obstacle course

Exhale as you lift. Inhale as you lower. Ten, eleven, twelve. Thirty seconds break. I feel drops running through my hair, down my neck, sticking my shirt to my back. One, two, three, four. Slower now. Back straight, Cable, don’t slouch. Ten. Eleven. Wobbly twelve, then down. Smashed it. 

With a goal in mind, training is a doddle. The numbers tick down as my feet pound the spinning rubber of the treadmill. Wake up! Grab a brush and put a little make-up! The pounding vocals drive me on. This is easy. Until it isn’t. Three kilometres in, the pain in my chest is back. Last time it was at two-and-a-half. Progress. And where you gonna run when you're staring down the cable of a mic pointed at your grill like a gun? When the treadmill beeps cut through Fred Durst’s swearing, it’s all I can do not to collapse onto the floor of the gym. But I’ve done it. Twenty-six minutes. A whole minute faster. Race day will be a breeze.

*****

The adrenaline starts as we jostle for position on the start line. There’s hundreds of us here, dogs straining to be let off the lead, angry bees confined to a hive about to break open. Then the starter waves her flag and the clock starts ticking and my feet start pounding grass flattened by hundreds before me, slowly at first, finding my pace, then settling into it as the first kilometre flies by. The crowds are thinning, the beasts have pulled together at the front, the stragglers behind. This is easy going. A marker indicates a further 500m to the first obstacle. In my head, I’m picturing an adventure playground, a huge web of nets held up by a wooden frame, to clamber over and around and through. I see in my mind’s eye soldiers in training, crawling on their fronts through mud, keeping low as live fire is gunned over their heads, barbed wire just centimetres from their backs. I’ve got this. I can do this. Feet keep pounding, the rhythm of my breathing quickens. I’ve lost my team now, probably behind me. I am flying. 

Obstacle one. The sign looms up and I am ready, ready for anything, adrenaline coursing through my arms, legs, heart. And then I arrive at a row of tables with a series of people sitting behind them. And there, sitting quietly in a Windsor field behind an old school desk, sits my mother. 

“Your father and I are quite worried about you.”

No. They – they promised obstacles. Like, physical obstacles. I spent months training for this. Is this some kind of joke? My heart is racing: from running or from the conversation I’ve been thrown into? I sit through five minutes of her concern, of her sleepless nights, of her “not anger, but disappointment.” I sit and can do nothing but listen, head hung in shame. It’s my fault. All of this, everything she’s saying, it’s my fault. My heart slows down, adrenaline replaced by the darkness of shame. I’m apologising, pledging to do better by me, by her, by our family. It’s all I can do. 
“I’ll be keeping an eye on you,” she says. “But don’t let me hold you up. You’ve got a race to run. Priorities and whatnot.”

The kilometre after is tougher. The wind has been taken out of my sails and my feet feel heavy with despair. At the next obstacle, another row of desks. My girlfriend? My heart takes a hit and sinks like a stone. 

“We need to talk,” she says.

There’s still three obstacles after this. The adventure playground is gone from my mind. All I see now is ever-darkening circles of Hell. What on Earth do they have in store for us? I picture it all out ahead of me, obstacle three: my boss accusing me of some corporate crime and threatening to strike me off sans compensation and hand me over to the police; obstacle four: a burning bonfire of all my books; obstacle five, the Grim Reaper with a scythe. Sweat now pours, my heart is beating in my mouth. I feel my mind tearing apart with the strain, make it stop before I am nothing but a bag of bones running through a field, make it stop, make it stop!

