christmas cards

Charlotte’s handbag sits open on the counter and there, inside, is a card from my brother. There is a teddy bear embossed onto the front along with the words, ‘To my darling niece’. He chooses cards and words with care. For a few seconds my eyes are fixed on the sign-off at the foot of his message – ‘Lots of love’ – and I’m dizzied by the wonder of that word ‘love’, that someone else might feel that for her; that she is loved. There is an identical card for his other niece, her sister, opened by her while in her uncle’s company some twelve or so hours ago, then deposited into the huge felt stocking, into which she herself could fit, but which instead was crammed with presents and cards and balled-up shards of wrapping paper and which now sat somewhat forlornly on the sofa in the other room, which is where I had left it as soon as it had been heaved into the house.

On the dining table sit more items unpacked hastily from the car, landing them wherever we found space available. There is a card from my mother to her granddaughters inscribed with handwriting that hasn’t changed for thirty or more years. It’s a tight cluster of looping, italic characters, spiked with mistakes of spelling and grammar, curiously sad in the way in which they suggest a regression or forgetfulness of understanding, a punctured ability or desire to communicate clearly. Underneath, a row of half a dozen X’s and then ‘Lots of love’ and then ‘Nanny Diane’ and then a final ‘X’. Unlike my brother, she rarely embellishes the printed message of any card: perhaps it’s an acquiescence to a sentiment manufactured but unfailingly apt. She tops and tails with a few words, written in biro, in that familiar sloping hand and with that line or lattice of kisses. Increasingly, these last few years, the cards we receive from her are chosen by my twin brother, but this one was most definitely chosen by her, standing about twenty inches tall and about twelve inches wide. I find another card, to her son and his wife. I open it and see that it is my wife who receives the first mention – a small detail which gives rise to a fleeting warm, proud pleasure of the same scale: like an approval of the choice I myself made all those years ago.

There is a card from my older brother, too. And there is one still sealed in its envelope with that same brother’s name in turquoise-coloured ink and my own handwriting on the front: one forgotten to be given and which will most likely now never be received. There are quite a few cards exchanged between us which we fail to give or receive when we should. Anniversaries become forgotten, birthdays now tend to be acknowledged by text message or phone call, and Christmases come and go; each of them calling for a card but many of those cards prone to arrive after the occasion has passed if, that is, they arrive at all. And it’s a predictable but not troubling status quo. As with Mum, when it comes to these lightweight cardboard ceremonies, perhaps we are both these days resigned to express a feeling without going to the trouble of writing it down or, in our particular case, sending it.

Onto bookshelves usually so tidy, I fill the few available gaps, finding places for some of these new cards with their wishes for a Christmas that is happy, merry, joyous, but which is already now in the past. And I fear that there is something yet more sad and even quite morbid to be found in a collection of cards such as this. I fear that at their best they might be an echo of a tenderness dressed up as customary caricature and shared between people who are in our lives regularly enough to make the giving and receiving of a card superfluous. At their worst, they are perhaps no more than a makeshift monument to a love or friendship which twenty or thirty words must do their best to bind in place for another year.

Posted: 02:49 08 January 2015      2 comments


despite and because

‘Despite’ is often used when it is ‘because’ that is required. It’s so frequently misrepresented as that shade of because that seeks to sympathetically qualify a hardship or anomaly, or to sentimentally soften the bluntness with which because can appear. Despite can be intended as something that has not affected someone, but which conscious part of my life could I claim to not have been affected by? And despite can mean ‘to spite’, but I am no more charged with malice towards a thing or event from the past than I am today standing here untouched by it. One might say, ‘he grew up to be this despite having no money’, when it might be a more true representation to say that he grew up to be this because he had no money. In this instance, despite awkwardly bestows something heroic upon the ordinary. Despite doesn’t give a common form of everyday conviction and fortitude and resilience its full due. It suggests that the perfectly surmountable should not have been prevailed over; that establishing and maintaining a rhythm within the limitations of one’s life wasn’t that thing which came most naturally, which seemed the only way.

As a child, I found happiness when I kicked a plastic football against a brick wall a thousand times over. A ball which carried on the wind with precision and velocity nineteen times out of twenty was my happiness. Even those odd deviant volleys, even when it was occasionally a rubber ball ten times smaller in size: no smaller was my happiness. Contentment, then, was the simplest of things. Poverty made pleasure so simple, so easy to define and so straight-forward to procure. A happiness because of so little, not despite it.

