William Bedford

'One of the finest poets and writers of our generation.’ Karen Maitland, Company of Liars and The Owl Killers



Graceland’ from None of the Cadillacs was Pink
The Piano Player’ from None of the Cadillacs was Pink
Poems from Collecting Bottle Tops


from None of the Cadillacs was Pink

None of the Cadillacs was Pink

That summer, Jamie spent hours alone in the loft, keeping out of his father’s way. The beams were thick with cobwebs, and he had to carry the hoover up the suspended ladders and fix a light bulb so that he could see what he was doing. He cleared the floor and sat in the quiet, listening to the birds scrabbling on the tiles, the summer rain. He got a carpet for the wooden boards. He liked it in the dark. He liked to listen to the rain at night while his father sat in the kitchen, marking essays. When it was raining, he thought about his mother, remembering the way things had been before she died.

The record player was the first thing he found. It was grey, with a red lid, and there was a stack of old 78s beside it on the floor. He wiped the dust off one of the records and looked at the label. The white cardboard cover was torn, and when he held the cover to the light, he felt shocked, recognising his father’s neat handwriting: ‘To Sandra, my love forever, David.’ It was dated summer 1956.

Sometimes she sang when she was doing the washing up, her arms shimmering with soapsuds, her hair damp from the rising steam. ‘Get out of that chair, rattle them pots and pans,’ she giggled helplessly, and his father would shout from the lounge, ‘those pots and pans,’ as if she was one of his pupils, ‘It’s those pots and pans, Sandra, do try and teach the boy to speak properly.’ Then his father would turn the television up and pretend to be reading, and his mother would bite her lip, trying not to laugh.

He carried the record player downstairs one afternoon when his father was out at school. When he put one of the records on, the crackling sound made him jump. He felt a strange excitement. The record was My Baby Left Me. He listened, hypnotised by the voice, and when the record finished, lifted the needle back to thebeginning. He imagined his mother doing the same thing, thirty years ago.

He played the records every afternoon. His mother had collected pictures of Elvis Presley, and there were several long-playing albums with photographs of the singer on the cover. The back of one of the albums was signed by both his parents, their names joined together in an enormous pink heart. There was a photograph hidden inside the sleeve showing a young girl in a flared skirt and white gloves, a boy with thick-soled shoes and greased-back hair. With a shock, he realised it was his parents.

The afternoon his father came into the room, Jamie was listening to Heartbreak Hotel. His father stood in the doorway, staring at the albums spread around the floor. Jamie thought he was going to lose his temper, but he put his hand quickly to his forehead and then walked out of the room. When Jamie went outside, his father was standing on the lawn, staring at the overgrown garden.

‘I used to work on a fairground,’ his father said when Jamie touched his arm. ‘In the summer holidays. I got the sack for letting your mother have free candy floss.’

Jamie held his breath. ‘I didn’t know that,’ he said, reluctant to stop his father talking. ‘No,’ his father answered vaguely. ‘I suppose not.’ He turned to go back into the house. ‘I didn’t know anything,’ Jamie said desperately. ‘You never told me.’

His father didn’t hear him. He was walking away. In the morning, the records were stacked in a neat pile behind the sofa with the record player.

‘We could sell those,’ his father said absent-mindedly.

He found the shop one Saturday afternoon when he was wandering aimlessly around town. He peered through the windows, and saw the stacks of records, photographs and old magazines. The shop sold memorabilia from the fifties. He went inside and heard Mystery Train echoing tinnily from a room upstairs. He recognised it from one of the LPs in his mother’s collection. There were photographs of the singer covering every wall. He almost jumped when the record finished and he heard footsteps clattering on the wooden stairs.

The woman seemed surprised to find him in the shop. ‘You lost, sweetheart?’ she asked in a rasping voice. She was smoking a cigarette, carrying a pile of records. She laughed when she saw his startled blush, but the laugh turned into a racking cough. When she recovered, she dumped the records on the counter and winked at Jamie. ‘Don’t even think about it,’ she said, waving the cigarette in his face and then grinding it into the floor with the heel of her shoe.