*****

“C’mon, Cable!” She’s shaking me. 
I look at her groggily. 
“Wake up!” she says. “Are you ready?! It’s race day!”

de kaag

middag

De dag keerde vlak na het middaguur weer in op zichzelf, en probeerde om één uur al avond te worden. Wij fietsten over grauwe paden in de mist, vergezeld door eenzame passanten die honden uitlieten, maar veel liever thuis voor het open haard zaten. Bij de veerpont groette de kapitein ons hartelijk en trakteerde ons op snoepjes. Wij waren waarschijnlijk zijn enige passanten van de dag. Uit zijn stuurkamer ontsnapte simpele pianomuziek. Halverwege het water, zag ik in de verte het silhouet van een zeilboot, de twee zeilen onmisbaar tegen de platte horizon. Dit was vroeger thuis, koud in de wind op de zaterdagen van mijn jeugd. Hier heb ik gelachen met de wind in de haren, hier heb ik nooit leren zeilen, maar wel heerlijk leren kloten. Toen ik wat ouder werd, was hier mijn speelplaats in mijn eigen bootje, vrij van verwachtingen en los van tijd. Ik voelde weer die wind, rook weer de adrenaline van mijn jeugd toen ik de motor opengooide en ik over het water stuiterde. Veel later heb ik hieraan teruggedacht bij het gedicht van Remco Campert: hier nu, langs het lange, diepe water; voor mij was dat altijd hier geweest, langs dit water. Dit allemaal ritste door mijn hoofd tijdens het korte rit naar de overkant. Eenmaal weer op het land aangekomen, fietste wij zonder enkel woord verder. Het veerpont voer door, de piano toetsen spookachtig en verdwijnend in de dunne mist. Het enige geluid kwam nu van het gaggelen van ganzen, beesten die ik hoorde maar niet zag, verschuild ergens op het polderland. Dit was Nederland.

Ik trapte door. Zij fietste voorop, haar rode jas als een vuurtoren. 
“Hier zeilde ik vroeger,” riep ik de wind in.
“Dat weet ik,” zei ze. 

avond

Wij hadden geborreld in de stad, voor de zoveelste keer vandaag, en mijn ogen begonnen dicht te vallen rond een uur of elf. Toch lulde wij stevig door. Moeheid is geen excuus wanneer je iemand maar twee keer per jaar ziet. De ramen beslagen, deelde wij het laatste biertje, solidair. Toen de muziek mij over de rand van slaap dreigde te duwen, omhelsden wij elkaar en baande wij onze weg, door de kou, naar huis. De stad glinsterde onder straat- en maanlicht, de grachten weerspiegelde de waarheid van de wereld. De wegen waren uitgestorven.
De remmen van haar fiets piepte. “Laten we stoppen.”
Jaren geleden zat ik ‘s nachts langs de gracht, in een staat van dronken melancholiek, en schreef ik een ode aan een nog-te-ontmoeten persoon die naast mij deze schoonheid beleefde. Nu stond ze aan mijn zij.
“Je hebt gelijk,” zei ze, en kuste me.

ditch it all

one tick
two tick
green tick
blue tick
an endless stream
of tricks and tocks
5-star holidays and bubbling stocks
those bits and bytes
those coins and Lites
souring all my dopamine;
a cocaine-snorting Charlie Sheen,
or Kim Kardashian’s brand new bum
our Princess, set to be a Mum.

your clicks are sold to highest bid
they push a platform on your kid
to spin roulette and red-rag bulls
and all them other evil pulls
dreamt up in labs by twisted mind
who bear no feeling for mankind,
who’ve hacked the soul,
found nothing there
but a bunch of wires
and a bottomless tear
and into this deep pit they’ve plunged
and off our weaknesses they have sponged
until the sun comes up one day
and with a yell, I hope we’ll say
these Likes we’re living
while our brains you’re sieving;
we no longer want a part
and so we’ll start to pick apart
this spider’s web that we have strung
those threads upon which we hung
will fall like rags around our feet
that Insta like, that outraged Tweet,
will become again what they always were,
mere ones and zeros, a server’s whirr.

doctor's orders

take one tablespoon of music
the kind that speaks right to your soul,
live, if you can find any.
half a gramme of the highest grade of time,
a tot of wine if you so please.
open a book halfway,
read a line or six,
crack the spine,
fold corners if you want.
take no advice from another tongue,
be it forked or of the purest gold,
seek out the love of a good human (or several),
then tell them all.
step back from the newsfeed,
for hollow smiles bring nothing but shame;
do not be a glutton of nothing.
seek out the sun.
avoid all forms of toxicity.
get plenty of rest.
if symptoms persist, double the dose.

margate

The town was grey and its people were mostly shut up indoors. The day’s only taxi turned into a carpool when a couple beat us to it, then offered to take us as well. The driver dropped them at a nondescript but apparently popular B&B without a single sign on the exterior.