Posted: 12:28 02 January 2015      3 comments



We push the chair up to the window, pull and lock the blinds as high as they will go and we sit there together, behind the glass, and watch; just her and me and the lights. We look for minuscule eruptions to appear out of the black, searching a sky which became absence itself several hours ago and which will remain black and absent for several hours yet. Only a few flares rise and wail before us. She sits on my lap, deadly still and in mock-pretend terror. I hold her close and tight and we sit there and make time stretch for longer than has seemed possible for a time which seems too long to recall. Maybe it was six or so months ago that I last held her like this, on the edge of her bed, as she leaned into me and drifted, still and so slowly, towards sleep. And it might have been a year before that that I now so vividly remember – holding her tightly, with the low light of morning upon us, juggling with saucepan and milk carton and her bottle. I remember her weight then – so accurately knowing how long I could hold her like that with ease, and how much longer under strain; and then, beyond that, for absolutely as long as she needed to be held, because I could never not hold her in my arms if it was the wrap of my arms that she needed. Her weight then and her weight now and the fizzle and shift of these feathers of light in the sky – that is both there and not there – all these things so small and yet so huge: everything locked into this embrace. Our gaze and concentration together; our wonder; the dark and the room and our place within that room connecting with reawakened memories of seconds and minutes from months and years previous. For her, my arms around her; for me, her within my arms.

Posted: 02:07 04 December 2014      3 comments


the gift

My mum; her nanny. Today, Bessie and I travelled together to arrive at her door, push the bell and surprise the woman I learned to love before I knew that any other existed. Her happiness today was the most wonderful gift. All that I know about humility and love and generosity and compassion I know because of her. And a little of pain and suffering, too. But love can’t be love without those two things to help stab and shape; to give shade where too much light would blind. For the past few years, I’ve crafted words to create pictures of her more vivid than seemed possible even to myself. Especially, to myself. But today I took this picture, because today I wished to capture and share her joy. This afternoon, though the day was so dark and damp, the light was so beautiful and fell so kindly. And she allowed me to take this picture. And I cherish this something that is her even though it cannot be her. And I’ll have a memory that will remain that idea that I’ll forever be refining about her, about who I am and about who I want to be: the life that she gave and the love that she fostered.


Posted: 13:40 12 November 2014      4 comments


between crying and tears

On the train, a few seats in front of me, I hear a girl ask her father, ‘How much do you love me, Daddy?’ I didn’t hear his reply, but I couldn’t help but break into a smile. I then heard her ask, ‘Mummy, how far do you love me?’, and the reply to that question was hidden from me too, but, again, it was impossible not to smile. As the train stopped, I stared at the window, where the view to the nighttime landscape, pin-pricked with tiny orange squares, had been hijacked by the reflected noise and glare from inside the carriage. In the abducted form of this glass pane turned mirror, I watched the child and her parents get up from their seats and walk towards the exit. ‘I love you a million, Daddy, and I love you a million, too, Mummy.’

My smiles were aimed not so much at the child, but at the honesty of such simple questioning, and for the answers she supplied which quantified that same simple logic. For the less one knows of language or the more limited an experience one has with it, the greater the chance that they will speak with a certain kind of precision and efficacy, however naive or whimsical those words might be. As adults, we become obsessed with crafting our speech. In split-second reactions to each word we voice, we can be refining or rerouting the words intended to follow. When I become aware of this deliberate craft in my own speech, four or five excruciatingly manicured words ahead of myself, a very basic kind of shame creeps in and I can no longer continue to give sound to the thoughts in my head.

For the child who opens their mouth and exclaims, ‘I feel like tears’, I would suggest that that child has described far more powerfully and touched far more deeply the listening adult than the one who correctly says, ‘I feel like crying.’ Grammar gives words their order, whether spoken or written, but it can also take away their potency and it can occasionally allow description to unravel intent.

As I continued on my journey, I realised such rules and constraints could dim the beauty of a child communicating their love to a parent, or keep, for that second or two longer, the cradling arm of an adult from embracing the child whose need for tears must first travel a grammatical loop past ‘crying’.

Posted: 19:02 21 October 2014      8 comments


the most beautiful thing

The most beautiful thing is to watch your children fall asleep. Early on, the relief that they are finally at rest too often outweighs an appreciation of the grace of their descent towards it. Later, there comes an awareness – and it is a hammer-blow of knowledge – that they will wake one day more old. There is nothing that can be lived again, nothing which can be clawed back.

