Saturday, 11 May 2013

She said it first

I liked you first but
She said it first and
The rules of friendship demanded
I keep quiet.

I’m not even sure how much
I really did, or you really did like me.
You joked we should get married
And I jokingly agreed,

Over 3am tea, and your cigarette smoke – see?
You smoke, I don’t,
We live in different cities;
How would it even work?

A week later, I can’t even remember
Your face. Just the colour
Of your hoodie, a vague memory
Of your smile. Just

A flirtation. Just
A moment. No big deal. But still
I wanted to decide that for myself,
And she said it first.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013


He must have danced with a dozen different girls that night, at least; plucking them from the obscurity of the crowd (or group – the venue was really too small for a crowd) and spinning them out into the limelight of those few metres he’d claimed for his dance floor.

The band was playing jazz, and swing, in several languages and styles, and he leapt and twirled and spun and ducked in response. And the girls did too, all seemingly transformed in his hands – as if each had been his partner for years, not minutes.

Some he kept for a few songs, others just one. Some he spoke to, others twirled in enigmatic silence. Some got smiles, others just his full-on eyes.

All looked happy, relaxed, vital. Even watching, I felt myself wrapped in his spell, fascinated by each swirling sequence, unfolding too fast for my mind to match – so only my eyes could keep pace, no space for thoughts.

At first I wondered if they minded, the girls – being picked up and discarded like that. But they didn’t seem to (not that I could know), and he did it all so gracefully, with such apparent purity of intent.

By which I mean, he didn’t seem to be looking for anyone in particular (though there were those few he spoke to, danced with longer, even followed briefly back to their corners – and once I heard him respond, “Oui, je suis français, bien sûr”). He seemed mainly to just love dancing – no, more than that, to have it in his bones.

To judge him, or demand he behave any differently, seemed beside the point. He was simply doing what he had to; how could he not dance, and how could he dance with just one, or two, when he had enough energy, more than enough, to transform the entire room?

Anna, my Anna, was one of those girls. She wasn’t mine, of course; I loved her, but she didn’t know. Or maybe she did, but it’d be another year before I told her, and then three weeks more before she decided, in her own sweet time, to end my suspense.

I feel like saying it broke my heart to watch her dance with him. And in a way that’s how it felt, but not how you think. Not because (or not just because) I was jealous. It’s more that she looked so perfect – I mean they did, together. So complete. And so utterly strange to me. As though I was fully seeing this person I thought I knew so well, and she was someone else entirely.

The singer’s voice was all husky and teasing; I forget the song. They smiled, a little, and danced very lightly, spinning round and through each other’s arms without pause. Then he pulled her in close, and they jived playfully back and forth. So easy! As if they’d known each other half their lives!

The song ended, they bowed, he slipped away and she turned with glazed eyes, towards me. She smiled vaguely, but I don’t think she could see anybody just then. I reached reflexively, for something – my drink, empty. And I blinked, dazed too.

I left early, so I don’t know if he did eventually settle on one perfect partner. I never really asked her, either, how it felt, to be danced with like that. I mean, it sort of came up – the night, the place – in conversation a few times. But I kept the reference cursory. Anxiety, I suppose, my own insecurity making me unwilling to hear her answer, to see her eyes light up, in memory.

But again, this isn’t quite (just) jealousy. I think I’m also scared of destroying my own memory, or blowing away the dreamdust I’ve gathered around it. It’d be too harsh, too cruel, to have it all levelled out to the mundane. I’d rather keep the poetry, the magic, even if I maybe know it’s of my own.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Already over

In isolation she seemed – not perfect, he wasn’t that naïve – but, well, a positive romantic prospect. A promising investment of his time. (Why was it that, despite having deliberately avoided any career choices that would put him at risk of becoming even remotely ‘corporate’, his thoughts had suddenly taken on the aspect of an investors’ board meeting?)

Viewed in the context of her life though – her friends, daily routine, ‘hobbies’ and so forth – he immediately saw how it would end: not well for him (or for her, perhaps, but his main concern here was for himself).

