Hero

Did you feel like the hero,
as perceived by the press?
Were you proud of your uniform,
as you marched through the city?
Were you a protector, a warrior,
proud to be at your country’s defence?
Were you brave and fearless and strong?
Not when I saw the bodies piled high,
for the sake of race or religion.
Not when we uncovered,
the mass burial sites,
of mutilated women and children.
Not when I saw,
the cities in ruin,
and the towns burnt down to the ground.
Not when I saw the civilian dead,
blown up by a bomb meant for us.
Not when my friends,
lost most of their limbs,
from an improvised explosive device.
Not when my buddy,
took a round to the head,
and I witnessed the life leave his eyes.
Not when I was followed,
all the way home,
by the ghosts of the injured and dead.
Not when I hide,
away in the house,
because I’m frightened
of what’s waiting outside.
Not when I’m afraid,
to fall asleep,
because they are there
in my nightmares as well.
Not when the memories
and flashbacks and dreams,
turn my home,
into a prison cell.
Not when I frighten,
my wife or my kids,
because I’ve got no one to tell,
about the bombs or the bodies,
the death or the war,
that turned my life,
into a living hell.

I wish

I wish for time to slow down,
for the hours to stop fleeting by like seconds
and the seconds to stop rushing past like insects on the wind
For the ink in my pen to never stop flowing
for the inspiration to make sense when I transfer it to the page
For the future to stop trying to surprise me
for my plans to make it to the end without some unexpected wrinkle
twisting it to something else
For the results to materialise without so much stress
For the effort to be worthwhile without being overshadowed by doubt
for it all to be less of a gamble when there are kids and family and loved ones involved
For the landscape to keep offering itself to me
and to keep finding hidden locations that I have never seen before
sunsets I will never see again
whispers of waves that will never speak to me the same again
For the flowers and plants in my garden to keep growing
to stay alive even though my fingers are not really that green
For the stability to remain
for the security to never fail again
For the striving, the endeavour to be worth it all in the end
For my mind to stop churning
For my consciousness to stop overworking
For the concern for everything
that doesn’t matter or that I can’t do anything about
no longer keep me awake
For my family to be safe in their beds at night
and their lives in the day
For the turmoil that is still chasing me to finally lose its way
to be left behind me only as a reminder of how bad things can get
For someday to find my peace

Winter approaches

Winter approaches
tiptoes into autumn
icy fingers
working their way into
sunlit bronze days
frigid breath tucked in valleys
blanketing fields
rising from star lit nights
encroaching on dark mornings
frosted shadow cast over crispened grass
lushness paled beneath encrusted dew
as the last of sugared colours tumble
from stark silhouettes of naked trees
Amber spills onto the cracking spider’s webs
on puddles captured by winter’s chilling touch
and sleeted rain cascades onto
waves of fallen leaves
sealing spring beneath
bleached years end
solidified beneath a crystal sky
beautiful in its harshness

The Circle

Twenty five men stood in a loose circle, looking towards the centre, perfectly still. Immaculately ironed and starched olive green and navy blue, tee shirts and shorts, green issued socks folded over twice, grey Hi-tec trainers. Regulation haircuts, grade two, sideburns terminated at the middle of the ear, neck trimmed straight, not tapered.

The Physical Training Instructor, short, mean, ginger, combat trousers and a tight white vest, views the men before him. He searches for his first victims, all hoping not to be picked first. Nobody wants to be first, no one wants to be last either, all that waiting, better to just get it over and done with.

The PTI slowly walks the line, hands behind his back, then he uses the whole of one muscular arm to point, fingers straight, like the blade of a knife.

‘You and you’. A sinking feeling in my stomach as the arm points at me.

Huge boxing gloves are pushed on roughly. Straps pulled tightly on old cracked brown leather, a stench of dried sweat from all the others who have worn those gloves before me. A long slow walk to the centre of the circle, my opponent growing bigger as he gets closer. Standing inches apart, the mountain of muscle towers above. The circle of men has gone quiet, silence thundering in my ears. Standing for an eternity on the wooden gym floor, like two nervous teenagers at a school disco. Time has slowed to a crawl. The adrenaline is already coursing through my body, arms and legs shaking.

“Fight!”

A roar goes up from the circle of men around us, cheering, shouting. Apprehensively we clash, no way to escape, no excuses not to fight. We fling ourselves at each other, swinging, windmilling, flailing, churning hoping to contact something. Fists raining down on my head, each blow feels like its rattling my brain around inside my skull. Ears ringing, brown leather flashing before my eyes, no idea if any of my hits are landing. I grit my teeth, swing my arms harder, blindly at the target, chest burning as I struggle to intake air. No blocking, dodging or weaving allowed, a test of pure aggression, character building, closer to gladiatorial combat than boxing.