Tonight, they whisper their last words, which are precise echoes of the ones I have spoken to them; smiles, which mirror the ones they receive from me. I crane to place a kiss on Tilly’s head. I stoop to find Bessie’s bunk and I roll in beside her, and I wrap an arm around her and she puts her arm over and around mine. I can see only the side of her forehead and cheek, the faintest outline of her nose, and the shuttering fold of skin which is open and fixed in one position and which then closes. And it is that fold of skin which transfixes. It is there where our energy and our love and our thoughts meet. It opens and it closes. That lid which covers and reveals is all there is: this quiet relies on it, this half-dark sits still around it. Her breathing slows. Heaviness sets in. Lassitude cannot fend off its weight. For now, there is no tomorrow and there is no need to mourn what will be yesterday. It opens and it closes. It opens and it closes. Only this.

It closes.

Posted: 21:16 25 March 2014      8 comments



There is a well-known series of paintings by Robert Longo called ‘Men In The Cities’. Twenty years ago, at art college, they fascinated me. They helped also to confirm that my own highly graphic style of painting was as legitimate a form of artistic expression as any other. The Longo paintings are photorealistic images of suited men and women set against plain white backgrounds. Each figure is contorted into a strange pose; some look like they are falling, some as though they have been struck by unseen projectiles.

Many years after first seeing those paintings, I would come to recall them while watching footage of people falling from the Twin Towers – grasping an image familiar and understood while trying to comprehend something so brutally uncommon and desperate.

My mind holds onto so many isolated images of so many people. There are those I know and love; there are those who are familiar, but who will forever remain strange and unknown; and there are those thousand absolute unknowns, never to be knowns, never to be seen again people, too.

I can see my wife in an image that repeats as it first appeared this morning: I see her from my pillow, as she sits up in bed, my eyes slowly pulling her in – the curve of her back and then her breast and then her long brown hair – becoming sharp in my vision. An image trapped next to it of a tear on my daughter’s face, also from this morning; my finger pressed to her cheek and the water resting upon the ledge of my finger. People become those moments and become frozen. Those moments accompany me and serve as fixtures which soothe and shock and haunt.

My mind returns to those Longo paintings and to people suspended in the midst of actions; fragments which are chipped and fallen, which are small parts of another world. In the paintings I’ve created, there is a hand holding onto the hand of another. There is the flesh of a knuckle pulled against a stone wall and about to rip. There is the man, from a few hours ago – a man in the city – suited, locked into stillness, behind the gate at the exit to the station. He has fed a ticket through the slot at the front of the barrier, but he remains stuck there, the gates remain closed, his weight is forward, but he doesn’t move. Another fossil now lodged in my mind.

In those Longo paintings, those figures were so very still and the white void of their surroundings was yet more eerie than the way their bodies and limbs were configured. The figures falling from the towers that day were bolted to a background that was too incomprehensible to not also be close to having its meaning erased; a context which had been made unreal by the most violent contrast imaginable. And this collection of images in my head is a mixture of worlds both paused and completely immobilized, of narratives connected and dislocated, of things which belong to my world and my heart, and then also to a world that continues all around me, without me, regardless of me.

Posted: 11:31 09 March 2014      3 comments



The cab hadn’t moved for three or four minutes, each of those minutes stretching out like a tall shadow in the late evening sun. The quiet had become more than just the absence of sound; it had become that state which begins to bully and dominate far more than noise ever could, hanging like something physical between two people determined to preserve their separateness. Time and stillness accumulate and begin to oppress silence – time kinks and frays, silence shakes and wavers – and sooner or later it all cracks. Sure enough, there came the first small sounds – a rhythm of soft vibrations from the throat – and as the driver started to hum a tune, my fingers fell into step with him almost immediately, tapping out the pattern of the notes on the dashboard in front of me. The lifting and falling of a finger, and of the one next to it, wedded to the rhythm of the guttural noises of a complete stranger. Up and down against the grey plastic. Up and down, while red and orange lights flared through the rain-soaked windshield. Dust covered the dashboard and sat in the creases of the gear box – nothing more than a covering over a surface, itself nothing more than a shell concealing a mechanism, a mechanism to be operated time and again, an action to be repeated a thousand times over. Humming and tapping. Waiting to move. Quietness and noise grinding against one another.

My fingers became still again. From his throat came the last whispered note. Another blaze of orange-red light filled the car and was gone just as quickly.

Still. Quiet. Spent.