We arrived late to the workshop and were still the first ones there. Once we got over our reticence at cutting up literature, we got stuck into redacting words deemed unnecessary and leaving just the poetry that lay beneath. A History of the French Revolution provided plenty of references to Paris and Champagne. Herman Melville was less forthcoming. Maybe he was poetic enough as it was.

When our brains could take no more stained words and linguistic jigsaw puzzles, we braved the cold, rain and wind to walk fifteen minutes through a deserted town to the art gallery.

“Our most famous work is on the beach, but the tide has come in so you won’t see it anymore today. But there’s plenty more to see,” the receptionist told us cheerily. There were more exhibits in the museum than people. Maybe people around here just weren’t that interested in art. Later, as we made to leave, up loomed human-size mannequins, their faces contorted or blank or not there at all, limbs tied up with string or holding dead-eyed children. These were the faces of future nightmares. The artist also had pictures of houses, with the boughs of trees or huge geysers of blood bursting from the windows.
“If a kid did that at school...” Lara said. Her voice echoed around the still gallery.
We were the only ones in the café. The waitress served us, then started clearing up the tables. Whatever there had been of sun was now setting in the world’s most underwhelming sunset, a thin line of orange across a tiny portion of sky. 
For some masochistic reason, we ventured out along the concrete pier. In a bar sat a single man nursing a beer. The wind tugged at us, the sea smelled, well, like the sea. Huge plumes of salty froth gathered at the walls as the waves crashed and spat below. 
“We might end up on the front page,” I shouted into the wind. “Two swept into the sea in Margate.” We didn’t stay long after that thought.

The route along the promenade battered rain and sea spray at us. I don’t remember seeing another person in about a mile. 
The replacement bus was dimly-lit and a few groups sat around, silently pondering how they had ended up in this place. The bus rattled round country roads, the driver making a single stop to pick up a single person before crashing off again into the 5pm night. Then the train wheels started turning and we started thawing as we moved back toward the city where everything happened, and where everything had ground to a halt over three inches of snow. 

october (2013)

heat beats a slow retreat
clambering on all fours over mountain ranges
jagged and proud in the crisp morning
and skirts are banished to bedroom drawers,
neatly folded but gone all the same.

when I wake, the world is still indigo
and headlights break the sleepy dawn
sparrows slumber in the balding trees
their lust for life dampened
as clouds weep the first drops of autumn.

 


I wrote this five(!) years ago as part of my 50 Days, 50 Poems challenge I set for myself. October seemed an appropriate time to revisit this particular one. 

underground sound

The underground is loud enough to drown out all thoughts, which I guess is what makes people choose to ride it. You can be on autopilot, switch off. When you're underground there's nothing but the underground. It binds people in a way that little else can – geographically, of course, but also physically. There's few other places you'll sit side by side with strangers and it not be weird. The front door crew form a tribe. They don't look at one another but sense their belonging. Different lines form different tribes, distinct in their habits and lifestyle. Then there are the readers, the make-up artists, the music-creeping-out-from-headphoners. But though everyone is united by a desire to escape, everyone's reason for that escape varies vastly. There's the working mum who, having given up on dreams of being an actor years ago, has succumbed to a nine-to-five. There's the father of five, a strong corporate leader, leaving the chaos of the home front to the wife for another day and slipping into an ordered organisation. Everyone is fleeing from and fleeing to. It unites people in a way you wouldn't tell from their eye contact. Most look down-at-heel, others have hidden that shabbiness behind dark suit. The nicer the suit, the deader the look in their eyes. So we don't look at those. We sit, on autopilot, switched off, listening to the sound of the underground.