He visited the shop most afternoons. The woman was called Deborah. When he told her about his mother’s records, she listened quietly, asking him about the labels, laughing when he described the tracks. She had them all in the shop, but seemed to like hearing him talk about them.

‘Why are you interested?’ he asked her one Saturday afternoon.

‘A new generation,’ Deborah said with her hacking cough. Her eyes were shining. ‘Or new customers,’ she added ironically, refusing to take herself seriously.

‘I wouldn’t sell them,’ Jamie said immediately. She smiled and ruffled his hair.

‘No, love.’

‘I wouldn’t.’

‘I know,’ she laughed. ‘I wouldn’t buy them!’

It was August when Jamie took Blue Suede Shoes to show Deborah. She read the label, and the handwritten message scrawled on the white cover, and then lit a cigarette, blowing smoke rings over their heads. She seemed surprised, vaguely upset. Jamie watched the smoke rings drifting around the shop.

‘I learnt that at school,’ Deborah grinned at him. ‘Down behind the bicycle sheds. That and kissing. Only useful things they ever taught me,’ she added with her croaking laugh.

A few days later, she told him about the bonfire. ‘You want to bring your father,’ she said. ‘We do it every year. On the anniversary. Play a few records. He might know somebody.’ Jamie shook his head doubtfully. He wasn’t sure his father even heard the words when he spoke to him.

‘He won’t go,’ he said unhappily.

‘He won’t let go, you mean,’ Deborah said. He watched her lighting a cigarette. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked. She smiled. ‘Let go of your mother, pet.’ ‘These will be the death of me,’ she added, staring at the cigarette. ‘Then why don’t you stop?’ Jamie said angrily. Deborah flinched, then laughed abruptly. ‘You’ll come, will you?’ she said.


‘To the bonfire, on the foreshore? You’ll come?’

On the night of the anniversary, he left a note for his father, and rode his bicycle down to the foreshore. There were dozens of people gathered round the bonfire, and somebody was playing music on a ghetto blaster. Jamie recognised Mystery Train and My Baby Left Me. A group of youngsters danced to the loud music. When Don’t Be Cruel throbbed into the warm night air, more couples began dancing, clapping their hands and singing to the music. They all seemed to know the words. Jamie went and stood close to Deborah. She was holding hands with one of the men. He had blue tattoos on his arms. In the darkness, she put her other hand on Jamie’s shoulder.

The fire was burning quite low when everybody gathered in a circle. Jamie didn’t know what they were doing. They stood quietly and held hands. Deborah put the ghetto blaster in the middle of the circle and pressed the play button. It was a song he hadn’t heard before. Young and Beautiful. He listened to the words, the deep gospel rhythms of the backing group, the simple piano.

‘That’s Elvis playing,’ Deborah whispered to him. When the song finished, there was a brief silence, and then one of the women in the group started talking.

‘I went to Graceland with my husband,’ the woman said. ‘It was a farm originally. You can see the old barn, and the horses. They keep the horses so it’s like the countryside. He never left Memphis. He never left home. They have a memorial garden in the grounds where you can sit and listen to yourself remembering. You don’t get much chance for remembering with so much noise around. They have a service, with candles. They play that record we just heard and people walk round with candles, flickering in the dark.

‘He never sang anything better than Young and Beautiful,’ the woman went on. ‘Not in my opinion. All those candles flickering in the darkness. You knew he was there. The people you love are always there.’

In his rage, Jamie had to cry out. ‘No,’ he shouted. ‘It’s not true.’

He broke free of Deborah’s hand and ran clumsily towards the tideline. He could hear voices calling in the darkness, the harsh cries of alarmed seagulls. There were shadows lurching round the flames of the fire.

‘It’s not true,’ he shouted as he struggled through the heavy sand. ‘It’s not true,’ he kept saying as the salt filled his mouth.

His father found him by one of the groynes. He had gone to sleep, nestled against the wooden breakwater. His shoes were wet through and his hair was matted with sand.

‘You look a sight,’ his father said, settling down on the sand beside him.

‘How did you know?’ Jamie asked.

‘Deborah fetched me.’

They sat together, their backs against the breakwater, listening to the tide lap up the shores, the soft warble of oystercatchers. The sky was brilliant with stars. Along the beach, they could see the fire burning. A figure stood alone at the edge of the fire, throwing driftwood into the dying flames.