Posted: 00:41 14 January 2014      2 comments


holding on

Most nights, I’m woken by my daughter, Bessie, who appears at my side of the bed – the one nearest to the door, which leads onto the landing, which leads to her room – and she waits patiently for me to ask if she’s OK. I ask if she’s OK. She nods. I ask if she wants me to come to her room and cuddle her. She nods again, sometimes with the softest caress of the word ‘yes’, as her head bobs down and then back up, and we walk to her room, and she returns to her bed, and her eyes close immediately, and I lie down next to her. And there is barely mattress to sleep on and there is barely enough duvet to cover. I place an arm round her, reach for the hand that holds her rabbit and wrap fingers around her fingers. I pull my knees up and in towards her and she rests her feet against them. And I lie there and I close my eyes and I try to find sleep again. Sometimes it comes immediately, sometimes after an hour or so, occasionally not at all. I hold onto her, and to all her beauty, and to all that love, that impossible power between us, which she takes for granted, and which I fear will one day be altered so radically. If I sleep, I might wake rested; but if I don’t, I’ve cheated time – forever remained in that moment of her coming to find and be comforted by me, clung to that gentle nod and that quiet whisper, that cupping of skin, that placing of feet – and managed to hold on for that little bit longer to my daughter.

Posted: 21:42 13 December 2013      11 comments


goodbye: 3/3 (a mother and a son)

The past; the present; a sense of something in front of us. Days like this feel, or felt, like several time frames combined and a sense of being in each one at once. Remembering, feeling, anticipating: it all becomes – became – the same. It’s all part of travelling to and from a point, to record a few more moments: to splinter time and memory once more….


Mum dips her head and points a finger to somewhere over my left shoulder and tells me, ‘That’s where your dad’s mum and dad are buried.’ She sees my surprise and so adds, ‘Behind that hedge’, and her head dips again, and her arm lifts like the trunk of an elephant – a movement that travels from her shoulder, along that limb and to an index finger which extends like an optical instrument. I turn around and see the hedge. Behind it: several acres of burial ground, green grass and grey-green stones. I’m a little ashamed not to have known this. ‘What were their names?’ I ask. ‘Pardon, Matthew?’ she replies. ‘Dad’s mum and dad: what were their names?’ Her head jerks up only briefly; enough to engage eye contact for a second. ‘Reginald. He had the same name as your dad. And… Oh, what was it…?’ 

I see Dave, in the distance behind her, on the other side of the crematorium garden, his head bowed down, reading the cards on the floral tributes. ‘Florence. That was your dad’s mum’s name: Florence. Reginald and Florence Inwood.’ And then, ‘Your dad’s ashes are there, too.’ as she dabs a piece of balled-up tissue at the underside of her nose. ‘Dad’s… really? I had no idea.’ She lifts her head to address me more affirmatively. ‘Yes. Half of them were interred with the grave. The other half were scattered across the remembrance garden, over there.’ And this time her left arm extends, as though reaching for something above and behind, and, again, a finger stretches out to signpost, as three other fingers clasp the white tissue against her palm. I start to wander towards the hedge and read the names on a dozen or so grave stones. I turn back to see Mum searching inside her handbag, carrying out a check on the things within. I see a car come down the main avenue towards the front of the crematorium. Mum closes her handbag. ‘Do you know where, exactly?’ I ask. ‘Behind that hedge, Matthew,’ and this time she points towards a slightly different place, and her gaze follows, and mine follows hers, and I see the hedge again and also the hundreds and hundreds of stones and the trees behind and the endless sheet of grey sky above and I realise: I realise that there is no hope of finding my father’s name. 


And time and memory splinter.


A woman approaches with her hands outstretched, ready to receive Mum’s. ‘I remember you, Diane.’ She is half-smiling and half-crying and Mum is doing the same. It is a moving manifestation of the fullness of life; of feeling and meaning overlapping; a collision of heart and head. For a moment, there is too much to take in, to feel – the hands requesting hands, the most compassionate of smiles, the watering eyes – and I have to suppress an overwhelming urge to cry. My body shudders as I deprive it of that release, refuse it the need to let something of such magnitude escape and I blow into my hands and rub them together to accept the readymade alibi that the chilly autumn air provides. Mum’s head is bowed, like a child – like my daughter might shyly receive an embrace from an aunt or uncle; but her eyes remain fixed on the eyes of this woman. I still don’t recognise her and I can’t hear enough of her conversation with Mum to gain any greater an insight. She turns to my brother and remarks that he was just a baby when she last saw him. Dave kisses her cheek and looks like he knows her. And then she turns to me. ‘Matthew,’ offers Mum, by way of an introduction, and I shake her hand and smile and say hello. I’m more grateful than she could possibly know for the kindness she has just shown my mother. She goes over to greet more people and I glide a soft hand over Mum’s back and she acknowledges the touch with another smile. Spots of sadness, confusion and happiness: like the gentle drops that rain down every time I see her.