I land a solid whack, then another. A lucky few punches, a momentary pause while my opponent recomposes himself. He returns instantly with a blow from each fist straight into my face, launching me backwards. The circle stops me falling, hands push me back towards the centre of the circle. A trickle of blood runs from my nose and down my chin, splashing onto the polished gym floor. My opponent is on me again, more blows, sweat pours, joining the congealing blood. Our green tee shirts soaked, sticking to burning skin. Exhausted, gloves weighing arms like concrete. We wave our aching limbs at each other in our strange, violent dance. Lethargic punches landing, slipping, sliding off blood and sweat.

‘Stop!’

We stumble away from each other, dripping. Our clothing blood soaked, twisted and stretched, no longer immaculate, faces covered in crimson welts of latent bruises.

A single minute has passed, two more rounds to go.

Kenny

He stands at an entrance dressed in black
The guardian of a contemporary temple
where worshippers praise the god of alcohol
He’s been slogging through this for twenty years
no promotions ladder for him to climb
no pension, no gold watch or carriage clock
for his years of loyal service
He has had enough, getting to old for this
Drunken youngsters that can barely stand
challenging him to fight
easily placated by his practiced calmness
He waits every night
on the battlefield of a city street
the frontline of an alcohol fuelled war
and like any soldier
he has no idea when his time will come
each violent street side episode
feels like a step closer

In two weeks time he will leave
to labour on a building site
after witnessing his colleague
kicked to unconsciousness.

Driving

The blackness disappears into the horizon.
Three lanes of empty motorway
only distinguishable
from the surrounding embankments
by the intermittent glow of coloured cats eyes
The road has been sprinting
under my wheels for hours
White lines waver in sleep deprived hallucinations
Trailing behind me, tail light scarlet
haemorrhages onto the unravelling tarmac.
A soft blanket of tiredness has wrapped itself tightly around my shoulders.
The gentle promise of sleep
soft and warm against my skin
I roll down the window
allowing the slipstream to enter
and momentarily ease
the uncomfortable monotony from my face
Creeping towards me from the horizon
appear the ice white glow of roadside lights
searing through the darkness
suspended in the night
floating closer
like planes leaving a midnight runway
Pools of illumination
flood across concrete grey
Eyes sting
straining under bleaching lights
artificial daylight contributing
to my enduring tedium
The cool night’s breath fails
to prevent my heavy lids
from continuing
their gradually extending decent
Jerking to alertness stray wheels thumping
over rumble strip boundaries
heart pounding
adrenaline raging
I turn on the radio for distraction
but the hushed tones
of night time broadcasting
make my body plead for slumber
Too far to go not enough time to stop
Can’t continue, eyes flickering, slipping closed.

Today

Yesterday I was shaking
like an addict in withdrawal.
Adrenaline heightened senses,
overwhelming me with awareness.
Each sound burrowing into my soul
every noise leaching
through gaps in my consciousness
I could feel the terror.
A proliferation of potential panic pouring upon me,
running ravenous into the nerves down my spine
The cold shadow of stagnant fear cast over me
by the recounting of regurgitated memories.
Today I feel the adrenaline oozing through my veins
It does not distract me but fuels my enthusiasm,
manipulates my motivation.
Allows me an escape to the experience of life as it could be.
Fear fills me now, in these moments of vivid lucidity.
How long can it last?
What will I be returned to when this reprieve is relinquished
and how long before my next release to sanity?

Hawthorn

The ancient Hawthorn
groans under the weight
of the vicious autumn wind.
Gnarled branches twist through each other
reaching towards the crimson autumn sky.
Steel wind sways a blackened web of thorns.
A leafless form like an old man stooped on the moor.
Sheltered beneath it’s boughs a young couple,
their skin turned blue by the bitter cold
that descends upon them as day turns into night.
Huddled together in death as they had been in life
Their last moments together protected by the great tree.

Black

Every day is dark.
I flounder at the exclusion of all colour and hope,
groping in the darkness,
for an eternity in the pure absence of light,
searching for something meaningful.

Thin white, the line of light
through the crack in an opening door.
Insignificant and unsharp,
but when the light has been gone for so long, it is blinding.
White is hope.

As the door continues to open, the white floods in,
it fills each corner of my mind,
disintegrates the shadows,
destroys the blackness,
illuminates me.

Bike

Sweat pours across my face
as my calfs and thighs pound flat pedals.
Alloy and rubber propelled across tarmac and trail,
juddering down gullies and over rock runs,
through ankle deep mud and knee deep water.
Long slow climbs through heathered fells and grassy fields.
Hammering gravel tracks then pause to breath the cool air deeply
and look across valleys dotted with the ruins of ancient industries.
Then on again through lines of emerald conifers,
pine needle covered tracks soft under spinning wheels
Along the soft black soil of meadows edge
and the steep decent into forgotten villages.
Ascending torturous climbs up sun hazed roads,
legs pumping, bursts of adrenaline
Speeding on long downhills
and the last reserves of energy expended,
on the final climb that returns me home.