‘It isn’t true,’ Jamie said quietly.

‘What isn’t?’ his father asked.

‘What the woman said. About Graceland.’ His father watched him, waiting, leaning forward briefly to brush the hair out of his eyes.

‘I wasn’t there,’ he reminded Jamie. ‘What did she say?’

Jamie thought for a long time, but then stood up and said it didn’t matter. He knew he could not tell his father what the woman had said, or what he had shouted. Maybe one day, but not tonight.

‘We should go back,’ he told his father.

His father nodded. He held out his hand so that Jamie could help him up. ‘Deborah’s waiting,’ he said, nodding towards the fire. They walked back towards the dying embers.

‘We could sell the records,’ Jamie said suddenly.

His father laughed. ‘She wouldn’t buy them,’ he said.


‘I know!’ his father insisted.

‘Why not?’

‘She’s a kind woman. She’s your friend.’

They reached the fire and Deborah smiled at them, throwing more driftwood onto the flames. When the wood was burning, she took a packet of cigarettes from her jeans and offered one to Jamie’s father. He shook his head.

‘You didn’t tell your dad you were here,’ she said gruffly.

‘I left a note,’ Jamie said. Deborah laughed. She had no right to laugh.

‘I want to sell the records,’ Jamie repeated, glaring at Deborah.

She shrugged and looked at his father. ‘Really?’ she asked.

Jamie’s father was smiling. ‘They’re not for sale,’ he said quietly.

With a sigh, Deborah took a long drag at her cigarette and then tossed it into the fire. The cigarette flared and disappeared in the flames. She grinned at Jamie.

‘Who said I wanted to buy them?’ she said with her harsh joyful laugh. Then she wrapped her arm round his shoulders, and held him as close as she could. ‘Who said I wanted to buy them?’ she repeated, and with a last squeeze, walked away down the deserted seashore.

‘The Piano Player’

from None of the Cadillacs was Pink

None of the Cadillacs was Pink

The main attraction of the summer was the Piano Player. SEE FLORENCE ELIOT all the bunting along the promenade announced, and a large photograph outside the pier showed the star smiling, surrounded by silver candelabra and men in red tuxedos. Miss Eliot gave a concert every evening with jugglers and a well-known magician, and ran a talent competition in the afternoons to encourage local musicians. She even managed to do a show on Sundays, playing religious music and getting the audience to join in, and in the mornings, she gave free demonstrations for charity. But her real claim to fame was that she had played the piano non-stop for longer than anybody else alive, and this season would be trying to beat her own record.

‘That Florence Eliot’s back,’ Daniel’s father said when he saw her picture in the local newspaper. ‘Bloody tart.’ He glared at the photograph and then screwed the paper up and dropped it beside his chair in the yard. ‘She was a beauty queen or summat, before the war. Lot of fancy nonsense. Christ, this heat.’

Don Hewitt couldn’t stand the hot weather, airless and humid. He worked in the freezers on the docks, and sat every evening smoking Woodbines in the small backyard, drinking beer and wiping a handkerchief round his shirt collar. If he talked too much or got angry, his face convulsed into a choking cough, and he had a plastic bucket by his chair to catch the gobs of phlegm.

‘Bloody tart,’ he said again, suddenly kicking out at the paper.

‘She must be fifty.’

‘Doesn’t make her a tart,’ Daniel grinned.

‘She broke men’s hearts,’ his father coughed, glaring round the yard.

In the evening light, his face was mottled and bright red, and his breath whistled through his teeth. He leant over the bucket, and spat out a long string of phlegm.

Daniel listened to his father without much interest. Rock Around the Clock was back at the Gaumont and Alison had promised to go with him, so long as they sat upstairs. The last time they’d gone, a gang from Hull had smashed every seat in the cinema and danced up and down the aisles, throwing darts at the usherettes. Alison’s mother said they were all yobs and told her she was not to go again.

‘We’ll be all right if we’re upstairs,’ Alison giggled, telling him he would have to pay for the tickets. All her money was going on piano lessons, and it was because of those that Daniel bothered to listen to what his father was saying now.