And, again, time and memory splinter.


Inside, we find a pew. We lip-synch’ our way through three or four hymns, we whisper along to prayers. We sit and we stand and we sit and we stand, except Mum, who stays seated throughout. Dave is torn between standing or staying seated with her. Halfway through the service, Mum starts to empty loose change from her purse into her lap. Dave tries to discourage her, concerned that she might already have lost interest in the service, but Mum’s focus is far more concentrated than ours and on hearing the reverend’s appeal for charity, she had merely begun to ready a donation for the collection box. On the way out, Mum puts the coins into the box. She shakes the hand of the reverend and there’s a flicker of the mother I remember from when I was a child: the one who did mother; who was responsible; who was gregarious. She thanks him and then devotes herself once more to her walking frame, and gravity bonds her to her task as it does the coins hitting the inside of the box and people shuffle through the exit behind and around her.


We travel a mile or two across the city to the bar of a hotel. We are the last ones in. Dave helps Mum to a seat at a table close to the refreshments and brings her a coffee and a couple of sandwiches on a white plate. I talk to her older brother, now her only brother, and occasionally look across at her as I do. Their faces and their mannerisms are similar, the face and mannerisms that I still recall of their father. They are both smiling as they talk to and acknowledge the looks of those around them; they seem content. I wonder how focussed on thinking about others those other people here today are. Is the widow able to consider the hole left in the feelings of the woman who has lost her twin brother? Has the bond between the bereaved older brother and his one remaining sibling become more or less strong? Will the nephew and niece who have lost a father begin to drift even further from their aunt? And everything brings me back to Mum and her loss, which was not a greater loss, but was a loss which further depleted what little she had.


And time and memory become fragmented and displaced and confused. And time and memory and here and now and then and that tear at my heart. And the goodbye we’re here to administer feels like it has been hijacked by something else altogether. And it’s as though my eyes are tightly closed but have never been more wide open.


We are back home, in her maisonette, in the room where she sits and she eats and she sometimes sleeps: back to the place which is her everyday and her every day. She sits in the chair, in the centre of the room, with the gas fire to her right, the telephone to her left, the television in front of her and her walking frame just behind her: defined by the parameters of her daily life. The remote control sits on her lap and the TV blares loudly, but she has no interest in watching it. I’m sitting almost opposite her, along from the TV and I watch her reach down and around the side of the chair and lift a carrier bag onto her lap and begin to rummage through it. She pulls out a magazine and flips through the pages restlessly. She sets it underneath the bag and sinks a full arm inside once again, like a child with a Christmas stocking. The day catches up on me; my eyes are heavy. It’s now almost twelve hours since I woke to an orange sky. I want only to fall asleep and I remember how we would sometimes do that together all those years ago: she in her chair in front of the TV and me in mine; often Pete in his, too. And she is there, again, simultaneously locked in the moment and memory; an impression from one time printed over the living of another. I give in and I sleep.


The day is nearly over. I walk towards the station, with a light rain rousing me more and more from the tiredness I felt earlier. The street lighting makes the droplets start to shimmer on my jacket. A light flashes amber on the crossing ahead of me, and I accelerate to get across the road, but then check my run almost immediately, realising I won’t make it. I come to a stop at the kerb and kick the toe-end of my shoe at the post next to me – a grammatical full stop, something to signal and cauterise just one of the day’s small failures. The hem at the bottom of my right trouser leg has come undone once more. An inch or so of fabric spreads across the front of my shoe. I cross the road, the fabric flaps and the rain falls. I take out my phone and send a message to my brother to let him know that I’ll be with him shortly. I send one to my wife and want to let her know how much I love her, but I simply tell her I’m on my way to meet my brother once again and that I hope all is OK at home. My wife will be alongside one of my daughters, in bed, reading to them; next to them; holding them. My brother will be in his home, busy, or perhaps done with being busy for the day. My mother will be in her chair; the remembrance card on her lap or within reach; her brother in her thoughts, and maybe her son too. In her thoughts, but no longer in her company. And I am in none of those places, yet live in them all. There with each of them, but not with any of them, splintered into so many things and scattered across the lives of so few, their thoughts and their memories – a thousand fragments and never ever quite feeling it’s enough.

Posted: 00:14 26 October 2013      9 comments