Return To The Past

I worry.
Worry the day before the journey.
Worry the entire ten hour trip, about returning to the town we left almost two years ago.
I am frightened.
Frightened that everything that I ran away from, will not be there.
That the anger and frustration were unnecessary, that the isolation and the loneliness could have been avoided.
That I will discover it was all just me.
We follow the line of slow moving traffic along the narrow strip of grey tarmac.
As we approach the coast I feel the knot in my stomach tighten.
I wonder how it will feel.
I imagine it will be like coming home, of having been somewhere strange for a while, then returning to where I belong.
I am expecting to be overwhelmed by painful memories.
The bitter smell of the sea drifts in through an open car window, the sound of seagulls and lapping waves.
In the distance, glimmering through the haze, Saint Michaels Mount rises from behind trees and hills.
Golden sunlight illuminates the familiar landmark.
It was once our symbol for home, a few minutes from that view and we would be back to where we once lived.
We travel along the hedge lined roads, towards a town that once seemed bright and fresh and full of possibilities.
Now it is grey and forlorn. The shine worn away, the polish faded revealing a desolate truth.
I feel nothing.
There is no reconnection, no remorse for times past, no rekindling of emotions.
The people and the problems that pulled my life apart are still there,
Around each corner is another recollection ready to intimidate me, but they all fail.
The town with ten years of painful memories no longer holds me, punishes me.
The doubts of the last two years fade like the granite buildings.
I am at last content with my decision to leave.

First day of the April holidays

First day of the April holidays,
lines of bumper to bumper vehicles block the A30
like a glistening metallic snake.
April heat wave burns the occupants into seething tempers
and steaming Volkswagen campers litter the hard shoulder.
The beaches have been invaded by hordes of lager drinking tourists,
bikini clad teenagers devastating golden sand
with discarded food wrappers and used nappies.
At five the crowds retreat,
to Sun voucher caravan parks and Wetherspoon’s
and I can finally escape to the supermarket.

Home

I never would have believed I would return here.

As a teenager, all I wanted to do was escape. It seemed I was surrounded by an entire community with no future, motivation or enthusiasm for life. The energy drained out of them by the demise of the Steel Works that I had never seen, never knew, the heart of the town they called it.

The moment I had the chance to leave, I did. Travelled the world, getting as far away as I could, eventually landing in Cornwall, golden beaches, rugged coastline, ancient monuments and craggy moorland, but as much as I pretended, it never truly felt like home.

After twenty years I fled again, dragged my family five hundred miles to leave the past behind. To go to the place we said we would never return to.

The town has changed, Middle street, charity shops and cheap stores, a shell of what it used to be. Where WoolWorths once stood proudly on Front street, the councils one stop shop. A Wetherspoons’ now takes pride of place on the crossroads, where the market used to be. The other pubs are the same, some of the names changed, but otherwise the same sticky carpets and dirty glasses. The Freemasons Arms is identical, even the dirty, flaking paint appears to be original. I remember being asked for ID in there on my twenty first birthday as fifteen year old girls plastered in make up strolled past.

On the outskirts a retail park grows daily, draining the town of business or encouraging growth depending on your point of view. The new Tesco superstore pretends to blend in to the surrounding countryside, its quickly fading timber cladding doing little to camouflage the two foot tall red letters, two acres of tarmac car park and petrol station. A KFC, a Macdonalds, a B&Q and rumour has it a Primark soon.

At the edge of town is an embankment. Twenty years ago it was covered in iron slag and crushed concrete, the remains of The Consett Iron Company. Now its an inadequate strip of grass and trees preventing new build housing estates from merging into each other. Littered with dog mess and beer cans, its not the greatest place to walk, but up on the side of the hill, you can see over the new houses, far beyond the superstore, across the valley to the rolling hills of Northumberland.

In the other direction, houses new and old nestle like a smile along the valley, flanked on either side by green fields and hills, solar panels and satellite dishes glint in the sunlight like gold teeth. Moorside and Castleside romantic names for unromantic housing estates that spill into the green, virtually unchanged in twenty years. Old post war prefabs have been torn down and in their place ugly red Barrett homes, but otherwise compared to a hundred other places in Britain, Consett has remained relatively untouched by the spreading plague of new houses.

Beyond the houses to Rowley and Waskerley in the distance, hill silhouetted against hill, more fields and countryside all the way across the Pennines and nothing but a handful of wonderful old villages until Penrith.

A few miles from the house I live in, amongst the valleys and moors scattered with the remnants of forgotten industries, freedom on a mountain bike. Down tracks and cycle paths, across the bare black scars cut into meadows edge and down loose gravel hills, through streams and mud and lines of pine trees, the possibility of continuing for fifty miles without meeting another soul a reality.  Pausing in remote solitude, to watch clouds undulating over the patchwork of stonewall separated colours. It never fails to impress me, to inspire me, to fill me with awe. This is the place I call my home.