It was all too similar, too much like repetition – not of his last relationship, but the one before that. He’d heard somewhere, or read, that life is a series of challenges that repeat continuously until we learn to deal with each one. If so, he didn’t feel at all confident about handling this particular challenge any better than he had five or so years ago.

Largely, no doubt, because he wasn’t at all sure where the problem lay. Or, that is to say, he knew most, if not all, of it lay somewhere inside him – and you can hardly be expected to be objective and analytical about something which is part of your own self, can you?

Even if he couldn’t pin down the problem, however, he could see, all too clearly, how it would play out. Not in any dramatic, or even really externally observable way, but almost entirely below the surface, beneath the hidden anxieties of face, chest, breath.

Terminating at the end of a reasonably long, apparently happy (most of all, somewhere in the middle – they’d have one great summer together, which they’d never be able to recapture, leaving both ultimately doubting their recollection of those months) relationship, with a prolonged, painful, confusing break-up.

He knew that if he tried to retrace this to its roots, he’d arrive right back here, at this moment, where he’d first felt himself withdrawing – self-preservation, that’s what it was – while at the same time powerless to sever the reflex that left him reaching out, grasping, towards her.

This despite knowing (and here he indulged himself in a little self-aggrandisement, rather tragic, he thought; there’s pathos, at least) that they’d never fully combine. Even in those blissful few moments when they’d succeed in convincing one another, and themselves, of their utter devotion, even then, he knew – and would know, deep down – it was already over.

(It should be noted, they’d only at this stage been on three or four dates. And he hadn’t exactly met her friends or observed her ‘in the context of her life’. But he had clicked through a lot of photos on Facebook.)

Monday, 19 November 2012



“Oh!” she said, and stopped.
The sound repeating over
and over in her head,
much louder than she’d actually said it: Oh.

The picture still in her hand, showing him and the ex-girlfriend
who she’d never seen, or heard described – yet somehow, she knew
not a friend, or cousin, or any other ex, she knew

and that ‘Oh’
struck right to her core,
because she knew, too,
that he’d been right (not that
he’d ever said this, or could)
– that this was

so clearly, the kind of love she’d never had,
with him, or anyone –
never would, perhaps, she thought
(but this really was an afterthought,
a conscious attempt to redirect, reassert
her own claim on happiness).

Because what had really been expressed in that ‘Oh’
was just sadness.
They should be together, she thought (she knew),
and why oh why oh why did they ever
split up.

(Which she knew, too,
 he’d spent roughly the last two years asking himself,
including the three months or so she’d known him.)

Still staring, sensing how self-destructive this was,
but unable to escape
that picture, which she knew she’d never escape –

the look in their eyes, their faces, laughter, smiles,
all somehow combining to suggest such perfect
(Like children accepting all innocent
that the world is benign.)

It cut straight into her, cut her breath, stopped her voice, left that ‘Oh’
hanging, repeating inside her mind,
long after she’d left the room,
left him,
all behind.

Monday, 29 October 2012



They’d only just met, and he was moving away.

It was just one of those things.

Their circles of friends had only recently overlapped sufficiently, and he’d had this opportunity, which he couldn’t really – and so on.

So they were saying goodbye, without knowing what they’d be missing, if anything.

“Another one that got away,” she thought, a little drunk, a little wistful, filing him away in some mental space, to be taken out and contemplated at a later date.

The party was ending. She got up from where she’d slumped (how bohemian) on the floor, between piles of books and CDs – his things, half packed.

“It’s been good,” and “I’ll be back, I’m sure”, and a hug, close, lingering, somehow satisfying, but still not solving anything (it seemed to say lots of things, but how many, she wondered, were her own invention?) and that, was that.

The Strand

At 47 he’d never looked better, but neither of them knew it.

He avoided thinking about age, if he could, and she – well, she’d only just met him, and she hadn’t really thought too much about how he looked, either now or before.

She asked what he did, and for some reason he just said, obscurely, “I work on the Strand.” And for some reason, she just nodded and smiled, as if that was an answer.

Her eyes drifted but her smile stayed, and they moved on through the conventional round of first-meeting questions.