‘She break your heart then?’ he said, looking up from the snood he was baiting with live lugworms. His uncle Frank was a fisherman, working from a small boat to supply the local fish and chip shops, and he paid Daniel pocket money to bait the snoods before they were attached to the main lines. He needed the money to pay for the cinema. ‘She give you a good chase for your money?’

His father said nothing, staring across the yard to the passage between the backs of the houses. He was a mardy sod and wouldn’t answer unless he felt like it. He took a long drink from the glass of beer and wiped the back of his neck with a handkerchief.

‘She nearly killed one bloke,’ he said eventually, when Daniel kept pestering. ‘When they got divorced, he was a broken man. It was in all the papers.’

‘He just hates anything lovely,’ Daniel’s mother said melodramatically when she got home from the pub. Daniel made her a pot of tea and sat with her at the kitchen table. She leaned

over and kissed him on the cheek, leaving a great smudge of red lipstick. ‘He said something about her being divorced,’ Daniel told her, pouring the tea. His mother laughed, her eyes shining with excitement, flecks of hair lacquer falling on her jumper. ‘What’s he care,’ she giggled. ‘What’s he bloody care about anything?’ Her eyes suddenly filled with tears, and she hiccupped, resting her elbows on the table. Daniel went to bed before she started trouble.

After the film, he told Alison what his father had said, but she wasn’t interested. ‘Men are always going on about broken hearts,’ she scoffed. ‘As if you cared. Anyway, I think she’s a fraud.’

They were sitting in one of the Victorian shelters overlooking the sea, and Daniel was trying to unfasten the strap on her brassiere, get his hand underneath the silky material. Irritated, she pushed him away and took a small mirror from her handbag, straightening her neat fringe and frowning into the mirror. She had dark hair, cut very short and square at the neck, and her eyes shone almost black against her pale skin.

‘She can’t play,’ she went on, smoothing the hair out of her eyes. ‘Anybody knows that.’ Daniel glanced at her in surprise. He sat back and watched the lights out at the estuary. ‘She’s a big star,’ he said, standing up when Alison was ready to go. ‘She goes all over the place.’

Alison laughed, pursing her thin lips in contempt.

‘What’s she doing in this dump then?’

He walked home with her along the promenade. The illuminations were on early this year to try and attract more visitors, and the coloured lights reflected in the dark water, flickering up and down as the tide lapped against the seawall. On the pier, people were dancing to Florence Eliot’s music, and the big wheel spun and glittered against the sky, turning slowly above the noisy fairgrounds.

‘I hate this place,’ Alison said as they reached the end of the promenade and crossed the road behind the Winter Gardens. ‘I can’t wait to get away.’

It was about the music that she chose to have a row. When they reached her house she told Daniel he couldn’t come in, and when he said he didn’t mind, she started arguing about the Piano Player.

‘Breaking men’s hearts,’ she said, leaning back against the garden gate and whispering angrily. ‘You would say that.’

‘It was my dad said it.’

‘You believe it though.’

Daniel stared at her in silence, waiting for her to calm down.

‘You believe she plays all night, don’t you?’ she sneered, glaring down at her shoes in sullen anger. ‘What’s it got to do with me?’ Daniel asked, trying to make her laugh. ‘She hasn’t broke my heart.’ She swung the gate open furiously and banged it back so that the lock rattled. ‘You believe it,’ she snapped, her voice echoing in the deserted street. ‘That’s what.’

‘I couldn’t give a fuck,’ Daniel said, flushing angrily at her sneers, and when she slammed the gate in his face, he turned and walked off without waiting to say goodnight.

His temper didn’t last long.

Walking round to the chippy he whistled Only You in the darkness, and laughed aloud when he thought about Florence Eliot, breaking men’s hearts. It was peculiar, Alison making a row out of that, but she was always grumbling about something and he knew she would change her mind.

They’d known each other since primary school, and had been going around regularly for the last three years. Even his failing the eleven-plus hadn’t mattered much, although Mrs Milburn told him he ought to find friends from his own school. Dr Milburn treated him just the same, absent-minded and vaguely friendly, and if Mrs Milburn didn’t like him coming to the house, he would stay away. She was really Alison’s stepmother, a tall, loud-voiced woman who spent her days briskly in the garden and her evenings playing bridge and complaining about her husband’s patients. Daniel saw Alison as often as he could, and put up with her stepmother’s tight-lipped dislike.

