Published: July 2020, as a short story
Location: October Hill Magazine, the Summer 2020 Issue
Genesis: I’m bending my own site rules here because this poem has not been published and is, in fact, appearing here for the very first time. Here’s what happened.
I sent in three poems to October Hill Magazine, a literary publication out of New York, earlier this year, and they rejected all three. However, they did come back to me and suggested that this one would work well as a short story, and would I be interested in converting it. I’ve written short stories before and was really excited about the opportunity, especially as I got to work with Selin, their Short Story Editor, who was an absolute delight. If you read the poem and then the story – or the other way around – you’ll see that I’ve carried a lot of the language and imagery across from poem to story, as well as the underlying structure, and I’ve also extended it through, as Selin suggested, “details and tangents”.
I loved the process, I love the end result – both of them! – and I’m really proud that October Hill published the story with very minimal edits. I hope you enjoy them both.
December 2020 Update:
I was asked to read my short story at the first ever “An Evening With October Hill” event. You can see a recording of the event here. The event is almost two hours long, but I get introduced within the first two minutes.
i. When I was a boy, Dad used to take me to watch the scrambling. Scrambles are motorcycle races – Dirt bikes racing around a muddy field, The track marked out with thick, hessian rope Strung between wooden stakes Hammered into the earth that very morning. There was usually a sign somewhere – “Motor Sport is Dangerous” – But we could stand where we liked As long as we were on the spectator side Of the timber-and-hessian safety barrier. One day, We’re standing on the outside of a right-hand bend, Near a hawthorn tree, Dad taking photographs with his Minolta SLR Of the bike-and-sidecar combinations Careering towards us, then past us, Trailing peacock tails of dirt and stones. Mid-race, Through the blue haze of two-stroke smoke, Over the roaring din of engines, Through the excitement and testosterone, Dad suddenly yelled, “Let’s move!” We’d walked no more than five paces up the hill When a combination lost control on the bend, Crashing through the barrier, Snapping two fence posts like matchsticks, Running over the rope Before running over the very spot where we’d been standing A few seconds before. ii. I was a young teenager When Dad took me to Zante For a two-week holiday. There was no airport. It took 24 hours to get there. Car. Train. London Underground. Aeroplane from Heathrow to Athens. Taxi. Coach to the west coast. Ferry to the island. Minibus to our villa. It was raining when we arrived; The first time it had rained in August in living memory. Dad hired a motorcycle for a few days. Explore the island. Meet the real locals. I remember walking into a taverna, way up in the hills, Looking for lunch, And being greeted by sudden silence, like I’d seen in the Westerns. Heading back to the villa on a good road – Shorts, t-shirts, no helmets – A little three-wheel truck in front, Carrying lengths of timber way longer than itself, Turned off right and briefly disappeared, Only to start reversing into our path moments later. It was too late to brake, Especially on gravel, that acts like ball bearings To a bike in distress. Instead, thinking fast, Dad leant the bike down Hard left, as we leant hard right And the timber ends passed through the gap we’d just created, Brushing the hairs on my forearm. Dad pulled over a mile or so later And we sat in the pine-scented shade, Listening to the cicadas Until his hands stopped shaking. iii. Breakfast time, Boxing Day, 1989, And I’m driving myself to the station, Going back to work in London for a few days. Dad’s in the passenger seat So he can drive my car back home for me. Only a few miles out The car twitches. Black ice. I regain control. We just have time to remark on it When it goes again, properly this time; The back end swings out right, The front wheels mount the curb, And we’re sliding sideways, fast, Towards a large and solid road sign. I see it looming in my side window. “Oh, Dad”, I remember saying. My next memory is screaming. Screaming from the searing pain – Pain my brain has long since blocked out. The 90-degree bend in the middle of the drivers’ door Has punched a 90-degree bend in the middle of my right femur. My right foot is still over near the accelerator pedal – Crazy angles – And with both legs jammed firmly against the centre consul And the door immovable I’m trapped, in intense agony, for thirty-five minutes. Dad’s out, unhurt, but screaming in his own torment As he believed, In that moment, As he later told me, That the car was about to burst into flames And roast me alive. Later – weeks later – After the hospital, the operation, out on crutches, We visit the wreck at a local garage. The entire chassis is bent by a foot and a half. But I’m intrigued by the roof, Caved in by the same pole, to the same 90 degrees as the door, Creating a sharp, inward jag of metal At roughly temple height. Only then did Dad tell me that, A second or so before impact, He’d reached over, arm around my shoulders, And pulled me down. I crashed with my head resting safely on his lap. iv. Ten years later, Dad slipped and fell on some hotel steps in Kathmandu. Eventually, they discovered a crumbling vertebra. While recovering, the digestive disorders began. Firm reassurances from the GP Were eventually followed By a bowel cancer diagnosis. Inoperable. “Untreated, you have less than a year”, they said. “With chemo, you’ve got at least two.” He went for the chemo and was dead in nine months. A week or so before he died at home, In his own bed, In a memory I can never un-see, He’s standing naked in the bathroom, supported by my Mum, With his back to me, Shaking and skeletal, like those wretches out of Belson. The last time I saw him alive He was unconscious on morphine. I kissed him on the cheek And he puckered his lips in response. I know he knew it was me; I had a goatee beard at the time. You saved my life three times, Dad. Yet, when you were dying, I could only stand by and cry.