigan, she is a big woman, and in her nose is an ear ring of the sort you see young people wearing.

She puts her hand on the girl’s shoulder, leaning towards her despite the volume, listening to her. She looks from the girl to me, then to my hands, which have now sunk to stomach level, but are still gripping the scissors and hair. At last, she is taking the girl out of my face, and guiding her to a seat at the front of the bus, and I see with relief that she is approaching the driver. The couple at the front are all eyes. Busybody woman talks to the driver, and now the bus is pulling over, even though there isn’t another stop until the the other side of the traffic lights. She is hovering over the girl who has thankfully quietened down a lot now. The driver turns the engine off.

For some reason the sudden stillness is alarming. The driver’s screen opens, and he unfolds in to the isle. He is surprisingly tall and skinny. He is wearing very scruffy gym shoes, I don’t expect he thought anyone would be seeing his feet today. They look funny with his smart uniform. Like the tattoos. He is striding down the bus towards me.

“Come on now granddad”. This is rich. He doesn’t look much more than ten years younger than me. “Put the scissors down on the seat for me.” He is pointing to the seat in front, where the girl had been sitting.

“What? No, I’ll put them…”

“You can either give them to me now” he interrupts, “or give them to the police when they get here, it’s up to you.” He’s got some sort of northern accent.

“Oh for goodness sake! I need to be getting home.” I reach over the back of the seat and shake the scissors off my crampy fingers.

“Good lad” he says, dropping them in his shirt pocket, “now you sit tight.”

Did he not hear me? I strongly object to his tone, but he is walking back up the bus.

“Get my hair!” the girl is yelling at him, “I don’t want him to have my hair!”

“Lets just wait for the police to deal with this shall we?” he tells her. He sounds relaxed, weary, in control.
Should I just get up now, walk away? But I’m several stops from home, I’d still be late getting back. Then I look at the people at the front of the bus, the driver, who is now talking on a mobile phone, the couple, the busybody woman, the girl, and I feel too crushed to get to my feet. They’re looking over at me a lot, not caring that I can see them doing it.

Its quarter past already, Jen will be needing to be get away. I should have brought that mobile phone she’s always on at me to carry with me. Maybe Jen will take Audrey to the school with her. Yes, that’s probably what she’ll do. They’ll still be wondering where I’ve got to though. But in a funny way, even as I am thinking about them, my family and home are beginning to feel distant and unreal.

The driver is reaching for a switch by the door, and the door opens. Then, surely not, the girl and the busybody woman are leaving! Maybe we can get on now? But no, they stop on the pavement and light cigarettes, as does the driver, standing at the door. The smell of cigarette smoke carries all the way down the bus. I suppose technically he is not smoking on the bus, but surely it comes to the same thing if I can smell the smoke all the way back here?

I look down at the hair still clasped in my hand. It is a couple of inches long, and curls around my index finger under its own weight. In my lap it looks a rich brown, but as I lift it up I can see the redness of it, and as it moves, the golden flashes. I raise it to my face, and it has a lovely clean smell, not like flowers, I was wrong about that and then there is an explosion in my ear.

The girl is banging on the window right next to me, and screeching again. My heart feels like it will burst out of my chest. Her face is right up by the window, but then busybody woman puts her arm round her and turns her away.

The driver appears at my side, making me jump. He towers over me, hand thrust out, right in my face. It smells like an ash tray.

“Give me the lasses hair.” His voice is harder now, no more granddad, no more good lad. “Now.”

A rough snort barks from my nose. Absolutely horrified I clamp my free hand over my mouth. It feels like the pressure of my hand is the only thing holding back a sudden burst of uncontrollable laughter. Looking past his hand I see a police car is pulling up in the front of the bus.