When he got to Grant’s chippy he spent the last of the bait money on chips, mushy peas and scraps, and sat at one of the Formica-topped tables, chatting with the lads behind the counter. There was always part-time work to be had at Grant’s, and Daniel usually knew somebody there. You could sit at one of the greasy tables for as long as you liked and nobody ever thought of it as a cafe.

Daniel ate his chips and peas and drank two cups of tea, staring round the walls at the faded posters of Derek Grant in his days of fame. He had won the local Mr Universe contest in 1937, and the posters showed a huge man rippling with muscles and body oil, scowling lethally into the camera. After the war, some of the posters had been used for advertising and had ‘Grant’s Fisheries’ and the address printed at the bottom. A few of them were still around town, yellowing and showing out-of-date prices.

Not that Derek Grant needed to advertise. He was the best fish fryer for miles, and people queued up waiting for him to open.

‘I eat ’em meself, so they ’as to be good,’ he sometimes said, and he helped himself all night, sitting behind the counter on a small stool, watching his customers with his tiny, grey eyes.

He was enormous.

‘Eighteen stone,’ Daniel’s mother said with amazement, coming home one night with fish and chips. ‘He must be eighteen stone. And he looks like a bloody woman.’

Motionless behind the counter, he sat and stuffed himself with his own food, the rolls of fat bursting his shirt buttons, his breasts

like an old woman’s, wrinkled female dugs, his long hair matted with sweat and stale hair oil. ‘Perhaps he’s broken hearted,’ Daniel thought, watching the fish fryer and trying not to laugh.

You didn’t laugh at Mr Universe, even when he tried to push his hand inside your trousers. He had a temper like hot fat. If he caught you laughing, he might break your neck.

Perhaps that was what it meant, being broken hearted over some tart like Florence Eliot.

Daniel left the chippy and walked home, light-hearted in the summer darkness. He was quite happy with his own company, and the thought of Alison, and the long summer holidays ahead.

All week the heat was awful.

Daniel’s father coughed and sweated in the airless yard. His mother watched television with the sound turned right up and the windows wide open. On the sands, trippers waded into the sea, wallowing up to their necks to escape the bright sunshine. There were fights every night on the promenade, and when the pubs shut, gangs roamed the streets, singing and drinking out of bottles.

Daniel didn’t mind the heat. He was tall and thin, and had his hair cut short so that when he sweated it wasn’t unpleasant. He went for swims every afternoon, and washed himself down in the yard when the little black flies crawled into his ears and on his skin. He hardly ate, and lived on iced lemonade.

‘You are lucky, Daniel,’ his mother grumbled as she fanned herself with a magazine. ‘You got your dad’s build.’

His father grunted when she said that to him.

Sullen and exhausted, he was so ill he took the week off work.

Until Friday night, Alison was too busy with homework to come out.

‘She’s doing her Latin,’ Sheila Milburn told Daniel when he called at the house, and the one afternoon he saw her she was on her way to a piano lesson.

‘I’ll see you Friday,’ she finally agreed, reluctant to even speak to him until he made her laugh by threatening to jump off the end of the pier. ‘Outside the Winter Gardens.’

Despite the heat, he did some extra baiting for Frank to make sure he had enough money, and was on the promenade two hours before Alison was due to arrive.

It was because he was early that he saw Florence Eliot.

Crowds were already queuing to get on the pier for her next show, but before the show began she always gave five free tickets for people to check that she continued playing between performances. The five tickets had to be won on a tombola run by two of the young men in red tuxedos, and Daniel won the fourth ticket.

He was taken through the ornate pier entrance with the other winners and led along the pier to the pavilion at the far end. At the doors, one of the young men opened a French window, and they gathered round and peered into the immense ballroom. Chairs were arranged in rows ready for the next audience, and up on the stage, a woman sat at a white piano, playing a slow waltz and being given drinks by one of her companions. The young man in the tuxedo allowed them to watch for several minutes, and before they left, the woman turned and waved, keeping just one hand on the piano. They walked back down the pier, and the crowds at the gate cheered.