push/pull

push snooze
push snooze again
push eyes open
push back sheets
push toothbrush
push arms into sleeves
push feet into shoes
push food down throat
push out the door
push Oyster card on reader, watching out for card clash
push through platform crowds
push down inside the carriages
push headphones into ears
push back at space invaders
push out and gasp air
push card to swipe in
push button on lift
push start button to bring life to screen
push delete on emails
push cup under nozzle and push "espresso"
push "espresso" again for good measure
push the hours forward
push problems around, solve none
push away the thoughts of mind-numbing boredom
push away your dreams till 5:30
push "espresso"
push back at increased workload
push notifications
push the system forwards
push button on umbrella
push Oyster card on reader, watching out for card clash
push headphones into ears
push past dithering shoppers
push key into lock
push food down throat.

pull back a chair
pull cork from bottle
pull on comfy pullover
pull open the window
pull back your dreams
pull ink across page
pull reality from the mind
pull open Pandora's Box
pull out all the stops
pull drooping eyes open, again
pull yourself up to look at the stars
pull pullover tighter round
pull further thoughts from where you thought none remained
pull no longer
pull back sheets
let eyes fall closed.

music

I missed the era of vinyl. Before I was really aware of music, the world had shrunk its music and moved it onto cassette tapes. I vaguely remember songs recorded from the radio, DJ announcements intruding on opening bars, mad dashes to the decks as realisation dawned that those opening bars were the ones you’d been after for weeks. I remember hand-scrawled notes on scraps of card shoved in plastic cases, birthday presents of entire albums across two sides of tape that passed through teeth, slowly getting mangled. In order to listen to music, you had to destroy music.

But these are snippets of memory. My real era was that of CDs. That of homemade mixtapes (the word outlasting the medium) with no indication of what was on them. When I find one today, and can find a player, it’s a pot luck dinner of nostalgia. I still remember the first album I bought, when I saved up pocket money and vouchers for weeks to buy Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. I still have it, and if I went through my collection, would probably find that particular CD inhabiting the box of a completely different album. I used to look forward to coming home and choosing a particular album to listen to from start to finish, the soundtrack to my evening of me-time, long before that word became a thing. An album was a vibe that you absorbed. A CD was a beautiful shiny relic, and I was drawn to them like a magpie. Disused copies became works of art. Two floor-to-ceiling cupboards in my childhood bedroom are still covered with them, shiny side out, a musical mirror fallen silent. Accuse me of rose-tinted glasses if you wish, but we listened to music differently back then. You were always aware of music, because it took a certain effort for it to be playing. Even when listening on headphones, a Discman was a physical presence in your lap. You felt it. You cradled it still to prevent it skipping. You learned albums inside out as you navigated them based purely on track numbers, or you left it to finish playing in its natural order. When an album came to an end, there was silence: silence like the closing credits of a film, or the blank pages in the back of a novel. Space for the listener to reflect on what they had heard, turn the emotions over, regain composure, float back into the real world. I miss those times. There was something of a ritual to music, an effort on the part of the listener that urged them to stay and listen to the whole piece as the artist had created it. 

But you can’t fight the times. I’m now a Spotify subscriber, an avid Soundcloud listener, a YouTube channel subscriber. Things just seem different now. There is no silence. One track by one artist fades into another by another, faceless algorithms pairing songs together based on the listening habits of millions. There’s no time for silence. Tinny earbuds spew the latest tracks into desensitised ears before becoming irrelevant again. There’s no time for time. Music is no longer owned, it’s leased from an overlord for the four minutes of its life, an overlord who can decide at the press of a button that the lease will no longer stretch to your geographic location. Music listening has changed: speed up, quality down. At least that’s how it feels. Yes, CDs got scratched, fitted maddeningly few songs, started to flake around the edges and drop bits of glitter all over your hands, but I look back on those times with pleasure. 

I realise this may well be my first foray into "it was all so much better in the past", and so despite all my grievances I know I'll always listen to music. How can I not, when the alternative is silence? After all, silence is only beautiful when it follows a beautiful album.