But afterwards, she came back to that phrase, and thought, how strange. What a strange thing to say, and why didn’t I ask what he meant? I suppose, she concluded, I didn’t really care.


She seemed to go to a lot of parties. At least, she had a lot of stories that started, ‘I met this person at a party…’

And she laughed a lot, more than most people, but she didn’t seem happy. Even when she was laughing she seemed somehow sad – especially when she was laughing, perhaps.

He realised she’d never looked him full in the eyes, or at least that was the impression she gave. 

As if her eyes, and her mind, were always somewhere else, even in the middle of laughing, or telling one of these stories about the people she met at all these parties.

Monday, 20 August 2012

He bought, she bought


He’d bought a small sailing boat, the word went round, prompting little malicious ripples of gossip.

Big enough for four, apparently.

(The word ‘apparently’ took on a particularly important role in these discussions, spoken with a special emphasis, as if to imply something worthy of suspicion, ridicule, contempt – any number of responses in fact. Hence its usefulness.)

There was some degree of speculation as to the source of funding for this purchase.

“Apparently,” they said, “It’s not even his money. It’s hers. From her last marriage. Or from when her parents died.”

Others were more concerned with the possibility of select couples being invited down for a weekend on the boat (or yacht, as some now said), which was, after all, big enough for four at the very least.

But Mrs Matthews, who lived close enough to know, said they could’ve hardly been out on it themselves, as they seemed to be at home every weekend.

As far as she’d noticed, at any rate. Of course she had better things to do than spy on her neighbours.


She’s bought one of those dry shampoos, the kind that are supposed to clean your hair just by spraying it on or something.

He’s not sure how long it’s been there, on the shelf by the sink, but now that he’s noticed it he’s remembered something.

He remembers her calling it ‘one-night-stand shampoo’.

There must have been an advert on TV for it, and she’d said that. In a tone suggesting scorn.

He’d made some noise in response and she’d said, “That’s what it’s for – it’s for when you stay out all night without planning to.”

Funny really, because at the time he wouldn’t have really said he was paying much attention, but now he can remember it clear as anything.

And there it is, her one-night-stand shampoo, in their bathroom.


He’d bought me a bar of chocolate, one of those big ones you’re supposed to share.

We’d had this silly thing before, sort of like a bet, and he’d ended up promising to buy me an ice cream, so then he turned up with the chocolate instead.

I’m not sure why it was so awful. I’ve never had a bad date before. He just kept asking all these questions, which I guess is what you’re supposed to do on a date, you ask questions, but I just wasn’t in the right mood or something.

So I think I told him to stop interrogating me, and he got offended, and that was it really. We had a few drinks and I sort of wanted us to click, but it just ended up feeling like an argument, even though it wasn’t.

I felt awful today. I ate the chocolate all in one go. That did help, a bit.


She’d bought him a grain of sand with his name written onto it, in tiny, spidery writing.

It was inside a small, clear pendant, part of a necklace, and (she told him proudly, like a child) she’d chosen the beads that went on either side herself.

He smiled mechanically, and said some of the polite things you’re supposed to say when you get a present.
But inside he was thinking: Bright red beads. She’s chosen bright red beads. I never wear red; I don’t have a single red thing. Why is she so pleased?

He held it up to his chest so she could see how it looked, then curled it meticulously back into its box, and put it away in a drawer.

The next time he took it out, several years later, he realised with relief that the hollowness and strange anger he’d felt at the time had faded.

Also, it seemed somehow to have broken; the metal piece fastening the pendant to the string had come loose.

He wondered if she’d noticed he’d never worn it. If she had, she’d never said.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

He went to Madrid... And I didn't

Waking up with a wail
In my heart:
He left me.
He went to Madrid
And he chose someone else.

Why are mornings the worst time of day?
In fact at first, I’m OK.
I’ve slept, at least, no terrible dreams,
Then gradually it sinks in.

Rejection, regret;
Should I have said yes?
Would things have been different?

...Most of the time, I’m actually fine.
But if he ever reads this,
He’ll think I’m obsessed
With a stranger I felt close to
Who asked me to go to Madrid
And I didn’t.