When he told Alison, she laughed at him for believing what he’d seen.

‘How do you know it was her?’

‘I’ve seen the photographs.’

‘How do you know she went on playing when you left?’

In his disappointment, he kicked savagely at a pebble on the promenade and stared out to the tideline where two old pensioners were skimming shells across the water.

‘Nobody could play all night,’ Alison said as they walked slowly by the promenade gardens. ‘You’d get cramp. You’d die, without sleep.’

He said nothing.

‘At least I know what I’m talking about,’ she snapped. ‘At least I can play the piano.’ ‘So can she,’ Daniel said angrily. ‘You never heard her.’ They walked on in silence, keeping a few feet apart, and Alison scuffed the heels of her shoes along the pavement, refusing to look at him.

‘They use records,’ she said at last, staring defiantly out to the estuary. ‘My stepmother says they just use records. In case anybody listens overnight.’

Daniel didn’t think about what he said next. ‘If she’s so bloody clever, we can easy check,’ he shouted, turning on Alison with sudden fury. ‘Easiest thing in the world.’

She stared at him in surprise. His face was flushed with anger and he clenched his fists, glaring into her face. For the first time, he noticed that her complexion was quite white under the illuminations, and her eyes shone blackly, dark with tiredness.

She waited for him to go on, watching him with a careful smile, and when he grinned suddenly, they both started laughing, feeling ridiculous, and stood looking at each other for a long time, not knowing what else to say.

But Daniel had said they could easily check the Piano Player, and Alison wasn’t happy until she knew how. They had a strawberry whip in a small cafe, and then sat hand in hand in one of the promenade shelters, kissing in the darkness as Daniel explained about the pier, Alison eager and excited, letting him unfasten her blouse and kiss her pink nipples through the brassiere.

‘It’ll be safe?’ she whispered when he told her they would have to climb over the gates to get on the pier, and he laughed quietly, kissing the strawberry whip from her mouth, pushing her back against the hard wood of the seat.

‘We’ll not be long,’ he said. ‘Not if she’s only playing records.’ Alison kicked him, hard, on the shins, and her giggles echoed in the shelter.

‘And if she isn’t?’ Daniel glanced at his watch and then groaned as she put her hand out to him. ‘Well,’ he laughed. ‘Then you’ll want to stop and listen.’

The gates weren’t locked. They stayed on the promenade until gone midnight and then walked up to the pier and stood by the ticket office in the main entrance. One push, and the gates swung quietly open.

‘Must have forgot,’ Daniel whispered, holding Alison’s hand and leading her out beneath the rows of illuminations.

Coloured lights were strung on either side of the pier, and their reflections blinked and danced in the sea. Over the entrance, an electric sign hummed with hundreds of bulbs, FLORENCE ELIOT shimmering in letters a foot high. In the pier pavilion, lights flickered through the tall windows.

‘It’s a record,’ Alison giggled when Daniel stopped and told her to listen to the music. ‘She’s playing records.’

‘You’ll see.’

They walked nervously along the side of the pavilion, and round to the back of the pier.

It was through a window to the rear of the big building that they saw the Piano Player. She was sitting at her piano, facing the windows to the left of the stage. In a silver candelabrum, six candles burned on the piano. The main lights of the pavilion were out, and in the darkness, the candle flames flickered, tiny in the vast emptiness of the ballroom. Beside the piano, one of the young men slept in a canvas chair, his mouth wide open.

Florence Eliot was playing the piano. A slow waltz, melancholy in the night silence, drifted out above the warm sea.

As she played, she rocked steadily backwards and forwards. Her back was held rigid. Her hands touched the keys and she winced with each note. Her mouth hung open, and she moaned through clenched teeth as she played.

Daniel watched for only a few seconds longer.

Alison was crying, clinging to his arm.

He saw the young man go over to the piano and pour two drinks from a large flask. He watched him give the pills to the woman, and then sit with her on the narrow piano stool, gently massaging her back. He watched the woman’s face, white as the wax candles, her eyes bruised and exhausted, her smile like a clown’s, made up for the carnival.

