Updated: Nov 12, 2018
In the month before Christmas, I got to know a segment of paved ground outside Morrisons in a town called Rothwell, near Leeds. It was a pedestrian concourse bordered by bollards between the shop and car park. As well as the supermarket, it had a Natwest Bank, a Cooperative Travel branch, a Specsavers and some other shops. The drop-off zone of the car park next to the bollards was inadequate, a tag-team wrestle of delivery vans and impatient taxis. The disabled spaces were fiercely contested. One morning, before it got busy, I took a brief loan of one to unload my cargo. I was soon called upon by a righteous pensioner to produce my blue badge. Not all disabilities are visible, as says the sign on the toilet door...but I'm jumping off the tail lift of my Luton with a five foot Christmas tree under one arm, hardly credible. They don't complain about the able buggers in saloons idling there for half an hour while the wife does the shopping.
I got to know the patch of ground intimately. Being there every day for twenty-three consecutive days, I noticed which parts of the concourse dried first, if at all, on different days. As a climber, it was an interesting though inconclusive study in the effects of humidity. Every night I swept the whole area for tree needles, and by extension the other excreta of idling consumerism, sweet wrappers and fag butts and receipts. You get to know then the slight angular niches where one corner of a paving block has subsided, catching crud and jarring the brush handle in tired hands, the mucky depression around a drain that never fully dries out, the crosshatch pattern of a manhole cover that impedes the smooth progress of the sweep like a very shit game of bagatelle.
In case the explanation for all this is not clear, I was selling Christmas trees. Perhaps this sounds cosy, all friends laughing festively as they blow steam off mulled wine past their bobbled hats into the frosty air around Bavarian wood clad chalets, sort of scene. Well it's not. I was in the belly of the Christmas machine, full board, doing the dirty work beneath the fairy lights. It was tiring, early starts and late finishes, lugging wet or frozen netted trees on and off vans and in and out of a shipping container. In the final week, when sales had slowed down, I found myself wanting to lie down behind my little counter, flat out on the dry paving blocks, and sleep in my down jacket. All that said, the job had unexpected rewards, not just good pay - in the way that anything involving sustained commitment takes you places you can't be without.
Anyway, to trip this up before it runs too far on the legs it's grown - it is the context in which I wrote the following. They came along together, so let's call it a triptych (though I wonder if I've broken it now, this introduction adding a fourth panel to the text - I think that makes it a polyptych, but that sounds cool too).
This is a fishing bowl where dull sharks circle careless to take a bite of perfect chops on low-flung hooks -
blunted instruments smothered to rust by oxygen's care conceal bright stilettos to cut what isn't theirs. Keeping time to the jailer's pact.
The factories turn over, over, always-on skeleton-crewed in the waning dawn to sell sunshine and 'we are what we do' -
helpful microbes paring off to be witless conspirators in a coup on themselves.
Are they too here or in brilliant elsewheres - unlikely true stories drawn through sulphured air like nicotine, a remorseless hook anchoring a line to the fluttering sun
A clean, bare room Where sombre men maintain a library hush - How is this for the terminal to Styx?
Have you dipped a paddle in that dark river, Or toed a path on its simulacrum, A lamplit still canal On the underbelly of a suburban night?
And who was he, Pocketing your coins with a tradesman's hand, A servant of the underworld Or a sickly-smiling cashier Dispensing coupons for the journey back?
stalked among the long tables
arranged of decorous food
they invited the darkness in -
to make smoke curls of candles,
bulbs to flicker and die,
flames in the grate blown to ember,
to stand in the door
in suspense of cold flakes
shuddered by a gust into
an embrace of drowning warmth
where they dream of only
sleep in the tender earth,
and not of violence,
of cold in the bones driving whips
to a circling closure in blood -
hesitant. the dimming vision
runs like a vapour of foxes
plucked from a carcass of that table
those wet lips
pronouncing the triumph of growth
that swells and smothers the signs of life
in its fattened host -
an opiate spell
cast from the memory of comfort
collides at the cold
hypnotic mazes on the shut pane
and I’m neither out, nor in.