The next time Daniel called to see Alison, Dr Milburn came to the door. He invited him into the study and told him Alison was on holiday, staying with friends in Yorkshire. She had been working hard for the scholarship, and deserved a rest before term began. He laughed jovially when Daniel asked if she was still upset about the Piano Player, and said he was sure Daniel must be pleased they’d got her into such a good school. There wasn’t anywhere local that had a decent classics department, and apparently that was Alison’s special subject.

‘She got the highest grades of any entrant,’ Dr Milburn said, seeing Daniel to the gate. ‘I’m sure she’ll write and tell you how she gets on.’


from Collecting Bottle Tops

Collecting Bottle Tops


Cold Stars
i.m. Elaine Connell
(1953 – 2007)

It's 3 am.

I'm thinking about you.

The sky is very full of stars.

The Aranda say the stars are holes in the sky to let the light in. Crows made the holes, pecking at the dark tin to escape this world. Other tribes say it was the magpies.

I miss you.

A white mist rolls across the hills and I'm also thinking about Sylvia Plath because she wrote about sheep in fog and you wrote a book about her grief, following her with your own grief.
All night, this morning has been coming.

It has been heading our way, you in Yorkshire, me in Wiltshire, the Aranda watching the stars, telling stories to quieten their fears.

Are we the only people awake?
The only people who watch for the morning?

It's 3 am, and I know you are listening, but I am alone with Sylvia Plath, and she is not listening, she is sitting round the fires with the Aranda, inventing new stories about the stars.

Making holes in the sky to let the light in.

The Way You Should
for my father

Somebody built a snowman overnight –
youngsters maybe or lovers going home –
and left him on the bridge across the stream,
his arms held wide, his mouth a hazel grin.
I thought he wanted help and talked to him,
the way you do with strangers passing by –
complaints about the weather, the hard frost,
the way the birds mistook him for a scarecrow
and kept away. He liked watching the birds,
their busy flight, the ease they had with skies,
the singing they took so much for granted
while he could only stand and look.
He wasn't there when evening shut the fields.
I wish I'd stayed and talked a little longer,
the way you should with strangers passing by.
But he had time enough for just one morning,
and now he's gone, and I could wish him back.

Collecting Bottle Tops

Emptied into the yard, the sack of bottle tops
spun like silver fish on washed-down cobbles,
clattered and shimmered like a field of coins.
There you are, the publican grinned his pleasure,
rubbing his enormous, barrel-shifting arms,
flexing his tattooed fingers. I saved them for you.
Do with as you like. That's every beer we handle
Her arms buried in her spring-flowered apron,
my mother stood speechless at the kitchen door,
giggling on our polished, red-stone doorstep
at her yard suddenly full of gyrating eyes,
spinning-tops swimming round the red geraniums.
Behind curtains, a neighbour sniffed her derision.
When my father got home, he danced on cobbles,
racing across the yard in a drunken waltz,
cursing publicans and my deranged collections –
of stamps, of fish, and now silver marbles –
skidding beneath his feet like unspendable coins.
Delighted, the neighbour came to her door,
and asked if he was celebrating the new year,
six months early.

My mother choked into her field of flowers,
a dream of buttercups filling her arms.
I watched it all from the bedroom window:
bottle tops swivelling in the moon's glare,
pennies for the eyes of the uncountable dead.
Behind a cloud, the moon courted a cold sun,
waiting for somebody to reverse the tides.
Down the backs, a trawler's siren whistled.

He must have taken them to the docks for drowning,
flinging them out beyond the lockpit pier,
grumbling about sacks that kept floating
like the sacks of vermin flung from the quays,
dosed with white powder to explode in darkness.
Amazed, a watchman asked him for tobacco,
thinking he was drunk with the midnight air,
shouting his fury at my mother's daftness.

I imagine the bottle tops floating out to sea,
cherry blossom petals with serrated rims,
a cargo of stars, dumped into the estuary,
drowned in the wake of a departing trawler.

In the morning,
our yard was all cobbles,
and the neighbour swept dust into my eyes,
sneering at my mother's fancy apron.
A publican's a strange friend for a boy,
she smiled as I ran up the narrow passage,
urgent to catch the dawn tide.